Jul 012014
 

Julie Larios

In the slider at the top of the page for July we’re displaying  a wonderful selection of poems and essays by our esteemed and beloved Contributing Editor Julie Larios, who, when you look back, has been appearing in the magazine since March, 2010, when she broke into the magazine by entering our the First Ever Numéro Cinq Aphorism Contest (oh yes, oh yes, those were the salad days, the days of wine and roses when we ran contests for aphorisms, villanelles, novels-in-a-box and any number of eccentric genres and forms). We published a poem by Julie in May, 2010; we had more contests (please check out her entry for the first ever translations contest, “A Cow’s Life“), poems, essays; now she contributes a regular essay under the series title Undersung in which she explores the mysteries of great but lesser known poets, poets in translation unsufficiently noticed, and, actually in the current issue, a piece about poet novelists (Robert Graves and James Dickey). Julie is a former colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she taught for years in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program. She’s a dear friend, a trusted ally and a major force for good in the magazine.

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Jun 252014
 

DoreBeatrice and Dante by Gustave Doré

Superlatives fail. We are at the threshold, about to enter the Kingdom. You can almost hear the harps and trumpets and the heavenly choirs. But maybe after that there is another Kingdom, and another. Or I’ll get a better thesaurus and find new superlatives. Or perhaps I should try the understated approach: here we have another issue of Numéro Cinq, the usual outrageously varied, scintillating, profound, subversive, cheeky thing we produce here every month.

JonesTom Jones & Sophia Western from the movie

I am particularly proud of two anchor essays this month. Classicist Wayne J. Hankey has written us a fascinating and scholarly essay on conversion in philosophy and literature, “Conversion: Ontological and Secular from Plato to Tom Jones”. You know how Plato had this idea that in life beauty (love, eros) tutors the soul and leads the way to the love of God, ie conversion. Hankey takes this idea and follows it through the ages (Aquinas, Dante) to the invention of the modern novel (the British greats like Richardson, Fielding and Austen) and shows how a secular version of Plato’s conversion becomes the central figure in the structure of the novel itself. Brilliant, entertaining, and surprising.

CaptureEmil Nolde, Masks (still life III), 1911. Nolde was a member of Die Brücke, a group of German “wild” Expressionists.

Then we have Genese Grill’s amazing essay “Primitivisms: (Paradoxically) on Modernism” about the multiform Modernist movement that influenced everyone from Picasso to Chagall and spawned offshoots in folk art, the Bloomsbury craft arts, outsider art, insane art, grotesque art and any number of other beautiful, strange things.

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In the same high art vein we have perhaps the most ambitious poetry yet published on NC, an excerpt from D. M. Spitzer’s magnificent, monumental “Ishmaël: from The Genealogy of the First Person,” a poem that compasses everything from Genesis to Moby Dick and the phenomenology of the self.

James Dickey 1James Dickey on the set of Deliverance

In Undersung, this month Julie Larios revisits the great poets — James Dickey and Robert Graves — who also wrote novels. I find this particularly interesting because, of course, I have just been teaching Graves’ great World War One memoir Goodbye to All That and also had my brain forever scarred by watching the film version of Dickey’s amazing canoe trip novel Deliverance.

gal_cudlín_1Róbert Gál

Brilliant, witty, wise aphorisms in translation from the Slovak writer Róbert Gál. “Borne down by the weight of wings.” Think about it

RichardRichard Grant

GMF

Newcomer Dan Holmes interviews the  British travel writer Richard Grant and introduces an excerpt from Grant’s delightfully titled book God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre.

OndjakiOndjaki

Our indefatigable Ben Woodard reviews Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the exciting young Angolan writer Ondjaki (writes in Portuguese).

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We also have a unique hybrid piece this time, cartoons and poetry, by two Vermont laureates Sydney Lea (the poet) and James Kochalka (the cartoonist).

Paula author photoPaula Cunningham

And poems on a medical theme from the remarkable Irish poet/dentist Paula Cunningham featured in this month Uimhir a Cúig, the little part of Numéro Cinq that will always be green (curated by the wondrous Gerard Beirne).

photo(7)Michael Bryson and familiar

Toronto short story writer, essayist, memoirist, blogger, magazine editor returns to these pages with a brilliant short story, brilliant and devastating (at the end) “The Matter of the Orgasm.” Don’t you love work with the word “orgasm” in the title? Always some promise there.

CaptureSakutarō Hagiwara

And we have a terrific review of the Japanese poet Sakutarō Hagiwara’s collection in translation The Iceland by our first-time reviewer Patrick O’Reilly.

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And art work from Victoria Palermo, curated and introduced by Mary Kathryn Jablonski.

Sue with an Israeli paratrooperSue William Silverman with her paratrooper

And more, much more, as always, relentless, endless — you need a hard hat and a brain on amphetamines to keep up with NC, let me tell you — including also new fiction from Dawn Promislow, a story called “Horse in the  Afternoon”, excerpts and photographs from Sue William Silverman’s new memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, and a review of Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin’s novel I’ll Be Right There by our own Laura K. Warrell.

Call it a billet doux to our readers, not an issue, but a little love note.

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Jun 182014
 

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In Ryan Cockrell’s quirky, macabre short documentary “Fishhooks,” he interviews taxidermist / artist Becca Barnet about her relationship to her work. What unfolds in Barnet’s reflections and the visual narrative is dense with reflections on art, life, death, and memory.

In the documentary, we first meet Barnet reflecting on life drawing and essentially the relationship between art and taxidermy. She notes that she most likes doing pieces for museums, where they remain unsigned and are there just to enhance the day of those who experience the pieces. In contrast, she notes that she finds the art gallery scene frustrating because people are always trying to interpret meaning in the piece. Here in the documentary enjoyment and interpretation are juxtaposed, and Barnet asserts that she loves taxidermy because it “is what it is.” For her, the allure of her taxidermy art is that it is close to life.

Barnet describes how she steers clear of her own discomfort around death and corpses by regarding the work as a “project,” something that requires her attention despite the discomfort. This perspective shift is both troubled and made profound by the fact that her current project is Fishhooks, the pet whose name makes the title of the film.

Fishhooks is Barnet’s pet rat who died a year before. We don’t find out how Fishhooks has stayed so fresh for the task. Perhaps this is a trade secret. It’s a small throwaway detail, this year since the rat’s death, but for the purposes of a narrative that reflects on loss and memory, it’s significant: Fishhooks could not be a project until time had passed, perhaps until grief had itself determined a little distance in perspective.

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Core to this film then is what we imagine must be Barnet’s own grief and love for Fishhooks and the part of her that is compelled to make a project of that grief. This is something that Barnet is concerned with in her work in general, as she notes on her website that her artwork “explores why humans have the tendency to try to hold on to the fleeting corporeal.” Barnet is realistic about the limits of such a project, tells us and the camera “it’s really hard to capture the lifelikeness of a pet.” So it makes it perhaps even more profound that she has undertaken the work of preserving Fishhook’s physical form. What will be preserved will be a fetish object of the original pet, but she still undertakes and desires it as a project.

Cockrell’s visual treatment of his subject is playful and emphasizes the absurd, as though the folly of memory and nostalgia must be loved and represented that way. The dog rubbing his butt on the floor, the old photographs and museum staging of bones, skeletons, and taxidermied animals, all emphasize through humour and with affection the line between the living and the things we do to remember them when they are gone. If there is an archetypal moment here it is when Fishhooks, as a project in process with pins holding her posture, is juxtaposed with her sister Foxhunt, who nestles up to her, the dead and the living in close quarters. It is an uncanny and lovely moment.

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Equally, Cockrell uses plenty of footage of Bruce, Barnet’s bull terrier, demonstrating his playfulness and essential aliveness and showing Cockrell’s love for her pet. As adorable as Bruce is, Cockrell’s intention is not to let the dog upstage the rat. Cockrell uses this footage of Bruce to stand in for footage of Fishhhooks. If this is how Cockrell loves Bruce, she must have loved Fishhooks similarly.

Cockrell is a South Carolina filmmaker and one part of the creative house Lunch and Recess. Below is a short interview with him talking about the making of the film and his approach to filmmaking.

– R. W. Gray


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Numéro Cinq’s R. W. Gray Interviews Ryan Cockrell

NC: How did you this documentary idea occur to you?

RC: I’ve always been inspired/interested in Becca Barnet’s work at her fabrication shop which is now called Sisal & Tow.  I’m no hunter but I like taxidermy when its done to things you don’t expect.  Becca has a lot of interesting things in her shop.  It’s pretty eclectic, as are her talents and interests.  Making a mini doc about Becca had been on my mind for a year or so.  At my production company, Lunch and Recess, we were looking to graduate from the DSLR world, and we needed to test a few cameras.  The ikonoskop is a weird camera that we wanted to try.  So we thought, why not test the camera by making this film about Becca?  It worked out great and Becca was a real sport, because we told her that we hadn’t used this camera before and we were not sure if we would have anything cool to show from it in the end.  Luckily, the test turned out pretty great.  Even so, we decided not to buy that camera because it shoots such giant files, the memory requirements are ridonkulous which creates problems in transferring and editing.

NC: What does “Fishhooks” tell us about you?

RC: I hope “Fishhooks” shows people that I’m a listener.  I hope it shows my willingness to hear another perspective on life, art, etc, and consider others’ opinion.  I hope it shows that when I make a documentary, I don’t go in with an agenda and try to get someone to say what I want. Instead, I’m there to learn and observe.

NC: What other projects are you working on?

RC: We are working on a short which is about a kid who started making plush toys to give away to other kids in need.  She’s pretty cool, and she calls her thing Plaze toys.  I’m producing that piece, Brittany Paul is directing (she edited and produced Fishhooks).  Ironically, the Plaze toys piece also shows animals being stuffed.  We have a couple other projects in the works including a feature doc about bicycling and other things.  I’m really excited about this one and we plan to spend about 2 years on it.  It will be an ongoing process.

NC: Who inspires you as a filmmaker / storyteller?

RC: I wish I could tell stories as well as my uncles and grandparents.  Sitting at the dinner table with them is humbling.  Listening to the way they spin a yarn and craft their story is a treat.  I’m also inspired by anyone doing something with a singular focus that they believe in no matter what anyone else says or thinks.

NC: The world is ending, you’re boarding the escape pod, and you can take one film with you, which one do you take?

RC: I’m going to defer to my go-to answer on “what’s your favorite movie?” This is the hardest question in the book, because I love so many movies.  I always want to choose something obscure or classic that makes me look smart.   But I decided long ago to always have one answer to this question and the answer is: Groundhog Day.  Funny, but I can watch it over and over again.

NC: If you could taxidermy any person / creature, who / what would it be?

RC: Another one where I have a lot of answers but in lieu of a list, I’ll give two answers.  I would love to have a T-rex, but I have for some time now been wanting an Ocean Sunfish aka Mola mola.  I would never kill one for the purpose of art or taxidermy though.

—Ryan Cockrell & R. W. Gray

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Jun 172014
 

Dave smiling (1)

“The Connoisseur of Longing” is a wry, dry, witty story about a man, a writer, who fails to live up to his own press. Mandalstram, late in his career, wins a prize for a little book based on a love affair deep in his youthful past. The jury calls him a  “connoisseur of longing,” a phrase that captures his imagination and propels him into a search for meaningful people from his past (wives, daughter, friends). The results are comically catastrophic. Everything Mandalstram remembers is not true. The story is told from Mandalstram’s point of view, deadpan and serious, except, you know, that he is wrong. Right down to the fact that his Holocaust-survivor parents weren’t Jews. This story is excerpted from Dave Margoshes brand new story collection appropriately entitled God Telling A Joke and Other Stories (Oolichan Books, 2014). Dave Margoshes is an old friend from my Saskatchewan days (Fort San, the Qu’Appelle Valley, the Saskatchewan School of the Arts — the memories!). He is one of Canada’s finest short story writers. And in years gone by, when I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included him four times out of the ten collections I put together.

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Many of Mandalstram’s books were overlooked by his peers; a few were shortlisted for minor awards, an achievement and honor in itself, but didn’t win. Finally, fairly late in his life, he won a major award for a slim novella, Disconsolate, a delicate love story that was, in fact, a revised version of a story he had written when he was in his twenties. The passion in the prize-winning book, so admired by the jurors, was all from that period of his life, when he had pursued an unrequited love affair with a certain woman from Madrid and had burned with ardour, the sort of ardour only a man in his twenties can experience. But the craft, those tricks of the writing trade which make a story so compelling, was all from that later period of his life, the period of revision, a practice he had mastered. Passion and craft were a happy marriage, and they worked well for Mandalstram. Disconsolate, the jurors wrote, ached with the agony of a spurned lover, exquisitely rendered, and Mandalstram himself, they wrote, was a “poet of the heartbroken, a connoisseur of longing.”

He smiled at that latter phrase—“connoisseur of longing,” which seemed, he thought, to fit him like a well-tailored jacket—and, as he slept restlessly that night in an unfamiliar hotel bed, in Toronto, a city he didn’t particularly like, the words chimed through his dreams like the cream-rich tones of a clavichord. He awoke amused by the possibilities. A publisher might create a Library of Longing, with paperback reprints of all his out-of-print books. The CBC might prepare a reality show, Canada Longs, with chipper Wendy Mesley as host and Mandelstram himself as featured guest. A restaurant might prepare a Menu of Longing, with dishes inspired by plots and character from Mandalstram’s stories. He arose, turned on the electric coffee pot and showered. Then, feeling pampered in the hotel’s fluffy white robe, with a cup of weak coffee by his elbow—oh, how he longed for something stronger!—he sat in sunlight at a small polished marble table—whether true marble or faux he couldn’t tell—and, on creamy hotel stationary, began to make a list. This small pleasure was interrupted by another—the first of several telephone calls from the mass media.

Back in Halifax, where he had lived for the decade since his third marriage failed, he found himself still propelled by the momentum of his unexpected victory. The money that accompanied the prize—more than he would ordinarily earn in two years!—was a godsend, no doubt there, but more important was the boost to his career. It would have been better, far better, to have had this twenty years earlier, fifteen, even ten, but he still had another ten productive years in him, another three, four, maybe five books if he approached them with more discipline than he ordinarily could harness.

He expected the invitations to start rolling in: lectures, interviews, workshops, residencies, festivals, readings of all sorts before all sorts of audiences. He’d had his share of that sort of thing, of course, but never enough to provide more than the most meager of livings. Always, he’d had to teach a class, take on an editing job for someone of lesser talent, even, on occasion, lower himself to the indignities of writing a review or article for the popular press. He looked forward to refusing those routine kinds of offers, to enjoying more of life’s little comforts while, at the same time, being able to devote more time to his own work, which meant he’d have to asses the new opportunities carefully. Perhaps there’d be an unsolicited grant, maybe even a call from one of the agents who hitherto had spurned him. He looked forward to the possible pleasure of telling one particularly nasty agent to fuck herself.

In the meantime, while he awaited these opportunities, he should allow euphoria to propel him into a regimen of inspiration and momentum. The backbreaking, spirit-snagging novel he’d been working on for several years, which had all but defeated him, now seemed manageable, its completion and publication inevitable. He would throw himself into work with a renewed vigour, informed by the sort of passion that had so impressed those jurors. Yes, passion was what had been missing from his latest work; passion, propped up by artful craft, could be his salvation.

But not just yet. His telephone was still ringing, interview requests from reporters and congratulations from friends and—this most delicious—acquaintances who now wished to be friends. Serious work was out of the question with such interruptions. And at any rate, a day or two of diversion, to savour the moment and let its meaning sink in, would do him good. A perverse, compulsive pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless, like tonguing a sore tooth.

Mandalstram consulted the internet and, fortified by a cup of espresso, telephoned his first wife, who lived now in Milan, where she had a thriving practice as a designer of high fashion, knowing full well what sort of response he was likely to induce. They hadn’t spoken in over twenty years, and that only as the result of accident, but he had kept up with her comings and doings, another perverse pleasure.

“Louella,” he announced, “it’s Franklin.”

“Calling to gloat?” Her voice sounded older, leathery, but with all of its old bite. To his disappointment, she didn’t seem at all surprised to be hearing from him.

“Gloat?”

“I read about your triumph.”

“Hardly that, my dear.”

“Considering what came before it….”

“Well, yes. And thank you for the implied congratulations. But gloat, no, that isn’t what I’ve called about.”

“And that is?”

He hesitated, betraying himself. “To apologize. I am sorry. For…”

“Oh, fuck you, Franklin.” She hung up.

Mandalstram was stunned by the sharpness of her response, though it did not extend far beyond the realm of what he had considered possible—he certainly had known she wouldn’t be pleased to hear from him, regardless of the circumstances. They had both been young and inexperienced in their brief time together—she had come into his life during that bleak period when he was nursing the wounds inflicted on his heart by the Spanish woman—and it had ended badly, on so sour a note that a stain on the abilities of both of them to form healthy relationships had remained for some time, only gradually fading. As to be expected, Mandalstram had blamed Louella, she had blamed him. Over time, he had come to realize that probably neither was to blame, that they had both merely been caught up in forces beyond their control. Louella, apparently, had not yet attained that stage of perspective and clarity.

Having worked his way through that brief analysis, Mandalstram broke into a smile and brewed himself another cup of strong coffee—this was a morning for indulgence. Although the call had not gone as he’d hoped, he still drew grim satisfaction from it. He made a mental check on the list he carried in his head, a duplicate of the one he’d drawn up in Toronto.

*

Mandalstram’s parents had been Holocaust survivors who were loathe to talk about their past. He was a bright, inquisitive child, with a fertile imagination, an only child often left to his own devices, and though his parents provided few clues, he grew up surmising that they were Jewish. Indeed, they attended a Reform synagogue and his father was a reliable contributor to the minion. It was only in his teenaged years that he learned they weren’t Jews. Berliners, intellectuals, journalists the both of them, they were Communists persecuted for their politics, not for race or faith. Mandalstram’s father was an atheist, whose own parents had been Catholic farmers; but his mother had been raised a Lutheran and came from a well respected middle-class family of lawyers and teachers, good Aryan stock. True, the name Mandalstram did smack of Jewry, though it was in fact solidly Germanic, but had not his father and mother both written inflammatory articles attacking National Socialism in a suspect periodical, they would likely have gone through that terrible period of history unscathed. At the very least, they would have been able to escape with body and conscience intact.

Instead, they rejected several opportunities, first to emigrate in orderly fashion, later to flee in haste, and were rounded up and sent in cattle cars along with hundreds of fellow travelers to Bergen-Belsen, where, somehow, they managed to survive.

Prying even these minimal details out of his parents had been something of an achievement for the high-school-and-college-aged Mandalstram, so he never did learn anything of their lives in captivity, the bargains they may have been forced to enter into.

At any rate, after the war, the shattered couple was able, finally, to emigrate to the United States, where they attempted to rebuild their lives, taking up residence in a largely Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx and devoting themselves—or so it seemed later to their son—to a quiet pursuit of redemption, not that they were in need of any. It was perhaps inevitable that these survivors of Hitler’s death camps should seek the comforting company of other survivors, the teenaged Mandalstram conjectured; if not inevitable, it had at least worked out well. The elder Mandalstrams lived a quiet, humdrum existence, working as minor government functionaries—his mother as a clerk at the borough hall’s property tax department, his father with the post office. As a child, teenager and young man, Mandalstram, of course, had chafed against the restraints of his parents’ orderly lives, had rebelled against it, but in time he’d come to understand it. As a refugee from the U.S. to Canada during the inflammatory years of the Vietnamese war, he found himself replicating their steps to a certain extent.

Mandalstram’s parent were now dead. He had no living relatives on this side of the Atlantic, at least none he was aware of, and no knowledge of any relatives on the other side. That was one area of his past that was immune, then, from his present preoccupation. Nor could he think of any offence he might have caused any of the millions of people involved in that sordid chapter of history. No, if there was an apology owed, it certainly wasn’t from him.

*

Mandalstram had no idea where his second wife, Margarita, was now. He mined his address book and, again, the internet for clues, without success, and made a few calls, but the mutual friends he consulted either did not know her whereabouts or were disinclined to reveal them to him. His call to Arthur Behrens, a friend from those days, an art school classmate of Margarita’s, who had climbed through the ranks of the federal cultural bureaucracy and was now an assistant deputy minister, was typical.

“I don’t think she would want to hear from you, Franklin—even if I knew where she was.”

“Which you really don’t, I presume?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you said she wouldn’t want to hear from me. I thought perhaps…”

“No, I’m not lying. If I did know, I’d say so, but wouldn’t tell you where. I’d be willing to pass along a message, that’s all. But as I said, I don’t…”

“So what you’re willing or not willing to do is irrelevant,” Mandalstram interrupted.

“Yes, but your ill-temper does little to engender sympathy, quite frankly. Congratulations again on your prize. Now goodbye.”

Mandalstram attempted to apologize for his impatience, but Behrens had already hung up. A few more calls that were no more productive only served to abrade his nerves and cause him to reappraise his day’s activities. What exactly was he after?

He put on his walking shoes and a warm jacket and set out from his small rented house (should he try to buy it? he wondered) to the waterfront, less than half a mile distant. It was along its serene shores, watching bobbing fishing boats and seagulls, that he often did his most creative thinking. There was a blustery wind but the temperature was unusually mild for November.

It was Mandalstram’s affair with Margarita that had triggered the breakup with Louella, and his second marriage had ended just as badly as the first. Even worse, perhaps, because there was, to use a phrase he found delicious in its ironies, collateral damage. Again, they had been young, and ill prepared not only for the poverty-dogged relationship but the parenthood that had accompanied it. Margarita was a painter with a promising future and the detour that motherhood caused in her career embittered her, not toward the child, thankfully, but toward Mandalstram, as if everything that followed from that first passionate coming together had been the fault of his sperm, her egg having been merely an innocent bystander.

Of course, it helped not a whit that Mandalstram was a terrible father, incompetent and disinterested. After the breakup, he made half-hearted attempts to keep in touch with the child—a delightful little girl named Sunshine, whose blond ringlets and cherubic cheeks seemed almost contrived—but they had eventually become estranged. The last time he’d seen her, when she was nearing puberty, most of the shine had already rubbed off the girl, and she was cocooned in an impenetrable swirl of hurt and sulk. Mandalstram hadn’t thought much about either his daughter or her mother in the years since—though Sunshine’s birthday would always bring him pangs of guilt and regret—but now he found himself inexplicably filled with an intense longing to see the girl—she would, in fact, be a woman of close to 30. According to one acquaintance he’d phoned, she lived in Southern California and was well-established as a publicist for Hollywood films, often traveling abroad to be on location—her name could be seen at the end of the occasional movie in the fast-moving welter of credits; although she had disavowed her father, she inexplicably continued to use his name, apparently.

Mandalstram bought a chicken salad sandwich on a French baguette at an open-air stand near the dock and, while leaning against a railing overlooking rocks and water, washed it down with an ice-cold locally produced root beer from a bottle. This lunch was so simple and brought such pleasure, but previously had been beyond his means other than as a very occasional treat. He had hopes now of enjoying such a midday meal once or even twice a week.

He fed crusts of bread to gulls and ducks as he contemplated his next steps. Apology, he now realized, was the driving force behind this project, which was still taking shape in his head. At first, he’d thought of it strictly as an exercise in clearing the decks, touching base with people who had been important to him at this, a significant moment in his life. It wasn’t their congratulations or good wishes he was after—he’d thought he merely wanted to assure himself that things were unfolding as positively in their orbits as they were in his, so unusual was his good fortune. His clumsy attempt to apologize to his first wife for old crimes, real and imagined, had surprised him as much as it must have her. Now it was becoming clear to him that what he was after was, if not redemption or even forgiveness exactly, something along those lines. “Poet of the heartbroken,” the jury had written, “a connoisseur of longing.” He had focused on the latter, the longing part of that curious equation; now, the former was resonating more. Was not giving voice to the heartbroken the special brief of the novelist?

At the same time, he realized, he still wasn’t exactly sure what those labels meant—so laudatory, on first reading, but were they really? Had the jury intended some form of sly irony?

*

When Mandalstram had begun to write, over thirty years earlier—first poetry, then moody, introspective stories, then complex, layered novels—his art was very much informed by the experience of his parents, though he knew so little of it. A large supporting cast of Jews, Communists, Germans and refugees from one disaster or another crept into his stories, usually as minor characters, though occasionally one would shoulder his way to the forefront. Many pieces involved children of Holocaust survivors; a story and several poems were actually set in concentration camps. One academic critic, writing about Mandalstram’s third novel, identified exodus—flight, persecution, the refugee experience—as a major theme in his work. Still, when an article in Border Crossings, a magazine primarily of the visual arts, mentioned his name in connection with a growing number of Canadian artists of various disciplines influenced by the Holocaust, he was surprised.

He began to be invited occasionally to do readings at temples or participate in Jewish book fairs, and to be mentioned, along with better known writers, like Richler and the Cohens, Leonard and Matt, as representing a new Canadian Jewish literary renaissance, a misapprehension he did nothing to correct, and from that point on—the Border Crossings piece—the Holocaust specifically and genocide in general became central preoccupations in his work. The recent novel that had won the award was the first in almost two decades in which those themes had been entirely absent, and it had been produced during a pause he had taken in a big novel, his most ambitious undertaking yet, overwhelming, really, that revolved around a large cast of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators and collaborators, and their children.

It was to this novel he now intended to return, with renewed vigour. But first he needed to play out the admittedly perverse string he’d begun that morning.

*

Here was the score, as he recorded it on the back of that sheet of hotel stationary on which this plot had first been hatched, only a few days earlier. Wife one, a strike out; wife two and daughter, both missing in action. That left wife three, but Mandalstram wasn’t yet ready to tackle that particular challenge, which might, he knew, prove to be the thorniest.

There had been a number of other women in his life, of course; he wasn’t sure which of them he might want to now pursue. Nor had he given up on the search for his daughter, and, should he find her, she might direct him to Margarita. He was thinking all this as he sat tossing pebbles into the placid water under his favourite tree, an expansive oak that leaned seaward from a spit of land jutting in the same direction. All the signs seemed to be directing him eastward, toward Europe, the familial homeland. With each pebble, he counted the concentric rings produced on the face of the water. There were other dusty corners of his life worth investigating, he thought. On the list he’d drawn up, after “wives,” “lovers” and “family,” he’d written “friends.”

He had been an indifferent and undistinguished student. Of his grade school and high school years in the Bronx, he had few pleasant recollections, and there certainly were no teachers who stood out in his memory. Unlike some of his friends who spoke warmly of the influence one particular teacher or another had had on their lives, Mandalstram had encountered no such mentor, not even in college, in the States—where he’d attended City College in Manhattan for two years before the furor over the war had overtaken his studies—or university in Canada, where he had finally obtained a degree, in comparative literature, from Concordia. A few professors had been friendly, certainly, but none to the extent that a friendship off campus had evolved. None had even been particularly encouraging, as far as he could recall.

As far as friends went, though, there was one old childhood chum, whom he’d become reacquainted with out of the blue a few years earlier, and quite a few from later years, including a handful of close friends from student politics days, on both sides of the border. As he walked back toward his house, he sorted through various names and faces, drawing up a tentative list of people to call. At the top was Hal Wolfowitz.

*

There was an email, several actually, he was looking for. They weren’t in his computer’s in-basket, or in the folder marked Friends, nor were they in Trash, where thousands of old email messages of all sorts gathered dust and, for all Mandalstram knew, plotted conspiracies. Finally, though, in the Sent directory, he found an email he’d written in reply to one from Wolfowitz that contained a record of previous exchanges.

The thread began with a note from someone—the name had rung no immediate bell—asking if he was the Franklin Mandalstram who had once lived on West 183rd Street near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx? If he was, then perhaps he would recall the author of the email, Hal Wolfowitz, who had been a classmate and friend all through grade school. He was now a professor of history at—of all places—the University of New Mexico, having traveled even further from the Bronx than Mandalstram had, at least in terms of miles.

Once having adjusted the context, he remembered Hal very well—in his memory, they were not just friends but best friends, the boy he’d spent countless hours with swapping comic books and records, talking baseball statistics and girls—and they’d exchanged several nostalgic emails since, mostly pondering how it was that they had drifted apart and lost touch—though none in the last year or two. A reading of the email trail seemed to suggest the fault was chiefly Mandalstram’s. Now, having secured a phone number on the internet, Mandalstram was listening to a phone ring in a university office somewhere in Albuquerque. The voice that answered, though, was female.

“Professor Wolfowitz, please,” Mandalstram said.

There was a pause. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Franklin Mandalstram. I’m calling from Halifax, in Canada. For Hal Wolfowitz? We’re old friends.”

Another pause. “I’m sorry to have to tell you then that Professor Wolfowitz is dead.”

“God,” Mandalstram said.

“It just happened last week, a heart attack, at his desk. The funeral was Monday.”

Mandalstram poured himself a stiff shot of Bushmill’s Black Bush Irish whiskey, his drink of choice when he could afford it, and bolted it back, then poured another to sip from. This wasn’t going well, and he was beginning to wonder what exactly he was hoping to achieve. It was only mid-afternoon, though, and having come this far, he determined to persevere.

Mandalstram and Martin Semple had come to Canada together as draft resisters in the early ‘70s and had even lived together briefly in their first months in Montreal. Martin had gone back to the States after the amnesty of 1977, but they had kept sporadically in touch, though Mandalstram couldn’t remember the last time. Semple had finished university, gone on for a doctorate in French literature and now was a professor at NYU—presuming he too hadn’t prematurely died. The first number in his address book, a New York City number, was not in service; but a second number, with an unfamiliar area code, produced a ring that was eventually answered by someone with a very young voice, sex undeterminable. After the usual semi-comic interplay—“is Mr. Semple there?” “Mr. Who?” “Well, let me speak to your father…?” and so on—Martin came on the line.

“Franklin?” he said after he finally understood who was calling. “What the hell do you want, you son of a bitch?” A sentence like that, pronounced in a jocular tone, could be the start of a pleasant, jokey conversation, but Martin’s tone was not particularly jocular, making Mandalstram wary.

“I’m just calling to say hello, Marty.”

“For Christ’s sake, what is it?”

Mandalstram was confused. Unlike his first wife, whose enmity he fully understood, he had no recollection of any bad blood between him and Martin.

“Just that, Marty. No ulterior motives, honest. Not wanting to borrow money, asking no favours, nothing like that. Not even calling to spread gossip.” Mandalstram chuckled, then paused to allow Martin to respond, but there was no response, so he went on. “Actually, there was something I’ve been wondering about, something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“If it’s about the money you already owe me, forget it,” Semple said. “I wrote that bad debt off long ago.”

“Money? I didn’t realize I owed you money, Marty. That I owe you, yes, of course, but money? I don’t recall.”

“Listen, like I said, forget it. Water over the bridge.”

“It happens that I’ve recently come into some unexpected money. How much was it?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said? Forget about it. I have.”

“Well, then, I’d like to ask you about…well, you remember that year we lived together.”

“How could I forget?

“And you remember Ingrid? That waitress you went around with for a while?”

There was no response.

“This will seem crazy, but do you remember, once we had a very brief argument over her?”

Again, silence from the other end of the line.

“I don’t remember what I said exactly, but something about her that you took exception to. You probably don’t even remember this, it was so trivial. I don’t think we ever discussed it again.”

More silence.

“Marty, you still there?”

Silence, then, finally, a frigid “I’m here.”

“So, do you remember….”

“I remember you fucked my girlfriend, you asshole, I do remember that. I remember you didn’t say anything about that.”

“Martin, I….”

“I remember you fucked the woman who became my wife, shithead. And there was something you wanted to ask me? Forgiveness?”

“Well….”

“Listen, Franklin, don’t call here again.” With that, the line went dead.

Mandalstram was stunned. He only barely remembered having had sex with Ingrid, and had no idea she and Marty had gotten married. That must have happened after he went back to New York—she had followed? Mandalstram’s memory of that period was murky at best. He hadn’t even known they were serious, although that must have been why whatever he had said back then caused the argument. A brief trivial argument, at least that’s what he had thought at the time.

Mandalstram went to the window in his bedroom, which had a better view of the street than the living room’s. He stood for a long time watching foot and vehicle traffic. A Buick from the ‘80s pulled up across the street and expelled a man in an ill-fitting dark suit who consulted a piece of paper from his pocket, then re-entered the car, which sped away. A truck rumbled past, driven by a man with thick dark hair on his arm, which swung like a symphony conductor’s from his open window. Two boys on bicycles rode by, their laughter trailing after them in the balmy air. An attractive young woman in a polka dot dress walked down the street swinging her handbag, followed by an old woman, the woman who lived two houses down, in black. A dog, a nondescript mutt, zigzagged across the street, then back, sniffing the air.

A dark stream of sadness coursed through Mandalstram as he watched the tableau of life, limited as it was on this particular street in this particular city, unfold before his eyes. In his mind, he drew a line through the name of his third wife, having determined to let that particular sleeping dog lie. He still had a longing to connect with his daughter—and he would, he determined—she was out there somewhere, and he would find her. How many Mandalstrams could there be in Hollywood? And might not she actually be pleased to hear from her father, estranged though they were? But in other respects, he would leave the past alone. He had enough trouble coping with the heartbreak of the present, with his longing for a future.

—Dave Margoshes

.

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007, and A Book of Great Worth, a collection of linked short stories that was among Amazon.Ca’s Top Hundred Books of 2012. “The Connoisseur of Longing” is part of a new collection, God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, published in spring 2014. A new novel, Wiseman’s Wager, is due out in the fall. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.

 

Jun 162014
 
photo by Christiaan Diedericks

Lax photo by Christiaan Diedericks

But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this. —David Wojahn

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§

Desktop4-002Lorine Niedecker

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge —David Wojahn

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Lorine Niedecker was once called the Emily Dickinson of the Twentieth Century, and Robert Lax was known as the hermit poet. David Wojahn, who himself was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and, in an earlier time, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his book of poems Icehouse Lights, pens here a special guest review essay, which begins as a paen to Wave Books, fast aligning itself with the great old independent presses like New Directions and Grove, and then considers the lives and works Lax and Niedecker. Wojahn has read long and thought deeply; it’s terrifically bracing to absorb his fluency with poets and traditions, the ease with which he epitomizes lives, works and influences. Such brevity and compression only comes with the profound familiarity and respect. I don’t think it takes a poet to read a poet, but Wojahn makes a good case.

dg

 

Poems 1962-1997
Robert Lax
Edited by John Beer
Wave Books
Paper, 400 pp., $25.00

Lake Superior
Lorine Niedecker
Wave Books
Paper, 91 pp., $16.00

 

Over the past several years, Wave Books has carved out a special niche for itself among independent presses, one that brings to mind—on a smaller scale—the role played by the great vanguard presses of the ‘50s and ‘60s, New Directions and Grove. These presses not only published some of the finest “non-mainstream” writers of the era—New Directions’ list included, among others, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Stevie Smith, and George Oppen—but they were also adamant in their desire to introduce American readers to important modernist writers in translation, and unjustly neglected works (sometimes semi-scandalous ones) by figures in the tradition. Thus Grove’s list included all of Beckett’s important drama and fiction, the first credible English translation of Garcia-Lorca’s surrealist masterwork, Poet in New York, the 18th century’s wonderfully campy and salacious proto-Gothic novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (this with an introduction by John Berryman), and Frank O’Hara’s legendary Meditations in an Emergency.

It was not just their discerning eclecticism that made New Directions and Grove great publishing houses; it was also the fact that the offerings of both presses had a look. New Directions titles favored eerily murky covers—the jacket descriptions as often as not printed in white ink against black backgrounds—and photos of often unrecognizable objects that looked vaguely cubist. When you looked at the cover of a book such as the New Direction translation of Sartre’s Nausea—with its badly superimposed photos of two hipster-ish men who seemed to be suffering from the effects of arsenic poisoning—even the uninitiated reader could tell that angst and dread were likely to ooze from every page. New Directions books seemed designed for two purposes—they wanted to make you take the book very seriously, and they wanted you to know that if the book didn’t look depressing, then it clearly wasn’t serious. The Grove titles were a little more colorful and lively, and were often illustrated with drawings that has a vaguely De Stijl look. They screamed modernity, much in the way the covers those classic Be-Bop albums from Prestige and other labels did.

Well, Wave publications have a signature appearance too. Like the classic New Directions and Grove covers, Wave’s dust jackets and covers are very adamant about projecting That Serious Look. The book designs are as minimalist as they come—there are apt to have no cover illustrations: we get a title, the author’s name, the book’s price, and most astonishingly of all, no blurbs. Yet there’s certain elegance to a Wave collection; the pages and covers are printed on high quality cream paper, and many are hardcovers. When you take off the book jacket, you find that the boards are colored with the same quite luscious shade of ivory.

But Wave has a list to match its Look, and its titles are almost as eclectic and discerning as those issued by Grove and New Directions during their heyday. They publish a good many poets of considerable reputation, among them Mary Ruefle and Eileen Myles, but also work by promising younger poets such as Geoffrey O’Brien. They’ve also done some exciting works in translation—Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have recently issued a revelatory selection of the German poet Ernst Meister, a contemporary of Celan who seems to me almost as good as that great master. And last, but surely not least, Wave has started to issue new editions of neglected twentieth century American poets. The most recent titles in this series are both quite exemplary—the first is an exquisite selection of the vastly eccentric and utterly original Robert Lax; the second is Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, a book that reprints one of Niedecker’s most ambitious poems. And, like one of those multi-disk box set reissues of a classic rock or jazz album, the book contains all sorts of secondary and related material—essays on Niedecker, a travel journal the poet kept in preparation for writing the poem, and historical documents she consults and borrows from in its final text. It’s a most engaging volume, almost sui generis.

Lax_Poems_for_website_1024x1024

Let me first discuss John Beer’s edition of Robert Lax’s Poems 1962-1997. Lax, who was born in 1915 and died in 2000, was a prolific writer, but many of his books are hard to obtain. He was also a somewhat uneven poet, and did not arrive at his mature phase—the one that Beer draws from—until relatively late in life. Even that work is rather hard to classify. Although the modernist era saw its share of poets who combined non-academic careers with poetry—doctor poets such as Williams and Benn; lawyer poets like Stevens and MacLeish—few other figures among the modernists who could be labeled a “hermit poet.” But such was Robert Lax, who spent most of the last four decades of his life in self-imposed retreat from the world, living in sometimes abject poverty on various Greek Islands, among them Patmos, where tradition has it that another hermit poet, John the Apostle, composed the book of Revelation.

Before getting to the islands, Lax’s career took many twists and turns and it’s a pity that he has yet to be the subject of a readable biography. As a student at Columbia in the ‘30s, Lax was mentored by the then-quite influential poet and critic Mark Van Doren, and began a lifelong friendship with his classmate, Thomas Merton. Both were Roman Catholics, and political progressives with literary aspirations. These concerns eventually led Merton to join the Trappists, and with the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain—a surprise bestseller in 1948—Merton became the most famous monk of the past century. Lax did not settle down quite as quickly. He succeeded James Agee as the movie critic for Time, published a number of Auden-derived poems in the New Yorker, and eventually became a staff writer there. He taught at the University of North Carolina, and for a brief time was a script-doctor in Hollywood. He also became obsessed with circus life, and traveled through Canada with the Christiani Family Circus. This experience provided the material for Lax’s first published collection, The Circus of the Sun, a highly peculiar work in which the big top becomes the stuff of Christian allegory.

But in the early ‘60s, around the time Lax moves to Greece, his work changes dramatically. It furthermore becomes very hard to classify, although many critics have tried. As Beer observes in a lucid introduction to the volume, Lax now seems to compose not in lines as much as in columns, and the lines grow so short as to make even those of a poet such as Robert Creeley seem positively corpulent. There not much room in the poems for content, save for a kind of koan-like repetition. Here’s a piece from 1962’s New Poems:

things
into
words

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

words
into
things

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

Taken from the context of a larger body of work, this sort of hyper-minimalist method seems unintentionally comic—this is Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” without even the rainwater or the chickens; Lax’s one-time mentor Van Doren scoffed at pieces such as this, calling them “raindrop poems.” And for better or for worse, Lax arrived at his late style around the time that “concrete” poetry, with its concern for shaped poems and picture poems, had its brief vogue, and Lax’s name invariably became associated with this school. But Lax, as Beers very nimbly point out, is neither a concrete poet nor a “minimalist” in the mode of composer Philip glass or visual artist Donald Judd. Something else is at play in his work.

I think it’s best to see Lax as extending a tradition of devotional poetry that in the West begins with the Homeric Hymns, continues through Metaphysical poets such as Henry Vaughn and George Herbert–Herbert also penned shaped poems, “Easter Wings” being the most notable example—reaches the threshold of modernism with Hopkins, and continues through figures such as Paul Celan. Lax is of course much more whimsical than these writers, but no less earnestly devout. The book-length sequence Sea and Sky, published in 1965, is Lax’s masterwork, and is best seen as an impish set of spiritual exercises. The verticality of the lines, the drone-like repetitions–sometimes reiterated exactly for several pages, sometimes containing very subtle variations in wording or stanza formation—are highly incantatory. But this effect is achieved through nothing resembling meter or traditional concepts of free verse lineation. It’s instead the mantra-like recurrence combined with the visual effect of Lax’s “columns” that makes the sequence memorable. To prove this I’d have to quote at least ten or twelve pages from the sequence, since it is clearly designed to have a cumulative effect on the reader that can’t be suggested through brief quotation. But here’s a representative passage, drawn from the sixth section:

as
oce-
an

as o
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cities
of
man

the
citi-
y

(of
God)

as
oce-
an

as
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cit-
ies

of
man

(of
God)

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
ent

is
un-
der

the
sea

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
rent

is
un-
der

the
sea

Lax wrote other sorts of poems in his mature phase. In collections such as Two Fables he employs his column method to offer some very oddball parables, but these are much less satisfying than efforts such as Sea and Sky.  Lax was often also in the habit including in some of his collections prose pieces drawn from his notebooks. These pieces are improvisational, seemingly unrevised, and filled with Cummings-esque linguistic and punctuation mannerisms that give them a tone of preciousness, a quality that also afflicts the many letters he wrote to Thomas Merton. (Their letters to one another are collected in an interesting but exasperating volume entitled When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.) Beer’s selection—wisely—reprints only a smattering of the parable poems, and none of the notebook entries.

It goes without saying that the work of Robert Lax is not for everyone. But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this.

Lake_Superior_for_website_1024x1024

William Carlos Williams reportedly called Lorine Niedecker the Emily Dickinson of Twentieth Century poetry.  This comparison is only partly apt and is in some respects simply more evidence of the good doctor’s penchant for hyperbole. But, like Dickinson, Niedecker labored for much of her writing life in obscurity—a couple of small collections appeared during her lifetime, and the literary luminaries who championed her work, most notably Louis Zukofsky, also managed to be quite condescending toward it, much in the way that the boneheaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson was toward the Belle of Amherst. Also like Dickinson, Niedecker strove for poetry of the utmost precision and brevity.

But here the similarities end. Dickinson lived a life of entitlement and privilege, and the Amherst of her day was a hotbed of intellectual activity. Niedecker lived a singularly unprivileged life of rural poverty, and Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin—where she lived for years in a shack without plumbing, built on a floodplain—was as far out into the sticks as you can get. Niedecker tried in various ways to escape Fort Atkinson, but these efforts usually ended in failure. She left Beloit College after only two years—thanks to the depression, her parents could no longer pay the tuition. And a very brief move to New York City in 1933 ended miserably. After being knocked up by her literary mentor Louis Zukofsky, she aborted their child and went back to Wisconsin, where she subsisted for decades at various bad-paying jobs, one of them being a cleaning lady at a local hospital. When Niedecker died of heart failure 1970, at the age of 67, the prospects for any sort of posthumous reputation looked bleak. But thanks mainly to Jenny Pemberty’s edition of her Complete Writings, which was issued by the University of California Press in 2002, Niedecker has now taken her rightful place among the essential modernist poets. Her work has at last been featured in anthologies, most notably the third edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (for better or for worse the industry standard). She’s been the subject of a decent full-length biography by Margot Peters; collections of critical writings about her have appeared, and someone has made a rather schmaltzy documentary film on her life.

Although it is a gross oversimplification to say it, Niedecker wrote two kinds of poems, and mastered both sorts exceptionally well. The first is an imagist lyric as it was reinterpreted and refined by the Objectivist poets with whom she is often grouped. Short, presentational, wary of both statement and of elaborate metaphors, Niedecker’s efforts in the mode are vivid but over almost as soon as they begin. They are also laconic in a way that is quintessentially Midwestern. The most representative poem in this vein is a terse ars poetica:

Grandfather
advised me:
……Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
……and condense

No layoffs
from this
……condensery

Sometimes the poems in this manner, especially those which appeared in her 1948 collection, New Goose, employ end rhyme in a kind of misanthropic homage to Mother Goose and jump rope ditties. The poems make you understand why Williams, who worked toward a similar sort of self-conscious primitivism, so admired Niedecker.

But in the final decade of her life Niedecker’s writing changed. She began to experiment with longer poems—longer for her, at least. These efforts, which run to several pages, often make use of found historical material, much in the way that the writings of her fellow Objectivists George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff do. “Jefferson,” for example—the final poem Niedecker completed before her death—draws from extensively from the third president’s letters and other writing, another poem applies a similar collage method to the writings of Darwin. The new approach which Niedecker undertook in these longer and more meditative works may be partially explained by a change in her circumstances—she finally escaped Fort Atkinson, thanks to a late marriage to one Al Millen, a factory worker with a drinking problem, and a move to an apartment in Milwaukee. The marriage seems to have been less than blissful, but it allowed the poet to quit her menial jobs and devote sustained periods to her writing. Matrimony even enabled Niedecker to travel, though her late-life equivalent of the Grand Tour was a trip by car with Al around Lake Superior.

It is this journey which inspires “Lake Superior,” the poem to which the Wave volume is devoted. The poem itself occupies the first six pages in the volume; it is surely not a piece of epic proportion, but it arguably falls within the rubric of the sort of modernist long(er) poem which John Matthias has termed a “pocket epic”—not The Cantos or Paterson, but rangy and fluent enough to seem much grander than a mere six-page poem. It reckons with nothing less than the entire history, human and geological, of the Lake Superior region—its flora, fauna, and minerals; its Native American tribes and French and American explorers; the vast lake and its many river tributaries, among them the Chocolate River, the Laughing Fish River, and the River of the Dead.  This history is a fraught one—we’re introduced to the French explorer Radisson, his “Fingernails/pulled out by Mohawks,” and the Jesuit proselytizer Father Marquette, whose bones were ”sun and birch bark floated to the straits.” There are passenger pigeon flocks, croppings of “Wave cut pre-Cambrian rock” and the mammoth cargo ships that carry iron ore from Minnesota’s Masabi Range to points east—in Niedecker’s time the ore deposits had yet to be depleted.

The poem confronts what Douglas Crase, in a masterly essay included in in the volume, labels  “the evolutionary sublime.” Yet it is also about human ruthlessness and a kind of ecological terrorism. The Mohawks, passenger pigeons, French Canadian “voyageurs” with their schooner-sized canoes, and the vast fields of iron ore all are returned to the earth. The poem refuses to rhapsodize nature or human history, but in geology Niedecker sees a metaphor for endurance and timelessness. For Niedecker, “Ruby of corundum/lapis lazuli/from changing limestone” is equivalent to what daffodils were to Wordsworth.  Minimalist as it at first might seem, “Lake Superior” is a poem of cranky grandiosity. Still, like all of Niedecker’s best work, the poem is never full of itself. The poem ends on a wonderfully deadpan note:

I’m sorry to have missed
…..Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
…..We did not
We watched a gopher there.

But is a poem of only six pages, “pocket epic” though it may be, significant enough to warrant an additional eighty-two pages of supplemental material, including not only the Crase essay, but the travel journal Niedecker kept as she made notes for the poem, writings by the explorers Radisson and Schoolcraft, a section of Basho’s Back Road to Far Towns (a possible inspiration for Niedecker’s travel journal), letters to her fellow poet Cid Corman that were composed shortly after Niedecker’s road trip, and a mediation on the extinction of the passenger pigeon drawn from Aldo Leopold’s classic volume of lyrical  nature writing, A Sand County Almanac? My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. Niedecker’s travel journal is a delight—observant, wryly witty even when pedantic, and further enlivened by its many shifts in diction and approach. Thus a passage such as this, describing Schoolcraft’s journey to the headwaters of the Mississippi–

A lake in or near the St. Louis River turned out to be remarkable for its fine carnelians and agates—they named it Carnelian Lake. Over the scrub oak prairies they spent a day and a half hunting buffalo—“The buffalo meat is rather inferior to that of the bear.” On one of the gravelly banks as they went on into the Minnesota River Valley (then called St. Peter’s) Schoolcraft found a piece of agate-ised wood. It was noted that white sandstone overlaid with secondary limestone appears at St. Anthony’s Falls—the first time since Lake Superior.

comingles with this:

We stayed last night in Little Falls, Minnesota, Lindbergh’s old home town. Here All bought some salami. Restaurant living is beginning to pall:
I: Good. It even shines a little.
AL: That’s from horse’s hooves. Horesemeat, maybe?

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge. Niedecker says this much better than I can. At the end of a letter to Cid Corman, almost as an aside, she writes:  “Strange—we are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.”

In Lake Superior, Wave has compiled something much more compelling than simply a poem, a journal, and what the book’s title page terms “other sources, documents, and readings.” The book is instead a kind of primer on the process of imaginative composition—an eccentric one, perhaps, but no less important because of that. And the book’s foray into the mysteries of poetic composition is accompanied by a further mystery. This slyly and scrupulously edited volume bears the name of no editor. There is a certain chutzpah to the publisher’s decision to issue the book in this fashion, but I hope that in subsequent printings of the volume-and let’s also hope it remains in print for a long while—that its editor will come forth, for that person has done a commendable service, both to Niedecker and to modern poetry in general.

—David Wojahn

Copy of Wojahn Pub photo Noelle

David Wojahn was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 for Interrogation Palace, also winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his first collection Icehouse Lights. His eighth collection of poetry, World Tree, was issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets; Lenore Marshall Prize, The Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry, and the Poets’ Prize. His collection of essays, From the Valley of Making: Essays on the Craft of Poetry, will be issued next year 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.

 

Jun 152014
 

DublinersAuthor and the First Edition

Bloomsday is tomorrow, June 16, a day of literary legend, which may also commemorate James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. But today is very special as well. It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, which appeared on June 15, 1914. It took ten years for Joyce to get the book published. Sending an early version to his eventual publisher Grant Richards in London, Joyce wrote perhaps not the best cover letter ever composed but one of the truest. According to Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox, Joyce told Richards he thought “there might be a market for ‘the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.’”

As Bruce Stone explains in his luminous essay here published, Dubliners was “a revolution without fanfare.” Joyce’s grim naturalism, his disposition to document the underside (not to mention the underclass) of Edwardian Dublin, has inspired much of what we call realistic and even minimalist fiction today. When I attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, I had classmates who swore that “Araby” was the best short story ever written. Conversely, since it somewhat cants against the naturalistic grain of the stories, that word “epiphany,” used so often in the discourse of contemporary American letters, also derives from Joyce’s technique in Dubliners. But for Joyce, who couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough when he was 22, who felt betrayed by city, family and literary culture, the book was a squaring of accounts. Bruce Stone writes, “Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind.”

Bruce Stone has published essays, book reviews, and fiction in Numéro Cinq, including “Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita” and “Viktor Shklovsk’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar,” two bedrock texts in terms of the aesthetic behind the magazine. “Dear Dirty Dubliners, Revisited: James Joyce’s Classic at the Century” is the third in this string of exemplary texts, erudite, insightful, surprising, and straight — not the sentimental celebration of the great Irish writer but a re-Joycing of Joyce, the writer returned to us.

dg

 

“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Stephen Dedalus,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In June of 1914, after an agonizing labor fraught with complications—marriage, emigration, the births of two children, some unusually vexed negotiations with publishers, to say nothing of a rapidly crowning first novel—James Joyce saw his Dubliners delivered into print. The collected stories were written primarily between 1904 and 1906, and though several had appeared promptly in The Irish Homestead, the book would have to wait almost a decade for publication. The breakthrough came only after Joyce engineered a publicity coup, with the help of Ezra Pound. In an essay called “A Curious History,” Joyce aired his publication woes, naming names of fickle publishers and citing a disputed passage from the text. When Pound ran the article in The Egoist, the public shaming apparently did the trick, because Grant Richards, whose imprint had reneged on a contract in 1906, agreed to give the manuscript a second chance.

Early readers balked at the book’s then-scandalous content, which was enough to cause printers, fearing lewdness and libel charges, to break up the type. But even if we no longer share those period qualms, the collection’s arduous journey into print still seems inevitable. Perhaps no other great book can match in drabness, meanness, or deliberate ungainliness the fifteen stories of Dubliners. Turn-of-the-century Dublin, in Joyce’s lens, is a hard-scrabble place, shabby and penny-pinching, gas-lit and chill. There, alcoholics arm-wrestle for the national honor and lose, children suffer abuses both physical and spiritual (pedophiles prowl the public greens), marriages are joined out of necessity and spite, sex is mercenary, work routinized and alienating, life nasty and bleak, if rarely brutish or short (passivity and inertia are the rule). Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind. And a few months after the book’s publication, all hell broke loose: the Archduke was shot, the European countries charged variously to war, and the course of civilization warped in proportion to the scale of the carnage. Against this backdrop, the tenor of Joyce’s book, its systemic anhedonia, its grim determination to record the blemishes and mange of the human populace, might have seemed oddly prescient, the only fit appraisal of our domestic condition. Maybe it’s less surprising then that this quiet, unprepossessing little volume, this revolution without fanfare, should continue to haunt us today, its blighted populace still animate, immune to the passage of time.

For most readers, if the collection’s title is familiar at all, it remains so largely because of its most toothsome parts: “Araby” and “The Dead” have been obsessively anthologized over the years, to the perennial chagrin of high school students and undergraduates. The rest of the book, like the inedible parts of the fish, is reserved for the inoffendable palates of scholars. This ghettoization of the stories has given rise to some serious misconceptions about Joyce’s achievement in the genre—which is no small matter since “Araby” and “The Dead” have conspired to establish perhaps the dominant paradigm for modern short fiction. On the strength of those two stories, generations of readers have been conditioned to think of Joyce as the progenitor of a photographic realism in literature, and of the epiphany—the sudden flash of insight, a burst of self-knowledge—which still ranks among the favored plot devices in contemporary short fiction.

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In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett captures indirectly the popular view of the book: that Dubliners represents Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism, an artistically conservative prelude to those later mad-scientist experiments of Portrait, Ulysses and the illegible Finnegan’s Wake (which Nabokov called a “petrified pun”). Bennett describes how this style took root at the Iowa Writers Workshop and rose to prominence in North American letters in the latter decades of the 20th century. He also conveys, in the same breath, his personal distaste for this programmatic realism and its blanching imperatives: to “carve, polish, compress and simplify: banish [oneself from the text] as T. S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro.” In Bennett’s view, Joyce’s aesthetic, subsequently institutionalized, equates to the triumph of showing over telling—and showing of a particular cast, call it literary asceticism. Bennett continues:

Frank Conroy [director of the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987-2005] had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the  iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.

For a long time I shared Bennett’s aversion to this artistic parsimony, its vows of linguistic chastity and metaphysical silence, that parched clarity and bitter taste, but I’ve since come to appreciate its limited charms. In “The Sisters,” for example, Joyce depicts the boy-narrator’s distraction as the kid prays in the mourning house of his dead mentor (a bent priest); unable to concentrate on the profundities of death and godliness, instead the boy observes the homely details of the priest’s sister kneeling beside him: “how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back, and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down to one side.” The details, for all their meanness, constitute an artistic revolution that still seems radical: the moment reads like a rebuke to the notion that literature should concern itself with melodrama or metaphysics, that the human comedy can be portrayed or conceived in such high-flown terms. Yet, the passage is played with monstrous restraint, as if nothing much is going on.

This low-mimetic drift of the art in Dubliners often approaches the sublime. In “An Encounter,” for example, another boy-narrator, this one playing hooky from school, offers in passing this line of description: “The day had grown sultry and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty biscuits lay bleaching.” A throwaway moment, but the drabness of the image and the economy of the phrasing yield a magnesium flash in the consciousness (maybe this is the psychedelia that Bennett mentions). Such passages abound in Dubliners, but what most recommends Joyce’s naturalistic mode is the fact that his characters, as a consequence of this scrupulous accounting, are perfectly incarnated, fully realized if not always exactly alive.

Consider this description of the drunk Freddy Mallins, a bit player in “The Dead”: “His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavylidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Freddy shows up at the Morkans’ party already soused, with his fly open, eager to share a bawdy story with anyone who’ll listen. When a Mr. Browne interrupts Freddy’s story to alert him to the “disarray in his dress” and give him some lemonade to sober him up, the vignette concludes with this little tableaux, forever inscribed in my memory:

Freddy Mallins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Mallins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of highpitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of the last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.

There are characters in Shakespeare who have the same effect on me—like the flea-bitten ostlers in Henry IV, Part One who spend the night in a room without a chamber pot and resort to pissing in the fireplace. I think I went to high school with those guys—that is, such characters feel as alive to me as those in my own lived memories. And Freddy: that bronchitic laughter, that gesture of rubbing a fist into an eye itchy with tears of mirth. The feeling the passage evokes for me can only be described as love. Admittedly, Freddy is a gregarious anomaly among the cast of Dubliners. A more typical city denizen would be James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of town, under self-imposed quarantine, his blood as congealed as the white grease on a plate of corned beef and cabbage. (He’s like one of those monks, mentioned in “The Dead,” who sleeps in his own coffin.) And Freddy Mallins himself isn’t exactly admirable. I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him, or spend time with him, or be responsible for him. I suspect that sometime soon he will do something stupid, maybe unforgivable (though not tonight—see how dutifully he tends to his aging mom and gets her settled in a horse-drawn cab at the party’s end). But that he exists at that moment, as he is, scanty hair and open fly and all, makes him lovable.

Even from a vantage point as jaundiced as Bennett’s, Joyce’s dreary collection retains a hard-earned luster. But this view of the book, as a forerunner of minimalist realism, is limited, as boxed-in as the blind end of North Richmond Street. Scholars have suspected as much (albeit contentiously) for decades, yet the memo seems not to have reached creative writing circles, or the heavily trafficked annexes of contemporary anthologies. What better way to observe, then, the collection’s centennial birthday than with a close examination of one of its forgotten stories, one which might begin to rectify those well-meaning misconceptions. For best results, I would submit for your perusal “A Little Cloud,” Joyce’s parody of the artist as a no-longer-young man. This little story, muted, discontinuous, captures the essence of the collection. It both revises our doctrinal assumptions about epiphanies and reveals how Dubliners anticipates Joyce’s later innovations, the book of a piece with, not other than, Portrait and Ulysses—in its own way just as momentous.

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“A Little Cloud” Atlas

James Joyce pictured in 1934

Like many of the stories in the book, “A Little Cloud” is an oddly warped, broken-backed affair. From start to finish, the plot spans only a few decisive hours in the life of Little Chandler, a milksop law clerk who dreams of becoming a celebrated Irish poet. We first meet him daydreaming at his desk, idling away the last of the workday in anticipation of his evening plans: his longtime friend, Ignatius Gallaher, now a journalist in London, has returned for a visit to “dear dirty Dublin,” and the men have arranged to grab a drink at a posh bar with a Continental vibe. Chandler envies Gallaher and tries to talk himself into believing that Gallaher deserves his good fortune, but after a few whiskeys at the bar, when the conversation turns to manners and sexual mores in Paris (a sore spot for the untraveled Chandler), Chandler’s resentment for his friend starts to manifest. The men jokingly disparage each other’s marital status—Chandler a husband, Gallaher a confirmed bachelor who vows to settle down only with a rich Jewish woman—and they part on uneasy terms, a pantomime of friendship and fellow-feeling.

At this point, the story cuts to Chandler’s house, and the conflict centers not on his stymied artistic career, but on his stultifying marriage (which is never mentioned until Gallaher raises the subject, and then himself disappears: the story fluidly shifts thematic focus—thus, the broken-backed feel of the narrative). Chandler has forgotten to bring home his wife’s tea, and though she claims not to mind the oversight, at the last minute, before the shop closes, she rushes out to get the tea, leaving Chandler, probably still buzzed from the alcohol, alone with his infant son.

Cue the epiphany. Chandler stares at a picture of his wife and discovers in her still-life eyes the truth about his marriage: “They repelled and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture.” The recognition sparks a wave of “resentment” for the whole of his life, and he longs to escape. For solace he opens a book of Byron’s poetry and tries to comfort himself with illusions of his own poetical nature, but just then, the baby starts crying, disrupting Chandler’s reading, and he snaps: “It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:–Stop!” Of course, this only makes matters worse. The baby begins to cry so hard that it struggles to breathe, and just in the nick of time, Chandler’s wife comes home and brutally relieves Chandler of his childcare duties. The story ends with Annie, the wife, soothing the child and a broken Chandler feeling “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes.”

Because the third-person point of view closely simulates Chandler’s perceptions, and because Chandler pretends to have a poetic cast of mind, “A Little Cloud” lacks some of the emphasis on naturalistic observation that makes “Araby” and “The Dead” famous. Instead, we get trace amounts of the musky humanity from those stories. See Gallaher, as he doffs his hat when he greets Chandler and acknowledges the toll of time on the body: “He bent his head and felt with two sympathetic fingers the thin hair at the crown.” In a similar spirit, Chandler’s house feels lived-in precisely because it’s so sterile in its staging, carefully curated—equipped with the nice, but not too nice, furniture that his wife picked out and which Chandler has bought “on the hire system” (a sort of rent-to-own arrangement). But given its comparative lack of physical details, “A Little Cloud” relies on dialogue to bring the characters to life, and it does. That dialogue is, to my ear, dullish, maybe too lifelike in its fidelity to the conversational conventions of the time, but when the talk turns acrimonious, Joyce captures indelibly Gallaher’s contempt for Chandler and his marriage:

I don’t fancy tying myself up to one woman, you know.

He imitated with his mouth the act of tasting and made a wry face.

Must get a bit stale, I should think, he said.

The words limn the gesture in only the barest terms, yet I can’t help but fill in the gaps, imagining Gallaher with scrunched lips, fussily mincing the rank idea. I can smell the smoke from the cigars that the men have been puffing.

Nevertheless, if this is all there is to Dubliners, if such moments are both part and parcel of Joyce’s achievement, I think the collection would survive for us largely as a footnote to the monumental novels, and it might be justifiably parted out for the assembly of a crash course in narrative design. But the lifelikeness in Dubliners is mere prelude to a more complicated and more compelling agenda, as even the enigmatic title of “A Little Cloud” attests. To what does this title refer? The Little clearly evokes Little Chandler’s name, but the Cloud is curiously opaque. Does it refer to the cigar smoke wafting around the men’s conversation? Is it a Biblical reference, as the Norton Critical Edition scholars suggest? Is there a typo perhaps: should the title have read “A Little Clod”? Is the plot crisis here tantamount to a cloud passing over Chandler’s existence (or burning off in the sunlight of epiphany)? Might the Cloud denote the ungrounded quality of the narrative, its relative lack of physical description? The text never explicitly confirms any of the reader’s suppositions. What the title does make clear is that the story’s vision doesn’t promise or aspire to perfect clarity—however harsh, grainy and overexposed a “realistic” clarity might be. No, this story, like the book to which it belongs, trades in equal measure, perhaps primarily, in obfuscation.

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Narcissus and Echo

The fluent banality of the dialogue, for example, its plodding mimesis, doesn’t define the story’s tone; rather, it sharply contrasts with the lyrical timbre of Chandler’s poeticizing mind. As Chandler sits at his desk, staring out the window, he narrates, indirectly, the scene, a little landscape sketch:

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.

The irony in the sentence is hilarious: Chandler believes himself to be experiencing a beautiful moment of melancholic communion, as natural beauty gilds the urban scene. Yet, his mean-spiritedness, his contempt for his fellow Dubliners, punctures the graceful illusion at every turn: those untidy nurses, decrepit old men and screaming children belong to a different genre than the sunset’s kindly golden dust. (Even the phrase golden dust can be pressed to yield an oxymoron). Chandler is oblivious to the tone-deafness of his narrating consciousness, but the word choices reveal his true colors to the reader.

Later too, as he walks to meet Gallaher, he experiences another even more self-consciously poetical moment (later in the story he will try to recall the poem taking shape here):

For the first time [not quite true] his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. … As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps [Chandler discovers metaphor] huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of the sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea.

Lest you have any doubt that the intention here is parody, a caricature of the poet, consider that, as Chandler continues walking, the poem still unwritten, he fantasizes about the reviewers’ praise that might follow his performance, a passage too rich to truncate:

He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems, perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics perhaps would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of the poems; besides that, he would put in allusions [here, I laugh out loud]. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. … A wistful sadness pervades these poems. … The Celtic note. [Guffaw!] It was a pity that his name was not more Irish looking.

The tone is so deadpan, unobtrusive, that we might miss the withering irony. That is, the parody doesn’t make a lot of noise; Chandler remains, throughout, pathetically human, not a cartoon. But the verdict is clear: Chandler’s trademark timidity (he carries a shyly scented handkerchief) gives the lie to these delusions of grandeur, and it seems especially damning that he abandons the poem to craft the praise, which is itself airily patronizing (or sentimental rot, to use a period term).

In a similar fashion, the fact that Chandler turns, later, to Byron’s poetry to escape the reality of his chintzy apartment, cold marriage and demanding child also exposes him as a poser, not a poet. Byron, as the exemplar of the Romantic era, is English, and in the nationalistic milieu of Dubliners, Chandler’s taste in poetry marks him with a self-destructive servility to British rule. Further, the poem Chandler reads (unnamed in the story, but printed in full in the wonderful Norton Critical Edition), is called “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin of the Author, and Very Dear to Him.” The first stanza sets a scene in which the writer visits the “tomb” to “scatter flowers on the dust [he loves],” and he notes how “Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove.” Compare the tone of the poem, with its tombal sonority and absent zephyrs, with that of the conversation between Gallaher and Chandler, or even that of the immediate context of the room in which Chandler is reading, with a bawling infant and layaway furniture. The incongruity here, the dissonance, amounts to an indictment of both Chandler’s tastes and the Romantic project: this sort of art is cast as precious and dated, out of tune with contemporary reality. If a story like “The Sisters” exposes the bankruptcy of metaphysics, “A Little Cloud” turns its eye overtly on aesthetics and likewise splashes cold water in the face of the hallowed tradition.

The problem with the naturalistic view of Dubliners is that it’s blind to the irony that pervades the text. As I understand it, photographic realism is, by definition, unequivocally tone neutral and impersonal: the language captures and records, reliably, the real (sounds like an impossible project to me). In Dubliners, everywhere characters are, like Chandler, victims of their own delusions, and this discovery emerges obliquely in the text, in the ironic distance between the characters’ and the readers’ perceptions.

What makes us see a work like “A Little Cloud” or, more famously, “Araby” as naturalistic is precisely the way in which mundane description comes to eclipse the protagonists’ lyrical fantasies, couched in poetic language. Early in “Araby,” for example, the boy-narrator carries his love for Mangan’s sister like a “chalice” through the storm of hectoring reality: his love is existentially girded in metaphor. By the story’s end, he boards a sluggish tram, self-consciously pays his admission fee, peruses the underwhelming staging of the workaday “bazaar,” gets slighted when trying to pick out his gift for the girl and pauses, in the story’s last line, to survey the ruins of his romantic imagination. But it’s an oversimplification to call this naturalism (as Edmund Wilson did in 1958). Instead, Joyce’s stories, as a rule, record a conflict between literary styles; if a pitiless realism tends to come out on top, this doesn’t mean that the war is over. The next story will reconfigure the conflict in another manner, play it in a different key. Even the most resolutely pragmatic stories, those most immune to the spirit of “poetry,” feature characters who could hardly be called visionaries (see Mrs. Mooney in “A Boarding House,” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” both hell-bent on balancing ledgers). Rather, these apparently objective views of reality are at odds with other presumably objective views, and we never reach an artistic or existential high ground. Absent this conflict, this endless tilting of voices and visions, the art would be drab, indeed. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, that bedrock of reality, when it does obtrude in the stories, often proves to be hollow and porous—particularly on the matter of Joyce’s vaunted epiphanies.

To see how, and to catch the full measure of “A Little Cloud”’s contribution to Dubliners, and of Dubliners’ contribution to world literature, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of reading the stories in isolation. If we fillet the collection, extract its most succulent parts and toss the rest, we miss the deliberate artifice that binds the stories together: they’re all interwoven, with almost subliminal recurrences of images and motifs, each part an essential contributor to the collection’s larger design (Dubliners is a story cycle inclining to a novel). “A Little Cloud” reveals this intertextual patterning from its first lines, when Chandler recalls seeing Gallaher off at the “North Wall,” the Dublin dock favored by emigrants of the period. It’s at the North Wall that Eveline, the title character of the book’s third story, refuses to budge one inch further, recedes into an animal stubbornness, and watches her lover depart for points distant while she remains behind in paraplegic Dublin. And like the self-stranded Eveline, Chandler is prone to sitting idly and gazing out the window while his mind travels, not freely, but inside its self-made cage.

The prominent male duo in “A Little Cloud” also evokes comparison with the two gallants of “Two Gallants” who manipulate and use callously a wealthy family’s servant girl. At that story’s midpoint, Lenehan, the unsightly wing-man of the gallants, dreams epiphanically of middle-class comforts with a reliable wife; in Chandler’s predicament, we see the puncturing of that illusion: Lenehan’s sentimental dream is a dead-end vision. Chandler’s rough treatment of his child also prefigures the conclusion to “Counterparts,” the collection’s next story, in which Farrington, an alcoholic scrivener, blows his money on drink, embarrasses himself in an arm-wrestling match and heads home to take a strap to his son. (The story’s last line belongs to the boy, his disembodied voice pleading for mercy, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me … I’ll say a Hail Mary.”) Even the Byron poem in “A Little Cloud” serves to decode the cryptic title of “Clay,” which concerns an aging cleaning-lady named Maria, a woman prone to self-delusion who becomes the butt of a morbid joke during a Hallow’s Eve game (involving blindfolds and divination). As Byron writes of “the clay” that he loves, we grasp clay’s associations with death, a connection essential to a reading of “Clay,” but never made explicit in that story. For one last example, consider that Chandler’s fantasies of generous reviews point to Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of “The Dead,” and his part-time job as a literary columnist for the Daily Express.

The whole of Dubliners works like this: the details of the stories call out to each other at a distance, yielding an echo chamber of motifs, a plexed matrix of correspondences. Perceiving this patterning in Dubliners is a bit like creating a cat’s cradle of the mind; one can only marvel at the artistic intelligence that fashioned it, and maybe share in some of the wonder by seeing it for oneself (sort of like visiting the Grand Canyon). When I first discovered the intricate design in Dubliners, the effect was dizzying; though I continued breathing normally, in a spiritual sense it left me gasping. The only metaphor I could supply was that it felt like staring directly into the sun. That is to say, in isolation, the stories in Dubliners are often less than scintillating; in many ways, the book shows Joyce’s determination to drive a cleaver between the notions of art and entertainment, aesthetics and enjoyment. But maybe as a whole the collection does supply, in its interlocking craftsmanship, an experience of joy; against the pervasive chill of the collection, for those of us who need it, we might find a contravening warmth in the artistry.

Maybe. The discovery of the patterned surface (or depths) in Dubliners sounds itself like the experience of the epiphany visited upon so many of the collection’s characters. And in fact, this intertextual patterning yields some startling revelations about the nature of those epiphanies, both in isolation and in the aggregate.

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Has No One Learned Anything?

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Charles Baxter represents the orthodox view of the Joycean epiphany, in his otherwise heretical essay “Against Epiphanies.” Baxter begins by acknowledging the cultural baggage that attends this artistic device: the epiphany doesn’t originate with Joyce but dates back to the rhetoric of religious revelation (see, for example, the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus). When I consider the roots of epiphany, I think less of saints and more of heroes, as in the anagnorisis, or recognition event, from classical drama and epic poetry. In that tradition, the revelation was directed outward, more public than personal, a recognition of a truth about somebody else (like the incognito Odysseus being spotted by his servant, or Oedipus Rex solving the riddle of his life). The epiphany, by contrast, is anagnorisis turned inward—you recognize at last the face in the mirror—and this attainment of knowledge often supersedes the importance of any action that might follow. Thought trumps plot.

Baxter also shows how Joyce’s epiphanies, contra Bennett, have a metaphysical thrust; he cites the lines from Stephen Hero (the prototype for Portrait) in which Stephen Dedalus describes the epiphany of the object, a perception of its genuine essence. You might call it a transfiguration of the commonplace, a moment that lights up trivialities with transcendental significance. As Baxter summarizes the upshot of the device in Dubliners,

The stories […] are astonishingly detailed, but they continually aim for a climactic moment of brilliant transforming clarification. The clarification happens on the page, even if it doesn’t become visibly apparent to the characters. The stories aim for this effect because the lives Joyce is putting on display might be insufferable to contemplate otherwise, or rather, they would exist in a condition of unimproved Naturalism.

Despite (or because of) this grand inheritance and aim, Baxter complains that epiphanies have become too pat to be convincing anymore; they’re tropes, not genuine transformations of character. And he ultimately argues that writers need to shake up their notions of epiphanies, perhaps showing us how an epiphany can be treacherous: “the insight, if it does come, [need not] be valid or true.” He’s right, of course, but he holds up Joyce’s “Araby” as a shining example of the classic epiphany, the epiphany played straight. When that story’s narrator peers up into the darkness and sees that he’s a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” his eyes burning with “anguish and anger,” he seems to have discovered the essential truth about himself, his folly in romanticizing his budding relationship with Mangan’s sister. This puncturing of a literary illusion is in fact the signature gesture of Dubliners, and maybe this explains why “Araby” has survived while the other stories have faded: the part stands for the whole here. But the local observation needs stressing: for Baxter, the boy-narrator’s conclusive judgment, while somewhat self-destructive, is reliable and truthful. “He has become visible to himself,” Baxter writes.

David Jauss, in “Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies,” holds a view similar to Baxter’s in that he too urges writers to experiment with the device. Relocate it in the narrative, he suggests (among other things), rather than reserving it for the dubious and tired fireworks-of-insight finish. However, unlike Baxter, Jauss is critical of the epiphany at the close of “Araby.” He finds a disproportion between the “showing” of the narrative up to that point, and the glib “telling” of the epiphanic moment: “the final sentence,” Jauss argues, “knocks the story off balance.” He also notes how the boy’s epiphany is couched in the language of religious revelation (vanity, anguish) instead of clear-eyed self-awareness. For Jauss, this fault in the epiphany is the crucial weakness in the story; he isn’t, as a result, “convinced the epiphany is incontrovertibly true, much less permanently life-altering.”

Jauss is right to suggest that the story’s last sentence invites and requires a double take, but what if the doubtful nature of the epiphany is precisely the point? That is, the pseudo-religious tenor of the epiphany might mark it as another form of self-delusion; the boy doesn’t progress, then, from blindness to insight, but rather exchanges one astigmatism for another: exalted romanticism for hair-shirt contrition. In fact, the interconnections among the stories help to confirm this “suspicious” reading (as Margot Norris, author of the superb Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, might call it).

Consider that in “An Encounter,” when the boy-narrator gets drawn into conversation with a pedophile on the public green, the guy’s speech is incantatory, mired in the repetitions of a one-track mind:

He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the  impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. … He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.

Repetition, a verbatim recycling of words and phrases, is here the stylistic marker of a sinister self-delusion. In some ways, incantatory repetition is similar to Romantic poetry: both offer a linguistic experience that calls attention to artifice, a sense of words being “magnetized” (repetition is the slovenly cousin of rhyme and alliteration). In the world of Dubliners, any act of dressing up language in artificial clothes scans as a symptom of error, an epistemological failure: see again, for example, Chandler’s description of that kindly golden dust and the lyrical parallelism (repetition) in his syntax. So when the narrator of “Araby” adopts that poeticized and quasi-religious rhetoric, the alliteration is the giveaway that he is girding himself in a defective system: his newfound self-knowledge is driven by the same delusive impulse as his love. Objective reality doesn’t carry the day, after all.

Read in this light, Joyce’s text was already practicing what Jauss and Baxter recommend for contemporary writers. And in every instance, I think, the epiphanies experienced by the characters in Dubliners prove to be forked, flawed, existential false positives.

The epiphany in “A Little Cloud” is, on this point, typical. Chandler’s discovery of the “hatred in his wife’s eyes” appears to represent an arrival of authentic knowledge. Yet, the initial trigger for this devastating insight is Chandler’s glimpse of the lack of “passion” in those same eyes (in the photograph). In other words, what Chandler laments in the scene is Annie’s failure to measure up to his Romantic ideals, which we’ve already seen are ridiculously inflated and artistically bankrupt. So how much truth can be said to inhere in Chandler’s judgment? The very foundation of the epiphanic scene is dubious.

The conclusion to the sequence further aggravates the ambiguity. As those “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes,” the text doesn’t specify the thing that Chandler regrets. He might regret his treatment of his son; however, this would make for a pretty hollow ending to the tale, as the minor failure eclipses the major crisis and a mood of conventional sentimentality prevails. At best, it would signal, implicitly, Chandler’s recognition of the hurtful selfishness of his artistic dreams. But because the scene appears to confirm the irreconciliability of Chandler and his wife (of Chandler to his life), it seems more likely that Chandler regrets his decision to marry the woman with the passionless eyes. In this reading, the story concludes with an access of self-pity: Chandler has learned the truth (maybe) about his marriage, but nothing about the error of his ambitions. His abusive behavior pales, for him, in comparison to his own suffering. In either case, the epiphany is ruinous, not exalting. And because the epiphany conceals within it this crucial misdirection, this potential for a forked reading, the gambit, while promising a neat resolution to the story’s conflict, cagily withholds the very closure that authentic self-awareness would supply.

With its ironic ending and parodic disposition, “A Little Cloud” also proves crucial to our understanding of the collection’s crowning epiphany, at the close of “The Dead,” possibly the most famous paragraph in all of world literature. Recall the scene: Gabriel Conroy, in the aftermath of his discovery of his wife’s private emotional world, stares out the window and observes the snow, falling softly and softly falling, faintly falling and falling faintly, “like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead.” The prose is magnificent: lyrical but not overwrought (though the verb “swooned” hasn’t aged well), simple but not anemic (those “dark mutinous Shannon waves”), the whole charged with an existential urgency. Mundane experience is here transmuted into credible transcendence. Yet, having observed the function of stylistic artifice (repetition) elsewhere in the collection, it’s hard not to think, “Uh-oh,” when Gabriel’s meditations wax poetic, as if he’s hearkening to the false counsel of literary language.

The consensus reading (see SparkNotes, for example) catches the essential ambiguity in the passage. On one hand, Gabriel seems invested with a fresh understanding of his shortcomings, and newly resolved to embark on a journey with his wife to make amends. On the other hand, he doesn’t move a muscle in the scene, but remains spellbound, even paralyzed, by the experience of observing the snow, and as he burrows into his imagination, his thoughts tend toward the ultimate inertia of death. This paradox is almost identical to the predicament of the poetic speaker in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the rimy sleigh driver with promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. As Terry Eagleton expertly parses Frost’s stanza, he might be speaking equally of the conclusion to “The Dead”:

There is much recurrence and repetition in [the poem’s] rhyming pattern, which brings with it a curious sense of stasis. By the time the last verse arrives, we have the mesmeric, incantatory repetition of a single rhyme (‘deep’ … ‘keep’ … ‘sleep’). There is no longer any progress or modulation in the rhyme scheme, even though the speaker is reminding himself to move on. The effect is rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.

Style and content are likewise at odds in Gabriel’s epiphany, the stasis in the language nullifying the promise of profluential transformation. In Gabriel’s case, the content is further at odds with itself, as he appears simultaneously to embrace his Irish identity (his journey westward) and to obviate the difference between life and death (the last words unite “all the living and the dead”). His destination with Gretta is either Galway or Hades. Here, redemption is indistinguishable from doom. This paradox is in its own way brilliant, even perfect, but we understand the passage incompletely if we ignore the signposts elsewhere in the collection, and these further unsettle the passage’s already unsettling equipoise. In particular, the precise echoes between Chandler’s window-side view of the golden dust and Gabriel’s view of the falling snow—both scenes featuring atmospheric cascades—make me doubtful of the authenticity of Gabriel’s vision, as if it too, while seeming more humane and genuine, is just another kind of self-delusion, Chandler’s foolishness played in a more sympathetic key.

Or is Chandler’s vision a parody of Gabriel’s view, serving to contrast with, not sabotage, the epiphany in “The Dead,” the one bathed in the sunlight of stupidity, the other cloaked in the darkness and frost of a paradoxical truth? In either case, some readers would bridle, understandably, at the notion of deriving the meaning in one story from motifs in the others, as if each story requires and deserves an interpretive isolation. But even within the confines of “The Dead,” I do worry about the quantity of snow. At the hotel window, Gabriel imagines how the snow lies “thickly drifted” over everything, over all of Ireland, down to the crosses on the tombstones, the thorns of the trees, even the spear points on a cemetery gate (a neat trick that would be). Yet, a few pages earlier, as the Conroys are leaving the Morkans’ party en route to the hotel, we find this description of the snow event: “It was slushy underfoot and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.” This sounds like something more than a dusting, but hardly a blanketing. The contrast between these perceptions of snowfall is startling, and suggests that Gabriel’s meditative epiphany carries perhaps a greater portion of error and overstatement than of genuine insight. The moment might be not only ambiguous, but, like the epiphanies in “Araby” and “A Little Cloud,” in some measure bogus.

And what of Michael Furey, Gretta’s teenage sweetheart, with the bad lungs and the job at the gasworks? Remember, he courts his own death when he stands out in the rain under Gretta’s window, a desperate (and pointless) show of devotion. In the act, he seems more like a stock character from a sentimental Irish ballad (like “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the Morkans’ party) than like an infatuated teenager. More pointedly, isn’t Furey basically the boy-narrator of “Araby,” minus the bubble-bursting epiphany? Yet Furey’s example is what exposes, by contrast, the flabbiness in Gabriel’s character. So when Gabriel reflects, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” isn’t he invoking the same ideal as Little Chandler and the love-blinded narrator of “Araby”? That is, here, on the epiphanic precipice, Gabriel is buying into the very illusionment that the stories repeatedly dispel; he hasn’t reached a summit of wisdom, but stumbled into a cul-de-sac. Rather than attaining a glimpse of objective reality, Gabriel instead fades out “into a grey impalpable world” “where [dwell] the vast hosts of the dead,” a recession into the mythic, the mystical and the supernatural. Maybe the surest evidence that the collection’s epiphanies are inherently and endemically problematic is that the two most famous examples, in “Araby” and in “The Dead,” are incompatible, even perfectly contradictory.

It isn’t quite accurate to think of Dubliners as the epitome of conventional realism, or an incubator of genuine epiphanic insight. The stories are crooked and warped, rife with voices and modes, often brutally evasive, the whole wracked by confounding involutions. If this is naturalism, we should probably revise our definition of the term because, in order to capture life as it is, Joyce repeatedly depicts characters who have, at best, a loose acquaintance with reality. And if the book has a grand epiphany, it might be that all epiphanies are suspect, self-knowledge inevitably compromised by literary wishful thinking, human folly endlessly renewable. These thoughts have led me to reconsider my estimation of the collection’s meta-patterns. Isn’t this just another dimension of artificial repetition? And as such, isn’t it, by the collection’s aesthetic logic, suggestive of an epistemological error, something to be corrected rather than cultivated? Or is this the only kind of artifice that can transcend the immediate and purblind human context, and thus prove durable (stand us now and ever in good stead) precisely because it defers meaning and avers nothing? Or is this artificer’s impulse anyway ineradicable, an inescapable part of the human condition? You tell me.

Maybe there is an element of masochism in revering an art that would disabuse readers of all notions of reverence, but this is the legacy of Dubliners. With its blinkered populace, its warped and harshly truncated narratives, all shot on the fraying black-and-white film stock of Joyce’s most miserly style, the book can seem off-putting in its relentless mundanity, Joyce’s art merely commensurate with his subject (this composite portrait of curdled human potential). But Dubliners does indeed model a radical consciousness of craft; it previews many of the most powerful strains of the Modernist revolution. For writers of the next century, it remains required reading.

— Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

 

Jun 142014
 

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 At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting. It’s also a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?). It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves. — Julie Larios

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Mirror Gazing
Warren Motte
Dalkey Archive
Softcover, 295 pages, $35.00 U.S. / £ 24.00  UK
ISBN 978-1-62897-014-2

 

Warren Motte admits early on in his strange and thought-provoking new book Mirror Gazing that his habit of collecting mirror scenes in literature is a little obsessive. “For a very long time now,” he says, “I have been fascinated by the way that characters in fiction encounter mirrors, and by the different things they see when they gaze into those mirrors. That fascination looms exceedingly large in my mind, grossly out of proportion with the many other fascinations that literature exerts on me. It is irrational and largely inexplicable, but there it is.”

There it is, indeed – that’s his book in a nutshell. It’s a gathering of mirror scenes culled from a collection of 12,000+ examples, all of which Motte jotted down on index cards over several decades of reading. He has rules for his burgeoning collection (“admittedly arbitrary and extremely quirky,” is how he characterizes those rules): First, he has to encounter the scenes spontaneously while engaged in otherwise “undirected readings”; second, he has to find the scenes in books he has in his own personal library. In other words, Motte, who is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, doesn’t go looking for mirror scenes. He doesn’t take suggestions from colleagues, family, friends or helpful acquaintances who hear of his interest, nor does he find these scenes in books he cannot pull down and refer to later – nothing from university or city lending libraries, nothing borrowed. He doesn’t cast a wide net on social media, begging for examples to be sent to him like someone less well-read might do, someone with a narrower frame of reference. All the examples he comes up with (and there are many, many examples) arrived via his own reading of his own books.

When reading non-fiction, I usually look for precise explanations of why authors are interested enough in their subjects to begin the long journey of writing it all down in a book and sharing it. I look for the passion to shine through, even if the origins of that passion are “inexplicable,” and Motte doesn’t disappoint:

The notion that we might actually have not one, but two selves (or more!), and that the mirror might put that duplicity (multiplicity!) upon display, is reason enough for us to tread lightly when in the presence of that object. Because in many cases, specularity escapes from our control. It ramifies instantly and inevitably, duplicating as it does so, and positing thus a fundamental question of authenticity that cannot fail to trouble us. What is “real“ in a reflection of the real, and what is not? Or, in other terms, what is it that a mirror reflects?….My own sense is that problems such as that one do not bear too much thought. Like the paradox of the Cretan liar, or like certain Zen koans, one could wander into it and never find one’s way out….I myself have been caught for a very long time, I confess. Perhaps not by the mirror itself, but by these mirror scenes. I’m counting on this project, you will understand, to help me find my way out. But I’m not particularly sanguine about my prospects.”

What fun to read a book that tackles an obsession and confesses to it being mysterious and labyrinthine and slightly out of control. How exciting to find a book where the author doesn’t pull back despite his own confusions. As we watch, Motte works to construct a reasonable narrative from his collection, almost as if he were both personal tour guide and curator of a large natural history museum. Motte’s observations about these mirror scenes put me in mind of an old-fashioned wonder cabinet, filled with a few familiar objects but even more unfamiliar objects, brought back from Terra Incognita. And Warren Motte is the slightly grizzled explorer, willing to share his journey with us, sea serpents and all.

kane37Orson Welles, reflected in multiple mirrors in Citizen Kane.
(Photos of artists/authors in this post are not from Mirror Gazing.)

I found myself wishing that I could see even one photo of the author with his collection of 12,000 index cards. I imagined the cards organized in multiple shoe boxes – a little disheveled – with labels on the outside for easy identification: “Implicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes” and “Explicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes.” How does one organize such a collection? Much of what is delightful about this book is not its surface subject matter but its subterranean one; we read between the lines to see how Motte himself reads these mirror scenes and conducts the art of classification. At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting— it’s a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?) It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves.

Motte is a born taxonomist; he enjoys categories. That the examples he presents are a little fuzzy around the edges (fuzziness usually impedes categorization) was not a problem for me. I get the feeling many of his examples could slip easily into and out their categories, according to Motte’s changing perspectives. Readers like me who can relax and go with a little disorder during the classification process will be happiest with this book. In the almost seventy pages of examples that are not true mirror scenes the author offers up his thinking about the following distinctions (and remember, these are only the NON-mirror-scene categories):

  • Definitely Not
  • Probably Not
  • Me, Me, Me
  • Self-Knowledge
  • Reassurance
  • Avoidance
  • Unavoidability
  • Close Shave [Yes – a collection of scenes of shaving in a mirror]
  • Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters
  • On the Other Hand
  • Banalaties
  • Virtualities
  • Implicit Mirror Scenes
  • Metaphorical Mirrors
  • Conscience
  • The Eyes of Others
  • Skepticism
  • Fools and Churls
  • Writing as Mirror
  • Fictions
  • Whys and Wherefores (in which, about a third of the way into the book, we discover some things that might have imposed more order on the material at the opening of the book.)

It’s clear from this list, I think, how elaborately Motte studies the nuances of any scene in literature that includes a mirror (actual, implied or metaphorical) and makes his decision about which shoebox (my own metaphor) to put his index card into. What’s not quite as clear is why the book itself is organized the way it is. Motte shoots for a system of classification for his mirror scenes, but he does not appear to be particularly wedded to the idea of orderliness in his own writing. In the middle of the section about non-mirror scenes, he offers one example and then says, “The temptation to call this a mirror scene is very real. And indeed we must give in to it, because this is in fact a mirror scene, and a fairly mainstream one at that.” Let’s just say some drifting occurs, organizationally. It’s unsettling, but not uninteresting. Motte speaks often of trying to get his explanations under control and to get back, amid the decision-making about yes-true-mirror-scene vs. no-not-true-mirror scene examples, to a more regulated presentation of his material. He calls his thoughts “scattered,” which they occasionally are (charmingly, I think, though some might be annoyed), and he says, in the section titled Fictions, “Let us re-visit together, briefly and on tiptoe, but nonetheless a bit more systematically, the terrain which that notion occupies, bearing in mind how uneven and slippery that terrain is.” A given reader’s tolerance for slippage (mine is high) will determine whether Motte’s book is appreciated.

Robert Capa and John SteinbeckPhotographer Robert Capa catches his own mirrored reflection
along with that of author John Steinbeck.

I did find myself wondering one thing consistently: Could Motte have been persuaded to offer up the definition of a true mirror scene before the nearly seventy pages of definitions of what it is not? The opening chapter is a speech presented at Johns Hopkins University which makes a stab at summary but feels a little tacked on (even the font is different.) Would it have been possible to integrate the speech into the text more smoothly and present a more concise version of the non-mirror-scene rules, holding off on elaborations of those until after we understood true mirror scenes a bit more? The author’s trust that we can fill in the gaps and understand, via negative space, what really constitutes a mirror scene by understanding what one is not is a little out of whack. The book could just as comfortably – and less confusingly – have started with the brilliant lines that open the section titled “Imagine My Emotion,” which go like this: “Imagine my emotion when I learned, a few years ago, that elephants are self-aware! A team of scientists had just discovered (so it was reported in my morning newspaper) that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror.” What immediately precedes these lines (the Whys and Wherefores section) and follows them (a fairly precise presentation of what true mirror scenes do) helps steady the boat. Mirror scene shows characters looking for themselves, Motte says, and recognizing themselves or not. That might just be the goal of all stories (again, the adage Motte referes to several times: “Know yourself”…gnothi seauton.) We – and a few other species, including elephants – engage with our self-images either seriously or playfully. If the book opened there, readers might get a firmer grasp on the idea of a true mirror scene (and its nuanced shadings) before the boat got rocked. On steadier ground then, readers could look at the non-mirror scene examples and discern the differences more easily.

vivianmaier_selfportraits7Self-portrait of  the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier

That reservation aside, I come back to the strengths of this book, not the least of which is Motte’s ability to make a work of scholarship un-fusty and conversational. He talks directly to his readers as if his thoughts were being delivered to friends around the dinner table. He recounts being baffled by the word “heresay” via a personal story about pedaling uphill (literally, not metaphorically) on his bicycle and being “misperceived” by bicyclists riding downhill (perception of ourselves by others being part of what Motte terms “specular encounters.”) We feel like we know Motte personally, because of his chatty delivery – in fact, by the end of the book, I concluded Motte was bright, compulsive, amiable, confused, and just silly enough (dolphins, he jokes, look at themselves “on porpoise”) to wish he were a friend. “Oof! There. That’s better,” he says at the end of the section about non-mirror scenes. “So much for that,” he says at the end of another section, “for the time being at least.” And after his quick dismissal of anything television has to offer (maybe he hasn’t seen some of the good writing television offers up lately?) he says, “But there. My prejudices are showing. Not for the first time, certainly, but still.” Every once in awhile we see self-mockery; that’s rare in an academic. And what’s not to love about a writer who can say at the end of his book, in a completely relaxed way, “…things have not turned out exactly as planned. The categories that I postulated have broken down under close inspection….I can live with that, quite happily, in fact.”

As for Motte’s intelligence, that’s made clear in the 32-page, single-spaced list of works cited. A more well-read author is hard to imagine, especially given those rules I mentioned previously (all examples came from his personal library of books and were found during “undirected” reading.) The list of books cited is deep and wide. It includes work by pop-culture authors (Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Archer, James Lee Burke, Agatha Christie), science fiction and fantasy writers (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs), poets (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery) and even writers for children (Kenneth Grahame, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown.) Translated authors are well represented – Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, the list goes on; they include many writers of the Oulipo school (Motte’s book Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is a fine guide to that movement.) He includes songwriters (Bob Dylan), critics (Harold Bloom), philosophers (Johan Huizinga) psychologists (Sigmund Freud) and even politicians (Barack Obama.) I am leaving out many dozens of writers, especially contemporary American and British, who made it onto those index cards and into the book. It’s not everyone who can refer to both Yahweh and Popeye in the same sentence (“That’s the best and most reassuring lesson of the mirror: like Yahweh and Popeye, we are what we are.”)  One of the loveliest passages Motte offers us of a true mirror scene (subcategory: what Motte calls “doubling”; that is, “a recognition of one’s own alterity”) is this quotation from Andre Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt:

The desire to seem exactly what I felt I was, what I wanted to be, that is, an artist, actually prevented me from simply being, and made of me what people call a poseur. In the mirror of a small writing desk that I had inherited from Anna, and that my mother had put in my room, and which I used for writing, I contemplated my facial features tirelessly, studying them, training them like an actor does, seeking out on my lips, in my gaze, the expression of the passions that I longed to feel. Above all I would have liked to make myself loved; I would have given my soul for that. During that period, I could not write (I almost said think), it seems to me, elsewhere than in front of that mirror. In order to understand my own thoughts, I felt that I had first to read them in my eyes. Like Narcissus, I was bent over my own image; because of that, each sentence that I wrote in those days remains a bit curved.

Motte ends Mirror Gazing in a self-effacing way and leaves me convinced he is the kind of scholar I would love to work alongside (and have as a dinner guest) and whose books I will continue to seek out. He describes what he sees in his own mirror: “A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play. I confess that I’m more attached to the latter sort of image, for reasons that will be, by this time, massively apparent.”

Maurits-Escher-Self-Portrait-in-a-Globe-1M.C. Escher’s Self-Portrait with a Globe

Of course, the down side to this fascinating book is that Motte ruins things for us – we can never encounter a literary mirror scene again and just speed past it without slowing down and pausing to reflect (pun intended.) I’m satisfied with that sacrifice. Slowing down is not a bad idea when what we’re doing is complicated, and Motte manages to make us feel the complications of self-knowledge. One moment we’re over on the dark side of the mirror: “The things that we fear the most may be those that lurk right inside us, for goodness sake. An encounter with the mirror and the introspection that it entails present the very real danger of recognizing that tough truth.” The next moment, we’re having a fine time at a little road-trip game called “Mirrors.” We’re not sure what the rules are, exactly, but we’ll learn them as we go. If the ride gets bumpy, well, the bumps keep us alert, and a smooth road, as often as not, puts us to sleep. The thoughts I had as I came to to the end of Mirror Gazing were these: Reflection – as in a mirror – is pervasive, and reading itself is an act of reflection. Motte’s journey into reflection is an on-going process, he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s having fun on this road trip, and for several days I rolled down the window, got a little windblown, and had fun alongside him.

—Julie Larios

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Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children. Her unpublished collection for adults, A Quiet Day in the Arm and Leg Shop, awaits acceptance by some discerning editor. She contributes to the blog Books Around the Table, as well as writing for her own blog, The Drift Record. The photo above, with her grandson, was taken at the Ochoa Brothers diner (best carnitas north of the border) while visiting Hillsboro, Oregon.  Highly recommended.

Jun 132014
 

with grand daughter coraSydney Lea with Cora, his granddaughter

Let’s not mince words. Sydney Lea is a masterful, passionate, eloquent writer, just getting better with age. He can do about anything he wants with a sentence, corral any emotion, evoke mystery, rail, weep, mourn, confess, ponder, berate, and rejoice. He works in image and memory with an audacity that is breathtaking, all the more so because it seems both effortless and utterly in  control. His essays read like long complex sentences, surging forward, splitting and converging and splitting and converging, incomplete until the last period after the last word, when, as Yeats is supposed to have said, they snap shut with the click of a well-made box. I won’t say more. The middle essay will break you heart.

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The Serpent on Barnet Knoll

The young retriever noses a frozen snake across the rain-glazed snow. The creature should long since have wriggled deep into mulch in some granite fissure, so that when it died, it would do so down there, in secret. That it didn’t seems odd.

But my mind’s still odder, having followed its own inward paths from that coiled corpse to a moment this morning before I set out: at the mirror, greasing lips against the cold, I inspected myself. The age-lines, the puckering mouth, the thin gray hair—all still surprised me. I also studied a wen, the permanent swelling that puffs my left eyebrow into a small horn. It’s the frozen snake that has reminded me of that passing moment, though how it did so I can’t explain.

Out here, I encounter the morning’s savage gusts. The spruce-tops thrash and complain. When there’s a lull, I hear the ceaseless and meaningless scolding of red squirrels, the grating of ravens.

One day, in my third grade year to be precise, I knocked off Joe Morey’s hat on the playground, taunting him for a sissy, even though he and I were friends for the most part. Nearly weeping with frustration, he reached down for the hat at the same time I did. Our heads clapped together, my brow swelling slightly but, as it turned out, forever. I’d meant to be cruel that day, I was, and I got my long-lasting due.

In life, the snake was a mere, harmless garter. Today it’s something else, and makes me quit my hike for a while. I stand and wait, but nothing comes to change me. Why would I dream it would, no matter my unvoiced, uncertainly directed, all but unconscious pleading?

It’s almost Christmas, a holy time for many. Through decades of northern winters, I’ve never seen a snake at large in December. But however I strive to discover something significant in the event, nothing reveals itself except what I’ve long known about snakes—mere facts, devoid of meaning, versions of reality that seem only somehow to discredit me.

Was this the creature’s first cold season? Who knows? A snake doesn’t count or reason. But I do; I know there are just so many moments in anybody’s life. Why do I stand here statue-still and fritter a single one away? And yet what else should I be thinking about?

I have wife, children, grandchildren, along with a host of lesser earthly attachments. I clench them tight to my heart, but there come times when a sort of unattached self prevails. Left at large too, I know, that other self might contemplate violence or crime. Also, of course, it doesn’t. I daily, dutifully, and gladly return to a bourgeois life. Am I not therefore absolved? But what in me requires absolution anyhow? I simply feel this unsettledness, ungovernable, random, opaque.

One day my head struck a temporary enemy’s head, but even before that, surely, something had slithered into my soul. It would linger lifelong, making subsequent, unwelcome forays up to the cool surface, whenever, however it might.

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Catch

Whoever you may be, stop reading now if too much sentiment, no matter how genuine, makes you uneasy or angry or whatever else. If you do hear me out, however, I hope you’re not the sort who’d say that my good wife throws like a girl, as my Little League baseball coach once claimed I did, the moron. I threw just fine until my arm got robbed by age. That happened some time back, to be sure.

You don’t have to remind me I might have known worse losses.

Whoever you are, go stand beside my wife, at exactly sixty feet, six inches from some target, and then by God we’ll see how many times she can take a ball or even a stone and hurl it, and how often she’ll hit the can, the post, the tree– and then we’ll see how often you do. Good luck, sucker.

No, wait a minute. There’s little reason to start all this in anger at you, whom I probably don’t even know. I won’t pretend I’m not angry, but why lash out at a stranger? It’s doubtless only despondency that makes me talk this way.

I’ve now and then pictured my wife playing catch with the one boy in her five-sibling family, the one who fought cancer for twelve years and died this past December. I loved him, which is no doubt a crucial factor in my behavior here, my rhetoric.

I’ve seen photographs of those two kids, gloves on left hands, half-smiling, squinting under a summer sun, decades and decades ago. They were a good-looking pair in those days, and both were handsome into late adulthood, no matter most of his hair had been robbed by the vile, stinking chemo, and some of his teeth.

My wife recalls how, in the warm months, when they got home from school, the two would head right out to their yard to toss the baseball around and chat away the afternoon. For me, that’s the very picture of innocence and affection, and if you, anonymous you, consider it the stuff of Norman Rockwell or Hallmark, just haul your sorry self off.

There I go. Forgive me. I’m just uncertain which emotion is which here. For all I can really say, you were innocent too, and still may be, or at least known as a decent, caring person, and it’s not after all as if I have some corner on innocence myself. Sometimes I reckon I’ve never been any better than I have to be.

For one thing, I probably should have been paying closer attention to my wife’s brother—and to my wife as well, come to think about it. Not that it does anyone a bit of good when I beat myself over the head for my omissions. That doesn’t change a thing. If it could, I’d keep at it forever, as in some respects I suppose I have.

On those long-gone afternoons, my wife learned to throw like a man. Instead of moping and cursing, I wish I were man enough to report all this and not break down. But do I really? Do I want to be manly by that definition—furious, fearless, unwilling to take any quarter or give any? There are better things to wish for. I know that these days.

My brother-in-law and I used to go down and watch our Red Sox play at Fenway Park. After a while we had daughters and sons, and we’d take them along. Home runs, triples, double plays: we roared approval at these and more; but we all, child and grownup alike, especially loved those bullet throws that Dwight Evans delivered to cut runs off at the plate.

Too soon, it seems, our lives just seemed to get too busy for Fenway. Then the god-awful cancer showed up. Starting in my brother-in-law’s colon, it got to traveling elsewhere afterwards, and the whole time I only sat here and typed words, as I’m doing even now, weeping. Meanwhile my poor wife is sick with sadness, and I wouldn’t blame her if, thinking back to those old summers, she picked up something and threw it dead-center between God’s eyes.

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The Couple at the Free Pile

Autumn’s church bazaar is over, all the stalwart, weathered tents of the vendors struck except the one over the White Elephant table. Early this Sunday morning, such tatty wares as went unsold still sprawl on the plastic tablecloth or on the ground, but the sign up front reads FREE.

No car approaching or following, I brake to a crawl so I can observe a man and woman making their deliberate ways through the jumble. I naturally notice that their goods are gathered in the rusted bed of the wheelbarrow my wife and I donated to the event, which nods on its fat, limp tire like a weary draft animal.

For me to stop completely might be to embarrass this couple, who covet what we congregants had considered encumbrances. And yet, however it shames me, my curiosity—like desperate thirst, or lust—also impels me. I’ll drive on, circle the village common, and pass back this way again from the other direction. After all, the two scavengers seem devoted to their scrutinies; I doubt they’ll notice my second inspection.

I turn by a picket fence enclosing a big house’s tidy lawn at the south end of the common. The owners held a well-attended garden tour there last June. Then I swing right again, north, going by the famous corner elm, which residents agreed at town meeting to save, approving a line item that funded the tree surgeons’ services.

During the festival, I visited the White Elephant booth myself. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and you never know. As I predicted, however, nothing appealed. Among other bits of uselessness, say, I found a basketball so worn it had lost all traces of its original, pebbled orange; three recumbent, saucer-eyed ceramic deer; a few chipped plates, inscribed Disneyland, 1974 and showing portraits of Mickey, Goofy, Donald; raveled rugs; tarnished lampshades and sconces. So on.

Passing the elementary school, I make a right again, and, before the turn that will take me to another view, I stop at the intersection, just opposite the village store. My wife and I will be having lunch there in an hour or so. Its deli is the best-stocked one for miles, the staff all cheerful.

As I drive, even more slowly than before, past the White Elephant display, I see a car seat in a Bondo’d pickup’s cab. It holds a child, and he or she—it’s hard to tell through the windows’ grime—must have been sleeping a few minutes ago, but now I can just make out a mouth, gaped in a yowl I can’t hear, even if I can imagine it. Surely one of the parents, or both, will step out of the tent to tend the toddler. For now, though, they stand motionless, one on either side of the wheelbarrow, eyes on me. Their stares are furious.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

 

Jun 122014
 

 EPSON MFP image

This is a wry, witty, ingenious story, a tour de force of whimsy, not really a single story, but ten completely different micro-stories hung on the same peg. Tim Conley is a bit like Scheherazade; you get the feeling he could spin out a different story every night ad infinitum. He sets you up with an introduction in the voice of a folklorist or linguist who’s found a peculiar idiom in rural Quebec — le voisin n’a qu’une maison. It means something like “the neighbour has only one house,” which, well, makes no sense. But the folklorist opines that there might have been a story behind the idiom, a tale lost to the ages. With that, Conley is off to the races, inventing those tales, from slapstick to faltering romance, completely different sets of characters and life-situations, wonderfully told.

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In a small agrarian town in northern Quebec, they have a saying: le voisin n’a qu’une maison, “the neighbour has only one house” or “the neighbour only has a house,” depending on where one prefers to hear the emphasis. Exactly what this phrase means has proved a puzzle for linguists and sociologists. Though not altogether inhospitable, the steely-eyed townsfolk do not much care for the questions of outsiders. Suggestions of an unknown story behind the expression –of its being a mnemonic tag (of no known specific use), of its being part of an allegory or homily (perhaps distorted by abbreviation, the way “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” has disintegrated to the incoherent “the proof is in the pudding”), or of its having some historical basis (an account of a specific someone’s neighbour, maybe, or a particular house)– all remain unverified. Unfortunately, it has not even been determined whether the following scenarios are accounts of real incidents or inventions produced for the very purpose of illustration, but they are faithfully recorded here as they were found, received, or told, with as much detail and context as were available.

After a long rainstorm, a man out walking is struck by a large, sodden branch that breaks off from a very old tree and pins him to the ground. Two sawyers working nearby rush to his aid and he informs them that he is barely able to breathe; they must hurry. But the branch is too heavy for them to lift. The first sawyer offers to run and fetch a saw, not sixty paces away, but the second sawyer becomes concerned that the pinned man might die in the interim, and while the first sawyer would be subsequently commended for his fast thinking and valiant efforts, the second sawyer would look like a dolt waiting and helplessly watching the man die, and so the second sawyer tersely accuses the first sawyer of not lifting his part of the branch with all of his apparently little strength. So the sawyers again try to lift the branch, and ultimately collapse with even more huffing and panting than before. The pinned man signals that he is without air. The second sawyer announces that he will fetch the saw, and the first sawyer, seeing what his unscrupulous partner is playing at, promptly socks him in the jaw. The second sawyer gets up from the ground and rushes headlong into the first, the two of them crashing together into the tree. This impact causes another branch to break off, and it bounces off of one end of the first fallen branch, neatly knocking it off the gasping man, who crawls toward the other people who have now gathered at the scene. The two sawyers have hit each other half a dozen more times before they realize what has happened. A witty bystander might aptly remark: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Children play in such tall grass that they cannot see one another. They soon become separated but, each thinking that the others must be together, none wants to be the first to cry out for help, and thus the first branded a coward and surely taunted ever after. One finally has the ingenuity to call out accusing another of being lost. Years later, the friends recount this story at a reunion and own up to their common fears, but they cannot agree which of them came up with the solution. Angrily the inspired one leaves the party, muttering, c’est vrai que le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Making summer afternoon love by a stream, a young couple is interrupted by cries for help, but they cannot see who is calling and cannot bring themselves to break their exquisite rhythm. The voice shouts that it is drowning, drowning, drowning, but neither lover can see anyone in the unconcernedly flowing water, and their ardor won’t let them part. By the time they are sated, the cries have stopped. They explore the area, and walk downstream a good mile or more before they give up. When they say goodbye to one another, each seems embarrassed and uncertain. Each attends closely to the local news and town talk for days afterward, but neither finds any report of any drowning, and the absence of any such report stymies their communications with one another. They can speak of nothing else, but of this subject they have nothing to say. She changes her hair, and he silently judges the style wrong. He is offered a new job in the next town, a town the two of them had habitually remarked upon as an undesirable place to live, and she tries to be encouraging. After he has moved and eventually finds that the job and the town both suit him, he writes a letter to his friend and tells him about the incident that summer afternoon, and reflects on how fickle the heart is. His friend’s reply: “You idiot, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A father accuses his son of stealing his boots, and the offended son leaves home. In a distant town he finds work as an assistant to a rheumatic sawbones, a kindly man who recognizes the young man’s talent for swift and acute diagnosis, begins to teach him about more than the ordinary ailments and tried remedies. The young man devotes himself to medicine and becomes so trusted by the local people that he very gradually takes over the old doctor’s practice. Within a few years he finds himself brought in to deliver the mayor’s child, a difficult operation because the woman’s cervix is, like her husband, anything but flexible, and the labour lasts three days. On the morning of the third, a message is brought to the physician: it is from his father, who reports that he has found his boots, and all is forgiven. The mayor’s wife pauses in her shrieking when she sees her doctor’s face momentarily lose its imperturbable aspect, and asks him what is wrong. He answers, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, and resumes his work.

Complaining of his breakfast at an inn, a guest unconsciously runs his fingers through his beard as he is dressing down the manager, a woman who takes this gesture as a lewd suggestion. She takes greater offence than she might because, sordid truth be told, she was feverishly fantasizing about this very guest’s beard the night before, which is not at all the sort of thing she would normally do. She more than matches his barrage of insults. Not accustomed to hoteliers abusing him, and surprised and upset to hear that his beard-stroking was in any way vulgar, the guest begins stammering an apology, whereupon the manager, realizing that she has overdone it, herself begins to apologize. She says that his dinner will be on the house, and he replies that he will only accept if she will dine with him. Just then the manager’s miserable, lazy, and cleanshaven husband, who has just been stealthily coming down the staircase behind them, snarls, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, but chokes on the last word, and rolls down the remaining stairs to the floor, never to be revived. On his headstone his widow has written: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

An unmarried schoolteacher arouses the distrust of a student’s mother, who thinks that such situations are ghastly beyond words. This mother circulates the story that the schoolteacher is known to walk the streets at night, perhaps asleep but perhaps not, and the story’s vagueness ensures that it spreads like wildfire in a high wind. The schoolteacher finds herself unwelcome in certain places and unacknowledged by certain people. One day she overhears two of her students recounting a version of the story, and she decides to take up walking the streets at night, but dressed in her mother’s bridal gown. The story evolves and diversifies in quick response to witness accounts of her wordless, almost ethereal perambulations: she is a widow, longing for her dead husband, in love with a ghost; she has been seduced by some man in the community, who will not do right by her, perhaps because he is already married, and these nightly marches are her mute but moving protest; she is a lunatic, imagines herself wed to the moon; she has been hypnotized by the wicked schoolchildren, and unknowingly seeks a groom every night; she is holy; she is cursed; she is the picture of sorrow; she is a sign of hope. The mother’s original story and spite are eclipsed. Without exception her students all become more attentive to their studies. One cloudless night a man walks out to intercept her in the middle of the street, falls to his knees and asks for her hand in marriage. She says with a voice not her own, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

A man loses his boot walking through an extremely muddy field one rainy evening. He arrives home and his father-in-law, with whom the man, his wife, and their children live, asks him what inspired him to go out in such weather in one boot. Trying to assume the patience necessary for dealing with this suspicious, narrow-minded old goat, the man explains that on the eve of the feast of St. Bunions it is considered good luck to walk in the evening with only one boot. His father-in-law scoffs but is still thinking about it when he retires to his room. He wonders whether there is some truth to the story, or whether it is simply some excuse meant to conceal something, and his inability to decide between these possibilities sends him out later that night, when the others are asleep in bed, in one boot, determined to find out which is the case. In the now quite fierce wind and the rain he hobbles and anxiously looks about, without having any set idea as to what he is looking for, and before long he is completely lost, though he does not admit as much to himself, and keeps hunting for his answer. He is found, shivering in a small wood, early the next morning. A doctor asks him some questions as he examines the old man sleepless in his bed, but obtains only nonsensical answers about hidden treasure, his many enemies, a saint nobody has heard of. The doctor is asked by one of the children whether grandfather will be all right, and he answers, “It is difficult to say, but le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A daring fox has been attacking a number of adjacent poultry farms, inspiring wagers in a popular tavern as to who is to be the next victim. One evening, when the betting is high and the laughter loud, the odds-on favourite, a grizzled and gruff man to whom life has seldom been kind, loses his composure and openly sobs into his drink. Early the next morning, the fox is killed by hunters and its carcass is brought to the sad farmer. He holds it up by the tail and says, le voisin n’a qu’une maison. The next day he puts the farm up for sale and leaves the country.

Recounted by a nonagenarian in a Sherbrooke nursing home: “If you threw a stone in a pond, and there was this large pond near the old cottage, one of my cousins nearly drowned there, and we teased him for years afterwards, called him the fish, there goes the fish, he hated that. What they don’t know, I’ll tell you, is how long a grievance can last. And I doubt their medical credentials, I’ll tell you that. But it was the pond wasn’t it, to return to our subject, if you threw a stone in a pond, you would naturally expect what are they called ripples, yes, but if you threw a stone in the pond and there were absolutely no ripples, and though this has never happened to a stone I threw, and look at me, I’m not going to be throwing any stones now, but do you know, never count anybody out, I’ll tell you that, never count anybody out. But that pond. Any pond, really. The trick is to throw a stone into it without causing a single ripple, and once I saw this done by a small girl nobody thought capable of anything, she was always following our gang around, and after all of us gave up on the game, she picked up a stone and threw it right in, not a single ripple. That girl went on to marry a big shot, I heard, I don’t remember who told me, but what I said when I heard about it was le voisin n’a qu’une maison, as my grandmother used to say when she cut up the lemons. And that really summed it up, you know.”

A talented singer finds herself unable to master a particular score that she has agreed to perform. The piece is not especially demanding, she admits to her mother, but invariably her breathing becomes irregular somewhere in the middle and her enunciation falters. She must impress this patron and cannot turn down the commission without injury to her reputation and career. Her mother assures her that everything will be all right, that she will surely master the piece soon, that it is probably just nerves. The daughter seethes in silence: how she wishes her mother could be more severe with her, slap her across the face and shout at her to work harder, or else be less encouraging, say to her that the commission doesn’t matter, that this only shows that music was never really her future; but instead it will always be all right, according to her mother. She decides that she will disgrace herself on stage to shatter her mother’s unwavering faith in her, and ceases practising for the concert. The night before the concert, however, her mother accidentally reveals that she is having an affair with her daughter’s patron, and it is only as a favour to his lover that he has invited her daughter to perform. The daughter appears to applause the next evening wearing the gown her mother has bought her for this occasion and, instead of singing the advertised work, trills the words votre voisin, n’a-t-il qu’une maison? to the tune of a ditty she learned in childhood.

—Tim Conley

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Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).

 

Jun 112014
 

Jody Bolz

Shadow Play recounts in untitled and narrative poems a journey across Asia taken in the mid-1970′s through the contemplative eyes of its narrator decades later. At its core is the dissolution of a young marriage and the imagined discourse the narrator has with her former husband about the mystery of love, whether it ends or not. Her perplexity over the question leads the narrator to conclude that “Love’s a puzzle. A test. / A miracle, I guess.” Inconclusive perhaps, but hard won, as she argues with herself through the conjured voice of her former husband. As far-flung as Shadow Play is in setting,  it’s also domestic and close to the heart. These are poems with the intelligence and vigilance that Paul Valéry says might serve to represent and restore what “cries, tears, caresses, kisses, sighs, etc., try obscurely to express…”  Herewith is an excerpt of Jody Bolz’s novella in verse, Shadow Play.

—Jason DeYoung

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Shadow Play

On the train across Java
we slept in a knot:
my head in your lap,
your head on my back,

two hundred miles
through the tropical dark
in shuddering third-class.
At every major stop,

a skirmish of shouted light—
vendors hawking tea and rice
to sleep-drugged passengers—
receded in a rush,

the jasmine-scented silence
sweet and abrupt.
When the station’s speakers
keened their exit song,

the train lurched on.
Whirr of palm and banyan,
gibbous moon, skewed night sky—
green stars above the village mosque

jumped and scuttled by
in deranged constellations.
We stretched, switched positions:
your hair red as rose stalks

against my faded dress,
my braids strict shadows
on your moonlit back,
our fractured dreams resettling….

Outside Bandung at dawn,
I shook my buzzing limbs,
cracked our dusty window open
to mountain air.

A boy wrapped in a shawl
shot past in the brightening field.
One child, then another—
a horde of barefoot children

in tattered pastel sweaters
raced beside the tracks,
calling out for coins,
for candies,

falling far behind us
by the time we reached
their shanties: tin roofs
at the rail-bed’s edge—

doorways set in sloping walls,
a threshing floor,
an open sewer.
As our train slowed

a pregnant girl,
waist-long hair undone,
stepped out of a hovel
fastening her sarong.

We passed her without speaking,
tugging at the taut string
of our marriage
as it rose over rice-fields,

climbing into monsoon clouds,
swaying there—spiraling—
not some thing,
not a child’s kite:

our common life, flown
above another Asian city
in the year we made a home
out of our bodies.

§

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

a waking dream of India,
brazen as a blue-skinned god
rank with rotting marigolds
or silent on a riverbank:

the Hooghli in Calcutta—
sludge-gray, chest-deep water
blossoming with saris.
Young matrons bathe together,

an old man squats and strains near
a woman filling copper jugs.
A bloated ox, stiff legs up,
slips by under sail,

a vulture on its belly
coiled in slick entrails.
We linger on a bridge,
transfixed by the blind beak

gently teasing white from pink.
The rotting vessel
slowly shrinks,
then floats out of view.

What corpse am I
scavenging for you?

§

You’re offering me a metaphor?

But—we were there.

You’re looking for something more.
What is it?

I’m not sure.

We have other lives now.

This isn’t a betrayal.

How can you tell?

§

Twenty years ago, you woke me
in a hut near Brujenkhola
reeking smoky thatch and goat dung.
Beyond the unglazed window,

full night on the valley floor,
featureless, obscure—
but you pointed to the sky.
Your shoulder pressed mine.

A triangle of coral light
hovered in the blue-black dark:
the mountain
we’d walked days to see,

fish-tailed Machha Puchhare,
flaring like a sun
an hour before dawn.
We lay on our bedrolls,

awake, and watched the light grow.
Later, after clay-red tea,
we gathered up our packs,
paid our host and said goodbye.

The inn-keeper’s deaf daughter
waved, chasing her sister,
as we started for the river.
Ten minutes to a narrow bridge

across the Seti Khola,
wooden slats half rotted—
cables frayed, too far apart
to grab with our arms out.

We had to walk a line of boards
nailed loosely down the center,
bisecting our vision
of pale-green glacial water

in its bed of chalky boulders
more than twenty feet below us.
You tapped your toe
against each plank

and made your way across,
agile as a gymnast,
hands see-sawing for balance.
After heart-stopping seconds,

you yelled above the rapids’ roar
Wait there and dropped your pack.
Faster, you retraced your steps
to bring me back,

coaxing from three yards ahead,
Take a step—
now take another.
Don’t look at the river
.

Head throbbing,
I stepped staring
at the battered boots
that moved in jerks

above the milky current:
one foot, then the other,
stepped—and stepped again—
until I stepped on land.

We shouted and kissed there,
laughing as we sprawled on shore
guzzling water,
brown and iodine-bitter.

Soon we were singing,
climbing the stony track
through thick rhododendron,
juniper, yew.

By noon, dry and dizzy,
we trudged into a clearing
where an angel was waiting
in a whorl of dusty sunlight.

Poised on the ridgeline,
a shirtless boy, eight or nine—
beautiful despite one blind-blue eye—
held out a bowl of oranges

Suntalla, sahib?
and they glowed like gold.
We bought as many as he’d sell,
tore away the bitter skins

with stinging fingertips.
Back to back
in the shade of a banyan,
we sat eating oranges

as if nothing could harm us,
no crossing part us.

§

You’re policing failures.

We spent fourteen years together—

And the next fourteen apart.

Which proves the first a failure?

You forget that you loved
someone else for most of that time.

I loved you.

And—

I was eighteen when we met.

I was a child too.

Now you’re close to fifty.
Why don’t you forgive me?

—Jody Bolz

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Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).

Jun 102014
 

DSC_0580-Version2

Meditative and passionate, Shadow Play works its way toward an approximate answer to the question it opens with, a quotation from Roland Barthes: “How does a love end? —Then it does end?”
—Jason DeYoung

bolz

Shadow Play
Jody Bolz
Turning Point Books, 2014
$16.20, 77 pages
ISBN: 978-1625490575

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T

o imagine talking to a former lover about shared history is ordinary, but in Jody Bolz’s new book, Shadow Play, she takes this common lover’s discourse a step further when her narrator conjures the voice of her ex-husband to the page to recount the exhilaration and eventual dissolution of their all-too-young marriage. In this examination of estrangement, through the scrim of memory in lyric and fragmented narrative, its characters perform a complex and, at times, spectral dance, rich in emotional immediacy.

A novella in verse, the first poem in Shadow Play gives the impression that what is to come will be a standard book of poems. Brightly drawn, untitled, it’s a story of a train trip through Asia, where the narrator and her husband “slept in a knot” for “two hundred miles.” In these sensuous and vivid lines, their love and marriage is secure, a “common life, flown / above another Asian city.” Yet happiness is short-lived, and the second poem drops us from this nimbus of young love as the narrator lays bare her intentions, which portend more vexing complexities:

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

Reflective, this second poem rummages through a mixture of images of beauty and death (“rotting marigolds,” “sludge-gray” river waters “blossoming with saris,” a “bloated ox, stiff legs up, / slips by under sail”) and ends with the lines: “What corpse am I / scavenging for you?” The person addressed is the former husband.

Careless interrogation perhaps, but it becomes the catalyst that sets this book on its path. This insult summons the voice of the husband to challenge the narrator’s memory and aim: “You’re offering me a metaphor?” he asks.

The second voice, which Bolz says in the interview below “ambushed” her because it “wasn’t a conscious choice,” is a commanding presence in the book, at times refusing the narrator’s remembrances, reminding her that they “have other lives now,” and that she might not know what she is doing combing through their past. The unbidden voice of the living ghost (as it were) of the ex-lover propels Shadow Play into a multi-layered conversation between past and present, as it alternates poems in dialogue form with the narrative staple of the book’s beginning.

Artifice arguing with artifice, the made-up voice of the husband isn’t the narrator’s puppet. He is actively resistant, perceptive, and mature, so unlike the “giddy” boy he was in Asia. But he is still a voice, one the narrator has created, and acknowledges as a creation. Shadow Play is aware of itself, taking as its primary device wayang kulit, Indonesian shadow theatre, where puppets are manipulated behind a white screen on which their shadows are cast. As Shadow Play progresses, it becomes a kind of theatre, the narrator’s voice modulated and thrown in an effort to see “what’s true.”

Our story’s over
despite what we remember
[the husband says]

So forget it—or revise it.
But what if it survives us?

Meditative and passionate, Shadow Play works its way toward an approximate answer to the question it opens with, a quotation from Roland Barthes: “How does a love end? —Then it does end?” For even in present day, happily married in Maryland, the narrator finds her heart in the East, longing to remember:

I turn away
from hearth and garden,
marriage bed and childbed—
I turn back

to lean over a map
of the country where I’m young,
my parents strong,
my luck untried.

I’m looking for a route
through time…

She retraces her past, falls deeper into memory, until returning to Asia:

Everywhere the terraced fields,
tropical and prosperous:
the moon is coming back,
rice is ripening.

But still the voice of the former husband won’t let her have her sweetest reminiscences, and often undercuts the beauty of her narratives: “How like you to contend with Time— / no challenge too absurd.” In denying her craft, he denies her philosophy. Indeed, by the middle of the book, he is drumming up scenes for their wayang, asking to revisit episodes from their year in Asia, and then asking her to speak of Ithaca, New York, where they met, and of other men and of the narrator’s betrayal. Invigorating and intricate, Shadow Play refreshes once again Sartre’s conclusion that “the order of the past is the order of heart.”

Although the proximity and urgency of two voices in Shadow Play dominate the text, to pay too much attention to their recitative dialogue would be at a loss of the music in the poems about Asia, lyrics that rise from the book with gorgeous images and insight:

I’ve never heard a sound
as sad and as sure,
though this is my voice
chanting for Shiva:

a big stone shape
enshrined at Prambanan.
Whoever carved the face
must have been surprised to see

how gracefully, implacably,
it registers each death
and stands accountable—
how smooth the lips and eyelids,

how lovely the look
of all that besets us.

Shadow Play ends with a poem originally published with the title “False Summit.” Yes, the book ends offering metaphor—“One minute we were climbing, / next minute we looked up // and the world had changed / ….another summit.” Carrying us close to the sky once more, the book’s attempts at reckoning ask us to recognize the lover’s discourse as the translated affair it is: a “trick of perspective,” light and shadow. A book of dreams, Shadow Play organizes itself within the wisdom of experience, knowing that despite impermanence and suffering, longings are what move us through our lives and how we remember.

—Jason DeYoung

wayang_kulit_javanese_jawa_schattenspielfigur_marionette_shadow_puppet_gift_da15_2_lgw

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Over the last few weeks, Jody Bolz and I exchanged a few emails regarding Shadow Play, its origins, its road to publication, and what compels us to read something that is imagined. Jody is a wise and generous poet, teacher, and editor, and her story of studying with A. R. Ammons and her insights on editing the poetry journal Poet Lore are not to be missed.

Jason DeYoung (JD) Can you talk about the origins of Shadow Play? It’s a very different sort of poetry book with a secondary voice coming on the scene to challenge the primary voice’s narrative authority.

Jody Bolz (JB) Years ago, I had a semester off from teaching college and was writing in the “quiet room” of the local library, hoping to draft some new poems.  I began working on the opening pages of Shadow Play (a narrative about riding a night train in Java) without knowing that the poem was a point of entry into a book-length manuscript.  What startled me was the way the poem opened out at the end into a broader view of a longer journey, both literal and psychological. I felt unsettled, as if I’d started to explore something beyond my reach.

In the days that followed, I wrote about another emblematic moment from that journey in Asia—an afternoon along the Hooghli River in Calcutta, during which a dead ox floated by with a vulture on its belly. Again, the poem made a sharp turn at the end, posing an emotionally charged question: “What corpse am I scavenging for you?”  It was clear to me then that I was writing some kind of sequence—that the second poem had followed from the first, and that its ending demanded some kind of response. I didn’t know where I was going with any of this, but I was eager to find out.

The next day, something unforeseen (unforeseeable?) happened as I was writing in the library. Having revised the poem about the Hooghli River, I was struggling to move forward from its confrontational finale, and I turned the page and stared at it for a minute or two before writing a single line:

“You’re offering me a metaphor?”

It was a question in response to a question, a question in another voice. It ambushed me, which is to say it wasn’t a conscious choice. Is there such a thing as a subconscious choice?  In any case, that was when I began to see how I might continue this exploration. I had no idea, then, that the manuscript I was starting would have two intertwined “through lines”—the arc of a narrative (the story of a journey in Asia) and the arc of an argument (the shadow dialogue between the two people who took that journey)—but I was all in.

Narrative time

JD: At your reading at Politics & Prose, you mentioned that you were working on this book before your previous book, A Lesson in Narrative Time, was published.  Why do you think Shadow Play took longer to finish?

JB: It didn’t take very long to write, but it took forever to publish. I finished the first draft within six months, and after a year or two of revising, I felt ready to send it out. Without my knowledge, a couple of writers to whom I’d shown it nominated it for an award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and I was lucky enough to receive a grant. This was way back in 1998 (the last century…the last millennium, in fact!), and the recognition gave me hope the book would find its way into print.

I submitted it over and over in those early years, and though it was picked out a number of times in contests (as a semi-finalist or finalist) and often received encouraging comments from small-press publishers, no one said “yes.” Those who said “almost” praised the lyricism of the narrative portions but found the passages of dialogue baffling. One editor suggested I write a play instead. The general advice was: cut the dialogue, and then we’ll see.

By that time—well, maybe all along—I was committed to the book’s form. I saw it as integral to the story. Maybe the whole project was a failed experiment, but I wasn’t going to pull it apart. Writers I respected, novelists and poets alike, had found it inventive and engaging. They’d said it was the kind of book that teaches a reader how to read it. Disappointed that no publisher had taken it, though heartened that sections were appearing in literary magazines as stand-alone poems, I stopped sending it around. I wrote and published A Lesson in Narrative Time—another book-length sequence, but one without the genre-muddling issues that the Asia book presented.

In recent years I resurrected the manuscript, changed the typography a bit, gave it a new title (there had been three or four others), and put it in the mail again. When I discovered Turning Point Books, an imprint that focuses on narrative poetry, I thought it might be a good fit—and it was.

ACCESS TO WATER AND SANITATION IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIESHooghi River, India

JD: The secondary voice in Shadow Play (which is a voice the narrator conjures) says at one point “this whole episode is pure pretense,” yet we keep reading, we keep reading this narrator who is essentially talking to herself about lost love.  In one of your emails to me you wrote that “the notion of speaking ‘as if’ to the other person, while realizing you are talking to yourself, was significant.”  Why is this significant?

JB: I think that’s the most important question one might ask about this book—or, perhaps, about literature in general.  What compels us to read something that was merely imagined?  In Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford talks about the nature of authority in poetry (as opposed to the nature of authority in the sciences, for example) and suggests that whatever authority you have as a poet “builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build.” If a line or an image or a posture feels false, we close the book.

From the earliest exchanges in Shadow Play, the reader knows the second speaker is a projection. He accuses the narrator of making him up, saying, “This voice is another trick” (she disagrees and calls it “artifice”)—but what matters is the authenticity of the argument, however internal. As the book progresses, the dialogue becomes more forceful and eventually dominates the story line. In a way, the shadow conversation enacts a partial answer to the book’s opening question: “How does a love end?”

If you’re asking why the ventriloquism is significant to me, I’d say it’s significant because it enabled me to write a book about the mystery of estrangement. It offered immediacy and intimacy while admitting that immediacy and intimacy no longer exist. A friend who’s studied Jungian psychology recently told me about the concept of “active imagination”—and from what I’ve read about the practice, it sounds like wide-awake dreaming in an effort to understand oneself or resolve problems. I think the imagined dialogue in Shadow Play has a kinship to that process.

AR_AmmonsA. R. Ammons

JD: In every bio of yours I’ve read you mention that you studied with A. R. Ammons. He must have had a profound influence on your poetry (perhaps your life). Could you talk a little about his influence on you?

JB: I met Archie Ammons when I was a sophomore in college. If I hadn’t studied with him and learned from his example, I’m not sure how my writing life would have evolved. I’d always loved literature and had written poems and stories since childhood, but at 19 (in the Age of Aquarius…) I was open to so many things—and I might well have followed interests in other fields (anthropology, psychology). His relationship to poetry was something I responded to immediately. He didn’t posture, and he had no patience with those who did. He was an unconventional creative-writing teacher, more Zen master than editor-coach. He’d guide us by pointing us toward our best work, even if that meant nothing more than placing a check mark beside the one successful line in a poem. Archie taught by example, showing us what a life in poetry looked like—revealing its out-of-the-way beauty.  To hear him read your poem aloud was an astonishing, and sometimes humbling, experience. He didn’t sing, of course, but his voice was melodic and slow and had a beguiling lilt (he was from North Carolina). You could hear what was right with the poem, and you could hear what was wrong. He always listened to us read our own poems aloud twice: first for the music and then for the meaning.

Late in my junior year, I began to find a few students in our workshop unbearable. I thought they were posing as world-weary geniuses though they were clearly rank beginners. I went to talk to Archie one afternoon to say I’d be missing class the next day, though I can’t remember whether I made an excuse or admitted I was going nuts and needed a break. In any case, he got the message. He spoke in general about teaching writing workshops and said he found it reassuring to view every poem—however weak, however false—as revealing of character and, in that sense, true. I wasn’t sure I understood the claim well enough to agree with it, but I stopped fretting about authenticity in the classroom and almost enjoyed regarding puffed-up poems as “true” expressions of phoniness.

I stayed on at Cornell for graduate school, and at some point during those two years, I began to feel I didn’t have the discipline or the drive to be a poet. I wondered out loud what it all meant (writing poems)—what it could mean to me in my life. He listened and nodded, but there was something in his demeanor, however gentle, that suggested I was over-complicating the question. And then he answered with a question of his own:

​“Isn’t poetry just a matter of paying attention?”

I felt something shift in my chest. I knew he was using the idiom “paying attention” in a new way, and though I couldn’t take it all in at once, I recognized myself in its message. Being a poet wasn’t a career choice or even a choice.  It was a way of being in the world.

JD: One of my favorite questions to ask writers is what is their definition of the “job” of writer, because they each have their own.  What’s yours?

JB: What Ammons said about “paying attention” comes very close to my definition of the job. Writing, for me, is a way of moving through my own bafflement, of making connections and attempting to make sense of my experience—or, at least, to give my confusion a meaningful shape. Henry James wrote that a writer should be someone “on whom nothing is lost.” That’s the job description as I see it.

As I’ve often said in connection with my work as an editor of Poet Lore, poetry provides us with a record of human feeling, while history provides us with a record of events. Everything we’ve ever felt, everything we’ve loved and struggled to protect, everything that’s thrown us down or allowed us to recover will eventually be lost—but poetry can hold all of it and more.

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JD: You co-edit Poet Lore with the poet and teacher E. Ethelbert Miller, and have been doing so for more than 12 years. How’s Poet Lore doing? And does editing a poetry magazine influence your own writing?

JB: Poet Lore’s doing well. Maybe someday we’ll manage to break even!  No, really—our readership is growing steadily, and we’ve been receiving welcome attention recently as we celebrate the journal’s 125th anniversary in print. There was an article in The Writer’s Chronicle early in the year, and this spring book critic Ron Charles wrote a wonderful piece in The Washington Post about Poet Lore’s history and the challenges of editing a poetry journal. That kind of media interest has given us a big boost. And we’ve been encouraged by the many poets who’ve become ambassadors for the cause and are helping us spread the word.

I don’t know whether reading 1,000 yet-to-be-published poems each month, looking for the few we’ll take, has changed my own writing in terms of subject matter or style; but that discipline has given me a broader, deeper education about what’s possible in poetry. I’m a closer reader after 12 years as a journal editor—a more patient reader—and I feel lucky to have a role within in a community of engaged and engaging writers, hundreds of whom I’ve corresponded with over the years.

Ethelbert and I have joked that we’d probably reject our own work if it showed up on our desks—but it’s truer to say that we’re careful to read poem by poem, rather than poet by poet, and that we do our best to make choices without regard to reputation. We’re proud to have published many gifted young poets for the very first time. Among those is Reginald Dwayne Betts, who sent us poems while he was serving time in prison for a juvenile offense. How did we manage to pick him out? We read his work with the respect it deserved.

That sense of discovery keeps us going—as does our partnership as co-editors, which is an invigorating delight. Despite the necessary scut work (the copyediting and proofreading and subscription-pitching and fundraising), keeping Poet Lore going in its second century is a fascinating job—and I’m grateful to be doing it.

—Jody Bolz & Jason DeYoung

Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).

Jason

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, most recently in Corium, The Los Angles Review, TheNewerYork, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

Jun 092014
 

Savage Love Cover

Oh, well, at least one selection committee read Savage Love. And a long list is a L-O-N-G list. But it is very nice to be noticed. And since, when I was young, I did actually read Frank O’Connor, it seems vaguely appropriate. His book The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story is well worth reading. But also, of course, his short stories themselves.

See the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award long list here,

IMG_8243Cynthia Flood

As an added pleasure, we note that Cynthia Flood, who has twice published stories with NC (“The Dog and the Sheep” and “Blue Clouds“, is also on the list for her wonderful story collection Red Girl Rat Boy. As is another NC contributor Vanessa Blakeslee (see her What It’s Like Living Here piece and her terrific craft essay “Shades and Mirrors: Character Gradation in the Novel“) for her first book Train Shots. Vanessa was unfortunate enough to have been my student once at Vermont College of Fine Arts; luckily, she survived the experience and we are still friends.

Vanessa BlakesleeVanessa Blakeslee

Lynn Coady, whose collection Hellgoing also made the list, published a play on NC (this was before she won the Giller Prize last year).

CaptureLynn Coady

Not only that but we published an interview with Susie Moloney, who is also on the long list for her collection Things Withered.

CaptureSusie Moloney

To be serious, this is a ringing endorsement of NC’s taste and reach. We don’t rule the world (yet), but, damn, we have five spots on the Frank O’Connor long list.

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Jun 092014
 

4pinkMtns.Weso12WebPink Mountains by Thomas Pecore Weso (acrylic, 3′x4′)

Denise Low thinks big, as her first poem suggests. She wants a new Good Book, a rewritten Bible for a new country that grew up before it had any sense of itself. She juxtaposes the slow rhythms of geology with the quicker beat of history and both with the jittery rhythms of contemporary poetry. She places the Bible next to Native American lore and that lore infiltrates the history of pioneer settlement jostling against New Age neo-mythology of UFOs, “Atlantis aliens” and Sasquatch. Pioneers burn their furniture to bear out the Kansas winter, but the poem is haunted by the native version of the weather.

Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.

Denise Low is a prolific poet and prose writer (twenty-five books, not to mention an active blog), a protean editor and administrator, a perceptive critic, a Kansas Poet Laureate, a past-president of the Associated Writing Programs, and a Native American conscious of all the heritages that run through her. In February, she contributed an essay to these pages, “Optical Structures in The Shrubberies: Ronald Johnson’s Cascades.” But that was just a warm-up. Now we have poems. Four of them — “Shooting Stars Wolf,” “Sedimentation,” “Cold” and “West of Hays City” — will be published in her new collection, Melange Block (Red Mountain Press, Santa Fe), about to be launched on Saturday in Albuquerque (see her web page for details). The fifth — “Imperfect Refraction” — will be in a book of prose and poetry Jackalope Walks Into an Indian  Bar (Mouthfeel Press, 2015).

To accompany the poems we have images by Thomas Pecore Weso, Denise Low’s husband, paintings and drawings that pick up the juxtaposition of mythic landscape and native myth. (I once drove through Kansas from southwest to northeast, and there was nothing higher than an anthill as far as I remember till I hit the Flint Hills, which have always loomed high in my imagination.) The two together, poems and paintings, are a spectacular image in themselves, beautiful and mysterious.

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West of Hays City

The challenge is to rewrite the Bible, think big
fill these unrelenting  spaces with murals.
Swathes of sun-yellow stubble glow intensely,
the pale hue illuminated improbably into brilliance.

I grew up in this gessoed landscape without edges or peaks,
people lost in swells of dried seas and granaries,
wandering my own stories of seven-year droughts,
dust devils, narrow escape, baptism by prairie fires.

Patches of ponderosa pine windbreaks slide into gullies.
White frame houses huddle  hidden in windbreaks.
Bright corn circles drain Ice Age ground water.
Weathered outbuildings shelter crazy prophets.
Wending bluestem and datura outlast this summer.
One drought and buffalo grass fills in the blanks.
All else turns to trail ruts and shibboleths
Quartelejo Pueblo, Fort Zarah, Fort Wallace.

YelloKoKoCardImageYellow Kokopelli (acrylic, 2′x3′)

#

Cold

A family burns chairs, clothes, and axes
but nothing stops the silent killer.
Neighbors find them frozen in bed.

Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.

This enemy seeps through sills and door jambs.
Chimney flues fill with its wrath.

North is its direction.
Nothing stops it from reaching
through flesh to the center of bone.

WinterShamanHiRezWinter Shaman (acrylic, 2′x 4′)

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Shooting Stars Wolf

River Leonid Showers overhill
UFOs flash Feather Lane
tribal cop’s SUV is
on it.

Quartz-crystal sprinkle
dark pines hover glitter
woodland county lit-
up orb.

Phone camera off missed
Sasquatch on cable TV
his treetop moans
what next.

Riverview Circle dogs yowl
Saint Anthony burials
Little People trick nuns
Sun/Moon one.

Snake effigy mound upstream
here the clans Eagle Sturgeon
Crane Beaver Moose
Wolf Bear.

Tumbling Atlantis aliens
magnetize pyramids
stoned freaks stars
land here.

Cher.bear.blueCherokee Bear (colored pencil, 12″x18″)

#

Sedimentation: Alligator Junipers

tree-skin sediments
oblong scales tiered
centuries old living shale

spiral rows mortared
circling pith of sap
guarding scant water

agate-ring years
seared drought forged
creased wrinkled torsos

FlintHillsFlint Hills (acrylic, 2′x3′)

#

Imperfect Refraction
……………for Roger Holden

Lens convex image pop
this is your peyote brain
hologram alive one sliver
image falls forward—boom—

reconstituted flash-dried
memories this is what
it’s like going on in years
Artoo Detoo burbles back

pulse quickens reruns
Bre’r Rabbit Tsi-s’tu
Wau-pus picture rolls on
no mirror background

Roger Rabbit projects out
particles assemble for Skype
beam you back beam aboard
this Love Boat Osiris cruise

 

#—Poems by Denise Low with paintings by Thomas Pecore Weso

 

Denise.12.insight.blackdirect

Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time(rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and  www.deniselow.com.

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Thomas Pecore Weso, enrolled Menominee Indian from Wisconsin, has paintings in private collections throughout the country. He has had one-man shows at Hutchinson Center for the Arts, Haskell Indian Nations University, Percolator Gallery, and others. He has an MA in Global Indigenous Studies from the University of Kansas. www.tomweso.com

 

Jun 082014
 

DMoTedesco_3809_crop-WEBBen Williams, Gerry Hemingway, Diane Moser, Marty Ehrlich, Mark Dresser. Photo by Dennis Connors.

We all have James Thurber cartoons and stories impressed upon our brains, whether we know it or not. And, of course, I firmly believe that Walter Mitty was based on me, though I wasn’t born yet when Thurber invented him. I think I had absorbed Thurber and Mitty before I even knew what the New Yorker was, and I didn’t read The Years with Ross until I was doing my MFA at Iowa. So it’s just a wonderful pleasure, flooded with nostalgia, to offer you Diane Moser’s gorgeous (and complete) jazz suite Music for the Last Flower, based on James Thurber’s eloquent anti-war parable by the same name. All of Thurber’s work, aside from the wit and comedy, was touched by a melancholy, the shadow of loneliness, poignant and sweet. The emotional complexity of his work, it seems to me, makes him especially amenable to a jazz interpretation.

Diane Moser is a brilliant jazz pianist and composer, also a repeat offender at Numéro Cinq, also a person under the spell of Thurber. She is a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an indefatigable performer, possessed also of a circle of musical collaborators second to none (Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums; Marty Ehrlich, woodwinds; Ben Williams, trombone). And she can write, which is a great help, because along with the music, we have her description of the work and how it relates to Thurber’s book. Music for the Last Flower is a large piece, six parts, complex and orchestral, originally composed in 2003, recorded in a flash one-day session in 2012, and just released as a CD this year. It breaks out with a shocking cacophonous clash (as in war) and modulates into moments of Big Band swing and sweet piano solo, a gamut of jazz tropes bent around a narrative and a message, touching and wonderful.

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The first time I read the book The Last Flower-A Parable in Pictures by James Thurber (1939), I was in high school. I was incredibly moved by Thurber’s passion to tell this story of destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, and a deep conviction for a better world. This story is a story for all the ages, and at the time that Thurber penned his words and drawings, it was being played out again, this time as WWII. At the time that I read the story, my classmates and I were vehemently protesting and calling for President Nixon to resign and for the end of the Vietnam war, so once again the story was being played and would end and recycle continuously.

My generation is the first generation to see what was going on in the world through television. Growing up in a small town in Iowa, this was an “eye and ear” opening experience for me. The visuals and sounds of war; assassinations, bombings, people pleading for help from all over the world, riots in the cities and on college campuses, all on the appointed news time slots each day. For me, this translated not only into a profound sense of compassion for all of those who were suffering, but also a deep awareness of the sounds of that suffering, which propelled me to translate those feelings and sounds into music.

My goal with this music was to tell the story in a way that would immediately evoke images in the minds of the listener and move the heart and soul through the vibrations of sound. It isn’t necessary to read the Thurber book to understand this music, although I would highly recommend doing so if you haven’t. All you need to know is the general outline for the story, the story of all ages, war and destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, rebirth, war and destruction, a prayer for peace, and for the rest, your imagination will take care of that for you.

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1) “…towards the end of WWXII”

CaptureBook images via Ommas-Aarden.net

This movement begins with the full ensemble, exploring the sounds of military aircraft flying over head; bombing, exchanging gunfire and the chaos that ensues on the ground. The repetitive figure that comes in, played by piano and quickly joined by the bass, represents the rolling motion of tanks. The melody played by the alto sax and trombone represents a kind of “theme song” for the soldiers. I’ve read that some soldiers listen to specific music before they engage in battle, and it seemed a very important element to bring into the music. After several bouts of charging tanks and chaos, the music takes on a staccato quality that represents the big guns, trying to end it all. A drum solo follows this, representing the last few soldiers exchanging fire, until it is over. The piano comes in, revisiting the theme of the tanks, but slowly, to give a sense of the senselessness of what has just occurred. The piano continues with a repetitive motif, the aspect of time marching on, but with no one to march with it. The bass solo comes in soon after, portraying the barren landscape and extreme loss of life.

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2) “…when love is no longer….”

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This movement features piano, bass and clarinet in a trio setting that is part folk, part ballade and part blues. While I was working on this movement, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the park. The opening melody in the piano is what came to me on that walk. I came home and played the melody, exploring and improvising over the motif. When I finished, I listened to it (I record my improvisations when I compose) and decided that this was the second movement. I transcribed everything I had played and then arranged it for piano, bass and clarinet. In this movement, the music goes in and out of “through composed” music, improvisation through a harmonic structure, and free improvisation between the bass and clarinet, with a repetitive motif in the piano, again, simulating that time is marching on. Musically, the repetitive device creates tension, letting the bass and clarinet improvise freely, but not really letting them go either. The trio comes together restating the opening theme over another “time motif” in the piano, ending this section.

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3) “…she finds a flower…”

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This movement is for solo piano and depicts the part of Thurber’s story where a young woman excitedly tells everyone that she has found the last flower standing. She dances her way throughout the war torn and savaged landscape, oblivious to the dire surroundings, only feeling joy of her miraculous find.

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4) “…love is reborn”

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This movement features the full band. While expressing her joy, the young woman meets a young man who is as equally thrilled about the flower. They come together, create a family, and suddenly love is reborn and civilization begins again which is represented by a motif in the music that harmonically climbs higher. Latin and Swingin’ Jazz are the dominate styles in this movement. I have to say; I didn’t purposely decide on that while I was working on the idea for this movement, instead it just came to me. One of the things I always tell my students is to let the music show you where it wants to go, and that’s exactly what happened with my creative process for this movement.

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5) “…still not learning the lessons of war….”

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In this part of the story, the generals and dictators come back and war begins again. I chose to let the previous movement disintegrate into chaos and revisit the first movement, which in sonata form is called a recapitulation. Interestingly enough, this also happens in Thurber’s story, a recapitulation of the exposition, war.

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6) “…a hope for peace”

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Now we are at the end of the story and all is destroyed except for one woman, one man and one flower. I used the theme of the solo piano section here to represent the young woman and young man finding the last flower, played by both piano and bass. The alto sax and trombone are in harmony, playing freely over the piano and bass improvisations with variations on their theme. The drums improvise a beautiful, shimmering palette using only cymbals, sending the hope and prayers for peace out into the universe.

—Diane Moser

 

Diane Moser, pianist and composer, works as a featured performer and composer throughout the US with jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras, chamber music, dance and theater. Since 1996 she has been the music director/contributing composer/pianist for her 17-piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, dedicated to developing and presenting new music for big band. Her other groups include the Diane Moser Quintet, and the Diane Moser Trio. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Arts and in 2011 was named the Mid-Atlantic Arts Creative Fellow at the Millay Arts Colony. She has received composition awards from Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, New Music USA, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.

She has been a featured pianist and composer with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Lisa Sokolov, Yale Strom, and many others.

She is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Music Composition Program, and since 2006 she has been a member of the core faculty for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where she teaches composition, improvisation and performance.

 

Jun 072014
 

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 Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean.     —Patrick J. Keane

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Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature
Samantha C. Harvey
Edinburgh, 2013,
218 pages, $120
ISBN: 978-0748681365

 

By 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, though by then largely disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution, were still considered dangerous radicals by the Pitt government, which had set spies on them. In that year, hopping a looming draft into the militia, the two poets and Dorothy Wordsworth sailed to Germany. The Wordsworths hunkered down in Goslar during the coldest winter of the century, where William began work on what would eventually become his great autobiographical epic, posthumously published a half-century later as The Prelude. In contrast, the gregarious and convivial Coleridge travelled to university towns, omnivorously ingesting German philosophy and German beer. Once back in England, armed with his own version of the thought of Immanuel Kant and of other German Idealists, Coleridge was uniquely positioned to shape the philosophy behind British Romanticism, and to become the principal transatlantic conduit of these ideas to America.

To let the cat out of the bag right off, the book under review is a remarkable study. Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean. It also provides Samantha Harvey with her main theme and organizing principle in tracing the transformative impact of the philosophic, theological, and critical thought of Coleridge on his American disciples—principally Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also James Marsh, who introduced Coleridge to New England, then (a development of special interest to many connected with Numéro Cinq) restructured the University of Vermont on Coleridgean principles.

Harvey’s study of the Coleridge-Emerson connection is the most recent volume in the “Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures” series (a study of Emily Dickinson and British Victorian poets is forthcoming). The sixteen books in the series range widely in subject, but all are globally oriented, exploring ideas and texts unconfined by temporal or national boundaries. One crucial example of an overarching Romantic and Transatlantic subject is the one that matters here: Coleridge’s committed and pivotal mediation of the categories of nature, spirit, and humanity. Harvey’s book is in fact organized on the basis of this Romantic triad. Following a general introduction, and flanked by two historical chapters tracing Coleridge’s impact on Transcendentalism in Boston (Chapter 2) and Vermont (Chapter 8), Harvey devotes one chapter (beginning with “Nature”) to each category of the triad, with a pause midway. That chapter, “The Landing Place,” alludes to Coleridge’s description of a spiral staircase, with its various “landing-places” analogous to the perspective-gaining pause before continued cognitive mounting. Here, Harvey surveys Coleridge’s “method” and practice of “distinguishing without dividing,” before moving on to chapters on “Humanity” (5) and “Spirit” (6). The penultimate chapter focuses on Emerson’s seminal book Nature (1836), a text structured on Coleridge’s distinctions, “method,” and the categories of the Romantic triad. Despite this culmination, the final chapter, on Coleridge’s influence on curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, is anything but anticlimactic.

A primary emphasis in the Edinburgh series is the dialectic between “affinity and contrast,” and this study is no exception. “Coleridge’s influence on Emerson reveals a complex blend of the categories of contrast and affinity, particularly the way in which key ideas endured and yet were substantially modified as they crossed the Atlantic” (12). Harvey traces not only Emerson’s immense indebtedness to Coleridge, but the ways in which the American Transcendentalist’s appropriation and assimilation of his benefactor stimulated his own creativity: the sine qua non for an apostle of self-reliance and originality. In Harvey’s wonderfully well-chosen lead epigraph, Emerson advises us to “take thankfully and heartily all” our succession of teachers “can give.” Eventually the “dismay” that attends an “excess of influence” will be withdrawn, and the benefactor “will be no longer an alarming meteor, but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven, and blending its light with all your day” (1).

That last phrase is a transparent allusion to Emerson’s favorite line in his favorite poem, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality…,” a poem that haunted the American Transcendentalists as much as it did Coleridge. But often, most obviously in Nature, Emerson went out of his way to cover his tracks. Nevertheless, as Harvey notes, some contemporaries “recognized his massive and largely unacknowledged debt to transatlantic sources” (3). Recent studies have tracked these debts—to Carlyle, to Wordsworth, and, above all, to Coleridge, both as original thinker and (even more than Carlyle and Victor Cousin) as Emerson’s principal filtering conduit to German philosophic thought. Harvey is perfectly aware of Emerson’s re-filtering, his “selective assimilation” of his principal benefactor. “Coleridge’s eclectic amalgamation of Christian, Platonic, and German idealist concepts fundamentally shaped Emerson and the development of Transatlantic Transcendentalism.” But “key ideas” of Coleridge were “appropriated” by Emerson and other liberal American thinkers, who separated those ideas from Coleridge’s Anglican conservatism, while “discarding many metaphysical subtleties and secularizing his theological language” (96). Though Emerson’s splendid essay-lecture, “Quotation and Originality,” is almost the last word on the fascinating and paradoxical subject of thankful inheritance and creative innovation, I’m delighted to be in accord with Samantha Harvey when she writes, “I agree with Patrick Keane that Emerson could very well be the best example of Thomas McFarland’s ‘originality paradox’ in which a profound indebtedness can enable, and even enhance, the originality of a writer” (3).

This raises the issue of Harvey’s own originality. The Edinburgh promotional literature describes Transatlantic Transcendentalism as “the first book devoted to Coleridge’s influence on Emerson and the development of American Transcendentalism.” And Harvey herself twice repeats the verb “devoted” in claiming that “to date no book has devoted itself to elaborating Coleridge’s vital role for Emerson and Transatlantic Transcendentalism, a lacuna which this book endeavors to remedy”; and, again, that, however well-known to Romantic scholars the “connection between Coleridge and Emerson,… surprisingly there is no single monograph devoted entirely to the subject” (19). With those caveats registered, I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey’s and Edinburgh’s claim. And not only is this the first book-length monograph devoted solely to the connection, it’s one that I suspect (despite Harvey’s modest anticipation of fuller studies to come) will prove hard to improve upon.

When it comes to transatlantic studies in general, and even to the Romantic triad in particular, Samantha Harvey is, as a good Emersonian, “thankfully” generous to her co-workers in the field. She praises such transatlantic “pioneers” as Robert Weisbuch, Leon Chai, and Richard Brantley; notes the work of James Engells and others on Emerson’s adoption of Coleridge’s creative misreading of Kant; acknowledges that her formulation of the Romantic triad itself is “beholden to scholarship by M. H. Abrams, Thomas McFarland, Seamus Perry, and John Beer”; and remarks on the “deep influence” on her book, especially her chapter on “Spirit,” of Abrams’s landmark Natural Supernaturalism (1971) with its “elaboration of the underlying spiritual paradigms” adapted, altered, and, generally and most dramatically, secularized by the Romantics (16).

I was happy to be included in such distinguished company when it came, specifically, to the galvanizing impact of Coleridge on Emerson: “Patrick Keane has done the most work on the pair in Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason [2005]. I agree fundamentally with Keane’s approach, which he describes as ‘an exploration of elective affinities, family resemblances, and analogies binding together [many creative individuals] in a visionary company.” But, she adds, by including Milton, Wordsworth, and others, I “obscured Coleridge’s crucial impact on Emerson in a profuse tangle of interrelations” (19). Guilty as charged. Of course, I was writing a different book than hers; but the result is indeed a “profuse” comparative study. More to the immediate point: for those seeking an informed, illuminating, carefully laid-out analysis focused on the Coleridge-Emerson relation, the one indispensable book to read, for now and the foreseeable future, is not mine but Samantha Harvey’s.

 §

How does Harvey go about her project? With good reason, she attends closely to the familiar Coleridgean distinctions inherited by Emerson (between Reason and “mere” Understanding; between active, creative natura naturans and passive, static natura naturata, between Genius and “mere” Talent, as well as between the “primary” and “secondary” Imagination). But she rightly devotes even more attention to Coleridge’s “method.” This orchestrated mode of inquiry permanently shaped Emerson’s own cognitive processes, and was to have a pervasive influence among the Vermont Transcendentalists led by James Marsh, and thus (158-59) on the subsequent pragmatism of John Dewey. Emerson enthusiastically concurred in Coleridge’s high valuation of his “Essays on the Principles of Method” in The Friend. There he presents, as the indispensable introduction and “basis of my future philosophical and theological writings,” a “method” of thinking (at once intellectual, spiritual, and literary) that was coherent, progressive, and ever-ascending: a dynamic mode of inquiry immensely appealing to Emerson for those very reasons. Method commenced “with the most familiar truths…gradually winning its way to positions the most comprehensive and sublime.” Nothing will “more aptly prepare the mind for the reception of specific knowledge” than “the full exposition of a principle which is the condition of all intellectual progress, and which may be said to even constitute the science of education, alike in the narrowest and in the most extensive sense of the word” (67-68, citing The Friend 1:445-46).

Samantha Harvey has her own “method” when it comes to elucidating difficult texts. Coleridge and Emerson can be obscure, even self-contradictory—whether exhilaratingly or maddeningly. Though also true of Emerson, for whom consistency was famously the hobgoblin of mediocre minds, Coleridge’s dense and sinuously dialectical thought, always moving (sometimes staggering) toward a projected synthesis, can be confusing in the course of enacting that process. Opposites are reconciled only to generate yet more opposites, to be reconciled in turn at a higher level. Yeats spoke of “images that yet/ Fresh images beget,” and Coleridge, more exuberantly than apologetically, said his thoughts “bustle along like a Surinam toad, sprouting out of back, side, and belly,” elsewhere describing the prose in which these thoughts were conveyed as spawning parentheses resembling Surinam toadlings. Coleridge’s organic Dynamic Philosophy is both reflected in, and often made more difficult by, the sheer length and complexity of many of his progressive and digressive sentences. In the Dedication to Don Juan, Byron, no man for toads, depicted the author of Biographia Literaria as “a hawk encumbered by his hood,” expounding in darkness “metaphysics to the nation—/ I wish he would explain his Explanation.”

Leaving Byron’s delightful irreverence aside, there is no question that in reading Coleridge, there are syntactical nettles that need to be grasped and worked through before “Explanation,” let alone evaluation, can begin. Enter Samantha Harvey, whose characteristic pattern, or “method,” is to cite a passage of Coleridge (or of Emerson) at some length, then paraphrase and unpack it. Emulating Coleridge and Emerson, Harvey has an enviable gift for apt quotation; and, like Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism, she eschews glib and “knowing” citation. She always quotes sufficiently, reproducing enough of a passage not only to preserve its context but to generously invite the reader to work and learn along with her. Her explanations can come at a cost. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson famously reminds us; and Harvey’s repeated rhythm of quotation followed by explication leads to some redundancy. Yet it is a cost more than offset by the resulting clarification. Her careful and informed explications and synopses are invariably models of astute comprehension conveyed with lucidity.

Having just mentioned explication, I have to add that it seems a shame that a close reader as astute as Harvey, in the commitment to her major focus, has denied herself, and us, much attention to poetry, though she knows (84-89) that the “Poet-Prophet” is the most elevated figure in the Romantic pantheon. Emerson’s best poetry was in prose; but there are no better embodiments of the reconciliation of nature, spirit, and humanity than the major poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Wordsworth is the master-poet of the ultimate unity of nature, spirit, and humanity, but that unity was distilled in a single exclamation— “O! the one Life within us and abroad”—by Coleridge, Harvey’s chief celebrant of the Romantic triad, who added that line in 1817 to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem originally written in 1795.

In the one exception to this neglect of the poetry, Harvey connects Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” with Emerson’s comparison of our changing “moods” to “many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue,” so that “we animate what we can,” and see “only what we animate,” since “all depends on the mood of the man.” Though she doesn’t cite the lines about “that inanimate cold world” unilluminated by the inner light issuing “from the soul itself,” Harvey does note Coleridge’s insistence, later in this same stanza of the Ode, that “we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” (89). Wordsworth also insisted on the epistemological and emotional reciprocity of giving and receiving and (continuing the adaptation of Kant he inherited from Coleridge) asserted the ultimate subordination of external nature to the sovereign mind and imagination: “The kingdom of man over nature,” as Emerson puts it in the finale of the book paradoxically, even misleadingly, named Nature.

Harvey’s citation of the Dejection Ode occurs in the course of her discussion of Emerson’s adherence to Coleridge’s fruitful misreading of Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding. Like Coleridge, Emerson privileges intuitive Reason, making it synonymous with the Romantic creative Imagination (an equation puzzling to inexperienced readers of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson). Thus interpreted, Coleridgean Imagination “placed the poet-prophet at the center of the Romantic triad, gazing out at the natural world, reading it for spiritual meaning, embodying those perceptions in literary form,” and transmitting those perceptions to the rest of us. For Emerson, this imagination acts as a “lens through which nature is viewed, depending on “the special abilities of the poet-prophet.” (89)

I am not suggesting that Samantha Harvey should join me in the ranks of the diffuse by putting at risk her thematic focus. But that very focus, by her own account, is best exemplified in the work of the “Poet-Bard.” However we judge his poetry, Emerson considered himself “a poet in the sense of a perceiver & dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul & in matter, & especially of [their] correspondences” (65-66, quoting from an Emerson letter). Harvey’s comment—“Literature would prove the best medium for reconciling the Romantic triad poetically, rather than systematically”—is reinforced in the following chapter, “Humanity,” in which the “Reconciliator” is specified as “Art”: “If philosophic and metaphysical resolutions of the Romantic triad were hard to resolve systematically,” then it was up to “the poet’s imaginative powers” to evoke the “spirit of unity” (76, 82, italics added)

Though something of a lacuna, the inattention to poetry is finally a quibble considered in the full context of what Harvey so brilliantly does attend to: the crucial role of Coleridge’s distinctions and dynamic “method” in “galvanizing Emerson’s thought at a critical moment in his intellectual maturation” (141). Indeed, the extraordinary impact of Coleridge’s thinking on the whole of New England can hardly be overstated. Along with the curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, that thought simultaneously shaped Concord and Boston Transcendentalism. Since Samantha Harvey deals rigorously and clearly with concepts that are difficult but central to an understanding of the development of American philosophy and literature, her book deserves a wide audience. Specialists will appreciate it. But, precisely because she is so good at elucidating passages that initially may seem opaque, paradoxical, occasionally even incoherent, Transatlantic Transcendentalism should appeal to newcomers seeking entrance to what Coleridge brought to America. What he introduced and clarified for his disciples on the other side of the Atlantic were the often mysterious but always intriguing interactions among the three permanent but dynamically fluid elements in the Romantic triad. The result was not only New England Transcendentalism, but an American Renaissance.

 —Patrick J. Keane

 

Patrick J Keane 2

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

Jun 062014
 

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Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer. —John Stout

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Memento Mori
Muriel Spark
New Directions
224 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 9780811223041

 

I say, Grandpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said–”

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No one’s heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article–”

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped…

—from Memento Mori

New Directions is just now reissuing several of Muriel Spark’s novels as well as a new collection of her essays, The Informed Air. It’s been only eight years since Spark’s death, and only ten years since her last novel (The Finishing School, 2004), but the revival feels necessary.  While it would be a mistake to call Spark “forgotten,” she is certainly, and quite unjustly, under-read.  I can still usually find a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) in most larger bookstores, but if I’m looking for anything else by Spark, I have to visit the library. The inherent promise of reintroducing Spark to the public consciousness is that some of her lesser-known novels will now enjoy a renewed appraisal, as well as a fresh chance of making an impression upon readers perhaps only vaguely familiar with her formidable body of work.

Although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may be Spark’s most widely admired novel (and, by consensus, her masterpiece), the novels being reissued by New Directions each exhibit the authorial qualities that made Spark such a fascinating writer: the confident distance of her prose; the simultaneous ruthlessness and wit with which she directed her creations, exposing human nature with a documentarian’s eye while reveling in artifice of fiction as only a novelist of her caliber can. It’s all there in Spark’s novels.

And it was all there from the very beginning of her career. Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957 to critical acclaim. Inspired in part by the amphetamine-induced paranoia she experienced after taking diet pills to cut down on food costs (money was especially tight for her in those days), the novel centers around a woman who becomes aware of her own status as a character in a novel, and who, try as she might, cannot escape the fate the god-like author has in store for her. Spark brought the same intense authority to each of her successive novels, which rank among the greatest of the twentieth-century—classics like The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Driver’s Seat (1970—and nominated, forty years later, for the “Lost Booker Prize” of that year).

Memento Mori is another one of Spark’s greatest hits. First published in 1959, it can be roughly described as revolving around a set of senior citizens engaged against each other in blackmail, extortion, and secrecy—all while a mysterious caller informs nearly all of them: “Remember you must die.”

Dame Lettie Colston is the first to receive the anonymous calls. The police seem unable (or unwilling) to help her. Her brother, Godfrey, has problems of his own seeing to the care of his demented wife, the once-popular novelist, Charmian. Charmian’s caretaker, Mrs. Anthony, will soon be seventy. Godfrey and Dame Lettie want to find someone younger to look after Charmian, and when Lisa Brooke, a mutual friend (and former lover of Godfrey’s), dies, they poach her now-free housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew (who, it turns out, is really seventy-three).

But there’s something off about Mrs. Pettigrew. Her late employer’s family wants to know why she was named heir apparent to the deceased’s entire fortune. Their suspicions, however, don’t stop Godfrey and Dame Lettie from hiring Mrs. Pettigrew on to take care of Charmian while Lisa’s will is being sorted out. Guy Leet, another member of the Colston’s circle (and, Godfrey suspects, Charmian’s would-be lover), has reappeared, presenting himself as Lisa’s (last, living) husband and heir by law.

Once installed in the Colston household, Mrs. Pettigrew sets herself to work on Godfrey, breaking into his papers and tailing him on his regular visits to Chelsea, trying to uncover something she can use to blackmail him. Godfrey has a standing appointment going on three years with Olive Mannering, the granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering (another of Godfrey’s acquaintances, and another of Lisa Brooke’s lovers), for tea and to let Godfrey ogle her stockings and garter (for a fee). Afterward, Olive always reports on her interactions with Godfrey to Alec Warner, an elderly sociologist (once engaged to Dame Lettie) who has dedicated is remaining years to studying gerontology, using his friends and acquaintances as subjects.

The phone calls continue, no longer targeting Dame Lettie alone, but each member of the aged group. Secrets are revealed. There is a murder. It’s all good fun.

But the mystery surrounding the phone calls isn’t central to the novel. Indeed, the novel contains no straightforward resolution to the puzzle of the caller’s identity. The ultimate source and meaning of the message—“Remember you must die”—should, however, be clear by the end. Late in the novel, the group calls upon a retired Chief Inspector to investigate the calls. He muses:

If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

The main appeal of Memento Mori lies in Spark’s deft handling of character. There’s another plotline in the novel, involving Charmian’s former caretaker, Jean Taylor, who resides in a public nursing home. Relatively untouched by the drama of the outside world, the residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward have their own crises to deal with. Here, no one’s menaced by a mysterious caller, but by an overworked ward sister. Death isn’t a vague threat or an obituary in the newspaper, it’s happening in a bed a few feet away. The “will-games,” affairs, and intrigue of the upper class elderly seem like amusements compared to the stark reality of life in the Maud Long Ward, where the patients live in fear of being thrown out into the streets when winter comes. Although it would be a stretch to call Spark a novelist of social realism, the juxtaposition between the two plotlines presents an astute commentary on class tension. For example:

Two years ago, when [Jean] first came to the ward, she had longed for the private nursing home in Surrey about which there had been too much talk. Godfrey had made a fuss about the cost, he had expostulated in her presence, and had quoted a number their friends of the progressive set on the subject of the new free hospitals, how superior they were to the private affairs. Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

“If only,” he said, “because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.”

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in Surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” Miss Taylor had replied, “I prefer to go to hospital, certainly.” She had made her own arrangements and had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal.

Social division does manage to creep into the novel’s primary storyline at times, particularly in the character of Mrs. Pettigrew. Take, for instance, this passage, which follows an eventful morning in the Colston house:

Mrs. Pettigrew went in search of Godfrey who was, however, out. She went by way of the front door round to the french windows, and through them. She saw that the doctor had left and Charmian was reading a book. She was filled with a furious envy at the thought that, if she herself were to take the vapours, there would not be any expensive doctor to come and give her a kind talk and an injection no doubt, and calm her down so that she could sit and read a book after turning the household upside down.

Yet, despite the book’s dark undercurrent of social unrest, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in Spark’s prose. For a novel steeped in desperation, dementia, and death, Memento Mori is frequently funny. For example:

Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year, after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.

It did not occur to Godfrey as he marched into a pew in the crematorium chapel that anyone else had been Lisa’s lover except himself. It did not even come to mind that he had been Lisa’s lover, for he had never been her lover in any part of England, only Spain and Belgium…”

Here’s another:

Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny. Miss or Mrs. Reewes-Duncan threatened for a whole week to report anyone who called her Granny Duncan. She threatened to cut them out of her will and to write to her M.P. The nurses provided writing-paper and a pencil at her urgent request. However, she changed her mind about informing her M.P. when they promised not to call her Granny any more. “But,” she said, “you shall never go back into my will.”

“In the name of God that’s real awful of you,” said the ward sister as she bustled about. “I thought you was going to leave us all a packet.”

“Not now,” said Granny Duncan. “Not now, I won’t. You don’t catch me for a fool.”

Tough Granny Barnacle, she who had sold the evening paper for forty-eight years at Holborn Circus, and who always said “Actions speak louder than words, would send out to Woolworth’s for a will-form about once a week; this would occupy her for two or three days. She would ask the nurse how to spell words like “hundred” and “ermine.”

Here’s one more, from a conversation between Olive Mannering and her grandfather, Percy:

“I say Granpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said—”

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No ones heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article—”

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped, for Percy himself was always pretending that nobody had forgotten his poetry, really. Then she gave him three pounds to make up for her cruelty, which in fact he had not noticed; he simply did not acknowledge the idea of revival in any case, since he did not recognise the interim death.

The renewed interest in Charmian’s novels is a relatively minor aspect of the novel, only referred to in a handful of scenes, but it’s a striking coincidence to read a reissued novel that addresses, if briefly, the literary revival of one of its characters. To be sure, Spark’s literary reputation is far more secure than Charmian’s (though Eric’s criticism may be influenced by jealousy—his own novel, concerning, in Godfrey’s summation, “a motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in a hotel with [a] communist librarian,” has failed to match the success Charmian’s work enjoyed). Indeed, at first it seems like Spark is setting Charmian up as a figure of fun, a stand-in for “popular” novelists.

Readers of literary fiction will find themselves laughing at Spark’s description of Charmian’s novel, The Seventh Child, a melodrama that Guy Leet recalls fondly to its author in a conversation toward the end of Memento Mori (“I love particularly that scene at the end with Edna in her mackintosh standing at the cliff’s edge on that Hebridean coast being drenched by the spray, and her hair blown about her face. And then turning to find Karl by her side. One thing about your lovers, Charmian, they never required any preliminary discussions. They simply looked at each other and knew.”). And Charmian notes that, when writing her novels, “the characters… seemed to take control of [the] pen after a while”—a sentiment it’s hard to imagine Spark would endorse.

But there is one important similarity between Charmian and her creator, and that’s a willingness to entertain the reader. After all, the plot of Memento Mori, with its mystery and intrigue, doesn’t sound too different from the sort of novel Charmian would have written. There’s a reason for this—one that, for Spark, exceeded literary preference.

In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Alice Munro hit upon a succinct explanation for Spark’s willingness for her fiction to be so playful, so fun:

I’ve been reading Muriel Spark’s autobiography. She thinks, because she is a Christian, a Catholic, that God is the real author. And it behooves us not to try to take over that authority, not to try to write fiction that is about the meaning of life, that tries to grasp what only God can grasp. So one writes entertainments.

Now compare that with what Charmian says about her writing process during her conversation with Guy Leet:

“I used to say to myself, ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!’  because,” she said, “the art of fiction is very like the practise of deception.”

“And in life,” he said, “is the practise of deception in life an art too?”

“In life,” she said, “everything is different. Everything is in the Providence of God.”

And within the pages of a novel as good as Memento Mori, the reader is in the Providence of Spark—a figure perhaps slightly less divine, though worthy of veneration in her own right. With this latest effort by New Directions, she just may get it.

Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer.

—John Stout

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John Stout

John Stout received his MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

 

Jun 052014
 

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Dodie Bellamy is a 21st-century, disillusioned, percipient Patañjali, a subject scoping out a sad, disturbed world, which she counteracts with expansive feelings and electric language. Her writing can be described as an anarchic piece of medical tape caught in the act of fusing different tissues, different bodies, different genres. It flirts with opacity just as well as it dares to be straightforward. It is a body of blood and guts and honesty, and it doesn’t care about your germaphobic qualms.—Natalie Helberg

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A suture. A sutra.

On the one hand, a stitch-line to bind the flesh together.

On the other, a line of language to bind thought.

In the absence of a word for one who is one who sutures, and when I reach for the name that I think fits the idea, the name my mind goes to and would like to drop, it is Dodie Bellamy. Dodie Bellamy is a 21st-century, disillusioned, percipient Patañjali, a subject scoping out a sad, disturbed world, which she counteracts with expansive feelings and electric language. Her writing can be described as an anarchic piece of medical tape caught in the act of fusing different tissues, different bodies, different genres. It flirts with opacity just as well as it dares to be straightforward. It is a body of blood and guts and honesty, and it doesn’t care about your germaphobic qualms. Dodie has doctor sleeves, but she is still willing to copulate on the table. She is Dr. Frankenstein and so she has doctor sleeves. But she is Dr. Frankenstein with a yoga mat.

 Between April 15 and June 1st of this year, I had the remarkable privilege of interviewing Dodie on the subject of her new book. The TV Sutras came out with Ugly Duckling Presse in May. It is a text preoccupied with meaning production: How is meaning produced and what kind of subject gets to produce it? Who gets to be an authoritative subject? The first half of the book consists of 78 sutras Dodie created following this (refreshingly) unlikely procedure: she would do yoga and then tune into her TV, recording whatever sutra the given scene inspired. These sutras are paradigmatic in that they sound like anything you would find while browsing the shelves in a New Age store. They give rise to the question which informs the fictive, autobiographical, essayistic, subsequent half of the book: “what are the texts, classes, conversations, relationships, [and] media-bombardments that animate my channeling?”

As The TV Sutras interrogates these sources, exploring the experience of being in a cult, the experience of romantic/sexual involvement with cult leaders, and even—since it is adept at swapping perspectives—the larger-than-life experience of being a cult leader, it also attempts to suss out the basis for a cult’s—for whatever cult’s—power and appeal: It explores the hole these organizations can fill, the sense of competence, comfort and belonging they deliver, the various ways they can make a life feel rich and satisfying and magical and exciting. And then it indirectly explores life outside of that bubble, fledgling life before the bubble, or life which has lived it, which has rejected it, which has survived and yet mourns it: life disillusioned or simply lackluster, life empowered because able to call a hoax a hoax, but also plagued by fear, doubt and a sense of unbridgeable loneliness.

The interview took place online, as a series of email exchanges. It was truly a conversation and so some of the questions took the form of comments inviting comments. The document which emerged is occasionally and in subtle ways digressive. This made sense because Dodie’s writing, like the New Narrative tradition she is most often situated with respect to, irrigates itself with the extradiegetic. In the simplest terms, this means it envelops its outside. She is Dr. Frankenstein and there are turbines and crackles and buzzing, problematical ‘oms.’ Our conversation ended up being about the work and its characteristics as much as it ended up being about culture and the world.

— Natalie Helberg

 

Natalie Helberg (NH): Some of the material you’re exploring in the latter half of The TV Sutras is material you’ve treated before. Some of your readers might recognize, for example, Neva, the captivating, übermensch/goddess-character from Jupiter, in Anya, the Venusian, from your earlier story “Spew Forth.” You’ve used the sutra as a form before as well. I’m thinking of your “Sexspace” piece in Academonia. The childhood friend/lover material will also be familiar to your readers. I thought I would start by asking you about your impulse to return to material, to rework and recontextualize it: Feminine Hijinx reappears as two shorter, separate pieces in Pink Steam; Mother Montage gathers the mother-related material from several works; your newer work the buddhist shares with The TV Sutras a preoccupation with mourning, meaning, and infinity: the possibility that mourning, like meaning-quests, will lack resolution…

Dodie Bellamy (DB): Your question about recontextualization is fascinating. The basic unit of my writing is the paragraph: I write with semi-self-contained blocks of text that I rearrange until a pattern pleases me, knowing that other possible arrangements could work as well. When I first moved to San Francisco, my friend Ken (who was also in the cult) taught me to steal milk crates that were left outside of stores. We stacked them into bookshelves, TV stands, cubicles to hold clothes, kitchen cabinets, and even a bed frame. Ken referred to them as “modular furniture.” I guess I see my memories and the masses of cultural information that flood my brain as modular as well.

The recontextualization that happened in The TV Sutras was in some ways accidental. The focus of The TV Sutras—this search for meaning and spiritual connection—is what’s been left out of, or occluded in, much of my writing. So, with this lens uncovered, situations in my life I’ve discussed before are revealed in a new light. I’ve written many times about college life in Indiana in the 70s, leaving out that these were episodes in the life of a young woman who was in a cult. It’s sort of like when somebody gay comes out in their writing and all those vague pronouns in previous work suddenly pop into a new meaning. I never wrote about this stuff much before because I found it embarrassing or I felt inadequate before the enormous task of trying to get the experience across. The TV Sutras took five years to write, partly because I knew I’d have to come to actual conclusions at the end. In the beginning, I ask some questions.  Formally, then, at the end, I have to reveal what I’ve discovered. In general I’m phobic of revealing conclusions in writing, but, when I began this book, I couldn’t imagine what a conclusion would even look like.

Up until I was pretty close to finishing the manuscript, I had been planning to include a third section to the book, an appendix, which I called “Documentoids.” While working on The TV Sutras, I wrote several shorter pieces addressing specific aspects of the material. There’s a piece called “Rascal Guru” that is a collage of guru sexual and financial scandals and the language followers use to rationalize their behavior. There is another collage piece of episodes in the life of Neva, the woman from Jupiter. I imagined I’d started my own cult and did a flyer for a workshop. I did a procedural piece where I put a sprig of mugwort under my pillow and each morning wrote about the transition from dream to waking and about what messages I could bring forth from the other side. There was a long serial poem I wrote in 1981 that chronicled my spiritual history. And I was also thinking of reprinting “Spew Forth,” which, as you note, recounts situations that occur in The TV Sutras, but in a more fictionalized manner. Not that The TV Sutras isn’t fictionalized; it is. Its relationship to lived experience would be comparable to mainstream movies that are “inspired by actual events.” Ultimately, I decided all this extra material would water down the impact of what I’d managed to evoke in the essay section of the book.

As far as the buddhist goes, the person of the title entered my life while I was in the midst of writing The TV Sutras, and I couldn’t resist this public spiritual teacher revealing his secrets to me. It’s like my book reached out its arms and embraced me. The energy of the loss I experienced in that situation definitely fed into the larger loss of the cult leader I discuss in The TV Sutras.

NH: The modular crate analogy is interesting—I’ve seen the term ‘modular text’ used in a similar way with reference to some of Robert Coover’s work. To clarify: Do you shift the material you’re using within a paragraph around, as if its constituent bits were modular crates, and shift paragraphs around this way as well? Working with semi-self-contained units, as a technique, seems very consistent with what you’ve written in Barf Manifesto about writing that proceeds associatively, by chords rather than by discrete notes. You also mentioned, in another interview, that your organizing principle “is more conceptual than plot-based,” and it seems as if the paragraph, as an idea-unit disjoined from other idea-units, allows you to mobilize a host of different thoughts and thought-settings; they begin to resonate and it becomes possible, as a reader, to sense a kind of conceptual continuity through discontinuity. I think that things get wilder that way towards the end of The TV Sutras: the paragraphs there wear their disconnectedness more flagrantly.

DB: First of all, I can’t believe I used the modular furniture analogy without bringing up Jack Spicer. Since I’m married to Kevin Killian, an editor and biographer of Jack Spicer, Spicer’s influence runs deep. Spicer described the poetic process as ghosts moving around the furniture in the poet’s mind. The ghosts don’t bring any new furniture; they just rearrange what they find.  This beautifully addresses the relationship between research/knowledge and inspiration, the way I’m continuously surprised at how things I know emerge in my writing. I’ll have plans to write in one direction, and suddenly I’m going on about sacred geometry or Nazi Zombies.

As you’ve noticed, in The TV Sutras my approach to sentence modularity varies depending on my goal for a paragraph/piece. “Cultured,” the essay section of the book, begins with a pretty conventional autobiographical “I,” and the sentences conform to narrative organizational expectations. The reliability of this autobiographical “I”—in terms of being accurate to my personal life—varies wildly. Frequently I’m collaging in other texts/other experiences, but I didn’t want the text to suggest that. I had a vision when I started the essay that I wanted to take a singular autobiographical “I” and morph it into a more global “I.” Therefore, as the text progresses and the singular “I” begins to get shaky, more of a sense of “disconnectedness,” as you say, becomes apparent in the text. The sentences in some of the paragraphs towards the end are, indeed, modular, arranged mostly intuitively.

Morphing from one mode to the other was the biggest challenge in writing “Cultured.” When I was a child, I loved to sit with my grandmother and crochet lace onto pillowcases and hankies. My favorite thread to use, called “variegated”—and I loved that word, it sounded so sophisticated to me—consisted of at least two colors blurring into one another—purple smearing to yellow and back again, etc. That’s what I was aiming for in “Cultured,” to smoothly smear one take on the first person into a very different first person. I didn’t want the reader to particularly notice the transition process. In general, I’ve found smoothness more difficult to pull off than raggedness. 

NH: You do include an echo of Barf Manifesto in The TV Sutras— “No singularity, no verdicts, only chords and this endless accrual”—and I feel that The TV Sutras avoids something like a tidy conclusion because it proceeds this way. That being said, I find it interesting that you set up the text with a question you felt you should wrap up. There are so many versions of the claim that the text knows more than the writer. I wonder what your own relationship to that idea is.

DodieBellamy

DB: Through the process of researching and writing the book, I did come to a few conclusions.  That we’re programmed for ecstasy and nobody owns that. That meaning is not static, but evanescent, appearing and fading and reappearing. That the only difference between a cult and a religion is size. I embraced a sense of skepticism toward all forms of charisma, while also realizing that it’s impossible to avoid cultish behavior. But we all love the spectacle of spiritual frenzy, so I wanted to play around with that as well, to embody this fraudulent persona and let her rip, which was so fucking much fun. I was sick when I wrote the book’s crazy ending—with bronchitis—too sick to get out of bed, and my feverish state aided the process enormously.

NH: The question of what kind of subject gets to produce meaning (not to mention the question of what meaning you can glean from these memories you are treating—“Do I know any more now than when I was a child lying on my back, gazing out at the vast night sky, overcome with awe”) is not one the text ever fully puzzles out: The cult leaders at times seem able to produce meaning, whether this is through sheer will power or by levering their charisma, but at other times meaning, even in cult-lore, is said to be ‘found’—it inheres in a culture we are thrown into, or, as cult-lore would have it, comes from “the temples of learning on the Etheric Plane, wherein is stored all knowledge.” Narrative-speaker-Dodie asks if a depressed, middle-aged woman in pajamas can create meaning and, in the end, renounces all authority to say whatever it is the text says. But by that time, she has already created the sutras. She has also become Azule Linga, which is to say a goddess-leader-poet-channeler herself.

DB: It was important for me to have strong female figures in this book, to balance out the male spiritual predators with their doe-like female followers. The process of writing this book became a spiritual quest for me—I was in search of meaning I did not have—so I needed female avatars to reflect that. Women’s spirituality has always been a contested site; women have been denied authority in so many religions, denied religious training, dismissed as being too gross for the spiritual. And then there were all those female pagans burned at the stake. Acceptance of women as meaning producers is an ongoing struggle, not just in the religious arena. I’ve met so many brilliant women who are plagued by insecurity it makes me ache. My own insecurity as a meaning producer pulses through The TV Sutras. What’s a female subject to do when plagued by insecurity? You can keep quiet or use that insecurity as a sort of launching pad. If you hide your insecurity or deny it, your writing goes wrong. You end up with stilted pretentiousness, or whatever.

In the 80s and 90s, I was dedicated to exploring a female-centric spirituality, so I read tons of goddess stuff, and as dopey as some of that material is, its impact on me was profound, ultimately resulting in my portrayal of Mina Harker (the protagonist of my first novel—and of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as this liminal goddess figure. During a time of psychological crisis, female descent myths—Inanna, Ishtar and Persephone—sustained me, gave me hope I’d find my way out of it. So in The TV Sutras I create two powerful female spiritual leaders—Neva, the walk-in from Jupiter, and Azule Linga, the transchanneling poetess. Azule has “attained vector equilibrium.” She defines who/where she is. Though she’s totally unreliable, she inspires me.

NH: The ‘sutra’—quite literally a thread that holds things together—has very domestic overtones, and so using it as an organizing concept is one way you’ve flagged the text as the particularly feminist exploration you’re describing. I found myself wondering if you were thinking of The TV Sutras as a text with class-related concerns as well (not that feminist exploration and class critique are mutually exclusive—far from it). I come from a working-class background and it’s true that a sense of insecurity—a discomfort when it comes to claiming authority and even dwelling in, or owning, certain vocabularies—can continue to plague those who, coming from that background, suddenly find themselves circulating on a higher social rung. There is that moment towards the end which suggests that most of ‘meaning’ is accessible to all, even if it is sometimes rendered elite: dressed up so as give the impression that it is the domain of the elect: “[In this world] we need advanced degrees, specialized vocabularies to hide the sad fact that what we’re saying is obvious and not necessarily experiential, that some near-illiterate Christian mother in the boonies may ‘know’ more about the nature of reality than we do.”

DB: In Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva’s epistolary exchange The Feminine and the Sacred, Clément discusses class in a way that’s been a touchstone for me. Clément makes a distinction between caste and social class. In her schema, caste resonates with Marx’s concept of class origin, “that mental file drawer that determines the drives and thoughts from birth. For Marx, you can obviously change your social class, but you cannot rid yourself of your ‘class origin’ any more than, according to Sigmund Freud, you can rid yourself of your unconscious.  That being the case, the ‘caste’ of origin plays the same role as the return of the repressed: the slightest opening and it comes out. Impossible to get rid of it. A little emotion and it reappears.”  I love this idea of caste as a psychological imprint. Class is such a tender issue for me. Whenever I think about it, I get upset. I chose to take on a more middle class lifestyle but I’ve done so kicking and screaming all the way, and in my interactions with people I often feel that socially I’m wearing the equivalent of a girdle. I originally mistyped “girdle” as “griddle,” which I find funny and a bit uncanny, since I worked as a grill cook to help pay for college. Caste versus social class becomes griddle versus girdle—that pretty much sums up the difference between Clément and me.

In my writing, I’m determined to stay true to my class origin, but without denying the education I’ve acquired since I was a working class girl in Indiana. I resist certain vocabularies because I think they’re fucked, not because I feel I don’t own them. I also don’t try to dumb myself down to seem more proley. Does language belong to anybody? When I studied feminist poetics in college we talked on and on—influenced more by the French feminists rather than, say, Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language—about rebelling against the language of the patriarchy, and then women would leave the classroom and take on the very elitist vocabularies we critiqued. Because they wanted to be taken seriously. Just because we railed against the ways of the patriarchy in a classroom doesn’t mean the patriarchy and its social pressures ceased to exist.

Class isn’t forefronted in The TV Sutras, but since it tracks experiences from my life, class is woven throughout. Most of the characters are working class—and in the case of Neva, dirt poor.  I would say my fascination with Ned’s red diaper baby lifestyle—and his feminist mother—was a longing for what I saw as the sophistication of middle class life. Bokharas on the floor rather than sculpted wall-to-wall carpeting. I was surprised when I defended the illiterate Christian mother, but I was committed to honoring the lower classes as producers of meaning. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (which Meredith Quartermain recommended) was important in my thinking about this, with its wave upon wave of charismatic leaders arising from amongst the poorest of the poor. After a couple hundred pages of this, it seemed that anybody could lead a religious revolt. Disappear into a forest and live as a hermit for x-amount of time, then reemerge tattered with a crazed look in your eye, and you are good to go.

NH: I want to return, too, briefly, to the idea that you were ill while working on the conclusion. I find it interesting that you let your readers in on the very bodily-based procedure you used to generate the sutras—you would do yoga, and then tune into your TV—while making no mention of the illness that animated the prose towards the end. The yoga practice is perhaps one way you’ve managed to ‘bring the body into writing.’ That gesture—or that concern exhibited, say, by writers influenced by the French feminists—bringing the body into writing—remains rather mysterious to me. What could it mean? In a way, you’ve grappled with this question before, a few times asserting that the physical body is not text (Mina Harker insists her body is not the text, and you’ve spoken elsewhere about the impossibility of capturing sexual experience with language and your alternative focus on making the language, the writing, something that is in and of itself engaging). I’m curious, then, about what compelled you to gesture, in the text, towards the yoga practice in the way you do, to mention it in a fairly nondescript way, to pay a kind of homage to it, as opposed to the other corporeal experiences, habits and routines which presumably must have also (and equally) subtended the writing.

DB: The yoga and meditation practice preceded any plans I had to write The TV Sutras. After doing yoga, when I would switch my TV from DVD mode back to TV mode, I was often amused by the first line of dialogue that would arise, but I didn’t think of doing anything with those lines—or even jot them down—until Paolo Javier sent me Alan Clinton’s call for contributions to the Occult issue of 2nd Avenue Poetry:

Paolo Javier and I believe in the power of spiritual energies (whatever their source), prophetic utterances (whatever their destination), and magical rituals (particularly practices that haunt a space by introducing the element of chance or producing altered states of consciousness) to intensify artistic events for the producer/practitioner as well as the observer/collaborator.

We also believe that the results of divinatory practices are more often than not merely a new topography of the unknown rather than a definitive revelation. The interest for the spiritual adept as well as the avant-garde artist lies in the uncanny parallels, the wrong turns, the polyglot or inscrutable marks, the visual and aural blurs and scratches, the cracks in the shell produced by the divinatory event.

I took this to heart and generated the first sixteen TV sutras, as well as a draft of the short preface that’s in the book. That was in 2010. And then I just kept going. The sutras grew organically out of my yoga/meditation ritual, which I was doing with the hope of changing my life, of moving out of depression into a more open engagement with the world. But the text would not exist without the hailing of these editors. It wasn’t until I finished all 78 sutras that I decided to write an essay to contextualize them. Since one of my goals in “Cultured” was to move from a singular autobiographical “I” to a more blurred “I,” I wanted to gradually occlude the Dodie POV rather than emphasize it at the end. By the time Dodie the writer was ill, the text was moving beyond her. The body comes into the text though all the erotic encounters between young me and others, and between spiritual teachers and their students. And through my fascination with the body of Neva, the woman from Jupiter—her beauty, her sex appeal, her strange Jovian physiology. There’s also that one long collaged paragraph of all the weird/extreme things a yogic adept can perform with his/her body. At the end, Azule Linga, the charismatic poet, nurses her followers with her magnificent nipples. Over and over in the book, religious fervor creates a freakish body. I was inspired by the Flagellants, for instance.

NH: So, just to be clear, in each of these cases, the body ‘enters into,’ or is simply in, the writing on a representational level (the body is ‘described as’ and is ‘described as doing’)? I was reading your Answer chapbook, which, among other things, explores the nature of the body coursing through The Letters of Mina Harker. This is a Frankensteinian body: Mina Harker’s body cobbled up using bits of other bodies, including whatever reader happens to be animating the text’s (bio)rhythm (functioning as its live context), and including Dodie’s body, a character/author’s body, which it is absorbed into, which it possesses, and which it sporadically and like a spirit, arises from. The TV Sutras, as you’ve implied above, is also a text made up of multiple bodies, though I feel those bodies are more discrete than those partaking in the texture of Mina Harker: In this respect, the text feels like a collage, or a patchwork which shows its stitch-lines, whereas The Letters of Mina Harker feels partially puréed: made of chunks but almost homogeneous, smooth but for what the blade misses.

DB: As with most of my writing, the central problem in The Letters of Mina Harker and in The TV Sutras is that of boundaries. Despite its frenzied salaciousness, Mina is a horror novel—there is a desire for penetration but also a terror of it—and of the self-dissolution that hot sex brings on. Orgasm is not called a little death for nothing; there’s always this shadow of fear involved in it. Mina is also a being penetrated by the culture she finds herself in. Her boundaries are spongy, and she absorbs whatever she encounters. Thus her body and her psyche become collage. The Letters of Mina Harker maintains this same level of constant bombardment, constant possession, throughout. In The TV Sutras, loss of boundaries is more insidious, a shift from relative stability/normality to psychic colonization that happens so gradually you’re barely aware it’s happening. Rather than the operatic violence of invasion that we find in Mina, here the violence is more banal; the cultist is coached into willingly giving up her boundaries through a series of tiny crossings of lines. In the book, when the Teacher and the student meet repeatedly to drink tea, she doesn’t register how he keeps dialing up the inappropriateness of their interactions. So, when they fuck on the floor, it’s obvious to the reader things have been heading in that direction, but not to the girl. I chose to title the essay portion of the book “Cultured” as a nod to the word “cult,” but also because “culture” as a verb implies a gradual process of transformation. You enter a situation as fresh cabbage and exit as sauerkraut.

NH: The TV Sutras’ focus on negative sexual encounters and experiences (on the mild end of the spectrum, the pain of penetration and the inability to achieve heterosexual orgasm, on the severe end, rape), notwithstanding your comment on Mina and terror, feels very fresh: it is not entirely new to your work, and yet I would say that, in this text, compared to any of your others, it is given much more space. So much of your other work is committed to priming and exploring sexual pleasure, rampant desire. Frenzied salaciousness, as you said above. That commitment doesn’t go away in The TV Sutras, but it is tempered there by something much more sinister. I’m curious about this shift in focus. Was it just the natural outgrowth of the research you were doing for the project, or was there a more specific impetus behind it?

DB: You’re correct in observing that in The TV Sutras there’s a focus on sexual manipulation that isn’t very present in Mina. In the New Narrative aesthetic that I was enmeshed in while writing Mina, sexual manipulation was seen as positive, as a sign of power. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but I wasn’t emphasizing the manipulative aspects of sex in that book. Mina was about being ravenous with desire and trying to embody a sexual agency that my gay male mentors modeled for me. It wasn’t a comfortable fit because sexual agency for women is much more complicated than it is for men, given the pervasive misogyny we have to figure out how to somehow thrive in. Sexual agency—in a heterosexual context—was pretty much incomprehensible for me when I was writing that book. To even approach it, I had to take on the persona of a vampire goddess. In The TV Sutras, since I was exploring cult indoctrination, it seemed important to include sexual manipulation in that. When I was researching “Rascal Guru,” the collage of guru sex and financial scandals I mentioned above—I’m hoping to include it in the collection I’m publishing with Semiotext(e) in 2015—I read of so much sexual manipulation and rape, dozens of incidents, that these things started to feel like the norm for these guys rather than the exception. Since I was avoiding simple equations in The TV Sutras—e.g., cult sex = manipulation—the sex I gave Dodie—the sex with Nance or the Hare Krishna or Dietmar—tends to be more egalitarian, based on mutual consent and respect: “We were not bigger than life, we were not higher initiates or incarnated beings from a more advanced planet—we were little people having ordinary Earthling sex.”

While I was writing the buddhist, I was seeing a therapist who’d been a student of Zen for 30 years. He had a very negative attitude towards male teachers on the spiritual lecture circuit.  They never talk about their personal lives, he told me; they’re like a blank slate. They never acknowledge the sexual atmosphere generated between them and female students. He said that lots of lonely middle aged women turn to Buddhism, women who thrive on the attention they receive from spiritual teachers. Such attentions make them feel special, excited. When something sexual happens with a student, the teacher never takes responsibility. “She came on to me—I was just going with what was happening in the moment.” While expressing his skepticism and disgust with these men’s narcissistic manipulations, my therapist made spiritual-seeking women sound pretty pathetic. And I couldn’t stop myself from taking on that attitude, even though I knew it was fucked. So in The TV Sutras, I wrote in strong female religious figures partly in order to counteract this projection. Neva, the woman from Jupiter, is more than simply laughable; she’s a powerful charismatic leader who feels comfortable with her body and her sexuality. The same goes for the blogging mystical poetess. Within the skewed reality of the book, these women are the heroes. They own meaning.

NH: To wrap up, then, how do you make sense of the relationship between your writing and the world it emerges from, embellishes on, and loops back to criticize? I can’t help but think of Kathy Acker when she writes that she realized quite early on that, as a girl, she could not be a pirate, and claims that she started writing fiction so that she could become a pirate. ‘Pirate’: a word which captures more than just the idea that, as a fiction writer, she would be able to pillage other texts. Her statement almost implies that she could renovate the world itself, and the constellation of ways it is possible to be a female subject in it, through her own creative activities.

DB: The relationship of my writing to the world—this is the most challenging of all your challenging questions, Natalie. I know this sounds corny, but my answer would have to be something about love—and I think that’s true for Acker—all that stuff she wrote about wonder, especially at the end of her life, is about a deep love for existence. In Mina, in the letter about the death of Sam D’Allesandro, I wrote that to look—to really look—is to love. In my writing, I can look deeply at the world, and the world is never going to turn away from me. Even those who have turned away from me—when I write about them, I get to love them again.

—Dodie Bellamy & Natalie Helberg

 

Dodie Bellamy is the author of numerous chapbooks (including the acclaimed Barf Manifesto, which came out with Ugly Duckling Presse) and numerous full-length works, some of which can be categorized as experimental poetry (Cunt Norton, Cunt-Ups, and Broken English), many of which toy with or challenge the boundaries between poetry, fiction, autobiography and the essay form (Feminine Hijinx, The Letters of Mina Harker, Pink Steam, Academonia, the buddhist—which also makes creative and reflexive use of the blog form—and, of course, The TV Sutras). She is based in San Francisco and is often associated with the New Narrative movement.

Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.

 

Jun 042014
 

02 Eagle An eagle swoops past a ship over Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Nikolai Gogol couldn’t have written a better story than this, and this one is true: a Russian provincial governor, a lost fleet of ships, an illegal tiger skin, vainglory, murder, and the mob — Russell Working is a prize-winning fiction writer, a master wordsmith and a castiron reporter. For many years he lived in Vladivostok, running a small English language newspaper, falling in love, living in a frigid flat inhabited by the spirits of great Russian poets. He wasn’t “embedded”; he LIVED there. The result has been a recent spate of  brilliant reportage (NC ran an earlier essay), or reportage crossed with memoir (or maybe it is a NEW FORM Russell invented). In Dead Souls, Gogol wrote the tale of a Dickensian con-artist who went around Russia buying up dead peasants that, by a book-keeping sleight-of-hand, he planned to mortgage off as live serfs. Gogol’s admirers said he had done nothing but tell the truth about Russia; Russell Working is doing the same.

dg

 

A MERCHANT. Such a governor there never was yet in the world, your Worship. No words can describe the injuries he inflicts upon us. He has taken the bread out of our mouths by quartering soldiers on us, so that you might as well put your neck in a noose. He doesn’t treat you as you deserve. He catches hold of your beard and says, “Oh, you Tartar!” Upon my word, if we had shown him any disrespect, but we obey all the laws and regulations. We don’t mind giving him what his wife and daughter need for their clothes, but no, that’s not enough. So help me God! He comes to our shop and takes whatever his eyes fall on. He sees a piece of cloth and says, “Oh, my friends, that’s a fine piece of goods. Take it to my house.” So we take it to his house. It will be almost forty yards.

KHLESTAKOV. Is it possible? My, what a swindler!

MERCHANTS. So help us God! No one remembers a governor like him.

—Nikolai Gogol

The Inspector General, Act IV, Scene 5

#

A Word to the Wise
Among the Lackeys of Foreigners
In the Fleet and the Media

Late one night in June 1999, a broadcast journalist named Yury Stepanov was walking home in Vladivostok, a Russian port city of six hundred fifty thousand on the Sea of Japan, when he came upon a Toyota minivan blocking his way up an alley. He hesitated. He was an editor at Radio Lemma, which had been receiving anonymous threats for reporting allegations of corruption and attempted extortion by the Primorye regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. But he had to get home, after all, and a cousin to hope, in the human mind, is the ability to convince oneself that all is well.

So he headed on between the van and the wall. A burly man in black emerged from the dark and smashed Stepanov in the face, knocking him to the ground. Another thug joined in the assault. They kicked and stomped Stepanov, head, ribs, gut. His assailants rolled open the door of the van and threw his briefcase inside. They tried to drag Stepanov in, too, he later said. He fought his way free and fled. His attackers chased him on foot all the way to his apartment building. They gave up when he flung himself through the doors. Perhaps it would have been a little too public, even for Vladivostok’s goodfellas, to kidnap an editor from the lobby of his apartment. Or maybe they figured their message had been delivered.

That week Stepanov holed up in his apartment, and this is where I found him a day or two later when I visited with Nonna, then my girlfriend and now my wife. She was a deputy editor at the Vladivostok News, a little English-language paper which I edited, and she often interpreted for me. We had gotten his address from his colleagues at Radio Lemma, but we had not called ahead. Probably he didn’t have a phone; many Russians never did get land lines, and this was before the era of ubiquitous cell phones. Or perhaps he simply was not answering, not wishing to subject himself to death threats. We headed up the filthy stairwell of his Soviet-era building, of concrete slab construction, and knocked at his door, a steel one, such as any sensible Russian lives behind. A blood-yellowed eye appeared in the peephole.

“Who is it?”

Nonna introduced herself and she had brought an Amerikansky zhurnalist to interview him. The blood eye blinked doubtfully, so I said in English, “Tell him I freelance for The New York Times and The South China Morning Post.”

Stepanov let us in to the bedroom/living room and bolted the latch behind us. His face was bruised purple and brown. He hobbled across the room and winced as he lowered himself to the futon and slumped over with a groan.

“How are you doing?” Nonna said.

“I’ve got three broken ribs, a concussion, too, the doctors said. It’s my family I’m worried about. I sent them out of town.”

Stepanov was not the only victim of mysterious circumstances at Radio Lemma. The day after Stepanov’s beating, a reporter glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a truck accelerating toward his car. The truck rammed him, totaling the car. He was uninjured. Days later, strangers would snatch the nineteen-year-old daughter of another Radio Lemma editor from the street, take her on a little drive around the city, and warn her that her daddy had better tone down those broadcasts criticizing Governor Nazdratenko. “Tell you-know-who that if these statements continue on the radio, he’ll face the same thing that happened to his friend,” the men said. The friend they were referring to was Stepanov. After that they let her go.

Stepanov told us that Radio Lemma staffers had been living in fear ever since they had broadcast a series of reports about Vostoktransflot, the largest refrigerated shipping company in Russia, which was under pressure from the governor. Under the previous director, Viktor Ostapenko, Vostoktransflot had run up a debt of $96 million, the media reported. A pity, to be sure, but what could a chief executive do in a troubled business climate like Russia’s? Among Vostoktransflot’s creditors was the Bank of Scotland, which as lender effectively owned the MV Dubrava and eleven other vessels. To Ostapenko’s profound regret, he was unable to pay his employees’ salaries for nine to twelve months at a time. Understand, times were tough, and everyone on the team would just have row together and bite the bullet and give a hundred and ten percent and all that. Unpaid wages were commonplace in those days, and if Ostapenko was calculating that no one would mutiny over this, he knew his countrymen well. But then in August 1997, a young Moscow investor named Anatoly Milashevich, a graduate of Russia’s MIT—the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology—obtained a majority share of Vostoktransflot, and the nation’s business climate magically improved overnight. This was clear because Milashevich began meeting the payroll every month. The next year, Vostoktransflot ran a profit of $10 million. By 1999 the company reportedly had paid off half its debts.

But business success is dangerous in Russia; dollars smell like blood. Or this is more or less what Vostoktransflot’s leadership team discovered. Nazdratenko summoned Milashevich to the regional administration building known as the White House and, the young executive alleged, demanded a $2 million “campaign contribution,” or else. Milashevich went public with what he claimed was an extortion attempt. It so happened that the day before Stepanov’s beating, Radio Lemma had broadcast a live interview with Milashevich.

01 GuberVeterani_001Nazdratenko (right) offers flowers to veterans in Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev

The governor denied he had bullied or threatened Milashevich or sought any bribes. By God, he was just protecting Russia’s fleet from nefarious foreigners and their Russian hirelings. The regional media, mostly controlled by Nazdratenko, launched a propaganda campaign against Milashevich. The governor had other levers to pull, as well. Under pressure from the White House, a district court ruled that Milashevich had gained control of Vostoktransflot illegally, and a judge replaced him with a man more to Nazdratenko’s liking, one whose extensive experience in refrigerated shipping made him an ideal pick to lead the troubled company. He was Viktor Ostapenko, the very man who had sailed Vostoktransflot onto a reef and run up that $96 million debt.

Bailiffs accompanied by a police SWAT team of masked gunmen stormed Vostoktransflot’s office, evicted Milashevich’s staff, and installed the new management team. When the new team opened the safe, with great excitement, they found nothing but a bottle of Chateau de la Tour red and a note that Milashevich had left for them (“Gentlemen, help yourselves”), he recently told me in an e-mail. Milashevich and his team fled to Cyprus.

This spring I exchanged a number of e-mails with Milashevich, but I never caught up with him for an interview. He noted that the Vostoktransflot case was not isolated, but acted as an “archetype” for government actions against business nationwide. “Our history was a drop of water that reflected trends that were happening in this country later (with Yukos, etc.),” he wrote, referring to the company that the Russian government crushed in a tax case, sending its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison. Critics of President Vladimir Putin suggested the case against Yukos was politically motivated, as Khodorkovsky had funded opposition political parties.

Once he was in charge, Ostapenko issued a worldwide order demanding that the entire fleet of thirty-eight ships return to Vladivostok, never mind their contract obligations or cargo they were carrying or their position on the earth. Oh, and good news: Ostapenko now discovered that it was possible, after all, to meet payroll. Puzzlingly, only four ships obeyed. One of those that did respond was the ship Ulbansky Zaliv. Over a year later, the crew was still owed $300,000 in wages despite a court order to sell off three Vostoktransflot ships to cover the debt to their sailors, and the crew of were Ulbansky Zaliv was left to issue threats that they would flood the fuel tanks with seawater and scuttle the ship by the pier of Vladivostok’s fishing port if they were not paid.

10 UlbanZaliv_0249The prow of Ulbansky Zaliv. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

09 UlbanZaliv_0225Unpaid sailors from the ship Ulbansky Zaliv at a meeting in which they announce they will sink their ship in port if they aren’t paid. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

The rest of the captains continued to answer to Milashevich, who was communicating with them from Cyprus by radio. On July 2, Milashevich’s team sent Captain Igor Tkachenko to Calcutta to sell the ship, Titovsk, for scrap, because it was obsolete and did not meet company standards, Tkachenko later told the media. Ostapenko began sending radiograms every seven hours demanding that Tkachenko break the ship’s contract and carry out another job more to Ostapenko’s liking. One message stated, “You are hijacking the ship together with the crew, a violation of Article 211 of the Russian Criminal Code … Are you thinking about what you are doing?” Alarmed and confused by the turmoil, Tkachenko ignored the messages and kept sailing. “They were absurd,” he said in a later press conference quoted by The Moscow Times. “Can you imagine how I felt about that message on a stormy sea?” Once Titovsk arrived in Calcutta, the deal was delayed a month because Ostapenko’s team began telegramming the Russian consulate demanding that officials intervene.

Now it was time for Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov, a Nazdratenko appointee and ally, to turn up the heat. He ordered Radio Lemma to stop interviewing his and Nazdratenko’s political foes in what was an election year, the journalists said. “I hope that you guys are smart enough, and that no physical actions will follow,” Kopylov reportedly told them. A spokeswoman for Kopylov denied that he had threatened them, adding that he had nothing to do with Stepanov’s beating. Indeed, she found the editor’s claim of an assault “suspicious.” Since when had any journalist ever suffered for defying the authorities in Russia?

§

Curiously, while staffers at Radio Lemma were afraid for their lives, we at the Vladivostok News operated with an editorial freedom the rest of the local media, including our Russian-language parent paper, the daily Vladivostok, could only envy. Our print edition had died with the 1998 ruble crisis, and we now published on the Internet only. It would not have taken anything as crude as a beating to deal with me, had anyone cared. I could have been denied a visa or threatened and chased out of the country. But that never happened. The publisher of our parent paper, who had shown courage during the attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev in 1991, was by now allied with Nazdratenko; this made the Vladivostok News’ editorial independence all the more surprising. I suspect this was only because neither our publisher nor anybody else who mattered could read English. The point is, it took no courage whatsoever for me to publish stories that contradicted Nazdratenko’s official line. For my Russian staff, Nonna included, it was a different story. Had the governor’s White House woken up to what we were writing, they could have been subject to the Radio Lemma treatment.

The federal authorities also left us alone. In 1995 an agent from the FSB—the successor to the KGB—had become curious about the small group of Russians and foreigners who were putting out an English-language newspaper in town. He phoned Nonna in the newsroom and told her to come downstairs immediately and meet him outside. A tired-looking agent in his late thirties was waiting in a shabby Russian car, although anybody of means in the Far East drove a Japanese import. His familiarity with her biography frightened her a little. He knew all about her time dancing in a contemporary troupe, her past work as a translator for the Oceanographic Institute. He wanted to know what all those foreigners were up to in town.

“Why don’t you come up and ask them?” Nonna said.

“No! You never talked to me. This is just between us. That’s an order.”

But when he sent her back upstairs, Nonna immediately told everyone about her conversation with the FSB agent.

Only one article I wrote, a freelance piece for The New York Times on another firm, Far Eastern Shipping Co., ever drew any reaction from the local authorities. I can only speculate that this story must have been translated by the Russian Foreign Ministry and found its way to the regional White House; surely nobody in the Nazdratenko administration was paging through The Times or reading it online in English. A few weeks after the beating of Stepanov, Natalya Vstovskaya, the governor’s press secretary, phoned our parent paper and asked the editors to print a letter. The White House would pay the usual rate, she said. Russian newspapers often accept cash to print official statements disguised as letters or news stories, and the governor wanted this one to play prominently. It had not yet been decided who would sign it, but Vstovskaya would supply a name.

Fine, fax it on over, she was told.

By the time the letter arrived, someone had scrawled a name at the bottom: Yury Ukhov, chairman of the Far Eastern Shipping Company Trade Union. This was a typical Soviet-era practice: using a mouthpiece with working class bona fides to issue a denunciation on behalf of the Party. Oddly, the publisher declined the opportunity to make a buck off an advertorial attacking an employee, and the White House went trolling elsewhere for a venue for its letter.

A few days later the letter ran in a tabloid called Novosti. Ukhov (or his ghostwriter in the governor’s office) expressed indignation over my story for The New York Times. He called me “illiterate and dumb” and warned of the “boundless evil” of foreign provocateurs such as me. “What a beast Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko is!” the letter stated sarcastically, implying that I had written this. Ukhov, who apparently did not realize I lived in Vladivostok, wrote that I was one of these foreigners who think that Russians still wear velveteen trousers and sleep on stoves in the fashion of peasants of old. It compared foreign investment in the fleet to stealing a cucumber out of someone’s garden. (The quotes I have are preserved in a column I wrote for The Moscow Times. The full letter appears to have melted into the sands of the Internet.)

Even if we had not known that the letter originated in the White House, it would have seemed unlikely that that Ukhov was a regular reader of The New York Times. I asked Nonna to telephone him and subtly sound him out on this (Gosh, that’s great that you read English; where did you study?). But she was filled with righteous indignation on behalf of her man, and, judging from the side of the phone conversation I overheard, it turned into an argument. She hung up.

“Well?” I said.

“He told me, ‘I am ashamed that you, a Russian woman, are defending foreigners.’”

§

03 Newsroom Handsome or whatNazdratenko views mock-ups of the next day’s paper in the newsroom of Vladivostok. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Once, Nonna and I had the opportunity to ask Nazdratenko directly about some of the turmoil at Vostoktransflot. Around that time he dropped in on the newsroom of the Vladivostok to take questions, and Nonna and I invited ourselves upstairs. The newsroom was like any other—crowds of desks, computer terminals, heaps of faxed press releases—except that an old bust of Stalin occupied a shelf near the door. (The journalists considered this a joke.) The governor was a fleshy middle-aged man with a five-o’clock shadow and permanent sheen of sweat, and the publisher ushered him to a comfortable seat. Nazdratenko was relaxed, accustomed as he was to fawning coverage. He tended to refer to crowds as “my friends,” and, in the condescending manner of communist bureaucrats, addressed young women reporters as “ty”—the informal you. The journalists crowded around, and everyone lobbed questions at Nazdratenko, who amiably swatted them into the bleachers. Who wouldn’t enjoy this? Local TV stations devoted their entire hour-long newscasts to his daily schedule, trumpeting the governor’s ribbon-cuttings and handshakes with visiting officials. When he held press conferences, his spokeswoman distributed printouts listing the questions he wished to be asked. Reporters compliantly raised their hands and asked. Even editors said they felt compelled to attend the governor’s press conferences, although they had reporters in the room to cover the events. “Someone might notice if I don’t show up,” one editor said.

But at one point as he droned on, I whispered in Nonna’s ear: “Ask him about Milashevich and the $2 million.” When Nazdratenko paused, eyebrows raised, awaiting another softball, Nonna fired the question.

The governor purpled, and his nostrils flared. The publisher’s mouth fell open. Reporters stared at us in surprise. “Did you [ty] ask that question yourself, or did your friend put you up to it?” the governor asked Nonna, nodding at me.

Characteristically, Nonna said, “I myself” (ya sama).

Sama, sama!” Nazdratenko muttered scornfully.

He then angrily denied the allegation and reiterated his contempt for foreigners and their hireling Milashevich. “I wouldn’t accept a postcard from that company.”

He looked around to indicate he was open to a more appropriate line of inquiry. Andrei Ivlev stood up, a bony-elbowed, thirties-ish senior editor in a suit coat that hung on a frame like a dry cleaner’s coat hanger, and, with a glance of solidarity at Nonna and me, he nervously sang out a confrontational question that made the publisher flinch. I can no longer remember what he asked, but he could have been dealt with Radio Lemma-style. Nazdratenko growled a reply and looked at the publisher as if to say, This will not be forgotten. Other tough questions followed. But this moment of editorial fortitude did little good. Nothing that contradicted the governor’s narrative made it into the paper the next day.

Around that time, an item appeared in the newspaper Utro Rossii. A spokesman for the governor’s office invited editors to attend a critique of their coverage of Vostoktransflot. As the paper noted, “the editors of the newspapers were urged to fire journalists who give the wrong point of view of events.” And when Nazdratenko’s birthday rolled around, members of the media threw him a party. They gave him a dartboard decorated with the face of a political foe. And they sang a song they had composed, referring to him, in the formal Russian manner, by his first name and patronymic:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, molodets;
Oppozitsiyi prishol konets.

Which means:

Yevgeny Ivanovich, attaboy;
The opposition has been destroyed.

§

Himself

Governor Yevgeny Ivanovich Nazdratenko reportedly was born February 16, 1949, aboard a ship that was evacuating one of the Kuril Islands, a chain whose southernmost outcroppings Russia and the Soviet Union have possessed since World War II but Japan also claims. According to the website Komprinfo.ru, islanders were warned a tsunami was approaching, and they fled to sea, where the wave would ripple harmlessly beneath them. I have been to the remote islands, and the story raises questions in my mind. Did thousands of islanders really have enough notice, in the hours it takes a tsunami to sweep across the North Pacific, to round up the kids, drive over the island’s unpaved roads to the port, take a motor launch out to a ship anchored in the harbor, and clamber one-by-one up a gangway to the deck before steaming to safety? Nazdratenko’s mother is said to have come from a family of former Gulag prisoners, but this should not be taken to mean they were dissidents. Even if the story is true, Nazdratenko’s family could have been anything from common criminals—the elite of Stalin’s slave labor camps—to innocent citizens denounced by envious neighbors in search of a better apartment. Nazdratenko’s mother reportedly divorced his hard-drinking father when the future governor was a child.

Romantically, Nazdratenko is said to have met his future wife, Galina, as a child, although Komprinfo.ru does not detail the circumstances; the Web site does state that the future governor attended a music school, where he mastered the accordion. He served in the Navy as a welder, graduated from the Far Eastern Technological Institute, and eventually rose to “helm” (as The Wall Street Journal likes to put it) a mining company. In time he became a member of the Russian Duma, and was elected governor in 1995. Since taking office, he had accomplished the feat of impoverishing a region rich in natural resources at the crossroads of the booming economies of Japan, South Korea, and China. Nazdratenko did excel at collecting personal rewards and medals. When Patriarch Alexii II visited Vladivostok, the holy leader of the Russian Orthodox Church cited Nazdratenko’s “great service to the people” and honored him with the Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii.

Governors serve a different role in Russia than they do in the West. In the U.S., the states form separate power centers with taxing and enforcement structures independent of Washington. But in Russia, governors are part of a pyramid of authority with the Kremlin at its peak. For most of the nation’s history, they were appointed by Moscow, rather than elected, although Nazdratenko did win his office in a popular poll. Putin would scrap the election of governors in 2004, then reintroduce the vote following protests in 2012. A few months later he signed a law rendering the reform meaningless by allowing him to pick regional leaders if local lawmakers overturned the polls. The governor controls the police and distributes funding from Moscow to the cities. This allowed Nazdratenko to starve the Vladivostok administration of cash when he clashed with the city’s eccentric former mayor, Viktor Cherepkov. Nazdratenko eventually forced him from office.

It says something when the chief hope for reform lay in the FSB—the former KGB whose agent had summoned Nonna to his car. In 1997 President Yeltsin appointed General Viktor Kondratov, head of the local FSB office, as his representative to Primorye. Yeltsin was said to be sick of the constant reports from the Russian Far East of corruption, blackouts, unpaid wages due to theft by higher-ups, and other misery, and it was rumored that Nazdratenko would not survive much longer in office. Kondratov’s agents raided Nazdratenko’s White House in a case that brings to mind the U.S. Attorney’s Office swooping in on a corrupt Illinois governor. FSB agents lugged out computers and floppies and boxes of documents, and had this been the Northern District of Illinois, grand jury indictments would have followed. But in Russia, governors are immune to prosecution, so Kondratov focused on those around Nazdratenko, hoping the pressure would push the governor from office.

I first met Kondratov shortly after the raid, when we learned he was holding a press briefing at the FSB headquarters. Nonna and I showed up at a lobby decorated with a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish revolutionary who headed the FSB’s predecessor, the Cheka, at a time when it was notorious for torture and summary executions.

We tried to get in, but the public affairs officer told us, “We’re not having a press conference. Who told you that?”

“The Mayor’s Office,” Nonna said.

“Well, it’s not true. Besides, the general’s office is very small. He can’t fit many reporters in at once.”

Nonna is nothing if not persistent, and she phoned Kondratov from the lobby. We were invited on up.

An FSB agent escorted us upstairs to an office where, yes, reporters had indeed gathered. The burly general kept a set of barbells to work out with (he also liked to swim in the sea), and in a later story on Vladivostok’s loony politics, The New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon would describe him thus: “Dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and carrying an unlit pipe, Mr. Kondratov looks like a suave character out of a John le Carré novel.” By Kondratov’s account, he was present at a 1982 meeting when Communist Party First Secretary Yury Andropov, a former KGB chief, announced a twenty-year plan to liberalize the economy; thus Kondratov makes the astonishing claim that it was the KGB that set the Soviet Union on the path to democracy. Still, Kondratov was not always above reproach. After the police searched his allegedly drunken and belligerent son-in-law during a raid on a night club, the two officers involved were fired, the media reported. Many papers suggested Kondratov played a role in this, a charge he denied.

As I pulled up a chair, his gaze settled on one of my ears.

“What’s that?”

“A hearing aid. I’m hard of hearing.”

“American spy,” the general muttered with a wry tilt of the eyebrow. The other reporters chuckled. “But we have become friends now, haven’t we?”

Kondratov summarized a report the FSB had compiled for President Yeltsin’s office. Later leaked, the document, dated June 19, 1997, accused Nazdratenko of working hand-in-glove with the Mafia to muscle the economy of Primorye. His sons allegedly used bribery and force to wrest control of fuel, alcohol, and casino businesses in the region, and to smuggle contraband through the region’s ports. The FSB documented allegations that Nazdratenko’s son, Andrei, had gained control of Chechen gangs in the border city of Khasan, streamlining the smuggling of narcotics, rare metals, and sea urchins, which are considered luxuries in China and Japan. The FSB stated:

On the governor’s initiative, people were appointed to the main posts who used their work in the power structure of Primorye to strengthen their influence on the economy for the purpose of personal enrichment. These bureaucratic bosses empower corrupt interests with the aid of law enforcement agencies and leaders of organized crime.

In other words, the bureaucrats and the goodfellas were all in it together. It was an association Nazdratenko himself once hinted at in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia. “Indeed, I have appealed to the criminal world,” Nazdratenko said, in an interview quoted by The Chicago Tribune, “and many of those whom I asked for collaboration are wearing tuxedos rather than leather jackets for the first time,” as if the emergence of godfathers in dinner jackets with shiny lapels were not a tacky throwback to Capone and the Corleones, but an unprecedented and favorable development of his administration.

06 TolstosheinFirst Vice Governor Konstantin Toltoshein, accused of mob connections and kidnapping a reporter, promotes a book on Nazdratenko. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

Most U.S. states somehow get by with a chief executive and a single lieutenant governor, no doubt toiling to exhaustion, but Nazdratenko distributed the workload among thirteen vice governors. These sub-bosses forged alliances with the mob to further their interests, the FSB alleged. The most noteworthy of them was First Vice Gov. Konstantin Tolstoshein, a weak-chinned, beak-nosed man who perpetually wore a parrot’s expression of fanatical perplexity. I once encountered him on the edge of a protest outside the White House—workers demanding unpaid wages, if I recall correctly—and through Nonna I asked a neutral question along the lines of, “What do you make of all this?” An American politician would slap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, how you doin’, great question,” and then blame the previous administration for the problem, and assure you that he and the governor were fighting every day for working men and women, and, by God, they wouldn’t rest until every penny of back wages was paid. And he would have cited statistics proving that problem was receding under the current administration, or argued that his opponents had reached a new low in politicizing this human tragedy. But Tolstoshein looked as if I had stuck a ruler between the bars of his birdcage and rapped him on the head. He began shouting obscenities. When I tried to interject, “I don’t understand why—,” his voice rose to a shriek, and I was instructed in rich new forms of Russian poetics. Nonna tugged on my sleeve, and we retreated.

Now Kondratov was alleging that Tolstoshein had seized control of numerous companies in the region, setting up his adult daughter and mother-in-law as puppet executives. “Tolstoshein,” the FSB stated, “uses connections with the leaders of criminal groups for violent actions toward competitors.” The report noted a notorious incident from 1994, when Tolstoshein had been mayor of Vladivostok. After VBC Radio broadcast an assessment of Tolstoshein’s first hundred days in office which he didn’t like, he phoned the station, “screaming obscenities and demanding apologies,” the newspaper Kommersant reported. The radio station hastily climbed down and offered its regrets, both on air and in print. But that was not good enough for Tolstoshein’s pals, who keenly felt the mayor’s pain. The radio station’s commercial director took VBC reporters Alexei Sadykov and Andrei Zhuravlyov on a little drive to a city stadium, supposedly to tell Tolstoshein in person they were sorry, for his feelings really were hurt. For God’s sake, he was probably sulking in his cage, plucking out his feathers in a rage, refusing to do any more goddamned mayoring until he received further apologies, and where would that leave the city, eh? Unmayored, that’s right. From the stadium, the mobsters (the crime boss A.B. Makarenko was involved, the FSB alleged) then drove Sadykov to a cemetery and helped him see how unfair he had been. Tolstoshein was a great guy, and in case Sadykov forgot it, here was proof. The mobsters put a sack over his head, beat him, and tortured him with cigarettes.

Kommersant added, “They forced him to dictate on a tape recorder that he received a bribe of $100 from the ousted [Mayor] Victor Cherepkov.” Which of course settled the matter.

When he escaped with his cigarette-pocked skin, Sadykov filed criminal charges. But his own station’s commercial director was merely reprimanded, and nobody went to jail.

Three years after the alleged kidnapping, but before the FSB report that raised the same charges, we pursued the story at the Vladivostok News. I admired the guts of our interpreter (and later reporter), Anatoly Medetsky. He phoned Tolstoshein’s secretary on my behalf and asked to arrange an interview for me with the first vice governor. Why? Well, I wanted to know whether Tolstoshein did or did not order the kidnapping and torture. Told that the first vice governor was unavailable, Anatoly bravely left a message. Tolstoshein never called back. Maybe we lucked out.

As for all the evidence the feared FSB accumulated, Kondratov filed forty-two criminal cases. The local courts, under the control of Nazdratenko, refused to consider them. And that was that.

§

The Baron and the Sex Ambulance Tycoon

Since the time of Gogol, the character of the governor has periodically appeared in Russian literature. In The Inspector General, Governor Anton Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky extorts bribes and flogs a corporal’s widow so severely she cannot sit for two days, although she gets off lightly compared to the prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, who are sentenced to a thousand strokes, two thousand, the beatings distributed in tranches, between which the inmate is hospitalized, nursed back from the shadowland at the border of life, and then flogged another thousand times, often to death. On the remote Pacific island of Sakhalin, a former penal colony, Governor-General Baron Korf told Chekhov, who visited in 1890, that the prisoners there lived better than their fellows anywhere else in Russia or Europe, never mind that Dr. Chekhov was tormented one night by the cries of inmates in the prison next door, begging for admission to the hospital. The next morning he glimpsed the sick, mud-soaked men, and he concluded that “I saw before me the extreme limitations of man’s degradation, lower than which he cannot go.” For his part, Tolstoy offers us Count Fyodor Rostopchin in War and Peace. Terrified of a mob that gathers outside his palace during the French invasion, he hands over a prisoner as a scapegoat, to be torn to pieces. “Lads!” Rostopchin cries. “This man, Vereshchagin, is the scoundrel by whose doing Moscow is perishing.” But only one governor in Russian history, as far as I know, has ever won a prize from a secretive society of noblemen who serve their fellow man by giving away cash to super-rich actors and politicians.

It happened like this. One day late in 1998, amid daily blackouts and a heating crisis that left water freezing in the toilets of thousands of apartments across the Russian Far East as temperatures plunged to minus 49 Fahrenheit, the White House announced news it seemed confident would cheer its grumpy citizenry. The World Aristocratic Academy, an association whose address was a post office box in the Bahamas, had awarded Nazdratenko a million-dollar prize as Aristocratic Governor of the Year, the White House reported. The Academy was said to be headed by a certain Baron De Caen and included a Baron de Rothschild, Duke Kemberinsky, Prince Golitsyn (presumably a descendant of the great Russian statesman of the seventeenth century), and “other prominent representatives of aristocratic families.” The academy wished to honor Nazdratenko “for his incorruptible sincerity, principles, and aristocratic manners in defending his opinion,” the White House stated. The members of the academy apparently had never sat in on a press conference in which Nazdratenko blew his stack at a question, but never mind. He would now be honored, we were told, alongside King Juan Carlos of Spain (“Aristocratic King of the Year”), New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (topping the “aristocratic mayor” category), the Russian boy band Na Na (surely you’ve heard of them), actors Demi Moore (star of the movie “Striptease”) and Harrison Ford (revered for his cardboard portrayals of righteously angry men in a scrape), and Princess Diana of Wales (a posthumous winner). Six million dollars would have bought a lot of polio vaccinations in Afghanistan, but, blimey, think of the trickle-down effect if we give it all to the rich and famous: this must have been the philanthropic academy’s logic.

The source of these tidings, the White House reported, was a hospital procurer and White House confidant named Viktor Fersht, previously known for his failed effort to establish a “sex ambulance” for men in urgent need of physical congress. Fersht claimed to be a graduate of the New York-based University of International Education, an organization whose existence I was unable to confirm. His résumé was filled with impressive flourishes. Fersht said he represented Primorye to the United Nations, a claim that might have surprised the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also made known that he was “director of medical intelligence” for an organization that treated wounded “veterans of espionage,” presumably providing care for all those secret agents who are injured every year in James Bond-style shootouts with their American counterparts. Fersht would soon procure further fame when he announced that a meteorite that had hit Primorye decades ago prevented erectile dysfunction and helped smooth facial wrinkles. Overnight, enterprising healers began selling chunks of blackened iron ore in Vladivostok’s street markets.

So which of Nazdratenko’s noble qualities had led the World Aristocratic Academy to honor him? When I called the Bahamas, a receptionist for the lawyer who had incorporated the academy refused to reveal the names of any officers or put me in touch with a spokesman. It was left to Fersht to explain. He said the award came about after a chance meeting he had with Baron De Caen in the Bahamas. Devil knows, as the Russians say: perhaps after a gratifying tour around Nassau in an ambulance, sirens blaring, the French nobleman in Bermuda shorts settled at a swimming pool bar beside the secret agent health sector executive, where they both sipped Mai Tais from water coconuts and twirled their little cocktail umbrellas. Whatever the setting, Fersht said he described Nazdratenko’s noble attributes, and the Frenchman must have been moved. For the next thing you know, His Liege was writing out a million-dollar check to an obscure Russian satrap in a region plagued by accusations of official thievery, assaults on the free press, and Mafia connections at the highest levels. Or this is more or less the tale citizens were asked to swallow.

Curiously, Primoryeans did not celebrate Fersht’s news with fireworks, spontaneous mazurkas, or smooches to the lips of pretty girls on downtown boulevards. The award was too much to swallow even for those papers on the governor’s payroll, and the news was covered skeptically. Never mind that the money to buy coal for the region’s power plants had evaporated, that fractals of frost were blossoming on the walls of our apartments; all Russians could take pride in Nazdratenko, Fersht insisted. In an act of noblesse oblige, Nazdratenko announced that he would donate his entire million bucks to the poor. The Primorye Red Cross promised to partner with the governor to give away food packages, and leading Western businessmen and international aid groups were recruited to serve on the board of an umbrella organization that would distribute His Worship’s largesse.

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and sure enough, certain types sneered at the reports of aristocratic jackpots. Foreigners, cynics, political foes—unsavory, all. I phoned a Giuliani spokeswoman in New York, who told me, “Quoted: Mayor’s press secretary says, ‘No way.’ We’ve never heard of this group.” The Princess of Wales’ former spokesman and her charitable foundation had no record of any windfall from societies of toffs in ascots or powdered wigs, nor had they heard of the name of Fersht. Never mind all that. The foreigners were lying, Fersht said, to evade taxes. Meanwhile, Governor Nazdratenko’s foes charged that the so-called prize was a money-laundering scheme or a means of buying the votes of the poor as the election approached. “This scheme will try to use the international humanitarian aid for his political purposes,” said a spokesman for Kondratov, the local FSB chief. “I cannot exclude that this money came from the regional budget.”

Nazdratenko’s press secretary Natalya Vstovskaya denied this. “That’s a load of crap,” she said. “Are we not supposed to give humanitarian aid at this point?”

One morning early in 1999, Fersht and the White House called a meeting at the Chamber Drama Theater, where Nonna and I once had once watched an excruciating Russian-American production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors kept forgetting their lines. In Fersht’s spectacle, though, it was the extras who veered off-script. Instead of showing gratitude for the foodstuffs they were promised, hundreds of sour-faced seniors and hard-luck types in threadbare coats and rabbit-skin hats planted their bony bottoms in the seats and folded their arms with a scowl, expecting the worst. And who wouldn’t be skeptical? The meeting was held just a year after a pyramid scheme co-founded by Galina Nazdratenko collapsed, taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars invested by the suckers who had trusted her. The governor had personally gone on TV to promote the scheme, called the Primorye Food Charitable Fund, but with its collapse, 50,000 people lost their life’s savings. The president of the scheme vanished for a few weeks, only to reemerge a few miles out of Vladivostok in a group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims who were walking six thousand miles to Moscow, carrying crosses and icons. The former pyramid scheme president felt guilty about the whole mess, he did. So he was repenting of his sins. Nazdratenko did not join the pilgrims, but surely he, too, felt bad about stripping his citizens of their life’s savings. Maybe that’s why he was so generous with his million dollars from the baron in Bermuda shorts.

At the Chamber Theater that morning, there weren’t enough applications to go around, and the scowling seniors seemed masochistically gratified to find their worst fears proven right. When Fersht gave a speech thanking Nazdratenko for his generosity, an angry grumbling and a few derisive whistles sounded from the crowd.

A lawyer took the lectern to explain that—hush, people, listen up—the assembled body would need to vote, yea or nay, on whether to create a Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the million bucks as food aid. The council would also have political objectives that everyone present would surely gratefully embrace. See, their benefactor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, was up for reelection, and so were pals of his at the federal level. This new council could help.

“The chief goal shall be the protection of members’ interests in the election for governor, Federal Duma, and president of the Russian Federation in 1999-2000,” the lawyer said.

The old folks jeered and shouted.

“Who stole the applications?” cried an old woman in a matted fur turban.

Elderly men and grandmas on crutches trundled down the aisle and hobbled up on stage demanding their foodstuffs. No vote could be taken in the unruly crowd.

Fersht’s voice could be heard frantically assuring the crowd that more applications would be printed, and people could apply for assistance at Red Cross the next day. Then he, the lawyer, and the other organizers fled the meeting, leaving a room full of angry pensioners who were convinced the governor had pulled another fast one and stashed his million-dollar prize in a Cypriot bank account. The next day the papers announced that the assembly had gratefully voted to create this Council of Independent Organizations and Citizens Living Below the Poverty Level, which would distribute the aid.

§

I wanted to talk to the goodhearted Baron De Caen, but when I was unable to find him, we pressed the White House for an explanation. Why didn’t a philanthropic organization with what must have been an endowment in the hundreds of millions of dollars even have a rental office with a telephone and a part-time public affairs officer willing to pass along a message to the noblemen running the show? Nazdratenko’s office kept telling me, talk to Fersht, he’s the liaison. Eventually, Nonna and I caught up with him in an upper-floor hallway of the White House. I asked for documentation of the award.

I don’t have it with me, he said. The academy called with the news.

They just phoned? You didn’t get a letter or anything?

They said they’ll be sending it.

Who called you? Do you have a name?

Baron de Caen. He’s very famous.

Do you have a contact number?

I’m afraid not. He talked to my wife.

Wait. So, you’re saying a baron you met in the Caribbean called out of the blue—

—and told not you but your wife—?

—that Yevgeny Ivanovich won a million-dollar prize from a secret society of plutocrats?

Well, yes.

And the governor chose to announce this to the media without any verification?

You know, I’m really very busy. My wife has all the information.

What’s her name, her phone number?

I’m sorry, I have to go.

He slipped into an office and closed the door behind him. Taking with him my dreams of a poolside exclusive in Nassau with Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Rudy Giuliani, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, the Spanish king, and the child heirs to the British throne.

§

“We Heartily Welcome the President
Of Our Brother Republic, Belarus”

Only once, that I know of, did Yevgeny Nazdratenko share the stage with a worthy peer. In February 1998, more than a year before the Vostoktransflot affair, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus stopped over in Primorye on his way home from the Winter Olympics in Japan. Sporting a comb-over and an Augusto Pinochet mustache, Lukashenko clearly regarded Nazdratenko as a kindred soul. Like the Primorye governor, the Belarusian had married his high school sweetheart; she, too, was named Galina. But the Lukashenkos’ union appears to have been less blissful than that of the Nazdratenkos. In a 2005 interview with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, Galina Lukashenko reported that she and her husband had long resided separately, though they remained legally married. Shortly after Lukashenko’s visit to Vladivostok, a series of opposition leaders and journalists in Minsk began disappearing or turning up dead, among them the deputy chairman of the legislature, who was kidnapped and never seen again. An investigative journalist was knifed to death in her apartment, a crime that remained unsolved.

Later Lukashenko reportedly fathered an illegitimate son, a precocious lad, by all accounts. “The child first appeared in public around four years ago, and now sits in on almost all state occasions,” The Independent reported June 29, 2012, when the boy was seven. In a story titled, “Who’s that boy in the grey suit? It’s Kolya Lukashenko—the next dictator of Belarus,” the paper reported that the lad strutted around at major military events brandishing a golden pistol. Generals of the army were obliged to salute the child, who was also a fixture on his father’s infrequent foreign trips. Kolya even met Pope Benedict XVI. But all this happened long after I heard Lukashenko speak.

The day I saw him, Lukashenko joined Nazdratenko on stage to address a hall full of apparatchiks and black-uniformed naval cadets at the Marine Academy. The curtains and bunting were commie red, and onstage a giant bust of Lenin wrathfully jutted his muzzle like a Scottish terrier that has spotted a squirrel on the other side of a window pane and can’t get at it. Strung across the front of the auditorium was a banner that read, “We Heartily Welcome the President of Our Brother Republic, Belarus,” as if Primorye, too, were an independent nation. Lukashenko likes to refer to the representative form of government as dermocratia— a pun that translates as “shitocracy.” The crowd laughed when Lukashenko recalled breaking up a protest by “fascists” who opposed his government, and they clapped when he warned that other nations are scheming to conquer Russia. Applause also broke out when Lukashenko fantasized about dealing with economists who wanted Belarus to adopt a Western-style market economy: “I wish they could go to the ore mines and work there and see what the real economy is like.” The Belarusian won a standing ovation in the end. Then Nazdratenko took the dais to sneer at members of the Yeltsin government with “Jewish names.” It was a hand-picked audience, but still: I could not find anyone who was troubled by the event.

I relate all this for a reason. Lukashenko flew on to his presidential palace in Minsk, where his first lady surely was not waiting to welcome him with bread and salt, being previously engaged in a small village she had never quite managed to leave. And the rest of us found the wherewithal to carry on with our lives in the anticlimax that follows any great historic moment. But the next day a senior editor of our parent paper dropped by with a tip. At a banquet honoring the Belarusian statesman, Nazdratenko had given his guest the skin of a Siberian tiger, head attached, mouth open and snarling. Fewer than five hundred of these great cats survive in Russia, and it is illegal under international law to hunt them, traffic in their parts, or transport them abroad. The Vladivostok mentioned the tiger skin deep in a fawning story: “The Governor of Primorye gave Alexander Lukashenko a tiger skin as a gift and advised him to look at the fangs in the mouth of the lord of the taiga in order to remember the most radical way to answer the attacks of his foes in Minsk and Moscow.” The reporter claimed that Nazdratenko possessed documents that somehow made the gift legal.

But that morning we heard a different story.

“There were no documents,” the editor told us. “It was completely illegal.”

“Why aren’t you guys writing this?” Nonna said.

“We can’t,” the editor said. The publisher would not allow it.

08 NazdrMuzei8Nazdratenko visits a museum. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

07-NazdrMuzei6

So alone among Vladivostok’s media, the Vladivostok News reported the story as a potential violation of international law. Primorye’ environmental prosecutor, who routinely sought jail terms for tiger poachers, refused to pursue the matter. “I have no authority to interrogate the governor,” he said.

After I wrote about Lukashenko’s tiger skin for our little paper and The Moscow Times, The Los Angeles Times followed up with a story that asked, “So what do you give the authoritarian who has everything? Well, if you’re a provincial governor in Russia’s Far East, you give him the pelt of an endangered Siberian tiger.” Having stirred up this row, we awaited an angry call from the White House, but it never came. Our paper was even on sale in a gift shop in the White House lobby. It was the first of many stories that taught me that the White House and its alleged allies in the mob did not know or simply could not care less what we published in English.

As Lukashenko left Russia, a keen-eyed customs officer discovered the tiger skin in the presidential luggage, according to news reports. After a moment of embarrassment and consultation with his superiors, he waved the visiting head of state on, and Lukashenko brought his trophy home to Minsk. No doubt to this day it lies beside a fireplace in some palatial hall, where from time to time a senior adviser drags his father to the floor for a tickling match while the Joint Chiefs of Staff applaud.

§

Her Majesty’s Scheme
To Scuttle the Fleet
With the Help of
Imperialist Sharks and Vultures

By 1999, one of the few foreigners who was still bullish on Vladivostok was a British businessman named Andrew Fox, a wry, bearded man in his mid-thirties who somehow reminded one of his namesake. The son of a Reuters reporter and grandson of a Russian émigré, Fox was a Cambridge University graduate who owned a brokerage called Tiger Securities. In a region where mobster-tycoons traveled with platoons of body guards, Fox had no security. He avoided the ostentatious displays of wealth that made the word businessman synonymous with mafioso in Russia—the gem-encrusted rings and convoys of SUVs and drunken bacchanalias at night clubs and duffle bags full of U.S. dollars. Fox was married to a Russian and spoke the language, and he lived in a three-room flat, with a small dacha on nearby Russky Island. Impressed with his thinking on business in the Russian Far East, the British government named him its honorary consul. But like Milashevich, he drew Nazdratenko’s attention because of his interest in Vladivostok’s commercial fleet. His offense: investing on behalf of Tiger’s foreign clients in Far Eastern Shipping Co., or FESCO, which was the world’s largest shipping line. Foreigners held 42 percent of the company’s shares. (Milashevich also was a director and key shareholder at FESCO.)

In June, just as the Vostoktransflot affair was brewing, Nazdratenko began attacking Fox in speeches, press conferences, and the media. The governor denounced the Britain as “an imperialist shark” and “a vulture who’s robbing Russia.” The tabloid Novosti—the same one that published the trade union leader’s letter accusing me of thinking Russians wore velveteen trousers—stated that Fox wanted to sell off FESCO’s entire fleet, so that “we will have to close all the maritime academies of Russia and delete Russia from the list of seafaring countries.” Apparently unaware of Fox’s status as an honorary diplomat, Nazdratenko announced in a press conference that he was ordering the main successor agency to the KGB to investigate whether Fox had illegally obtained the shares held by his clients. On June 3, Nazdratenko summoned Fox to the White House. In an office overlooking Zolotoi Rog harbor, Fox found himself seated at a table with perhaps thirteen or fourteen people: Nazdratenko, several vice governors, and uniformed FSB officers with medals on their chests (by now Kondratov had been recalled to Moscow). The governor told Fox he was going to throw him in jail if he did not somehow convince foreigners to meet three demands: appoint a FESCO chairman of Nazdratenko’s choosing, elect a board friendly to the regional administration’s interests, and sell the regional administration a seven percent stake in the company. Since Fox himself could not order other foreigners to sell their stock, it is unknown how the governor expected him to hand over the shares, but a basic appreciation of the workings of business never was Nazdratenko’s strong point.

11 _____G~1Rusty ships in Zolotoi Rog harbor. Photo by Yuri Maltsev.

This spring while participating in a writing fellowship in Brussels, I visited Fox in London. He grilled a slaughterhouse’s worth of chicken, beef, and ribs, and we sat out under a blossoming magnolia tree in his back garden with his two daughters and the Dutch boyfriend of one of the girls. His eleven-year-old son and three of his friends marauded through, loading their plates, then vanished upstairs to play video games. As the daughters and boyfriend listened, wide-eyed, Fox and I swapped stories about Russia’s “Wild East” until a hailstorm drove us indoors. As a joke, Fox also presented me with an artifact of White House propaganda: a chapbook called The Favorite Songs of Yevgeny Nazdratenko, printed up by the regional administration.

In his meeting with Nazdratenko and the sub-bosses of Primorye, Fox recalled, the governor explained the consequences if the foreigners did not comply: “He told me he would put me in a small room in Partizansky Prospekt”—the local jail.

Fox flew to Moscow and held a press conference to reveal the threat, and it became an international scandal for Russia, with Her Majesty’s government denouncing the bullying. Media ranging from the BBC to The New York Times covered the case. Nazdratenko’s intimidation not only undermined diplomatic norms but threatened private investment in Russia. Nazdratenko’s staff hastily denied he had threatened anyone and only said he had spoken to Fox in a “manly” fashion.

But that did not put a stop to the pressure. The drumbeat against FESCO continued when Nazdratenko’s allies in Vostoktransflot’s leadership hired buses to bring maritime academy students, sailors, sea captains, and others to downtown Vladivostok for a protest. A thousand people showed up to denounce Russian businessmen close to Fox as “agents of imperialism.” From the dais, Vladivostok Mayor Yuri Kopylov excoriated a local journalist whom he noticed at the edge of the crowd interviewing a business partner of Fox’s. “She won’t be a reporter for long,” he told the crowd.

Nazdratenko pressured the FESCO board to appoint his candidate to head the company. His man for the job was Aleksandr Lugovets, who happened to be Russia’s Deputy Transportation Minister. Fox replied that Lugovets was unacceptable to foreign investors, who were insisting on a Western level of accounting and transparency. There seemed to be little chance Lugovets would land the job, because board members allied with the foreigners were in the majority. But at a July 6 board meeting, an American board member and a former employee of Fox’s named Richard Thomas threw in with Nazdratenko against the foreign shareholders, handing Lugovets a six-to-five victory. I do not know why Thomas voted as he did, because he did not respond to my inquiries at the time. (He had been editor of the Vladivostok News before my time.) The foreigners Fox represented ended up selling their shares to the Primorye regional administration.

§

By September of 1999, Vostoktransflot’s debts under Ostapenko exceeded the assets of the company, according to media reports. Thirty-four of its thirty-eight ships were arrested to be sold for debts, with one of them to be auctioned off in Lagos, Nigeria. The four remaining ships were docked in Vladivostok, where they had returned in July at Ostapenko’s orders. None of the crews had been paid under his management. Wage arrears to Vostoktransflot’s employees ran in the millions.

The turmoil in the company briefly drew the attention of the federal prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, who flew to Primorye to sniff around. But Russia had changed since the days of Gogol. No one trembled as Gogol’s governor did before the man he mistook for the inspector general from Moscow (“My God, how angry he is. He has found out everything”). Ustinov’s assistant spoke with Vostoktransflot’s legal adviser, Taisia Ponomaryova, who claimed to have evidence of corruption in the Primorye prosecutor’s office and said she possessed documentation proving that a Mafia gang known as the Larionov brothers had gained control of Vostoktransflot through front organizations and that Ostapenko was linked to the brothers, the newspaper Kommersant reported. Valery Vasilenko, the Primorye prosecutor general, dismissed her accusations as nonsense. Anyway, nothing came of Moscow’s interest. Ponomaryova was scheduled to join Milashevich in Moscow for a meeting with Ustinov.

Her phone began ringing at night. Callers she did not know wished to offer a word to the wise. She’d end up beneath the ground with her feet to the east if she kept stirring up trouble, capisce? And it turned out these dial-up friends possessed an uncanny clairvoyance, or must have access to tarot cards or soothsayers, for how else could they have foreseen what would happen at her suburban dacha on the night of September 12, 1999, when she went to bed, and either did or did not say her prayers or think the warm thoughts of the night or reassure herself that a Moscow prosecutor was now paying attention and nothing could happen to her? After she turned out the light, she was blown to bits by a half kilo of TNT.

Suspects? Ostapenko, the new director of Vostoktransflot, wanted to make clear he was not to blame for the “accident.” (The word choice was important, because, who knows, maybe Ponomaryova had in fact bought a child’s chemistry set and stashed it under the bed in an unsafe manner. It does happen.) He issued a statement denying any involvement by his office: “Some media have run absolutely false information on the alleged complicity of the present lawful administration of [Vostoktransflot] in the tragic death of Taisia Ponomaryova. In this connection, the acting administration has to state that it does not have anything to do with the accident.” Besides, he had been sick at home the week of the bombing. How could he be involved?

Well, all right, then; scratch Ostapenko off the list of suspects. What did Alexander Shcherbakov, prosecutor of the Pervomaisky district of Vladivostok, think about all this? He quickly denied any wrongdoing in raiding Vostoktransflot and kicking out Milashevich’s team. He said his office investigated all the facts and concluded that the court executors and the police were acting in full accordance with the law.

Nazdratenko? He was never implicated or named as a suspect. Who said he was? But the governor now controlled Vostoktransflot through the new board of directors, the media reported.

One of Russia’s greatest shipping companies was now falling to pieces. Foreign investors were panicking. Six ships under the Cyprus flag, pledged to the Bank of Scotland, were arrested by Nazdratenko in the port of St. Petersburg in what he said was “the national interest,” Milashevich recently recalled. And anyone who questioned the current ownership arrangement was encouraged to see things the governor’s way. Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova, head of the Vladivostok department of the State Arbitration Court, was overseeing a case concerning Vostoktransflot’s bankruptcy, and she said she was sure Ponomaryova had been killed because of her attempts to establish corruption in the Primorye administration’s handling of the Vostoktransflot affair. This was not the first time Loktionova had heard a case that interested the White House. Once Nazdratenko phoned her and demanded that she place a crony of his as external manager of a shipping company called Yuzhmorflot, she told Nonna in an interview. And Loktionova, too, had been receiving phone calls from strangers urging her to get with the program and start ruling in accordance with the White House’s wishes, or else. Just before Ponomaryova’s assassination, Loktionova allowed Ponomaryova to copy some files to give to the federal prosecutor general, the judge said. That same day, her neighbor stumbled upon a stranger leaving a package outside Loktionova’s apartment door. Caught in the act, the man grabbed the gift and ran off. She believed it was a bomb.

“This time I again wrote to the local police and the FSB and asked for bodyguards, but I haven’t been given any,” she said. “I am afraid for my life and the life of my husband.”

She sent her two daughters, eleven- and twenty-four years old, into hiding.

04 Protest Loktionovs to Kolyma Voyakin“Loktionovs to Kolyma”—protesters outside the courthouse call for Chief Judge Tatyana Loktionova to be sent to one the most notorious Stalin-era gulag camps. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.

§

Meanwhile, Vostoktransflot’s sailors and workers were going unpaid once again. After Ponomaryova’s death, the White House-allied local media began falsely reporting that Loktionova had frozen the company’s bank accounts. This was untrue, but it had the desired effect. On September 22, a hundred-odd protesters, identifying themselves as sailors, began camping outside Loktionova’s court in a round-the-clock demonstration. Russian police are not known for their tolerance of protests, but this crowd was allowed to remain there for weeks, shouting at anyone they recognized who entered or left the courthouse. Some of them carried signs that read, “Nazdratenko, you were a thousand times right.” Another sign, decorated with a set of handcuffs, said, “Send the Loktionovs to Kolyma,” a reference to a far northeastern region notorious for its Stalin-era Gulag camps. The protesters slopped graffiti on the walls denouncing Loktionova, and they brought in lifeboats, gray with orange covering, which were absurdly beached on the sidewalk along Ulitsa Svetlanskaya. Court employees complained that the seafarers were swigging from bottles and were often, quite frankly, drunk. The sailors chanted their support for the new boss, Ostapenko. This was remarkable, given that all the Vostoktransflot employees I had ever talked to were angry at their chief executive for failing to pay their wages.

On October 4 the protest grew violent. The former acting general director of Vostoktransflot showed up to the courthouse. The protesters dragged him from his car and beat him up. It took another three days before the Primorye regional prosecutor’s office finally ordered the crowd to clear off. As Loktionova left the courthouse that afternoon, police officers escorted her out. As she tried to drive off, roughly a hundred protesters surrounded and began rocking her minivan, shouting, pounding on it, and trying to tip it over.

“We’ll stay here until we kill you,” they screamed.

05 Protest3 VoyakinDemonstrators protest against Loktionova in the Vostoktransflot case. Photo by Vyacheslav Voyakin.

For a half an hour the crowd would not let the judge leave, witnesses said. Eventually, police reinforcements arrived and freed the van. Loktionova escaped unharmed. In a later interview, she told us she had become a scapegoat for the governor’s office because of the bad regional economy. She believed Nazdratenko had drummed up the protest as a part of his re-election campaign. “Just look at the posters praising him,” she said.

The governor’s office dismissed this. “It’s an absurd statement,” said spokesman Andrei Chernov. “It doesn’t have any grounds. The governor does support Ostapenko’s management just because the previous managers couldn’t provide salaries to the sailors.”

Ostapenko held on as company boss, and a year later, Loktionova again found herself under fire. Prosecutors accused her husband of accepting bribes from two businessmen who were trying to influence his wife’s rulings. She herself was never accused of wrongdoing, and she said the charges were trumped up, but the stress took its toll. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a nervous condition, and a heart ailment, and doctors admitted her to the hospital. But days later, the chief physician of Primorye, Polina Ukholenko, personally showed up in Loktionova’s room and kicked the judge out. Loktionova sought admission to other hospitals, but they all refused. “They politely told me to go home, as they didn’t want to get in trouble,” Loktionova said. No other clinic or hospital in the region would admit her.

Ukholenko denied that Loktionova was being refused medical treatment, and claimed that the judge was perfectly healthy. “We did not order clinics not to take her,” she said. “The doctors who denied her help bear full responsibility for her health.”

The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights wrote to President Putin to complain that Nazdratenko was intimidating judges through smear campaigns in the media, threats by police and government officials, fabricated criminal charges, and physical violence. “This strong-arm governor appears to operate without any external controls, giving him free rein to threaten anyone who challenges his status quo,” wrote Robert Varenik, director of the Lawyers Committee’s Protection Program.

But the letter had no effect. The Higher Qualification Collegium of Judges, a professional licensing body, voted to dismiss Loktionova and strip her of her status as a judge in response to the criminal charges against her husband. He had not yet been convicted, nor had she been accused of anything. Never mind. Nazdratenko had won again.

§

The Goat in the Garden

Let us return to the tale of Radio Lemma. In July of 1999, shortly after the beating of Stepanov and threat to the editor through his kidnapped daughter, the building management company cut off electricity and ordered the staff to clear out of its city-owned office and studio. The reporters who arrived to cover this mostly worked for the national media, beyond Nazdratenko’s control, and Nonna and I also showed up. There in the dark, station director Alexander Karpenko told us that Radio Lemma had asked the city property committee to halt the eviction order, but the request was ignored.

“We have appealed to the governor and to Mayor Kopylov,” he told us there in the dark. “I can’t call this situation an accident after all this noise and all this scandal.”

I do not know how Radio Lemma got the power restored, but somehow the station found its way back onto the air. Then late in November, the month before the regional elections, with Nazdratenko on the ballot, the phone rang at the Vladivostok News. It was Marina Loboda, a local reporter for the national newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“The mayor’s shutting down Radio Lemma,” she said. “Get over here.”

We flagged down a car whose gold-toothed driver intuited our urgency. On the road over a mountaintop that pokes up in the city between our offices and the downtown, he kept his foot to the gas, demonstrating Formula One moves on bald tires as he screeched around the curves. Nonna asked him to slow down. He grinned and ignored her. We clung to the armrests. The Japanese cars widely used in the Russian Far East have no seatbelts in back, and for that matter, drivers themselves seldom buckle their shoulder straps, regarding this as unmanly. From the mountaintop we saw Zolotoi Rog harbor laid out before us, the slump-shouldered cranes, the rust-streaked ships at dock, the barren November hills; and we found ourselves contemplating the shortness of this blessed life. But our time had not yet come, and we screeched up safely outside the offices of Radio Lemma. It was swarming with armed cops.

As a foreigner thought to be The New York Times’ guy, I could breeze in and cover a story like this without risk. For the Russian journalists, it took guts just to gather outside the building in the November wind, clutching a notebook. Loboda, the Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter, once said that whenever she filed a story on a dangerous topic, she holed up in her apartment, fearing that something bad was going to happen to her. She and a few others from the national media were there, but this event would not be well-covered by Primorye’s media. Possibly Arsenyevskiye Vesti was there; they had been showing guts in covering the shipping scandals.

The cops wouldn’t let reporters inside. I buttonholed a young lieutenant, who told me the radio station had been storing gasoline to run its generator. This was a fire hazard, he said. The authorities were compelled to act in the interests of public safety. That was all.

I told him, “I don’t believe you.”

Anger flashed in his eyes.

He referred further questions to his captain, who shrugged that orders were orders. I asked, “Why are you doing this when the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech?”

A look of alarm and confusion momentarily crossed his face, as if he had received no instructions as to this point. But the raid went on, and Radio Lemma was off the air until after the election in December. It touched and saddened me later that week when Andrei Kalachinsky, one of the courageous reporters who were there, told Nonna he admired the aggressiveness of my questioning. This compliment was undeserved, particularly from Kalachinsky, who was fired from several jobs because his investigative reporting angered the governor. Later, a pliant court would attempt to seize Kalachinsky’s car after Nazdratenko sued the journalist for an article in the Moscow newspaper Novye Izvestia. (Nazdratenko eventually dropped the case. Uncharacteristically, he shook Kalachinsky’s hand the next time he saw him.) The heroes were the ones who filed their stories and then hid in their apartments, worrying about bombs under the bed. And also my wife, who never hesitated to ask the toughest questions.

Nazdratenko’s campaign in December was filled with attacks on “greedy foreigners” and their Russian allies, and he portrayed himself as a patriot fighting to preserve the Russian fleet. Yet in Vladivostok he was almost beaten by his political rival, Alexander Kirilichev, director of Primorsk Shipping Company. A majority of those we spoke to at the polling stations on election day said they were voting for Kirilichev. Milashevich also ran, but when I asked him what percentage he won, he said he did not remember—maybe 5 percent. “But it does not matter, because the practice of election fraud had already begun,” he wrote. “For example, I cannot believe that Nazdratenko, who froze Vladivostok and left it in the winter with no electric light, scored as much as 75 percent.” As for Kirilichev, he claimed he could prove the election was stolen, but the courts owned by Nazdratenko and the regional election commission found his evidence insufficient.

§

All good things must pass, and while Russian tsars and presidents will forever serve for as long as the state requires them—i.e., for life—mere governors rise and fall. (“No man in this country is irreplaceable—except for one,” Russians used to say under another ruler-for-life, Stalin.) Nazdratenko lost his job, and when he did it happened abruptly.

By the winter of 2000-2001, the Kremlin was embarrassed by the electrical and heating crisis four thousand miles away along the frozen Sea of Japan, and by the foreigners who persisted in writing about it, not just me but the foreign press corps in Moscow as well. Every year Moscow dispatched millions of rubles to buy coal for Primorye’s power stations and boiler houses, and yet in city after city the budget evaporated and ice formed on the interior walls of apartment blocks. In our apartment, Nonna and her son Sergei and I slept in sweats and long underwear and gloves under heaps of blankets, and in the morning, when I got up at four to write fiction, I wore my fur hat and sheepskin coat and fingerless gloves. During the day, amid sixteen-hour blackouts, I scrounged electricity in places where it stayed on. By now I was freelancing and no longer went in to the Vladivostok News to work, so I had to plug in my laptop in the restaurants of international hotels, which had generators to keep the power on. For eight hours at a time I sat there ordering coffee after coffee, so the staff would not kick me out. Or I tipped the waitresses and asked them to leave me alone.

Others could not afford such luxuries. Citizens staged hapless protests—blocking traffic for less than an hour on the main road into Vladivostok one night when the city was so dark, you could see the Milky Way spilled against the void of space. But the regional administration told us we were wrong to complain. First Vice Governor Tolstoshein said there was no energy crisis in Primorye. They were fools and liars, those citizens who complained about living in an apartment where ice formed in their toilets.

President Vladimir Putin was still new on the job, just a year after Yeltsin’s New Year’s Eve resignation had placed the former KGB man in power, and, funny to think, the leader who may now be the richest man on earth was then subject to hopes that he might be a reforming tsar, willing to crack heads together and set things right. Citizens of Vladivostok were cheered in late January when he assailed Nazdratenko for the heating crisis and called the situation in Primorye “utterly outrageous.” Boris Reznik, a State Duma deputy from neighboring Khabarovsk region, told The Moscow Times that Primorye was a “bandit’s nest … one of the most corrupt regions in the country. The fuel crisis was just a consequence.” Russia excels at allowing problems to reach a crisis point, and then heroically solving them. Putin shoveled emergency funds from the federal treasury to be incinerated in the boiler house of Primorye, and he sent his own inspector general in the person of Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu to investigate what might be amiss in Primorye—that is, apart from rampant criminality, theft at every level, and a governor who claimed he had been honored by an international brotherhood of blue bloods. Federal prosecutors began pressing criminal charges in connection with Primorye’s energy problems, and a mayor was found guilty of gross negligence. Cargo planes full of radiators and pipes thumped down on Vladivostok’s concrete-slab runway, and other regions sent plumbers and welders to help restore heating, Reuters reported in January. Moscow ordered other regions to ship coal to Vladivostok, but their governors balked, saying they would run out of fuel if they had to pour their supply into the rat hole by the Sea of Japan. Primorye’s scandals were beginning to touch them. They were angry. The upper house of the federal Duma, in which governors serve, scheduled a debate on the heating situation in the Far East and Siberia. There was the sense that this would not end well for Nazdratenko.

All this drove the sensitive blueblood the point of physical collapse. Taking Loktionova’s lead, Nazdratenko reported to a clinic, claiming serious heart trouble. Luckily, the doctors didn’t kick him out. Reuters cited a regional spokesman who said that “Nazdratenko, the target of a blistering attack by Moscow for alleged blatant mismanagement of the region’s infrastructure, had ended up in hospital after suffering a family loss and because he took his people’s plight to heart.”

One day early in February, the sun set on the Golden Age of the World Aristocratic Governor of the Year, that and every other: Viscount Yevgeny Nazdratenko, chevalier, Order of St. Daniil Moskovskii, Duke of Rothesay, recipient of the Grand Cross of the House Order of the Wendish Crown, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the Foreign Hirelings in Russia. The governor tendered his resignation during a phone chat with Putin.

But a few weeks later, Putin appointed the fallen governor and alleged friend of the mob to helm a new ship, the federal fisheries committee, where he would oversee hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of quotas for Arctic and North Pacific fishing and crabbing. These licenses were lucrative because trawlers could pack their refrigerated hulls with one full quota’s worth of fish, sell it straight off the boat to the Japanese in exchange for U.S. dollars, then head back out to fill their nets again, exceeding their quotas by twenty times or more. The previous head of the committee had just been dismissed amid allegations the committee was running a bribery racket. Reformers were suggesting the solution was to auction off the quotas to the highest bidder, but Nazdratenko made it clear he was opposed to auctions. And besides, with him at the helm, what difference did it make? Alexander Kirilichev, head of the Primorye Shipping Co. and Nazdratenko political rival, told The Moscow Times that ousted governor should be kept away from any managerial position in the government. “They just allowed a goat into a garden,” he said. “Don’t tell me about auctions—he will be able to benefit from any scheme. Very soon those who want to participate in the auctions will have to pay him for access.” But that was a problem for the fishing companies, or the North Pacific environment, not the Russian government.

And now Putin’s house-cleaning had left a new acting governor in place, one with the fanatically baffled gaze. The new boss of the East was the mob-allied parrot himself: First Vice Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein.

“Such stories make Russians, to some extent, feel keenly the depth of depths,” Milashevich wrote to me. Then he quoted a poem titled “12,” from The Stone, by Osip Mandelstam, who died in a gulag transit camp in Vladivostok:

When blow falls on blow
and a mortal, untiring
pendulum swings over my head
wanting to become my fate…
Pointed patterns wind around
each other, and faster and faster
poisoned darts fly up
from brave savage hands.

#

 

List of Sources

Gogol’s The Inspector General is quoted in a translation by Thomas Seltzer (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1916), reprinted by the University of Adelaide Library.

The New York Times description of General Viktor Kondratov comes from Michael R. Gordon’s “On Russia’s Far East Fringe, Unrealpolitik,” which ran Feb 14, 1999.

The Mandelstam poem “12,” translated by Burton Raffel, appeared in Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973), pg. 36. The Russian version, which was published in his 1913 collection Kamen(The Stone), reads:

Когда удар с ударами встречается
И надо мною роковой,
Неутомимый маятник качается
И хочет быть моей судьбой,

Торопится, и грубо остановится,
И упадет веретено -
И невозможно встретиться, условиться,
И уклониться не дано.

Узоры острые переплетаются,
И все быстрее и быстрей,
Отравленные дротики взвиваются
В руках отважных дикарей…

My own articles from that era ran in The New York Times, The Moscow Times, The Japan Times, The South China Morning Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Vladivostok News (now defunct), and many other venues.

—Russell Working

 

Russell Working
Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.

Jun 032014
 
jose_luis_sampedro bw

José Luis Sampedro © José Aymá via Komunikis

La Vieja Sirena (The Old Mermaid) is a novel by José Luis Sampedro first published in Spanish in 1990. It is the second title in Sampedro’s trilogy Los círculos de tiempo (Circles of Time) which also includes Octubre, Octubre (October, October) (1981) and Real Sitio (Seat of Power) (1993).

As the novel’s epigraph from William Blake states: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. So is Sampedro, whose colorful, skillfully layered drama set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D., follows three principal characters: the mysterious and exquisitely beautiful slave Irenia; a power-hungry businessman named Ahram; and Krito, a philosopher employed by Ahram, who experiences the classic blessing and curse of Tiresias as he alternately experiences life as both a man and a woman. The story which then unfolds is one of the complex attractions between these three characters, interpolated with the Irenia’s memories from her life before Alexandria.

The novel’s opening pages present a compelling variety of voices and perspectives: the narrator setting the scene in the ancient Alexandrian marketplace with its delightful cornucopia of wares, and describing the formal transaction between the haughty Amoptis, scribe and son-in-law to Ahram, and the cringing slave dealer who sells him Irenia. Then Amoptis’s cold, selfish, scheming thoughts, governed primarily by ambition and fear. In the final third of the selection, we see life through the eyes of Irenia herself, and how, in this ancient, hierarchical world, her lovely internal monologue introduces the cipher of love as a response to royal pomp and power’s brutal indifference.

One work that The Old Mermaid especially recalls is Flaubert’s great historical fantasia Salammbô (set in ancient Carthage). Sampedro’s novel works a tangible magic with its ability to transport the modern reader to a time and place usually depicted on the plane of relics, tombs, silent hieroglyphics; instead we experience a drama fraught with personal anxiety and wonder at the teeming variety of life and its astonishing experiences.

—Brendan Riley

20091222154839-laviejasirena

 

Part I. The Slave (257 A.D.)

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time
William Blake

Chapter 1. The Land of the Gods

During the warm morning of the Egyptian spring, the summer already close at hand, the market of the third days in Canopus is a continuous vibration of light, color, and voices. The air is riddled with a heady mix of intensely pungent smells and the cries of the merchants who hawk their wares while seated on mats of woven papyrus. Make way! Make way! come the constant shouts of those trying to move through the throng, more densely crowded today because many farmers have harvested their crops and are enjoying the free time imposed by the annual flood which will soon be announced from the great southern Nilometer on Elephantine Island. Some seek care at the hands of the barber surgeon, some pass the time playing the serpent game, while others stop and visit the quack doctor with his magical herbs for cases of love or sickness. Because they are happy, they also permit themselves the luxury of buying barley water from the water vendor who advertises the drink with the jingling of his bells. At last, the plague of the tax assessors has left their fields, the scribes who monitored their reaping like eager crows, estimating first hand the taxes payable on demand for the ripe grain.

Towards midday, farmers and merchants go about packing up their stalls and stands. The smells –sweet or pungent, fermented or aromatic– intensify as the goods and produce are moved about: fava beans, lentils, smoked delta fish, meats and viscera, small sycamore figs alongside the very juiciest figs from true fig trees, dates, pistachios, snails, wild honey gathered in the Nubian oases, sesame, garlic, and so many more, inedible, objects: goatskins, flax, hides, tools, firewood, coal, farming implements, sandals and sun hats woven from papyrus. The plaza empties out, but on the adjacent streets and alleys small shops with more select merchandise remain open: silks and transparent linens suitable for pleating, goldsmiths and other artisans of fine metals, silver and lapis lazuli from the Sinai, imported amber and cosmetics, amulets, perfumes, wigs for men or women, and belts in the latest style. Coming down along one of these streets, the one that descends from the hill crowned by the exalted temple of Serapis, is a rider mounted on an ass whose height and lustrous coat reflect the quality of his personage: a mature man with a clear complexion, small shrewd eyes, and slender lips. From time to time, he checks the correct position of his black wig. One slave opens the way for his mount and another walks at his side, carrying his lord’s staff and sandals; three porters follow behind with bundles of goods acquired in the market.

The rider’s smile indicates pleasant thoughts. Certainly, the words heard in the temple could not have been more promising, dispelling his fears that the new Father of the Mysteries might not grant him the same protection as his recently deceased predecessor. The priestly community thinks in the long term and has not altered its expected plans in defense of the divine interests; nor has it forgotten the services rendered by the rider ever since he was a young scribe in the temple.

“Be patient, my son” the Father has said, “time labors for Heaven. The sacrilegious plundering of the lands of Tanuris, perpetrated by the emperor Caracalla forty-two years ago, will be corrected with your help. Serapis will recover that property and you will no longer be solely the majordomo of your impious patron, but the administrator for life of that estate in the name of the temple.” The rider will command in Tanuris. He will eventually build for himself, on the hilltop overlooking the canal, a tomb with a beautiful sarcophagus, one worthy of a scribe born of the priestly caste, where he will live on in the world of Osiris. His mind delights in contemplating the means necessary for hastening the recovery process, and he does not omit the possibilities of his daughter Yazila who, though barely ten years old, already promises to become a maiden of highly desirable charms. If he manages to get the young master to notice her…!

Meanwhile the slave guide has brought the retinue out of the market district, leading it toward the banks of the Alexandria canal, an area of concentration for the delightful activities that have made Canopus one of the most luxurious spas and pleasure centers in all Egypt. From the small riverside pavilions and pleasure houses and from the colorfully decorated party ships comes the ringing of cymbals, the rhythm of hand drums, and the melody of cithers and flutes. Some barges transport tourists from Alexandria but the majority belong to rich financiers and high society families whose names appear in the street satires or in the erotic epigrams scrawled by night upon certain walls in the capital.

As one additional public service this quarter sports one of the best slave markets, specializing in youths of both sexes trainable for pleasure. The master rises hastily from his shady seat on the porch as he recognizes a regular buyer: the grand majordomo of the House of Tanuris, property of Ahram the Navigator, inhabited by his son-in-law Neferhotep. The rider halts his mount. He condescends to hear the merchant’s flattery but impatiently dismisses how the man sings the praises of his merchandise because he has no intention of making a purchase. The salesman insists:
“At least come to have a look, noble Amoptis. I have an authentic rarity on hand, something never before seen. If this were not true, how could I have dared to detain you?”

In response to a gesture from the rider, his staff bearer hastens to kneel down, placing the sandals alongside the ass. He helps his master to dismount and put them on his feet. Then, handing him his staff, he follows him along the portico to the patio where he then stands waiting for Amoptis to return.

In a room apart from the communal chambers, a woman is lying upon a stone bench set into the wall, covered with a woven mat of rushes. She sits up as she notices the entrance of a possible buyer and, with customary indifference, lets fall to her feet the robe which covers her. Filtering through the latticework blind, the oblique rays of the sun turn her smooth white shapely hips gold. Nevertheless, she fails to provoke the visitor’s interest, for the reason that Amoptis prefers androgynous physiques over her slender body with its erect, high-set breasts whose arrogance resides more in their predictable density than in their volume. Besides, her flesh is not young: she is more than twenty years old, and thus the majordomo is sorry for having entered. He looks reproachfully at the old salesman. But this is what the man was expecting, and without a single word of excuse, he smiles craftily and pulls away the veil covering the woman’s face.

All at once an incredible cascade spills down to her naked shoulders, framing her face with a golden clarity very much like the shine of freshly cut copper. She is not one of those redheads frowned upon by Egyptian superstition: her living mane of silk, which writhes in long waves with her every movement like a gently swelling sea, has the deep, strong, sweet blonde color of ancient amber or fresh honey. Fascinated, Amoptis approaches and caresses the wondrous hair with a trembling hand while the woman remains indifferent. For the first time he contemplates the feminine face: he is astonished by her eyes—somewhere between green and grey—that make him feel guilty of insolence although they do not even deign to look at him. No, they do not see him. Distant from everything as if she were alone, the woman offers his masculine contemplation a figure that now seems marvelous: the discreet fullness of her lips, the delicate nose, the slender neck set upon well-rounded shoulders, the lightly pointed plum-colored nipples, the smooth line of her belly and the perfection of the navel, the tender pubis, and the long full statuesque legs with impeccable knees. As is normal in such transactions, Amoptis might wish to test with his own finger to see if the woman is a virgin, but inexplicably intimidated he suddenly turns his back on the slave and walks towards the door. The astonished salesman follows and closes the door behind him.

“Is your nobleness displeased?”

“At her age I suppose she’s not likely to be a virgin.”

The slave dealer gives a helpless shrug: “If she were, and young, too, she would have it all. But, my lord, that head of hair! I’ve never seen another like it in my life!”

Amoptis acknowledges it, and in that instant conceives of an idea that can win him greater influence over his wife, as well as—although he does not admit it to himself—free himself from his ridiculous inhibition before a mere slave. Such an absurd sentiment for the Grand Majordomo of Neferhotep, son-in-law of Ahram the Navigator, thanks to whose influence he is a member of the Municipal Council of Alexandria!
Amoptis opens the negotiation disdainfully.

“She’s not really worth a great deal. The only thing valuable to me is her hair. If you would sell me just that I would leave you the body.”

And as the salesman looks at him strangely, he concludes:
“So I could offer a wig to my wife. She would take delight in dazzling the ladies of Alexandria with it.”

With the price finally agreed upon—not very high because the salesman has had to admit that she is already twenty-three years old and a Christian terrorist—Amoptis reenters the room, where the woman gets to her feet, guessing the outcome.

“Be content: you are fortunate in your new master,” begins the salesman, “none less than the powerful Ahram…”
Amoptis silences him with a gesture and orders the woman to disrobe.

“Turn around and bend over,” he orders imperiously, thus discovering the harmony of the female back, covered almost to the waist by her hair.

The woman obeys, holding herself at a right angle, with her hands on her knees. Amoptis approaches her suggestive buttocks, and with humiliating brutality thrusts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. Apparently he is simply following custom but in reality he exercises a vengeance for having felt intimidated before her. Although to do so, he has to touch those impure folds of female flesh, hardly attractive to one who was initiated into sex through the virile adolescent backsides of temple choirboys. Amoptis then orders the slave to dress and forbids her to uncover her hair unless he orders it: he wants to surprise his wife.

“Where are you from?” he asks in Egyptian.

“From the island of Psyra, sir,” she responds, also in Egyptian, though clumsily. Her voice is seductive without trying to be.

“Your name?” continues Amoptis in Greek, proud of his learning.

“Lately they have called me Irenia,” responds the slave. An imperceptible stab of pain wounds her heart as she remembers when she joined the wandering Christians that it was Domicia who gave her that name which means peace.

As he pays for his purchase, Amoptis orders some papyrus sandals to be brought for the slave. With an hour’s journey to Tanuris he does not wish to ruin the delicate feet that add value to his merchandise.
Upon arriving to the villa, Amoptis considers that it has gotten too late to show off his discovery. To ensure the surprise he orders them to take the slave to his own room, spread out a mat for her, and serve her food. And so when, with other obligations accomplished, he ascends to his chambers, he finds the woman there. He would prefer to be alone but decides to take advantage of her presence to have her remove his shoes and wash his feet with natron water, first ordering her to uncover her amazing hair.

Lost in thought, he lets her work. As she caresses his feet in the washbowl he suddenly notices that her feminine gestures are singularly soft and delicate. Leaning forward he studies the pair of delicate hands encircling his ankles. They lack the roughness of one who has run with a band of terrorists. Each movement of her bowed head makes her hair ripple and expand. Amoptis runs his fingers across that silk and feels an almost forgotten desire beating in his old veins. Meanwhile she has finished drying his feet and removes the vessel.

“You’re skillful. Are you trained in the arts of massage?”

“I have practiced them, my lord.”

The man stands and orders her to help him undress, then he stretches himself out face down on the bed, displaying a scribe’s narrow back with the spine slightly crooked, flaccid buttocks, and thin legs with knotty knees. He indicates a flask of oil on the shelf. Her feminine hands begin to caress, prod, and stimulate his lean flesh. The man sighs, pensive: Who would have imagined…that this happen to me, at my age…? If my little Yazila could learn these massages, I’m sure that the master would take delight in her flexible body, in her cinnamon skin…I will manage it, she will have to help me…ah, this woman, this woman! So cold, and knowing so much! Softly skinning me alive, removing my skin to go deeper inside…Where could she have…

“Have you ever worked in brothels? Don’t lie!”

The woman looks at him stupefied. Why would she have to lie?

“In Byzantium, my lord.”

Byzantium…they say that the pleasures there…I’m sure that…He suddenly turns over and before thinking about it, his body orders his voice:
“Suck me!”

The slave does not reply. Already kneeling, she lowers her head over his groin and her mouth knowingly begins to caress his circumcised member as her hair brushes against his half-opened thighs… Slow, slowly… The man sighs, pants, trembles, feels delight… His body feels disconnected, dispersed, liquid: he has never known such feverish dissolution… The woman returns to the alcove for the washbowl, returns with it, and carefully washes his shrinking member.

“Put out the lamp,” orders the man at last, “but leave that candle burning.”

Amoptis closes his eyes, not so much to fall asleep as to make her, and the confusion she causes him, disappear. He is always so self-assured! How is it that this woman who seemed to be ignoring him has driven him to such distraction? He begins to wonder if he has not perhaps brought some evil creature into his house. Suddenly he is frightened to recall that, as rumor has it, the carriers of the strange plague which has lately flared up, thrive among those who live badly. The very next morning, once her hair is shorn, he will consign her to the kitchens. No, to the stables, where he will not even see her, where she will pose no risk to anyone. Instinctively he raises his hand to his sex, as if to protect it, and begins to mutter the charm to appease Sekhmet, the powerful, the destroyer.

Thus was purchased the slave Irenia for the exalted Lord Neferhotep of the House of Tanuris in the first days of May in the year 1010 from the foundation of Rome, quarter of the reign of Caesar Gaius Publius Licinius Valerian, in the month which the Egyptian scribes call Mesore and the people know as the season of Fourth of Shemu, before which the tears of Isis, away in the remote south, cause the rising of the Nile and its flooding across the millenary land of the pharaohs.

* * *

What’s happening to me? What is it that affects me so? That pompous personage who has purchased me and who still lies awake, unable to sleep, must be thinking perhaps that the thought of him, or my other news masters, keeps me awake; but that is not the reason, it is really everything that has happened since they brought me to this land, Egypt… Barely three weeks since I arrived here and only from watching along the road, listening on the patio, of eating differently, of smelling the air and feeling the night, I am enveloped in a world I never imagined… Egypt! Before it was only a name to me, like Syria, Armenia, Sogdiana, Cyrenaica… When we traveled with Uruk, Fakumit amazed me with her greatness, she spoke to me about her gods, I had to learn something of his language to understand her, according to her there was no finer land, no greater empire, it sounded like her nostalgic exaggerations, but it was true, this is a different world, what a flood of lives and mysteries! I’m continually amazed, though nothing in life matters to me any more, though I expect nothing, I am drawn by this abundance, which must be how the world was when it was newly created, full, overflowing, giving birth every moment to waters, beings, gods, just yesterday, emerging from the house of slaves, in the corner of the patio, that hyacinth, the day before yesterday it was not there, sprouting in a single night, with its tender arrogance, fragile and powerful, its stem, its flowers, its slender leaves, launching its perfume like a cock crowing, the day before yesterday it was not there, this land never sleeps, giving birth to lotuses, crocodiles, papyrus, ibises, birds, palm trees, serpents, bulls, hippopotamuses, and the dazzling greenery, even here in this town by the sea, everything roiling with heat, the palm fronds, the shimmering air, this world overwhelms me, penetrates me, engenderer, multiplier, waster of lives, what a contrast to Cyrenaica! Not only that prison, with its sweating clay walls, its swill and filth, even free at the oasis everything was precarious, palm trees besieged by the sand, water in a puddle or enclosed in a well, a few scanty oleanders alongside the dry avenue, while here there are wide flowing canals and the arms of the delta, Egypt creating lives, as well as all its many gods, Sobek the sacred crocodile, Bast the cat, Udjit the cobra, Hapi the Nile River, Nefertum the lotus, Hathor, mother of Osiris… No, his daughter, I’m mistaken, Seth who is both good and bad, all divine, the water, the wheat, the beer, because everything gives life, “Life” is the key word, thus so much hope, here the people smile though they are naked and without possessions, and even the dead live on in their tombs, it is only I without a soul, how do I go on living after my disaster, she died in the amphitheater but the morays did not devour me, Domicia’s death killed me, too, I hear her voice everywhere in the silence, right now, that whispering, her wisdom in the serenity, and her hand, her hand, no one ever caressed me like that, not Narsus on the island, no man in Byzantium, nor in the harem, no, not even Uruk, he was something else, but Domicia’s hand was a dark heat, endless friction, burning but quenchable fire, no one else like that, none remembered nor forgotten, she smiled at my ecstasy, and explained it like this: “No man understands a woman’s flesh, only another woman.” She knew that I felt it, feeling with me at the same time, how she created pleasure, how her fingers and her tongue set me on fire! It was a world of women although there were also men following the Mother, I had already heard talk of Christ, when Uruk took me down the Oronotes past Antioch, I remember well, but they said that the Messiah was really a woman, that his masculine garb was only a disguise, the so-called Christ was born a girl, with a girl’s body and a girl’s soul, raised as a woman, that new goddess attracted me, and Domicia’s love had a hold on me, her absolute certainty, she lived safely removed from everything, and so she raised me to a new height, different from a man, I will no longer enjoy such moments, the revelation of life, the soul breaking free, once they were simply passions, caresses or excitations, hidden places in the flesh, but Domicia was the mistress of everything, including the spirit. Oh, how she began to show me! Writing! Words of Latin between her kisses! The geometry of the flesh! She had studied in Syracuse, she was from a rich family, that explained why she was a deaconess to the Mother. I’m dead without her! She was everything! It’s a devastating memory, the emptiness torments me, missing her lips on my sex, on my nipples, my own hands trying to imitate her are no replacement, I can’t recall, can’t remember, but impossible to forget her, I carry her in my skin, since her hand touched me, laying it on my arm, in that shadowy dungeon, her caressing voice, “Will you tell me your sorrows, my sister?” I groaned for Uruk, months had gone by and I was till crying for him, it was the first time she called me sister, me: born without anyone, her inexplicable appearance on a beach, she brought me to the clear light at the tiny window, I noticed on her cheek the purple welt, a whip had lashed her face, but in her eyes the serenity, immutable, her certainty in the faith, I confided, for the first time, I was able to speak to someone about Uruk murdered before my eyes, I transferred to her my desperation, and since then we were never apart, her peace flooded into me, she showed me that a woman’s love is not found in the games of a brothel and harem, but in putting the soul into the flesh, and the flesh into the soul, she pulled me out of my sorrow, without making me forget about Uruk because she embraced him, too, she had known a man’s love before, she could understand me. Why do I remember if it pains me so? Our embraces in the night, the oasis, dark island of silver moonlight on the sands, our walks together holding hands, envious but also admiring, and censured, by the men of the group especially, lusting after the two of us, I know that I saddened the deacon, he was in love with me without confessing it, I might have been his, she would have understood it, but he denied it to himself, he loved me from afar, only for the sake of faith, for salvation in the next life, which I reject! Impossible to understand him, although perhaps the secret in his past, perhaps the way I am now indifferent to everything, Domicia’s death ended my world, she changed my name, another name in my life, like reincarnations, but this time the last one, I am finished, I would have preferred to have cut my hair right there, before her body pierced with arrows, the hair she adored, so many times sliding over her calves, her breasts, her buttocks, pleasure that gave me chills, but they stopped me from doing it, it makes me more valuable, after the morays devoured me they would have cut it off to sell it, like this old man, sure, it’s what he has thought, what does it matter, nothing matters to me at all, and nevertheless, my world also sank when they killed Uruk, also before, when my poor daughter, my little Nira, knifed by the pirates, destroyers of my life, but I go on living. Life is so resistant! How life maintains its grip on us! And especially here in Egypt, an anthill of beings, fertilized by the Nile… Nothing matters to me at all, but I didn’t kill myself, as easy as it was, how strong is the blood against sorrow! Will everything be repeated? It seems to me impossible, then, why do I go on breathing amid this choking distress? A tormented panting but I go on, unable to forget those hours, that eternity by Domicia’s side, in the Church of the Divine Mother, among the femmes as they called us…

—José Luis Sampedro Sáez; translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

 CapturePhoto by Gonzalo Cruz via ABC.es

José Luis Sampedro Sáez was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. He led an extraordinarily active and productive life, pursuing a dual career as economist and novelist. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he joined the Republican forces and spent the war in Melilla, Catalonia, Guadalajara, and Huete, in Cuenca. Following the war he worked as a customs agent in Melilla, and later studied Economics in Madrid. In 1948 he joined the research team for the Banco Exterior de España and in 1951 became an advisor in the Spanish Ministry of Trade. Throughout his long career he published ten books on economics as well as a dozen novels and assorted other volumes, including collections of short stories and essays. In 1990 he was elected as a member of the Real Academia Española, and in 2011 he was awarded the National Prize for Spanish Literature. He was known for as an advocate for human rights and ethical economic practices. Sampedro died in Madrid, in 2013, at the age of 96.

 Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Jun 022014
 

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Harlequin’s Millions is the long recollection of Bohumil Hrabal, the last of three novels from the late Czech writer that bear witness to the unrecounted histories of a family, a people, and the passage of time, illusory and elegiac in form, it is a momento mori of unbroken, dreamlike prose that captures in remembrances the reticent waiting of old age, set to Riccardo Drigo’s airy, Pucciniesque serenade, from which the title derives, with all the rhythm and repose of a forgotten love song, wistful and nostalgic. —Sebastian Ennis

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Harlequin’s Millions
(Harlekýnovy Milióny by Mladá Fronta, 1981)
By Bohumil Hrabal
Translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht
Archipelago Books, 2014

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Harlequin’s Millions is the long recollection of Bohumil Hrabal, the last of three novels from the late Czech writer that bear witness to the unrecounted histories of a family, a people, and the passage of time, illusory and elegiac in form, it is a momento mori of unbroken, dreamlike prose that captures in remembrances the reticent waiting of old age, set to Riccardo Drigo’s airy, Pucciniesque serenade, from which the title derives, with all the rhythm and repose of a forgotten love song, wistful and nostalgic.

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Originally published in 1981 and translated for the first time into English with this 2014 Archipelago Books edition, Hrabal’s requiem for the temps perdu concludes the interwoven story he started in Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. Yet Harlequin’s Millions officially made it to print some years before these earlier works, which were banned under the communist regime after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops from the Warsaw Pact. Hrabal chopped up and edited bits of text from The Little Town, which was not published in its “unedited” form in Prague until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, disfiguring the tone and, to a great extent, the meaning of the text, and leaving intact only the human face of the times. But it is the very humanity of the text that makes Harlequin’s Millions so powerful. Josef Škvorecký, the celebrated Czech-Canadian writer, said of Hrabal’s entire oeuvre that, by its miraculous existence alone, it was a critique of the social categories of his day because his characters were “triumphantly alive, they displayed the politically incorrect classlessness of raconteurism.”[1] This is no less true of Harlequin’s Millions, which is essentially a dirge for “old times,” but which receives its dissident quality from Hrabal’s timeless portrayal of the human spirit in all its eccentricity.

Harlequin’s Millions is set in a small castle that is now a retirement home, an edifice of crumbling plaster and exposed masonry ravaged by time, the façade of which belies the aura of any past decadence, changing shape within labyrinthine blocks of prose—Hrabal does not break up his chapters into paragraphs and he favours the comma over the period—to resemble the “the faces of each and every elderly pensioner” in their weary likeness, silent and motionless, to the bare, ruinous exterior. Inside lies a broken wrought-iron clock with limp, crossed hands, forever stuck at twenty-five past seven, a reminder to those waiting for the bell toll of the middle hour that their lives are stuck in the interval between life and death, because, as the unnamed female narrator tells us, everyone here knows that “most old people die in the evening, at just about half past seven.” And within this darkly comic lapse of time the soft melody of “Harlequin’s Millions” unravels and winds its way around the castle’s uncanny grounds, pouring out of rediffusion boxes that are hung not only in the corridors of the castle, where each note trails after wisps of cheap perfume, but also in the trees in the park, trickling down leaves like morning dew, and everywhere it casts its spell upon the pensioners, who are witnesses to the old times of the inescapable serenade.

As the music plays on and on, the story of an ex-brewery manager’s wife unfolds, her toothless, wrinkled face recalling little of her former beauty as she wanders through the castle grounds, distant and reproachful, looking back upon her life in the little town “where time stood still,” which can be seen from the windows of the retirement home. The unnamed woman bears the unremarkable qualities of old age and is defined only by her past, which the other pensioners guiltily acknowledge, gaining a certain pleasure in seeing her come to such an end. In her reverie for the old times, we learn of her unfaithfulness to the little town where time stood still, leading up to her escape, a sojourn in Prague where she bought a perfumery beyond her stature, only to return, broken spirited, with unsold cases of those sweet-smelling bottles and soaps that ward off old age, souvenirs of her failure. “[L]ike a severed cord whose ends had been tied together again,” her time in the little town now seemed endless. After the war, the workers took control of the brewery and fired her husband, and that once severed rope grew taut around the little town that was now part of an endless cycle of progress, hopelessly longing to return to a better time.

In the retirement home, there are three other “witnesses to old times,” who, for the brief moments that they share in the laughter and forgetting of their own histories, become the young men of their pasts once more, while other times, with the faintest trace of life left in their voices, they chronicle the old folk tales and the daily eccentricities of their long forgotten neighbours. And always they tell their stories to the unnamed woman, a narrator of true invention, as if speaking unto memory itself, so that, under the spell of the narrator’s toothless voice, the castle becomes a place of memory and fantasy, isolated from the changing times. Stories of bacchic ecstasy erupt from a poverty of spirit reserved for the elderly alone, or perhaps it is the narrator’s own boredom, her sad triviality, that causes her to bring to life in the half-lives of the pensioners the scenes of erotic love and violence that are portrayed in the castle’s fresco-lined ceilings.

Reality sets in, however, as the past is made manifest and the old graveyard of black marble gravestones and golden crosses that the castle overlooks is unearthed. The pensioners with the strongest nerves watch with tears in their eyes, reminded of all they were torn away from when they entered the retirement home, their houses, their homes, their front yards and flower beds, as the granite tombstones are pulled from the clay “with the perseverance of a dentist trying to pull a molar with crooked roots out of swollen gums,” for the roots of the trees had grown deep within the ground and wrapped around the coffins. “I myself had the feeling that, once again, all my teeth were being pulled out,” the narrator reflects, “slowly, one after another, in the morning my teeth had grown back and it started all over again.” I return constantly to this image. An endless cycle of having your teeth pulled, all that is lost in life and in death forgotten, and memory’s soft melody plays on without us.

“What is life?” the narrator asks. “Everything that once was, everything an old person thinks back on and tells you stories about, everything that no longer matters and is gone for good.” It’s fake teeth and the ones that get pulled, the past we leave behind and the stories that take its place. Reality and fiction are woven together in Harlequin’s Millions to tell a beautiful story of the unequal battle waged between life and death, and the human spirit that remains in the remembrance of the past.

—Sebastian Ennis

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Sebastian Ennis
Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He has a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Škvorecký, Josef. “Introduction” of Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. London: Abacus, 1993, x.