Jun 052015
 

New Mexico landscape

Pants

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

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

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

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

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

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

McCahill3

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

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

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

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

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

road to nm

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Desert Nights

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

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

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

Winter

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

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

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Dark Rooms

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

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

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

sf nm

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

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

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Arroyos

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

Pants2

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

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

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American Roads

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

another road

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

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Windows

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

Backyard

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

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

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

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Fires

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

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Open Doors

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

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

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

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

door

American Roads

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

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

mesa

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

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

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

Flowers

Kate McCahill

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Kateportrait

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

Jun 042015
 

NicoleChuNicole Chu

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Ray Bradbury reminds us that the plot of a story is contingent upon characters chasing after their desires. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations,” he says in Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. “It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic” (152). What makes the difference, then, between a mechanical plot and a dynamic one? Bradbury suggests that characters will write your story for you if you simply get out of the way and let them go. But I know my characters’ footprints reveal more than just a direct trail to their desires – by charting the plot steps of any story, I can discover what makes a plot dynamic.

I begin by looking up the definition of plot in J.A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:

The plan, design, scheme or pattern of events in a play, poem or work of fiction; and, further, the organization of incident and character in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or reader. In the space/continuum of plot the continual question operates in three senses: Why did that happen? Why is this happening? What is going to happen next – and why? (To which may be added: And – is anything going to happen?)

Cuddon defines plot as a pattern of events organized to arouse curiosity and suspense for the reader. He implies that the organization of incident and character must continually incite the reader’s interest; we are not just wondering what’s going to happen next, but we’re left wondering why these particular events are important to the characters and the story. He mentions E.M. Forester’s example of plot versus story to highlight the emphasis on causality: “‘The king died and the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot’” (Cuddon 676). Plot is not just the ordering of events but the ordering should be accompanied by the cause or motive of why an event occurs.

Cuddon’s definition also includes Aristotle’s ideas on plot. In Poetics, Aristotle sees plot as ‘the first principle’ and ‘soul of tragedy’ (Cuddon 676). Aristotle calls plot ‘an imitation of the action,’ as well as the arrangements of the incidents (I learned from Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook that ‘imitation of action’ is not a physical action but rather “an internal, psychological need.” In other words, we can discuss plot in terms of a character’s need or desire and the related incidents that occur). Aristotle requires the plot to be ‘whole’ (to have a beginning, middle, and end), and he also distinguishes between simple and complex plots: the complex has a crisis action that involves recognition and/or reversal, and the simple has neither (Cuddon 676). Aristotle’s ideal plot, therefore, ends with a moment of revelation to the protagonist that coincides with the protagonist’s sudden change of fortune.

aristotleAristotle

Douglas Glover further explains how dramatic narrative can be developed after the initial desire and resistance have been established. In Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, he states: “A character first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats, reels back, makes compromises with necessity, concedes a position out of politeness, ponders his own reactions, realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior” (Glover 26). Put simply, the short story form consists of a character going after something, being blocked from getting it, and changing his behavior to get it another way, and this sequence is repeated over and over. Glover emphasizes that this pattern of conflict must occur such that the opposing forces (A and B) “get together again and again and again” (three being the critical number or minimum). He notes that in the repetition of these poles conflicting, writers are “forced to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way and you are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships” (Glover 27). Glover argues form opens up more possibilities in that writers must create new material related to the same conflict.

In the following discussion on plot, I focus on the repetition or pattern of conflict. In three example short stories, I trace the pattern of character desire and resistance within a story. I am interested in how increasing pressures force characters to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict.” After I identify the pattern of conflict, I see how each story’s sequence of plot events build to a climax and forces characters to “go deeper” and eventually change significantly.

Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point” is about 13-year-old Kurt Pittman who, at his mother’s request, agrees to escort his mother’s friend, Mrs. Gurney, back to her home. Kurt is used to chaperoning drunk locals home, but he quickly realizes that Mrs. Gurney will be difficult. Before they can get across the playfield, she falls on her ass twice and begins to sift through the sand. Kurt finally gets her onto the boardwalk and, despite her protests, dumps her on a wagon to pull her. When he takes a break to breathe, she disappears further down the boardwalk, takes off her nylons, and runs towards the sea. When Kurt repeatedly tries to redirect them to get her home, Mrs. Gurney vomits over herself, babbles on about her age and beauty, threatens to commit suicide, and finally comes onto him by undressing herself, throwing both her blouse and bra into the wind. Kurt at first refuses to look, but he ends up looking at her aging body and expressionless eyes. She presses against him, and he must decide whether to take advantage of the situation or take her home. He decides to bring Mrs. Gurney to her house and tucks her into bed. When Kurt returns home, he can’t sleep and decides to read an old letter written by his father, a Vietnam veteran who has committed suicide. In the letter, the father describes being a medic during the Vietnam War, trying to save the wounded, including a 19-year-old soldier who eventually dies from an explosion. Kurt walks out to the playground, sits in a swing and recalls finding his own father’s body with a bullet wound in the head.

the point

“The Point” is approximately 7,700 words and is told in first-person from Kurt’s point of view. D’Ambrosio breaks up the story into five sections, using line breaks. The major conflict steps between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney (opposing forces A and B) take place in the second, third, and fourth sections. By major conflict, I mean the structure of desire and resistance: Kurt’s desire to bring Mrs. Gurney home and Mrs. Gurney’s resistance to this desire. The first four sections are chronological, moving forward from the party to Mrs. Gurney’s house in about an hour. D’Ambrosio ends the last section with a scene outside of the main plot, a scene that shows Kurt reading his father’s letter and remembering his father’s suicide (thus it is backfill, not plot).

The conflict really begins at the opening of section two when Kurt attempts to walk Mrs. Gurney across the playing field, and Mrs. Gurney plops herself down in the sand, “nesting there as if she were going to lay an egg” (7). She takes off her sandals and tosses them behind her, which prompts Kurt to fetch them. This is Mrs. Gurney’s first action to derail Kurt from his goal. He responds by reiterating his goal (the plot desire): “The problem now is how to get you home.” As if Kurt’s goal isn’t already clear, he thinks to himself, “I’ve found that if you stray too far from the simple goal of getting home and going to sleep you let yourself in for a lot of unnecessary hell.” They start walking again and take “baby steps” across the playing field before Mrs. Gurney falls back “on her ass into the sand” again – another hitch that prevents Kurt from reaching his goal (10).

Once on the boardwalk, Kurt decides to bring Mrs. Gurney home another way: drag the drunkard in a wooden wagon. Despite Mrs. Gurney’s protesting, he somehow gets her into the wagon and starts pulling. When Kurt pauses for a break, he finds “Mrs. Gurney was gone” (11). She slips down the boardwalk, farther from her home, and tries to engage him in drunk talk about Mr. Crutchfield, another local who died earlier that summer. This is Mrs. Gurney’s second major resistance against Kurt’s attempt to bring her home; she no longer sits in the sand but makes it more difficult for Kurt by fleeing the scene.

In section three, Kurt repeats his desire to get Mrs. Gurney home four different times in the span of four pages. The first time is after she pulls her nylons off and he runs and fetches them. He says, “We’re not too far now, Mrs. Gurney. We’ll have you home in no time” (14). She then vomits between her legs, he consoles her with a cigarette, and he again repeats, “We just have to get you home” (15). When she asks him to guess her age, he reminds her, “You’re going home, Mrs. Gurney. Hang tough” (16). When she continues with her drunk talk of how bad life can get, he says, “We need to get you home, Mrs. Gurney … that’s my only concern” (17). In Mrs. Gurney’s four separate attempts to derail Kurt from his goal, he responds with four clear affirmations of his desire.

In section four, Mrs. Gurney poses the most resistance by trying to seduce Kurt. At the beginning of the section, Mrs. Gurney lies down in the sand and takes off her blouse and bra. Kurt looks away and tells her they should go. When she tries to get him to sit, he thinks: “I’d let us stray from the goal and now it was nowhere in sight. I had to steer this thing back on course, or we’d end up talking about God” (19). He says to Mrs. Gurney, “This isn’t good. We’re going home,” once again repeating his goal (for the sixth time, not counting the times he thinks it). He also mentions he can see the house, observes it’s only “one hundred yards away,” and that they’re “so close now” (19-20). Mrs. Gurney, however, tries to engage him in conversation again by offering her house to him after she dies, threatening she’ll kill herself, and babbling about how she met her husband – all her ways of resisting going home.

When none of Mrs. Gurney’s attempts seem to faze Kurt, she tries to seduce him. Mrs. Gurney steps closer and leans in – he resists by saying, “Mrs. Gurney, let’s go home now” (his seventh time). He looks into her “glassy and dark and expressionless” eyes, and he then feels her hand brush the “front of his trunks” (23). He wonders whether he should go “fuck around” and “get away with it.” In the climactic moment, he chooses to resist Mrs. Gurney and hands her his t-shirt to cover up. They move away from the shore and cross the boardwalk to Mrs. Gurney’s home. The plot ends when Kurt leads Mrs. Gurney by the elbow into her house.

Kurt comments at the beginning of his journey that “everything … had a shadow and this deepened the world, made it seem thicker, with layers, and more layers and then a darkness into which I couldn’t see” (9). I had a similar experience of seeing layers and more layers of this story after I separated the plot from the rest of the story. The repetition of the same desire and resistance makes up the main conflict: Kurt wants to take Mrs. Gurney home, but she does not want to go home. Kurt repeating his simple desire versus Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance drives the story forward – there’s nothing unclear about what he wants (since he says it seven times). The protagonist doesn’t hint at or suggest his desire –Kurt uses the phrase “I want…” to make the reader aware of his concrete desire.

Glover states that the repetition of the same desire and resistance forces writers “to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way … [writers] are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships.” Kurt’s desire to take Mrs. Gurney home may seem humdrum or routine at first – he doesn’t have any stake in his relationship with Mrs. Gurney since he’s just doing his job. The tension rises with Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance: she first falls over, then wanders away, then takes off her nylons, and starts to babble nonsense. But her dialogue in the third section begins to take on an ominous tone: a threat to kill herself is more loaded than her previous statement of how bad life can get. Notice how the tension increases in the following dialogue right before the climax:

“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Gurney said. “I’m so homesick.”

“We’re close now,” I said.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t know what I mean.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “Please put your shirt on, Mrs. Gurney.”

“I’ll kill myself, “Mrs. Gurney said. “I’ll go home and kill myself.”

“That won’t get you anywhere … You’d be dead … then you’d be forgotten.”

“My boys wouldn’t forget” (21).

This dialogue serves two functions: 1) The back-and-forth between opposing forces A and B creates the suspense that plot should incite (according to Cuddon’s definition), and 2) The content of the dialogue foreshadows Kurt’s flashback at the end of the story since Kurt did not have any forewarning of his father’s suicide, and he could never forget the bloody and emotional mess.

These previous plot steps build to the climactic moment in which D’Ambrosio must escalate Mrs. Gurney’s resistance dramatically: the drunk woman takes off her bra and tries to seduce Kurt. Her actions force Kurt to “go deeper” into himself and reveal what Glover calls the “moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and relationship”– on the surface, Kurt must decide whether to stick to his goal of getting Mrs. Gurney home or give in to her seduction. On a deeper level, the adolescent questions his beliefs by asking himself, “What is out there that indicates the right way?” (23). In a later flashback, Kurt mentions he misses “having [his father] around to tell [him] what’s right and what’s wrong, or talk about boom-boom, which is sex … and not worry about things” (31). Kurt finally expresses his emotional need for his father after the plot ends, but the main plot between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney allows us to see how his internal conflict plays out in their actions.

The main conflict between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney only takes up three of five sections. D’Ambrosio could have ended the story after section four when Kurt gets Mrs. Gurney home, but the author ends with the backstory of Kurt’s father – specifically, the ending focuses on the father’s mission as a medic during the Vietnam War and his suicide. The father’s story ties in with Kurt’s story because they both have a “mission” to carry out: the father helped the wounded in Vietnam, and Kurt helps the drunk (and wounded) in his hometown. Kurt considers himself a “hard-core veteran” ever since his father assigned him the job when he was 10 years old (5). Both Kurt and his father mention the “job” and what happens when you “lose sight” of the job or “stray too much from the goal” (28). D’Ambrosio includes the backstory of Kurt’s father to resonate with the main plot structure: Kurt’s “mission” to escort Mrs. Gurney home.

By extracting the plot from the rest of the story, I notice what is left on the page: the subplot of Mr. Crutchfield’s death, the root image of the black hole that splinters into white image patterns, Kurt’s internal monologue expressing thematic motifs, and the backstory of Kurt’s father’s suicide. I mention these non-plot devices to point out that if I hadn’t previously traced the plot beforehand, I would have naïvely assumed that the father’s story or Kurt’s flashback to his father’s suicide were all part of the main plot instead of devices that enhance the plot. In many stories, ancillary devices can echo the structure of the main plot, which, in this story, deepen the meaning of the protagonist’s desire to get his job done. “The Point” portrays character desire and resistance mostly through dialogue and action, but the next story shows how another writer captures the main plot in internal monologue.

In “Under the Surface” by Slovene writer Mojca Kumerdej, the narrator is a woman who desires to be alone with her lover and have him all to herself. When she sees an attractive woman flirting with him, she gets pregnant in hopes to keep him forever. She gives birth to a daughter, but the new daughter seems to steal her lover’s attention. The little girl interrupts their Sunday mornings in bed, and on the narrator’s birthday, they celebrate as a whole family – not romantically and privately. One day on vacation, the narrator goes to up to the house while her lover and daughter remain by the shore. She watches her lover napping in the sun while the daughter gets dragged out into the ocean. She lets her daughter drown, drinks brandy, and falls asleep on the bed. Her friend wakes her up and tells her the news. The narrator reflects that she may have let her daughter die, but the narrator now has her lover all to herself.

The story is 3,000 words and is written as an interior monologue mixed in with dramatic monologue. A retrospective narrator reveals to the reader her secret that she withholds from her lover, but Kumerdej uses the second person “you” to direct the monologue at the narrator’s lover. This story covers the span of more than eight years (pre-baby years, five years with child, and three years after the child’s death). Kumerdej also uses a conventional circular structure to the story: the beginning of the story is also the end of the story that takes place three years after the narrator’s daughter drowned. The rest of the story is told chronologically and focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her lover and daughter.

The plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, is created from the narrator’s desire to be alone with her lover and the apparent threats that the narrator sees as a danger to her relationship. I say “apparent” threats because we only see the story from the narrator’s perspective (from an outsider’s perspective, she needs professional help to separate her delusions from reality). The pattern of conflict plays out in the following steps: 1) the narrator has a baby to gain her lover’s attention, but the little girl cries and steals the spotlight, 2) the narrator wants to sleep in with her lover on Sunday mornings, but the little girl physically gets in the bed, 3) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover on her birthday, but the lover wants the whole family together, and 4) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover in the future so she lets her daughter drown.

The set-up of the conflict starts when the narrator sees another woman flirting with her lover by “calculatedly moving around [him] … and “licking her lower lip” (7). The narrator never thought to have a baby – what two people in a relationship who love each other usually do – until now. The real action starts in paragraph two when the narrator announces she “had to take action” and get pregnant (7).

But when the baby comes, the narrator notices that the child doesn’t solidify their love but instead comes between them. The narrator observes that the lover first kisses and plays with their child, leaving the narrator to “wait [her] turn” (8). Even at night when the narrator is woken up by the daughter’s “piercing screams,” the lover rarely gets up to spend time with the narrator. The narrator becomes so angry that she slaps the child, which in turn angers the lover. She considers her baby competition, which drives the couple further apart thus propelling the plot forward.

In the next plot step, the narrator describes again how the daughter intrudes on her alone time with her lover. On Sundays, which were usually reserved for sleeping in, the little girl would run into the room and jump on the bed to hug her father. The narrator thinks: “Our time was becoming more and more the little one’s time, she was the one giving rhythm to our mornings and nights. You didn’t want us, as I suggested once, to lock ourselves in” (10). When the narrator tries to regain alone time with her lover, the lover responds, “That isn’t good … she needs us.” This prompts the narrator to ask, “But what about us?” The narrator feels reproached by him and looks “towards the door in fear … wishing not to hear the tiny footsteps coming towards our bedroom” (10).

In a third plot step, on the occasion of the narrator’s birthday, the narrator suggests to her lover that she wants to celebrate her birthday differently, just “the two of us together” (11). She suggests that they drop the girl off with his parents, but the lover opposes the suggestion “both times.” The narrator assumes he prefers to be with the “whole family,” and he acts as if his parents would be insulted if they didn’t invite them. Each time the narrator tries to be alone with her lover, she feels her lover straying further away.

The last five pages of the nine page story focuses on how the narrator finally gets her lover all to herself: by letting her daughter drown in the ocean and allowing the lover to take the blame. She watches her daughter chase after an inflatable dolphin and get dragged out to sea. The narrator knows she could alert her lover by screaming, but at that moment she “saw a chance for things to be the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone …” (13). The plot ends when the daughter’s body is “sucked into the depths” (13). In this moment, the narrator achieves her goal at the expense of a dead daughter and a guilty conscience that she suppresses by taking showers.

Kumerdej-foto Joze SuhadolnikMojca Kumerdej

When I met Mojca Kumerdej in Slovenia this past summer, she mentioned that her readers – regardless of what country they’re from – want to argue about the mother’s actions in “Under the Surface.” Kumerdej said many readers attack the narrator because they think the narrator’s actions are highly unbelievable – “no mother would ever do that!” they claim. I would argue that the narrator’s obsessive desire partially explains her psychotic actions (or rather lack of action to save her daughter). A closer look at the plot, however, shows a carefully crafted sequence of events that makes the narrator’s actions seem justified in her own mind.

Unlike “The Point,” Kumerdej’s chosen point-of-view brings us into the mind of the narrator, in which we are only presented with her perspective. Plot is not entirely made up of scene as it is in “The Point” where D’Ambrosio uses dialogue and actions to express desire and resistance. Instead the narrator in “Under the Surface,” in a stream-of-consciousness-like confession, proves how far she will go to be alone with her lover. At first glance, the story appears to be a long rambling about the narrator’s undying devotion to her lover (she says she loves him five different times in the span of the story). But the story still includes a clear desire and resistance pattern; the narrator articulates immediate obstacles that become clear plot steps creating tension in the story. The baby arrives, cries and steals attention, grows up and physically and emotionally gets in the way of the narrator’s relationship with her lover. In these plot steps, Kumderdej builds to a crisis action that forces the narrator to commit the unthinkable. The only “logical” action in the narrator’s mind is to permanently get rid of her daughter – as soon as the narrator has the opportunity, she lets her child drown in order to have her lover all to herself.

The narrator’s internal monologue at critical points in the story adds even more tension to the main plot. Kumerdej creates a pattern in which every other paragraph leading to the climax ends with the narrator’s intense desire for her lover and the sacrifices she made:

When for the first time you put your hand on my stomach I knew I had you, and that’s when I decided to have you forever, wholly and completely, without intermediary, disturbing elements that could jeopardize our love (second paragraph).

But no woman in the world is capable of loving you as much as I do, no woman in this world would be capable of doing what I did … (fourth paragraph).

And precisely that is what I did for you, and once in my life took away what meant the most to me … (sixth paragraph).

These lines are not directly part of the main plot structure, but the narrator’s repeated thoughts emphasize her fixated desire. The narrator justifies killing her daughter as a form of her devotion and love. To clarify, the opposing forces aren’t the narrator and her daughter but rather the narrator’s desire to be with her lover (A) versus the narrator’s apparent threats in her mind preventing her from having her lover all to herself (B), which repeat in four distinct steps.

In the climactic scene of “The Point,” the plot steps lead up to a moment that forces Kurt to take action: he ultimately chooses to rebuff Mrs. Gurney’s romantic offering and takes her home. In “Under the Surface,” the plot steps lead to a climax in which the narrator chooses not to take action and leaves her daughter to drown: “I didn’t do anything – and by doing so did everything” (7). Similarly in both of these climactic scenes, each character wrestles internally, even if briefly; both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej include the characters’ internal thoughts that allow us to see how the pressure forces them to change (or not). Kumerdej writes: “At that moment, I saw a chance for things the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone … I was watching the scene, and it seems to me I didn’t feel anything. No pain, no kind of fear, I was only watching what I thought as things happened” (13). Interestingly the narrator doesn’t “feel anything” in this moment but expresses her emotional transformation after the plot ends.

After the narrator has her lover to herself, Kumerdej includes five short paragraphs that reveal the narrator’s change of emotions. The narrator still desires her lover, but she’s also haunted by the image of her drowning daughter dragging her “into the depths.” The narrator feels isolated because her lover will never know the truth, and she wakes up in “terrifying pain” from guilt-ridden nightmares (14-15). Both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej could have ended their stories when the plot ended, but they chose to include backstory and internal monologue that illustrate how their characters transform after the crisis action occurs. In one last story, we see again how the sequence of plot events builds to a climax that significantly changes the characters, especially in regards to their emotional and mental state.

Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is a novella about fourteen-year-old Eréndira who survives her grandmother’s cruelty and, with the help of a young man, becomes free. The story begins in the grandmother’s ornate mansion where Eréndira exhaustedly completes her endless chores. When she falls asleep, the wind knocks over a candlestick she left burning and destroys the property and the grandmother’s possessions. The grandmother decides to prostitute the girl so she can pay off an impossible million-peso debt she has incurred by causing the fire. During her servitude, after countless encounters with men and paying customers, Eréndira meets a young man Ulises who falls in love with her. Among other adventures, a group of missionaries kidnaps Eréndira to protect her, but the grandmother pays an Indian boy to marry Eréndira and free her from the mission. Having fallen in love, Ulises disappears from the story for a while but inevitably returns to run away with Eréndira, but they don’t get far; the grandmother captures Eréndira and chains her to a bed to prevent a future escape. Eréndira entertains the thought of killing her grandmother with boiling hot water but has no confidence in her ability to kill her oppressor. Ulisses returns, and she begs him to murder her grandmother. After two failed attempts with rat poison and a bomb, Ulises slaughters the grandmother with a knife, and the old woman finally dies. Instead of turning to Ulises, Eréndira runs in the direction of the wind and is never heard from again.

The novella is approximately 16,200 words and is divided into seven sections with line breaks. Márquez uses a third-person omniscient narrator with the exception of a two-page transition to a first-person narrator who tells his personal account of seeing Eréndira and her grandmother with his own eyes. Unlike “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” we get to see, from a limited distance, the perspective of multiple characters. Márquez tells the story chronologically (Eréndira is 14 at the beginning and 20 by the end), and his use of the techniques of magic realism creates a fable-like quality. The story also carries the “wind of misfortune” motif that governs Eréndira’s actions– first it blows at Eréndira and causes the fire, then the wind brings along the missionaries and also incites her to run away, and, in the end, she runs into the wind and beyond it.

The main plot takes up only a small portion of the entire text and concentrates on Ulises’s and the grandmother’s conflict over Eréndira. Ulises falls in love with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from being with her. The following plot steps occur between Ulises (A) and the grandmother (B): 1) Ulises wants to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother denies him entry into the tent so he sneaks in and sleeps with the girl anyway, 2) Ulises falls in love and convinces Eréndira to run away, but the grandmother captures Eréndira and dog-chains her to a bed, and 3) Eréndira magically summons Ulises, and he attempts to rescue her by killing off the grandmother (third time’s the charm). With the grandmother dead, however, Ulises doesn’t end up with Eréndira since she runs into the wind and disappears forever.

Marquez portraitGabriel García Márquez

Márquez delays the main plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, until the third section of the story. The grandmother’s unrelenting abuse of Eréndira seems like a one-sided conflict until Ulises, the son of a Dutch farmer and Indian woman, poses a threat to the grandmother’s scheming. In the first plot step, Ulises lines up with the other soldiers to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from seeing her: “No, son … you couldn’t go in for all the gold in the world. You bring bad luck” (298). He later sneaks into the tent and manages to sleep with Eréndira while the grandmother talks in her sleep. Eréndira loves Ulises “so much and so truthfully” – their connection solidifies the continuation of the main conflict. The two lovers are separated after this point since the missionaries kidnap Eréndira in order to protect her.

In the second plot step, Ulises’s mother notices he’s “lovesick,” and he sets off to trek across the desert and reunite with Eréndira. When Ulises finds Eréndira sleeping with her eyes open, he tries to convince her to run away by tempting her with his father’s homegrown diamonds, a pickup truck, and a pistol. He tells her, “We can take a trip around the world.” Eréndira says, “I can’t leave without [my] grandmother’s permission,” but that night her instinct for freedom leads her to flee with him (316). Their romance is short-lived; the grandmother initiates a car chase to get her granddaughter back. The grandmother then dog-chains Eréndira to the bed slat so the girl can no longer escape (325).

Ulises doesn’t reappear until six pages later when Eréndira calls out Ulises’s name “with all the strength of her inner voice.” This time, Ulises crosses the desert and instinctively (or magically) knows where to find her. While the grandmother sleeps, Ulises kisses Eréndira in the dark and they both hold “a hidden happiness that was more than ever like love” (329). After sobbing in her pillow, Eréndira asks him to kill her grandmother, and he says for her he’d “be capable of anything.” This reunion sets Ulises up to encounter the grandmother for a final time.

In the last major plot step, Ulises and the grandmother meet face to face, and he attempts to kill her on three separate occasions. First, Ulises lies to the grandmother and says he’s come to apologize on her birthday. The grandmother concedes and devours his cake that’s secretly baked with a pound of rat poison. Instead of dying, the old whale sings until midnight and “went to bed happy” (332). Next, Ulises tries to blow up the grandmother with a homemade bomb, and the woman was left with her wig singed and her nightshirt in tatters “but more alive than ever” (334). In Ulises’s last attempt, he grabs a knife and stabs the grandmother’s chest, her side, and a third time for good measure, but she doesn’t go quickly and yells, “Son of a bitch … I discovered too late that you have the face of a traitor angel.” Covered in the grandmother’s green blood from head to toe, Ulises manages to cut open her belly, avoids her lifeless arms, and gives “the vast fallen body a final thrust” (336). The plot ends when the grandmother finally dies, but Ulises doesn’t end up with his love since Eréndira runs into the wind never to be heard from again.

As I mentioned earlier, Glover states that plot is a repeating desire-resistance pattern between two poles A and B. Readers may at first confuse the grandmother’s abuse and sexual exploitation of her granddaughter as the main plot. It’s not. Márquez begins “Innocent Eréndira” with a lengthy dramatic set-up that isn’t part of the main plot structure: a meek, soft-boned girl cannot escape her grandmother’s horrible exploitation. In the narrative set-up, Márquez keeps our interest by pushing the limits of the grandmother’s brutality: she negotiates Eréndira’s virginity for 220 pesos, she orchestrates a bazaar – complete with musicians, a photographer, and a circus tent – to attract hundreds of solicitors, and not until Eréndira shrieks like a frightened animal and thinks she’s dying does the grandmother give her a break. Eréndira doesn’t fight back and consequently doesn’t pose a formidable resistance to her grandmother. Márquez can only sustain readers’ interest for so long (before they ask, “will anything else happen?”) and introduces Ulises in the third section as the real resistance to the grandmother.

Once Márquez establishes the two opposing forces in conflict, he increases the pressure and varies the conflict in an interesting way (he also interrupts the plot steps to reinforce the grandmother’s malevolent behavior and the granddaughter’s helplessness to escape). Notice that in the first two plot steps, Ulises tiptoes and sneaks behind the grandmother’s back in order to physically interact with Eréndira. In these scenes, Ulises doesn’t face any real confrontation with the grandmother other than their first brief encounter, but the old woman and her command over Eréndira still pose a threat. Márquez intensifies the pressure when Ulises comes into direct physical contact with the grandmother; the boy quickly fabricates a story in order to save himself and carry out the grandmother’s murder. This confrontation forces Ulises to take greater risks: he poisons her, fails, blows her up and fails again. Ulises’s actions follow Glover’s definition of plot when the character “first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats … realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior.” Only when Ulises notices Eréndira’s “fixed expression of absolute disdain, as if he [doesn’t] exist,” does he finally carry out the murder. In this climactic moment, Ulises has the choice to either kill the grandmother in order to win Eréndira’s love or he can retreat – he, of course, chooses “disorderly love” over “antiseptic order” and kills for love.

Just like “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” the plot ends with the crisis action, and the author includes the transformation of characters in the aftermath of the climax. In a final scene, Márquez describes Eréndira watching with “criminal impassivity” the final fight between Ulises and the grandmother. In fact, the girl embodies “criminal impassivity” throughout the entire story. Not until after the grandmother dies does Eréndira suddenly “acquire the maturity of a [20-year-old]” and escapes into the wind where “no voice in this world could stop her.” Eréndira’s bold action is the exact opposite of the once cowering, servile girl who couldn’t live on her own freewill. Ulises, on the other hand, suffers greatly after he kills the grandmother. The crisis action leaves him “lying face down … weeping from solitude and fear” since he has just lost the love of his life and is “drained from having killed a woman without anybody’s help” (337). Márquez deliberately arranges the plot steps to finally reveal the emotional and dramatic reversal and recognition that the characters experience.

Márquez’s novella reads like a fairytale because of his use of magic realism (not to mention the similar overtones to the Cinderella story-line: note the use of threes – three plot steps, three murder attempts, very much like a fairytale). In particular, Márquez utilizes magic realism to bring characters back together “again and again and again” in order to continue the main plot. For instance, when Ulises falls in love, every glass object he touches turns blue; Ulises then runs to find Eréndira and tempts her with his father’s magical oranges that contain “genuine diamonds.” Ulises also reunites with Eréndira for a third time when she summons him by calling out his name; in his plantation house, he hears her voice “so clearly” that he knows exactly where to find her. In a last example, Márquez uses magical realism to prolong, rather humorously, the conflict between Ulises and the grandmother. Instead of the grandmother dying after Ulises’s first (or second) murder attempt thereby ending the plot, the old woman lives on to croon her songs and babble in her sleep. Ulises even knifes her open and gets splattered with her green blood, but she’s not yet dead. Although Márquez seems to randomly pepper magical realism throughout the story, he strategically uses the technique to reunite characters and advance the plot. These moments defy our expectations and incite the very suspense and curiosities that plot should stimulate. Márquez’s story exemplifies how imaginative qualities, engaging characters, the combination of horror and humor, and a narrative set-up can coexist with the main plot structure so long as it sustains the reader’s interest.

The example stories I analyze may follow the same form or pattern, but the writers construct the plot in three distinct ways. In “The Point,” the plot is straightforward – Kurt and Mrs. Gurney battle it out until Kurt overcomes her resistance. The unreliable narrator in “Under the Surface” muddles the plot steps in her internal monologue, but she still articulates her desire and competition. In “Innocent Eréndira,” the plot is delayed for nearly a third of the story and yet still manages to mold into the same structure in the end. Plot, however, is not the same mechanical formula applied to every story – plot is a dynamic form that we identify as a pattern of desire and resistance between two opposing forces, but infinitely varied by each writer.

These stories were also originally written in different languages (English, Slovene, and Spanish, respectively), which suggests that in any culture (and time period), plot translates to the same pattern. Why do stories follow this particular pattern of desire and resistance? If plot is to “induce curiosity and suspense” in the reader, writers must invent new ways for characters to pursue their desires, charge through increasing resistance, and come out of a crisis action significantly transformed. No matter what the native language or nationality is of a reader, he or she will inherently invest in characters who chase after their desires, fail, get up and try again. We root for characters who, in our minds, allow us to imagine what it is like to step into their skin and travel to “incredible destinations.”

— Nicole Chu

Works Cited

Ambrosio, Charles. “The Point.” The Point and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

Cuddon, J. A., and Claire Preston. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

García Márquez, Gabriel. “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” Collected Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.

Glover, Douglas H.. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. Print.

Kumerdej, Mojca, and Laura Turk. “Under the Surface.” Short Stories Collection:

Fragma. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2008. 7-15. Print.

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Nicole Chu is about to receive her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is originally from California and currently lives in New York City, where she teaches English Language Arts at a public school in the Upper West Side.

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Jun 032015
 

AdlerRon Galella/WireImage

…her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations. — Julian Hanna

After_the_Tall_Timber

After the Tall Timber: Collected Essays
Renata Adler
New York Review of Books
528 pages ($29.95)
ISBN 978-1590178799

 

Looking back, Renata Adler’s journalistic career and the era it spans appear almost as the stuff of dreams. Our own age, which can seem like a nonstop Gawker feed of the horrible and the miserable, stands in stark contrast to the four glorious decades captured in After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, which covers Adler’s career as a staff writer at The New Yorker and ‘serious intermittent critic’ for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The American Spectator, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. Adler covered most of the defining issues of the day, including issues that she had the uncanny sense to know would come to be age defining. Beginning with the march from Selma and the counterculture in the 1960s, Adler went on to cover Watergate in the 1970s, the resurgence of the Republican right in the 1980s, the Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, and the legal wrangles surrounding the US presidential election in 2000. But more than that, she covered these stories from the front lines: following Martin Luther King, Jr. to rallies in the South; filing a “Letter from Israel” from the Six-Day War; reporting from the war torn fledgling nation of Biafra shortly before its inevitable fall; and covering key trials, including impeachment proceedings against two presidents. As Jonathan Clarke recently pointed out, Adler’s career is unique, a one off, and moreover in the present climate her fierce independence is best viewed as a cautionary tale: “These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.”

Throughout her writing career, in fact, Adler bears witness not to a golden age but to the steady decline of serious journalism and a serious readership in America. Resistance to this perceived decline is one of the defining features of this collection, seen perhaps most famously in her attack on fellow contrarian (and former colleague) Pauline Kael. Adler’s attempt to end what she saw as Kael’s reign of “brutality and intimidation” as the longstanding house critic for The New Yorker pairs her description of journalism in decline with her struggle to counterbalance abuses of power and to check corruption and complacency in institutions of all kinds. By choosing this uphill battle, Adler necessarily courts controversy and makes herself a target for attacks. Perhaps that is why Adler, who was educated at Harvard (under I. A. Richards and Roman Jakobson), the Sorbonne (under Claude Lévi-Strauss), and Yale Law School, and who is the author of two difficult, dazzling, boundary-exploding novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), so often appears to be writing from the margins. Despite her success and centrality to contemporary American letters, Adler always works against the cultural grain. This collection divides roughly into three sections. First is the intellectual It Girl decade from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, made up entirely of New Yorker pieces; then a short middle section covering cinema; and finally what I might call—and many would no doubt disagree—the rest: covering Adler’s essays for a range of publications from the mid-seventies to the early noughties.

The early pieces in the first section are compelling for their eyewitness accounts of key historical figures and events. But on a deeper level, their power lies in the disruption of familiar historical narratives with the all-too-human: the messy and complicated reality behind even the most sacred historical moments. When MLK takes the stage in Montgomery, Alabama to rapturous applause, for example, Adler records someone muttering: “This personality cult is getting out of hand.” The opening essay, from the introduction to Adler’s first collection of New Yorker essays in 1969, sets the tone. She describes the politics of her between-the-cracks generation as progressive, empathetic, led by heroes like Hannah Arendt; yet always aloof, sceptical, cautious, and focused on the word (“we are the last custodians of language”). The second essay (“The March for Non-Violence from Selma”) exemplifies this “radical middle” approach: hopeful yet retaining a critical view. The mood on the historic march, for example, is described predictably as one of “jubilation.” But that is not all: there is also “tedium” and “inaudible speeches,” fear of attacks from local rednecks, bad food (“three tons of spaghetti” served from “garbage pails”), and fashion-conscious hipsters trivializing the meaning of the event (“Which demonstration are you going to? Which one is the best?”). The atmosphere of the march is beautifully recorded from moment to moment: the changing light, the temperature and humidity, and the shifting mood of the crowd, “at once serious and gay.” Adler conveys the feeling of the vulnerability among the marchers as they camp by the roadside in hostile territory—there are frightening rumours of “bombs and mines”—as well as the carnivalesque, proto-Woodstock atmosphere on the last day when stars like Nina Simone, Joan Baez, and Tony Bennett perform.

The diversity of the civil rights movement—black and white, north and south, urban and rural—is an underlying theme, and clueless interlopers are a constant trope. One student marcher complains to the Reverend Andrew Young, who is giving instructions on non-violent protest: ‘Man, you’ve got it all so structured.’ Another expresses a fear of Maoists, who are confused with Kenyan rebels: “Maoist. You know. From the Mau Mau.” But despite occasional indulgences in “Talk of the Town” style light humour, Adler does not spare us from shocking facts. In one oddly contemporary use of surveillance technology, white bystanders are seen taking photographs of marchers, “presumably as a warning that their faces would not be forgotten.” (Later the marchers turn the tables and begin to photograph the roadside hecklers.) Statistics are used sparingly but effectively: one county on the route, for example, is said to have “a population of fifteen thousand, eighty per cent of them blacks, not one of whom had been registered to vote” because of fear of reprisals. Actual violence is absent from the story, but there are several tense moments. At one point Adler describes a gang of crewcut local boys who jump out of their cars and surround a group of marchers, but they turn out to be menacing only in their aimlessness and ignorance.

After the report on Selma comes a series of essays that form a striking picture of the turmoil of the late sixties. On the lighter side there is the rebirth of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (“Fly Trans-Love Airways”), which in early 1967 was “practically deserted” except for “evangelical bands of elderly squares and young longhairs.” Adler reports from the scene in the guise of a hip and slightly jaded older sister: I imagined her standing among the love beads and ragged Confederate jackets in an open-neck white shirt, like the Avedon portraits. The essay ends with an erratic performance by Arthur Lee and Love that perfectly captures the time and place. But even in this seemingly light, “youth of today” piece, Adler manages to delve into the economics and polarized politics of LA, and from there to the growing polarization of America as a whole. She describes the widening “split” between “the Yahoos, on an essentially military model, occupying jobs,” and “the longhairs, on an artistic model, devising ways of spending leisure time.” (And it was ever thus.) In the next essay, “The Black Power March in Mississippi,” Adler provides an anatomy of the key players in the civil rights movement. She lists “the drones” (white marchers “with only the fuzziest comprehension of issues”), “the press” (rushing to “cover one of the last of the just wars”), “the white supremacists” (aptly described as “Stock characters out of the southern bestiary”), “the local blacks,” and finally “the leaders.” Adler downplays white fears of black violence: the only marcher advocating violent revolution is “a white college graduate, unemployed, wearing a baseball cap,” a fashionable Marxist whose propaganda is met with derision by black marchers (“I don’t know what to say to you”).

Adler is similarly dismissive of white middle-class revolutionaries when she covers the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago (“Radicalism in Debacle”). “The conference presented, from the first,” she declares, “a travesty of radical politics at work.” While the nation is gripped by “the problems of war, racism, and poverty,” the self-absorbed delegates of conference radicalism are portrayed as the least likely remedy for the nation’s ills. Part of the problem is, once again, the “persistent debasement of language”: the word “revolution,” for example, is used to express “every nuance of dissent.” As things grow darker and the decade slouches toward its heavy conclusion, Adler turns to a critical history of the National Guard in the wake of the Kent State massacre. Like many of the pieces in this first section, this essay (“But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load”) has powerful echoes for the present crisis in America. Adler repeats the findings of a damning report by the FBI: “the National Guardsmen at Kent State were not surrounded, had not run out of tear gas, had not been hit by rocks or subjected to sniper fire, and were not in any way injured when they killed four students and wounded thirteen others on May 4.”

One of the most affecting reports comes at the end of the first section. “Letter from Biafra,” a gem at the heart of this book, is a devastating story of idealistic promise and backs-to-the-wall hopelessness. The article was published in October 1969, just months before the Nigerian army crushed the secessionist movement that for three years had kept the fledgling and largely unrecognized Republic of Biafra alive. The conflict resulted in a death toll of between one and three million from war and starvation between 1967 and 1970, higher even than the war in Vietnam that overshadowed Biafra in the Western media. The forces behind the war sound eerily familiar: a war for oil, with the interests of Shell-BP defended through British arms shipments to Nigeria; the promise of a 48-hour “surgical action” that turns into years of chaos and bloodshed. While she acknowledges the complexity of issues leading to the conflict, Adler is clearly moved by her experiences with those engaged in the struggle. Many of the people she encounters on the Biafran side are intellectuals trained at British and North American universities who returned to fight for their homeland; as Adler notes, Biafra (Eastern Nigeria) was one of the most densely populated, highly developed, and highly educated regions in Africa.

In one surreal moment a young surgeon, apparently mystified by the world’s indifference at his country’s suffering, tells Adler: “We have always done well on exams.” Many of the conversations recorded in the essay are unsettlingly calm, as literary topics interweave with death and famine and life under siege. Adler describes a mood of “crazed, articulate, sometimes even irritable courtesy, in the face of an absolute desolation closing in.” One of her interlocutors is Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958), who later wrote about his country’s brief history in There Was a Country (2012). (Kurt Vonnegut also speaks to Achebe in his own heartbroken account, “Biafra: A People Betrayed”.) Near the end we catch a rare glimpse of Adler appearing in her own story. Alone in the dark, her invincibility slipping for a moment, she admits: “I was scared, not of violence … but of not being able to get out.” (This was not an irrational fear: Nigeria had shot down Red Cross and other aid planes.) But she did make it out, and like Vonnegut and a few others reported what she saw there. If there is a silver lining to the atrocity it might be found in the words of General Ojukwu, who says of returned intellectuals like himself that whereas they used to look down “on those who stayed at home,” they now felt pride in the attempt—even the failed attempt—to establish “the first viable black republic, able to compete on an equal basis with white nations of the world.” But the very threat it represented to the status quo only hastened its demise. The colonial lines of the tragedy are clearly drawn by another interviewee, who tells Adler: “The West brought us good tidings, but it wouldn’t let us expand on them. Now we are suffering this strange mercy killing at the hands of the British.”

Earlier in 1969, under less dramatic circumstances, Adler visited Cuba. Her “Three Cuban Cultural Reports (With Films Somewhere in Them)” were published on the very last day (February 11) of her yearlong stint as chief film critic at The New York Times. The position, which the still twentysomething Adler was offered despite having neither written nor read much film criticism, was to replace old guard critic Bosley Crowther, who was finally pushed out after he mounted an unfashionably fogeyish attack on Bonnie and Clyde. From the start the job was an uncomfortable fit: Adler was used to reporting on events in “Selma, Harlem, Mississippi”; she “detested” the New Journalism with its emphasis on “the personal,” which she saw as “a new variant of … yellow journalism.” So the task of giving her personal opinion on films she cared little about—“Hollywood produced scarcely any movies of any value” in 1968—was awkward at best, at worst liable to provoke an existential crisis. In contrast to long-form journalism, writing under the constant threat of deadlines felt to Alder like “catching your sleeve in a machine.” So she took the scandalous decision to return to The New Yorker, opening a rift with The Times that has never quite closed.

Film criticism—already well covered in A Year in the Dark (1970)—comes up only once more in this collection, but it is the book’s bravura performance. You have likely heard of “House Critic” (originally “The Perils of Pauline”), Adler’s infamous scalpel job on New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. It has the reputation of being a journalistic bloodbath—is it really so bad? And why does Adler have the knives out for Kael? First of all, yes, it is so bad, thrillingly bad: a watch-through-your-fingers gore fest, a thorough dismemberment of America’s then most famous film critic. The review is fascinating to witness for two reasons: Adler starts from a position of shock and disbelief—she claims that her revelation, that Kael is not in fact a great critic but the worst kind of hack, comes upon her suddenly when she tries to swallow Kael’s latest collection (When the Lights Go Down) whole. This rhetorical approach makes the description of her epiphany very convincing, as we follow her through the carefully arranged evidence. And then there is the fact that while Kael is exactly the kind of critic to write a bloody hatchet job—just as she wrote effusively about slasher films—Adler is not. She turns the hatchet on Kael, to great effect: in Adler’s hands the hatchet becomes a scalpel, and Kael’s language is dissected word by word (here Adler’s training under a master of close reading like I. A. Richards, as well as her legal training, becomes apparent). The book “is, to my surprise,” she insists, as surprised as we are, “without Kael-like exaggeration … worthless.”

As for why Adler has the knives out, Kael seems to represent all that is wrong with writers and readers in America, and ultimately what has gone wrong with America itself. Kael’s writing style, her “affectation of straightforwardness,” relies on a vulgar and limited vocabulary and employs every kind of “hyperbole, superlative, exaggeration.” The readership the book posits is not much better, being “composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews.” Worst of all, Kael—who became a film critic at The New Yorker the very same year Adler took a leave of absence to do the same job at The Times, in 1968—“has ceased to care” about films. The critic, like the one time revolutionary hero, has become a despot with a sadistic lust for power. The whole situation is, Adler tells us with a degree of understatement following her lacerating remarks, “an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic.” As for America, the example of Kael cautions us to be on our guard against the little dictator, the institution run wild, and the exchange of substantial language for the high fructose corn syrup of sensationalism.

The third section of the book includes much of the legal and political reporting for which Adler, who completed her J.D. at Yale in 1979, is so uniquely qualified. Many of Adler’s hardcore fans will no doubt consider this section the highlight; I must admit I found it an uphill climb. There were bright moments: revisiting the Starr report from 1998 was certainly more fun than it sounds, with Adler providing a deft analysis of the “utterly preposterous” six-volume report on presidential blow jobs. Other moments in this section, however, made me want to swipe. I could only muster faint enthusiasm, for example, at the prospect of a lengthy analysis of the scandal surrounding failed Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Nevertheless Adler, more than any other reporter, manages to make this material seem urgent and compelling: the fundamental theme here, she makes clear, as elsewhere in the book, is the “self-perpetuation,” the “determination to eradicate dissent” and the “commitment to a notion of infallibility” that so often marks institutional behaviour, whether it is the Office of the President, the chambers of the Supreme Court, or the film desk at The New Yorker. At the end of the book Adler finally begins to appear embattled, surrounded by powerful enemies. She has pissed off most of her peers and former colleagues at The Times, The New Yorker (which she rather prematurely declared “dead” in her book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), and elsewhere. But does she care? Not much, it seems.

In “A Court of No Appeal” (2000), Adler depicts her war with, and “institutional carpet bombing by,” The Times. “The issue,” Adler writes, “is not one book [her own] or even eight pieces [attacking her in The Gray Lady]. It is the state of the entire cultural mineshaft, with the archcensor, still in some ways the world’s greatest newspaper, advocating the most explosive gases and the cutting off of air.” At the time, the collapse of the old media establishment seemed imminent. As it happens, the present decade has seen these venerable institutions, to varying degrees, adapt and regain some of their lost power. The Atlantic looks stronger than ever; The New Yorker is still on the town, a ubiquitous presence; The Times seems to be doing all right. Yet the predicted cultural shift, of which Adler’s mineshaft canaries sang (or rather failed to sing, and fell silent), has taken place: American intellectuals today are as likely to turn to their Twitter feeds or swipe through The Guardian or listen to a Slate podcast or even leaf (yes, leaf!) through a copy of n+1 or any number of little magazines to get the latest word on the latest thing. So where does that leave us? Selma just passed its 50th anniversary, and the ever-vital Adler is now an astonishing 76. Michael Wolff, whose introduction to this volume tends toward provocative overstatement more than Adler ever has (with statements like “journalism is not a writer’s game anymore”), nevertheless argues convincingly that Adler more than anyone else “has violated the clubbiness of the literary and journalistic world.” Despite the fact that present-day writers may be unable, in practical terms, to achieve such a long and distinguished yet singularly outspoken career, her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations.

— Julian Hanna

 

Julian_pic

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

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Jun 022015
 
Jowita Bydlowska photograph2Image: Jowita Bydlowska, ice & fog series
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“Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you.”

—  Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard

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Applewood

There should have been a meridian with bleeding cloudlines ransacking the view while the cowslips sunk under a spell as your feet fairly fell them         Neither of us can recall the urgency we felt on top of a skyscraper to take six buses into the middle of the countryside (in March, no less); neither of us can remember what we had hoped to find in green-arbored labyrinths—the azure blur of a sky spotted swellingly with eerie moorland gusts—apart from solitude yet here we are still joined like marionettes at the hip with no fortunes in our hands and no lethal means of severance         Binocular vision you hawk your gaze askant and swear you can see Snowdon in the east so I turn west toward where Snowdon actually is and say nothing encountering only fog and lowlying smoke which I thought we had left the city to avoid         On an outcropping of rock I imagine the primed back of Friedrich’s wanderer and his planted dangerously dangling toe and feed you pieces of applewood cheese straight from a knife’s serrated edge almost wanting to draw blood but smiling pathetically instead         You do not even touch my skin, I can no longer remember the last time you spoke my name aloud while looking me head-on in the eyes, I look upward and around to view nothing but to sense rather the perilous power of nature and a sublime kind of erection and I no longer wonder if what I sought was the same as what it was you did         (the same horizonline refusing a pattern resisting a building’s pointed linearity the same banal mood that stems from the threat of rain the same stench of our lackadaisical bodies—yours rank like a dying lamb’s, mine bold as a guillotine’s—the same sound of potent silence between us which not even touch being absent can assuage)         I take a mossy patch of stone beneath my skull for a pillow and shut my eyes against the balking barrenness of fields the yawningly monotonous hillocks pretending for a moment a moment quicker than the flick of that steed’s tail that you and I are back in the city—the smell of you helps the memory along its fiction—with the same gulf between us only less room than the moors serving now to exaggerate rather than to obfuscate

st-jerome-writing-caravaggioSt. Jerome writing, Caravaggio, detail

 

Quadrille

Wings were never heavy but with time
quadrilles distending their forms
lolling veins and elbows loosed quick

behind a trick door in wrought paneling
so that even we lost count     I swear
ghosts would prefer this interlude

to the fortune tellers lines so obscure
no gesture no future no bird can be sure
A quick lull tarnishes the tune so that

all bodies go placid facing one another
expectant eager erstwhile     You bow low
but I sense the breeze shard a shutter

neighboring pairs rescind wrists singly
collectively renouncing in a moment
of delusion     Amorphous colors

croon casually still the wind always wins
I spy a swallow behind your shoulder
neck low as if it is being bled     I see

the trick door open and then close again
but there is no mirth when a hand crashes
down upon a boned key in disrepair

No one knows how to move but you
yet we all see stillness as a weakness
What happens in private remains uncharted

our future wants only a veil to be told.

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas-Caravaggio_(1601-2)The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, detail

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A Conjuration; A Demolition

The trees never enough when our moon forked across leaves leaving a trace of freckles where once there had been pitch and a dull hum of distant trains         What tongues I knew then I can no longer say but I crushed my fingers into fists and spoke for hours on end in time with you I believe and the intransigent twitch some swallow made nocturnally in its nest

Did we conjure anything dangerous or did we manage to dispel definitively the demons along 9th Street where once there were tongues of a different sort who can say?           A vacant lot now where a derelict church used to seep solace across a street corner whose ends they’ve elevated erasing the languorous lengths on which we took childish chances with ancient words

I still gaze into the sky sometimes think fondly of hunters’ belts but there is an emptiness now where once we had seen vastness has necks worth all risk         Scarce memories running naked such sickled oaks you and I beneath deluding ourselves we were waxing I can honestly say from higher ground my tongue knew no thing no matter what spells from it you supped

Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_St_John_the_Baptist_-_WGA04154St. John the Baptist, Caravaggio, detail

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Pitch

I.

Splayed you recall a language I have lost
red anemone shouting city to shatter
a slumber sketched in southern hues

the crass linen folded under arched thighs
an expectant autumn raged sluggish
to score all that we said and all that we did

I asked you what you saw in that darkness
from what chaos you returned primed
eager keen to greet the canvas haphazardly

to quell an impending sacrifice to convey
all that we were and all that we had yet to be
mounting you was mounting me the geometry

skewed that the city offered only bones
I gnawed you shrugged I withered you throve
in one tight moment the legs flailed

like a murder the hips pushed back on oak
as if insisting the narrative was subjective
how to carry you how to ask you carry me

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II.

Red anemone shouting city to shatter
an eager autumn expecting you to say yes
I watched you sleep your jaw skewed

to flatter the light the branch outside cracked
and we came together again it is enough
it is never enough in that scene scored slow

to allow for the proper rise and fall
southern pitch of highway the road east
where bone meets thighs where hips

are incidental to the narrative withering
the chaos from which you return sluggish
heaving crass to greet any morning lover

who would keep you from answering the call
gristle grooved but it is all that we share
we say all we can say and do all we can do

like a symphony conveyed and stretched
your hands holding the image by its tips
your eyes pleading in a language I have lost

David_and_Goliath_by_CaravaggioDavid and Goliath, Caravaggio, detail

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Moses, Part 1

My brain full of you he showed up uninvited with a chain demanding signatures     the legalities of putting the Red Sea between us sotto voce as if anyone still held sway over whether or not the guillotine would crash     Worthlessly I fell into bottles like a sibyl whose prophecy fulfilled only the worst I had heard him spill some oceans ago when I cared for dogma and restrictions some language ago I’ve since lost shaken from my tongue like tea leaves or unwanted cum     I tried to make good with you but my touch wasn’t enough and I’ve lost you like I lost myself nearly a whole decade ago     A connection surged     I knew you like no one for a spell and however many miles we traipsed along city streets I was bent on building a narrative with you around across in between     I wanted to tell you about him but thought that my lips were enough     I stood in the rancid wind and the blistering sun for two straight hours trying to move from the spot where I had rooted myself in speaking out to you my own fears     your song would somehow do     A passing man spoke to me passingly about the end of days rattling a cup in my face like a temptation or an accusation the train looped in a tunnel like he might be right then stopped     last night I slept in fits with your hip against mine and I blamed some other man the whole time for the river being closed where for once I lacked the gall to call in the fucking gods

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Moses, Part 2

When once we were familiar     your scent on angora a reminder of your weight
pressing on grinding into me those moments when we were one     and I
alone watching you sleep openmouthed like a baby in need of burping a thwack

across your back break my mother’s back please     the travesty of hospital lights
and a father who flatlines awake claiming to have seen the light     the word
his creed returned to him and I only know you can act as interpreter or guide

What books must he devour to make his god which is your god see him go
with no regrets and no bad blood     I wonder at silence after you and I watch
a documentary about Israel’s moment of silence whole cities motorways people

falling to their knees for the dead     for what is memory but a constant war
between what happened and what continues to happen in dreams over which
we have no control     and yet we keep returning back to the scenes of crimes

like monstrous voyeurs     When once you loved me I could see orbits in your eyes
a cosmology I recognized but could not name     pain was behind it all I see now
so bring out the leather the whips the buckles notch me a good one before

you leave    I have welts on my palms like a stigmata I never earned     how
to tell you the truths I know     a man who named my body his for four hours
locking me in a bathroom the size of a prison after I had swallowed poison

trusting too much for my palms were always open     despite the marks
not even the priests knew what to do with me calling me faggot witch heretic
When once you read me like a book that was the book of books     we ran

in fields in dreams we never shared like illusions were enough to save us
our hands embraced from an eventual severance     Solomon knew what you
were on about just as I knew playing Bathsheba would never keep you close

how to make you love me desire me part me like a sea     red and swollen
I take him inside of me and pretend his face is yours     the beard
you grew for me Jesus on a poplar tree     upside down like the fool in a Tarot pack

and perhaps we were fools     the sun for you was where you dove
into books with indecipherable languages in susurrant tongues     you saved for me
something like mockery in a carpark or a switch shaved for a poppet’s hiding

When once I skinned you     tomahawk in the crux of my hand like a blade
I wanted only to keep you mine forever     foolish frenetic failing each time
you spoke but did not mouth the word love     calling me dear as if that were enough

when you see somehow what you have done to me     When I see somehow what
on earth I have done to your heavens perhaps there will be a bridge between
the godless me who is always caught with his pants down in rivulets that would rival

the reddest sea your namesake scaled as if it were child’s play     a bridge between
that cleaved part of me and the stoic part of you     a prophet mine if I had believed
and yet when it was too late when all of the blood had crusted over like copper

left to weather     when all of the stories my body still had left to tell you
were silenced gagged rendered mute     I see you in some window reading a book
that has nothing to do with me but which is me all the same     I am there

imprisoned waiting to be claimed redeemed but your god has told you in runes
I am not worth salvaging     I park at the bottom of the carpark to write this
in the hollow of my hand across an expanse of thighs     When once you were mine

I could have translated this for you     I could have made you understand I was yours
and you were mine no matter what the tablets said     A man whose name
I do not know plays charades and I make him turn the lights out to feel bristle

against clavicle     he is not you but he will have to do     In losing me
you have lost the book we were writing with gods and demons and love
that is something as harsh as menses but always strong on your lips like mine

those words we made that no scholar can unravel when once you knew
before you did not know that we were saved     that the desert was ours to blame
as we let the sun shine on our bared skin like a new religion     a backward prayer

entombmentEntombment, Caravaggio, detail

—K. Thomas Kahn

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K. Thomas Kahn‘s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Quarterly ConversationMusic & LiteratureBerfroisBookslut, Numéro Cinq, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for 3:AM Magazine and Words Without Borders.

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Jun 012015
 

Victoria KennefickVictoria Kennefick

Victoria Kennefick’s debut chapbook, White Whale, already a winner of The Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition, I am delighted to say has (in the last few days) also won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet and well deserved too!

While discussing White Whale (with its recurrent images of the sea and that great white creature of myth) in a recent interview, she stated that “the sea is my context. It is how I understand time and space…. I can’t imagine life, or my poetry, without it.” Indeed her writing reflects that fluid quality, the poems possessing the same illusionary motion of waves: their words, like the sea’s water particles, staying in place while transferring their energy to the next word (particle) in line creating a distortion of our external reality to yield up an internal truth. Kennefick, it should be noticed, is not, like a sailor, using the fixed stars to determine time and space but the sea itself. In this way, perhaps, she resembles more the whalesmen of Melville when he writes, “in maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound…they [the whalesmen] are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them…”

—Gerard Beirne

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Apology

I turned my back on aeonian coffee dates,
I have no patience left to watch you eat a pastry,
sawing it into tiny, bite-sized portions
to nibble at with milk teeth that refuse to budge.
Please know it’s because I felt like a savage.

I put out the lights on looping walks around
the Lough, Fitzgerald’s Park, the entirety of the city.
I like to walk in silence, alone, I do not need to burn
the way you do. I’m glad you have a dog now.
Please know it’s because I felt lazy.

I left the room when you cried at birthdays, graduation,
my father’s funeral. I do not want to sweep up your broken
porcelain face from my floor anymore, not at my wedding.
Sometimes it’s about me. I am happy you found love.
Please know it’s because I felt selfish.

I shut the door because we talked in circles, spiralling
into the centre of our own darkness. Your devotion
flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.
I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip.
Please know that I am sorry.

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Marie Céleste

I am too young for this body,
it cracks and snaps.
My mast broken into points,
my sail flaps in tatters, loose angry skin.

My mouth is full with tongue,
wooden and dumb.
My hair locked in coils,
breaks on dry shoulders.

Paint flaked off like old make-up,
the green of my eyes died.
Above an albatross shrieks
at this body open like a cave.

Yawing wood unclasps,
ribs collapse, fingers untwine,
whining to float on grey water,
washed out, broken.

Fall into the blankness of the tide,
leave behind the old and splintered thing.

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Ritual

Because she demands it,
the rain comes.
Everything stops,
conversations drip with it,
eyes water.
I ask villagers what she did.

The priest says he saw her dance
in a white nightgown,
a fallen star not knowing
where to land. The doctor
noticed drops fuse with her skin,
fizz like sugar.

Calm as a mushroom, I watch her,
safe underneath my umbrella.
Hear her when she squalls,
‘The rain will dilute everything,
set lakes and rivers free.
Then you’ll see an ocean in me.’

After a few days, the rain stops;
sun dabs puddles like wounds.
There is no flood, we are glad.
She sits alone in steaming clothes
bleeding white on wrinkled skin,
her sky seems clear forever.

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On Reflection

The sea
a shell rippling open
puts itself in the shallows,
leans over quivering panes,
dips tippy-toed to look at itself
now it’s low tide.
It squints up at us shivering,
our breath clouds of brushed cotton.
Goose-fleshed toes burrow
down to where worms squirm.
Sand, hands cupped, holds us up,
my head in view, flat on the water
in the sky, pupil in the eye,
turned in on itself, and out,
and you and I, and me and you,
and us, pinks, blues, periwinkles,
a cockle, kelp.
The ocean takes us all,
the sky too,
on reflection.

—Victoria Kennefick

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Victoria Kennefick’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry (Chicago), The Stinging Fly, New Irish Writing, Bare Fiction, The Penny Dreadful, And Other Poems and elsewhere. She won the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize 2013 and was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2014. Her pamphlet, White Whale, won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition 2014 and just won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. You can follow her @VKennefick.

Jun 012015
 

Mark-Anthony-Jarman-2Mark Anthony Jarman

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Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire, your children all alone

OUR CASKETS LAND at Dover Air Force Base draped in flags; the boys fly home, the rookie drivers who were trapped in the roadside ambush, in the incendiary daisy chain. We tried to add hillbilly armour to the suicide wagons, but it didn’t help. All night the planes with the wounded lift off to the surgeons in Germany and I finally fall asleep to find my mother and father smiling in their sunlit yard, my childhood yard, but rising high above their garden is a murky medieval fortress on a broad hill. On the rampart walls are the silhouettes of bearded warriors in their distinctive headgear, on high paths tribal fighters in pie-crust hats walk with bulbous rockets hoisted on their shoulders – RPGs – carrying the weight of the rockets casually, the way a school-kid carries a baseball bat.

In their sunny yard I hold up a .22 rifle, pose for a photo like Lee Harvey Oswald, my childhood rifle, a gun that was later stolen from my car and used in a drugstore robbery that time my vintage coupe was in for repairs at the Green T Texaco and Lloyd the mechanic forgot to lock my car.

I hold the familiar rifle in my hands, open the oiled bolt, slide a tiny brass shell into the chamber, close the bolt, and I aim the sleek rifle up the hill at the outline of a distant head on the ramparts. I breathe out, squeeze the trigger slowly, and the human outline recoils from the blow. I have hit a man up on the medieval wall. Someone shouts and men start down the hillside paths. My mother and father smile and relax in the suburban sun, chatting in Adirondack chairs, seemingly unaware of my rifle’s report and the hajji hornet buzz I’ve drawn upon their heads, the scores of bearded men trotting down paths, robes picking up burrs in the long yellow grass.

I leave my parents, run under the elms to the railroad station, though I’ve never noticed this brick station before. On the iron platforms are more scared reservists – not even real soldiers. Some rummage in their gear, try on gas masks and night goggles, as if that might help them see where they are going next. I mingle in the great crowd and my father sits in his green and sunny yard in dark glasses and a yellow golf shirt, an exile some distance from his birth, but with his garden chair and daisies (she loves me, she loves me not) and honeysuckle hedge he looks very English and very happy with my mother and his life. My parents don’t mind fading away, they forgive me, they seem all right with what is coming for them in the sunlight.

—Mark Anthony Jarman

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Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Jarman has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, five story collections, including Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planetand nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. His latest collection, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (Goose Lane Editions, 2015), is reviewed in this issue of NC.

May 312015
 

Mark Jarman Story- St. John RiverMark Anthony Jarman

…in the end the strength of the writing itself is like magic, few authors can pull this off, and the final impression is absolute: Italy – dry, beautiful, graffiti strewn, tourist ridden, sexy, fake – and the narrator – lost, bored, amused, searching, lustful – are far too complementary and this is no haven for lost souls seeking redemption, and no one will be rescued from firestorms of ash and lava. —Lee D. Thompson

cover

Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
Mark Anthony Jarman
Goose Lane Editions
HC 285pp.; $29.95

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The twelve short stories in Mark Anthony Jarman’s fifth collection, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, form a strange, wandering, quite aimless narrative that runs throughout the book. I almost wrote “throughout the novel,” because by a third of the way in, as characters and settings reappear, it begins to feel like a novel, though not a typical novel. The sections do work as short fiction, and Jarman, one of Canada’s most-respected short story writers, is no stranger to the form, and the stories here have all appeared separately in journals or online. So, is this a story collection, or a novel? Well, it’s a bit of both, really, and it also feels like a travelogue, though this is no Fodor’s Guide to Italy.

Not that I think it’s important what category Knife Party at the Hotel Europa fits into. This lack of definition is part of the appeal and likely Jarman’s design.

As is the aimless narrative, the wandering narrator.

This narrator, who is never named, this I in Italy, is in turns all mind, and all… cock.  Can I say that? Well, I already have. He is on a vacation, or in exile (it’s hard to tell), renting an apartment in Italy, where there is something he is trying to forget (so says a gypsy woman). He’s down, he’s dour, he has unconvincing thoughts of snuffing himself, but he’s invited to join an ‘art group,’ a tour run by one Father Silas, who owns an illegal art school in Italy and is a friend of the narrator’s aunt. The nature of the art group or school is never really specified (but you’re in Italy, so there’s art, and there are tours), but does act is a kind of binding thread to the collection, as do the few recurring characters on the tour. We never get to know Father Silas, or Ray-Ray, or Tamika much, or the narrator’s dear aunt, but we need bearings, even if the actual viewing of art seems of little importance to the narrator (but he catches on, follows, drifts away). Adding to the man-adrift theme is the narrator’s current life-mess: he’s middle-aged, in existential crisis, separated/divorced from his wife, reeling from the loss of an all-consuming affair with Natasha (who had cancer, but also left him), and suffering a general lack of direction.

The book’s themes are ones of wandering, of gypsies, tinkers.

And decay, and false idols.

It’s a dense, rich book, but the opening story, “The Dark Brain of Prayer”, hides little:

My tainted life, my travels: vaguely free to travel to Italy, Ireland, Death Valley, to ski distant peaks on a whim, mobile, but always a trade-off, no stable home life, no one to depend on. Perhaps because no one can depend on me?

A strong story in its own right, “The Dark Brain of Prayer” also serves to situate the reader in the narrator’s life. We see that he’s Canadian, lives in a city with streets called Queen and King and travels to towns with names like Sackville.  These touches serve to keep us close to the narrator, who, like Jarman, appears to live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a city of flooding rivers, fiddleheads, and crab-apple blossoms.

“Butterfly on a Mountain” follows. It’s meditative, mostly plotless, meandering, funny. And, importantly, we meet Eve. She’s all old world temptation to his new world snake.

Eve is the narrator’s cousin, though their relationship is never explained beyond that, she lives in Switzerland  and she comes in and out of the stories (in the recursive Eve entries and with the occasional return also of Natasha we can see how the collection has been purposefully linked, though it’s not quite a novel, but right, that’s not important), meeting up with the narrator, and they stray from the tour, and she, inevitably,  becomes his lover (but there’s no sin here, sin in their minds having been worn to rubble like ruins in Rome). Eve is well drawn, sophisticated, educated, unpredictable.  The narrator can never get to know Eve, he muses, just as he can never get to know Italy. But he is, once again, infatuated, and Jarman’s stunning prose captures it all.

The bone-green air between the tree trunks, the green shadows between the trunks; who owns that property? I feel Eve owns any part of the world where my eye strays.

Introduced to Eve, we come to the book’s glittering gem, the harrowing, surreal, and utterly believable story “Knife Party”, a nightmarish, drug-induced excursion to a party of strangers, of cocaine and Italian testosterone and a crazed neighbor with a staple gun. There’s a menace throughout the story, and as the title lets us know, it won’t end well, but Jarman’s ability to introduce both humour (“I want to start a new dance craze […] do the Lazy Lawyer, do the Dee-vor-cee dividing his assets into shekels.”) and suspense (“The neighbour makes it to the door, but falls in the hall like a Doric column. He has bled out. […] Spying blood and a body, the woman dials her silver phone, whispers, Madonna save us.”)  gives the story a gory, car-crash appeal. We can’t turn away; it’s too lurid, too new. Too life affirming?  A strange thought, but in the quieter, meditative story that follows, “Hospital Island (Wild Thing)”, a retreat to Rome, the narrator does feel this trauma has somehow lessened the impact of the loss of Natasha, providing “gruesome perspective,” he says.

But disaster now follows the narrator and Eve, as if they’ve been cursed in their journey (in fact, the narrator is cursed by a gypsy woman in the opening story, though he complains that her curse is far too unspecific to be believable). They flee the knife party into the night, only to stray into the next story, another of the book’s highlights. “Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning” is a story that muses on Canadian soldiers and tanks in World War II rolling through Italy, on a dear uncle killed in battle in Ortona, and where our less-than-adamant narrator and his Eve stroll upon a Roman explosion, a mail bomb at an embassy and man’s lost hand, and where, later, a brilliant day of sea kayaking leads to a small cove and men fishing men from the sea, fishing drowned boat people, migrants to a country that allows so many migrants, yet seemingly welcomes none. The bodies are lain upon the shore:

Men with mustaches and suitcases with wet sand glued to their black coats; this crescent beach was not their destination, but now they are stopped on the sand, their mouths stopped, now they are at their destination. Their skiff sank in riptides, and long lines of spray, their hands let go and their mouths let in sea and sky.

This is a turning point. At the end of the story, Eve leaves at handwritten note under his door while he’s away, writing that while the thought of never seeing him again is intolerable, it might be best. “You do make me happy, but I can’t seem to feel calm.” The narrator then muses:

Eve said I was detached, difficult, maddeningly stubborn.

I thought I was easygoing.

It’s this introspection that gives the book much of its uncanny appeal. Do we even like the narrator? Yes, we do; everyone does.  Throughout Knife Party at the Hotel Europa we see a mind at work, a mind that’s endlessly male, musing, heat-addled, a mind made vivid through Jarman’s jazzy, poetic, associative prose. We see his mind’s inner workings, the intimate thoughts, the fantasies, the reveries, the trivia. In a book of travels, Jarman often goes farther afield in his head than on the map, and the book at times takes on the feeling of a confessional stall.

Take, for example, the final section/story, “The Pompeii Book of the Dead”, a near novella-length story that for all its surreal touches, has the feeling of non-fiction, but it’s as if Orwell, before writing one of his book of travels, came across a clump of peyote and found narrative liberation. When approached by a prostitute in Pompeii (at a cafe called Irish Times), the narrator muses:

I flirt with the Croatian maid, I flirt with the cryptic Spanish woman, I stare at my cousin’s form, I stare at every waitress. Then a woman and I share a tiny table in Italy, in Europe, on the planet, and for a handful of Euros I can do certain things for a certain time. How perfect it no longer seems.

There is a young American traveler, an attractive Iraqi refugee, there are women at every corner, in every dream. But Jarman, before getting too deep in his narrator’s self analysis, pulls us into a surreal section involving the narrator and several small statues (come alive from his apartment windowsill and which include a distractingly priapic Priapus) and sends us prowling the alleyways for deep-fryer grease with this ridiculous gang of lard thieves:

The Italian PM must pay his estranged wife a hundred thousand Euros a day; how can he have that much and we don’t? The grease in our alley reeks. Lewd Priapus is with us, but he is not doing well, is not popular, his huge phallus gets in the way of lugging the sloppy plastic drums.

Why does this work? Why can certain writers lead us down a path of folly and not lose our interest? There’s something always on the cusp with Jarman’s fiction, beauty quickly turns to horror, play turns tragic, reality loses all meaning, and we accept that this world, his world, is unstable. It makes for thrilling reading.

In this final story, a masterpiece of pacing, tension, and setting, we also have Jarman’s most haunting touch, the narrator’s observation of a young Italian couple in love. They could have been plucked off a postcard, or tourism billboard. He observes their tenderness, their perfectness as they lie on a bench above a cliff, and wonders if anyone (Natasha) had ever been as tender with him. But he forewarns us, tells us they will die when his tour bus collides with their scooter along the Amalfi Coast. When the scene comes pages later we still hope for another outcome. Surely he won’t? But the young lovers die horribly, almost tragicomically. Jarman seems to be saying there is no postcard Italy, just as there is no postcard love, everything is throwing itself into the sea.

So Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is not a  novel with a happy conclusion, and it shouldn’t have one. The narrator does appear to have learned something about himself, but it’s a vague, sloppy realisation. He is who he is.

Does the book have flaws? At times Jarman’s riffing may be predictable (not in what’s written, but that it’s coming), something that works for an individual story can seem repetitive after 285 pages. The tendency to go off on tangents till reason falls off a cliff, or add an absurd third thing to a previously serious list, might wear on a reader. But in the end the strength of the writing itself is like magic, few authors can pull this off, and the final impression is absolute: Italy – dry, beautiful, graffiti strewn, tourist ridden, sexy, fake – and the narrator – lost, bored, amused, searching, lustful – are far too complementary and this is no haven for lost souls seeking redemption, and no one will be rescued from firestorms of ash and lava. Like Pliny the Elder rowing to Pompeii, there’s not much he can do to save the situation, but it’s quite the spectacle and well worth watching.

—Lee D. Thompson.

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Lee D, Thompson.

Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher..

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May 312015
 

In the slider at the Top of the Page for June — what we’re calling the Fictionistas of Numéro Cinq, a selection of edgy, sexy, risky and flat out great fiction by a dozen of the hottest, most adventurous writers around (who all happen to be women). This isn’t a new thing at NC. These stories have been accumulating in the pages of the magazine since the beginning. But when you put them together like this, all you can do is smack your brow and say Holy Shit! This is writing that lives. This is writing with sass and swagger. (And you know what? There’s more of it. Just check out the fiction index page.)

May 272015
 

A Anupama2A. Anupama

Just like United Airlines, Numéro Cinq double books its flights. This is because, back in the day, we’d have the occasional train wreck (to mix my metaphors) when two, eight or twenty-seven (it seemed) contributors would fall late and I’d have to scramble for work. Now we have train wrecks of a more delightful sort; for the June issue we have a bumper crop (another metaphor, Jesus, I must have lost my mind) of book reviews, a ton of book reviews, with excerpts to go along with them. June is a huge issue. If you printed it out, it would look like War and Peace. Okay, I exaggerate. Call this the hypertrophic issue or the issue with elephantiasis or maybe I’ll think of something better…

A wonderful issue. A stupendous issue. As usual, I just shake my head in disbelief. Where do these terrific writers come from? Who plots this explosion of creativity every month? And it is explosive. Someone on Twitter this month thanked us for all the great reading. It is great reading. All of it.

So, yes, this month. Brand new poems from one of our most popular contributors (see the all time top of the pops list) A. Anupama. Bold, frank, lusty, intricate poems that infect contemporary America scenes with the erotic symbolics of ancient Indian myth. Gorgeous poems. From a woman who is a mainstay here, author of essays, translations, poetry reviews.

So, I go into the kitchen to make curry, and while I am slicing onions
and crying, He comes up behind me and caresses my breasts.

It’s good that He’s impervious to the knife in my hand.
I suppose that I could have told Him to go away,

but it’s God after all, and I like it against the kitchen wall.
He likes this too, and I am hoping that I will not lose all of me —A. Anupama

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

Another of our top ten most popular contributors, Patrick J. Keane, honours W. B. Yeats on his 150th anniversary with a spectacular essay on Yeats, the poems, and his muse/paramour Maud Gonne.

If “that girl standing there” in “Politics” is in any way a “form” of Maud, it would clarify both the old man’s distraction from war and war’s alarms, and the climactic placement of “Politics” as Yeats’s poetic farewell, a last kiss given to the void. —Patrick J. Keane

Victoria KennefickVictoria Kennefick

Our little corner of Ireland, Uimhir a Cúig, features a sheaf of lustrous poems from the inimitable Victoria Kennefick.

I shut the door because we talked in circles, spiralling
into the centre of our own darkness. Your devotion
flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.
I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip.
Please know that I am sorry. —Victoria Kennefick

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas-Caravaggio_(1601-2)The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, detail

And from the redoubtable and equally inimitable critic, poet and culture arbiter (follow him on Twitter at @proustitute) K. Thomas Kahn, we have truly special poems, intense, intimate, personal and despairing.

the trick door open and then close again
but there is no mirth when a hand crashes
down upon a boned key in disrepair

No one knows how to move but you
yet we all see stillness as a weakness
What happens in private remains uncharted

our future wants only a veil to be told. —K. Thomas Kahn

Zoe MeagerZoë Meager

A brilliant addition to the NC pantheon, New Zealand writer Zoë Meager, whom I discovered all by myself (well, after she won the 2013 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region). We have this month a story, not about New Zealand, but Mongolia. I haven’t looked at the map, but I don’t think they’re close. But the story? Ah, something else.

The cold was creeping tight in his chest as he pulled on his thickest clothes. They blanketed him like a snow drift, softening his angles, rendering him as indistinct as the peasants in the street. He mounted his horse, Hachi, and keeping the village at their backs, together they were hoof prints disappearing.—Zoë Meager

Georgi GospodinovGeorgi Gospodinov

Our brand new contributor Geeda Searfoorce contributes (yes, I used the word twice) a delightful  review of Georgi Gospodinov’s novel-in-translation The Physics of Sorrow (from which we also have an excerpt).

NicoleChuNicole Chu

Nicole Chu offers here a lovely essay on short story plot, which has the virtue of quoting me (bless her heart). Not only that, but instead of just pontificating, she actually does a really helpful close analysis of the plot of three short stories and the stories themselves are brilliant — a fine reading and introduction to the art.

Sydney LeaSydney Lea

Also poems from Contributing Editor Sydney Lea, who also reviews the collected poems of Canadian poet Don McKay in this issue.

Kate McCahillKate McCahill

Kate McCahill, who once wrote for us an amazing travel essay set in India, this time turns her talented pen (keyboard) to New Mexico and American roads.

Cary FaganCary Fagan

Cary Fagan has a short story in this issue. Called, ominously, “Punch.”

When I awoke in the morning, there was a brief, blissful moment when I didn’t remember what had happened. —Cary Fagan

Lady Rojas BeneventeLady Rojas Benevente

We also have poems from the Peruvian-Québecoise poet Lady Rojas Benevente, translated from the original Spanish (and we have the Spanish, too) by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Renata AdlerRenata Adler

From Julian Hanna, who lives on the island of Madeira, we have a review essay, packed with lively biographical detail, on Renata Adler’s collected nonfiction After the Tall Timber just out with New York Review Books.

Mark Jarman Story- St. John RiverMark Anthony Jarman

Lee D. Thompson reviews Mark Anthony Jarman’s pyrotechnic story collection Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, some of which was published here.

…the strength of the writing itself is like magic, few authors can pull this off, and the final impression is absolute: Italy – dry, beautiful, graffiti strewn, tourist ridden, sexy, fake – and the narrator – lost, bored, amused, searching, lustful – are far too complimentary and this is no haven for lost souls seeking redemption, and no one will be rescued from firestorms of ash and lava. Like Pliny the Elder rowing to Pompeii, there’s not much he can do to save the situation, but it’s quite the spectacle and well worth watching. —Lee D. Thompson

In the Mood for Love

And there is more, Lord help me, more! Including R. W. Gray on the movies of Wong Kar Wai at Numéro Cinq at the Movies. Also reviews of new books by Colin Winette (reviewed by Jason DeYoung) and Richard Weiner (reviewed by Frank Richardson). Plus excerpts from Winette and Weiner and a micro story by Mark Anthony Jarman.

And…and…now I need oxygen.

There may be more.

Enjoy.

dg

May 172015
 

zombie

We continue to experience interruptions at NC. We went down twice yesterday. But as far as I can tell, we’ve been online since some time yesterday afternoon. Right now we are limping along with most of the plugins, as they are called, disabled. Our precious and elegant hovering footnotes are not working, for example.

The language of disruption is fascinating. It has evolved into several (competing) narratives, involving Apaches, zombies, the undead, the defunct, the runaway, the unstoppable, the infinite, and the bad boy. Yes, apparently in server-land, NC was a bad boy yesterday. And you thought technology was devoid of poetry!

The tech person(s) at the hosting company said we had spawned an unsettling number of processes that had somehow not ended correctly and had spun loose from the main program (and thus became “ownerless”) and were continuing to process endlessly, perhaps also reproducing. These took up more and more space on the server memory until it was choked and stopped working. Since they haven’t ended correctly and are ownerless, no one can stop these things, and the only way to get rid of them is to turn off the system. (Jonah says the best way is to turn off and restart the server, but the hosting company won’t do that, as far as I can tell, because we share server space with other sites.) The system software is Apache. So twice yesterday because of NC, the host had to kill Apache, thus making NC a “bad boy.” Yes, this is the way they talk, in an affable non-confrontational way, of course.

These runaway processes (called runaway processes, too) are called “zombie processes” or defunct processes. They are the undead who refuse to be killed and rise in rebellion against the living forces of logic and reason. They create chaos and disruption.

You would not think such things could exist, but they are created in moments of change and conflict (the human metaphor keeps expanding). Somehow I triggered the zombie when I upgraded WordPress three days ago. I also upgraded the database but for some reason that failed (who knows what happened or what the status is now). In itself, that possibly triggered the rise of the zombies. But the tech people (still calling me a bad boy by implication) think one or more of the plugins we use is having a conflict with the new WordPress software. The plugins are subsidiary add-on programs written by freelancers, not WordPress. They provide a myriad of extra functions (like those lovely footnotes; but even the spam filtering software is a plugin). But they are not always kept up to date with the new WordPress upgrades and sometimes they have bugs (another metaphor) of their own that cause conflicts.

Maybe you all know these words, but it’s fun to write them out and own the metaphors that proliferate in the land of technology. We live, still, in a world of myth and fantasy.

Meantime, keep your eyes open and please report anything you see amiss on the site.

dg

May 132015
 

Lucrecia Martel

This month’s Numéro Cinq at the Movies post brings us another entry from Sophie M. Lavoie on the provocative and fascinating film work of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martal. Lavoie has analyzed two of Martel’s other short works for Numéro Cinq: her experimental short “Pescados” and her disturbing, beautiful fashion film for clothing company MiuMiu, “Muta” (click the links to check out those articles, too).

“La ciudad que huye” is a more documentary turn for Martel and Lavoie’s reading here lends us essential socio-economic and historical filters to understand this short documentary and understand it in relation to Martel’s other work. Lavoie also turns this analysis back to us, gives us pause to ponder Martel’s film and reflect on our own increasingly absurd ideas about how to plan cities and build walls.

—R. W. Gray

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Twenty-five years ago, while on a location scout in the sprawling city of Buenos Aires, Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel filmed what seemed like an endless wall. At the time, she remarked “What an absurd idea!” and thought gated communities would never work. However, upon seeing the expansion of these upper-class sanctuaries in the Argentinian capital, in 2006 Martel directed this informative short (whose title would be better translated as “The City That Flees” in English) about the more than 600 gated communities that can be found in Buenos Aires alone, an area of real estate totaling 360km2, roughly the size of the Gaza Strip.

The documentary short seems to be meant as a warning against one of the most important urbanistic transformations taking place in Argentina and throughout Latin America and the world: the move towards gated communities. These compounds have become playgrounds for the rich, featuring country clubs with golf courses, polo grounds, shopping malls, bilingual schools, and medical centres, as the film points out. They provide the illusion of an oasis for the wealthy, allowing them the freedom to circulate freely within the confines of their fences.

1280px-Gated_community_near_Ezeiza

Martel’s short documentary juxtaposes the steady, foreboding view of the wall with shots of the neighbours across the street, emphasizing the fact that her film crew was not allowed into the neighbourhoods, in spite of their many attempts. The outsiders, like the film’s viewers, are left to muse about the wonders contained within.

Calgary writer Marcello Di Cintio’s recent award-winning travel reportage on the subject, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, puts the existence of this divisive phenomenon in its global context. While Di Cintio’s project examines many different walls, from his privileged position he naively claims: “My nationality grants me access anywhere. Nowhere in the world bars my entry. No place claims I am not wanted or not worthy. No one has ever built a wall for me.” Di Cintio has probably not attempted to enter one of Canada’s prestigious gated communities, a phenomenon which is developing as inequalities further widen the gap between rich and poor.

The most important feature of these new walled neighbourhoods is clearly exclusion, keeping out people who do not belong. Only those people who are (pre-)approved can enter. Although he does not mention them specifically, French anthropologist Marc Augé would surely qualify these gated communities as one of the non-places that breed solitude and alienation, and this is captured in the lens of Martel’s short film.

argentina372

For Augé, in Non-Places: Introduction to Anthropology in Supermodernity, “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it). He is reminded, when necessary, that the contract exists. (…) the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only on entering or leaving.” Martel’s film emphasizes the contract. We see the gated communities from outside the walls, from the gates leading into them, and, thanks to modern technology, we are even able to see them from above, using a satellite view, perhaps Google Earth. These wider views, unavailable to the naked eye, reveal large grassy expanses and enormous mansions with pools, all hidden behind the walls. We see where we might go, but have no ticket to enter.

As with most of Martel’s films, we hear lots of puzzling ambient sounds and partial conversations. The only human beings we see up close are security guards. The off-camera dialogues of the security underlings with their bosses illustrate the seclusion and secrecy of the communities as well as the strict hierarchies of power upon which these communities are built. Indeed, the film’s narration points to the secretive, ruthless military dictatorship in the seventies as the culprit for the construction of the extensive highway system that now allows for the movement of personal vehicles out of the dense city centre and into the peripheries. This construction, coupled with decreases to publicly funded transportation, has made the greater urban centers what they are today: places where each social class has its neighbourhood and where, in Greater Buenos Aires at least, close to two million poor (of a population of over 14 million) live in and around the city in precarious slums.

Villa miseria

The upper echelons of Argentinian society supported the dictatorship that was responsible for the killing, torture and disappearing of thousands of people during the period known as the Dirty War (1976-1983). Structurally, the elite Argentine society has shifted little since the dictatorship; many of the same families and their descendants now live behind the walls of these gated communities.

Buenos_Aires_historic_map_1756

They fear the violence which they perceive comes from the lower levels of Argentinian society, from the so-called villas or villas miserias, the Argentine equivalent of Brazilian favelas or shantytowns that now surround every major city in the country.

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Films from South America often focus on the differences in social class stemming from the inherent inequalities present in most Latin American countries. If this class disparity is not explicitly on the screen, it is often there between the frames. Most of Martel’s feature-length films display these inequalities in Argentinian society: her award-winning films La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) all portray upper-class families leading seemingly pointless and secluded lives.

Although for her full-length feature films, Martel herself has not incursioned into these gated communities to tell the stories of their inhabitants, many recent Latin American films have touched upon this problem. Costa Rican director Hernán Jiménez made a perceptive documentary in 2004 about the change he saw in his native city of San José called Chains and a City Lock/Doble Llave y Cadena.

The 2009 feature length film La nana/The Maid by Chilean director Sebastián Silva showed the life of a family in such a community, told from the point of view of the domestics. In many cases, these modern-day slaves live in the gated communities far from their loved ones. These are but two examples amongst many.

Martel’s film was made with the help of many prominent figures including award-winning architect Juan Manuel Borthagaray, his frequent collaborator, Maria Adela Igarzabal de Nistal, a leading authority on urbanism in Buenos Aires, and Pablo Martorelli, President of the Argentinian Railways Institute (IAF), among others. Their presence is not seen or heard in the film, except in the information they provide regarding the changes to Argentine society. The ingenious geographic map animations in the film illustrate the changing urban landscape and perfectly contrast with the meek austerity of Martel’s chosen scenery: slowly passing walls, fences, hedges and other fortifications. These visuals help us go beyond the dominant inert image and cumbersome idea of the wall.

Lucrecia Martel’s La ciudad que huye demonstrates once again the director’s keen eye and ability to tell a story that is much greater than what we succinctly observe on the screen.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

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Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

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May 132015
 

Just back from a wild swing to the farm to oversee vast excavation and pipe-laying to repair the tenant house (twice burned down, but the original house was the first on the farm; ancient stone foundation dating to before 1850, we also found the remains of what must be the original well) plus swing to Toronto to see Jonah (hiked down the Humber River to the lake and back). Many pictures, no theme, my brain is a scattered mess.

Re. the pipe. We had a line locator come out to locate the old line, which he didn’t manage properly. So we had to follow the old pipe with the backhoe, a lovely serpentine hole with a couple of false tangents and trial digs here and there. Kind of interesting and delicate, especially at the very end when we were sure we were close to the main pipe. These digging photos are of purely documentary interest. No one made a map the last time the pipes were put in, and now I have pictures. Otherwise, I will spare you the details.

dg

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May 122015
 

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios

 

Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984″ – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

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Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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May 112015
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024Photo by Nancy Marshall

 

Sam Savage was born in Camden, South Carolina, on 9 November 1940, the fifth of seven children of Henry Savage, Jr., and Elizabeth Jones Savage. Henry was, to quote the author, “a polymath: lawyer, architect, civic leader, historian, naturalist, and author of several books of history, biography, and natural history,” while Elizabeth’s tastes “were more literary. She was well-read to an exceptional degree.” Savage exhibits a combination of these skills. Though not entering school until age seven, as discussed below, he attended the University of Heidelberg and Yale, graduating from the latter with a degree in philosophy.

For much of his adult life Savage has written poetry and fiction, publishing intermittently from the age of twenty, but not finding his true voice until late in life. In 2005 his first book appeared, The Criminal Life of Effie O., a novel in verse that Savage considers an “amusement.” His career as a fiction writer changed with the publication the next year of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), a first-person narrative told by Firmin, a male rat that can read. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), an epistolary novel, features every word, right down to grocery lists, written over the course of three months by Andrew Whittaker, minor writer and small-time slum lord. In 2011 came Glass, a first-person set of reminiscences by Edna, who spends her days typing. The Way of the Dog (2013) is a set of reflections by a male narrator named Harold Nivenson, who observes things out the living room window of his home and recalls his former activity within the art world. Savage’s most recent novel is It Will End with Us (2014), a collection of connected memories put down by Eve as she recalls her Southern childhood. All works except the first have been published by Coffee House Press.

This interview was conducted in February and March 2015 via email. My thanks go to Sam Savage for his patience.

 * * * *

Early life and education

Jeff Bursey (JB): Perhaps we could begin with something about your family. What kind of people were they? What did you think of them when growing up, and what do you think of them now?

Sam Savage (SS): Both sides of the family have roots in America going back to the mid-1600s, my mother’s side in Virginia, my father’s in Massachusetts. My father owned large tracts of timberland. We were local gentry of sorts. My father was probably the town’s most prominent and certainly its most admired citizen.

What did/do I think of them? My parents were kind, upright, generous people, utterly devoted to their children. In manners they presented a seamless blend of Yankee restraint and Southern courtesy.

JB: What religion were you raised in?

SS: I attended the Episcopal Church until I was about twelve, when I lost faith in the existence of God.

JB: You had a period of rebellion in your teens, the kind that comes upon many. What were you rebelling against, and what form did that take?

SS: Against everything and nothing—mindless encompassing anger, a condition of such unrestraint that parents would not let their sons and daughters get in the car with me for fear I would entangle them in some catastrophe. It’s a miracle I got out of that alive.

JB: What does it mean for you to consider it a “miracle” you got out of your teens alive?

SS: My teenage years were marked by extremes of recklessness that I can scarcely compass today. The “miracle” is that they did not end with prison or death by automobile.

JB: If we can stay with this for a moment, I’d like to know how you mean the word “miracle” to be taken. It’s a charged religious term, and readers of your work know you are quite often exact, even when being ambiguous. Does it have a particular meaning for you?

SS: I just meant the odds were long.

JB: In The Way of the Dog, your lead character, Harold Nivenson, says: “By the time I was eighteen I was already practically insane. By the time I was twenty I was already completely crazy. I must have been crazy for a long time before that, perhaps from birth.” That sounds like your own experience.

SS: Well, the manner in which we were crazy was different.

JB: With reference to your parents’ manners of restraint and courtesy, where did the “mindless encompassing anger” come from, and where did it go? Were you antagonistic towards those manners? Did these feelings flare up from nowhere and burn out as mysteriously?

SS: I was intensely loyal to my family. No rebellion there. On the contrary, I experienced the house as a place of calm and refuge. Leaving the South lifted a great weight off me, in Boston first, then New York, then France. With each move I felt freer.

JB: Anyone reading your books would know that most of the main characters are simmering with anger, fear, resentment and other emotions, but the narrative only provides brief glimpses of their past. That repression coupled with the at times unhinged nature of Edna or Andrew—their manias, if that’s not an inapt word, shown more than their genesis—creates a lot of the energy and power found in your novels. Do their states owe anything to the intense feelings you had?

SS: I don’t suppose I could ascribe to my characters emotions or states of mind that I had never experienced, but the fact remains that the lives of these characters bear little resemblance to my own.

JB: You speak of losing faith at age 12. In his The Life of Ezra Pound, Noel Stock says one of Pound’s uncles “inclined towards the Episcopal Church because it interfered ‘neither with a man’s politics nor his religion.’” I read that Darwin was a favourite of your father’s. The dearth of any Supreme Mover or Higher Power or God, however one wants to phrase it, is noticeable in your books. In a review of Glass I suggested this: “One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.” Up to the loss of faith you mentioned, did you feel a tug between science and religion, or was there something more intimate going on?

SS: My answer to your earlier question about religion ought to have been more nuanced. I never had “faith” in any real sense. I attended church with my family when I was quite young, but I never gave two thoughts to what was said there. My first encounter with God was with an absence. I suppose the problem, put crudely, is that I have in the course of life developed a religious sensibility and a scientific mind – a problematic combination. Though I don’t explicitly talk about it, the absence of God is, I think, a presence in all my books, like a shadow falling over them.

JB: That combination—how do you see that working itself out in your life and fiction?

SS: The characters in the novels are searching for meaning in the world and in their lives. I regret if that sounds terribly old-school and cliché. Meaning is not something you can invent, something you can freely choose. If you can choose it you can unchoose it just as easily. It has come from without in some sense. It has to make a claim upon you. Nothing I have seen in the world as I understand it (the natural-scientific world) is capable of making such a claim, and all my protagonists experience that.

JB: It doesn’t sound old-school to me. I would ask where you think meaning resides when you say it “has come from without…”

SS: I mean it has to come from beyond and be independent of our ratiocination and whim. Meaning is something you discover. It is something you experience, not something you can just make up. Where it resides now I have no idea. For a large segment of Western culture there was a general collapse of meaning, a disenchantment and desacralization of the world, between Darwin and the end of the First World War. Modernism in literature and art can be seen as a response to this, an attempt to reckon with the new reality.

glass

JB: Where did the first years of your education take place, what type was it, was it satisfactory, and were there particular teachers you got something from or who saw something in you?

SS: I hated school from the moment I stepped through the schoolhouse door when I was seven. I hated the teachers, the books, the building. I was in and out, refusing to go and (when sent to boarding school) running away. I was twenty when I finally graduated from high school. Except for a smattering of mathematics, everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family. I went to Yale (admitted on the strength of SATs), disliked it there, and dropped out after three months. I returned five years later, finished the undergraduate program in three years, graduating in 1968.

JB: Were your feelings about school, at age seven and a little more, understood or tolerated by your parents, even as, I assume, they insisted you keep attending?

SS: The Savage family did not have harmonious relations with schools. Some of my siblings had relations nearly as stormy as my own. My parents understood perfectly that the fault lay in the stupidity and unconscious petty brutality of the schools and not with their children, who wanted nothing better than to be encouraged to learn in their own way. They did not insist that we continue, once they had grasped what torture it was for us.

I started at seven because the school was overcrowded and there was no room for me the previous year. I had attended a total of seven schools by the time I graduated, and I had gone one year without attending school at all. For most of that epoch I was more interested in cars than books. I wasn’t made to feel peculiar. I always had friends. I think some people thought I was crazy, but that didn’t bother me. I was thoroughly miserable through most of my teenage years, but not more so than a lot of other people at that age. Given a time machine, it is not a period of my life that I would willingly visit.

The 1950s were an awful time—oppressive, violent, hypocritical, frightened, and suffocating, doubly so in the deep South. I don’t know if a decade can kill a man, but the 1950s came close to killing me, I think Norman Mailer remarked somewhere. I wasn’t quite a man yet, but it was a rotten epoch to come of age in. My wife jokes that I can’t talk about the 1950s without, as she puts it, “frothing at the mouth.”

JB: Did you know how to read before going to school at what seems a late age?

SS: I was read to, but with four older siblings I was not read to as much as I am sure my mother would have liked. I taught myself to read in the first week or so of school, and I had no use for school after that. In those first days we were drilled in the alphabet. There was a moment of insight: I suddenly saw how it all worked, how the code worked, with letters standing in for sounds. That was a Friday. My mother told me I sat in the house for two days puzzling it out. On Monday I could read.

JB: I’ve not heard of any child figuring out how to read like that. Was this something your siblings could also do?

SS: I don’t know. Understand that I wasn’t jumping into Dickens—I was just reading my first-grade books: See Spot run. See Jane run, and so forth.

JB: What did you like to read at that age?

SS: I read all sorts of things. Hardy boys of course, and endless comic books, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, but also Walter Scott and Dickens. A child doesn’t read like an adult, processing language; he dreams the book. I read Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Waverly, Quentin Durward, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, completely untroubled by the hundreds of words I didn’t know, sailing right over them. I would give anything to be able to read like that again.

JB: The words you didn’t understand in those books you read as a child, did you ever look them up?

SS: I don’t think so. I don’t remember making use of a dictionary as a child. I remember that my oldest sister, four years older than me, spent a long time memorizing Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, so she wouldn’t have to bother looking up words anymore. I remember being terribly impressed by that. I must have been eleven or twelve when she was doing that.

JB: You say: “everything useful I had learned by that time I had taught myself or absorbed by osmosis from my family.” What were those things? And do you mean useful for you alone or useful for anyone?

SS: I mean useful to me as a writer—the capacity to recognize a good sentence, a fondness for clarity and wit, a boundless admiration for artistic achievement and its corollary: sympathy for those who strive and fail.

JB: Your phrase about how a child “dreams the book” brings two things to mind. First, in Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life, he talks about “the physical ambiance of the occasion,” and the feel of the book, the smell of the pages. In that book Miller also says he’d love to have a library of the books he read from childhood to becoming a young man, which seems to echo your thoughts.

SS: I have had feelings like Miller’s. I used to love buying new books. I loved having them in the bookcase. These days not so much. I use the public library when I can, except for books by living authors. Those I always buy: I don’t like depriving an author of his or her meager pittance. I got rid of almost all my books a dozen years ago, thousands of volumes, but now they are piling up again. As Edna remarks, books are rather unsanitary objects. They collect dust easily, have a tendency to mold, and are among the rare personal items that cannot be washed.

Sam&Son 1982 (637x640)Sam and Son, 1982

JB: Second, that phrase would seem to encapsulate the form of your narratives as spun out by your characters: they write letters, memoirs, notes, and impressions, on typewriters and by hand, all in an effort to reach some imagined or real Other. Though it might be more accurate to say they nightmare the book.

SS: I don’t see the narratives as dreamlike except maybe in the way they are not governed by any overarching schema, in the way the narrative wanders down a path that has no goal or preset destination, where paragraph 38 is there because paragraph 37 is there, or maybe for no reason at all, because it popped up in the narrator’s head at just that moment.

JB: Before talking further about your books, can you describe in a bit more detail your time at university, and your studies? Were there any professors you recall fondly or otherwise? What kind of philosophy did you prefer studying, and has that interest changed over time?

SS: In September 1960 I entered Yale the first time, disliked it there and dropped out after three months. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for spring semester 1961 and dropped out. I went to New York at the beginning of 1962, left for France in early 1963, and returned to Yale in the fall of 1965. I don’t remember the name or face of a single classmate from those years.

I was at the University of Heidelberg for three semesters in 1970-1971 while still in graduate school at Yale. I did not take a degree there. I went to Heidelberg to study philosophy and improve my German, and because Hans-Georg Gadamer, a prominent post-Heideggerian, was a professor there. Two professors at Yale had a strong effect on my thinking then, and even today to some extent: Karsten Harries, who taught Heidegger, and Robert Fogelin, who taught Wittgenstein.

Two hours after defending my doctoral thesis (on the political thought of Thomas Hobbes) at Yale I was on a train to Boston. I have never been back.

 

Career

JB: Though you left Yale quickly after the defense, while you were a student did you imagine a career as a philosophy professor or as a philosopher? What kind of philosophy did you prefer?

SS: I spent most of my time on German philosophy, Kant to Heidegger. But also classical Greek philosophy and Wittgenstein. In my final year as an undergraduate I was named “Scholar of the House,” which meant that I was exempted from course work that year and allowed to spend all my time on a thesis, rather like a Master’s program. I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche. I also taught Nietzsche at Yale during the three semesters I was hired as what they called an Acting Instructor, which meant basically a full-time teacher who was paid very little. I also taught an introduction to ethics and a course on Marx.

I enjoyed teaching, but I never wanted a university career. I finished graduate school in 1972, taught for a while, as I said, and got my Ph.D. in 1979. In the years between 1973 and 1978 I was living in France and making fitful stabs at writing fiction, actually imagining myself as a writer but not accomplishing anything, and at the same time doing nothing to advance my doctoral studies. In 1978 I decided to complete the doctorate, for no good reason, just so as not to have another abandoned project on my conscience. It took me six months to research and write the thesis. It was a fine, almost intoxicating feeling, to be through with the academic world for good. I went back home to South Carolina, to a little town of 400 souls, stayed there for the next twenty-three years, raised two children, and wrote doggedly, living all the while on my small income, occasional jobs, and the labors of my wife.

JB: On the academic world. Harold Nivenson says: “The university as presently constituted… is a death-trap for the mind, I have long thought.” Does that come close to your own beliefs?

SS: Yes.

JB: What about being employed, at odd jobs or more regular work, in childhood, as a student, or later?

SS: I never held after-school or summer jobs while growing up. My mother thought it wrong for the children of more affluent families to take summer jobs that would otherwise go to those who needed them more. She was right of course. I later worked at several jobs intermittently over the years, none for very long, except for those few years teaching, first as a teaching assistant and then as acting instructor.

It is important to note here that I always had a small inherited income, not enough to live on easily, but enough to keep me free of the economic restraints that drive many people into careers they dislike. I was fortunate in being naturally handy, I actually enjoyed physical labor of the less grueling sort, and neither I nor Nora minded living on little. People like to talk about the unusual jobs I have held, but some of those were actually of no importance, more like pastimes than work.

JB: Apart from studying, and writing, was there something enjoyable outside academia? Theater, museums, films, or travel, for instance. Or was it all work?

SS: Films, of course, especially those of the Nouvelle Vague, and I was crazy about ballet, used to sit all night on the sidewalk for a ticket to see Nureyev dance. Besides getting a degree, I read a lot of philosophy at the university. I am at a loss to say how or to what degree that immersion in philosophy has affected my writing.

JB: What did you like about ballet, and is that still an interest?

SS: I still love ballet. I love the brave and futile challenge to gravity and to the burden of a human body. Witnessing a fine ballet is for me like watching angels taxiing for takeoff.

JB: Do you go to live ballet performances now? How has that art changed, in your opinion, since you first started going?

SS: Every year, when we lived in South Carolina, Nora and I would attend the ballet performances at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Sometimes a decent dance company shows up in Madison, but I am not able to go anymore. With such sporadic attendance I am not in a position to comment on the evolution of the art.

JB: What did you take away from time in France and Germany?

SS: From Germany, mostly a little better understanding of the polyvalence of history and a lot better grasp of spoken German, which I have, alas, almost entirely lost in the decades since. France is different. I have always felt most at home there. I lived in France for a total of over eight years. Many of my closest friends have been French. I was married to a French woman for seven years. I have a son who was raised in France. Nora Manheim, mother of my two other children, who has stuck by me for forty years now, is an American who grew up entirely in France, daughter of expatriates there. I haven’t been back in a long time.

JB: You mentioned having friends when in school but not remembering anyone from university. Was socializing with classmates not important, or did whoever you meet at that time simply fall out of your life once you were done with the institution?

SS: You have to understand. I was 25 years old, I had been around, and now I was once again a freshman at an all-male institution that was, socially, indistinguishable from an elite New England prep school. Most of the students lived on another planet from me. Furthermore I was married and father of a child. I lived off-campus, something no other undergraduate students did at that time. I am talking about undergraduate years. I do remember some of my fellow students in graduate school, though I haven’t kept in touch with any of them.

JB: I understand you would like to leave some matters alone, so we can move on. What was the appeal of South Carolina? Where did you move after that, and why?

SS: It was a place where, after so many years, I found I was comfortable again. It was still unjust in many ways, but the violence was mostly gone and you could see progress every day, something that was hardly the case in the rest of the country. I like to sit with Southerners and talk. They still tell the best stories. I love the swamps and marshes. My wife and I, with the help of friends, built a house in the woods there. I would be there still if I could. We moved to Madison twelve years ago. We moved because we have a disabled daughter, and this is a better place for her than isolated among the pine trees in South Carolina.

With Nora 2013(640x424)Sam and Nora, Madison, Wisconsin, 2013

JB: What is life like in Madison? Are there storytellers there, like in South Carolina?

SS: Life in Madison? I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.

 

Health and writing

JB: In the 1970s you learned you had alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. What is that, in your own words?

SS: I am missing a blood component that protects the lungs from attack by some of the body’s own enzymes. The consequences vary widely. Chief among the more serious are liver failure and lung destruction in the form or early onset emphysema. I noticed breathing problems before I was thirty, but assumed it was asthma. It’s an ineluctable, irreversible process.

JB: Does your health feed into your fiction?

SS: It must, though I am hard put to say how. Illness is a world of its own. Everything is colored by it. I have outlived my prognosis by many years, but for decades the illness would not let me contemplate a “normal” life stretching into a vague and distant future. All my narrators are, one way or the other, in the process of dying.

JB: When you say you have “outlived your prognosis,” I think of the tenacity of certain characters in your novels, but it’s of a kind that comes from the most basic instinct for survival. No one in your books, human animals or non-human animals, to use a current distinction, lives well. As you say, they’re “in the process of dying.” Do you explore the extinguishing of life with your own health in mind because it’s a topic of interest, to have a conversation with yourself, to communicate something that can’t come out any other way, or for other reasons?

SS: Had I been in booming health, I might have written differently, I suppose, though there are also reasons to think otherwise. There was a long period, in my twenties and early thirties, before I became really noticeably sick, when awareness of death in the form of a boundless encompassing dread was so persistent and unbearable that I contemplated suicide in order to escape it. I thought: better die now than experience this dread every day, possibly for decades, and still die in the end. I am constantly amazed that not everyone seems to feel this. I suspect a cover-up. Maybe a genetically based survival mechanism that lets us be deliberately stupid in this regard, so we can get on with our lives as if nothing were amiss. Bad faith on a planetary scale. Maybe being sick—and during the last twenty years quite obviously so—has made me more sensitive to the blitheness with which we normally—and I suppose I can say mercifully—go about the business of living. But there is such a thing as truth in fiction. A novel, if it is any good, ought to let us see the lies we tell ourselves. It is not a novelist’s job to be merciful.

JB: That dread of death ended before you became sick. Obviously it never felt so overwhelming as to make you commit suicide. What kept you alive? And did the dread taper off or end because you became sick?

SS: What keeps anybody alive? Love, distraction, I suppose, and, above all, an unwillingness to do that to my children.

JB: Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the author of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. She had been diagnosed with an illness, and went home to her parents’ basement to die. There she began to write that novel. At a PEN event she gave a talk in which she said: “I was very lonely those years, and scared. When I was lying there, looking up at the ceiling, I started to think about death. I wonder if the inevitable loneliness of being human is due to the fact that when we die, we die alone.” That seems to be one of the merciless truths your novels explore, especially in Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, but being alone is present in the other works too.

SS: We die alone, of course. No one can die my death for me. The awareness of death throws us back into the essential solitude of the self as nothing else can. We are talking now about something more fundamental than loneliness, which can be relieved by other people. We are talking about aloneness, that state in which we are genuinely ourselves and not anyone else, when the social world with its myriad deceptions has fallen away. All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.

JB: “All my protagonists dwell, each in his or her own way, in that aloneness.” With your health the way it is, and the early dread of dying, would you say that your awareness of aloneness is given to these characters or is it impossible to write them without that as a precondition?

SS: I think one can write about all sorts of things one has not experienced. I imagine that with enough research I could set a fairly credible novel in prison or in Moscow. But I doubt the same is true of states of consciousness.

 

Publication

JB: When did you start writing, and what did you start with? When did you start writing for publication? What sort of reception did it have? I know in Poets & Writers you stated there were only a few poems published and that you stopped writing at age 55. Had writing, as an activity, pleased you up to a certain point and then, due to not being accepted, ceased to be that? What had it become by the time you stopped?

SS: I was eighteen when I first imagined becoming a writer. By the time I dropped out of college at twenty I saw writing as what I essentially did, everything else being ancillary to that. And so it has been ever since except for the five or six years I was obsessed with philosophy. I wrote a great deal, mostly poetry, but fragments of novels as well, and disliked what I wrote, and threw it out. I was not discouraged by rejections. I submitted rarely, was accepted as often as I could expect. It was not a rewarding thing to do, publishing poems of no interest alongside other poems of no interest in journals that nobody read. Publication has never been the goal; rejection has never been the problem. The writing I did for forty-odd years was not coming from the place that real writing comes from, and I knew that, and that was the problem. Genuine writing, writing that is true and good, is a product of compulsion. It possesses the shape and content it does because you can’t do it any other way. It took me a long time to feel that what I wrote was coming out of that kind of necessity.

JB: What happened to change things?

SS: I don’t know. One day the writing was different, and I knew it.

JB: What kinds of poetry did you write at first, and what kinds of fiction?

SS: Between the time I left Yale and the time I returned I was primarily interested in the poetry coming out of Black Mountain: Olson, Creeley, Oppenheimer, Duncan. Also W.C. Williams and the whole objectivist school, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff in particular. And behind them all, of course, the poetry of Ezra Pound. I wrote a fair amount in a sort of objectivist vein. Nothing survives from that time. I doubt it was any good. Most of my fiction efforts in those early years were attempts to make money so I could live as a poet: unfinished crime and science-fiction novels, and even an attempt at a romance novel. That one turned rather lurid, as I recall.

JB: What appealed to you about the Objectivists and the Black Mountain poets? Has that lasted?

SS: I think it was the economy, the avoidance of cliché and worn-out rhythms, and the sparseness of the verse. I haven’t read any of them in decades. The poet I feel closest to, the one who has spoken to me in the most personal way for decades now, is John Berryman. He alone in modern literature is able to achieve a truly Shakespearian pathos.

JB: What fiction writers, beyond Williams and, I suppose, Reznikoff, did you read? Who do you read now?

SS: I am not familiar with any fiction by Williams or Reznikoff. A list of the books I have read over my many years would be exceedingly tedious. Among the modern writers who “knocked my socks off,” as Firmin liked to put it, the first time I read them would be Céline, Hamsun, Joyce, Beckett, Bernhard, Faulkner, Gaddis, Lowry. I read less now than I use to, and I read more slowly now. I don’t know much about contemporary fiction, meaning the works of writers younger than me. I reread a fair amount. Here’s what I read this past winter: I reread The Brother’s Karamazov for the third or fourth time; I read two novels and a memoire by Natalie Sarraute (The Golden Fruits, Do You Hear Them?, and Childhood), The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, and Henry James’s The Bostonians. Not a long list. And I notice it contains only one contemporary writer. But it is typical, probably, of my reading in recent years.

JB: Does reading inspire you to write, or make you think, “I could do something with that”? A related question: when you’re writing, do you stay away from reading certain writers or genres?

SS: I received from my parents, from their own attitudes, the gift of admiration. While reading a novel I often think how wonderful it would be to write like that. This past winter I was reading The Golden Fruits. Nora passed through the room, and I said something to the effect that this was a wonderful novel. She laughed and said, “You always say that.” I was interested to see, when David Markson’s library ended up at the Strand, that he wrote marginal comments in the novels he read, often highly critical comments, as if arguing with the author. I don’t do anything like that.

As for avoiding certain writers or genres, I stay away from books that I suspect might resemble the thing I am working on.

Sam&Nora 1993 (640x433)Sam and Nora, 1993

JB: Did you, or do you, feel part of a community of writers? Here I mean not only connected to those who you read but those who you met. Not that you felt part of a group—that would surprise me—but if you perceived that individual contemporary authors were on the same wavelength as you. If that does exist, is that shared interest—in topics, approach, what have you—important for your morale? Does it help keep you going? Or do you feel lonely as a writer?

SS: I have two writer friends, one of whom I haven’t seen in fifty years, and neither are remotely on my wavelength. Do I feel lonely as a writer? I don’t know that lonely is the word. I feel isolated.

JB: In your published novels there is often a mystery as to what’s going on, where the fault lines are in a character, how they landed where we see them, and, as mentioned, with very little history given. The reader is expected to piece things together. Is that a lingering effect—a good one, in my opinion—from trying to write crime novels?

SS: I don’t think so. If that tendency came from anywhere it was more likely from reading Faulkner and Ford Maddox Ford. You are right that I require readers to be more active and engaged than maybe most novelists do. I want to make it so readers have to participate in the creation of the story. I want them to lend their consciousness and lifeblood to the characters, so those characters can come alive inside them.

JB: What kind of science fiction did you write? And romance—I’m imagining a younger and more cheerful Eve Taggart, from It Will End with Us, in a sweltering southern city, with beaus and such.

SS: Dystopias, of course. I don’t remember my attempt at a romance novel. I only recall my judgment of the fragments I managed to produce: dishonest and second-rate, even for pulp.

JB: If publication has never been the goal, what has been, and has that goal changed over time?

SS: I once, only half facetiously, made a list of three things I wanted to accomplish in life: run a marathon, learn to play the saxophone, and write a great poem. I have failed at all three.

In fact I have always had only one goal: to write one truly good poem, or later, one truly good novel.

JB: Twenty-three years writing. What did you learn about yourself in that time? Patience, I assume.

SS: I learned that I am a certifiable lunatic who can’t quite admit the jump is too high for him to clear.

JB: What keeps you trying to make that jump?

SS: God only knows. A lot of free time, maybe, and a mulish temperament.

JB: Before getting into what these books are about, I’d like to know when the title comes to you.

SS: All the titles were chosen after the novels were written. While in progress they bore the names of their narrators: Firmin, Whittaker, Edna, Nivenson, Eve. I would like to have kept those names as the final titles, but the publisher wouldn’t have wanted to do that.

JB: I know you like Gilbert Sorrentino, whose last books were also published by Coffee House Press. He wrote in an essay called “Genetic Coding” that he has “an obsessive concern with formal structure…” Many of your works could be said to fall into the category of memoir, since we don’t get the particulars of the lives of these figures. Is this revisiting of that form, if indeed that’s what it is, on one level similar to what Sorrentino is referring to?

SS: While I admire Sorrentino, his integrity as an artist, his capacity for formal invention, and the frequent brilliance of his writing, we have almost nothing in common. He once remarked, I believe, that for him content was an extension of form. For me the opposite is true. I am, I fear, an old-fashioned realist at heart. However, looking back on it all, I can see there is a structure common to all the novels. They are, as you observed, first-person narratives, confessions really. The speaker is always confined in a dwelling of some sort (bookstore, apartment, house, etc.). All the narrators/protagonists are attempting to complete a work of some sort, and in most cases that work is the one we are reading. Another odd thing, which I am at a loss to explain: every novel has an emblematic animal: rat, sloth, rat and fish, dog, birds. In one case (Firmin) the narrator might (or might not) actually be an animal. In another he imagines himself as an animal (Sloth). In The Way of the Dog the animal becomes emblematic of acceptance and wisdom. In Glass the rat and fish are emblematic of Edna’s confinement and separation from the world (by sheets of glass). In It Will End with Us the birds are emblems of transcendence, I suppose I can say.

 

The novels

JB: Was The Criminal Life of Effie O. your first completed book? Is there an earlier completed manuscript in a desk drawer? How long before your work was accepted by a publishing house, and did that experience work out as you had hoped?

SS: Nothing in the desk drawer of any interest. I found a publisher (Coffee House Press) in a matter of weeks—no dramatic tale of artistic suffering and perseverance there. I have no complaints about Coffee House Press. There are obvious disadvantages to publishing with a small house, but they have never interfered in the writing itself. They have stuck by me through thick and thin (a lot of thin lately), something no commercial press would have been able to do.

Effie O. was written as an amusement, a joint project with my sister, who illustrated it. I published it only because I didn’t want her to have wasted her time on illustrations for a book that would stay in a drawer. I don’t know if it will ever be of interest to anyone. I toy with the idea of taking it out of print. It would make a good basis for a musical, though, and maybe somebody someday will find some such use for it.

JB: Are you musical?

SS: Though I love music, I have no musical talent. Unhappy lessons on the flute as a child were proof of that.

JB: Can you say something about the kinds of music you like?

SS: Classical and jazz, for the most part. And Dylan. But he’s an outlier.

JB: Particular composers or epochs? Do you go to concerts?

SS: In classical, pretty much any epoch, though I am not musician enough to enjoy some complex modern works. Most of Schoenberg, Webern, and Carter, for example, is beyond my reach. In jazz, it’s the 1950s and 1960s. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Mingus, etc.

JB: Do you write with music playing?

SS: Never. In fact I don’t understand how some people can do that. When I write I have rhythms in my head that are impossible to hear when other rhythms are being laid on top of them.

effie

JB: Why would you think of taking Effie O. out of print?

SS: I had hoped that the relative success of Firmin would prompt people to take a look at Effie O., but that seems not to have happened. It was not intended to be a great artwork. It was meant to entertain. If it fails to do that, I don’t see the point of it. It is like when you tell a joke and no one laughs. All you feel is embarrassment.

JB: Andrew Whittaker asks himself if his jokes “were ever funny, or did I just make them seem so by my laughter.” It’s one of the many sad comments he makes.

Could you say a little about how each book came to be?

SS: The process is always the same. I write the first paragraphs, more or less out of the blue, without knowing who is speaking or where it is going. Mostly those paragraphs go nowhere. But rarely (meaning it has happened five times) several other paragraphs follow, I catch a voice, a way of speaking and writing unique to that character. I am usually well into the novel before I get a glimpse of the shape it will take in the long run. I don’t know how it will end until I get there. Everything else in the novel gets revised or shifted about but those first paragraphs remain unchanged, almost word for word the way I wrote them.

JB: Where does the “voice” come from for the paragraphs that become novels?

SS: I have no idea. It is suddenly there. I don’t of course mean an audible voice: a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way.

JB: The first book of yours that I read was Firmin. That a rat—or an apparent rat, to keep your distinction in mind—could elicit sympathy is a feat of the imagination. He lives on chewing books, but also becomes literate, though he can’t speak anything other than, well, Rat. He is ostracized by his family for his astonishing abilities, and he can’t connect to the human world, represented by Pembroke Books, where he lives. He is outside everything. I assume that no one could have predicted the popularity of this book. Tell me about its reception and how it affected you.

SS: I thought the book was good, and I thought it would get a favorable reception, but I assumed this would come from a very narrow audience. If somebody had suggested the book would sell three thousand copies I would have scoffed. When it started selling in the hundreds of thousands in Europe I was flabbergasted. Flabbergasted by the numbers, of course, but also by the fact that people seemed to be reading a book I didn’t know I had written. They were encountering a lovable character, some even found him “cute” (the unkindest compliment of all), when I had meant to model him on the despicable self-loathing narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I thought I had a written a tragedy. I thought it was desperate book. I felt like shouting, “But that’s not what I meant, that’s not it at all.” This widespread reading was reinforced by Random House, which issued a hideous edition of the book with a big bite taken out of the cover and little mice in the margins of the pages in what I think was a deliberate effort to trivialize the novel, trivialization being, in the publishing world, widely viewed as a recipe for success. It might have been better if subsequent publishers had kept the marvelous illustrations Michael Mikolowski did for the original Coffee House Press edition, which have a much harder edge than the later ones by Fernando Krahn.

I recognize that an author’s intention is not the sole criterion for the interpretation of a work, that it is the reader’s privilege to see the novel differently from the way I meant it, but nevertheless I was thoroughly disconcerted by the discrepancy. I sometimes feel that I am not actually the author of that book that sold in those hundreds of thousands. A bystander, an innocent witness to the hoopla.

Cover_of_firmin_novel_by_Sam_Savage

JB: Especially since in Firmin there is this line: “I despise good-natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones.” That would seem warning enough to a reader not to view this as a novelty tale.

You’re surprised by how this book was received, that you meant to convey something different than what many readers came away with. Do you think people misread the book? Do you think there were themes and emotions in that novel that might have seemed minor to you, or escaped you entirely, but that were primary for other readers? I wonder if you think eisegesis was performed by many.

SS: Clearly there are themes and emotions that escaped me. Some readers found a book I didn’t know I had written, that perhaps I might not have written had I been aware of it. But in no way am I denying that I wrote it, however inadvertently.

I certainly don’t resent the success. But I do think it has probably hurt the reception of my other novels. It has given a lot of people a wrong idea of the kind of writer I am. They come to those other novels with certain expectations, and they are disappointed. And then of course they blame me for it, as if I had written a bad novel rather than a pretty good novel that was just not for them. Or they don’t come to the other novels at all, thinking that I am only the author of a funny rat story.

JB: As you said, intention is not the only criterion. Leaving aside The Confessions of Effie O. and Firmin, which of your other novels has been received and understood more like you wanted?

SS: I don’t have any complaints in the case of the last three. The reception of The Cry of the Sloth was sometimes problematic for me. People tended to pigeonhole it as a satire of the so-called literary world, which it really isn’t, at least not fundamentally. I don’t know anything about the literary world and have no interest in satirizing it. The novel was meant to be a satire of the human capacity for ambition and delusion, in whatever milieu, and a study of a certain complex self-parodying individual at war with himself and his environment.

JB: Do you stay away from the literary world?

SS: Not expressly. I am simply not part of it, have never been part of it. I don’t live in a writerly world, in Brooklyn, for example, and I am not connected to a university. When I began to publish I was already too sick to do writerly things like readings, book fairs, and so forth, where I might have encountered denizens of that world.

JB: The diction and tone, grammar and perspectives, of your novels are always very precise. In a letter to his ex-wife, Andrew says: “Even at the time of your departure at least half of them”—he’s talking about houses they own—“were white elephants or worse, and they are now so heavily mortgaged, so deteriorated, they barely suffice to keep my small raft afloat while it is being tossed about on an ocean of shit, meager as it is and weighted with the barest of necessities. (I mean to say the raft is meager; the ocean of shit is, of course, boundless.)” Edna is also careful in her language: “And I ought not to have said that the doorbell rang suddenly. After all, how else could it ring? Unless it were outfitted with some sort of crescendoing device that would let it gradually work its way up from a tinkle.” Does this precision occur, or have to occur, in those first paragraphs, is it natural for you to write that way, or do you introduce this finicky aspect into the narrative as you build the character?

SS: No, it is not natural for me to write that way. This was a trait belonging to those characters, not to me, a trait reflective of their personalities, though it functions differently in the two cases. I don’t in fact write like any of my characters.

JB: After those first few paragraphs, if they look to be going well, do you make notes about things you would like the character to say?

SS: Yes. Things like that pop into my head at all hours, and I jot them down and later put them in a folder that I label “material.” Some end up in the novel, a lot more prove useless.

JB: How do you know when a project is or isn’t going well?

SS: I know it isn’t going well when it stops going, when further paragraphs fail to appear. I struggle with it for a while – where “struggle” means staring out the window – and if nothing comes, I drop it. That’s the usual way. Lots of false starts. But now and then the character takes over. It’s a feeling many novelists have, I think – that the character, or the writer’s unconscious mind, takes command of the story to such an extent that you feel you are taking dictation.

JB: I’ve mentioned how a tale about a rat can be affecting. Did you think that as you wrote? I don’t mean that you’re calculating how to wring pathos from vermin. But do you feel the emotional truth of your writing as you go on, line by line? In case anyone thinks that there is only misery and grief in your novels, I should say there are passages and lines that have made me laugh, unexpectedly most times. Do you feel enjoyment when you write?

SS: I frequently laughed out loud while writing The Cry of the Sloth. It’s an odd thing: I have to force myself to begin writing in the morning. I will find all sorts of excuses to put off doing it. When it is going well I can’t say whether I enjoy it or not, I am so completely lost to myself. Nabokov referred to his characters as his slaves. Maybe that is a common sentiment among grand Apollonian novelists. But in my case it is just the reverse of that.

JB: Are you, then, a slave to the characters?

SS: Absolutely.

JB: You say you’re “an old-fashioned realist…” I might differ when you leave it there. But perhaps you might define that term before we go on.

SS: I don’t mean anything technical by it, just that I hope I have created thoroughly believable characters who live in a world we recognize as our common world, however distorted it might appear when seen through the eyes of my narrators, and that includes Firmin. Most of the richest characters in literature belong to the realist tradition. I think it is mainly the subjectivity of my works that distinguishes them from classically realist novels.

JB: Whenever I read your books and the works of some others—Gabriel Josipovici, Cesar Aira, and Karl Ove Knausgaard are examples—I become wrapped up in them, even with pen and notepaper at hand, and my notion of reality gets nudged sideways. The intensity of the way you present manias and severe anxieties, set within a claustrophobic environment of one character’s consciousness and one person’s physical space, displaces my own consciousness temporarily, an aim I assume you have. It therefore robs me of whatever reality I own (however provisionally), a state of affairs that lasts for a bit after I close the book. I feel my presence and the narrator’s presence—or maybe saying the narrative’s presence is more accurate—mingling. Slowly my mind becomes my own again, but it is coloured—it has been coloured since Firmin—with what you have written. Hopefully—hopefully on more than one level—I’m not the only one who responds that way. I close the book and your reality is there, and what was mine is not, not right away, and not in the same way after.

What I want to get at it is that your version of a “common world,” perhaps against what traditional or current realists (Jonathan Franzen, perhaps) say is theirs, replaces what readers experience, if they allow themselves to sink into the writing. We can agree that the characters are subjectively realistic, but how are you only a realist when, first, the thinking and experiences of Firmin, Andrew, and Edna, to use the most extreme cases, are skewed or “distorted,” according to conventional standards, to the extent that they aren’t in what some would consider the real world—by which is meant the sane, commonsense world—and, second, when you posit alternate worlds with such fidelity and relentlessness?

SS: I am happy that in your case the books have had such an effect. And, as I said earlier, that is precisely my intention. But I insist, my characters are in the common world. All I have done, through the skewing and distorting you mention, is simplify that world so everyone can see, to use William Burroughs’ phrase, what is on the end of every fork. I would guess that if the state of affairs presented in the novel temporarily displaces your own consciousness, as you say, that is because you recognize that it is your world too.

JB: I’ll consider that last remark, but away from this interview.

That “sparseness of the verse” of the Objectivists and Black Mountain poets remains with you as you aim to simplify?

SS: I don’t think so, not in the sense they intended. Except for It Will End with Us I don’t think of my novels as sparse. “Concise” is the word I would choose. As I said, I feel closer to Berryman, who is about as far from those guys as you can get.

JB: Where and how do you write? By hand, on a typewriter or computer? And could you describe your process of revision? Is there much editorial discussion with Coffee House Press?

SS: I write on a computer. Before computers, I used a typewriter. On a computer I am able to try out sentences, turn them this way and that, as many times as I like, something one is loath to do on a typewriter or in longhand. I fiddle with them endlessly. When revising I save the work as a new file and rewrite from the beginning. I seldom go back and rewrite individual parts, since by doing that I would lose the feel of their place in the whole, the tempo, for example, or the overarching mood in which they are inserted.

I have rewritten a novel many times before Coffee House ever sees it. They get a clean piece of work. The editors make some suggestions, but they never attempt to override my decisions. All writers should be so fortunate. After reading the manuscript of Glass the late Allan Kornblum, publisher and founder of Coffee House Press, said, in a warning, “It’s hard to recover from a book like this,” meaning I was heading for disastrous sales and a reputation for not selling that would dog all future books. He was right, of course, but he published it anyway.

JB: Do you print parts of or the whole manuscript and edit by hand after writing on the computer?

SS: No. The only novel I printed out before finishing was Glass, and it is also the only novel whose parts were radically rearranged ex post facto. I printed the novel and chopped it into pieces, maybe forty or fifty, and spread them out on the floor of the living room. Then I walked around and rearranged them. It was the only way I could manage an overview of the whole thing.

sloth

JB: We’ve talked about the kinds of writing you attempted before finding your true voice. In The Cry of the Sloth Whittaker’s letters make up the bulk of the novel, and we are also presented with his diary entries and fragments of his own fiction. Did you use discarded writings of your own or were these bits created during the process of writing?

SS: They were all invented for the occasion.

JB: How was it to write those parts?

SS: Writing for me is a form of impersonation, I think I can say, and so this novel was the occasion for a much larger variety of “experiences” or, maybe, “performances.” If I had a chance to relive the writing of one of my novels, I would choose it.

JB: You mentioned laughing while writing this book. Was it fun to create such a waspish figure as Whittaker? He has some very good lines.

SS: Yes, it was often fun, but sometimes he would break my heart.

JB: What meaning does Whittaker search for, and do you think it’s fruitless? When I read that book, with its time setting in the Nixon era, it seemed to bring together the mess of his own home and the devaluation of property, as mentioned above, with systemic corruption of an organizing entity. How could Whittaker find positive meaning when surrounded by such competing forces?

SS: Near the end of the novel Whittaker says, “I have unpacked my soul and nothing is in it.” He has arrived at the end of his illusions. The image of himself that had guided and oppressed him has been shattered, and he is free. Free for death, possibly, but also free for another kind of life.

It is at that point, in that spiritual desolation, where the constructed self has come undone, that the next three novels begin.

JB: Are these novels a quartet or quintet, then, if we include Firmin? Or do Glass, The Way of the Dog, and This Will End with Us make up a trilogy? How would you characterize the sequence, and would you have an overall title for the works?

SS: I didn’t intend them that way, but in retrospect I can see that the last three do form a sort of trilogy. I would love to see them in a single volume. Maybe I would steal a title from Raymond Chandler and call it The Long Goodbye.

JB: Edna in Glass has to type. This seems to be what she does most. How did you come up with that?

SS: I’m not sure. She was already typing when I met her. But forty years ago I was friends with a man who lived in a basement and “processed” his life, as he put it, writing down everything he thought or experienced in one notebook after another. Though he worked at it for hours every day, he was falling steadily behind, life was unrolling faster than he could record it, to his great distress. He might have been the inspiration for Edna.

JB: In the novel there appears this passage: “I could not think of anything to type at Potopotawoc. Sometimes I copied things out of magazines, I typed an entire issue of the New Yorker, including the ads.” When critics responded to The Cry of the Sloth by thinking it to be a satire of the literary world, you found that not to your liking. But here is another of your characters who performs, unwittingly, an act of uncreative writing. Are there grounds for reviewers to wonder how far apart from the literary world you are? Or maybe you’re far apart from that world, but not from its interests, movements, and concerns.

SS: I am a writer, and writers of all stripes have concerns and interests in common. So in that sense I am a part of the literary world. I read the New York Times Book Review, I subscribe to Bookforum. It’s just that other writers are not participants in my social life, such as it is.

JB: We can’t trust Edna’s version of events any more than we can Whittaker’s. She has a very jaundiced view of her dead husband, Clarence Morton, a writer. The at times unpleasant Whittaker, though that’s not by any means a rounded view of him, is also a writer. Is it a simple convenience to choose writers as figures of derision or do you think negatively of them as a class or group?

SS: I don’t think negatively of writers generally. I don’t care for the ones who are windbags, pontificators, or arrivistes, but who does?

JB: In Glass Edna repeats a comment Morton made, that she thinks too much. Is that possible?

SS: If happiness is the aim then one surely can think too much. I suspect that’s what Morton was suggesting.

JB: Could Morton have meant something else that Edna skewed to her liking?

SS: Sure. He might have been expressing his frustration with a mind that turns in circles, or, better, in spirals, and with a woman whose “unmarketable” ruminations are a silent reproach to him and his hunger for “success.” But as to what he “really” meant, your guess is as good as mine.

JB: At the end of Glass there appears to be deliverance for Edna from her state, to speak vaguely so as not to ruin the experience for future readers. It’s one of the ambiguous endings frequent in your books. How much time did you spend on those last pages?

SS: A lot. I rewrote those pages dozens of times. There was the absolutely important final phrase, “and then I will see,” and I struggled to build a scaffold to it.

JB: To me, Glass is the most overtly philosophical novel you’ve written, due to Edna’s focus on language and her exactitude of impressions, and the dusty glass in her eyrie-like apartment that gets murkier as her economic state declines, speaking, perhaps, not only to Edna but to humanity’s condition of humanity. Do you view the book as your most philosophical?

SS: I don’t know that it is the most “philosophical.” I would apply that label to The Way of the Dog, with its ruminations on story and meaning. But I suppose the judgement here will depend on what sort of thing one regards as philosophical. That said, I have no objection to your description.

The-Way-of-the-Dog11

JB: In The Way of the Dog you move from the writing world to the art world, but the picture you provide is no more positive. Did you have bad experiences in the art world?

SS: I have known more painters than writers, but I have no bad experiences to report.

JB: What painters? What were those interactions like? Do you collect art?

SS: My oldest friend in the world is a painter in France. Impossible to describe such a friendship, short of a book. I don’t collect art.

JB: Harold Nivenson, the narrator, is unwell, and is missing Roy, his dog, who as you said is “emblematic of acceptance and wisdom.” I suppose I could start by asking about your experience with dogs.

SS: I grew up with dogs all around and have lived with dogs, often multiple dogs, whenever circumstances permitted. We have a dog now. I am fond of her, I show it, and she responds. Her predecessor, a marvelous fellow, was dying at my feet while I was writing the novel.

JB: Had you started the novel knowing he was dying, or did this start partway through?

SS: I wrote the first two paragraphs thinking of him, of his impending death, of myself without him. At the time I thought I would not live to write another novel. Hence the paragraphs:

I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.

I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.

So the entire novel, in a sense, came from the presence of the dog at my feet at that moment. I should have listed him a co-author. His name was Bertram. I miss him.

JB: Nivenson is often mean, though to balance that he does love Roy, his dog, and is aware of how he behaved when younger. People drift back into his life, like Molly and Alfie, but before that has much effect we are treated to his impressions of his neighbours. For you, this is a large cast. Was there a different kind of thinking present to accommodate the presence of other characters than from your earlier books?

SS: I don’t see a big difference in the kind of thinking. More people make appearances in this novel than in the others, but none except Moll and the painter Meininger rise to the level of being characters.

JB: Unnamed family members and unnamed former wives are mentioned. This may seem an odd question, but what does it take for a character in your books to be bestowed a name? For it often seems like a dispensation.

SS: They get names if I want to be able to refer back to them in a later passage. If there is only one sister, for example, she becomes “my sister.” Her name doesn’t tell us anything, so why say it?

JB: The presence of Buddhist sayings in this novel is not a typical feature of your works. What significance do they have, and were they used only for the book, or do you see something in Buddhism that appeals to you?

SS: At one time I read a lot of Buddhist works. I still do sometimes. My younger son is in his ninth year at a Tibetan institute in India, undergoing the traditional training of a lama. When I am reincarnated I hope I will have the good sense to become a Tibetan monk.

It-Will-End-with-Us-683x1024

JB: We’ve come to It Will End with Us. Last year for Numéro Cinq I reviewed it, and I’d like to come back to something you said a while ago about your mother, as it relates to Eve Taggart, the narrator of this latest book. Her mother, Iris, is an unpublished poet who’s slowly losing her mind. Eve says this about her writing: “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature.” In your interview for Poets & Writers from fall 2011 you talked about your mother’s ability to recite poetry from memory, and how much she admired Keats. Did you find her abilities—and I think how you learnt to read, and your sister’s memorization of the dictionary—normal and worth emulating?

SS: Of course. She was a fabulous reader, a great “admirer” in the sense I explained earlier. My family was unusual in many respects, and for me unusual was normal. I can’t begin to even approach my mother’s knowledge of literature nor, I think, do I have the capacity to draw from it the comfort that she did.

JB: What do you draw from it?

SS: Pleasure, of course, at times exquisite; distraction from daily care; insight into what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

JB: In that same interview, you also say your mother “‘…had less of a life than she should have had.’” Readers of It Will End with Us will think of Iris and compare that portrait to what your mother was like. Elizabeth Jones Savage wrote poetry that was published, but I gather that was not enough. Could you say a bit more about her life, and how much she was a model for Iris?

SS: She was not a model for Iris, except very tangentially. My mother would probably have been happier in a Northern city than in a small Southern town, but she was not a tormented woman like Iris. She was extremely kind and gentle. She was soft-spoken and witty. She was, I think, a very wise person. She would have been happier elsewhere, but she had a rich life, and it was a happy life on the whole.

JB: In It Will End with Us Eve is conscious of the absence of animals in her new home, especially birds, and at one point she lists species she used to see in Spring Hope, where she was born. Her family has no descendants, the South is shown in decline, and in the largest sense, the world is fading away as animals slowly disappear from sight. Eve and Spring Hope could be Eve and Eden. Since your latest novel potentially includes everyone in its title, and addresses global concerns, are we meant to see it as an epitaph, an appeal, a warning? With humanity on the brink, is the first woman seeing herself as the last woman?

SS: As regards the natural world, the title can be seen as all three, I suppose, but the mood of the novel is mostly one of mourning, so I think “epitaph” would be best. It is important to note that the “declines” you mention are not at all parallel. In the case of the South the decline is of the old South, the premodern South, a conservative and deeply unjust region that during my childhood was rapidly vanishing beneath the homogenizing imperialism of American cultural sameness, and becoming what the “Old South” is today—a vulgar and ugly parody of itself, the historical wing of Disney World. My childhood is deeply attached to the old dying South (with no caps or quotes), and I can still summon the love I felt for it, but I can’t in good conscience mourn its passing.

JB: Do you have a dim view of our collective future? This isn’t that dystopian novel you tried to write in the science fiction genre, but is it aiming towards that?

SS: I have a bleak view of our collective future. That humankind will survive in the long run does not look like a safe bet at this point. I am not even sure that human survival is something we should wish for. I have no difficulty imagining a not-so-distant future so awful it would be better to have no future at all.

JB: Is there a connection between the use of Biblical imagery here and Buddhism in The Way of the Dog? I mean in your technical use of both and in drawing useful imagery from these sources for the narrators to comment on or, in Eve’s case, perhaps embody.

SS: The imagery was appealing, given the circumstances, but the two cases are quite different. In one it sets up a theme of compassion and acceptance against Nivenson’s bitterness and anger. In the other it evokes a lost paradigm of innocence and perfection in the life of the planet to parallel Eve’s recollection of her banishment from the small Eden of her childhood.

JB: You have a story in the latest Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), “Cigarettes,” one paragraph over two pages of a man and his landlady talking about smoking. She says she should quit but can’t, and often borrows a cigarette from the unnamed male narrator. One thing she says is: “‘Next time I decide to stop, you need to tell me it’s not worth it.’” On the surface it’s an amusing sentence, in context, but here’s a woman looking to have her aim deflected even though she knows smoking is unhealthy. What makes your characters undercut their own motivations?

SS: Well, it seems to me that there is often, and maybe even always, a difference between what we tell ourselves we want or even sincerely believe we want, and what we really do want. The human project, so to call it, often involves finding the right lies to tell ourselves so we can get though the day, and the right tune to whistle as we walk past the graveyard. We are, needless to say, frequently unsuccessful in this project, often because we have other yearnings that undermine it. This is basic Dostoyevsky, by the way, and basic Freud: living characters are never mere collections of traits—they are collections of elements at war with one another.

JB: Is this story part of a collection or an excerpt from a novel?

SS: While I am waiting for a novel, I write little things. They are, I suppose, the debris left behind by my searches for a novel, outgrowths and trimmings of aborted starts. Some are ten or fifteen pages, many are not more than three or four sentences. Some of the shorter ones were published a few years ago in the journal Little Star.

JB: Are there plans for a collection of those pieces? I’d like to see them in book form.

SS: I play with the idea sometimes, of ways I might arrange them so as not to present just a grab bag of disparate stuff. I have a lot of trouble estimating the value of many of them.

JB: Who are you writing for? Do you have an ideal reader?

SS: The ideal reader, I suppose, would be myself as other. By that I don’t mean that I write for myself, far from it, but that I think of my reader as being someone with tastes and inclination more or less in line with my own. That is not, given my personality, a great formula for success in the market.

Savage 2007 (640x480)Sam Savage 2007

Conclusion

JB: Do critical reviews of your work mean much?

SS: By “critical” I suppose you mean negative and not the sort of literary-critical review that you, for example, have written. The answer, in that case, is that I have never received a negative review that I felt touched by. I have never in fact received a negative review at all, if by “review” we mean more than a half-dozen sentences and the granting of little stars, just like in first grade. That, I think, is because a reviewer doesn’t earn any stars for him- or herself by negatively reviewing a book which people weren’t going to read anyway. You get creds in the review world by climbing in the ring with somebody other than some weird old guy who just wandered in off the street.

JB: Is there any question you’ve wanted to be asked but have not been? If so, here is an opportunity to answer it.

SS: Maybe something like the question that Nora Joyce is rumored to have asked Jim: Why don’t you write something that makes sense so we can get a refrigerator?

His answer was not recorded. Nor will mine be.

JB: Before we end, I’d like to return to the subject of your unpublished fiction and poetry, as well as your letters, and any other material a writer might leave behind for institutions and biographers. I’m rather regretful, if you don’t mind me saying, to hear you tossed away so much, and I wonder why that’s your practice. Biographers will be frustrated.

SS: I am a very private person (weird in this day and age, I know). I don’t like the idea of strangers rummaging without restriction in my life, in my past, or in work that I thought not good enough to publish.

—Sam Savage & Jeff Bursey

NC

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

May 102015
 

David Spitzer

.

Book A:  Nominative part one:  Isaak (from Genealogy of the First Person)

ii.    isaak        I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the hip of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea-wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

I       ………  am sacrifice.

I      ……….  am paradox.

(unfathomed;
unresolved.)

I    ……….    am promise, covenant—future in the instant; presence.

a people thousandfold            like stars.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty, of
promise.

.

*                        *                        *

.

eyes whirl   ……….     to the light, in
the light.

the light
is the message,… ..   an angel
of the g-d.

all eyes
roll towards the teeming waters
above us.

“Abraäm
Abraäm”  [22:11]

..

.

the voice of g-d mirrors
itself and all
else within the mirror of it-
-self. ..   a window.
………….a voice
…………………….of mirrors.

empties itself in the paradox, the double.  I hear

light
from ..    the very center of his bronze knife.  speech
flags
the air distancing light   …. earth  …      perpetual waters of the above.

.

“you
see
I.”  [22:11]

.

an angel is a lightning-tip, a
ledge
of primeval
water.  a word
a vessel— ……..       lightning strikes, reduces itself
………………………… on the surface of heaven.

volting heavens of a worded sea, angel:

.

“Not    upon
the neutral ground
the play with no player

Never.”  [22:12]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  bronze light radiates out of the hand of my father; it rises.  it falls on the dry earth.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.  a storm of precipice, open, unbroken.  immanence in a torrent upon my eyes.

.

*                        *                        *

.

negatives slit

the fabric of    vocables, air;
earth
rent on a  ….   seam, a shorn

jagged edge of too too solid flesh,
split.

.

I        …………am not

the hewn pine, not
the torches’ resin, the pyre’s
ember.

not    ………   the father, is
………………..not the blade is

not..    the light.  light
…………..is not the sound, not fury.

sound     ….   is not voice; voice not echo.

…….echo
…….is not    light.

I   ….. am not    messenger, but
……………………….the message, the sign.

.

.

the chasm of heaven and earth and the chasm
once more of earth as air is
I:

……………….self, ……………       fissure.

.

.

plural        …………is the number of the first
………………………………………………..person;    negation inside self; negation

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………&

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………its other.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty.

.

*                                                *

.

I     ……………………………..                   am         …………………………….               now.

.

*

.

[the moment is the self, an eternally sudden ‘now’ and the present tense as such; victim to the annihilation of the moment into its next instance.  the self, as isaak, is sacrifice to the ephemeral, is the ephemeral in its flashpoint, the day’s relentless arc to later day and later day and twilight and night.

the moment, as isaak, works as an object to others, for others; a blank in the continuum of willing, not as isolated units that accumulate to the whole of time, but instances of a hurling out or hurling into the path of others; of the self.  a suspension of the ethical:  not mere conformity with universal—which requires no such suspension because the ethical always presents itself as the ground and backdrop on & in which the individual acts and for the sake of which the individual commits the tragic ethical action (city, people, et cetera)—but an outburst from the universal into the region of faith, whose field is the absurd.

isaak is no ethically invested institution but a beating heart straining itself to live as its individuality on the field of the absurd, the ‘apart from the silence, the unspoken-ness of what is.’

isaak is the ego in his aspect of the beating heart upon the ground of the absurd; the object of a divine promise; paradox.  all that is ethical depends on the ego and its preservation, while faith and its unspeakable depth hinges on the will to sacrifice it into the starless void of the eternal:  the very essence of the ego at rest on the knife’s edge.  the threat of immanent and absolute annihilation renders the ego in its most interior moment, the moment of its initial posture towards the exterior in faith.]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture my reflection along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the eyes of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s voice.  everything trembles beneath the midday sun.  from above— a voice, its arcing sea-wave, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

still

a word …..       atom-  …..      -izes

i

i

now        ……..a focus, a
…………………center in flames.

…………………still, one:  an offering
…………………of smoke; dis-
…………………………………….-integra-
…………………………………………………-tion.

rise I like unto stars, ten-thousand eyes of heaven written on the name I am (given).

.

I          …………………………….              am       …………………………….                 given.

.

*                        *                        *

.

first, my voice says:

…………………………………..“father.”  [22:7]

.

I am a sacrifice replaced by a ram on the mountaintop.

there is a pyre beneath every
action I take.  when
will the god arrive to spirit
away this volatility?

.

this frailty—

.

*                        *                        *

.

and
inside this

frailty, spirited away as   …. i

……………………as:

laughter.

i:   the laugh of an elder upon an eternity of parchment, of sand

.

*                        *                        *

.

and……..       called an angel of the lord

……Abraäm, again
……out of heaven, speaking

.

just as the stars of heaven
and just as the sand gristing the
sea’s lip,

a blessing to you, where blood is
water to flow
into water, where
bone is smoke
for the air, where
my voice is all—

.

turned away Abraäm toward the children of his own and uprising they made their way together toward the spring of the oath.  and down settled Abraäm upon spring of the oath.  [22:15-19]

.

*                        *                        *.

.

I am light fractured along the bronze edge of the g-d’s voice.  I radiate out of the mouth of earth, and of sea, and of air.  heaven is vast.  the earth is blood and emanating the knife’s voice of blood.  everything bleeds under the sun.  something stirs itself up from below.  from above, something has fallen, something risen, a wave of blood-tinged air, a voice of water, an open storm.  where I end the world quivers, sands give way into stars.  a merciless sky.

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*                        *                        *

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through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of certainty, of
promise.

—D. M. Spitzer

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After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Mr. Spitzer’s first book, A Heaven Wrought of Iron, will be published by Etruscan Press in Spring/Summer 2016. Current poetic projects include:  the afterword to a collection called mousika, which presents transfigurations of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets & the Latin texts of the psalms used by Igor Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms; an essay to accompany a new transfiguration of the poem by the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, tentatively (re-) titled Figures of Being; and continued work on the large-scale hybrid project Genealogy of the First Person. In fall, 2015, Mr. Spitzer will begin work on a Ph.D. in comparative literature where he plans to concentrate on the relationship of poetry to philosophy as it occurs in early Greek thinking and the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife & their three children.

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May 092015
 

Macdara Woods Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014Macdara Woods at the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014 — photo by Robin Parmer

Macdara Woods unquestionably possesses one of the most singular voices in Irish poetry. He has published eleven collections of poetry since 1970 with his Collected Poems appearing in 2012. In addition he has published two collections in Italian and has poems translated in twelve languages. In 2002/3 he worked on two collaborative commissions: the first, In The Ranelagh Gardens, a sequence of  twelve new poems to go with four new pieces from the Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, first performed by both, in Dublin, in the Bank of Ireland Mainly Modern Series, February 2003.  In July 2003 he completed the second, The Cello Suites, a six-part sequence of 480 lines, in response to a performance of the Bach Solo Suites by US double-bassist Richard Hartshorne at Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, in 2002. It was premiered by both in Harrisville, New Hampshire, December 2003, and performed again in Toronto, New York, and Dublin. He has read and lectured extensively throughout the world over the last fifty years, most recently in Brazil and Argentina.

Perhaps Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Irish Times review (2001), put it best, “Macdara Woods has been an absorbing and relatively unplaceable presence in Irish writing since the 1970s, because the internationalising tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards was always balanced by a rooted use of Irish language and tradition.” And push those boundaries he has, but in a careful measured way. While living mainly in Dublin, he also resides as much as he can in Umbria, where the poem featured below, Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light, is located.

Macdara has described this poem as “a serious statement of record and intent arising out of a nightmare progression of medical catastrophe, starting from a fairly routine surgical intervention.”  Five days after the routine surgery he collapsed with a severe near fatal sepsis which necessitated a second surgery and a further eleven week stay in hospital. Upon release, he suffered excruciating pain in his back and leg which ultimately led to a hip replacement, “but I was so wrecked from the sepsis, and because I also had a still open wound, the surgical team was very hesitant about going ahead. So they hit upon the idea of keeping me semi-knocked out, to try and control the pain, until January when they hoped I might be stronger and a bit more healed. In the event, two days before Christmas Eve, there assembled round my bed 4 serious faced harbingers, the man who had done the first and second operations, the man who would be doing the hip replacement, a beautiful and high-powered Romanian anaesthetist, and a microbiologist. There to tell me that I was getting worse instead of better, that in fact I was as good as I was ever going to be…”

The following day he had his hip replacement which required him to learn to walk all over again. It was more than a year after his initial surgery that Macdara was finally well enough “to get back to Umbria, a place I had begun to feel I was never going to see again, to start reassembling myself.” The poem was written last September after he managed to climb up to the top of the hill-town of Nocera Umbra.

—Gerard Beirne

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Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light

I.

My father did not finish things
Such things as rows
Or playing parts ..And breakdowns
Retiring early ..Died too soon
His final words to me — A
Half a question ..Half unasked
At no point answered ..Comes there
Any answer ever? ..Do you…
Do you remember…When…and there
It stops unfinished in my head
Do you remember when we… ..Lost
The points of contact maybe
Or lost the faith ..Or lost our nerve
Lost certainty along the way
As is the way of things ..And now
That I am gathering speed
The train tracks meeting in the distance
Far behind ..The fearsome nameless
City rearing up in front ..where I know
No one ..and none know me
But where we all get off
It is too late to even think of asking questions
And of whom? ..The young Eastern
European with the tea-urn
Has passed up and down the corridor
Three times ..has disappeared
And gone for good
As has the man who checks the tickets
And the district nurse ..who is
The only one that anyone could trust
Out of the whole shebang and calaboose
Or – to use my mother’s phrase –
The Slaughterhouse
This travelling slaughterhouse on wheels
We call a life
……………..But not an unconsidered one
Out of the four last things
This one remains ..Impervious to fashion
Time or doubt: ..the flame ..it flickers
And goes out
The bird across the banquet hall
No more than that
………………………..And yet we
Mostly ..stand our ground ..because
It is expected
And what I am trying to understand
Even now at this late hour
Is your unhappiness and thus my own
Beyond the dopamine deficiency
And those endorphins
Creatures of ..the vasty deep
Who do not come when they are conjured

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II.

Yesterday I climbed ..lungs heaving
Up the earthquake damaged street
……………………….Nocera Umbra
Much ..chiuso per restauri
And simple minimal ..so beautiful
So free of traffic ..free of noise
Mid-Wednesday afternoon
One self-conscious policeman
Checking doors so tightly shut
Not even dust could penetrate
And near the top
Two men are laying cobble stones
In sand ..tapping them square
Into the roots of time
In shadow
In the lovely buttered ..honey light
Of mid-September
……………………..This constant need
For rehabilitation ..Spells in John Of God’s
Cataracts removed
Appendices
Colonoscopies and cardiograms
Or how in 1991 in Moscow
So many Metro escalators stopped
Seized-up ..steep egress from the underworld
Sotto Restauro ..everywhere Ремонт
Remont ..we climbed up from
The marble bowels and chandeliers
Of Kruschev’s dream made real
But lacking maintenance
The way we do not finish things ..is
Where entropy comes in ..is Auden’s
Sinister cracked tea cup
And the Watcher in the shadows
Who coughs when you
……………………………would kiss
Or coughing ..labour upwards
On a stick and artificial hip
To the Civic Tower and campanile
La Campanaccia at the top
Built nine hundred years ago
And standing straight ..full weight
Erect proclaiming ..Eccomi
For I am here and have been here for all to see
And have been seen
………………………..As I too am here
And have been seen ..been part of this
Small space today between the Tower
And the Cathedral
All chiuso per restauri ..Have seen
The maintenance and putting things
In place ..Knowing that they must
And will go wrong again
And be put almost right again
Poor transients —
Until the Heracliten lease runs out

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III.

And one day indeed the words ran out
And we ..with nothing ..left to say
Consulted over menus
Read bits of news ..repeated saws
To get us through the silence — you
Didn’t know
……………………..And I had yet to learn
That few words ..A simple few
Could be enough ..could tell it all:
A tendency to stagger to the left
And sometimes teeter backwards
Which could explain
My dreadful fall in Fiumicino
Too much saliva
Varied tremors ..Hands and chin:
And sometimes fingers clawed
In sudden spasm
…………………….Do I go on
Into the realms of dysgraphia
Staccato speech ..Shoulders stooped
A slowing of the gait?
I prefer
To watch the dancers in the village square
The ballo in piazza
Sunburnt mirth ..Provencal song
That so caught Keats’ fancy
Out of reach
And I have had a longer run than that

And not yet reached Astopovo:
Still travelling
………………..To places all unseen
Invisible to those with open eyes
It needs a certain antic 20 20 vision
To housepaint in the dark
As we have done ..And plastered walls
Without a light in Fontainebleau
Not cowboys then or now
Just battling with addictions
………………………Drink and pills
And work ..At labouring ..And selling
Two hours of life to buy a third
The hell with that bum deal
I said ..And I have now grown old ..And someone
Cooked the booksbooks
……………………….Along the way
The way we knew they would – So
Who owes what to whom is moot
Irrelevant ..We last from day to day
No more than that ..That’s it .Enough
For now
The diagnosis works ..Of course it does:
Who ever died a winter yet?

………………………………September 19th 2014

—Macdara Woods

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Macdara Woods was born in Dublin in 1942. Has been publishing work since the early sixties. He is a member, since 1986, of Aosdána, (set up by the Irish Government to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the Arts in Ireland). Recent reading tours include Austria, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greece. His Collected Poems were published in 2012 by Dedalus Press and his pamphlet, From Sandymount to the Hill of Howth, was published by Quaternia Press in 2014. He currently lives in Dublin, and when he can in Umbria. He is the founder-editor of the magazine Cyphers (1975 to the present). He is married to poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and they have a grown-up son, Niall, a musician.

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May 092015
 

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old

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The pop machine

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

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

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

 

The pasture

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

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

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

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The nuisance grounds

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

Water lines

 

The Red Thing

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

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

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

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

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

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

SistersWeavingSisters weaving

 

The garden

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

Sisters in the Garden (Leona on the left)

 —Leona Theis

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Leona2014 #2

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

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May 082015
 

walter

 

In 1977 Walter Bernstein was nominated for the Academy Award in screen writing. We met that same year at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. To him I became “The Kansas Kid,” sometimes shortened to “The Kid.”

The movie was the Marty Ritt film, The Front staring Woody Allen. I had not seen it, nor did I know much about film scripts, and I knew nothing about Bernstein’s accomplishments: Fail Safe and the Molly McGuires among other movies.

The other writers at MacDowell at that time included Lucy Kamasar (who had recently integrated McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village); the poet and playwright Honor Moore; Milton Klonsky (who would win a McArther Award the following year); Iris Owens, who had just published After Claude, Mary Higgins Clark, the author of Where Are The Children, and a George X , working on his second book about Russia (I cannot, even with the help of Goggle find him, nor obviously recall his last name, even thought he loaned me his house on Ibiza the following year. Madness.)

I had just published a novel set in the west and in a moment of youthful vanity, I gave a copy to the MacDowell library where Walter checked it out. For what reason I would soon learn.

MacDowell in those days was (and maybe still is) a gift of time and place for writers.

You could stay up to about six weeks; they furnished you a small cabin where you could write and even stay over night if you didn’t want to use the dormitories, also provided. Around noon a handy man arrived with lunch. My cabin (and I guessed others as well) had a fire place and when the man who brought you lunch saw that you’d used you stash of wood from the front porch, he brought you more. As I was there in January, I went through more than my share. It was the custom of the country that only the wood-and- lunch man were to stop by your cabin, and he never came in, nor even knocked.

For dinner you went back to the main hall where many of us gathered in a large room (also with a fire place) for drinks. I don’t remember if we brought our own (I think we did) or there was a bar set up. Maybe there was a bar. There was much quick-draw and rapid-fire talk about politics and art, much of which (being who I was then) left me behind. I remember Iris Owens saying she had once worked for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in Paris. Her job was to edit the first draft of Lolita. I thought no one had edited Nabokov, much less Lolita.

“Oh, she said. “It was a mess of motels going all across the country running to 600 pages with the two of them entangled in the sheets every ten pages. I’d cut motels by states: there goes three in Ohio, there goes four in Illinois, there goes all of Kansas.” (And here she looked at me because Walter’s name for me had gotten around). I believed her at the time.

The one subject that was off limits was our writing—the day’s work that just ended, or whatever project was in progress for the stay. As I had never been around so many accomplished authors I missed to chance to hear them on their writing. And how I understood I was not to ask came about because one evening at drinks I said to George X: “How goes it?” To which there was a collective silence, then: “It goes.”

“Hey, kid,” Walter said one evening to me at dinner. “I read your novel. Very good. Would you read a draft of my screenplay? It’s a western and I’m a furtive Jew from New York. What do I know about cowboys?

Walter was then writing The Electric Horseman, not for Robert Redford, but for Steve McQueen who, it turned out, was about to die. When that happened the studio sent the project to Redford who fired Walter. But all that was to happen later. For the moment, Walter wanted to know what I knew about horses and cattle and cowboys. I was flattered. Sure, I said.

ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, THERobert Redford, The Electric Horseman

A few days later at dinner Walter gave me a copy of the script made from the MacDowell Xerox machine. Mark it up, he said. Or put lines down the side where I’m getting things wrong. Then we can talk. Sure, I said.

I had never read a movie script. There was “Ext.” and “Int.” Also “Cut To” and “Back To,” with sometimes “Continuous.” There were numbers running down the page which I took to donate scenes.  There were some (but not many in Walter’s script) camera shots. Flush left on the paper were descriptions. Sometimes accounts of what the actors were to do, sometimes of the setting. In between and indented, was the dialogue.  I had no idea how I could be of help, but I knew I wanted to.

If you want to see Walter from those days, rent the Woody Allen film Annie Hall. You have to go all the way down the reel (to use Walter’s term from before DVDs) but there he is, standing outside a movie theater with Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Sigourney Weaver. Walter is Annie’s date. The script might have read: Scene 47: Ext. Movie Theater. Alvy with unidentified woman; Annie with unidentified man. Gestures. VO (Voice Over):

I did run into Annie again. It was on the upper West side of Manhattan. She had moved back to New York. She was living in Soho with some guy. When I met her, she was dragging him to see “The Sorrow and the Pity”…which I counted as a personal triumph.

As to Walter’s script, at first I found myself so mesmerized by the form that I didn’t read it with care the way Walter wanted me to: But yes, there was confusion about horses, sometimes they were horses, then they were stallions, then they were mares (when in fact they were probably all geldings).  I had to untangle bridles from halters; I had to take horns off cows, and change cows to steers (with or without horns, but I thought unless they were Texas Longhorns for show instead of ranch cattle, they had probably been de-horned.)

Somehow Walter had learned the word hackamore (probably from an East Coast riding friend) and so I had to take the hackamore off all horses and put bridles and bits back in their mouths. I also added lead ropes otherwise Robert Redford and Willy Nelson (in the final version) would be tugging horses (or mares or stallions) along by their halters, unless they were using reins attached to bits and bridles, which in two scenes at least they were not.  Saddle blankets were fine. Stirrups as well. Saddle horns, yes. Chaps, ok, but we called them leggings. Spurs, fine. But from I could tell they were never needed. Still, the audience probably needed them. Most of this was description and while I felt comfortable making those changes, when it came to dialogue, I was less sure of myself. However, I did without hesitation make one change: Walter had written a Willy Nelson line as: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck a tennis ball through a garden hose. My rewrite (which, as it turned out, did not get me screen work) was: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Arthur Laurents, eat your heart out.

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“Thanks, Kid, “Walter said at dinner a few days after I had handed back the script. “I guess cowboys don’t play tennis.”

In this way, to paraphrase a bit dialogue from another movie, there began a beautiful friendship. But that was to be further down the reel for the two of us; in the meantime, it was the next week or so that Walter learned he’d been nominated for an Academy Award in screen writing which meant his picture was all over the papers, including New York Times that MacDowell subscribed to, plus various local papers when it was discovered that Walter was in residence at MacDowell.

I remember there was a toast in front of the fireplace one night. Then as well, pats and handshakes and cheek kisses over dinner as folk stopped. Our two person table grew chairs. Walter seemed pleased indeed.

About this time I got my first royalty check and I thought I’d like to share it with Walter by taking him to dinner. There was supposed to be a good place to eat in Keene, not far away: the Red something (Lion?) Inn. It will turn out that it is owned by a former student of mine from the college where I was then teaching. Not only was he the owner, but the chef as well.

“Sure, Kid. Thanks,” said Walter.  “But I have friends coming up in a few days, would you mind if they joined us. My treat.” Fine I said, but insisted the bill would be mine. “Then I’ll leave the tip,” he said. “We’ll use my station wagon.” I made a reservation for four in my name.

Why Walter didn’t tell me his two guests were Diane Keaton and Diane Carroll I don’t know, nor did I ask. He might have meant to surprise me, but it didn’t seem that way when we all met in the large hall, Walter saying to the two Dianes, this is Bob Day, he’s helping me with the Steve McQueen script. Bob this is…and… We all shook hands, although Diane Carroll gave me something of a hug and noted that it was about time Walter got the recognition. Then off we went out the door, bundled up in coats and sweaters against the New England January. I wanted to look back to see who was staring after us, but I did not. Grace under pressure. Cut to:

EXT: The Red Lion Inn:

Walter goes through the door first, followed by Diane and Diane. They stand there for a moment until Bob enters: Cut to:

INT: Full Shot: The restaurant is busy. A pretty receptionist asks for a name.

Bob

Four for Day.

Cut to:

Close up on Kitchen: A young man looks up from a steaming pot.

Back to:

Walter Bernstein, Diane Keaton, Diane Carroll, Bob Day

Young Man (VO)

My god, it’s Bob Day

Reaction Shot: (VO): Ad Lib: Audible Amazement. Fade to Close.

The End

—Robert Day

Read the entire “Chance Encounters” series here.

NCRobert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

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May 082015
 

Gunilla JosephsonGunilla Josephson

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AN OLD WOMAN in a hospital bed leaks crystal tears.

Behind the windows of stalwart Stockholm houses we spot glimpses of chaos, fragments of high emotion pitching back and forth.

A woman is intently at work, seen only from the shoulders-up, her hair flying, and after a time her head distorts. What is she doing? Playing piano? Maybe. But we worry that she is falling apart or exploding.

“Everything I make is connected with the fibre of my life,” says Swedish-Canadian video artist, Gunilla Josephson. “But I point towards other artists. I’m interested in family– and death, more and more as time goes on.”

After receiving a degree in Sociology, Josephson attended the Stockholm College of Art and Design back in the 1970’s. She recalls a fine arts department dominated by modernist painters and when she declared an interest in experimenting with the then-clunky video equipment, her instructors were appalled: “What do you think you are – American?”

Josephson calls her work “anti-film.” For starters, she rarely uses dialogue. “I hate dialogue, even in books.” We laugh, bearing in mind that her spouse is the novelist, Lewis de Soto. “Dialogue is almost always banal,’ she goes on, being a bit take-no-prisoners in this regard. I flinch, mentally counting up dialogue sections in my own work. ‘Reading is very intense for me,” Josephson says. “I read books that you put down because they are so intense. Lewis in an ex-tensive reader and I’m in-tensive. Very different.”

I’m curious about how they live as artists together. Lewis paints as well as writes and he’s written a biography of painter, Emily Carr. “We talk about film, art and books all the time,” Gunilla says. “And grandchildren.”

Does she offer feedback on her husband’s work in progress?

“Not so much now,” she says, and adds, “to his detriment, if you want to know. I can be a little harsh at times.”

Josephson’s videos evoke feelings of fragility and tenderness in the viewer, yet also, at times, show a playful spirit. One feels an ongoing investigation of  inside/outside;private/public;seen/unseen.

The old woman leaking crystal tears is oblivious to her inside self falling from her eyes. We want to protect her, yet at the same time the viewer might think – “What is there to hide, ever?”

In Josephson’s world, the artist peels back layers to expose what may be alarming or cryptic, or even funny. Can emotions ever be fully contained, or is there always leakage, and if so, why are we so drawn to these moments?

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland (AI): Can you tell us something about your background and education?

Gunilla Josephson (GJ): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, except some high school time in Caracas, Venezuela where my father, taught at the university. My mother and grandmother were both Red Cross nurses who when they married, in both generations had to stop practicing their profession. When I understood this fully I took on their indignation which made me a budding feminist.

clip_image004My parents in Stockholm, early 1950s

My dad was a civil engineer/ researcher and also taught at Stockholm University. He worked hard at two jobs, yet when he was with the family he was caring and kind, and never shunned a chore. One day he suddenly quit both his jobs, landed employment at UNESCO and took my mom, my sister and me into the world. We lived in Caracas, Venezuela, but hanging out with ‘radical’ art students after school scared my parents, probably for good reasons, and I was sent back to Sweden to finish High School. Directly after High School followed a year of studying printing techniques at Aquinas University in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my dad worked at that time. I returned to Stockholm to complete a BA in Social Sciences at Stockholm University. After a few years raising my three children in England in my first marriage and continuing with art studies, we moved back to Sweden and I completed my education with an MFA at [Konstfackskolan] Stockholm College of Art and Design.

AI: Early influences?

GJ: I have an early memory of a yellowed booklet tied with a red ribbon on my Jewish grandfather’s ‘smoking table. It smelled of cigar smoke like everything else in that little room, but I didn’t mind. I opened the booklet and in it were colour prints of paintings, faces, that all seemed alike but and yet different. It said Rembrandts självporträtt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Under it I read a dedication Vi tu äro ett [We two are one] written in my grandmother Esther’s beautiful handwriting in blue ink. It touched me deeply and in my young mind my grandparents and Rembrandt van Rijn became one to me that day. I still connect with my paternal grand-parents when I look through the leaflet, now in my book shelf, or when I see one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a museum.

As a teenager I developed a fascination with Surrealism (not uncommon for teenagers). Perhaps simply because Salvador Dali’s Enigma of Wilhelm Tell and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur tea cup and spoon were in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and thus were accessible to me. There were no reproductions of art in my family. Art was ‘real’, still held a mystery as the original. If you wanted to see art or know about it you visited museums. Like wine, art must aged to be ‘real art’. Hopelessly Eurocentric, and eccentric.

Later came early feminist artists, Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Table, and Eva Hesse’s skin-like ‘transparencies’. I admired and loved Swedish artists Hilma af Klint and Vera Nilsson, both brave women and pioneers in painting who shaped their own destinies against the consensus of ‘woman as well behaved’ in the mid 20th century.

I took an early interest in films but never dared take the leap, not even in my mind, to apply to Film School. Bunuel and Dali’s Surrealist film Un chien andalou was probably the first art film I saw. It was the tail end of French Nouvelle Vague, and I went to see the films of seminal Belgian auteur Agnes Varda. In1967 Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise hit the cinemas, at least in Northern Europe. It hit me right in the solar plexus and I came out from the cinema a new self, a budding Maoist and completely in love with the film and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. I acquired Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and started ‘my real life’.

It was impossible to avoid Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose looming presence made it almost impossible to get support to make a film in Sweden between 1950 – 1990. I was an extra at SF [Swedish Film Industry], hoping I would either be discovered as a new Bergman actress (I was 15) or somehow become involved in movie making. All in vain.

In 2001 I made a video, HELLO INGMAR, a short 7 minute cultural patricide in which I rearranged certain Bergman films and inserted myself as a character.

YouTube Preview ImageHello Ingmar

It got the Festival Prize at Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Up until Bergman died in 2009 I was hoping the film would catch his attention, at least enough to irritate him, particularly when it showed in a program at Moderna Museet in Stockholm – but this never happened.

AI: What makes video such a compelling medium?

GJ: There are several aspects to why video can be captivating and gripping, both for artists and viewers.I fell in love with my first Digital video camera [1998] and slept with it beside me. I found the tool compelling, generous in its clarity and crispness of image.

I had not wanted to use video as an artistic tool until then, finding the cameras heavy and the striped image dull. Maybe it worked for the political, but not for the aesthetic and poetic aspects of art. It was in the late 1990s when the light-weight and more affordable digital minicams (handycams) appeared on the market. They prompted a new wave of video art, and to my mind there is a ‘before and after’ in the history of video art. This user friendly yet highly developed tool eliminated the need for heavy equipment. The means of production were now in the hands of the artists, significant for female artists who no longer depended on muscular strength. The MiniDV camera became an explorative instrument; ‘it could roam around, shift focus very quickly and go very close to an object and focus in less than a second. Artists could edit at home on their own computer systems.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an overall project that pulls together individual art projects?

GJ: The overall project is to investigate my encounter with the world. All my work is produced under the umbrella of my production company AHEDDA Films. What holds my productions together are the people I have worked with for many years. Most important to me is Swedish artist/painter, friend and comrade-in-arms Anna-Lena Johansson, who runs a farm with her husband in Normandie, and exhibits her paintings regularly at Gallery Hera in Stockholm. She is a frequent solo performer in my productions since 1999. Canadian, Berlin-based artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay performed in several works with Anna-Lena e.g. The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke and ART THIEVES.

YouTube Preview ImageHAPPY HOUSE. The Id, the Kid and the Little Red Fireman

YouTube Preview ImageThe Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke

YouTube Preview ImageART THIEVES

For sound in my videos I have collaborated with Toronto musician Eve Egoyan since 2003 . She was the performer in E.V.E Absolute Matrixa 48-minute Floor-to-Ceiling Projection that premiered at Trinity Square Video for The Toronto International Images Festival in 2009. (Read about it in the Globe and Mail here.)

YouTube Preview ImageE.V.E Absolute Matrix

I have also worked with Canadian visual artist and editor Aleesa Cohene since 2002 and with Toronto – based sound editor Konrad Skreta at Charles Street Video.

Last but not least, my life partner, writer Lewis DeSoto, has worked with me in many different ways: script writing, cameraman, computer wizard and as an excellent cook.

AI: You said to me that you are interested in exploring how NOT to be a well behaved woman. What does this mean to you?

GJ: In hindsight that was a general statement that needs to be developed: Today we are able to deal with feminist subject matter with a more analytical eye. Rebellion as a theme throughout any feminist discourse is an intrinsic part of my work. From the actions of the characters (or performers) to my own use of the video camera and later in the editing process I disrupt the norms, constructing resistances to the tyranny of orthodoxy, or, as in Twinning series 

YouTube Preview ImageTwinning: Wall Flowers from the Twinning series

and How to be a Woman

YouTube Preview ImageHow to be a Woman

commenting on them. When shooting video and later in the editing process, I work in a way that exploits unbridled emotion and marries it to abstraction. I challenge the accepted conventions of art as an entertainment that is well behaved.

AI: Is there a Swedish sensibility that you share? What might it be?

GJ: There is an intrinsic sensibility that is connected to that land of intense polarities between the extreme summer light and the winter darkness that I share. It manifests as a worship of nature in the warm season and as the cult of the lit candle in the dark and cold season. Swedes celebrate the solstices intensely. There are many pagan rituals in Swedish culture and seasonal shifts are ritualized since Prehistoric time in that forbidding place. This is just a nostalgia for the infinite. The Swedish model is long dead. Sweden is now a European country politically divided by the rise of a small but ultra conservative party whose priority is to stop immigration. The pagan rituals have been usurped by the Neo-Nazis.

I would also say that ingenuity/inventiveness is a Scandinavian trait. Perhaps a people so long in isolation develops ways of surviving which become methods, then inventions. Hundreds if not thousands of hours huddling by the fireplace seem to be conducive to inventiveness. I would also say that Swedes have a social conscience extending far beyond one’s neighbour.

AI: Do you see yourself as fitting into any school or niche in the Canadian or North American art scene?

GJ: I might not be aware of the niches but what struck me soon after my arrival in 1986 was the powerful position of female artists, and writers, in Canada. I experienced a huge artistic thaw shortly after I left the North European tyranny of Modernism. I soon found the world of moving image art and felt at home and welcome there. That might be my niche..

AI:  Which video artists do you pay attention to and why?

GJ: The art market and the art star system bore me, but I pay attention to my contemporaries with whom I move through the world. Probably the most important image of profound humanity and intensity in expression is Mother and Son, a film portrait of a dying mother and her son by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

Finnish artist Eila-Liisa Ahtila is known for her psychological videos. Her work is highly intellectual and at the same time has a certain stark beauty. Abel Gance’s film Napoléon from 1927 was intended for more than one screen, which was unheard of at that time, and it ran for more than twice the standard feature length. I think of it as the first Art video. That kind of product was relegated to a category called the Third Cinema and was often feared in Sweden as a possible Communist propaganda tool. My films belong to that category too.

I pay attention to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, in particular a work called The Sandman where the mise en scene is a German allotment on a partitioned sound stage rotating in two directions. The title comes from a found letter about two children and the Sandman. This is a kind of art piece that can only be experienced and is too complex and mysterious to fully remember. Very interesting and inspiring to me.

AI:  Video artists don’t have ‘objects’, exactly, to exhibit. How do you go about installing your work in a gallery or museum setting?

GJ: I work in two veins. I make a moving image that is placed on the wall, playing on a monitor like a sort of painting, as in Nothing is True, a video diptych exhibited at Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, from January 21 to April 5, 2015.

Or, I envelop the viewer in a totality of images and sounds, usually a more epic video, large format video projection, video installation. Occasionally I exhibit film props from the production in the gallery to animate the space.

AI: In the past you made sculptural objects and paintings. How did the transition to video come about?

GJ: It was a love affair between a first generation digital video camera and me. We met at Vistek in Toronto in 1989. Love at first sight. I shot my first video and I edited it using two VCR players. I was invited to participate in a couple of independent Toronto group shows in 1998-99 and simply showed my video playing on a stripped airplane TV monitor with a large pillar balancing on top. I joined Vtape, an excellent international distributor of art videos in Toronto learned computer editing at Charles Street Video and haven’t stopped since. I have changed camera a couple of times as they develop but I’ll never forget the first love, the Panasonic Digital Mini Camcorder.

AI: How much do you map out a video?

GJ: Most of the mapping out happens in my head during a lengthy gestation period. I make a simple drawing for an idea, a concept, and pin it up on the wall. Occasionally I draw a storyboard, I research. I trust my intellect and my life experience to steer me. We scout for places and spaces as shooting locations. A mise en scène gradually comes to life, working with the same people. I am not interested in control. I don’t have a Director’s chair. I do guerrilla filming. I want to destroy the One Man’s perspective dominating the history of film. For instance if you take the camera into the Catacombs in Paris along with your character in WW2 Resistante costume, you cannot be sure what will happen. The story line/narrative is created, in part, depending upon the material we come away with, but always following the loose narrative, even for my ongoing series of video portraits. There is always some kind of story told. I then go home and write the next scene, often together with my husband, Lewis de Soto. He thinks linearly, which can be useful when you assemble a video for a rough cut. Later you can destroy it. A good example is The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke produced during a four months Canada Council Residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2003.

JD is an anti-narrative feature -length video about a Quebecoise nun who thinks she works as a courier for the Resistance in WW2 Paris, roaming in tourist spots like the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Catacombes, Notre Dame Cathedral, les Quais, etc. The cast were Adrienne Le Coutour as J.Darke, Anna-Lena Johansson as Evil Gestapo Nun and Berlin based Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay as Jean MalreuxResistant.

We collaborated and improvised, discussed, wrote and shot. In the end we did not make a movie, which was my concept, but a strange meandering document where the camera had its own will, sabotaging the story and ultimately turning into itself. It is the story of a video that refuses to become a movie. With this film I am commenting on and parodying the clichés and tropes of the WW2 Resistance Movie genre while consistently pointing to paintings, music, books, and all kinds of histories, as the more important, and fun task. In the last scene when Johanna is in jail I use the text of the last two pages of Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I have always wanted to press those lines into art.

AI: Some of your work is narrative in structure, other pieces focus solely on image and sound. These are two distinct ways of working. Care to comment?

GJ: Every image suggests a narrative, even a still. As much as I would hate to confuse anyone I don’t really see a distinction between a narrative and a slowly moving portrait. The only difference is that the narrative in the portrait is that of the viewer.

AI: There is always an element of mystery in your work, something hidden or half-hidden, or seeking to be exposed. Comment?

GJ: I am seeking. Truths are always hidden or suppressed in our society. A mystery revealed loses its allure. Questions are more interesting than answers.

AI: Role of sound?

GJ: It is good to start with the proposition that sound tracks are the enemy of the moving image. Soundscapes are the antidote to an illustrative sound track. I use sound as a psychological dimension that operates in parallel with the image. Sound in an art video is the opposite of multiple sound tracks in commercial movies. Sound does not illustrate, it comments on and makes a work more intimate, more accessible. Often I create a kind of silence. Silence is quietly noisy. Complete silence hurts the ear. Sound should nor be heard but felt.

AI: The work often evokes a feeling of tenderness in the viewer, a desire to protect the fragility of what is  being looked-at, whether it be a person or an object. Why are these feelings/sensations interesting to explore?

GJ: These feelings are yours. Humanity evokes tenderness.. Both happiness and suffering evokes tenderness. I love life, its cruelty, fragility and beauty.

AI: You said to me, “Everything I make is connected to the fibre of my life.” Can you expand?

GJ: I don’t see a separation between art and life. The art work is the manifestation and the residue of living. It is not interesting to produce art for the sake of producing art.

AI: What are you working on these days? And what shows/exhibitions do you have coming up in the next year or two?

GJ: Dinner in my new kitchen which I will be exhibiting to all my friends. You can come too.

Ok seriously, I have a work in an exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre ANTI GLAMOUR, running until the end of April. I am currently working toward “Ways of Something”; a commission for a one minute video interpreting a segment from John Berger’s 1972 BBC Television series Ways of Seeing”, curated by Toronto artist and curator Lorna Mills. Simultaneously I am producing a commissioned short film with Canadian writer Russell Smith. As well, a lot of thought and research goes toward a solo exhibition in September 2016 at Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, curated by Stuart Reid.

In process and closest to my heart is a film Pieta, of my mother’s last hours. A difficult but ultimately beautiful process.

—Gunilla Josephson & Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

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May 072015
 

A koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences…Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission. —Tom Faure

Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books, November 2o14
417 pages, $15.00

Many challenges can assail the lost person in a single given night—when there’s no bed, no radiator nor space heater, no roof nor figurative womb to enfold and heal the daily shredded spirit. The forgotten characters of the night wade through a dark terror punctuated by McDonald’s arches, Chinese calligraphy, imperfect halogen, and harsh sounds like billy clubs dragging down fence railings and cash register ka-chings tearing at the tired mind’s fractious sense of reality.

Such muddled, taurine-riddled minds are front and center in Atticus Lish’s outstanding debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life. Released in November by boutique publisher Tyrant Books, the novel just won the 2015 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Lish’s characters live on the margins, but this is not a pity party. If anything, it’s an introduction to globalization. We do not distinguish between the empty roads of Queens and those of Mosul. Nor their trash-filled alleys, nor their migrant workers, nor their deceptive blue skies. The difference is not even clear to the well-trained eyes of Brad Skinner, a stop-lossed, three-tour Iraq War veteran who sees IED risks even in the tumbleweed saunters of an empty plastic bag. Now in the United States, Skinner and an undocumented fast food busser, Lou Zei, are star-crossed lovers trying to get by in the melting pot of Flushing, Queens.

Skinner and Zou Lei (Thunder, in her Uighur dialect) are from near-opposite worlds, but Romeo and Juliet is not the only analogy to draw—Lish’s protagonists are a Beauty and Beast who discover each other literally in an underground food court, an apt crossroads for an aspiring illegal worker and a traumatized, depressed soldier. Lish’s touch is so deft that he does not come off as cloying or contrived in choosing an overtly fitting setting like a black market for these lovers struggling to survive in the shadows of the crumbling towers of the American dream. On the contrary, the novel, while deeply empathetic, seems uninterested in heartstrings. It is caring, but unpitying and unforgiving.

Looking for work early one day, Lou Zei walks from neighborhood to neighborhood, noting that Roosevelt Avenue’s graffiti changes every few blocks, but what does not is the steady sound of locks pulled down and shutters pulled up—of business, the great Sino-American common ground, cranked manually by the working poor in the liminal limbo between twilight and dawn. The lucky ones still are senseless, hearing nothing: they are asleep. The rest are senseless, too: they are exhausted. The problem for Zou Lei and Skinner, ultimately, is that this melting pot of multicultural poverty does not mix well. Violence spills over, not willing to spare young love.

The most devastating aspect of Preparation for the Next Life is not its rich, understated description of wealthy nations and poor people in the Age of Terror. It’s the love story. It’s the characters in general—convicts, cops, veterans, immigrants, and the many combinations thereof. Everybody’s just trying to get by. Skinner rents a basement room, goes to the gym, and relives the horrors of combat on the internet. He sees mangled corpses in folded pizza slices; he holds his gun to his head and dreams of relief. His landlord’s son returns from a ten-year stint in prison; the house is not big enough for the both of them.

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How to explain Atticus Lish’s prose? It reads first as if he is overly fond of sentence fragments—but he actually does not use fragments in abundance, save for the occasional litany of descriptive images. The seeming effect comes from a koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences, as well as the omission of dialogue indicators. A typical passage intertwines calm eddies of four- to eight-word sentences driven by rich, concrete verbs, with the occasional hypnotic sentence that stretches into Fitzgerald-like lyricism, employing active participles and gerunds to string images and observations together in a style resembling almost the stream of consciousness—though his prose does not suffer from the hectic spasmodic urgency of Beat sentimentality. Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission:

His body jerked. He moaned. […] In his dream, he knew what was happening. When they had first arrived, they hadn’t known, having yet to learn. Their unit had provided security for a colonel on daylong sector-assessment missions called SAMs that lasted into the night, and they had seen very little action. If this is war, I’m disappointed, Nowling said, pulling security in the spectacular heat. […] It was hard to sleep. People said I miss my girl. I wanna get some. They manned a checkpoint and shot up a car. Their doc from Opa-locka poured a bag of clotting factor in an Iraqi’s chest. Mom’s head was gone. White-faced, Sconyers ran and got a beanie baby for their daughter.

[…] In the basements, they found electronic equipment, stiffened rags, a crumbling prayer book. Children stared at them. The corpses were few at first, but then they started finding bodies every day. Some were mummified by fire. A bomb went off and spit a person out of a doorway. That smell is burning hair. A truck drove by them full of men with beards and satisfied expressions. Why are we letting them go? Sconyers asked. I don’t get it—Sconyers who carried a copy of the Report of the 9/11 Commission in his assault pack.

Because this is the army. Because this is their country. Because this isn’t supposed to make sense.

Lish’s writing is allusive without lacking concrete immediacy. The description mixes panoramic observations with implied exposition. Implied—because, he laces new expository detail into his scenes without pause or explanation. This is expertly done and contributes to the unsentimental tone of the novel. Take for example this revelation that Skinner has proposed to Zou Lei:

When she came outside in the purple dusk at quitting time, he was waiting. They ate pizza slices while the streetlights came on, went down past the gas station and walked along the river.

She was so moved she didn’t talk for nearly a mile.

What are you thinking?

You have a great heart, Skinner!

He liked it that she was happy

Just you say you will marry to me, it’s incredible.

Lish has suggested he avoided seeking help from his father Gordon—the renowned author, editor, and Raymond Carver’s blue pencil—but there’s something Lish-like here. Maybe it’s in the blood. The answer to this authorial originality question doesn’t matter. What the link does, rather, is illustrate how this author still early in his career is well on his way to becoming a master of story-telling:

The house was two houses. On the first floor, there were the lace curtains and plastic on the couch, the kitchen had a cuckoo clock on the wall, and there was a velvet picture of Elvis looking handsome above the couch his mother sat on. The saints and elves were in the yard. The rooms upstairs were a mess of clothes and junk where his mother and Erin lived among bottles of perfume and shampoo and tarot cards and curling irons and maxi pads and beer can empties and cigarettes and photo albums. You could open a drawer in a broken dresser and find a stack of Polaroids of people and scenes you did not recognize, then look at yourself in the mirror and wonder who you looked like.

He begs rereading.

I don’t know exactly when it was—maybe page 40, maybe 50—but I started rereading some of Lish’s pages backwards. I would reread each of its sentences in reverse order. This reading contained a strange wisdom. Here’s a glimpse of a typical Lish page in which we see the city, the lovers, and his writing style:

When she went back into his room to get her jeans, she saw what they had done to the bed, the mauled sheet. His camouflage gear and clothes were all over the floor. He slept in his poncholiner. On the bedside table were his pills and his lifter’s magazine and a strip of four condoms with blue wrappers. The room smelled like him and her, their sweat, latex, and tobacco. All about the room were empty beer cans he used as ashtrays. Under the bed, there was a used yellow wet latex condom. Another one was twisted in the poncholiner. Her eyes scanned over his cigarettes, his jeans. His boots were lying where he had kicked them off. A pair of blue faded cotton panties had fallen on them, hers.

He came up behind her and put an arm around her waist and put his face in her neck. She held his hand. His face smelled like tobacco. They rocked back and forth like that.

[…] They went out into the quiet night and started hiking down Franklin Avenue until the small American houses gave way to ghetto buildings and then the huge cathedral of Chinatown, over the hill through the dark trees and down the longblock that extended out to the freeway like a jetty.

Now you have to go all the way back, she said.

That don’t matter. I can’t sleep anyway.

[…] The sheds were built open at the top like changing rooms, and when she pulled the chain, her light disturbed her neighbor, who muttered behind the plywood. She switched the light off and kneeled down on her broken mattress, on her coverlet bought in Chinatown, showing teddy bears in bowties. By feel, she plugged her cell phone into the charger, her link to him, and the screen lit up indigo in her hands for several moments shining through her fingers.

Combined with the other characteristics of his writing style, the unified yet non-linear nature of Lish’s prose reminds the reader of the vast multitudinous nature of the various wars the characters are facing. There is no one voice in control, there is no up or down, no central organizing order or clear causality, no beginning or middle—but there is an end. A devastating end.

—Tom Faure

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Tom Take 4

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

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com

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