May 022016
 

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

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1

My brother!

I wait, holding my breath, for him to find me. But for the moment the flat is silent.

So silent that high up though we are the sounds of the street drift up to me.

Where is he? What is he up to?

I strain to hear if he is on the move, in search of me.

Patience. I always tell myself I must have patience in situations like these. After all, it’s not as if we have something else to do when this is over. We have all day and every day. So what are ten minutes here or there? Or an hour. Or even two.

Was that a sound? I stiffen in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall. I listen, but everything is still. Then I hear it again. A board has creaked. My brother is approaching.

But then the silence returns.

How long should I wait? For it sometimes happens that he forgets that we are playing and lies down somewhere and falls asleep. Or opens the fridge and makes himself a sandwich, then sits down with a magazine to eat it. And when I finally come across him and ask him what has happened he looks at me blankly. Don’t you remember? I say. We were playing. You were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says.

No, I say. It was now. I went to hide and you were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says again, munching his sandwich, gazing into my face.

It may have been yesterday, I concede, but it was also now.

Clearly, though, it has ceased to interest him. He’s like that, my brother. One minute pestering me to play with him, the next indifferent. He seems to inhabit many different worlds, all with complete equanimity, and each one as though it were the only one, but they are hermetically sealed off the one from the other and often in total contradiction the one to the other. Thus sometimes he will stand for hours behind some piece of furniture, or at the window. Nothing will budge him. Not the mention of food or  a walk or even a game, And then he will run through the flat as though pursued by a demon, screaming and whimpering and begging whatever he feels to be pursuing him to desist, to call off the chase. At first I was afraid the neighbours would hear and either come and complain or call the police. But when neither of these things happened I realised that the walls, floors and ceilings of these old apartments are marvellously soundproof and that we could make as much noise as we wanted and no-one would hear.

Then he will beg me to take him out and in the street he will either walk alongside me, nodding occasionally as I speak, like any respectable citizen, or run round me like a dog, dart up alleys or into half-open doors, so that I have to chase him and grab him and then hold him tightly until I sense that the fit of restlessness has passed.

He does not seem aware of these sudden changes of mood, inhabits, as I say, each of them as though that was where he had always lived. Sometimes he will eat up everything that is in the fridge and at other times go for days without food. At first I thought this would make him ill and I tried to remonstrate with him and force him either to desist from eating or, on the contrary, to eat. But he is as stubborn as he is strong, and anyway I soon realised that he must also have a remarkable constitution, for nothing seems to upset his stomach, neither excessive eating nor quasi-starvation.

I look at my watch. Surely it is time to go and look for him myself. If he was still playing he would have found me long ago, Yet I hesitate, knowing how upset he gets if I don’t play ‘properly’, as he puts it, and come looking for him without having given him time to search for me himself. On the other hand I don’t want to go on standing in my corner between the wardrobe and the wall if he has forgotten that we are meant to be playing and is lying down on one of the beds and sleeping, or flicking through one of the innumerable magazines that lie scattered about the flat where, barely opened, he has left them. If I come upon him like that and challenge him, reminding him that we had agreed to play and that I had spent the last hour hiding under one of the beds or squeezed behind the sacks of rotting potatoes in the pantry, he pretends he has not heard and goes on sleeping or turning over the pages of his book. I think he does not understand what I am saying. He turns his face towards me and looks at me, not as one looks at a person but rather as one scans the sky, searching for a cloud.

Ah! That was definitely him, creeping through the flat, approaching my hiding-place. He does not like me to hide too well, he has sometimes got into a state when he could not find me. So I crouch under tables or stand behind doors, so that I appear to be hiding but can in fact easily be found. I have often stood here, in one of the spare bedrooms, in the narrow space between the wardrobe and the wall. He comes into the room, spots me, but pretends he has not seen me, and goes out again. He thinks I imagine I have not been noticed. He goes on along the corridor, entering various rooms, walking round them cursorily, then makes his way back to the room where I am, comes straight up to me and pulls me out into the middle of the room, where he proceeds to embrace me, his soft wet lips making an uncomfortable impression on my cheek. Then he drags me to the nearest bed and we lie down in each other’s arms and often go to sleep like that, only to wake up cold and confused to discover that the sun has set and we are in the dark.

I must have made a mistake. The flat is silent as the grave. If a board did creak it was probably only caused by the central heating coming on. I step out of my corner and strain again to hear. What is he doing? Sometimes he is the most methodical of men, slowly working his way through each of the rooms, and in each room looking behind every sofa and every curtain, under every bed and every table. At others he flies through the flat, hurling doors open, glancing round and rushing out again, banging the doors behind him. But then he will suddenly lose interest and go out onto the balcony and immerse himself in the spectacle of the street below. If I come out and find him there, though, he will, as often as not, berate me for having broken the rules, or burst into tears and wail inconsolably, so that I have to drag him inside for fear the neighbours will see or hear. But at others he will look up surprised and welcome me, and we will stand side by side, leaning over the balcony, looking down into the street below.

He must have gone to sleep. He seems to have this capacity to lie down at any time of the day and immediately fall asleep, like a puppy or a kitten. But it’s a light sleep and if I enter the room he will, as often as not, open his eyes and turn his head, until he can see me. He will give no sign of recognition but watch me carefully. If I leave the room he will simply close his eyes and drift off again. Rarely can I come right up to him without his waking up. And that is usually after one of his bouts of hyper-animation, when he will sometimes sleep, dead to the world, for two or even three days and nights. This, however, has not happened for some time.

I leave my corner and go to the door. If I hear him I still have time to get back to my so-called hiding-place. But the flat is silent as a tomb. One might almost imagine that I was alone in it, and that it had been sealed off from the world forever. I put my head round the door. Silence. Should I give him another few minutes or is that simply condemning myself to anxiety and frustration? I step out into the corridor and the loose board creaks loudly beneath my feet. I freeze. If he is looking for me he will approach, without a doubt, and I will still have time to dart back into the room. I wait, straining my ears, but the flat remains silent. I resume my advance. The door of the next room is closed. I cannot remember if it was closed when I ran past it to reach my hiding-place. I have the feeling that it was. But then again, it might not have been. Try as I may, I cannot remember for certain. Should I open it or simply creep past it? If I open it I risk making a noise and if he is still looking for me he will be alerted and it will be too late for me to retreat to my original hiding-place. On the other hand he may have gone in and fallen asleep on the bed, if it is one of the rooms with a bed in it, and then my search for him will be over.

Surely if he had gone in and lain down I would have heard as I stood hiding and listening? On the other hand for the first half hour or so I was lost in my own thoughts and might perhaps have failed to hear him. He can, when he wants, be remarkably quiet when he comes looking for me in the course of our games. Sometimes he has given me quite a shock, jumping suddenly out at me and shouting to show he has found me.

I decide to leave the door closed and move on towards his room. Though he will lie down on any bed he finds if the fancy takes him, most often he returns to his room, or at least to the room that was originally his, for we both of us change rooms, and beds, as the mood takes us.

The door to the bathroom is shut and I stop for a while and listen, pressing my ear to it. Unless he has fallen asleep in the bath, and that has been known to happen, he is not inside. Beyond it, the kitchen door is open, but one glance is enough to show that he is not there.

Beyond the kitchen the corridor turns at a right angle. I dread this corner, for he sometimes likes to lie in wait for me there and leap out with a howl, and however much I prepare myself, it is nearly always a shock. I literally feel frightened out of my skin – as if my body had leapt into the air and my skin had stayed behind. It takes me a considerable time to recover. My heart beats so wildly I think I am going to have a heart attack. I have to lie down on the nearest bed, which is that of our parents, and in some instances I have fallen asleep there and not woken up for several hours, once even for a whole day.

I stand on my side of the corner and listen. However much of an effort my brother makes to try to breathe quietly, or even to hold his breath altogether, a little rasping noise always escapes him, which alerts me to his presence. It is sometimes difficult, though, to distinguish this noise from that of the water in the pipes. I close my eyes in order to hear better. The corridor is very dark here, for no window lights it and the bulbs are weak in the flat and anyway there is none near the corner.

I stand then and listen. Nothing.

I wait. Still nothing.

I advance again slowly, taking care to make no noise. I stop again, straining my ears. Perhaps my brother is in his room, listening to music. He may have forgotten all about our game, and have settled down with his music. His door is shut. Should I open it and risk disturbing him? Or simply let him be? After all, this might be an opportunity for me to read something or listen to a bit of music myself.

I decide to leave his door unopened but to go on with my search through the flat. If I do not find him anywhere else I can always come back to his room and open the door and see. I have reached what used to be the living room in the days of our parents, but it is now just another room, in which we sometimes sleep, on one of the large sofas, or in which we eat when we don’t want to eat in the kitchen because it feels too squalid, and we don’t want to eat in the dining-room because it feels too stuffy.

It is empty.

I walk round it, nevertheless, looking behind the curtains, though since it is I who was meant to be hiding I don’t know why he should be there. And of course he isn’t. I sit down on the sofa in front of the television and look at the white screen and at my pale reflection in it. Much as I dislike looking at myself in the mirror, I like seeing my shadowy reflection in the milky screen. Perhaps because it reassures me that I am really there while not forcing me to contemplate my features. And it might not be me, it might be someone else, all I can tell is that there is someone there, in the room. The television confirms that. Someone who is most likely to be me, since I sense that I am in the room, sitting on the sofa, looking at the screen.

All of a sudden I see, on the screen, something moving behind me. I turn round. It is my brother. He comes towards me, his mouth open, his face purple with anger. I stand up and take hold of his wrists. I know what he is trying to say. I should have been hiding, I have spoilt the game by my lack of patience, I am never prepared to play properly. I hold his wrists, and though he is a good deal stronger than me he does not seem to know how to use his strength to best effect. He spits at me and then begins to cry. I let go his wrists and draw him to me. His face is wet and when I seek to comfort him I taste the salt of his tears on my tongue. I want him to sit down beside me on the sofa, but he drags me out of the room and across the corridor. He pushes open another door and pulls me to the bed. We lie down on it together and very soon he is asleep.

—Gabriel Josipovici

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Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940 of Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine Jewish parents. He lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He read English at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford and from 1963 to 1998 taught in the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of eighteen novels, four books of short stories, eight critical books, a memoir of his mother, the poet and translator Sacha Rabinovitch, and of many plays for stage and radio.

Read Numéro Cinq‘s interview with Gabriel Josipovici here.

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May 012016
 

Tomoe HillTomoé Hill

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IF THIS FEELS like a flood that flows from my fingertips, it is: I have gone for so long without this kind of communication—I am thirsty, I am hungry, I am ravenous in mind and body. I wonder if there is anyone who feels the same.

*

I am leaving my period of hibernation. Or is it stagnation? It has felt the same, at times. I must re-enter the world, alone, and I am frightened. Looking at rental properties online bewilders me—brand new riverfront towers, chrome and glass boxes—then I spot a place hidden away. When I go to see it—a tiny annexe of an oast house—it is set on wooded land, a small bright stream running through it, something out of a fairy tale. It is late January, and a light dusting of snow drapes the dark green moss-covered shelter to park the car, the lighter green of the grass. It silvers the white snowdrops that cover the grounds like a carpet. Driving there, the lanes are narrow and the car brushes against tangled holly, waxen green and needle-edged. You would have your own section of garden, says the landlord. Apple and pear trees. I touch one of the trunks: cold, gnarled and waiting again for its branches to explode with leaves and fruit, and suddenly remember how Demeter rendered the earth barren in the months Persephone was bound to the underworld.

He tells me a charming anecdote about the property: that if the owner cuts off the supply of water from the stream to the nearby castle, he can still be beheaded. The peculiar charm of a violent past gives these places their character. There is a high, weather stained brick wall that hides me away, an old wooden gate with a metal latch that needs kicking open when it rains and causes it to swell. A large old-fashioned bell with a small strap is mounted on the white painted brick of the entry alcove. Will anyone ever ring it? I think to myself. The inside of the annexe is smaller than I thought, but then, it will be just myself and all of my books, and that is enough. Part of me, I think, needs to be tightly enclosed for some time to come—coccooned. With a shaking voice I place a deposit on the phone that afternoon and start packing in the evening. I am haphazard about everything but books and perfume; these are packed carefully, lovingly—swathed in bubble wrap and cotton wool. Words and scents, the only precious things these past long years, the ones that still made me feel alive.

A drop of Le Labo Benjoin 19 spills on my fingers as I pack: it smells of warm animal fur—memories of a tiny black and grey kitten that liked to sleep inside in the bed when it was cold—fall, winter and smoldering wood. It scents my dreams, where sex still permeates everything, even though I turn in my bed and there is no other, even though my body generates the heat of passion in the depths of sleep.

Myth is steeped in sex: how it transforms us, in both wonder and fear. We pursue and are pursued. How would a lover now come to me? Not in a shower of gold or the guise of a swan, but in those languorous hours where my mind, restless in a sleeping body, imagines the softness of sheets as skin, my heat creating the ghost of past lovers, future ones next to me.

I awake: secretly wet and aching, not just muscles, but also flesh—with longing, with loneliness. My hair brushes my back and feels like a lover’s fingertips in the morning; that slow arousal that makes the eyes flicker open and the mouth form words of almost inaudible want. I smell animal heat and embers: it hangs in the room, the heavy draperies of lust.

*

One bitterly cold evening I move out, leave my old life. I am paralysed by fear as I stand outside my new threshold. The movers are still at the annexe, so I bring in the remaining boxes from the car and move about the kitchen mechanically, cleaning and pretending that everything will be alright, that I have made the right decision. Once they have gone, I set to work: I pour a large glass of whisky, light candles, set about moving bookcases and methodically filling them. I open box after heavy white box and gently take each one out, remembering how they were ordered on the shelves before. Anatomy, art, philosophy, Roman and Greek history, classical novels, modern ones. Ballard and Bradbury, Davis and Joyce, Benjamin and Barthes. I murmur titles under my breath like some healing mantra. I don’t really believe in much of anything, but books are at the top of the small list of what I do.

I work steadily, late into the night, stopping briefly to eat, unable to taste anything but the whisky that I refill my glass with. When the most important things are finished—the bookcases and the bed—I sink exhausted into a hot bath and stare at the ceiling. I need to be surrounded in scent right now, more than any other time, and so the water is perfumed with Ormonde Jayne’s Ta’if: rich red roses, dates, and orange blossom. Of course it is frowned upon now to consider such imagery, but I cannot help but think of Ingres: The Turkish Bath, pale peach and pink-tinted flesh, curved bodies resting against one another—when time is nothing but pleasure or the anticipation of it. On top of the bookcase in a corner of the small bedroom is a tray filled with my perfumes. The bedside table is stacked with a few of my comfort books: Ulysses, Metamorphoses, The Arcades Project, and something by P.G. Wodehouse. Perhaps that seems odd, the last choice, but I need to remember to laugh now. Nevertheless, I fall asleep that night listening to the owl in the trees outside, tears staining fresh linen.

*

I am a solitary person by nature, but this new silence is hard to get used to. I fill it with Mozart and Puccini’s operas and read voraciously to make up for lost time. The person I left felt ignored when I read too much—as he was not a reader himself—and so my compromise for years was to watch television while thinking of the things I wanted to read, visualising turning the pages. I would end up devouring books when he wasn’t around, one perpetually in my hand as I went about the house doing chores. But as any reader knows, half the pleasure of reading is talking about it with a like-minded person. I knew no like-minded people. I knew people who read grocery-store bestsellers: sports and celebrity biographies, the latest popular trilogy turned movie, but no one who delved below the surface into the wild literary deep, the tangles of words and thoughts that capture and drag you back down into the depths, barely letting you breathe. In the month before I moved out, when things were in the last throes of finality and it didn’t matter what I did, I stayed up late into the night, reading Ancient Medicine, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things or Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

I no longer draw my bedroom curtains at night. I like that there are no eyes to watch me like there would be in the city, save the ones of the nocturnal animals and birds—and what do they care about me? I am the stranger here. When the night is stripped of its sodium lights, its intrusive concrete structures, when all that is left is trees and undergrowth, stars and the noises of the ones to whom the earth belongs, I feel accepted. I turn off my light and stand by the open window—it is always open, even on the coldest nights, because when I shiver, it reminds me that I am still alive, that something can touch me. I breathe in the scent of the water from the nearby stream. Fresh-running water has a metallic scent, ozonic. It speaks to you of purity and the places that are still relatively untouched by our interference. The water that flows down the mountains in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France is like this: it may be sultry and hot in the cities by the sea, but drive a half-hour or so upwards along the windy rocky road, and the air becomes crisp and icy. I was amused the first time I was in England and saw a Pimm’s, full of herbs and fruit and vegetables: the air in the mountains is a version of that. The icy breeze carries with it the scents of hyssop, rosemary, lavender and thyme; dried grasses and overripe fruits that fall in the shade by the roadsides, figs, mainly. Beautiful purple-black figs that split almost when you touch them—the most sensual of fruits. White milky sap that oozes out, inviting you to dig your fingers in and tear it apart: reddish-pink seeded flesh that you can do nothing else with but sink your mouth onto and devour, juices dripping from your lips and chin. At the small cafés that are in every village in the mountains, I was always intrigued by the tall, ice-filled glasses of green effervescent liquid that everyone sipped under striped umbrellas. I asked in my halting French for one, and when the cool liquid ran down my throat, I understood: it was mint sirop with sparkling water, the romanticised taste of the icy liquid that poured forth from the mountains.

But the animals: there are many foxes here. They seem unafraid of people, because here we leave them alone. Coming home in the still winter evenings, they walk close enough by to unnerve me, although they have always seemed indifferent to my presence. But their noise first startled me as I lay in bed: it sounded like a child screaming, a high pitched broken wail, over and over. They are either fighting or fucking, I think. Does it matter which? Both bring a certain degree of agony to the noises that emanate from the body, whether woman or animal. Now I listen to them and it is a kind of lullaby: a violent, lonely one that matches how I feel. Some nights, when the landlord is away and I am at my lowest point, I lean out of the window and wail with them. It does not make me feel better, but for that night, less alone.

*

I can’t get used to my new home. Logically, then, it is not a home. It is a house—but not even a house, an annex. Somewhere I come after a day of arguing to wander about, restless, up and down the small flight of stairs; staring at the bookcases; taking long eucalyptus or rose-scented baths in order to let the water take away some of the invisible weight. I decide I will plant flowers. Walking the outdoor rows and through the greenhouses at the garden centre, I choose rosemary and hellebore, two of each and wait in the open doorway looking at the idyllic Kent countryside as they are potted. Rosemary will flank my door, hellebore will sit in the wooden alcoves. In the mornings and evenings I take to rubbing sprigs of the herb as I leave and come back. Never having been one for ritual, I find my actions both strange and comforting. Rosemary has a clearing, energising scent: a combination of mint, pine and camphor. Its oil is strong—so much so that only lightly running a fingertip across it leaves you scented for hours. I like to be marked in that way, because it reminds me of my skin being anointed by a lover’s fluids. Rosemary… remembrance, as Shakespeare’s line goes. Memory is sometimes punishment. Plants have taken the place of flesh now.

*

I finally tell my mother that I have left: something I could not bring myself to do until now. As much as the silence has screamed, I did not want, did not know how to tell anyone what had happened. All I told her in the end was brief: I’ve left. I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ll be fine. I was lying, of course. I don’t think there was much truth in those words at all, bar the part about having left, and that too was a sort of lie: You see, we had divorced years ago. We just stayed together. Why? That is a rope so long, that even holding it for all these years, I am not quite sure where its beginning is. I never told her we divorced. Why? That, at least, I can answer simply. It happened around the time my father got ill and then later died. I didn’t want to burden her. My sister had her own marriage problems at the same time, which everyone knew about. My instinct has always been to withdraw at bad times where hers is to amplify. But to pile one child’s troubles onto another seemed unforgivable to me.

Physically, my mother is slight—a child’s body: only 4’9”, the weight of a sparrow. And yet, like most mothers, she has shouldered mountains without complaint. But I knew that I would have been the proverbial straw, and would have died rather than uttered a word. There never seemed a good time to tell her, later on. After my father’s death, I was trying to make sure, as best I could across an ocean, that she was functioning as well as she could, grieving, but not too much: I didn’t want her to sink into a death-reverie that some fall into, the reverie that swallows lives whole. Those are sinkholes that dot the road of our family; we see them miles off yet some of us have been hypnotically drawn by them: choosing to stare into that small abyss, then jump in without a backwards glance.

*

Lily of the valley grows creamy white, en masse along the shadows of the moss-patched brick wall, and the roses are blooming early: there is a tangle of them outside the downstairs windows. Mixed pale pink and yellow, I can reach out and draw them to me. I tweet pictures of the grounds and the flowers. I get the impression people think I live an idyllic sort of lifestyle, although I quickly dispel notions that I somehow own this property. Sometimes I am too poetic with the accompanying things I write with photos. They come out of me in melancholy but I think they are read as romantic—something like pastoral isolation. Other people’s perspectives are such a curious thing.

I hate the word reclaim. I am supposed to reclaim my life, my power as if it were a suitcase waiting at an airline’s lost items office, or a piece of dusty furniture in the attic that just needs a clean and some new paint. An action is sometimes just as hollow as words can be empty. There is an elusive something beyond the writing and the doing that restores us to something more or less whole in the world.

I receive an email for an acceptance, a short memory piece about how I used to walk the London streets at night. This was in my university days, when I couldn’t sleep, from too much reading. There is a fine line between recalling memory and creating false ones when you spend a lot of time trawling through the archives of your mind. It is how people go mad, I imagine—slip from one to another. When the mind and body are under stress, attack from that rush of adrenaline, some people strangely grow tired and need to sleep—hide in the safety of the unconscious, like losing yourself in the rows of a vast library.

I am finding that I lose myself like this while I am awake.

The same place previously accepted a fiction piece of mine that had the same dreamlike feel. There was a line about muscle memory: how when you have not had physical—sexual—contact for a long time, your body expresses its frustration by acting out pleasurable motions. Sometimes I find my legs in the act of wrapping as if they were reaching to pull a lover close, a hand in mid-air caressing. Often now, I am awakened by my body betraying me in the ultimate way: dripping with sweat, in the midst of full orgasm, back arching away from the mattress. I don’t remember what I was dreaming of.

More than the geographical isolation, more than not knowing anyone, this is the thing that makes me feel like some sort of ghost among the living. I remember sex vividly, I think of it—want it constantly, and yet it feels like a country I visited a very long time ago, one that I don’t know if I will ever return to. My body knows, and fights—fights the idea that one day I could forget completely. I am touched by its determination.

Over the Easter weekend I order two large turquoise ceramic planters, to be filled with as much lavender as they can hold. I have envisioned where they will sit in the alcove, fragrant on the breeze and bringing bees. When I go to pick them up, I realise I have been a bit too romantic: they are easily over 30 kilos each, filled. I can’t manoeuvre them myself. One of the men that works at the garden centre lifts them into my car, managing to scratch the side of it in the process, to which I stay silent, more concerned about the folly of my purchase. One goes in the boot, the other is lifted into the back seat. When I arrive home, it takes me about twenty minutes just to partially lever out the one in the boot. I have parked next to the gate, but it is still a struggle—admittedly a comic one to look at—to get it to the alcove without dropping it and shattering all the bones in my feet. I swear at the bees that have already arrived in greeting, then go back to the car, where I spend the next hour crying and cursing and spilling soil everywhere. The landlord is gone, and I refuse to call my ex-husband to come and help me. I think wildly for a moment that I will dig the soil out, handful by handful into another container so that I can move it. I end up leaving it there the entire long weekend, and whenever I leave the house to go to the shops or exercise, I am hit with a dizzying and humiliating wave of fragrant incapability.

*

I have been asked out on a date. This takes me by surprise. I have been speaking to someone online, a friend of another online acquaintance. He offers to come down from where he lives if I would honour him with a date. I agree, and we meet at the National Gallery. I am wearing a black Helmut Lang dress, wide-brimmed grosgrain-trimmed olive-green hat, high leopard-print suede Saint Laurent heels—relics from a past life. My wardrobe is a reliquary, and occasionally I open the doors and silently contemplate the stack of expensive shoes, row of fitted dresses, silk shirts, brocade pencil skirts and pile of cashmere jumpers piled in a wicker basket. Am I praying? No, but I am wishing for something—maybe that is the same. “They’re just so beautiful” Daisy sobs into Gatsby’s colourful stacks of thick silk and flannel shirts in The Great Gatsby. A similar type of worship, perhaps. Worshipping a person she knows but doesn’t, in the way I recognise myself, yet at the same time do not. I ask the cabbie who drops me off to wish me luck. Good luck, love, he says heartily. When I arrive at our meeting place and touch his shoulder lightly in greeting, he shakes. The shaking extends to his voice, which quivers very audibly, and I don’t know if he is just terribly nervous, or if I am somehow displeasing. I can dress and apply my makeup, but I have no idea what looks back at me in the mirror. In my head it is still the shape of the woman who could not get off the sofa a year and a half ago, held down by a body slipping out of normal function in the extreme; preventing any form of living, such as it was.

He has brought me a gift: a bag full of Anne Carson books. Most have inscriptions to me on the first page, a very hopeful and premature wish for coupled longevity. We walk around the museum, I holding onto his arm lightly, which I think he likes, although part of the reason for this is because my heels are damnably painful since I am not used to walking in them anymore. I try to make him comfortable, but he trembles throughout. He says that he was that nervous all the way down on the train. I am nervous, but I don’t think it has ever manifested itself quite so visibly, drastically. He is intelligent and charming, but seems afraid of things. He doesn’t seem to like London at all, the people, the heat of the day—which isn’t even that hot. Afterwards, we walk to a nearby expensive hotel and have a champagne afternoon tea. Or rather, I do, because he doesn’t eat those sorts of things. At least he drinks. We sip our champagne and have a rather technical conversation about sex, which reminds me of The Bell Jar, where Esther has a long, serious talk about sex with a young man from another college, after which he deliberates and then announces he would like to have sex with her, because she would be the right kind of girl. It all felt mechanical and cold. I kiss him goodbye as a test. I want to know if I feel anything, if my body registers something my brain doesn’t. His lips are soft but I feel nothing. As I sit on the train home, I feel relieved, frustrated and also guilty.

We have a few conversations on the phone. They are long, but again, feel mechanical to me. Sex is discussed at more length. He admits he is squeamish. He doesn’t know if he can give me what I want, but he says he would like to try. The problem is, I want everything. I don’t want someone who is afraid or timid. I don’t want to have to teach anyone. The person who touches me next needs to grasp me in a way that shows they understand. Within the boundaries we create for ourselves, we need to roam free. I have never understood why this is so difficult for some people.

Sometimes you get an innate sense of a person—nothing they say specifically, but a reading between the lines. You feel that they feel about these things the way you do. Something about sex exudes from their pores, and you want to get under the skin and explore. Maybe your body just smells pheromones. We like to think it is a more cerebral connection. But even through a screen, although of course you can’t smell, you can still sense. Something animal still translates, distantly.

*

I have been invited to my first literary event. I am unsure why, maybe it is because I talk about and post pictures of my books all the time. But I accept, and then spend terrible amounts of time wondering who might be there, if they will think I am a fraud or interloper because I have not written a novel and I work in a completely different area. I envision worldly authors discussing literature I haven’t read and discussing people I don’t know. When the day comes, I take the train, a growing knot in my stomach. Since I am early, I find a bar and proceed to drink Manhattans and worry further, nervously folding and unfolding the corner of the page of a book I have brought, Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces. I listen to the chatter that combines into one indistinguishable voice, thinking how some people take these conversations for granted, how others talk because they can’t bear silence in their heads or around them—how it is a kind of death to be alone with only their thoughts. I come close to turning around and going back to the annex, to the lavender and rosemary, to the foxes. But as I sit there, chatting to people online, someone says they understand, they probably wouldn’t have the nerve to go, either, easier to stay home. For some reason that makes me determined to see it through. I pay, leave and turn up late—walking into the room, one foot forced in front of the other. Faced by the prospect of having to introduce myself to this crowd of strangers, I feel my lips go numb. One of the hosts says hello and introduces themselves, I stammer a pleasantry back. Then someone else recognises me from online, someone I talk to a bit more on and off. I say hello, admit to being petrified, and find myself mumbling I can’t do this and walking swiftly out. I’ve already made it around the corner and down the street when he catches up to me. Hey. Hey! You walk really fast. Where are you going? I slump against the wall of a building. I don’t belong there, I explain. I don’t know anyone either, he says. A lot of us don’t, except from online. You’re the same as us. The same as us, I think. Come on, he says. X is there. You know, who writes _______. You’d like him. I’ll introduce you. I find myself surprisingly drained, but willing. I let him humorously march me back in, and end up spending the couple hours left talking, much more easily than I would have thought possible. It feels like coming back to a language you haven’t spoken in a long time.

*

It is my birthday. I stay at home, because I can’t face the idea of going to work and having my ex-husband wish me a happy birthday. Happy what, exactly? I wake up and spend a lot of the day on the sofa reading in silence, the windows open wide throughout the annex to let in the warm breeze. The landlord is on the grounds tending to a great bonfire—the smoke, scent of flames, smouldering wood and ashes drift in and cover everything, including my skin. I have a fanciful idea that this is somehow a kind of purification, a burning of the past—but not quite rising up from the clichéd ashes. I think the embers will continue to burn for some time. On television people who have terrible lonely birthdays always seem to open a bottle of champagne and toast themselves ironically—this seems to me an awful waste. I drink whisky instead and think about how it burns going down my throat, the taste of smoke and peat and salt air. It reminds me of walking along cliff edges in Skye—how isolated it felt, and wondering if it settled in the blood and bones of people who lived here. Perhaps it lies dormant, waiting for a person, a place to trigger it back to melancholy life. Or does it grow on you like moss, covering you until you become indistinguishable from your landscape?

*

In Sex and Terror, Pascal Quignard says, “What the world is: the traces the wave leaves when the sea slowly withdraws.” He was, appropriately enough, speaking of sexual melancholia. This is what I continue to feel. In my last experience, to put it brutally and bluntly, I was fucked enough to feel guilty, but not enough to come. I can’t give any eloquence to the moment our bodies broke free, animal scent heavy in the room, all-too-human emotions leaving us wild-eyed.

*

There is a book by the name of Pond, where at one point the protagonist—also isolated, although less so than I am—speaks at length of her discontinued cooker, almost at the end of its life as she cannot source a required control knob. It is a faithful appliance, one that has helped sustain her, and so it takes on an almost mythic quality. When I moved in, and even now, the one thing I hated about the annexe was the cooker: no strange, far-off brand, but a standard old white Belling. Old, because as pleasant as my landlord is, he does not wish to or cannot afford to have new appliances put in. These things were really of the least importance in my mind (it was also after I moved in that I discovered there were no kitchen drawers), but in the life I had come from there was a kitchen I was especially proud of: ash countertops stained to look like oak (we were told oak itself was not practical), pale grey-green rustic wooden cabinets with dark silvered handles, even cabinet doors that hid the washing machine and refrigerator/freezer fronts. A large, pristine white double farmhouse sink, although I only ever seemed to use one side—the kitten we had liked to occupy the other, watching contentedly as I washed vegetables. A microwave built into an alcove. A large oak table and matching wine cubby. A set-apart shelf above the sink that held tins of expensive exotic teas: Mariage Frères Earl Grey French Blue and Sultane, Fortnum & Mason Russian Caravan and Irish Breakfast, Kusmi Samovar and Thé Vert à la Menthe Nanah. While all this seems posh and aloof, it was not without humour. There were glass chopping boards scattered on the countertops, a matching green to the cabinets. They had botanical prints of fruit and herbs with their Latin names below, which I glimpsed in a shop and had to have immediately. It was only as I was washing one months later that I realised the small scripts in full were Biblical references: where in the Bible the fig appeared, etc. We were not religious, and then it dawned on me why visitors—close acquaintances—who happened to glance at them gave us strange looks, but never said anything than oh… nice. I just thought they didn’t like botanical prints. After that, whenever we used them, we said we were chopping for Jesus.

The cooker is the one thing that best symbolises the chasm between my old life and new. I use it very little as a result: I find it depressing the way it produces memories—not because I miss that life, but only because they persist—alongside the foil-wrapped salmon for one or the roasted vegetables I made way too many of once, automatically calculating for two. I can afford to buy something new, but the thought of the hassle of having to disconnect and move it when I eventually leave (will I eventually leave? This seems wildly optimistic) makes me tired. And I wonder how often I would use it anyway, if it would just be a superficial thing to try and make me feel better, that in the end, wouldn’t.

*

I had braced myself for that period of a week and a half when the office was closed for the holidays. Said that I would stay in and read, write. It is true that I had enough to occupy me in daylight hours, but once the sun set too early, I would find myself staring out of the window into the dark, seeing nothing but my own reflection from the candlelight behind me. I could have flown back home, true, but I couldn’t bear to face the rest of my family outside of my mother. You see, it would have been the first time I had gone home since I left—it would have felt like failure, not homecoming. I am sure most of my relatives would have been outwardly kind, but I would know that inside their heads, unasked questions would be buzzing like angry wasps.

I had one relation in particular: an aunt who gave me conflicting advice over the years—I must be better and more clever than the men. I must be independent. But at the same time, the first questions regarding a boyfriend would be: How much does he earn? What does he do? What kind of gifts does he buy you? Even when I was younger, I tolerated it with a laugh, although secretly I was appalled. When I became engaged, I grudgingly told her what she wanted to hear. She happened to be in London on 9/11. My then-fiance was in America, trying to get a flight out. He ended up on one of the first commercial flights they allowed, and he recalled how thick and heavy the silence was the whole eleven or so hours. This relation phoned to arrange a visit whilst I was watching coverage on television, my neighbours vague and not terribly interested in what was happening—it wasn’t here, after all, it was there. Sometimes there is the same thing as not existing at all. Get your ass to London, she said laughingly down the line. Fuck you, don’t ever speak to me again, I said, slamming down the receiver. The famous family temper rearing its head (You’re descended from Samurai and Vikings, my father said mildly, after one of my youthful outbursts. You shouldn’t be surprised by this). Now, I wonder how much of my decision to marry him was a knee-jerk reaction based on her. Rebelling against her approval of him by convincing myself I was more in love than I really was. I was relieved when he came back safely, but not as much as I should have been.

*

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day: in those early hours that straddle both, I am in bed, books scattered on the duvet. I can’t stop crying, but I don’t know why. I am frustrated and perplexed at my inability to stop. The person I wish would send a few words by email or message is silent, busy doing what people do at this time of year. But very kindly two people who know my situation—at least part of it—send me emails. I am grateful for the acknowledgement, and that they don’t do that thing some do of trying too hard to make a person feel better. The few words are more than enough.

*

This is not therapy, nor is it cathartic. It exorcises nothing. I have always found it curious that people consider writing about experiences—mainly terrible—as such. In my mind I always pictured it, perhaps cruelly, like those travelling spiritual healers who claim to be able to cast out sin or sickness. Get thee out, Satan. A white tent with other people’s memories sitting on benches crying Hallelujah. What is this, then? I am not entirely sure. What it feels like is a bottle of champagne (how strange to think of it in terms of such a celebratory drink) that has been shaken: you understand the pressure building inside, and although the glass can withstand it, to remove the cork and let the agitated contents flood out is preferable to letting it settle and not know if you will be met with an explosion or lifeless liquid later on.

— Tomoé Hill

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Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literatureminor literature[s]Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.

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May 012016
 

Gary Garvin

Top of the Page this month — Gary Garvin, a superbly talented writer, just now beginning to get traction with the publishing establishment, with essays appearing recently in Fourth Genre, TriQuarterly and Web Conjunctions among others. But at NC we’ve known about him all along. His work began appearing here in the second issue of the magazine back in March, 2010. He published several pieces in that first year of our existence, including a wonderful essay about basketball great Stephen Curry and a What It’s Like Living Here essay about Cupertino and Silicon Valley, Then he went away, only to come roaring back in 2015 with that amazing story “In the Garden.” He returns this issue with an essay on modernism, Mies van der Rohe, architecture, and, yes, Lego models. Garvin is ferociously intelligent, an obsessive perfectionist, a humanist, a social critic, prophet, and radical thinker. I’ve called him a genuine American original — I’ll stick with that.

dg

Apr 252016
 

NC diagram

NC 2nd floor planSketch and Lego floor plan of the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House

Superlatives are out the window. I have no more. How many times can you say you’re astonished, gobsmacked, and catatonic from the sheer explosive freshness and quality of the writing before it becomes the ordinary?

It has become the ordinary.

I am astonished, gobsmacked, honoured, and not quite catatonic (but close) from the sheer explosive freshness, inventiveness, passion and quality of the writing in this issue. In December, we had a lengthy, comprehensive interview with Gabriel Josipovici, celebrated novelist and author of the book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (we called the interview “The Mind of the Modern”). In the new May issue, we have, mirabile dictu, a mysterious and uncanny excerpt from Josipovici’s work-in-progress My Brother.

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici

How long should I wait? For it sometimes happens that he forgets that we are playing and lies down somewhere and falls asleep. Or opens the fridge and makes himself a sandwich, then sits down with a magazine to eat it. And when I finally come across him and ask him what has happened he looks at me blankly. Don’t you remember? I say. We were playing. You were supposed to find me.

That was yesterday, he says. —Gabriel Josipovici

Gary GarvinGary Garvin

From Gary Garvin, who has been writing for the magazine since the first issue (you can watch him age in his photographs), we have a uniquely powerful and beautifully eccentric essay on Modernism, architecture, Mies van Der Rohe’s famous Brick Country House and, yes, Lego models (meticulously built by the author himself). Garvin is a true American original, not to be missed.

It’s the sketch of the floor plan that most captured attention. It reflected aesthetic interests of the time—Cubist ideas about space—and acted as a visual manifesto. And it has sustained interest ever since. It appears on the cover of the recent third edition of William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900, serving as gateway to the subject. The sketch is a work of art in its own right, reminiscent of De Stijl paintings, in fact has been compared to one. The figure has the power of a sign, an ideogram that captures a principle, concise and complex, that represents an essential understanding of the world, or the way we might want to see it. Or it could be taken as a symbol for the creative act, or a model for prose. Or a picture of thought itself, of both a theory and method combined, interrelated. —Gary Garvin

Genese GrillGenese Grill

And from our own masthead in the form of author-translator Genese Grill, we have wise and erudite meditation on Modernism and the construction of meaning in which she coins the phrase “the categorical imp” — a mischievous combination of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Poe’s “imp of the perverse.”

The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor sewer for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. —Genese Grill

Tomoe HillTomoé Hill

Tomoé Hill’s essay “Apple and Pear Trees” is one of the best things we have published in the line of personal essays, and maybe that’s not even what it should be called. It’s unique and powerful and never what you would expect. It’s about leaving, moving, arousal, sexual melancholia, and books — just to start with. It drips with sex and sadness; it makes you feel and think.

Myth is steeped in sex: how it transforms us, in both wonder and fear. We pursue and are pursued. How would a lover now come to me? Not in a shower of gold or the guise of a swan, but in those languorous hours where my mind, restless in a sleeping body, imagines the softness of sheets as skin, my heat creating the ghost of past lovers, future ones next to me. —Tomoé Hill

solieKaren Solie

The poet David Wojahn has penned for this issue a lengthy, luminous, and laudatory (and incidentally funny: see his lovely little aside on reading other readers’ annotations in old books) review of his latest discovery, the poetry of Canadian Karen Solie whom he compares to Berryman, Lowell and Vallejo.

When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. —David Wojahn

wojahn_david-photo-5-2013David Wojahn

Momina use this photoMomina Masood

For the first time ever in the magazine, we have poetry from Pakistan, surprising, razor-sharp verse from a young writer, Momina Masood, who will make her mark.

I have been
The virgin you were promised
for good behaviour,
And a sizeable body count.
But I have left Eden (some of us do get out) —Momina Masood

Zsofia Ban by Dirk SkibaZsófia Bán

From Budapest, we have Zsófia Bán’s short story “Transit of Venus” translated by the inimitable Erika Mihálycsa.

Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces. —Zsófia Bán translated by Erika Mihálycsa

13_Nathan_Kind_Currier_t700Nathan Currier

For this issue, Carolyn Ogburn has interviewed the composer Nathan Currier. We have sound files and videos, a new music extravaganza.

But since those first flutes were fashioned out of vulture bones several tens of thousands of years ago, all music has intrinsically spoken to our interaction with Nature around us, and our Anthropocene era is defined by a cataclysmic pulse signal being fed into the whole Earth System, caused by us – as stupid and dangerous an experiment as has ever been conducted. —Nathan Currier

Mary ByrneMary Byrne

The Irish fiction writer Mary Byrne (living in Paris) contributes a sly, witty, disturbing, mordant, comical short story.

It was Bea who said, “But she was far too young to die from the heat!”

“Not the heat,” said the Queen of Hearts. “The loneliness.” —Mary Byrne

Betsy book pics 2013 - 147Betsy Sholl

From Betsy Sholl, new poems, an alphabetical invention, intricate and sublime.

…as if faith—or fate—

is all detour and surprise, stepping out
to find the way back in. —Betsy Sholl

Denise LowDenise Low

More poems, too, from Denise Low in Kansas. Homage poems and found poems. To die for is “Labels from the Field Museum,” which aches with life and loss.

9 July 1881
xxxxxBush on this day: collector
xxxxxat Blue Island, Cook Co.
xxxxx
one female buff-

xxxxxand tangerine-feathered

December 11, 1883
xxxxxwithin the specimen drawer
xxxxxone iridescent crimson ♂ male
xxxxxneck twisted to uncertain sight —Denise Low

Shawn SelwayShawn Selway

From Hamilton, an industrial city on the shore of Lake Ontario, Canada’s Rust Belt, Shawn Selway raps out a brilliant What It’s Like Living Here essay.

Looking east from Pier 8, where the tugs are snugged at night, those domes you see are grain storage bins. Beyond, behind the laker, are the mills, half-idled now as U.S. Steel gets on with killing Stelco, the homegrown competitor it bought a few years back. Their latest stunt is to persuade a judge to relieve them of paying certain medical benefits to their pensioners. We inhabit a lampoon of capitalism. Marx would certainly get a laugh out of the view: the mountain of capital left to rust unused, and just beyond, a second mountain, still alive with fire and action and thriving alongside the corpse of its former rival. I sometimes think of writing him, you know, the way Auden wrote to Byron, to give him an update. —Shawn Selway

And after that, there is more: new poems by Ingrid Ruthig, book reviews from Jason DeYoung and Joseph Schreiber, a new NC at the Movies from Rob Gray, a new bit of the green from Gerry Beirne (Uimhir a Cúig)…

I’m impressed. I’m not easily impressed. But this one impresses me.

It may be our best issue yet.

dg

Apr 192016
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024 Sam Savage

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It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife. —David Wojahn

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Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015) — Sam Savage
Numéro Cinq, Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016

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The poems of Sam Savage are quietly revelatory and informed by a certain oddness of perception that derives in some respects from surrealism—but to link his poems to any literary movement does them a disservice. Savage is a party of one, and it is baffling that his poetry has not found the readership that his fiction has enjoyed. His poems have a fictionist’s command of narrative, but his story lines are always implicit, and always compliment an astringent lyric acuity. Above all, his verse reminds me of something Stanley Kunitz observed about the poetry of James Wright, in which “things are capable of changing into their opposites, as suffering into joy, despair into radiance.”

As often as not, Savage’s poems emerge from the experience of uncertainty and pain, of the body in rebellion. Here is a characteristic passage, a description of patient being x-rayed: “Oh yes, says someone/ you don’t know, pointing to a bird-wing-like/ blur behind the white bars,/…………There’s this.” Yet Savage’s pervasive awareness of mortality almost invariably gives way to buoyancy, even to a kind of whimsy. We see this latter quality in especially satisfying fashion in his poems about an alter-ego named Kiffler, a character in the mode of Zbigniew Herbert’s indispensable creation, Mr. Cogito. That Savage can forge a poetry of such emotive complexity within the confines of a decidedly spare and minimalist style is a very significant accomplishment indeed. Witness the epigrammatic concision of the following poem, which I quote in full:   

My Father’s Death

The sun had just come up
when all the light of my father died.

A lizard in its crept place opened one eye.
Ants climbed in spiral motion a stem of tall grass.

In that instant an instant was given.
It was shining as on the first day.

Birds sang brightly from the trees
and nothing was left that was obscure.

God is in the details, quipped LeCorbusier, and that is certainly the case here. I adore the description of the “lizard in its crept place,” and the grimly playful conundrum of “in that instant an instant was given.” And, above all, there’s the exquisite and pained epiphany of the poem’s final line.

Literary reputation, as we all know, is fickle. And to even employ a term such as “literary reputation” in respect to contemporary poetry seems more than a little absurd. Yes, a handful of poets at work today will be remembered, but that handful is not likely to include those figures who are currently at the top of the food chain. It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife.

—David Wojahn

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wojahn_david-photo-5-2013

David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry  FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

 

 

 

Apr 172016
 

Logo large

The bad news is that NC is still hacked. Google Search security is showing three infected pages; Jonah (our tech team) has found another suspicious file.

My moment of bravado yesterday was misplaced. We found one piece of malicious code, not the whole lot.

It’s detective work. Funding the infected spots in the code and also finding out how they got there.

Jonah is our Hercule Poirot.

On the other hand, we can go nuclear. The good news is that we pay for daily backups. Our latest hunch is that the infections started April 5 when I got horribly efficient and updated three plugins. I could roll the site back to April 1 or so and get rid of all the infections in one fell swoop. We would lose the April issue, but we can reconstruct that.

Apr 142016
 

 

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In James W. Griffiths’s “Room 8,” a prisoner finds a box with a dark, intriguing secret in his new jail cell. A psychological Escher painting of a film, it thrums with claustrophobia as we watch the protagonist step into the undertow of his own curiosity.

Griffiths’s film is one of five different films from the same script, created as part of Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series. Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) was selected to provide the source text and wrote a script stripped of any stage direction or character names, then the contest asked people to imagine their version of a film around that simple script.

Five films were developed from the winning scripts. The five embrace the imaginative exercise, each striving to tell distinctly different stories: in “The Mrs,” the malaise of a long term relationship finds sudden criminal excitement;

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“Water Song,” tells the story of a hearing impaired competitive swimmer and a secret;

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the animated film “Crab” has two crabs collide over what to do with a magic bottle on the beach, their curiosity having fatal consequences for the entire universe;

large_imaginationseries_bombay

and in “Concrete,” a cleaning lady and business man face off over a magic box.

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The films incorporate some small dialogue changes but these are, for the most part, cosmetic and Fletcher’s original text is at the foundation of each of the diverse stories.

“Room 8” takes that simple scenario and applies it to a perfectly small premise: two men in a jail cell and a small, horrific warning against curiosity. The loop of the plot here is in itself particularly satisfying: this happened and will continue to happen after the film ends, due to the nature of human curiosity and the desire to be, externally at least, free.

Room-8-James-W-Griffiths1

The most marvelous shot is also the most nihilistic perhaps: the Michaelangelo-esque Adam touching the hand of God moment, a sense that we are our only chance for divine intervention; there is no God, which, in this world, means we are left to our own flawed devices, our own horrible choices, the world turning in on itself as we hurl ourselves into awful endings.

5azKj7W

I did find myself wanting a little more from this iteration of the script. In its present form I am not entirely clear what the man in the cell gets from the loop. If, for instance, he wanted the cell to himself, or found others too noisy, then he would have a personal stake in this peculiar collaboration with his jailers. As it stands his stake is unclear so he remains perhaps too simple an antagonist. Regardless, that doesn’t take away from the horror of what is in the drawer and the pleasure of a vertiginous window into possibility that then torques into a narrow hell.

Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series seems to be ongoing: in 2014 the second series of films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, these built from a new script by Geoffrey Fletcher. “Room 8” is Griffiths’s third short film and it went on to win the Bafta for Best British Short Film.

—R. W. Gray

 

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Apr 132016
 

Sarajevo street corner June 2014

In the summer of 2014, I spent two weeks with friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the time Sarajevo was marking the centennial of the assassination that sparked World War I, the national soccer team was making its first appearance in the World Cup, and the nation was reeling from massive citizen protests in the winter and devastating floods in the spring. My host and guide was the Bosnian writer Goran Simić. —Thomas Simpson

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I. Sarajevo, June 20, 2014

Like an existentialist’s bad joke, Goran Simic’s driveway sits on a dangerous curve. The circular, convex mirror posted across the street, where the sidewalk is, helps only so much. All it tells you is whether a car is bearing down on you, right now, from the left. Once you make your move, all bets are off. The best you can do is utter a prayer, or mutter a curse, before you lurch into the unknown.

Alone, on foot, I make it safely to the other side. My pulse races, but I still can’t shake the jetlag as I start the twenty-five minute walk south into the heart of Sarajevo, down the wide, busy streets called Patriotske Lige and Koševo. Thick, gray morning clouds shroud the city, and the weak daylight throws shell-shocked buildings and roadside litter into dismal relief. A little of the Bosnian I’ve been studying for months comes to mind: meni se spava, I feel tired. God, I feel tired. I barely slept on the overnight flight across the Atlantic, an hour maybe, two at the most. In my sightline, two rows ahead, a guy was watching The Wolf of Wall Street on his seatback screen. I dozed in and out of that three-hour marathon of excess: stockbrokers manhandling strippers, Jonah Hill masturbating openly at a lavish pool party, Leo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off an eager blonde’s heaving breasts.

So I am waking up slowly to Sarajevo, even though the visuals are jarring. I see the hulking, worn stadium from the 1984 Olympics, a glaring reminder of Yugoslavia’s depleted prosperity and promise. I clutch my black backpack’s single, diagonal strap, which stretches like a seat belt from my left shoulder to my right hip. The knuckles of my right hand bore under the strap into my sternum, as if to knead my constricting heart and lungs. I lift my chin and flex my shoulders, chest, and biceps a little. I’m feigning toughness, copying the confidence of younger, streetwise Bosnian men.

I’m steeling myself because there’s more to take in: three massive, historic urban cemeteries, Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox. Locals say the bones of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, are here in a little roadside Serb chapel. Soon Serb nationalists will adorn it with flowers, marking the assassination’s centennial by salting the wounds of neighbors who managed to survive the Siege. “Gavrilo,” a hit song by the Bosnian rock band Zoster, captures the mood. It’s got the looping, centripetal feel of an anthem and a hangover:

Gavrilo, Gavrilo, srce uzavrelo…
Gavrilo, Gavrilo, raging heart…

za jedne on je heroj, a drugima je zločinac
to some he’s a hero, to others a criminal…

na put bez povratka, on je krenuo…
he took off on a path of no return…

još i danas hodimo njime.
and we’re still walking it today.

I had anticipated some the graveyards’ lessons about World War I, World War II, and the Siege of Sarajevo. The headstones from this century are somehow more unsettling. An unwelcome thought intrudes: Sarajevo will go on dying. A few steps later, what feels like a corollary follows on its heels: None of this is going to work. Multi-ethnic Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International Community. Democracy. Human Rights. None of it, despite the lessons of history, and despite the gala centennial events to come next week, when the eyes of the world will once again, however briefly, be on Sarajevo.

Sarajevo CemeteryCemetery in Sarajevo

I don’t know where I’m headed except a café somewhere to find coffee and my bearings after two years away. I pass a side street named after the poet Šantić and a bakery called Markale, where my mind involuntarily adds “massacre.” I’m getting closer to the action now. Off to my right, on the main thoroughfare that honors Tito, I see the stately national presidency building, a monument to the idiocy and greed of Bosnia’s corrupt, ethnonationalist ruling elites. Just last February, protesters torched it, taking their cues from Tuzla in trying to kickstart a “Bosnian Spring.”

A spacious café and bakery, brightly lit, mercifully intervenes. I go in, merge with the morning rush, and scan the large glass case of pastries. When it’s my turn, I fumble through my Bosnian. Dobro jutro – “Good morning” – I say. Želim kafu…espresso, i… – “I’d like an espresso and….” My Bosnian suddenly leaves me. I can’t remember the word for pastry, much less any kind of fruit. As I start to gesture clumsily toward a tray of turnovers, a woman behind me steps in and saves me. Višnja, she says – cherry – and laughs.

I thank her – hvala – placing my relaxed right hand softly over my heart. I take a window seat, a few feet above street level, and watch Sarajevans stream into the city in cars, on buses, and on foot. I write višnja in my notebook and practice the ice-breaker that I’ll use over and over again on this trip: Na bosanskom, govorim kao beba. In Bosnian, I talk like a baby.

When my espresso comes, I pour in the two thick packets of sugar that come standard. They render the bitterness palatable, the darkness soothing. As if on cue, the sun pierces the clouds. I end up staying for hours, reading Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, jotting down fragmented thoughts, and ordering a second espresso. Meni se spava, I tell the waitress with a wink. She laughs, understanding, and suddenly I remember what makes Sarajevo such an easy target. So much life, compressed and distilled, to destroy from above. I size up the huge pane of glass to my right, remembering how desperately Sarajevans avoided and barricaded their windows during the Siege. I imagine how easily the wall of glass could shatter, and I start to hope, stupidly, irrationally, that this café will always be here, safe, forever.

§

A lunch date with the poet Goran Simić pulls me away. We’re headed up to a small log-cabin restaurant near the Skakavac waterfall, about a thousand meters above Sarajevo. In his aging two-door black Renault, we inch and wind up suspension-mangling dirt roads. When we’re finally in the clear, we step out, glance miles across the valley, and find a patio table in the sun. The restaurant’s owner, Dragan, likes to joke that the daily menu is whatever he’s got. You have to trust him, and here one’s faith is rewarded. He assembles a succulent assortment of fried dough, local cheeses, sliced fresh tomato, and smoked sausages. Goran and I drink a little local rakija and beer.

Goran is back in Sarajevo after more than fifteen years in Canada, where he resettled after the Siege. Goran’s acute sense of how much work needs to be done in Bosnia has brought him home. His labors of love are the Bosnian plenums – grassroots, democratic citizen assemblies fighting for political reform and social justice – and PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local chapter of the international literary organization that celebrates the freedom of expression as a human right. This Bosnian branch of PEN emerged during the Siege, when Goran and some colleagues created a downtown haven for writers desperate for a meal and place to write. Now, as the multiethnic organization’s membership ages and carries out its work without support from the Bosnian government, the challenge is to keep the society alive and infused with fresh blood. It’s an ongoing experiment, a test of whether an inclusive humanism can triumph over death-dealing ethnonationalism. Yesterday brought a small victory: the induction of new members, including two brilliant young women, Adisa Bašić and Šejla Šehabović. Yet the meeting took place in the midst of a bitter internal struggle, a war of words between Goran and a dogged literary rival who keeps publicly calling Goran a Chetnik, a bloody Serb – not one of us, not a real Sarajevan. The conflict threatens to tear the Bosnian PEN apart.

Restaurant near Skakavac watefallRestaurant near Skakavac waterfall

After the meal, Goran finds a picnic bench where he can stretch and sack out in the shade. He says his battery’s exhausted, and Skakavac is his place to recharge. I can see why. The sun is strong, the mountain air clean. Grasshoppers chirp, sheep bleat, the bells of livestock tinkle, and a creek sings below. I walk a little farther up the hill, taking photographs of the panorama. I nap briefly in a small hikers’ shed. Rain clouds invade and threaten but move on. There is peace.

§

Eventually it’s time to get back to the city for an evening poetry reading. Sponsored by the Mak Dizdar Foundation, and held in a gorgeous upper-floor atelier with exposed brick and candlelight, the affair is intentionally international. It gathers award-winning writers from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Goran’s friend and PEN colleague, the poet Ferida Duraković, is the M.C. Performing live alongside her is one of the finest lutenists in the world, Edin Karamazov. They are mesmerizing together.

To the audience’s left is a balcony with French doors. It offers a sunset view of the Presidency Building, highlighting the difference between the politics and the poetics of Bosnia. To our right is a bar with hors d’oeuvres, and members of the audience move back and forth freely throughout the evening. The atmosphere invites us to linger, and we do for more than an hour after the reading ends. I wander onto the balcony and gaze at the Sarajevo night sky.

A thunderstorm hits and brings heavy rain. I go back into the atelier and meet two adult grandsons of Mak Dizdar, the celebrated Yugoslavian poet. I tell them that tomorrow I’ll be off with Goran to Stolac, their grandfather’s birthplace, southwest of Sarajevo. The Dizdar brothers give me a sense of what I’m in for: a breathtaking landscape and an ancient city, with extraordinary Ottoman architecture that’s been utterly razed.

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II. Aladinići and Stolac, June 21-22, 2014

The next morning we drive southwest to the Herzegovinian village of Aladinići to celebrate the birthday of Adisa Bašić, one of the writers who has just been inducted into PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina. In her mid-thirties, blonde, and tall, she towers over many of the older, predominantly male colleagues who voted her in. On the way out of town we pick up Hana Stojić, a Sarajevan friend and contemporary of Adisa who works as a literary translator in Berlin.

The rural, hilltop Aladinići property feels worlds away from Sarajevo, where Adisa still has an apartment in a decaying high-rise. It’s in wine country, the climate Mediterranean. A grape arbor shields the front patio and driveway from the summer sun. Peaches, cherries, watermelons, apricots, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and mint grow nearby. Here, Adisa has found refuge and rejuvenation. One of her dreams, she says, is to gather generations of Bosnian women artists in a place like this for retreats, so they can tell and write their stories.

After hours of relaxed conversation and a dinner of grilled chicken and ćevapčići, we get down to business. Bosnia’s national soccer team, making its first appearance in the World Cup, has a match against Nigeria tonight in Brazil, and we’re all dying to watch. Adisa and her husband, Adnan, tack a big Bosnian flag to the front of the house, and some neighbors join Adnan in an attempt to rig a TV up on the patio. They take turns fiddling with the controls and climbing onto the one-story cottage’s flat, cement roof to get to the antenna. As the sun sets, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” pumps out of the stereo in Goran’s car, parked under the vine arbor with the doors open. The music’s unruly passion mingles with the village’s evening call to prayer.

Goran, Hana, and I plan to crash at a hostel in Stolac after watching the midnight match at Adisa’s. But as darkness comes the owners call to encourage us to come sooner rather than later. They tell us that the police are already patrolling Stolac’s main intersection in case there’s trouble with the crowds, and the last thing we’d want to do is stumble through town in the middle of the night. So we say good night – laku noć – to our friends and leave Aladinići.

On the way to Stolac, Goran and Hana ride in front and sing along with Johnny Cash. They’re nailing it, conjuring the voice of the man in black, the vocal cords torn but smooth:  I’m gonna break, I’m gonna break my, gonna break my rusty cage and run.

We find the hostel banked on a steep riverside hill. As we settle in, Goran and Hana step onto the balcony for a smoke (one of the reasons they’re so good at imitating Cash). I join them at the rail, stargazing. Below us, the dammed Bregava River rushes, soothing and strong.

Close to midnight, Goran and I get ready to go into town to watch the game. Hana, exhausted by a spate of recent travel for work, bows out and sleeps. As Goran and I drive across the Bregava and approach the main intersection from the north, we see disturbing signs: on our right, the lampposts sport Croatian flags, not Bosnian. On our left looms the religious equivalent of the flag: a Catholic church’s enormous bell tower, aspiring to dominate the surrounding landscape.

Sure enough, the cops are set up at the intersection, standing outside their parked, flashing cruiser. I start wondering what we might be getting ourselves into. But after we park and start to walk, excitement trumps the tension. Bosnian flags hang high across this southern stretch of road like fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, and the first bars we see with outdoor patios are jammed. We gravitate to one across the street that has a little more breathing room. We quickly figure out why. The bar’s television isn’t showing the game. The choice needs no translation. This is a Croat bar. Who gives a shit if Bosnia’s playing tonight?

We walk back across the street. A kid tosses a firecracker onto the pavement just a few feet away from us. BANG! I shudder and swear before laughing nervously and moving on. Goran and I spot a little table with two chairs at the edge of a sprawling patio, where we can see most of the huge outdoor video screen. A waitress comes over to greet us. She’s lean and radiant, with shoulder-length brown hair and a small tattoo on the right side of her neck. She’s wearing the royal blue jersey of Edin Džeko, the Bosnian striker who’s a bona fide superstar in the English Premier League. Džeko grew up in Sarajevo, survived the Siege, and has become the kind of once-in-a-generation player who is giving Bosnians faith that this team can make a deep tournament run.

After Goran and I order our drinks, I use a clumsy mix of Bosnian and English to ask the waitress for the wi-fi password. She smiles and switches to English on the fly: l-o-c-c-o, the name of the bar, all small letters. I connect, and right before the Bosnian national anthem I send my wife pictures of Aladinići, of pomegranate, oleander, and the grape arbor. I tell her there’s a chance that the adjacent property could be for sale, that Goran and I are starting to dream like Adisa. Something like a writer’s colony, a place for Goran and other Bosnian artists to get away for more than an occasional afternoon at Skakavac.

The game’s about to start. This is one that Bosnia desperately needs to win, or at least play to a draw, to advance beyond the opening round. In the first match of the tournament they had given mighty Argentina all it could handle, but a fluke own goal and some late wizardry by the Argentinian Lionel Messi – some say he is the best in the world – sealed the Bosnians’ fate, 2-1. It was an inspired, impressive performance by the Bosnians that left them with no points.

In tonight’s first half, the favored Bosnian team looks strong. They sustain pressure on the Nigerian defense. Before long, Džeko breaks free, and his shot finds the back of the net. We erupt, bolting to our feet and pumping our fists before the heartbreak: Džeko is called for being offside. The goal is nullified. Replays confirm that it was a terrible call. Just minutes later a Nigerian forward, fighting for space, pushes a Bosnian defender aside and scores. No foul is called. Just like that it’s one-nil, Nigeria.

At halftime we’re keeping hope alive. The waitress stands poised where the patio meets the bar, her chin raised a little as she surveys the crowd and grooves to the driving rock music. Goran and I find a table at the center of the action, in the thick of the crowd, with a better view of the screen.

When the second half starts, Džeko’s off his game, getting free and finding chances but not striking cleanly. Our spirits lift when Vedad Ibišević, who scored against Argentina, enters the match late, but the team still can’t find a way to break through. Tension mounts. Bosnia’s running out of time. Right behind us, a fan’s drumming, which has been keeping us upbeat all night, is now accompanied by somebody’s drunken vuvuzela. Hoarse, blaring, and erratic, it’s driving us insane. Two powerfully built guys in front of us finally snap, turning around and yelling at him in Bosnian to – I can only assume – shut the fuck up. As the clock mercilessly advances, one of them starts to sidestep us and move toward the vuvuzelist. I start looking for escape routes, trying to figure out if Goran and I can get back to the car and out of town if fists and bottles start to fly. I’m not sure we can. A reassuringly tall, formidable bartender steps in, however, and cooler heads prevail.

The clock hits 90:00. Only a few minutes of extended, injury time remain. Džeko suddenly finds a seam, an opening to the keeper’s right, but his shot is deflected and caroms off the left post. It’s crushing. Bosnia is finished. When the final whistle blows, a bottle shatters on the pavement behind us. I flinch, fearing a swell of rage, but it doesn’t come. We leave in peace. Goran quickly musters perspective. The team just had no energy tonight, he says. We find the waitress, settle the tab, and make our way to the car.

We get back to the hostel on the Bregava after 2 a.m. Hana stirs from a deep sleep and asks how the match came out. We give her the bad news. In the morning, forgetting, she asks again. We go into town for coffee, settling at a café next to Locco. Hana tells me to take my camera and walk over to the nearby mosque, undergoing major restoration, to see a rare neighboring of olive and oleander trees. I walk the neighborhood a little in broad daylight. I get my first good look at the Bregava and the surrounding hills that frame the architecture of nationalism: the rival sanctuaries, flags, bars, and monuments.

Before we leave town I walk past Locco. I see our waitress sitting outside on the empty patio. She looks pale and spent. We exchange polite, flat smiles. As the day wears on, Bosnians will rage about the officiating, citing the blown calls and a photograph – of the head referee, Peter O’Leary, smiling at the end of the match with his arm around a Nigerian player – that looks damning. Tens of thousands of Bosnians will sign fruitless online petitions demanding the suspension of O’Leary and even a revision of the score to make the final score 1-1. When we get home to Sarajevo, a newspaper features a photograph of a dejected Bosnian in Brazil. The headline reads, “TUGA NAKON EUFORIJE” – heartache after euphoria, the euphoria of feeling, at least for a little while, that anything is possible.

Goran Simic in AladiniciGoran Simić relaxing at Aladinići

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III. Mostar and Blagaj, June 25-27, 2014

Goran and I had been corresponding all spring about driving to the Adriatic Coast, which I’ve never seen. We finally have a plan. We’ll head southwest from Sarajevo. On the way we’ll spend the night in Mostar with friends of mine, Lejla and Sasha, and their children, Ena and Sandro. Lejla and I had engaged in the standard bilateral negotiations about food and lodging. I said that Goran and I didn’t want to impose, so we would take them out to dinner and spend the night in a hotel. Lejla wondered what the hell I was thinking. We’ll cook out, she said, and watch the Bosnia-Iran World Cup match. You’ll stay in Ena’s room. We’ve got room for Goran too.

When we arrive, we call Lejla from the riverside patio of the stylish, renovated Hotel Bristol, where I had stayed in 2004. We meet and embrace on the bridge over the Neretva.

Ena, who’s eleven now, has her room ready for me upstairs, with its view of conjoined apartment rooftops and the neighborhood minaret. In neat rows images of cartoon princesses and professional rock climbers plaster the walls. I remember watching Ena compete as a climber two years ago, and a framed certificate reveals that she is now a youth national champion. Two-year-old Sandro has turned into a powerhouse too. We tussle playfully, and when he kicks my leg with surprising force, I start thinking that Bosnia might have its next Džeko.

I find Sasha outside by the grill. We’re meeting for the first time. When I visited the family before with my guide – Lejla’s cousin and Sasha’s best man – Sasha was in Norway, installing air conditioners to help support the family. In his mid-thirties, he’s of medium height and wiry, like Ena, but weathered, with buzzed brown hair, piercing eyes, and an iron jaw. With him is a friend, Slađo, whom I’ve met before. Tall and thick, like the Yugoslavian forwards who occasionally appear in the NBA, he has an infectious laugh. As soon as I see him, I remind him of the night we drove up a steep hill on Mostar’s perimeter. When we got out of the car, Slađo sighed and surveyed the quiet basin. He seemed poised to impart wisdom. He said, “You know, Mostar is just a giant toilet bowl that needs to be flushed.” People in every former Yugoslavian republic might have heard us laugh that night.

As he minds the chicken on the grill, Sasha shares fragments of his story. As a high-school-aged kid, he lost his father in the war. After that, he had spent a little time in the US, first at an international youth camp, Camp Rising Sun in upstate New York. Then he stayed briefly with Frank Havlicek, an instructor in international affairs at American University who had visited Bosnia and knew Sasha’s mother. Sasha tells me that Havlicek offered to set him up with a mailroom job at The Washington Post, a basement apartment, and a car, but Sasha turned him down. He says he couldn’t ever get used to the States. The people were too cold. They didn’t know their neighbors. They would look strangely at you if you just tried to bum a cigarette. A couple of times he snapped and got into fights. He knew he had to come home.

The food’s ready, so we go in for dinner and the game. Bosnia decimates Iran, 3-1. Nigeria will advance with Argentina to the second round. We talk late into the night.

The next morning, I’m the first to rise with Ena and Sandro. I ask Ena if she can show me how to connect to the internet. It’s not self-evident because the family laptop is missing some keys. Ena points to the culprit, Sandro, and laughs. To buy ourselves some time on the computer, we bribe him with my pen and let him scribble with abandon in my notebook.

After a few minutes of sending quick messages home, I sign off and grab my Bosnian-English phrasebook. Ena, who has studied English in school, is game. We practice:

Yesterday was Wednesday.
Jučer je bila srijeda.

Today is Thursday.
Danas je četvrtak.

Tomorrow is Friday.
Sutra je petak.

Ti si moj učitelj, I say – You are my teacher. She smiles, ear to ear.

Goran, Lejla, and Sasha make their way down. As Lejla brews coffee, they talk freely in Bosnian at the table. I stay with Ena, continuing my language lessons. Suddenly the conversation grows animated. I ask what’s up, and Goran tells me that a local youth – briefly in jail for savagely beating a Mostar university economics professor, Slavo Kukić, with a wooden bat – has been released and apparently will not face trial. Kukić had made the nearly fatal mistake of questioning the judgment of some fellow Bosnian Croats who gave a hero’s welcome to a convicted war criminal, Dario Kordić. Kordić had recently been released from prison after serving only two-thirds of a twenty-five year sentence for crimes he committed during the ethnic cleansing of Ahmići in 1993. The news leaves Goran, Lejla, and Sasha stunned.

I thank Ena, freeing her for morning cartoons on TV. I go to the table. Knowing that Goran and I will have to leave soon, I ask Lejla what sort of future she sees for her family in Mostar, what sort of future for Ena and Sandro. She is blunt, needing none of her usual time to switch to English. “There is no future in a divided city,” she says.

Lejla sends me off with a gift for my family, a set of four ceramic mugs decorated with Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite my best efforts to pack them carefully, two will shatter somewhere between here and home.

§

We have one last stop on the way out of town: a second round of coffee back at the Hotel Bristol with Štefica Galić, a journalist and human rights activist based in Mostar. A Bosnian Croat, she’s been visiting Slavo Kukić in the hospital. She corroborates our pessimism. “There is no justice,” she says. “Nothing will happen. We know that for sure.”

The beating took a heavy toll; images of the professor with a bandaged skull, blood-soaked shirt, and battered back are circulating widely. “He will feel that pain his whole life,” Štefica tells us, “but that will not stop him.” She knows what she’s talking about. She has been physically assaulted by Croat nationalists before, after screening a documentary about her late husband, Neđo, who had risked his life during the war to save a thousand neighbors from ethnic cleansing. Some call him the Bosnian Schindler.

Now, in postwar Mostar, Štefica carries on with what she sees as a struggle against resurgent fascism. Even some of her relatives have begged her to be quiet, to quit stirring up trouble, but Štefica is fit for battle. A generation older than I am, she is in better physical shape. She has the lean physique and perfect posture of a yoga instructor. Her bright blue eyes shine past carefully penciled mascara; they are reservoirs of compassion and sorrow.

I tell her in Bosnian that I have a question, a serious one: do you want to stay or leave? She says she’ll stay, of course. So much of her life, so much of her family, is here. But sometimes, she says, “I want to disappear.”

Like Lejla, Štefica sends me off with souvenirs of the place she loves, the place she wants me to remember: a ceramic memento of the Old Bridge and a travel guide that convincingly portrays Herzegovina as “an inspiring piece of Heaven.” Even so, I can’t help feeling that Štefica – and Mostar – are in a hellish limbo between recent and imminent devastation. As Goran and I head south out of town, I see scrawled Bosnian graffiti that for once I have no trouble translating: nema boga, there is no God.

§

Sorrow and fear have me dazed. Wisely, Goran has planned some time for us at the wellsprings. We’ll have lunch in Blagaj at the source of the Buna River, which emerges clear and abundant from beneath a high, sheer cliff.

At the base of the cliff, an old Sufi dervish house, neglected during the war but recently restored, offers a chance for quiet contemplation. Riverside, a framed passage from the Qur’an reads, “We made every living thing from water.” As Goran and I dip our hands in the river, he tells me that the Buna has somehow always had a way of maintaining its equanimity even during the recent floods.

Sufi Dervish House at BlagajSufi dervish house at Blagaj

We cross the small bridge to eat fresh trout and Vienna schnitzel. After taking a few photographs, we walk the narrow road, lined by souvenir stands, back to the car. Suddenly Goran is leaning through a passing van’s window. He’s nose to nose with the driver, and I have no idea what has set him off. Then I hear peals of laughter, and Goran lets me in on the joke. The driver is his old buddy Ermin Elezović, who’s here with his wife, Alma, on their day off from leading guided tours all over the country. We head back to one of the restaurants for coffee and dessert. Alma insists I try Ashura, a delicious Turkish pudding that blends apple, figs, and nuts. Lore links it to Noah’s Ark, to miraculous survival during a time of famine and flood.

Ermin is candid: we’re crazy to drive to the coast today. The traffic, he says, will hold us up for hours. Improvisation ensues, and before long it’s settled: forget the coast. We’ll spend the night here, in Blagaj, with Alma and Ermin.

We go to their serene property, which they’ve just bought after spending most of their lives in Mostar, including the war years. The backyard, bisected by a stone path, extends to the Buna. In her garden Alma grows assorted herbs and vegetables. In the rest of the yard she and Ermin tenaciously plant, water, and prune.

It turns out that Alma and Ermin have known Sasha’s family for decades. They tell me something Sasha hadn’t, that his father was killed by a sniper – no, a grenade. (“What’s the difference?” Goran wonders aloud.) At the time their own son, Jasmin, was just in elementary school. Inside the house Ermin shows me wartime black-and-white photographs of the family. Pointing to little Jasmin, who at the time had been stuck indoors for six months, Ermin says, “Look at his eyes. The light is missing.”

In one shot Ermin wears a T-shirt from War Child International, the UK charity he worked for during the war. Through their mobile bakery, Ermin tells me, they made and delivered 1.3 million loaves of bread to trapped, terrorized people in Mostar. War Child also organized a star-studded British benefit album featuring Paul McCartney, which raised more than a million pounds to establish Mostar’s interethnic Pavarotti Music Center.

We have dinner on the covered patio: potatoes with garlic and herbs, a tomato and cucumber salad, plums, pears, strawberries, and cheese. At dusk, by candlelight, we drink from teardrop flasks of rakija. Lightning flashes across the western sky. A jolt of thunder follows. Goran, laughing, says it’s war again.

Alma says she finds herself thinking more and more about writing her story. The memories have been too much to live with this long, too much to bear. “I think I will be stronger,” she says. Goran encourages her. “Each single life is a novel, yeah?” he offers tenderly.

Before bed we watch some of the World Cup. Ermin pours me a shot of industrial strength Montenegrin rakija, 50% alcohol by volume. When I finally muster the courage to bring it slowly to my lips, it burns my eyes. I take two hesitant sips and start to cough. Goran and Ermin are in hysterics. I finish, say good night, and go up to the loft. Fresh air flows freely. It’s the best night of sleep I’ll get in Bosnia. Ermin must have known that to relax, I needed to be knocked out cold.

In the morning Jasmin comes by just as Goran and I are getting ready to leave. He’s 26 now, and the light is back in his eyes. He’s funny as hell, just like his parents. Telling him my name gets us riffing on The Simpsons. Jasmin’s favorite moment is of Homer adrift: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!” We cackle.

On the way back to Sarajevo, Goran and I find that Ermin has cut a piece of glass from his workshop to replace our cracked passenger side mirror. A few hundred yards down the pockmarked road, it pops out. We laugh, stop in the middle of the road, and reinforce it with duct tape. It holds the rest of the way.

Near Mostar we see more of the architecture of aggression: a brand new Catholic church, right next to a destroyed abandoned house. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often. Homes and factories lie in ruins, while new, expensive sanctuaries grow like weeds. It’s the engineering and manufacture of cultural domination. Štefica called it pure provocation, like animals marking their territory.

Nature offers another brief reprieve. We wind north through the Neretva valley, farther and farther from the river’s end in the Adriatic Sea. Compressed strata of steep, forested stone slant sharply to the river at forty-five degrees before they gradually recline to parallel. Johnny Cash sings, If I could start again, a million miles away….

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IV. Sarajevo, June 27-29, 2014

It’s the eve of the assassination’s centennial. Sarajevo’s commemorations have begun, and Goran and I go a little off the beaten path to one of our favorite spots, Sarajevo’s Museum of Literature and the Performing Arts. Two years ago, walking the city, I had wandered into the museum’s beautiful, landscaped courtyard of roses and stone pathways.

The museum’s director, Šejla Šehabović, like countless custodians of culture in Sarajevo, works for little or no pay, thanks to the wrangling of politicians who withhold appropriations from institutions that benefit all Bosnians, not just a single ethnic group. She puts on an incredibly brave face. In her thirties, with short brown hair dyed to a brilliant copper, she fights like mad to keep the museum alive. Last spring’s heavy rains brought fresh worries: a leaking roof threatens the papers of Ivo Andrić, perhaps Yugoslavia’s most famous writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. His historical novel The Bridge on the Drina all but foretold the horrors to come at century’s end.

Sejla Sehabovic and Goran Simic, Sarajevo 2014Šejla Šehabović and Goran Simić

The mood is festive tonight. We’re here for the release of graphic novelist Berin Tuzlić’s Sarajevo Assassination 2914. Images from the book, enlarged to poster size, line the gallery walls. Menacing and dystopian, they evoke the present. Rival religious and ideological factions posture and provoke. They brandish cartoonishly violent mentalities in a restricted palette of aggressive red, black, blue, purple, yellow, and orange.

In the courtyard after darkness falls, live music and large-screen projection bring the book and exhibition to life. An earnest baritone narrates the novel’s text while a keyboardist and Tuzlić himself, a rock-solid drummer, add a dark, driving musical overlay. One of the text’s refrains distills centuries of manipulation and disillusionment: Istorija je fikcija, history is fiction.

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The next morning, the day of the centennial, Goran’s in the mood to get back to Skakavac. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert tonight at Vijećnica, the restored city hall and national library, barely interests him. He can take only so much reminiscing. He remembers racing to rescue what he could from the flames of that dying treasure. Ninety-eight per cent of the historic collections are lost forever. My own memory leaps to Goran’s “Lament for Vijećnica”:

When the National Library burned for three
days in August, the town was choked with black
snow. Those days I could not find a single pencil
in the house, and when I finally found one it did
not have the heart to write. Even the erasers left
behind a black trace. Sadly, my homeland burned.

When we settle at Skakavac, under another spectacular summer sky, we speak of Goran’s fresh collection of poems. “I am trying to put on paper something I would like to forget,” he says.

That afternoon and evening, Goran reconnects with friends. I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by walking the city. Crowds and sun lighten the mood. A store called “Marx™: Clothes for the People” welcomes tourists to post-socialist Sarajevo, and T-shirts of passing teens borrow English slang to indulge in urban sarcasm and play: “Slam Dunk,” “Fuck the Future,” “Cute But Psycho,” “I’m Limited Edition.”

In the centuries-old Ottoman bazaar I stop at the expansive courtyard of Bey’s Mosque. I circle and photograph the tall, canopied fountain. Without thinking, I place my left hand, palm and fingers, on one of its aged wooden pillars, and I’m nearly brought to tears. The wood feels alive – I almost know it’s alive – cool to the touch, and strong, but without the rigidity of stone. I breathe in slowly and am at rest.

To the east is the restored Vijećnica. It’s cordoned off for the exclusive, black-tie affair inside, but I can take photographs and listen to the concert’s simulcast outside at sunset, just across the Miljacka River. When hunger sets in, I set my sights on one of my favorite burek shops, and I decide to practice my Bosnian. Everything goes smoothly except for the math. Focusing on the two types of pie I want – beef and spinach – I lose all sense of proportion. I accidentally order a kilo of each, and the shop owner wonders if I’m certifiably insane. When I finally figure out what’s happening, I sheepishly confess, Trebam vježbati moje… – “I need to practice…” Before I can say moje broje (“my numbers”), the shopowner finishes the sentence for me: “…your Bosnian?” I turn red and laugh, perfectly content to exchange my dignity and a few bucks for some of the best food in Sarajevo.

At nightfall, a heavy boom shakes the city. It unnerves me, and it takes me a few seconds to hear the sound for what it is: a celebration of the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. A swell in the market crowds follows. I linger at the outdoor cafés before walking home close to midnight. Sarajevo’s packs of stray dogs, normally friendly and docile, start getting edgy and unpredictable. Their shrill call-and-response echoes across the valley, slamming off the mountains. As I walk up Koševo, toward the darkened graveyards, toward Gavrilo, two of them trot behind me before sprinting ahead full tilt, like predators in the wild. One of them starts lunging recklessly at speeding cars, barking out of its mind. I can barely look. I whisper a plea: Don’t make me watch you die tonight.

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V. Tuzla, June 30-July 1, 2014

On the last leg of our trip, heavy rain falls on the winding, forested road north from Sarajevo to Tuzla. By now the disastrous spring rains should have run their course. The damage has already been done. In the Tuzla Canton alone, landslides and the brown, swollen Bosna River have destroyed hundreds of homes. Thousands of Bosnians are refugees once more. Goran squints through the windshield as excess water ripples and pools across the road. “Nature out of balance,” he says, a reminder that in Bosnia, things can always get worse. A roadside billboard with a skull and crossbones shouts “DANGER!” to warn of wartime landmines displaced and resurrected by the recent floods. A subsequent sign, apparently without irony, pitches a café called Vertigo. The Robert Plant and Jimmy Page album No Quarter powers through the car stereo: I couldn’t get no silver, I couldn’t get no gold. You know we’re too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole. We pass up Vertigo and stop for lunch at the hillside restaurant Panorama, where clouds fog the view of the valley below. As soon as we sit, Goran asks the waiter for a good, stiff shot of rakija. “Better make it a double,” he says. “I’m driving.” We unleash a torrent of laughter.

As we approach Tuzla, a city of mining and industry, we survey the destruction. Debris from the floods lines roadside fences and clutters yards. A turbulent sky shifts and reconfigures its shades and layers of grey, permitting only slivers of sun and a thin, diluted streak of blue. A power plant’s enormous cooling towers, chain-smoking, superimpose their own brownish haze. Suddenly, traffic crawls. The floods have devoured a large section of our lane, forcing a long line of cars to snake off onto gravel and dirt.

When we get back on the road and come to the heart of the city, we see wreckage that’s man-made: the smashed windows and sooted, graffiti-tagged façade of the Sodaso chemical plant. It’s a gutted casualty not of wartime shelling but of an economically devastating postwar privatization; the plant was ground zero for the fiery citizen uprisings of last February’s “Bosnian Spring.” We enter a traffic roundabout, where a large banner encourages union solidarity – Sindikat Solidarnosti – and a young woman hustles by on foot, hunched, with no umbrella. Her shirt says “Sunny Beach Club” in English.

Near the town square, the site of the 1995 massacre that Tuzla is famous for, we park on the street in front of a Catholic school. Near the main entrance is an arresting scrap metal sculpture, eight to ten feet tall, of St. Francis. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, with his eyes to the ground and his palms to the sky, he is the incarnation of hunger and despair. The artist has riveted, dented, crimped, and shredded the metal with reckless precision. Francis looks as though he’s been hit by shrapnel, or a shock wave, and he is literally unraveling, his thrice-knotted cords tearing away from his cloak of poverty. Wild birds – are they predators or prey? – besiege him, their wings stretched vertical and taut. No sentimental kinship binds these creatures to Francis; their only communion, their only solidarity, is in their intimacy with the abyss.

St Francis of TuzlaSt. Francis of Tuzla

We’ve come for a lecture at the local atelier across the street from this St. Francis of Tuzla. The event has been arranged by Nigel Osborne, a professor, composer, and activist visiting from the UK and working closely with a young local university professor and activist, Damir Arsenijević. When we meet, Nigel strikes a note of hope. In his sixties, he is tall, bearded, and broad-chested, with a booming voice and infectious energy. He tells us that this is a chance for exploited, suffering Bosnians to reimagine everything, to remember that they “can change things fundamentally.”

Osborne’s connections to Bosnia run deep, back to the war, when he collaborated with activists and artists, like Goran and Susan Sontag, to keep Bosnians and Bosnian culture alive. Now, working with local university professors and activists in Tuzla, he’s invited tonight’s speaker, the economist Fred Harrison, a London-based contemporary of Osborne and an architect of Yeltsin-era land reform in Russia. Osborne and Harrison are touting such reform as a revolutionary alternative to rapacious, neoliberal global capitalism, reform that once had put Russia on the path to real social and economic justice before oligarchs hijacked and derailed it.

In his lecture Harrison calls the current global economic system “a cruel one,” a form of “cannibalism” and “medieval bloodletting” that sacrifices workers and youth in order to save the financial sector. Merging fluidly with the corruption of local elites, that system has left ordinary Bosnians desperate and unemployed at rates surging toward fifty percent. A revolution is possible, Harrison contends, but we will have to “build our minds anew” by returning to moral, non-ideological “first principles” of authentic democracy and collective ownership of the land. Tuzla’s unions and plenums – the emerging, town-hall style citizen assemblies – will have to lead the way, he says, in dismantling an entrenched system of greed.

Afterward at a restaurant on the square, Osborne is buzzing. I ask him what he thinks about Professor Harrison’s suggestion that Bosnia should seek the political and financial support of Great Britain. He thinks it could work. During the war, he tells me, Great Britain, unlike so many other western powers, started to repent for its tragic misunderstanding of the Bosnian situation. Now with the likes of William Haig and Angelina Jolie paying such close attention to Bosnia, there could be enough international momentum for real change.

Soon Professor Harrison walks in with the director Carlo Gabriel Nero, who filmed the evening’s lecture for Al Jazeera. We all have a date at a nearby café and bar, Urban, to sing sevdah, the Bosnian blues, with local professionals. The music – full of tremulous vibrato, of vocal oscillations encouraged by an accordion and anchored by an acoustic guitar – is not for the faint of heart. Osborne is fluent. He grabs his guitar and sits in. When he sings, all the Bosnians in the bar join him. They know these songs of love and sorrow by heart. After a while, I move back from the inner circle of musicians to the edge of the bar, where two Bosnians give me their sense of what it’s all about. One says that this is a kind of sijelo, a gathering with comfort food and live music, usually sevdah, where everyone feels like old friends. Another says that it’s about the pursuit and experience of merak, translated loosely as a moment of true happiness, ease, and no worries at all.

I thank them. It’s almost midnight. We’ve been at it for hours, and the crowd is starting to thin and fade. Everyone has somewhere to be tomorrow, when morning will bring the hope and the anguish of starting from scratch.

—Thomas Simpson

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Thomas SimpsonPhoto by Melissa Cooperman

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in 2017. This fall, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first academic book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

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Apr 122016
 

Pierre Joris

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Luxembourg Findel Airport

old Findel airport in LuxembourgOld Findel airport in Luxembourg.

Findel: To find. Who? Alone, no longer here, not yet there. A threshold. Am I coming or am I going? As in Findelkind? Lost? No. Airport: a door in & through the air. I find myself at the airport. For years it meant yearning: watching the planes leave, wanting to leave. Hardly able to see over the balustrade of the old Findel’s flight deck. Later, walking over the warm tarmac to the first plane: Madrid via Bruxelles. Then London. Then New York. Departures. Arrivals. Returns. Systole/Diastole of exile. Circling a receding childhood from high above: farms, fields, cattle, fences. An expanding city. From above: the Grund – der Abgrund, the abyss. Off-rhyme with the Grand Canyon. Airplane dreams. Portage of plain paper reams of writing ferried between continents. Nothing to declare. But this: I love to arrive. I love to leave. It is the same. It is different. The continents no longer drift, therefore we have to. Dérive. Départ. Décollage.

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Remembrance Day In Patton-Town

I had just returned from New York, was still jet-lagged, when my mother sent me to buy four pork chops at the butcher’s on Main Street. Despite the tiredness I had not objected, indeed, I was looking forward to stroll through the town of my youth, hungry to hear the mamaloshen, Letzeburgesch, and get a sense of what may or may not have changed in Ettelbrück. I walked down the Avenue Salentiny, hung a right at the Grand-rue, turning my back to the now decrepit and desolate Klinik Dr. Charles Marx where my father had worked for many years, crossed the street, passed the Pensionat de Jeunes Filles and a little further on, just where the grand-rue was at its narrowest, I found the butcher shop and entered.

 It was shortly before noon and a long line of housewives waited to be served, so I overheard much small talk, mainly about the warm and sunny weather, a good omen for the festive weekend ahead. I eventually got to the counter, ordered my chops and watched absent-mindedly as the butcher’s wife wrapped them expertly. I had been distracted by a noise, a low rumble coming from outside, but thinking that it was some bulldozer or other construction machine, I paid it no further heed until I stepped outside, saw many people gawking and heard the noise getting louder. I too stopped to listen and watch.

It was a deep metallic rumble that came from the east, the direction of Diekirch, or, closer by, from the curve in the road where the Patton monument stood high up by the edge of the bridge that crossed the river Sauer. For a second I flashed back to a day in 1956 when I was walking to grade school with my friend, the baker’s son, and we were gloomy for having overheard the news our fathers had listened to the night before: Russian tanks had invaded Hungary, were fighting in Budapest crushing resistance to the Soviet government. We two ten year-olds knew that it would take those tanks only 3 weeks to cross over from Hungary and invade Luxembourg. What I saw coming from the East and making such a clattering racket (instantly familiar from the movies) were indeed tanks — but these were American tanks, as the flags they sported told us, and the people along the streets were waving in that most friendly manner used to welcome liberators.

And then it came back to me: this must be the preparations for “Remembrance Day,” the yearly celebration of General Patton and his army who liberated Luxembourg from the Nazi yoke during the Rundstedt offensive! As a kid this had been one of the great yearly treats, better for us boys even than the Schueberfouer, as we could clamber up on those tanks, slip behind the steering wheel of jeeps and armored personnel carriers, slide down the barrels of long canons and handle various automatic machine guns with the required respect and awe. On the main day of the event, a Sunday, we’d watch the spectacle of a fake battle in the Deischwiesen with paratroopers jumping out of helicopters, storming “enemy positions,” a circus re-enacting of their assault on our town in 1944. During those days we’d try out our high school or movie-learned English on the American G.I.s to buy used copies of Playboy, a magazine our bishopric had banned from the country.

But this was a different time. This was 1968 and I had just come back from a year in the USA, a year in college in upstate New York, a year in which I had seen and taken part in my first anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, a year where some of my friends had been drafted into the army while others had fled to Canada to escape the draft. That spring the biggest and most murderous battles to date had taken place, and President Johnson had ordered the resumption of the full-scale bombing of North Vietnam.

What I saw that day in the Grand-rue in Ettelbrück felt like a complete disconnect, something out of an old black and white movie, a twisted rerun of World War II victory scenes watched in my grand-mother’s “Cinéma de la Paix” a few houses up from the butcher’s on the other side of the street: the same troops my fellow citizens were feasting in the streets of Ettelbrück for having liberated us, were raining down destruction and death on a people in the Far East. Someone’s liberators will eventually turn into someone else’s oppressors? That day the myth that the armies that had liberated us were the incarnation of heroic, selfless good — and could therefore do no wrong — took a deep dent. Not so much the actual fact that Patton’s troops stopped the Germans from capturing the fuel stock-piled near Bastogne and drove them back through the Ardennes. Not those facts — but the mythology that had been made out of those facts. But what is mythology, how do (chosen) facts become a mythology, and why?

Myth, I had learned that very year upon encountering the work and the person of the American poet Robert Duncan — who was to write one of greatest anti-Vietnam war poems the very next year —, the word “myth,” “mythos,” is akin to “mouth,” i.e. myth is the story told, the story that accompanies the ritual action, some action that starts out as, or wants to turn itself into, exemplary ritual. But maybe it is the retelling of the story — whatever it is — that recreates the action that turns the story into ritual and thus self-reflectively creates the myth. Repetition compulsion, running off at the mouth, or maybe more usefully, as another American poet, Robert Kelly, put it: “Saying makes it so.” All too often then, myth without the ritual action, is nothing but the post facto late words retelling, retooling and all too often tempted to beautify, simplify, purify a past action, and becomes thus empty words, alibis, cover-ups. It may not even always be a question of voluntary deceit.

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My father was weary when my young curiosity wanted to know “what did you do during the war?” He, like so many of those who had lived through it, didn’t like to talk about those days. But he would eventually relent and tell me, us, the family around the dinner table, some fragments of what befell him during “the last war” (which, of course, wasn’t the last war at all, just as the “Great War” was not great at all, as no war ever is — war is a solitary noun, never trust any adjective that is added to it, except the one already embedded in the noun, read widdershins: raw). He would tell how during the war I was born just after (me, my generation, thus, war’s afterbirth?), he, the young intrepid surgeon, used to operate on “résistants” or freedom fighters wounded in skirmishes with the occupying Wehrmacht, late at night and in secret, deep in the bowels of the Klinik Dr. Charles Marx, in the coal room, on the coal heap. A black and white image that has stayed with me, the black coals & the white medical garments and sheets, the image a frozen scene as they stop what they are doing because upstairs or outside a German patrol is heard strutting by.  Is this my mythology or my father’s? I hear the marching boots of the German soldiers in a 100 war movies watched in grandmother’s “Cinéma de la Paix.” Not one good German in all those movies, and not one less-then-heroic American GI.

Map of von Rundstedt offensive in Joris areaMap of the von Rundstedt offensive.

But my father’s favorite story was the one where he is out late at night in the forest south of the town. It is a cold and snowy midwinter, and he is looking to score for much needed medical supplies off the Americans. He has stopped and is now sitting around a campfire on the periphery of the US army zone with a few GI’s spooning up their K-rations, when a rather burly uniformed man comes out of the night, clearly a high ranking officer, and greets the soldiers who don’t move from their seats around the fire but greet the apparition back with a quick, laconic hand to the helmet. The tall figure stalks on and disappears into the night, a flash of white briefly visible around the hips, toward where the main body of the army is bivouacked. When my father asks the soldiers who this apparition was, the answer is a single word: “Patton.”

What so fascinated my father was the easy, not to say democratic relationship between soldiers and general: no jumping to attention with mechanically extended arms and a loud “Heil Hitler,” but a nearly egalitarian greeting between soldiers and a commander most recognizable not by insignia, epaulettes, decorations or well-tailored uniform, but by those pearl-handled revolvers flashing at his hips (he probably wore only one, but myth-making memory compounded the figure of the general with that of the gunslinger hero from Western movies usually packing two guns — the famous “peacemaker” colts, no doubt).

No wonder a very few years later the town of Ettelbrück erected a larger than life monument to the hero of the Lundstedt offensive, now safely dead in a car accident, and proceeded to institute the yearly ritual known as “Remembrance Day” described above.

Remembrance Day in EttelbruckRemembrance Day in Ettelbruck.

But, as I think back on all this, another event springs to mind — unrelated on the surface — and yet…. One day — I was in 4th grade — during break, we were on the playground in front of the Ettelbrück primary school. I had recently moved to town and was standing by myself — clearly marked as an outsider, and thus not integrated into any of the groups — when I heard a cry and a song behind me. I turned around and saw 3 or 4 older boys, who had thrown a young kid to the ground and were dragging him along the asphalt, singing: “Eent, zwee, dräi, et as e Judd kapott, huelt e mat de Been a schleeft e fort — One, two, three, a Jew has croaked, grab him by the legs and away with him.” The boy who was the victim of this brutal “game” was indeed a Jewish boy, the son of one of the few Jewish families left in town, Kahn by name. I was horrified, and that nasty little show of stupid, unthinking, petit-bourgeois anti-Semitism, played out by 10 to 12 year old boys less than ten years after the horrors of Auschwitz became public knowledge, has always remained with me as a strange vaccination against the mythology of the good, innocent little Luxembourgers oppressed for years by the a vicious Jew-hating Nazi regime they were unable to resist because of the smallness of the country until brave American armies arrived in extremis to liberate them. And all the (American) flag-waving our good citizens were doing on those ritual “Remembrance Days” looked all of a sudden like a ritual cover-up for their own unacknowledged mistakes, misjudgments and omissions.

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris—2011 saw the publication of Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011). Pierre Joris, while raised in Luxembourg, has moved between Europe, the US & North Africa for half a century years, publishing close 50 books of poetry, essays, translations and anthologies. In 2014 he published Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), A Voice full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (co-edited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press) and Bernat Manciet’s Ode to James Dean (co-translated from Occitan with Nicole Peyrafitte; mindmade books). 2013 had brought Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour (UCP).

Other recent books include Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press, 2012); The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011) which received the 2012 MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work; Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books); Aljibar I & II (Poems, Editions PHI). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Books of Modern & Postmodern Poetry.

Pierre Joris lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte. Check out his website & Nomadics Blog.

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Apr 112016
 

Mangalia Beach by Nicolae TonitzaMangalia Beach, 1930 by Nicolae Tonitza, via Wikiart.

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I realize, all of a sudden, that my title sounds like the name of a rehab facility in Arizona, a place where “happiness” is very rare indeed and where the “shores” are notional ones, at best. I am quite certain that Baudelaire was not thinking of such a place, as he conjured up a luminous vision of utopia in the first quatrain of his sonnet, “Exotic Perfume”:

When, with both my eyes closed, on a hot autumn night,
I inhale the fragrance of your warm breast
I see happy shores spread out before me,
On which shines a dazzling and monotonous sun.

He was envisioning a place far from the gray realities and dismal vexations of mid-nineteenth-century Paris, a place free from the constraints of the here and the now, somewhere strikingly distinct from the sites we inhabit in our daily life, a place of “order and beauty / Luxury, peace and pleasure,” as he puts it in his “Invitation to the Voyage.” That vision is inspired (and I use that word in its fullest sense) by a lover’s scent. But it is constructed in the poetic imagination, corresponding to a set of ideals clearly impossible in ordinary, quotidian existence. The site toward which Baudelaire points is a distant one and a different one, a place both foreign and unusual—in a word, an exotic place.

It is not uncommon to find evocations of such places in French literature before Baudelaire; yet he explored the idea of the exotic so insistently and programmatically that it became, under his pen, a recognizable, codified literary topos. So much so that it is difficult to speak about any sort of literary exoticism in France without bringing Baudelaire into the conversation—even when it is a question of literary gestures in our own time. For while controversies about what constitutes the “exotic” and what attitudes one ought to adopt with regard to it have undoubtedly evolved a great deal since Baudelaire’s time, the notion itself remains a highly charged one in contemporary French culture, and a sure trigger for polemics of various ilks.

Most recently and notoriously, the idea of the exotic may be seen to subtend debates about the relationship of “metropolitan” French literature (that is, writing produced in France) and “francophone” literature (texts written in French outside of Metropolitan France—in Africa, for instance, or in Quebec, or Haiti). A manifesto signed by forty-four writers which appeared in Le Monde in March of 2007, under the title “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French,” calls for nothing less than the abolition of the distinction I have just mentioned, proclaiming “[t]he end, then, of ‘francophone’ literature, and the birth of a world literature in French” (56). The manifesto justifies its brief for “World Literature” with considerable vigor:

“World literature” because literatures in French around the world today are demonstrably multiple, diverse, forming a vast ensemble, the ramifications of which link together several continents. But “world literature” also because all around us these literatures depict the world that is emerging in front of us, and by doing so recover, after several decades, from what was “forbidden in fiction” what has always been the province of artists, novelists, creators: the task of giving a voice and a visage to the global unknown—and to the unknown in us (56).

A crucial dimension of the manifesto’s argument hinges precisely on the notion of the exotic, and on the marginalization that such a designation entails: “How many writers in the French language, themselves caught between two or more cultures, mulled this strange disparity that relegated them to the margins, themselves ‘francophones,’ an exotic hybrid barely tolerated?” (55). For that marginalization effect is clearly the other face of the notion: if the exotic evokes “Luxury, peace and pleasure,” it also, through that very otherness, points to something far outside a given speaker’s community of experience.

In that perspective, the exotic and terms closely related to it continue to animate discussions in France, discussions that range far beyond purely “literary” spheres, discussions that color much broader cultural and political discourse. I am writing, right now, a couple of months after the Islamic State attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and I can testify that a significant proportion of political debate since that event is grounded in the way that the French (and I mean “French” of many different stripes) conceive of the other, whether that other be person, or place, or both at once. In all of that extremely complex and at times very painful debate, one thing is abundantly clear: we are, all of us, very attached to that idea of the other, and very reluctant to abandon it—even when it proves to engender more problems than it serves to resolve. As Sander Gilman puts it in his study of alterity, Inscribing the Other, “Stereotypes arise when the integration of self is threatened. They are therefore part of our manner of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world. This is not to say that they are positive, only that they are necessary. We can and must make the distinction between pathological stereotyping and the stereotyping we all need to do to preserve our illusion of control over the self and the world” (13).

Baudelaire 1844 By Emile DeroyCharles Baudelaire 1844 by Emile Deroy, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Having noted the breadth of sway that the exotic enjoys in the French imagination, I would like now to turn to happier shores than those of massacre and the reaction that it provokes. I would like briefly to examine a few recent French novels that are situated in part or in their entirety in the United States. These are texts wherein the notion of “America” is deployed as a radical other with regard to metropolitan French culture, and which play with the idea of the exotic in a very interesting manner. The first example I shall adduce (one where the phenomenon that interests me is both most massive and obvious) is Tanguy Viel’s La Disparition de Jim Sullivan (2013). The second word in Viel’s title is usually rendered into English as “disappearance”; but in its euphemistic usage it can also mean “death,” and Viel plays productively on that semantic ambiguity throughout his novel. It is not the only ambiguity that he exploits. For his narrator, like Viel himself, is a French novelist—and he is moreover working on a book entitled La Disparition de Jim Sullivan. Over the last few years, he has become convinced that the only way to achieve truly international literary success is to write an “American” novel:

Americans have an unfair advantage over us: even when they situate the action in Kentucky, among chicken farms and cornfields, they manage to write an international novel.…They manage to write novels that people buy in Paris, as well as in New York. …The day that that became clear to me, I took a map of America and hung it on the wall of my study, and I told myself that the action of my next book, all of it, would be located over there, in the United States. (10-11, my translation, as elsewhere unless otherwise noted)

With considerable energy and admirable diligence, he sets out to write such a novel, exploiting all of the commonplaces that he has identified in the genre. In the first instance, he takes care to strew American proper names throughout his text very liberally indeed. It is a technique that is certain to pay dividends, particularly when one recalls Roland Barthes’s characterization of the proper name as “the prince of signifiers” (“Analyse” 34). Thus, characters’ names are quintessentially American ones: “Dwayne,” “Susan,” “Tim,” “Dorothy,” “Jim,” “Donald,” “Moll,” “Joyce,” “Lee,” “Alex,” “Milly,” “Becky,” “Ralph,” and so forth. That impression of authenticity is heightened by the fact that Viel causes his French novelist to use first names rather than last whenever possible—Americans are renowned for the casual ways they address others, after all. The toponyms are just as familiar as the anthroponyms, moreover: “Montana,” “Kentucky,” “Detroit,” “Michigan,” “New York,” “Los Angeles,” “Ann Arbor,” “Chicago,” “Rochester,” “Sterling Heights,” “Baltimore.” But it is undoubtedly in the names of automobiles where that technique gets its most mileage, for the automobile, as everyone knows, reigns supreme in American consumerist culture: “Cadillac,” “Pontiac,” “Ford,” “Dodge,” Buick,” “GMC,” “Chrysler,” “Mercury,” “Thunderbird.” It sounds like a poem, doesn’t it?—or a prayer.

The behavior of the novelist’s characters is just as convincingly American as their names. They are always driving their cars, for one thing, with “a bottle of whisky on the passenger seat” (16), cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray, a copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a hockey stick lurking in the trunk. Prominent among those characters is a university professor, because Viel’s novelist has noted that “in American novels, one of the characters is always a university professor” (19), a figure so innately beguiling as to captivate the attention of even the most jaded reader. Adultery is everywhere practiced here, fueled undoubtedly by all that whiskey, all those cigarettes, all that driving around. Violence abounds, too, as indeed it must, because Americans are famously inclined to explode into violence one after the other, like firecrackers at a Fourth of July celebration.

Despite all of his laudable efforts at verisimilitude, however, Viel’s novelist remains curiously removed from his “America.” He confesses that he has never actually had the opportunity to visit the United States, and that his information (though abundant) is secondhand, deriving in the main from two sources: American novels and the Internet. The former serve him well enough, I think; but the latter, granted its tendency to flatten and homogenize human experience, sometimes leads him into infelicity and outright error. Much of the action in his novel takes place in Detroit, but everything he knows about that city comes from the Internet, and most of what he has learned is anecdotal and trivial: “In Detroit, according to what I’ve read on the Internet, people can see up to 3200 windows in one glance” (11). He can be excused, perhaps, for spelling “mother fucker” as two words rather than one (34); but his allusion to “lion hunting in the Colorado mountains” (137) will inevitably raise eyebrows. He remains, of course, French; and the gaze that he casts upon America is necessarily a French one, filtered through French culture, ideology, and myth. Moreover, he is demonstrably writing for a French public. “For us here in France,” he remarks for instance, “it seems odd to include an ice hockey team in a novel” (49-50), clearly identifying his narratees as French, and wagering simultaneously on the familiarity of “Frenchness” and the alterity of “Americanness.”

The wager that Tanguy Viel himself stakes is, I believe, a bit different; and the game he is playing is patently a more sophisticated one. Where his novelist is utterly candid (and indeed naive) in his reading of America and its culture, Viel is far more sly, taking an ironic stance both with regard to his narrator and with regard to “America.” Let us remember that irony is always a question of distance, whether literal or figural, and allow me to remark that the notion of distance massively informs both the narrator’s novel and Viel’s own. Yet it is clear that those books are not one and the same, despite the fact that their titles are identical. To the contrary, the distance separating them looms ever larger as the novel—Viel’s novel, let’s be clear—progresses. If that consideration were not perfectly obvious, Viel takes care to underscore it in the closing pages of his novel, causing his narrator to remark:

I didn’t stress it too much in my novel, because I didn’t want to make it a political thriller, with complicated intrigues involving both fictional characters and real people, like American writers often do, it’s true. After all, even if I looked toward America throughout my work on this project, I nonetheless remain a French writer. And we French do not make a habit of mixing real people with fictional characters. That is why I didn’t mention the name of Barack Obama in my novel. (120)

That final pronouncement reads like a Zen kōan, or a paradox of Zeno, until one remembers that this (fictional) novelist is not Tanguy Viel; that the embedded novel is not the frame novel; that, in a word, no gesture of metalepsis has been accomplished here, in spite of any appearance to the contrary, and notwithstanding the pull of our own readerly desire.

With considerable resourcefulness and subtlety, Tanguy Viel exploits that readerly desire in order to keep us significantly (and agreeably) off balance. At some moments, he encourages us to plunge headfirst into the fictional world, abandoning our skepticism and our rationality. At other moments, he obliges us to step back from the fable and recognize things for what they are. Insofar as the representation of America is concerned, his game is likewise double. He puts the mythology of America to use in very canny ways, both frankly (through his very literalist narrator) and ironically (through the distance he constructs between his narrator and himself). Turn and turn about, he plays upon the familiar and the exotic—and, most crucially perhaps, on the familiarity of the exotic. One might say that it is always a question of “America” in this novel, rather than of America. And one might argue, too, that it is a book perfectly suited to “American” readers, whatever happy shores they might call their own.

Tanguy Viel Disparition de Jim Sullivan

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Shores, happy or otherwise, are often at issue in Maylis de Kerangal’s Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a bridge, 2010), which tells the story of the construction of an immense bridge spanning a river, just inland from the coast of California. Like Viel, Kerangal gives place of privilege to onomastics, entrusting proper names with an important dimension of her “American” strategy. People’s names here are about what one might expect: “Katherine,” and “John,” and “Ralph,” certainly, but also that most categorical of American names, “Duane” (here spelled with a u rather than a w). Recognizable figures from the real world flit in and out of the novel, in cameo appearances, among them Sarah Jessica Parker and Larry King. Brand names confirm that the action of the novel takes place in a fundamentally commercial world: KMart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Wallgreen [sic], McDonald’s. Chevrolets and Dodges duel on the highways, providing delicious moments of verisimilitude: “It’s a late-model Viper on 22-inch rims, 500 horsepower, a monster worth forty-five thousand dollars” (42). But Kerangal’s onomastic pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the name she chooses for the city where the bridge will be built, “Coca.” She glosses it helpfully for us shortly after enunciating it, mentioning that it shares its name with a famous brand of soda (29). For “Coca” is the French for “Coke,” as any five-year-old in France could testify; and what is more indisputably American than Coke? It represents in some sense the summit of American commercialism, a product known and savored worldwide. In a similar light—and I’m speaking here reductively, of course, relying on cultural commonplace—California represents for many people the apotheosis of American culture, the site where the various currents composing that culture flow in unabated spate.

Yet that is only one of the connotational fields onto which the name “Coca” opens. The other is a shade darker in tone, and the word “cocaine” hovers in its center. The fact that Kerangal has that in mind is confirmed by several references in the text, more subtle but no less sure than the ones pointing to Coca-Cola. Early on, for instance, Kerangal mentions the public buses serving Coca, suggesting that they are dangerous means of transport, “operated by bug-eyed bus drivers: lack of sleep, coke” (29). On several other occasions, she suggests that deep corruption lurks behind Coca’s shiny new facade: “Coca! Coca! Coca! The Brand New City! A danger zone where febrile businessmen rub shoulders with dealers of all kinds, cunning teens, opioid-addicted dandies, loan sharks both male and female, night-blind girls, and bewigged assassins” (169). Contrary to what its Babbitts would have us believe, Coca is “a rotten hole” (72), a place “arising ex nihilo from the New World” (185).

Yet it is perhaps inaccurate to imagine that Coca surges up out of nowhere, perhaps more useful to think of it as emanating from a deep reserve of mythology, one devolving upon “the measureless breadth of the landscape, an unmanageable immensity” (46) and “an enormous desire” (67), a golden place in the Golden State. For desire is at the heart of Coca. Workers flock there from all over, “among whom are people from Detroit, chased out of that city by the closing of the automobile factories” (97) Kerangal notes, reminding us that the American economy has suffered in recent years. Those workers, she argues, are simple folk, “people averse to conversation, serious and dedicated laborers for whom distractions like bowling, beer, and sex would not suffice for long” (101). More than anything else, they are impelled by mythology: “poor people looking to better themselves, dreamers lost in the clutches of the myth of the West, the obstinate myth that consumes them” (189).

The vision of America that Kerangal proposes is thus significantly vexed. On the one hand, it is a place where community milestones are celebrated by “ceremonial releases of doves, cheerleaders, jugglers, traditional Indian dances, police parades, and distribution of free t-shirts” (329). On the other hand, it is a place where local prostitutes “swallow speedballs: coke + bicarbonate of soda” (134). Let us forgive the inaccuracy of the recipe furnished, and focus instead on the brutality of the image, and the way it contrasts with that of the municipal festivities. And let us remember that the very notion of contrast itself is an essential component of the mythology in which “America” is wrapped:

It is the land of making-do and the smalltime job, of accommodations and fiddles, of all the little strategies of survival that sharpen one’s wits, the land of little vegetable gardens, fertile and overgrown, the land of hammocks swung up in damp cabins, of plasma TVs right off the shelf and fridges filled with beer, of mobile homes where depressed Indians with penetrating gazes try to sleep, of prefabricated, slapped-up houses that won’t make it through the winter, their floors warping and their wiring melting as soon as the portable heating units are plugged in, their pipes freezing right under the siding. It’s the place on the other side of the water, the edge of the city and the verge of the forest, it’s the place right on the margin. (191-192)

In short, Maylis de Kerangal’s “America” is a liminal place, one that is neither fully “inside” nor “outside,” but which insistently questions both of those sites in an oppositional manner, and through a discourse of alterity. It’s no utopia, that’s for certain. But I think nonetheless that Baudelaire would have no trouble recognizing it as somewhere demonstrably animated by the spirit of the other, a place very efficiently conceived to make the reader of this novel reflect usefully upon that other—and perhaps more crucially still, upon the place that he or she calls “home.”

Maylis de Kerangal Naissance d'un pont

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Representations of America are not lacking in Christine Montalbetti’s writings. Her novel Western (2005) takes place in a rough-and-ready frontier town called “Transition City,” and it plays upon a venerable set of traditions inherited from Bret Harte and Zane Grey, John Ford and Sergio Leone. Journée américaine (American day, 2009) returns to the American West, but in present time, following a man as he makes his way across the plains of Oklahoma to the mountains of Colorado. In Plus rien que les vagues et le vent (Nothing but the waves and the wind, 2014), Montalbetti goes still further west, to the Oregon Coast. There, everyone has a story to tell: “Colter,” “Harry Dean,” “McCain,” “Shannon,” “Wendy,” “Moses B. Reed,” “Mary,” “Perry,” “Rick,” “Tim Doyle,” each of them has a past with a different tale. Yet those differences may be largely anecdotal, because every one of these individuals is scarred by the past, and the tales they tell testify to that damage in fundamentally similar ways.  They have all somehow washed up in Cannon Beach, “the furthest edge of America” (271), like driftwood. Harry Dean works there as a farmer; Wendy is a waitress; Moses owns a bar called “Ulysses’ Return”; Tim runs a souvenir shop; Mary works in the grocery store; and so forth. Their lives intersect frequently in this small town, often in the bar in the evening, and that is mostly where we hear their stories, thanks to the narrator. He is a curious bird, the only anonymous character in the novel. He is exceptional in other ways, too, for we know very little about his past, merely that he is French—”the fucking Frenchy,” as he calls himself on one occasion (228), adopting the epithet that has been used by some of the more xenophobic citizens of Cannon Beach to identify him—and that he has come up the coast from Long Beach, through Portland. “It begins like a road story, when you think about it” (15), he remarks.

I got here on a rainy day, in a rented Ford (a white Crown Victoria, with rear-wheel drive).

The car, with its automatic transmission, ate up the road, almost without any effort on my part. I gazed at the rain beading up on the windshield, then being wiped off, then once again beading up like on the very first day, then again being massacred under the rubber blades of the windshield wipers, pressing against the glass. (16)

Road stories are of course typically American narrative forms. America did not invent the road story, to be sure, no more than Baudelaire invented the idea of the exotic. But America indisputably appropriated the form, injected it with a massive dose of specifically American mythology, exploited it to a rare degree, and exported it so successfully that it can now can be said to bear an American stamp—at least in its most recognizable shape, where the mode of transportation is always four-wheeled, the road is always broad, and the direction is always westerly.

The narrator’s road story is not the only one in this novel, moreover, because all of the characters have been involved in their own road stories, before each of those stories crested and broke upon Cannon Beach. Still other narratives circulate liberally in this fictional world. The narrator reads and rereads Lewis and Clark’s Journals, for instance, in a two-volume edition belonging to Perry. He does not seem to recognize that he is holding in his hands one of America’s foundational road stories, but that fact is surely not lost on the reader of Montalbetti’s novel. One night in the bar, the talk turns to the Odyssey—yet another road story, but this time far more venerable—and Harry Dean knows enough of it to assure the others that it is a tale that ends in blood. That is just one effect among many others suggesting that this story will likewise end in blood. Catastrophe looms from the beginning of the novel. Pressure builds and will seek release, in an eruption as inevitable as that of Mount St. Helens, which the folks in Cannon Beach remember all too well. Reflecting on the events of the recent past in his motel room, gazing out at the sea day after day, the narrator comes to understand that he himself is involved in a story, though the question of what role he may play therein—witness or actor, victim or hero—is well beyond his ken. He tells his tale in an engaging, complaisant, dilatory manner, one that seems unconcerned until we realize that he is deferring an event which is far more painful to tell, a very violent event through which he is significantly transformed.

One might suggest that, more than anything else, the narrator’s transformation is a question of naturalization—one that involves, in the first instance, his body:

Since I have been holed up and idle in this motel room on the edge of America, existing on local fare (pizza and hamburgers that I have delivered), my body has become American.

That was what I was seeking, undoubtedly, that metamorphosis.

I have to say, too, that with all of this space surrounding a person, space that is not merely an idea, but which is also an idea, with the thought of thousands and thousands of square kilometers under immense skies, one can understand, in so vast a dominion, that there should be so many people who wish to be fat. In order to occupy a bit more space. Seeking a more acceptable ratio with the territory.

To adapt their body to the dimensions of the landscape. (278)

Curiously, the metamorphosis that the narrator undergoes has the effect of erasing his former story in favor of a story to come, or a story yet to be written:

The man that I am now, this fat man, doesn’t have a story yet.

His beginning can be traced back to the day that he rented the white Ford and left Long Beach, California, where he was just passing through, having spent a moment, you’ll remember, watching the pelicans feeding so voraciously. The day that he got on the road and started driving, obliviously, toward his shape to come. When he got into the car, when he stopped at the Blueberry Inn, when he went into the Waves Motel for the first time, he didn’t look like he does now; but that appearance was already in gestation. (280)

It is a matter of catastrophe, after all, one that is far more local and personal than the eruption of Mount St. Helens—but perhaps no less telluric. Importantly, it can be described as a certified “American” catastrophe, one whose principal agency can be located in the way that “Americans” tend to identify themselves in distinction to a variety of others. Though it should be noted that the narrator refuses to recognize such agency. “To my way of thinking,” he remarks, all of that is the ocean’s fault” (86). And in a sense, maybe he’s right, because the ocean (like narrative itself) involves forces that are irresistible, in which even the strongest of swimmers may founder; and once you submerge yourself in it (again like narrative), you are necessarily a part of it, wherever else you may wish to be.

Christine Montalbetti Plus Rien que les vagues et le vent

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Paul Fournel locates most of the action of Jason Murphy (2013) in France; but his characters direct their gaze across the Atlantic, indeed clear across the continent, once again to the very edge of America. To San Francisco more specifically, and to a cultural moment when the poets of the Beat Generation were just beginning to put right-thinking American mores so dramatically into question. One of those poets interests those characters particularly, a certain “Jason Murphy,” who may have written a novel on a long, continuous scroll well before Jack Kerouac used that technique to write On the Road. The scroll seems to occupy much more space in the characters’ imaginations than the man who wrote it, and who may or may not have survived the glory years of the 1950s and 1960s. People invest their desire in that artifact for different reasons: a publisher because of the sales windfall it would ensure; a graduate student because of what it would represent for her dissertation; a professor of literature mindful of his scholarly reputation; and so forth. As all of them strain toward that object of desire, a kind of Grail Quest emerges; but it is one fraught with ironies of various sorts, and one that is very unlikely to provide salvation for anyone—least of all for Jason Murphy.

Once again, proper names color the text of this novel, and orient the reader’s horizon of expectation in certain ways. Fournel borrows many of those names from contemporary American literature: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Patchen, Tom Wolfe. Other familiar cultural figures, from Johnny Cash to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to Jerry Garcia, are name-checked here. On the toponym side of things, Fournel points us toward San Francisco (where he directed the Alliance Française between 1996 and 2000, and which he consequently knows well). Each of the sites that he evokes—Golden Gate Park, Haight Street, the Panhandle, Polk Street, North Beach, the Tenderloin, Berkeley, the Castro, the Mission, Union Square, for example—is recognizable to anyone reasonably familiar with San Francisco. Even someone French (for it must be recalled that he is writing in French, for French readers), because the city of San Francisco occupies a great deal of space in the French cultural imagination, and French tourists abound there. It is perched, after all, smack on the western edge of the American continent, the place where Manifest Destiny sends us, the place where the American Dream (as a European conceives it) reaches its ultimate expression.

It is legitimate to wonder, in view of references to so many real people and places, why Fournel chose to organize his novel around an imaginary author like “Jason Murphy.” Clearly, he has anticipated that question, for when her advisor asks the graduate student why she has chosen to write on Murphy, rather than on Kerouac or Ginsberg, she replies, “Everyone studies those two, they’ve been worked over again and again. People know a lot about them. Murphy is more secret, less well known, a bit on the margins” (39). There is certainly no arguing with that. Yet another reason may be bound up in the fact that people don’t quite know what to make of Murphy’s writing, not even knowing for sure if he’s a “good” writer or a “bad” writer. That is a question the graduate student must grapple with, as she reads and rereads Murphy, while at the same time reading the work of the few critics who have turned their attention to him, including “Donald Allen in New American Poetry 45.60 and The Life and Lives of Jason Murphy by Warren Motte, which she knew by heart” (71).

We can forgive her if from time to time she daydreams about other, more manageable research projects. “Her thoughts turned to Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. Montparnasse is three Metro stations from here. That could have been a great dissertation topic. ‘Paris in the American Imagination: Ernest Hemingway, the Model of the Rich Poor Man.’ 200 pages tossed together in three months, with all of the backdrops right next door” (53). The project that she envisions stands in a pleasingly ironic relation to Fournel’s novel, of course, and it comments upon the latter with some pungency. Because one of the things that Fournel puts on offer in this book is an image of San Francisco as the French imagination constructs it. And by extension, insofar as San Francisco exemplifies certain important features of a broader American ideal, he invites his reader to ponder a defining moment in American cultural history, when “America” began to come to terms with the American Dream as a dream. Hunter S. Thompson points straight at that moment in his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of.…There was madness in any direction, at any hour.…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68)

Paul Fournel suggests that Jason Murphy’s role in that dynamic was a crucial one, despite the fact that relatively few things are known for certain about him. He drove a Hudson and drank Four Roses Kentucky bourbon, often simultaneously. He visited Paris in 1953, staying first near the Place des Vosges, then in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He had a shack on Half Moon Bay. Lawrence Ferlinghetti knew him well, and indeed had published him, which provides Paul Fournel with an opportunity to sketch Ferlinghetti in broad outline, for the benefit of his reader: “An ageless poet, with a pretty good head for money, which had allowed him to found a small, prosperous publishing house and a very wonderful bookstore, ‘City Lights,’ in San Francisco. He published and sold the whole Beat Generation. And he also translated Prévert into English, a very welcome gesture” (48). But Ferlinghetti and Murphy had a falling-out, long ago, and the former has no idea what has become of the latter in the many years since that event.

It is useful to remember that it is not the man who is of central importance here, but instead the work he produced. On the Road and Howl both circulate freely in this novel, serving as stable points of intertextual reference and sure guarantors of authenticity. Yet Fournel draws our attention more closely still to Jason Murphy’s poetry, which he quotes extensively, in the original English, complaisantly furnishing a French translation for those readers whose English might not be utterly fluent. If one steps back from the fictional world for a moment, still another reason for choosing a fictional author quickly becomes clear: it allows Fournel to invent an American poet, one who may not be the most distinguished poet of his generation, but who is nonetheless eminently worthy of our attention. One whose greatest achievement, moreover, may be yet undiscovered, just waiting for the right combination of diligence, obsession, and circumstance to reveal it. As if diligence, obsession, and circumstance had anything to do with writing—or with literary scholarship, for that matter.

Paul Fournel Jason Murphy

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Jean Rolin composes Savannah (2015) in a decidedly minor key, and the image of America that he provides therein is painted in muted, even melancholy, colors. The text follows a narrator closely resembling Rolin himself (so closely in fact that I shall call him “Rolin” in my account of the book), who performs what Freud called the “work of mourning,” retracing a visit to Georgia he had undertaken seven years previously with a close companion, “Kate,” who has since died. In Savannah, Jean Rolin exploits a mythology of America a bit different from the kinds we have noted thus far, one that wagers upon the belatedness of the American South, and upon the exoticism of that region, when seen in long focus by a European eye. Rolin is known for the way he puts exotic landscapes to work in his writing, whether it be that of the Congo in L’Explosion de la durite (The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, 2007), or that of the Australian Outback in Un chien mort après lui (A dead dog after him, 2009), or that of the Strait of Hormuz in Ormuz (2013). Here, however, many of the terms upon which Rolin relies in order to construct place and mood have been conveniently codified well before he puts them to use, by the writers of the Southern Gothic.

Among those latter figures, Flannery O’Connor is paramount, for it is she who interests Kate most particularly. Kate and Rolin had traveled to Milledgeville, “in deepest Georgia” as Rolin puts it (11), seven years prior to the narrative present of Savannah, in order better to understand O’Connor, with Kate filming more or less constantly along the way and in the town itself. Now, Rolin returns there in search of something that he never makes explicit. One might note however that such a return, in itself, is a familiar gesture in our cultural lexicon. People in mourning often do revisit places where they had been happy, even if (and perhaps especially if) they had not fully recognized their happiness at the time. What they seek may vary, but certain features are common to most of those quests: the topos of grief and the very process of grieving; the idea that one’s past happiness becomes ever more distant as one’s memory of that moment erodes; the paralyzing impression that whatever may happen now will necessarily be marked by the shadow of the past. Yet something else is going on in Savannah too, I think, something beyond a remembrance of things past. For Jean Rolin could just as easily have situated his book in France, after all, in a landscape far more familiar to him and to his French readers. That he should choose the American South suggests that there is something about that place that he finds particularly intriguing, something closely suited to the expressive needs that animate his project. I wonder if it might be possible to trace that “something” through the cultural commonplaces that Rolin puts on display in his book.

First and most obviously, Rolin insists upon images that invoke death and commemoration. Kate had wished to visit the Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, in order to include it in the film she was making. Rolin returns there, now of course in a very different frame of mind, attuned to that site in ways that he had not anticipated, noting details that had largely escaped him during his first visit. Among other cemeteries, Laurel Grove, also in Savannah, had also interested Kate, with its “lawns, scattered headstones, trees from which hung long beards of moss” (108-109); and Rolin returns there, too, visiting Hillcrest Cemetery, Catholic Cemetery, and Bonaventure Cemetery for good measure. That itinerary, and more particularly the account of that itinerary, serves to remind us that Savannah itself is a memorial of sorts. It is what the French call a tombeau, a tomb, a literary form serving to memorialize an individual who has died. The most famous of those tombeaux is perhaps Mallarmé’s sonnet, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” but there are many other examples of the genre; and it is a tradition that Rolin exploits massively.

Another set of images that Rolin puts into play involves low-end Americana. Motels figure heavily in that semiotic—as indeed they have done since Nabokov. Rolin alludes to a modest motel in Savannah “situated on the corner of River Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (18) where he and Kate had stayed. But when Rolin tries to locate it in an Internet search in order to stay there again, he finds that “it had disappeared between then and now, leaving no trace other than the markedly negative comments of its last guests, some years previously” (23). Sic transit gloria mundi. Thankfully, other motels have sprung up to take its place, notably “the Best Western motel, situated at the intersection of Bay Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue” (23). Even Milledgeville, as far-removed as it may seem, possesses its motel, about which Rolin notes, with considerable understatement, “one is not greeted in a Best Value Inn in Milledgeville like one is greeted in a Four Seasons in Washington” (89). Clearly enough, however, it is not the Four Seasons that interests him, but rather the Best Western, the Best Value Inn, and places of similar ilk.

Other unpresuming “American” places retain Rolin’s attention. The bus station in Savannah, for instance. He notes that neither he nor Kate knew how to drive a car, and that they were thus obliged to travel by bus and by taxi during their visit. Taxi drivers figure in this narrative too, of course; and they are stock types in American cultural imagery, too. Rolin is moreover fascinated by a bar called “Malones,” which touts itself alluringly as a place “Where the girls dance on the bar” (43), and by a storefront operation called “Cash Loans Until Payday” (97), and by “a landscape of desolation, that of a vastly sprawling, metastatic mall” (88), all of which seem to him to represent sites where the American Dream has gone to die. Because it is not only Kate who has died: it is a whole world that has died along with her. And in just that perspective, one of the advantages of the myth of the American South becomes apparent, because that myth is founded squarely upon the notion of dying worlds.

That helps, I think, to explain Rolin’s interest in unclaimed urban spaces and wastelands of various sorts, an interest that is long-standing and that in fact inflected his relationship with his friend. “Sometimes I reproached myself for imposing upon Kate my own taste for vacant lots and disaffected port areas,” he remarks (35), a scruple that did not prevent him from taking her along to places of that sort, again and again. On several occasions in Savannah, he speaks about a power plant in the city that he admires, waxing positively lyrical when describing the sickly orange sodium light that glows within it. “Kate had become familiar with that lighting,” he remarks, “because of all the time we spent together in ports, in Saint-Nazaire, Dunkerque, or Le Havre” (43). Rolin takes pleasure in walking along the Savannah River, watching “the tugboat Florida” or “the auto freighter Tugela from the Wallenius-Wilhelmsen fleet” (41) make its leisurely way through the city. The key feature of ports, of course, is that the people and things one encounters there are always in transit—and that is a state that Rolin cultivates very deliberately indeed. “The surest way of giving oneself the impression of being left behind, of being less than nothing,” he says, “is to walk alone on the unpaved roadside of a major highway, if possible in the United States, and preferably when night is beginning to fall” (99). For in a place like that, one can tell oneself that one has come to the heart of the matter, right where the dying dream of American progress meets the waking nightmare of grief.

Jean Rolin Savannah

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The America that each of these novels invokes is not so much a place as an idea, one that is significantly mutable and (importantly) adaptable. It matters little, I think, if the elements that compose it are immediately recognizable to an American eye, if they pass some putative test of “authenticity.” For that is not what fiction is about—most of the time, at least. For fiction has its own rules, and it exercises its own sort of tyranny in its appropriation of the real. As soon as it is integrated into a fictional world, America becomes “America”—and to the degree that the fictional world is a compelling one, that process of “Americanization” becomes more pronounced. Such an argument will strike many people as heresy, I have no doubt; yet I am persuaded that the way fiction transforms reality and adapts it to its own purposes is one of the reasons we readers keep returning to fiction. Not to escape from the phenomenal world, but rather to see it in another light, one that illuminates features of that world that we might not have recognized otherwise. Sometimes those features are so deeply imbricated in the pattern of everyday life that they become largely invisible to us; sometimes we fail to register them because they do not fit easily into the interpretational grids we habitually impose upon experience; sometimes the hierarchies we construct in order to distinguish the significant from the insignificant are not supple enough to accommodate outliers and limit cases. Sometimes as well, it’s true, we have to travel to shores far removed in space or in time from our own, in order better to understand the here and the now. From France to America, for instance, or from America to France. And back again.

—Warren Motte

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “Analyse textuelle d’un conte d’Edgar Poe.”  In Claude Chabrol, ed.  Sémiotique narrative et textuelle.  Paris: Larousse, 1973.  29-54.

Baudelaire, Charles.  “Exotic Perfume.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/120.

—.  “Invitation to the Voyage.”  Trans. William Aggeler.  http://fleursdumal.org/poem/148.

Collective.  “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French.”  Trans. Daniel Simon.  World Literature Today 83.2 (2009): 54-56.

Fournel, Paul.  Jason Murphy.  Paris: P.O.L, 2013.

Gilman, Sander.  Inscribing the Other.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Kerangal, Maylis de.  Naissance d’un pont.  Paris: Gallimard, 2010.

Montalbetti, Christine.  Journée américaine.  Paris: P.O.L, 2009.

—.  Plus rien que les vagues et le vent.  Paris: P.O.L, 2014.

—.  Western.  Paris: P.O.L, 2005.

—.  Western.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

Rolin, Jean.  L’Explosion de la durite.  Paris: P.O.L, 2007.

—.  The Explosion of the Radiator Hose.  Trans. Louise Rogers Lalaurie.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.

—.  Savannah.  Paris: P.O.L, 2015.

Thompson, Hunter S.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.  New York: Random House, 1971.

Viel, Tanguy.  La Disparition de Jim Sullivan.  Paris: Minuit, 2013.

xWarren Motte 2016

Warrent Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

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Apr 102016
 

creation

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — most of us know what it looks like: God divides light from dark and land from water; God creates the Heavens, the sun, the moon; God holds his hand out to Adam’s hand and their index fingers almost touch; God creates Eve from Adam’s rib; the Snake, wrapped around The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, tempts Adam and Eve with an apple; God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; eventually, after familiar stories of Old-Testament misbehavior, God sends a Flood. Meanwhile, sibyls and prophets sit at the edges, distracted by their own concerns. We know when the frescoes on the ceiling were painted: between 1508 and 1512. We know who the painter was: Michelangelo Buonarroti, born in  1475, died in 1564 (the year Shakespeare was born) – Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer.

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalySketch of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

But do we know how the artist felt, lying on his back painting that ceiling month after month and year after year? I mean, do we know much about it beyond the imaginative retelling of it by a Hollywood director? We do, since Michelangelo himself gave us a poem about it:

A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
–bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ‘s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback’s hump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled-see?
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle round, erratic.
Up front my hide’s tight elastic; in the rear
it’s slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I’m bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
Not odd that what’s on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don’t belong!
Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.

Not many people know that Michelangelo was a prolific and accomplished poet, writing more than three hundred poems across the entire span of his creative life. He tried, near the end, to organize one hundred of his poems for publication. But one of the two friends involved in helping him with this project died before it was completed, and a first edition of the poems was not published until sixty years after the artist’s death, under the supervision (and high-minded tinkering and “sanitizing”) of Michelangelo’s grandnephew.  “Sanitizing,” according to the translator John Frederick Nims, meant taking out “anything that might have reflected discreditably on the family or fame of Michelangelo: “Love poems addressed to a signor were revamped to fit the madonna of tradition; dubious political or religious views were amended.” His poems, to put it bluntly, were “made respectable.”

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals.

What we recognize, as we read through The Complete Poems of Michelangelo is the unique physicality of the artist. He brings his knowledge of the body – it’s outer curves and inner musculature – with him, from the three-dimensional sphere into the verbal. Known to have reduced his skill at sculpting the human body to these instructive lines, “Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop,” he also gave us these thoughts about sculpting, comparing what he sees as his simple talents (calling his own hammer “botched”) to the “heavenly hammer” of God:

….If my rough hammer shapes the obdurate stone
to a human figure, this or that one, say,
it’s the wielder’s fist, vision, and mind at play
that gives it momentum – another’s, not its own.
….But the heavenly hammer working by God’s throne
by itself makes others and self as well. We know
it takes a hammer to make a hammer. So
the rest derive from that primal tool alone.
….Since any stroke is mightier the higher
it’s launched from over the forge, one kind and wise
lately flown from mine to a loftier sphere.
….My hammer is botched, unfinished in the fire
until God’s workshop help him supervise
the tool of my craft, that alone he trued, down here.

david-full-front …………Michelangelo’s David
Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop.

According to Nims, the originals were written on “whatever [Michelangelo] had at hand”: the backs of letters, records of expenses, receipts, and sketches for his buildings and for his paintings. The artist was known for his sloppy personal habits – Paolo Giovio, one of his many biographers, wrote, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him…he had a reputation for being bizzarro e fantastico.” He felt no particular restraints when he was young about criticizing the profit- and violence-driven culture that surrounded him in Rome:

….Chalices hammered into sword and helmet!
Christ’s blood sold, slopped in palmfuls. With the yields
from commerce of cross and thorns, more lances, shields.
Still His long suffering mercy falls like dew?
….These lands are lands He’d better not come through.
If He did, his blood would boil, seething sky-high,
what with His flesh on sale, in good supply.
Virtue? Cast out. NO ENTRY signs repel it.

Later in his life, he became more cautious about expressing his political views in public. But his love poems remained vital; he is described over the years by many poets, including Italy’s own Nobel laureate, Eugenio Montale, as one of the great lyrical poets of the High Renaissance.

No one translates Michelangelo’s poetry as well as John Frederick Nims – in fact, Nims’s essay about his translations engage the reader almost as much as the poems themselves. Nims had this to say about his own efforts:

I intended, at first, to [translate] only a few…. But when I had finished those few, the momentum carried me on through all eighty. Those done, there were the hundred or so madrigals, which showed another side of the poet’s temperament. They came next. Then there remained another hundred poems in various meters -but it seemed too late to turn back….What had kept me going, for a year or more, was the fun of it. “Fun” is a word that Robert Frost often used of poetry. If it offends anyone when used in the aura of the divine Michelangelo, as Vasari called him, we could retrieve from ancient Greece the favorite motto of Valery…which he translates as pour le plaisir. I kept translating for the pleasure of it.

Not all translation is word~for~word “literal,” rich in the pleasure we call “fun.” Dictionary~scavenging can be dreary work, like a piece of assigned homework we resent having to do. The fun comes in when, by imposing obstacles, we introduce the element of sport or game, with its hurdles, wickets, sand traps, baselines, strike zones, bull’s~eyes. So, in translating poetry, we have to cope with such tricky features as rhythm, sound, wordplay, connotation, and all the other enrichments that lift prose to a resonant and more allusive level. Incorporating as many of these features as the terrain allows is the goal of the translator: born of such fun is what we call fidelity.

Nims chooses a modern voice (“I don’t belong! / Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong”) which some critics object to. The poet Mark Jarman, in his review of the book for The Kenyon Review (Summer/Fall 2001) says that, as a translator, Nims “tends to heat up Michelangelo’s poetry, making it more inventive and slangier than it appears in Italian, closer respectively to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nims himself.” But in his introduction to the book, Nims points out the unappealing high diction of previous translators  such as Wordsworth, Longfellow, Emerson, Santayana, Symonds and Rilke, all of whom overloaded the “rough language” of Michelangelo’s youth with too much elevated diction. He goes on to explain that previous translations had “a totally different effect on our ear today than Michelangelo’s would have had on the Italian ear of his time.” Despite their “complexity of content” the poems contain language that shows Michelangelo “spoke and wrote like the Florentine he was.”

The poems of Michelangelo surprise us. They do just what surprises should do: they wake us up and keep us marveling. To the list of his accomplishments – painter, sculptor, architect, engineer –  we need to add the words “and poet.” Though publicly arrogant at times, in the privacy of his own poems Michelangelo doubted his own worthiness, his own talent, and he struggled with the uncomfortable fit between his creative energies and his more spiritual existence. Not only his back ached – so did his soul. The poems often sound like they come from a worried, tempestuous modern mind. See if you can get a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (translated by Nims) and read it through. And while you do, keep this image in mind:

laocoonMichelangelo’s Laocoon

—Julie Larios

.May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numéro Cinq over the last few years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

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Apr 092016
 

Portrait of Cy Twombly by Fielding DawsonPortrait of Cy Twombly, Fielding Dawson

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Fielding Dawson Portrait of Cy Twombly

your chair looks kinda wobbly
cy twombly

I think you’re an anomaly

you’re practically
sliding off the chair
the window’s
broken by lines in a grid
it’s time to stand–
but sit for another minute
give us your specifics
wait — you don’t care
what you get across
or to whom

large, your hands
rest beside each other whitely,
parallel like piano keys

your shirt’s white
the window behind you is kinda’
sketchy in 1951

loose
yet precise
a small face
full of interest
unstingy
and grungy

a black button
on a worn blue jacket

you might jump up
and draw squiggles
your body’s both curvy and angular

a bit of white sock
usual blue pants
a blue jacket  bits of
brown butcher paper
showing through

your collar’s upturned and
your hair’s a bit of tweedledee and tweedledum

the wood floor is what you were
born for

guess that’s a watch on your left wrist
your shoelaces and the
stripes of your collar–
you were about
little things like that
employing house paint
colored pencil and string
among other things

your acrylics are bright
what did you do at night I wonder
you give us just a smidgen of
what’s in that head of yours

fielding dawson
lifelong socialist
socialized with you
no separation between
the art and the doing
the art and the life

remaining unnoticed you were happy

you broke things down to
build them up again
cy means baby in greek
master in english
which is what you speak

the british family twombly
had a coat of arms which
you may have found alarming

a hands-on man
plain so you could
put it all in the work

triangles all around–
your face
your collar
your crotch
your right leg forming an
acute angle with the chair

things one might not notice
at first–your sagging belt
the pocket on your jacket

legs apart
feet turned slightly outward the way
a man’s supposed to sit

eyes closed or just looking down

the lines of the floor drive the painting forward
as if thrusting you towards us
colorful cartoony one

your shoes shaped and colored violins

bits of purple and green
far away barely seen
make the blue less flat
the painting works against the
flat canvas though it’s semi-abstract

it’s an impression and makes an impression
of cy twombly

will you have coffee with me?
no? you want to get back to your studio…
stand up, walk away, the day awaits

dawson chose the colors of nature for you
you’re off in your head to
a greek isle
a sumerian temple
a grouping of flowers

part of progressive art, you said,
is the complete expression of one’s personality–
you drew in the dark to develop your line
a wobbly line     a kid’s kind of line

I saw you as a baseball player before I knew
your father named you after
cy young
and was
himself
a chicago cubs pitcher

you married a baroness and called your son cy
grew up in virginia     hopped over to rome
in between relocated twice a year
your sculptures as talismans to
guard you on your way

edwin parker cy twombly jr  hey
you influenced basquiat, kiefer, clemente and schnabel–
very cool–
keats and mallarmé appear in your work
rilke and virgil as well
space in your huge canvasses
for them all

influenced by giotto
you painted a blue sky
on a ceiling in the louvre
with sun and planets perhaps
painted over with names of greek sculptors

dawson painted you with
2/3 blue wall behind you
1/3 yellow floor
it’s right proportionately

for your blackboard paintings you
‘sat on the shoulders of a friend who shuttled back and forth
along the length of the canvas, thus allowing the artist to create his fluid continuous lines’

work as a cryptographer for the army influenced what–
your scripts and  pictography?
amazingly, charles olson worked in washington, too

cambodian-french artist rindy sam was arrested after kissing one
panel of your triptych phaedrus, which she smudged with red lipstick.
at her trial she defended her gesture:
‘J’ai fait juste un bisou. C’est un geste d’amour, quand je l’ai
embrasse, je n’ai pas reflechi….’
‘It was just a kiss, a loving gesture, I kissed it without thinking; I
thought the artist would understand….It was an artistic act provoked
by the power of Art.’
‘[ms] sam was fined and compelled to take a citizenship class.’

a frenchwoman stripped in front of your
orpheus’ trip to the underworld
saying, that painting makes me want to run naked.
you were delighted, who else? you asked,
could have that effect? I might add,
especially in houston, texas.

—Ruth Lepson

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Ruth_Web

Ruth Lepson has been poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music for 20 years and has often collaborated with musicians. Frank Carlberg, Noah Preminger, Simon Willson (2 l’s) & she will be making an album this spring of musical settings of her poems. Her new book is ask anyone, from Pressed Wafer, and musical settings of some of the poems will be available on the Pressed Wafer website and on her new website, ruthlepson.com. She’s had poems in Jacket2, Agni, Let the Bucket Down, Big Bridge, spoKe and many other publications.

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Apr 092016
 

dirt
The thing I remember most about arriving in Spokane, Washington, at the end of August in 1991, to begin my MFA in Creative Writing, was the heat and the dust. I remember walking from the apartment in Browne’s Addition (where I was staying until the university residence opened, being put up by a kind soul who did not know me from Adam – like the dust, I drifted into his apartment on the hot currents of air, settled on his couch, and he generously let me stay – thank you Jeff Blaustone) to The Elk for a breakfast burrito the morning after I arrived. The heat and dust weighed down on me. I could feel it in the air, I could smell it deep within my nostrils, I could taste it on my tongue, and I like to believe I could hear it too.

Now all these years later, three good friends from back then are featured here in Numéro Cinq writing not about dust but dirt from the anthology, Dirt: A Love Story – Barbara Richardson (editor), John Keeble and Jeanne Rogers. Barb and Jeanne had already completed their first year in the program by the time I arrived, and John was a professor in the department. My fondest memories of all three of them are related to landscape (well, there was that one night in Jeanne’s caboose out at Loon Lake, but it’s probably best not to go there) and the journeys involved in reaching new landscapes.

On one occasion, Jeanne who had planned some quiet time alone in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast in a small cabin she had rented by the ocean graciously offered me and my wife a ride there and back. We stayed closer to the town in the Oddball apartment, a last minute rental. During the day we walked the beach, enjoyed the views of the ocean, the mountains and rugged coastal outcroppings, the famous Haystack Rock or hiked the headlands with their panoramic views. Barb drove us to the Thoreau Conference in Missoula, Montana, where we attended workshops with Rick Bass and Simon Ortiz, heard an electrifying reading (his first in 13 years) by the late great Jim Harrison. More readings and panel discussions with environmentally concerned writers such as Richard Nelson, Marilynne Robinson, Terry Tempest Williams, William Kittredge, and Sandra Ciscernos amongst others. And John eventually led us to Alaska. His seminal non-fiction account of the Exxon Valdez oil spill encouraging me to persuade my wife (easily done) to go backpacking there for three months before returning to Ireland.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to John. The two years I worked with him as my instructor and thesis advisor shaped me more as a writer and as a person than anyone else I can think of (and it needs to be said, he is one of the finest writers North America has produced, his superbly intricate fiction and non-fiction always socially and environmentally prescient.) I also owe so much to Barb and Jeanne too for their kindness and friendship. It was an extraordinary time for me, and those were extraordinary journeys we took. As for the Spokane dust, I can hear it still.

—Gerard Beirne

barb

 

Introduction — The God of Dirt

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F

or thousands of years, humans have looked to the heavens for inspiration and divinity. Looking to the heavens may be the greatest mistake we, as humans, have ever made. We project what we want onto the open skies, the blank distant blue. Whereas looking to the earth sends clear messages—intricacy, impermanence, solidity, interrelation, humility. You can’t fool dirt. Nor can you escape it. You can’t manipulate meaning as you can from the mirror of an empty sky. Dirt anchors us all in reality. And so we need to remember and relearn the ongoing, resonating divinity of dirt. As John Keats wrote, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

That poetry is everywhere. It comes in through all our senses. Green, gold, scaled, seeded, sour, shining, sneaky, squeaky, voluminous . . . Mary Oliver writes, “The god of dirt / came up to me many times and said / so many wise and delectable things, I lay / on the grass listening.” The essays in Loving Dirt are that listening. Remember the joyful freedom of splashing in a mud puddle? The thrill of climbing an eroded cliff? The artists, scientists and authors in Loving Dirt drag you outdoors, scuff your knuckles and muddy your feet. They make dirt live and breathe again.

“The first set of essays, “Land Centered,” returns dirt to its rightful place—as the crux of life in the experiences of people who are flagrant dirt fanatics. These writers revel in the fact that dirt is “magnificently humble.” Long may they reign. Then, armed with new appreciation, take a muddy fall into “Kid Stuff,” the second set of essays, which explores our early contact with dirt. Go ahead, these writers say, “major in mud pies.” Because the humbling, hallowed fact is that dirt is our mother. And she doesn’t call us inside at night in order to ignore her gifts.

“Dirt Worship,” the next set of essays, shows just how to get “that motherly feeling” on in adulthood. How to place your feet on the ground and your hands in the soil and claim your ancestry, your grand, mysterious inheritance. This centering in the land leads to curiosity about the good stuff under our feet. And so the fourth set of essays, “Dirt Facts,” offers insights into the masterful and largely ignored scientific processes within dirt, the “interesting secrets” that children and dogs, who may not understand, enjoy with all their hearts.

Lastly, the essays in “Native Soil” embrace the challenge of adoring seemingly unlovable ground—third-growth woods, weedy urban lots, overgrazed prairies—”the sort of land that desperately needs to be loved and protected, and rarely is.” These essays salute and defend our native soils as if they were life itself, which they assuredly are. “Humble” comes from humus, ground, and humilis, lowly. Humble outdistances pride. Humble whispers connective language, and waits when we don’t listen. By book’s end, you will recall the generous, wordless, irresistible divinity of dirt.

“That divinity says get filthy. Grab a shovel. Hike a ravine. Breathe a dust storm. Reek like old goat and sleep like Venus after a dirty long day. Relish dirt’s unbiased receptivity. Worship, if you will, the endless fecundity of soil. Or better yet, fall in love. Dirt makes a resilient astounding lover. Tireless. Generous. Unstoppable. And most often unthanked. Start thanking. Put your belly on the ground and say thank you. Wherever you are. Winter, spring, any season will do. Lie there saying thank you until all of your internal chatter and sophisticated notions and cogitative claptrap stop.

“While you’re down there, imagine every plant that has ever lived. Every seed that has dropped, every band of people, every fish in every stream, every hedgehog, every grasshopper, all the grasses of all the prairies on earth are still here. The trees. The elephants. Every single ant and albatross. You needn’t try to imagine it, it is so. Under your belly. The earth should be groaning under piles of its own dead life forms, but what a spacious, cleanly earth it is. Right beneath you lies a creative silence so vast it makes time stop.

“Walt Whitman, long gone from us, said, “Look for me under your boot-soles.” He meant it literally. This astonishing vanishing act to which we belong deserves consideration. And deep respect. Respect for the arbiter of this vast balanced nuanced productivity. Let God in heaven take care of the stars. We, along with the scientists, artists, and poets, are forever called to loving dirt.

— Barbara Richardson

 

john keeble

Imago Ignota

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M

y earliest memories of dirt come from when I was a young boy of four. We lived on a hill and during springtime I would combine the dirt with small stones and sticks and construct experimental earthworks to guide the water of the snowmelt into little lakes and dams. Sometimes a small stick would double as a boat, enter a rivulet, and careen downwards. I suppose it was mud I played with, dirt mixed with water. There were the mud puddles, too, the bane of mothers and a great source of pleasure for young people in galoshes who were fortunate enough to have dirt around them. I first lived in a small town in Saskatchewan and we had plenty of dirt in those days, all right.

There was the dirt I remember when I was not much older, a patch of it near the steps at the back of our house. I sat on the steps in the sunlight with a stick in my hands and drew in the dirt. I was brought to consider infinity, as I had lately been struck by the meaning of “The End,” and then by the question of what comes next after “The End.” This simple, rudimentary contradiction was a childish insight into the nature of things, and while my phrasing of the question has grown much more ornate, I can’t say that my understanding of its meaning has improved in the least. What strikes me as fascinating is that I was drawing a figure with my stick in the dirt while trying my hardest to unravel this matter. The question seemed to emanate from the dirt, radiating through the squared off head and querulous expression of the figure I had drawn. It said something about what I might see now as the classic fundament of elements . . . earth, water, air, and fire . . . but which then was merely the grounding sense of touch with a solid thing, holding the stick in my two small hands, touching one end of the stick to the dirt, and moving it to outline the rudimentary head while my mind went off toward the empyreal, sparking the imagination. It was an obscurity felt as inchoateness, an “imago ignota,” and it is important to consider the order in which those two things came: first, the grounding, and second, the sparking.

When I was eight, my family moved to Berkeley, California, where my father attended the Pacific School of Religion. There on the lavishly planted and somewhat unkempt grounds of the campus I found myself transfixed by a slope overgrown with dense bushes, surrounding a single, huge fir tree, which I watched during storms from our apartment window. The tree tilted, bent, and whipped in the wind. One spring day, I made my way to the tree by crawling beneath the bushes. Upon reaching it I found a tremendous gnarled root system clutching at the dirt. The brown needles that fell from the tree made a thick duff, eventually to be transformed into more dirt, and there were spider webs that held entrapped flies and a colony of sow bugs, which curled up into balls when touched. Those things were the grounding there. It was a potential, frangible detritus, found in a dark place, and, I thought at the time, safer than any other place I knew of, solitary and secret. I had to creep out the way I came, emerging covered with dirt and with cuts from the thorns and brambles.

My family moved to Southern California where I had a transfigurative experience with dirt. We traveled to Death Valley to camp for several Thanksgivings, a time of year when the desert was cool. We went with friends of my parents, the Sayles, for whom I recall having great affection, though now I know little about them, except that they were artifact collectors, and old enough to be my grandparents. They had no children. We camped in a place with a hot springs, which was near what seemed a vast plain stretching as far as the eye could see, but with very few plants growing on it. Instead, it was littered in places with small stones of agate, jasper, flint, opal, and obsidian which had been chipped by human hands. It was a stone flaking ground and we would walk along, traversing the flat with our heads down as we searched for artifacts, and I remember one I saw . . . a pink-colored piece of opalized agate. I bent to dig it from the dirt. It seemed presentational, an ensconced arrow point, and I can envision it still, the dirt framing the luminous stone. I lifted it to show it to Mr. Sayles, who touched his finger to the fine flaking on the point’s gently curved hafting and pronounced it to be a 2000 year old ceremonial or mortuary point.

Whether he was right or wrong, I have no idea. I do not possess the arrow point and I think now it was possibly ceremonial because of the ornateness of the hefting, but unlikely that it was 2000 years old. At the time, I knew nothing of the value of artifacts, and certainly I did not consider that the original makers, feasibly Panamint Shoshone, might wish to lay claim to them, and thus that what I was engaged in was a form of plunder. Though at age ten or eleven, I was at a time when my consciousness was dividing into what some hold as the signal stage of growing out of childhood, the nagual (familiarity with the non-ordinary) giving ground to the tonal (a fixation on the ordinary, the everyday), the possibility that what we were collecting came from a burial ground did not register, perhaps simply because it was not a part of the conversation among the people there . . . the Sayles, my parents, and myself. It would take Barry Lopez years later to articulate that for me. In his essay, “The Stone Horse,” he describes his encounter with a horse made of an outline of stones, a four hundred year old intaglio laid into sunburnt and sandblasted desert varnish, which is a patina of iron and magnesium oxides. He says, “. . . the few who crowbar rock art off the desert’s walls, who dig up graves, who punish the ground that holds intaglios, are people who devour history. Their self-centered scorn, their disrespect for ideas and images beyond their ken, create the awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives, in which the past is merely curious or wrong. . . . [But] I remembered that history, a history like this one, which ran deeper than Mexico, deeper than the Spanish, was a kind of medicine.”

From the experience of finding the arrow point in the dirt, misunderstood as it was, I developed one, sometimes useful habit, that of searching the ground when I walked, of being alert to what the dirt offered up, to the sparking that helped me make my way as an adult. This is how it is in Eastern Washington on the farm where my wife and I have raised our children and lived for forty years: deer carcasses, cow carcasses, a heifer practically disemboweled by her breech-born calf, all manner of carcasses going into the ground, raccoons, porcupines, mice, and gophers, flies and maggots eating the dissolving flesh, dust from taking the care to disk in the residual organic matter left after baling hay. It’s garden dirt made into soil, I suppose, chicken shit and dirt, cow patties and dirt, deer manure, convoluted moose droppings and dirt, snow and dirt, rain and dirt, dirt from dirt roads, dirt in the nostrils, in the cracks of skin, imbedded under fingernails, dirt storms, veritable clouds of dirt, great plumes of dirt blowing across the Pacific from the Far East, for nothing is strictly local. There was the stratospheric column of volcanic ash from Mount Saint Helens that covered our place in 1980 and floated around the world, this and more on ground covered by one of the largest floods known to the history of the world more than twelve thousand years ago. The ice dams broke apart at the end of the last glacial age and the resulting floods inundated hundreds of square miles from Missoula, Montana to the Pacific Ocean, covering portions of Idaho, Oregon, and much of Washington. Where we live there are fields where the once massive eddies slammed into the hills and turned, dropping their loads of dirt. Within sight of such fields there is basalt on the surface, known as scab rock, where the water raged, washing the dirt away.

It is interesting how the word, dirt, has undergone a nearly hundred eighty degree turn in meaning in our culture. The word is thought to emerge originally from Old Norse . . . drit . . . meaning excrement. The Oxford English Dictionary lists this first, “1. Excrement,” but there are other meanings, too, “2. Unclean matter, such as soils and any object adhering to it; filth, especially the wet mud and mire of the ground, consisting of earth and waste matter mixed with water. 3. Mud, soil; earth; mould; brick-earth,” and it adds the more metaphorical meaning, “4. The quality of being dirty or foul; dirtiness; foulness; uncleanness in diction or speech.” I have a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, dated 1911, which defines dirt as: “1. Any foul or filthy substance; excrement; earth; mud; mire; dust; whatever, adhering to anything, renders it foul or unclean.”

The change seems to have happened sometime in the last century. In 1927, Hermann Hesse published his novel, Steppenwolf, in its German edition and near the beginning of the book he has his willfully shabby and unkempt protagonist, Harry Haller, pass by a place “so shiningly clean, so dusted and polished and scoured so inviolably clean that it positively glitters. . . . Don’t you smell it, too, a fragrance given off by the odor of floor polished and a faint whiff of turpentine together with the mahogany and the washed leaves of the plants—the very essence of bourgeois cleanliness, of neatness and meticulousness, of duty and devotion shown in little things? I don’t know who lives here but behind that glazed door there must be a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity, of ordered ways, a touching and anxious devotion to life’s little habits and tasks.” Haller goes on to claim . . . undoubtedly ironically . . . that he is not being ironic.

The tension Harry Haller foresaw is out in the open now, for the world’s population, and its inventions, have increased exponentially while the earth’s dirt in its frenzied and fecund form has proportionately diminished. We’ve also come to understand very well the new dimension added to dirt. No longer is dirt always a thing that needs to be washed out like Lady MacBeth’s “spot,” made hygienic and sanitized. One does not think solely of one of a number of secretive, contagious killers, cholera, say, looping around a village in the mud and water, or E. coli poisoning from animal waste stirred into fields of salad greens. On the contrary, we’ve come lately to think we’ve grown excessively clean, that our immune systems require more contact with the minerals and myriad of microorganisms, which, if one were to dig one’s hands in the dirt one would come up hefting a load of the visible and invisible . . . earthworms, larvae, tiny insects, tiny snails, nematodes, and bacteria, frangible fossil matter, frangible sticks and leaves, carbon, and radioactive isotopes, some of which might contain the germs of yet unrealized cures. My wife and I have a dog that eats dirt every springtime, and a grandchild who adventures in it just as I once did, searching out his inchoateness and the seemingly random sparking. If only we could cease our plundering habits, the products of human invention which strain to drive the earth into utter exhaustion. We’re playing a fool’s game with our dirt, blindly transforming it “behind that glazed door . . . [into] a paradise of cleanliness and spotless mediocrity” through genetically modified crops and monoculture, herbicides, fertilizers, coal mining, petroleum extraction, and fracking, that dire, unthought out, and “awful atmosphere of loose ends in which totalitarianism thrives.”

—John Keeble

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jeanne

Sinking Down Into Heaven

I

am a Midwest farmer’s daughter and as such, no stranger to dirt—four hundred and fifty acres of it to be exact. In addition to growing sweet corn, field corn, alfalfa, oats and wheat, we raised dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs and sheep. The dairy barn took up the western section of land next to the woods. The steer barn, corncrib and hayloft claimed the eastern border near the creek. The sheep grazed on the northern edge close to the swimming hole and the pigs wallowed in the mud to the south. My bike and I were constant travelers on the gravel roads that connected the respective barns and outbuildings, and I’d be lying if I said that navigating those loose gravel roads on my black Schwinn with skinny tires was not a tricky endeavor that required Bandaids and Mercurochrome on a regular basis. I rode my bike from one end of the farm to the other, and when my legs grew tired, I high-tailed it over to the swimming hole. I ask you: what could be better than a hot dusty bike ride followed by a cool swim and a lazy sunbath? Often, as I lay atop my dry clothes, I imagined the earth spinning faster and faster, imagined myself clinging to the warm grasses for dear life so that the centrifugal force would not spin me off into the ethers. Other than my grandma’s house, there was no place I would have rather spent a summer afternoon.

When the sun neared the grove of trees in the west, I headed home to our well-worn, two-story white farmhouse, its wide front porch and spacious yard shaded by oak trees. Our family garden plot, sixty-feet by thirty-feet of fecund soil, ran alongside the fence that separated our side yard from the cow pasture and in it we grew everything imaginable: raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cucumber, yellow squash, zucchini, acorn squash, green beans, sweet peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, rhubarb, green onions, white onions, carrots, potatoes, peppers and the best sweet corn known to man. Many afternoons found me on the front porch staring off toward the neighbor’s property on the far side of the creek while I snipped beans, shelled peas and daydreamed about the swimming hole, a permissible destination only after chores were completed. Much like the sunrise, chores began and ended each day.

My duties consisted of tending our garden—weeding, hoeing, thinning, picking and preparing the fruits and vegetables for farm-style, midday meals and evening meals we called supper. As farmers, we didn’t use the word dinner for the evening meal. To us, dinner meant Sunday dinner at noon. I never heard the word used in the context of an evening meal until I went to school, learned to read and discovered that Dick and Jane ate dinner in the evening. That’s also when I discovered that town people were not exactly like us country folk. But I digress. Preparing one noon meal and one supper each day for six hungry people didn’t begin to put a dent in all of the produce, so we spent numerous hot summer days canning, freezing and pickling the abundance.

Hundreds of cucumbers transformed into dill and sweet pickles. We put up row-after-row of canned tomatoes and peaches, the later bought from a peach farmer who lived down the county line road apiece. In the cool, dank cellar on shelves that lined the canning room, we placed clear Mason jars filled with round, peeled red tomatoes and peeled yellow peach halves, their crimson insides prime candidates for a Cezanne still life. We froze green beans, squash, raspberries, strawberries and tender sweet corn kernels that we carefully and laboriously removed from the cob using a metal and wooden device that looked like a medieval torture rack. We froze whole strawberry-rhubarb pies and put up jar after jar of my personal favorites: raspberry and strawberry preserves.

loved every part of the dirt, manure and water that went into creating our prolific garden. I also loved the dirt, manure and water that caked on the soles of my bare feet, which were often so dirty that they looked as if I were wearing short brown boots. I was nine years old the summer those dirty feet helped me rise from picking the low-to-the ground strawberries, stretch my back from having been bent over for so long, place my hands on my hips and wonder: How can town people be happy without loving a piece of land?

That evening at the supper table I posed that question to my father, a man who had more than once shared his regret about not completing college as had his two older brothers, who now wore suits and worked in cities. From time-to-time he had also wondered aloud if he had made the right decision in remaining a farmer instead of finding a more sophisticated occupation. As he pondered my question, his normally steel blue eyes turned a bright blue and his jaw popped as he chewed—sure signs that he was getting riled up.

“You know,” he said, “I was a kid during the Great Depression. Town people lost their jobs. No money. No food. Nothing. Those scrawny town boys pulled up to our farm hungry. And guess what?” He stopped talking. A slow grin spread across his face. “We gave ‘em food. For once they needed something from us. That’s what having land means.”

In the autumn of my sixth grade school year when I was ten years old, my grandma died, and because I adored her more than life itself, everything changed for me that year, including, and especially, my relationship with dirt and the land. True to those times and that place where she lived in southern Illinois, in a small town cradled between the Mississippi River to the west and the Wabash River to the east, there near the Kaskaskin River in Grandma’s small town, my father and his siblings placed her open casket in the parlor beside the piano for a wake that lasted three nights and three days. It was my people’s time-honored manner in which to pay respects and say farewell. It gave us a few days to become accustomed to the idea of her no longer being with us. It gave us time to be with her body a little longer, time to say goodbye. For three days running, every time I passed by the parlor I glimpsed Grandma lying there in her dark blue church dress. A few times I could have sworn I heard her playing the piano and singing one of her favorite hymns. One time I even thought I heard her familiar chuckle followed by her dentures clacking as she said, Oh Jeanne—you do beat all.

On the fourth day they moved Grandma’s casket to the church, but it wasn’t until after the memorial service when the pallbearers closed the casket that the realization hit me: I would never see her again. We followed the hearse to the cemetery and as we stood beside the open grave, the thought of Grandma being trapped underneath six feet of dirt made me feel crazy with rage. I became hysterical. I screamed, cried, kicked and carried-on something fierce, all to no avail. Nothing could change the ordering of that day. Despite my protests, Grandma’s coffin was lowered down into the earth and covered with shovelfuls of dirt, which to my ten-year-old way of thinking, had completely and utterly betrayed me. I crossed my arms over my chest and declared my relationship with dirt and the land finished, forever.

*

Fifteen years later as I watched my two preschoolers play in the back yard, John Prine’s newly released “Please Don’t Bury Me” came on the radio. The lyrics made me feel as though he shared my aversion to the practice of burial. On that afternoon, I adopted Prine’s contagious melody and goofball lyrics as my theme song regarding the thought of being six feet under for eternity.

For Mother’s Day my daughters’ preschool teacher sent home a yellow rose plant and when its blossoms began to fall onto the kitchen countertop, I planted it haphazardly in a sunny spot in the front yard. To my surprise it flourished. By summer’s end, after several enthusiastic days of planting other young rose starts, we had a burgeoning rose garden—reds, apricots, yellows, pinks and whites. For the first time in many years I felt great pleasure as I pushed the shovel down into the earth and inhaled the smell of moist, lush soil.

I took off my gloves, rested one knee on the ground and lingered, my bare hands carefully arranging the soil around the base of each plant, tending to their needs much like I cared for my young children.

The years passed, my daughters left for college, and as I moved from one state to another and from one house to the next, I became obsessed with annuals and perennials. Without consciously planning to do so, in the yards of the new houses, I recreated my grandmother’s flower garden: pink climbing roses, purple butterfly bushes, catmint, lime green hydrangeas, lavender, yellow day lilies, red carpet roses, white snap dragons and multicolored hollyhocks. Ushered in by the beauty of the roses, my passion for dirt and its works had returned. However, Prine’s catchy tune remained my theme song regarding burial; I doubted that would ever change.

Coming face-to-face with death as an adult gave me the unexpected gift of freedom. Life handed me a three-year crash course during which I lost two close family members and discovered a cancerous lump in my breast. Surgery, followed by seven weeks of radiation that turned my breast an angry, painful red, gave me ample time to ponder my mortality and last wishes. Oddly enough, after living in close proximity with death for three years, I no longer feared it. Death and I had taken time to get to know one another. I felt at peace knowing that I, like my two family members, would one day return, in some capacity, to the earth. My loved ones chose cremation. My uncle’s ashes were sprinkled from the deck of a boat into the San Francisco Bay. My favorite cousin’s ashes were sprinkled in a meadow off a California back road near Lake Tahoe. For my own going-away party, I decided I wanted “Please Don’t Bury Me” played, and even though I’ve always imagined my ashes being sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean from a beach on the Oregon Coast, a different possibility came to me not long ago.

On a hike near my home a vast field of blue camas lilies stretched out before me. Have you ever seen their blue tips swaying in a morning breeze? The sea of periwinkle was divided only by a narrow dirt path. It wasn’t a tall mountain that I traveled to. No need for hiking boots or rappelling ropes. The blue field did not appear on a postcard you would mail home from your hotel saying, This is where we visited today. No one sold jewelry, photos, hot dogs or candy—not even—as you will probably be surprised to hear, expensive bottled water. I did not need a guide, so safe was my passing there. From the main road traveled by cars, I simply walked down the narrow dirt path through the blue lilies, every now and again feeling the moisture of the marshland rise up around my feet. How I loved that oozing up and over the sides of my shoes. How I loved that feeling of sinking down—not dangerously down, mind you—but sinking down just far enough to know that I too was planted, or could be, if I stayed long enough, in that patch of marshland dirt. How I loved that sinking down on the flat dirt path into blue heaven.

—Jeanne Rogers

You can listen to a radio interview here with Barbara Richardson and Jeanne Rogers after a reading with John Keeble in Ashland, Oregon.

 

Barbara Richardson‘s two novels, Guest House and Tributary, reflect her ardor for life in the West. Tributary won the Utah Arts 15 Bytes Award and the 2013 Utah Book Award in fiction. Her 2015 anthologies, I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients and Dirt: A Love Story
rely on the power of collaborative storytelling to open hearts and minds. She has worked as a landscape designer in Oregon, Utah and Colorado. She now writes and edits in Kamas, Utah.

John Keeble is the author of five novels, including Yellowfish and Broken Ground, and 2013 saw the publication of The Shadows of Owls. He is also the author of a collection of stories, Nocturnal America, and of a work of nonfiction, Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. He is a professor emeritus of Creative Writing and English at Eastern Washington University. keeblefiction.com

Jeanne Rogers’ memoir, Changing Course, chronicles her leap from land to sea while working as a steward assistant on an oil tanker. Her 2013 poetry collection, Through the Cattails, celebrates the fragile interconnectedness of human lives. Her short story, “Instructions for a Bed Sheet Parachute,” was awarded best of collection in the 2013 anthology Detour. Her work has also appeared in Willow Springs, The Bellingham Review, Calapooya Collage, The Raven Chronicles and Poets West, among others.

Apr 082016
 

Masande

With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. — Benjamin Woodard

Reactive

The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga
Two Dollar Radio
174 pages ($15.99)
ISBN 978-1-937512-43-9

 

Topping 6 million infections, South Africa is home to the largest number of HIV cases in the world, and it’s an understatement to say that the country’s government has paved a rocky road in its reluctant battle against the lentivirus. Though educational programs flourish today, as does a substantial antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment program, ramifications from past decades linger. Without proper identification and care, infection numbers rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the early 2000s saw high-ranking officials, particularly then president Thabo Mbeki, actively engaged in AIDS denialism, claiming tenuous links between HIV and AIDS and chastising aggressive medicinal assistance. During this time, ARVs were scarce, despite offers from international manufacturers to supply patients with inexpensive medication, and those who received such treatments were few and far between.

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. It’s 2003, and Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. When they’re not slumming in an apartment, the trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. Two Dollar Radio, the novel’s American publisher, sells Ntshanga’s narrative on its website as “James Baldwin + Transpotting + Harmony Korine,” and the comparison is apt. More than once, I was reminded of the closing line of “Sonny’s Blues”—“For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling”—while reading. Like the Biblical cup of suffering tenuously hovering over Baldwin’s character, waiting to be acknowledged or shunned, in many ways, Nathi’s life is one of limbo, of both life and death, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.”

The novel’s main antagonist arrives early in part two, when word arrives that a potential new client desires to purchase Nathi’s entire drug stash. The mystery man floods the group’s bank account with a life-changing amount of money and, to show his power and seriousness, he emails information to the three that proves he knows their identities. Though the idea of selling to only one client appeals to the trio, an underlying sense of menace from the man—and the possibility that he’s police—leaves the dealers on edge. With Nathi, Cecelia, and Ruan metaphorically pinned under the client’s thumb, it would be easy at this point for Ntshanga’s novel to devolve into a generic narrative of cat-and-mouse, yet such objectives never surface in The Reactive. Instead, this new assignment subverts expectations, leading to an unexpected, subdued climax, and it allows Nathi to reflect on his own past and come to terms with the death of his brother, Luthando, who expired at the hands of initiation school workers years earlier. As Nathi begins his engagement with his new client, he receives text messages from an estranged uncle, Bhut’ Vuyo, that urge him to return home. These notes, combined with the futility of his current lifestyle, open Nathi to ruminations on those he left behind. A short prologue reveals that Nathi blames himself for Luthando’s death: as teens, the two had planned on stowing away together at an initiation school (a multi-week excursion where each would be circumcised and achieved manhood), but Nathi stayed behind at the last minute, leaving his brother to go it alone. Luthando’s cutting, like many others, was botched, and his death inspired Nathi’s relocation to Cape Town, where he eventually shut his family from his life.

With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. By setting his narrative in the early 2000s, before the widespread availability of ARVs, Ntshanga entrenches his characters in a realm of political denial, which in turn results in physical denial, yet much of Nathi’s own narrative finds root in emotional renouncement: he refuses to consider a return to his family, shuns his uncle’s messages, and despite his own decent upbringing, he sabotages himself in order to reject a potential life of happiness. Early, Nathi admits that he, Cecelia, and Ruan are not stereotypical stoners, but that “each wrote matric in the country’s first batch of Model C” private schools. Ruan is a computer programmer; Cecelia works at a daycare center. Nathi went to university, worked in a lab testing strands of HIV, and was infected while on the job. The life he leads after becoming HIV-positive is chosen precisely because it allows him to deny himself happiness and upward progress. His guilty conscience prevents him from wanting success and promotes his limbo state. Without revealing too much, this same kind of denial eventually surfaces in The Reactive’s mysterious drug client subplot, as well.

Beyond thematic bonds, Ntshanga’s novel succeeds thanks to the author’s gift for language. Characters come to life via precise descriptions. For example, here’s how we meet  Bhut’ Vuyo:

“Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s.”

The economy on display here is enviable, for the reader is able to fully engage and understand Bhut’ Vuyo with only one sentence. And the sentence itself flows with a lyrical quality that continues throughout the novel. As Nathi tries to come down from a glue high, he notes, “The atmosphere feels warm and slippery on my skin, and my mind instructs me to glide, so I push my arms out and try to do that.” When speaking to prostitutes, Nathi mentions “how shattered their faces looked, as if they were the survivors of a protracted battle,” and as the group firsts encounters their severely burned and scarred mystery client, Ntshanga speaks volumes of the man’s physical appearance with Nathi’s unpretentious line, “If he’s smiling, then none of us can tell.”

It’s worth mentioning that this client also occasionally wears a tin mask to hide his true visage, and this literal idea of a man having two faces echoes metaphorically in Nathi’s life. Beyond the fact that he feels as if he’s missing part of himself without his brother, and beyond the multiple lives he has led, the protagonist is named after a girl, and the moniker, the reader is told, means “wait with us.” This definition inserts plurality directly into Lindanathi from birth, and as he struggles with the decision to return to visit his family, his multiple faces emerge.

Writing this review as a thirty-seven year old white male in the United States, I wonder why Nathi’s story strikes so close to my own emotions. And then I realize that, as a child of the 1980s, I grew up under the cowering fear of HIV, convinced in my youth that the infection was inevitable. That any shot or finger prick could spell disaster. I remember Ryan White and Ronald Reagan’s own denial. I was shaken when Freddie Mercury died, dumbfounded by Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement announcement in 1991 and, come 1994, I rocked my No Alternative CD at top volume. In essence, I, like so many of my generation, have matured to the threatening rattle of HIV and AIDS, have seen the way it has been confused and unfairly stigmatized over four decades, and so, despite never having stepped foot on South African soil, there is an immediate recognition of, if not kinship, then memory that comes from engaging a novel like Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive. This is a powerful, compassionate story that refuses to rest or shuffle off into the murk of the mind. It exists so that we never forget.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia Review, 5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Apr 082016
 

Reactive

The following excerpt comes from The Reactive‘s brief prologue. In it, Ntshanga introduces the reader to the voice of Nathi, the novel’s protagonist, and sets into motion the background pieces that thrum throughout the novel: the death of Luthando, the commitment to Bhut’ Vuyo, and Nathi’s unforgiving conscious. Overall, it’s a gripping opening to a powerful book. — Benjamin Woodard

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Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them. Earlier that year, my brother and I had made a pact to combine our initiation ceremonies.

This was back in 1993.

LT was only seventeen then. He was broad of shoulder, but known as a wimp at Ngangelizwe High. My brother was good-looking in a funny way that never helped him any, and, like me, he was often called ibhari, or useless, by the older guys in the neighborhood. LT was bad with girls, too; most of them had decided against us pretty early. I don’t know; maybe it’s strange that I remember that about him most of all. I suppose my brother was handed the lousy luck of every guy in our family except our dad, who’d thrown us into different wombs one year after the other. We had cousins like that, too, all of them dealt a similar hand. In the end, it was winter when Luthando went to the hills to set things straight for himself. He went up thinking I would follow behind him.

It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him The Screamer, they told us later, when we gathered to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.

One morning, they said, my brother had failed to make the sounds they’d come to know him for. Luthando wasn’t due out for another two days. The sky had been an empty blue expanse, easy on their duties around eziko, and they’d missed his peculiar fussiness. When they walked into his hut, one after the other, they found a memory instead of the man they were out to make. That was my little brother, LT, dead at seventeen, and I’ve never forgotten it was me who put him there.

I never went back home after we buried him. This isn’t a story about me and my brother from the Transkei, about the Mda boys from eMthatha or the village of Qokolweni, where my grandmother’s bones lie polished and buried next to her Ma’s. Instead, I want to tell you about what happened to me in Cape Town after Luthando had taken his death. It’s where I went to school and tried to make something of myself. It’s also where I began to reconsider what my hands had made, and my telling of how it broke won’t take us very long.

I went to college two times in my life. I might as well begin with how things went for me there. I first attended the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip, and when I’d dropped out of my journalism degree I enrolled at the technikon in town, where I got my science diploma and my sickness. I had an equity scholarship—there had been plenty of those to go around for whoever looked the way I did, back then. I got through on mostly average grades, too, like most of the guys in my class. When the year came to an end, there was a bunch of us who’d file into the Fees Office again to fill out all the forms required of boys who shared my skin tone. It didn’t take much to go to school for free, in those days, or rather to trade on the pigment we were given to carry. I think I did alright, if you consider everything else, and I graduated with an upper-second-class pass in the end. I still have that diploma sitting somewhere in my at in Observatory.

Now what else? In between university and Tech, I spent close to half a year at Bhut’ Vuyo’s place. Two weeks after dropping out of the university, I tried to go home, but I couldn’t set foot inside my mother’s house. The home I’d known since I was a child was barred to me. There could’ve been a tapestry of fire that owed over each of our walls that day. In fact, thinking about it now, even that feels like an understatement.

My mother felt disgraced by my decision to leave the university and my bachelor’s degree behind me in Rondebosch. It was too soon, she complained, first over the phone and then again in person. For a few moments, she even refused to turn her face up towards me. Instead, Ma arranged for me to enter the home of a relative.

Bhut’ Vuyo was known as a great mechanic, a recovering alcoholic, and someone who’d been a doting stepfather to the little brother I’d helped to kill. He’d met my aunt, Sis’ Funeka, when Luthando was only ten years old, and before then, sticking his hands into rusting bonnets had taken Bhut’ Vuyo to Okinawa as a man of barely twenty. Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s. That was in Bisho, during the decline of the homeland years, and they’d served him on a cloth-covered tray every morning after he’d taken his table. It was no more than a month, people said, before my uncle was undone. There were decades that would nearly fell him after that: Bhut’ Vuyo barely standing on his two feet around the neighborhood, and Bhut’ Vuyo tottering on street corners next to the highway in Mdantsane. He was often seen with his toes busting out through the smiles on his black-and-blue gumboots, his head lolling as wispy as an old hornet’s nest over his shoulders.

Now, my mother told me, having wrung himself dry, and maybe for good this time, Bhut’ Vuyo lived with his second wife in Du Noon. They had two small children and her older son from a previous marriage, all of them born with bright eyes and strong teeth and each glowing with the promise of long-lasting health. For her part, my aunt had passed away shortly after we’d buried her son. Sis’ Funeka had had a cancer eating away at her throat, and I suppose it had grown too impatient with the rigorous hold of her grief.

In the end, it had been a punishment for me to be sent to Du Noon, I had known that even then, but thinking of my little brother, of Luthando, I’d made myself accept the idea. And so I went to Du Noon like my mother wanted me to and ended up staying there for six months. I suppose some things happened when I was out there, too, and I drew close to those folks who’d taken me in. The subject of Luthando came up, as I thought it would, and in my gratitude to them, I made a promise to Bhut’ Vuyo and his household.

Now, close to eight years later, I receive a text message from my uncle that reminds me of the words we shared back then, and of the promise I made, on a night so long ago I can hardly put it together from memory.

— Masande Ntshanga

Excerpted with permission of Two Dollar Radio. (c) 2016 by Masande Ntshanga

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Masande

Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, as well as a Finalist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His stories have appeared in Laugh It OffitchImago and Habitat. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine.

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Apr 072016
 

IMG-20160223-WA0005Photo by Sonia Quiñones

I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado  (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.

Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan
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Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”

Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.

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Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico

for Enrique González Rojo

From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres

and so many more stones,
so many more trees that

I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St.
………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten,
and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
swinging batons
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust
Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks
…………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
the binmen,
the schoolkids,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
this train,
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
I arrive
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them:
they’re the same age I was when I first met them,
………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it
…………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists
…………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hopeful,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
or myself.
So I can keep on rising and falling.

Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe

 

Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México

A Enrique González Rojo

De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros

mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,

que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca
………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
el cráneo;
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz
………Meyehualco,
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos

por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;

y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
golpeando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó,
ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
parecen decirnos
la realidad son estos puños,
este tren,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes
………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
esperanzado,
frenando bruscamente
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.

Para continuar ascendiendo y descendiendo.

 

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Su Garrido Pombo Sings the Poem

Capture

Su Garrido Pombo via sugarridopombo.com

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Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”   

It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.

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For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers:
………………………………..Tuxtla
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.

You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head,
…………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism
………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.

I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.

I would have liked to have been there in my doorway
……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting
……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!

Now then, I am writing these words down before
……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks
……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty
…………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world
………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
Palace, Tuxtla,
because you know very well that all that I’m saying
………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.

Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow
………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians
…………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas
……………………………….will not know who you are.

I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up
………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla,
………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.

What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings
…………………………………………and prisons?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening
……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.

……………………………………………………Safe journey home.

—Translation by Dylan Brennan

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Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez

En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos:
…………………………………………………..Tuxtla
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.

Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí
………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano
………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.

No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.

Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa
………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando:
…………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”

Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes
………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate
………………………………………….por los canales de televisión
………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien
………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo
……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo
……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.

Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán
………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios
………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas
…………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.

Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará
……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla,
……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.

¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas
…………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir
……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado.
…………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.

§

Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”

No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.

.

Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys

There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.

Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?

To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours

to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just
………….stripped naked for love?

Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.

Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?

You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine

or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.

…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?

Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?

We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return
………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?

There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.

They run with so much strength.

………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.

Translation by Dylan Brennan

 

Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa

No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.

¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?

A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas
……….se habían desnudado al amor?

Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.

¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?

En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.

………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?

¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?

No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!

No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.

Corren con demasiada fuerza.
…………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014

YouTube Preview Image

§

Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”

I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.

.

A Ballad for François Hollande

Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’
………….by Boris Vian

don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud

I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?

as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill

my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem
……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing

you and the terrorists you and the terror
………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes

………………………………………….let us
go into the cafes
the arenas
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell

I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps
………….on his horse

don’t make war
abroad
don’t make war
at home

I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian
………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
Mr. President
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu

all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen

I slip this ballad through your window.

–Translation by Keith Payne

 

Balada para François Hollande

Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor”
………….de Boris Vian

no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas

lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?

por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar

mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no
…………………………sé qué sobre nada

usted y los terroristas usted y el terror
…………………………………….déjennos
tener los tres sueños de Descartes

…………………………………….dejénnos
entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa

mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme
………sobre su caballo

no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa

soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta
……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
señor presidente
que no llevo armas
camino desarmado
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
de geolocalización
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu

por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible

dejo esta balada en su ventana

§

Óscar Oliva: Final words

I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.

— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne

.
Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.

Brennan

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Apr 062016
 

glo logoClick on the logo to read the article.

Twitter fame (sort of) is the gift that keeps on giving. Russell Smith wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail about my sudden ascension to viral idolatry. I especially like it that NC “is also well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure.” I can only offer that NC is not so obscure, tweet-resistant, for sure, but not obscure. We hover around the half-million mark on Alexa.com, well ahead of Asymptote, Full-Stop, The White Review, Quill and Quire, Quarterly Conversation, Berfrois, River Teeth, Rain Taxi, and many, many notable sites/magazines. But “intellectual and deep” I’ll take.

He [Glover] himself is amused by this surge. He does, after all, like to say that he is legendary for being unknown. Maclean’s magazine once called him “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive.” Although he has won the Governor-General’s Award (in 2003, for the ambitious and playful novel Elle), his work is a little too elegant and clever for the book-club crowd, or for Canada Reads. He single-handedly created an online literary and philosophical magazine called Numéro Cinq, that is also well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure. The essays in Numéro Cinq are tweet-resistant: In the latest issue an entire book is posted, a six-chapter tome on contemporary U.S. policies as seen through the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Read the whole piece at the Globe and Mail — Russell Smith: Easy inspiration in an age when everyone is a storyteller.

Apr 062016
 

Cynthia photo Shawnigan lakePhoto by Dean Sinnett

x

S trong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.

Quick, to the window.

Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. No heavy traffic here, though, not like the last time he’d seen them, at rush-hour, walking calmly single-file between a moving bus and a line of parked cars.

Hesitation. Bad. His bruises still hurt.

I have to know where you are, she’d said, you cant just wander alone. You dont know this big city. And stay out of the Park! Who knows what’s hiding there?

Also, they’d taken his keys.

He found clothes. As he felt in the “secret” pocket of her rain jacket, from the other bedroom came sounds he disliked. Good, they’d sleep soon. He left the building via the rusty fire escape off the third-floor hall. At the bottom he must swallow, then jump down to damp earth — better than taking the dim stairs to the basement door.

He hurried then. Clop clop, and the horses headed west past shabby low-rises like his, past the corner store with posters stuck on its outer wall. One said Resist! What? Then past the school, the one he went to, with a map of all Canada on the classroom wall. Vancouver, a dot. The town where he’d lived before, not even that. On the bewildering drive to the city, she’d kept saying Look at the map, see where youre going! He didn’t. Hadn’t asked, ever, to make this move. Back there, the cops only had motorcycles.

The boy kept half a block between himself and the clop-clop, scuttling from hedge to street-tree to shrub. Where did they live? He’d seen them often, on busy West End streets or near the big beach. Sometimes the police halted them, so people could ask questions or even pat those enormous heads. He saw the cops’ holsters close up, and the animals’ big nostrils, and their strange eyes, bluish-brown. Soon the horses moved on. Their steady gait — lots of videos showed that, how the animals just kept on coming, calm amidst furious crowds. Did riots happen here?

As the quartet neared the big street he stayed even further back, waiting while the traffic light changed and changed again. On the restaurant at the corner, someone had half-scraped off a Resist! poster. Near this intersection, he did know his way. Homeless men slept in store entrances, their hidden faces probably familiar to him from the network of local alleys, of bins behind cafes and groceries. Once he’d taken home a cold burger, untouched in its box. They’d found it. Bad.

When green shone a third time he sauntered across, then hastened after the lifting hooves. Along these blocks, richer landscaping fronted condos recently built. To hide and move and hide: easy. Ahead waited greater darkness, though moonlight came and went as the clouds moved.

By day he’d wandered this terrain south of Lost Lagoon, grasping at its geography. Some lampposts in the Park and at its edges displayed a map, for tourists, so he’d learned some main routes. In the middle of the map’s big green stood a tiny surprising coyote. He hadn’t known they could live in cities. Mum said You never see whats right under your nose, but that wasn’t true. On his own he’d spotted a real raccoon snoozing in a tree, and a dead bird with a huge long beak, and sleeping bags inside bushes alongside piled bottles and cans.

Once he’d even circled the Lagoon, peering up at the forest north of it, but hadn’t ever entered the Park after sunset. In the small town, he with other kids spent hours nightly in the local park, only vacating when the teenagers took over — but no map was needed. You could see right across. Now he followed the horses into the dark.

Near-silence, but for the stepping animals. One lifted its tail. Plop plop, and that warm smell mixed with the night’s leafy earthiness.

He’d thought they might turn south, past the tennis courts to the Bay. No. A right turn. Where to? At first following the horses, the boy then dared to move sideways into the damp understory of salal, laurel, giant rhodo — and ahead, to crouch and peek as the nodding heads approached. Even when a rare midnight car drove past, the animals didn’t change pace. The videos showed that too, horses proceeding while police trainers waved flags and noisemakers in their faces, fired blanks, came unseen from behind to beat garbage-can lids. Calm.

Next they turned west. On one side of that road, he knew, lay open lawn, on the other just patchy shrubs, quite low. All the way, streetlights. Now what? Could he scrabble downhill, unseen, unheard, to the underpass, and so move roughly northwest? His insides heaved. No, not that tunnel in the dark — nor by day. It curved, so the exit wasn’t visible from the entrance. Im not a little boy any more. Im not! They’d laughed till they cried, though later Mum said Sorry, and then they smoked. Also, the meadow beyond the underpass gave no cover.

He slowed, guessing. Turned away from the horses, south and then west in a long watchful arc through open and wooded areas. Breathed leaves, a trace of skunk, someone’s cigarette. Uphill then, on to the high bank overlooking the ocean. Here he squatted under a shore-pine distorted by wind and weather, smelled algae, watched the incoming tide’s long frills of white collapse on the beach. Soaked runners, cold sock-less feet — he didn’t care, looked north. I was right. Only a hundred metres away the quartet walked towards a concrete ramp that sloped to the sand. Touching it, the lead animals snorted, and the riders spoke gently, stroking.

When hooves met beach the four horses trotted south, almost as far as the point, almost gone from view — then back again, under the boy’s high perch, to and fro, to and fro. The animals’ muscles created light-patterns on their coats while the waves gleamed under the moon, fell into silver marbled froth, and made their hssshing sound.

When the riders headed straight at the water, the boy gasped. He couldn’t swim. Nodding, the horses waded in. They stepped freely, splashed, came back to shore, reversed and went forward again into the waves, whinnying. Theyre happy! The riders got them to turn tightly, splashing through the shallows, as if in an enclosure rather than the Pacific Ocean. Turn, turn — and out of the water they came, dripping, tossing their manes, to shoulder sideways, back and forth, steady pairs dancing while the sand bounced up by their hooves.

Then they stopped.

Within a minute, the horses walked two by two up the ramp and disappeared eastward into treed darkness, trotting. Where?

Clop clop, clop clop, fading. At last the boy felt cold.

Once he slipped on wet leaves, falling, and without the horses ahead in the darkness he got muddled.

Emerging from the Park, he found the street wasn’t his but took it anyway, for traffic lights winked ahead. Resist! was stapled to four street-trees. At the corner he checked a tourist map. Im just two blocks over. By day he’d go in again, figure out the lay of the land. As the signal changed, he noticed at the map’s left side a legend that matched images to numbers dotting the Park’s green expanse. Seven: a tiny horse. Police Stables.

At home, somehow the key’s noise woke them. Bad. His wet dirty clothes enraged his mother. The man never needed a reason, but used that one too.

In bed at last, he did think a bit about how one day he’d shove them off, shove as if they were an enormous ball, six feet in diameter, rolling about a training ring to impede his progress. As horses do when skilled in crowd control, he’d shoulder them. Lean up against them, step sideways, step and step and another patient leaning step, till like him right now they’d have no choice. Steady he’d be, calm.

Mostly he imagined stables. He’d stand close, look up. Touch? Feed? Once he’d seen a girl hold out an apple. Big teeth showed as the hairy lips lifted back, and the horse bit the fruit. The boy raised his hand, held his palm flat.

—Cynthia Flood

x
Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.

 x

x

Apr 052016
 

latino authorsJonathan Marcantoni (center); Clockwise from top left: I. C. Rivera, Ricardo Félix Rodríguez, Nelson Denis, Rich Villar, David Caleb Acevedo, Charlie Vázquez, Chris Campanioni, and Corina Martinez Chaudhry.

 J

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Recently, I assembled seven authors—Charlie Vázquez, author and COO of Editorial Trance; Chris Campanioni, author of Tourist Trap; Isandra Collazo Rivera, author of Across the Border: Interview with a Refugee; David Caleb, author of Cielos Negros; Ricardo Félix Rodriguez; Rich Villar, author of Comprehending Forever; Nelson Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans—and Latino Lit advocate and founder of The Latino Author, Corina Martinez Chaudhry, to discuss the state of Latino lit in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. We covered issues as far ranging as the exclusion of Latino authors from the greater American literary canon, to identity politics and social limitations inside and outside of the US, to style and approaches to writing, to social media and, finally, the future of Latino literature. While these artists come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the commonality of their struggles demonstrates the universality of art and the collective need for our communities to expand our definition of what we can accomplish through unity and ingenuity. The conversation has been edited for clarity and fluidity.

Jonathan Marcantoni: What are the biggest challenges you face not only as a Latino author, but in regards to the way you write? What kinds of support systems are there for Latino writers where you live?

Charlie Vazquez: The biggest challenge I faced as a Latino writer who began writing daily in the mid-1990s was writing about queer protagonists and writing about them honestly.

David Caleb: I must say that many people have tried to label me as a queer author, regardless of everything else I’ve written and done. It has taken me almost a decade to be recognized as a bona fide fantasy, scifi and horror writer, and not just a queer author.

Charlie Vazquez: I would say that nowadays there seems to be a lot of obstacles in breaking in to better book deals, such as less interested agents than for other folks and genres such as white folks and mystery writers. I think that this is improving, however.

Chris Campanioni: Charlie brings up a good point here: as cultural norms have shifted, it’s gotten easier for me to write about subsets of culture that were not really mainstream or literary, even as recent as 2012. I recall when I began sending out query letters to agents for Going Down, which is a novel about Latino identity but also fashion and commodities and pop culture from the perspective of a male model, probably seventy-five percent of the responses read “Chris” as “Christina” and championed the story about a strong Latina character in the world of modeling or, conversely, loved the idea of re-making The Devil Wears Prada for Latino audiences. No one heard or cared very much about male models, especially Latino ones, especially in the literary world. So the publishing world was reflecting the singular gaze of the fashion world I was responding to. Fast forward to 2015 and I think Latino representation in the fashion industry is much more widespread; literary fiction about the fashion industry seems much more well-received and easier to market today too.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, we have quite a predominant literary scene, perhaps stronger than the reading scene. Perhaps. The first decade of the 21st Century saw grand literary efforts in rescuing readers: we have a multidisciplinary BA in Creative Writing from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, and a Master’s in Literary Creation from the University of the Sacred Heart. Likewise, we have many literary guilds, such as Cofradía de Escritores, the Liga de Poetas del Sur, the group A Voces (a group of queer writers, direct heirs from the former HomoerÓtica collective) and so many others. We are producing a lot of literary work and of the highest quality. We also have many writers of renown who are taking the teaching mantle to show the literary ropes to the new generation of upcoming writers, such as Mayra Santos-Febres, Yolanda Arroyo-Pizarro and Max Chárriez. We even have graduates from the Literary Creation Master’s teaching creative writing in Ireland, such as our own Iva Yates. Finally, we have been getting up to date in literary genres such as detective fiction, fantasy, scifi and horror.

Charlie Vazquez: Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela and I discussed this years ago when we first launched Latino Rebels as a blog and Facebook page and coined the #LatinoLit hashtag to group tweets together on Twitter for readers, writers, poets, academics and publishing professionals to locate writers and their works, and it has taken a life of its own. And there’s more coming for that!

Chris Campanioni: I think New York City probably has greater support systems in general, for all sorts of writers, but especially Latino writers and other artists producing art on the fringes. At the same time, it’s kind of a big irony, since New York City is also one of the biggest obstacles for artists who live here, in terms of rent and the cost of living. I think that situation sort of creates a desperation that is actually helpful, or at least that I’ve found helpful, in my work, both as a process and in the content itself. There are a number of Latino-centric bookstores throughout New York City, and Latino reading groups that travel well across the boroughs. Many of the student and faculty-run Latino and literary organizations within the City University of New York’s colleges (Baruch College and John Jay, especially), and Pace University, have been really supportive of my work and of one another’s creative output. If I didn’t teach at these colleges, I would probably feel less inclined to say that support systems for Latino writers are thriving in New York City; but as we all can recognize, “Latino lit” is becoming a thing, even as this thing is hard to define, and I think there will be more humanitarian organizations like PEN America in place, in New York City and elsewhere, by next year or 2017, if only so larger corporate interests can co-opt our literary culture and reap the profits.

Charlie Vazquez: I think that Latinos, like other minority and immigrant groups, have been colonized and taught not to support one another, and this is something that I consciously reject and do the opposite of. If we start sharing resources and introduce the folks who read our work to other writers in our communities, everyone wins! More books read, more books sold, more book deals signed, etc. Period. Publishing is a business. And until we begin increasing awareness of writers and book sales we will all remain right where we’ve been: behind the mainstream.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Let me respond as the CEO of the Latino Author and from the perspective of many Latino Authors and their experiences within the writing and publishing industry. There are two huge challenges that many Latino writers face. The first challenge comes from the publishing industry and the second comes from a marketing angle. It appears that the publishing industry overlooks Latino writers because publishing houses are all about the bottom line and they don’t feel that these type of books will sell. There is a myth that Latinos don’t buy books (or enough books to help their bottom line) and the publishing houses tend to lean towards the fact that the overall white American market won’t buy these books. The other challenge in this area is that main publishing houses tend to feel that Latino Authors only write about immigrant stories, which is far from the truth. Sure, many Latino writers do write about this topic; however, there are many Latino writers that write Science Fiction, Murder, Suspense, Romance, etc. This mindset will remain as long as publishing houses continue to mostly publish books from the “white” sector. There are very few Latino writers who have been able to break this myth such as Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Reyna Grande, etc.

Rich Villar: I’m a poet. In the United States, poetry already fights for space on the shelves of every bookstore from the independent shops to the used bookstores to the giant box stores. So, I suppose that’s a challenge. But there is another sort of conversation and meta-conversation among poets (and writers generally) that bubbles beneath the surface, almost at all times: equity in the literary world. By equity, I mean the notion that a national literature should reflect everyone in that nation, and that means Latin@s should enter the conversation as well. I write about equity. It occupies my thoughts. I’m told all the time it shouldn’t occupy my thoughts. That I should just write, right? Well, of course I should write. But I’m also an activist and an educator. And I am oppositional by nature. So, I think about this stuff anyway.

Nelson Denis: To me, it seems that you write the way you live. In order to write about different topics, just become interested and involved in them. Make them a part of your life.  Make them a part of you. Then start writing about them. I think that writing is like sitting in a storm.  I just sit and sit, and get soaked to the bone, and get sick, but I keep sitting because that’s all I know how to do, and then one day, if I’m fucking lucky, I get hit by lightning. At this point, I just write the thing that makes me sit in this chair, which is getting harder to do.  If I thought about the general public I’d go crazy, which I already am anyway.

Chris Campanioni: I write very fast and like Nelson acknowledges, it is an omnipresent, time-consuming endeavor. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I am often able to write in transit, which frees up my schedule immensely. At the same time, it can feel overwhelming when I find myself in a situation where I have three manuscripts ready to ship off to an agent and I’m already off to the next project. Most writers don’t enjoy the business aspects of writing, what comes after the writing. And I think it’s hard to negotiate the writing schedule around very time-sensitive concerns like agency communications, submissions, and pitch letters. As a rule, at least for literary magazines, I try to set aside one day a week where I take care of submissions for an hour, either before work or after work. That’s the bare minimum: one hour a week. Often, I spend much more time with submissions. These things are important because they build readership and make your work more widely available, but at the same time, they necessarily require so much time, much more time than the actual writing process.

Nelson Denis:  I think it’s important to have as broad a life experience, and as broad a reading experience, as possible. Reading is absolutely critical! I believe five years of directed reading will beat the Iowa Writers Conference any day.  But it must be conscious, cumulative, retentive, and specifically engineered for the type of writing that you are interested in.

Isandra Collazo : I believe there is indeed a strong literary scene on the Island, as well as different study programs and workshops to help aspiring authors shape their work in the best way possible. Our people in Puerto Rico have a drive to write, and not just within the hidden pages of a personal journal. For instance, they witness different social issues unfolding around them and they have an urge to put their thoughts down on paper; as poetry, short stories, and even song lyrics. A few months ago, I received a gift from a friend who is a poet. It was a collection of poems and short stories, written by several authors and students from a creative writing program offered by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, at Museo Casa  Jesús T. Piñero in the town of Canovanas.

I mention this because it shows that our writers are supported and encouraged to carry on with the art, even get their works published and presented to the public. A chance like that might seem minuscule for authors with international representation, but for a young writer it is huge. Still, I find that it is hard for new Latino writers to find representation, especially if you write in English, about subjects that don’t exactly cover Latino issues, and God forbid if your main character is a Hispanic female. Of course, this is very subjective.

 J.M.: What kind of books do you see as essential or as being what is popular today?

Nelson Denis: On reading… this is a completely subjective list.  Also, how do you cut it off… we could all write down 100 books.  Probably tomorrow, I would write a different list!  That’s how subjective it is. I’ll break it up into 22 ”Latino” and 22 “General” books, in no particular order:

Latino

100 Years of Solitude
Don Quijote
Down These Mean Streets
Mendoza’s Dreams
Platero y yo
Open Veins of Latin America
Los de abajo
La guaracha de Macho Camacho
In the Time of the Butterflies
Pedro Albizu Campos. Las llamas de la Aurora
Before Night Falls
Dreaming in Cuban
Our House in the Last World
Pedro Páramo
Don Segundo Sombra
La vida es sueño
La c
asa de Bernarda Alba
Marianela
La charca
Niebla
San Manuel Bueno, Martír
El lazarillo
de Tormes

General

The Bible
Hunger (Knut Hamsun)
Aesop’s Fables
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Upanishads
Aristotle’s Poetics
Magister Ludi
Invisible Man
The Great Gatsby
Old Man and The Sea
The Sun Also Rises
Germinal
Grapes of Wrath
Tortilla Flat
Collected Stories of Kafka
Collected Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Crime and Punishment
Chekhov’s Short Stories
Interpretation of Dreams
Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious>
The Art of Dramatic Writing
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Isandra Collazo: So there’s a big community of writers, huge perhaps, as well as readers. But the question is; what do Puerto Rican people like to read about these days? This is taken from Metro PR and IndicePR, last year’s best sellers in the Island:

Bajo la misma estrella, John Green
Four, Verónica Roth
Will Grayson, John Green
Dork Diaries 7, Rachel Renee Russell
An Abundance of Katherines, John Green
Divergent, Verónica Roth
The Death Cure, James Dashner
Yo soy Malala, Malala Yousafzai
Pensar rápido, pensar despacio, Daniel Kahneman.
(And I’m not going to disappoint you,) 50 Shades of Gray, E.L. James

I mean, what is Puerto Rican literature? Books exploring our history, our colonial status, our political circus, and our national identity crisis? Poems about tragic love stories and childhood traumas? What do people want? Or better yet, who’s/what is our target market?

And why are big bookstores closing down? (Bye bye Borders, bye bye Beta Books Cafe).

Personally, I’d love to get to read more Nuyorican literature, and books from Latin authors living abroad, where they share those new experiences and have another perspective. Although there is some support, authors in the Island need to feel free to write about other subjects, for they are afraid. I was afraid. I am still afraid.

J.M.: Isandra, could you elaborate more on the challenges faced by female Puerto Rican authors? And how does everyone feel about being constrained by subject matter that may be “expected” by a Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Brazilian author?

Isandra Collazo: Definitely. I don’t mean to sound like a butthurt female, but it is often expected of me to write of the following genres:

Fiction: YA/Coming of age; Romance (all categories)

Non fiction: How to’s/DIY; Fashion and beauty (mostly articles); Memoirs; Spirituality

And since I am Christian, leader of two ministries, guess what; I am expected to write only about Christian topics, and will be attacked and judged for anything out of the “ordinary.” (Can’t wait for what will happen when they read my novel. *Sigh* bring it… )  In other words, I’m supposed to hold back in many aspects. That said, let’s bring in the fact that I am Latina and my fiction novel (concerning the struggles of expats and refugees) has a Latina main character running around the Netherlands and not the barrio. Sounds a little odd, perhaps?

What’s more common:

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and ever-independent Isabel Alvarez leaves her cozy American Dream to…

In a bold search for new life experiences, the beautiful and adventurous Katie Smith leaves her American lifestyle to…

See, I felt obligated to say that Isabel was an independent woman who left her American Dream, or basically a woman who left her immigrant success story. Whereas a girl named Katie Smith already gives you the idea that she doesn’t need such adjectives. Am I falling off the point? I feel that my challenge is not because I am Latina, but because of the subject I write about and how I portray my characters. I kind of leave whites in a shadow, except perhaps for one character, throwing all the stereotypes on them while I attempt to bring forth many other cultures and ethnicities.

Chris Campanioni: But you know, as Nelson sort of suggests, this kind of stuff happens all the time and the best thing to do is put your nose in your notebook (or laptop) and keep writing. Writers have egos and they like those egos stroked, even and especially if it’s the other writers doing the stroking. The literary world can often feel like a big dick-swinging contest (and the metaphor is not without its gendered implications: by and large, women are ignored but that, too, is improving) where writers would rather antagonize one another than coordinate, collaborate, and create a meaningful dialogue. The basis of this, I think, is some manufactured idea of “fame” in the world of letters, whereas several others are writing because we have to survive. Write or die.

J.M.: Would you all say the literary world is eating alive it’s most promising writers?

Chris Campanioni: I think the literary world is filled with sociopaths—like any other industry—except in the literary world, it seems somehow worse because this is art that is at stake, not making a profit for some stranger you’ll probably never meet. Anyway, I agree with Charlie’s point here, and Latinos, perhaps more so than other minority groups, tend to polarize one another through various lenses (whether linguistic, thematic, or even appearance: “They don’t look Latino enough to me.”). I mean, in the end it can sound quite funny but of course it is anything but. The issue with “Latino lit” is only that Latino lit as a genre is so sprawling; Latin America is comprised of 21 countries, each with very distinct traditions, interests, histories, slangs and dialects. But readers and writers and editors and agents—some of whom are Latino, too—expect a formula, and very often, ignore or criticize the work if it doesn’t meet these expectations.

Rich Villar: Consider this: every year, institutions purporting to speak as national cultural arbiters spend their time doing things like reviewing books, or having conferences, or doing book clubs. And every year, somehow, they manage to miss Latin@ authors. The New York Times managed to produce an all-Anglo reading list this past summer. So, as writers of color, of course we must push back against it. The internet is good for that. It’s a democratizing space: Charlie brings up Julio Ricardo Varela, the #LatinoLit hashtag, and Latino Rebels. I have been fortunate to be able to champion my causes on high-visibility online spaces like Latino Rebels, George Torres and Sofrito For Your Soul, and Denise Soler Cox and Project Enye. I’ve also worked with Tony Diaz and Librotraficante, in an effort to reverse book bans (yes, we still do that here), as well as the trend against ethnic studies in the United States.

J.M.: What about the content itself? How do we stand out?

Rich Villar: Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics lays out a useful graph documenting the possibilities for visual iconography, from pure text to pure representation to pure abstraction. I read this book in high school, reread it in college, and it changed a lot of how I view my own work as a poet. I started looking to the visual, how lines are shaped, how breath is represented on the page. Which then led me to explore certain poetic theories: William Carlos Williams and the variable foot, E.E. Cummings and Papoleto Melendez and concrete poetry, the idea of poetry being a visual art. Which, in turn, led me into Sekou Sundiata and Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres and the possibilities for spoken sound as poetic line.

In poetry, there is music, there is silence and sound juxtaposed into lines, and of course this translates most easily as theater. There is Shakespeare, of course, but there is also Ntozake Shange and Reg E. Gaines and Lemon Andersen and Rock Wilk and so many theatrical poets doing what they do. And what of prose? Look—if you read Junot Diaz or Ana Castillo or Luis Urrea or Sandra Cisneros, you can literally read color, texture, movement. So it’s no surprise when these books become movies, and poems become plays—the text so naturally lends itself to the visual. (And Shange invented the form to describe it—choreopoem.) And of course, none of this is an accident. We live in a cinematic culture, an eyes-first culture, a culture of instant information, and French New Wave style jump cuts and extended camera shots, and fast pacing and editing. Of course our literature will reflect that. Let’s hope we’re producing a generation of writers who are self-reflective enough to recognize the commonalities in the critical vocabulary among these genres. What to show and what to conceal in service of the narrative. Let’s encourage writers to be brave enough to cross into the visual arts entirely, and visual artists onto the page. It would be a return to the root. Is the Latino community equipped to lead it? Of course they are. But the thing to realize is that text and visuals and sound have always been interrelated. We’re only now reawakening to their existence on the same iconographic plane. And incidentally, Pablo Neruda read to 100,000 people on more than one occasion. Is it too much to ask for a Latino poet to fill a soccer stadium?

J.M.: There are structural challenges as well as internal ones, then? And it sometimes falls into place along tribal lines, no?

Nelson Denis: Latino Lit in the US is in a state of atherosclerosis.  Nothing is moving.  The “icons and shibboleths” are all in place:

Down These Mean Streets

Our House in the Last World 

House on Mango Street 

In the Time of the Butterflies

Dreaming in Cuban

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Bless Me, Ultima

I see a pattern here. If you break down our Latino rainbow (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, etc.) you’ll note that one and maybe two from each country (only 4 countries) make it into the above group.  The publishing industry is so myopic, they think so categorically, that if a new Latino-American writer offers a story that is deeply-rooted and narratively circumscribed by their country of origin, the junior acquisitions editor says “oh, we already have one of those” and finds an excuse to pass.

Meanwhile the senior acquisitions editors are throwing the big money at Isabel Allende, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Raul Alarcón (U.S. hybrid, but “writing Peru”)—all Latino authors from outside the US, which shows a blatant snobbery and racism: European and South American authors are “high brow,” but US Latino authors are ghetto underlings, and couldn’t possibly have anything to offer.

The same thing is happening with Latino film directors: practically all Mexican, born & bred over there, not here.

Rich Villar: I think this is a destructive mindset that is born from a marginalized, colonized perspective. The Oppression Olympics. The Authenticity Maze. The relative slice of the literary representation pie is not large enough for Latinos to start fighting over. I don’t know which Latino group “dominates” who. (The question makes us sound like we’re all battling for literary supremacy in the octagon.) But, here’s what I do know: Magdalena Gómez and Raúl R. Salinas were friends. Miguel Algarín and Jimmy Santiago Baca as well. Throughout his career, Martín Espada has been allied with and championed by Chican@ writers from Luis Urrea to Gary Soto to Luis Rodríguez to Sandra Cisneros. And Pietri and Papoleto and the Nuyorican poets were honorary members of Jose Montoya’s and Esteban Villa’s Royal Chicano Air Force in California. In other words, we have always been our most successful as a literary movement when we make an inclusive Latinidad, when we seek out comrades and commonalities and write ourselves into a soulful and (yes!) legendary existence. This is why the Acentos Review literary journal does well, not to mention poetry workshop spaces like CantoMundo and La Sopa NYC.

Chris Campanioni: Good writing will always be the writing that has been lived in. Another way of putting this is to admit the obvious: write what you know, but many writers, young and old, forego life experience for an MFA program and crippling loans. In this way, our topics are inevitably Latino because Latino represents multitudes, sort of like my man Martí said:  “Yo vengo de todas partes, y hacia todas partes voy.” Do we follow orders and the rules of academia or the broader literary culture while forgetting our own personal stories? Or do we use the specific pressures and expectations Jonathan suggests are in place for Latino writers as an opportunity to circumvent or re-evaluate them?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: Unfortunately, Latinos in this country are seen as being at “the bottom of the rung” due to the prejudice and ignorance of decades of stereotyping this group. We are seen mostly as people who clean houses and are only good for gardening, which although it is a hard-working core group, the majority of people look at this as demeaning work. In addition, you see the statistics of Latinos not graduating from high schools and many gangs being associated with Mexicans or Latino groups. Americans, especially white Americans, paint us all with the same brush stroke.

How do we change this? It comes from us continuing to ensure that we as well as our offspring become educated, and we continue to fight to get into the mainstream. This comes from all Latinos working together to make this change because no matter how much infighting there is between our Latino groups because we are from different countries or from different Latino Sectors, the mainstream lumps us all into one. We haven’t yet gotten to the cohesiveness that the blacks have been able to achieve in this country.

J.M. Ricardo, so many of us are Caribeños here, give us the Mexican perspective.

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: It is characterized by hierarchies, bureaucracy, institutions. Mexico remains a centralized country, therefore resources are concentrated in the capital city. Writers from Mexico City act like if they were the only source of literature. Publishers bet on big names so it is very common for northern writers to seek to write in english. It is also very competitive; there is a belief that only foreign (mainly European) literature has quality and you as a Mexican should not try to be original. I guess you can say it is the culture of “crab” when a crab tries to get out of the bucket and another one pulls him in until it falls.

 J.M.: Is there any government support?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is support but there are several points against. You have to adapt your writing to a particular literature whether local or regional. Universal themes are rarely allowed. Groups of artists are usually privileged when they have a relation with coordinators. The same writers are competing for the same grants and awards but not able to make a living by selling their books. If Mexico is a country with “poor reading” in the north the crisis deepens. There is a perception that art is an obligation of the government to provide.

J.M.: How is the community of writers though?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: There is a community of writers trying to do things differently but writers tend to be competitive here. I would say that the writer here is individualistic, jealous of his work. I think the best talents are not yet known in independent publishing, underground literature, drowning their poetry in a glass of beer.

J.M.: David and Ricardo, what can individuals or local groups do to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors?

Ricardo Félix Rodriguez: I see it as some kind of reading crisis. People are not used to reading; we need to find the way to promote reading. Through education, raise the cultural background of the average citizen.

David Caleb: In Puerto Rico, in order to increase opportunities for up-and-coming authors, there needs to be an educational revolution starting from the way up and the way down at the same time. First and foremost, the Department of Education must be depolitized. It needs to be flattened and entirely professionalized. There simply is no other way. Teachers need to be sent to reading seminars and there should be a reading course in all grades.

We see close to no state aid whatsoever in our endeavour. Most of our boom has been subsidized by ourselves. Most of the people publishing books are self-managing themselves. It’s a pity, in a way, that such an amazing body of work cannot be entirely supported by the government. However, we have grown used to it. Puerto Rican writers are used to being disenfranchised and orphaned.

That’s as far as the government goes. Now there is a small grassroots movement (everything in PR is small and grassroots) of theatre producers using material from Puerto Rican narrators and poets to make theatre, but this effort needs to be exploited much more. Also the literary scene is too concentrated in San Juan.

J.M. It seems like the problems both inside and outside the US are as much social as they are financial. There is the problem of a lack of interest in reading alongside the problem of marginalization in the media and/or geographically. What solutions might there be?

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The second biggest challenge that many Latino writers face is marketing their books once they are published. I find that many authors don’t even have webpages or understand much about the internet and how to market their books through this venue which is the greatest tool in this day and age. Many do not understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or Google Analytics and how to make these particular tools work for them. By accurately understanding these tools, the way an author writes would not necessarily be a challenge once a writer figures out his or her niche.

Rich Villar: What is it Dead Prez said? “When you bringing it real you don’t get rotation/unless you take over the station.” What’d Jay-Z say? “I’m the new Jean Michel/surrounded by Warhols.” Opportunities exist for writers all over, if you search for them. Grants. Fellowships. Speaking gigs. Freelance writing and editing. That sort of stuff. Here, in the States, that kind of support is not always present, certainly not the same way it’s present in other countries. Here, it’s not an easy life. You have to hold down a 9-to-5 most of the time. At the same time though, I also try to be wary of those places of support that require you to be content inside a particular box, or to be beholden to a particular power structure. That’s why I identify with the hustlers among us poets; yes, we create good textual work, but we also find new ways to express it—on stage, in movement, in visual art, in music, in multiple genres. That’s where my work is taking me. And the freelance life is not easy, but I don’t answer to anybody but my mirror.

I’ve noticed a tendency among younger writers to put the marketing cart before the writing horse. I think the biggest mistake any writer can make is to start thinking about a platform for themselves, or where they’re going to tour, or how much product they’re going to move, before they’ve ever set pen to paper or finished a full poetry manuscript or fleshed out their novel or their memoir. There are so many directions to take within the world of social media, but none of it matters unless you actually have something to say.

These are questions about finding audience, not finding voice. I would tell writers who come into my circle to read and listen and absorb and learn for as long as humanly possible. And then, they should write voraciously and mess things up and take chances. And then, once they have a style they feel their strongest selves in, once they have built a genuine vision for the world, they should write the kinds of prose and poems that scare the shit out of the powerful and thrill the everyday reader. And then they should open up Twitter accounts. It’s needed. This is an age in which Latinos are being banned and deported and threatened and killed off. We need the kind of visibility that changes hearts, not one that simply turns heads. Good literature, followed by good marketing of that literature, will provide that.

 J.M.: In this age of such rampant exposure, where on the one hand, access to millions is at anyone’s finger tips, and on the other, the most important access, the access that helps you make a living are still shut off for the vast majority of people, how do we achieve equity, not just amongst Latinos, but other groups as well?

Rich Villar: The structural battle for cultural equity also leads to some specific artistic battles. Following in the tradition of Sterling Brown and Piri Thomas, I insist upon the truth of vernacular speech and Spanglish in my writing. I follow the transformative prose tradition of James Baldwin, the philosophical underpinnings of Nuyoricanism and the Black Arts Movement, and the truthtelling poetic traditions of Whitman, Neruda, Lorde, and Espada. I believe art is a vehicle for change, and I believe poetry humanizes. I also believe that poetry rooted in those liberatory urges, when taught to teens and young adults as part of a liberational pedagogy, helps form students’ notions of citizenship and citizen action. The cynics will tell you that poetry makes nothing happen. I am telling you, poetry creates possibility out of impossibility. It makes the invisible visible. And it turns cynical people —teens, especially—into leaders. I am eyewitness to that fact.

I’d like to think we’ve gotten better, but we squabble like any other family. My pet peeve among Latino authors is the silencing of others, the shutting down of debate. I think more gets done in any group dynamic when we’re honest about our feelings, no matter how detrimental it may seem at the time. I hate scenes generally. I hate people who think they’re better than others. And I hate grudges. If I have to sit and worry who I might be offending by saying something, or if I have to studiously avoid someone because he or she’s got some beef with me or someone close to me, it just complicates my life unnecessarily. And worse—it has nothing to do with writing. I can name these things honestly because I have also fallen prey to them.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry:  Unfortunately, the main publishing houses are based in New York, so for those authors that live in Mid America or in the West Coast, there are some challenges in getting to know who is who in the industry. The best way of course is to network and make connections within the publishing industry and that can be done by understanding the web and marketing yourself effectively. This is also a way to market yourself in other countries and locations. There are a few support systems that can be used for Latino Authors such as my site, The Latino Author, La bloga, Azul Bookstore in New York, Martinez Book Store at Chapman University in CA, Las Comadres, or the Latino Literacy which assists in giving out awards to Latino Authors in various genres. Connecting with these organizations can provide great support.

Chris Campanioni: Social media is one way in which writers can make these distinctions outside of their work but also adapt their work for new forms. The YouNiversity was originally conceived as a year-long digital mentorship for new era writers, a reaction to the recycled curriculum and check-listed objectives of many MFA programs in the United States and Europe. We’ve been really conscious about devoting a great deal of instruction to the powers—and pitfalls—of curating your digital presence as an author, as well as the work you produce, and finding interesting and exciting ways to present this material in new mediums by really taking advantage of capabilities that certain mediums afford us. The emphasis on several different forms of accessibility, audience contribution, and increased agency is the foundation for the kind of art that will become the eventual norm in the twenty-first century, so it’s not surprising that we urge our students to think about questions of reader inclusion and interaction from the opening weeks of each YouNiversity program. But to really turn social media into a tool for creativity instead of just regurgitation and masturbation, the cultural norms for social media have to change. That kind of work begins with authors like us, who need to start thinking about social media as another mode for creativity, not just for marketing.

J.M.: I have enjoyed this conversation immensely everyone, and to close things out, I want to know what you think is the future of Latino Lit, starting with Nelson.

Nelson Denis: So I see the “future of Latino lit” as one that is highly eclectic: still forcefully Latino, but in surprising, mercurial, even devious ways. We can’t lead with just one punch anymore… We need narrative surprises from multiple tropes, from all directions, and all at once. Latino Kurt Vonneguts and Henry Millers and Hunter Thompsons that defy easy categorization. I’ll offer one example: The Miniature Wife, by Manuel Gonzales. There is a Latino soul in those stories, and it adds to a sense of dread and paranoia… But he uses it like a blackjack. By the time you realize what’s hit you, Gonzalez has made off with your wallet and your pants. That motherfucker can write.

Between the snobbery of the latest Isabel Allende doorstop of a novel, and the mummified ruins of Mango Street, there’s no room left… Unless you make room for yourself, with a punch they never saw coming.

A new genre/sub-genre/hybrid genre or mash-up… A strange dystopian anti-hero… A shocking re-configuration of ancient Latino folk tales… Anything that knocks them off balance.  Anything that makes them suspect, if only subliminally, that they’re abysmally stupid (which they are), and you know something that they don’t—which you do, because you are Latino.

Corina Martinez Chaudhry: The future of Latino Literature, as I see it, is not only in the hands of Latino writers ensuring that good “stuff” is written, but also in being able to work together to change the status quo in this country about how we are perceived. Not to bring politics into the mix, but just look at the temperament of Trump followers and how he has risen in the polls because he began his campaign on bashing immigrants (who we all know means mostly Mexican or those coming from Latin American countries). He was not targeting the Canadians or those coming from “white” nations.

That is why publishers in the industry still have this narrow-minded view that Latinos don’t read or buy books. They think the majority of us aren’t interested in reading or education. Partly, the publishers don’t want to change what has been working for them to make their business successful. It’s not that we don’t buy books, but there are not true statistics of who really buys books. Someone writes about Latinos not buying books and unfortunately people see it as being true. Also, with so many mixed marriages in this country, you don’t even know who has Latino DNA so how would they really know? I was reading an article on PEW Hispanics about how Latinos perceive themselves in this whole mix of nationality and it was very interesting. Some don’t even claim to be Latinos because of how they were brought up although they are very much Latino. So where do these persons fit in those statistics?

There isn’t just one answer to where Latino Literature goes in the future, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long climb for most of us. It is a grassroots effort that is needed—beginning with writers such ourselves—to get the masses to change their thinking. How do we do this? First we write good literature, then we support each other to get to the next step whatever that may be, then we become great at spreading the message, and then we put pressure on the main publishing houses to begin promoting some of our great writers or we help other Latinos to start our own publishing houses and support each other. With so many millions of us in this world, we still continue to let “white” Americana tell us who we are.

I am optimistic though. I think that today we have so many Latinos who are successful, and hopefully with that it will cause some “reverse thinking” about who we are as a people overall. It is about not only loving our culture and our language and all that good stuff, but being smart enough to use it to our advantage and work together to get to the mainstream. If we don’t do this, then the future of Latino Lit will remain in the shadows as it does today.

Rich Villar: I would love for Latino Literature not to need to exist. I would love for the United States to begin implementing a pluralistic, multicultural vision of citizenship and for the stories of Latinos to simply take their natural place in the nation’s cultural conversation. Our numbers are, after all, expanding. But realistically, we live in a time when politicians are openly calling for our expulsion and exclusion from the nation. And people are actually taking them seriously. And so, a literature of resistance must emerge. A literature so undeniably good, and human, and innovative, and united, that it would serve as a collective shout and bulwark against our disappearances. If we receive “institutional” support for those efforts, if the mass media chooses to see us and feature us, I think we should welcome it. But if they don’t, or if they compromise us for simple visions of marketing dollars, I think it’s our responsibility to use as many new media and alternative models to support ourselves and demand our places, without permission or translation.

Chris Campanioni: I believe Latino lit—or at least Latino writers—will begin to get more representation, not only in the form of the year-end “best books of …” list, but also on the daily publication level. More editors of more magazines will be looking to publish Latino voices because they don’t have a choice. The quality of our writing, the diversity of our writing, and the sheer amount of Latino writers actively writing today will make the issue of lack of representation seem antiquated in five years. I think we might all agree, Latino writers have much bigger issues to tackle.

David Caleb: I want the literature of my country to head towards uncharted horizons. As a personal project, I am training students in non-fiction queer writing, in order to rescue the history of our island’s queer community, its struggles, its literature, art, music, political activism, and general history and culture. I am also training pansexual and lesbian female writers who will bear the torch in that particular niche. I want a future where every single genre is represented in the island. But more importantly, I want an island of readers. We will rescue and create readership.

Isandra Collazo: This may be a risky answer. But just like Puerto Ricans have been able to stand out worldwide in music, sports, art, cuisine, I guess would also like to see best-selling Puerto Rican authors on the New York Times best-seller list, in genres like fantasy and SciFi, romance, erotica, and fiction in general but perhaps less on the political subject, less colonial status discussion, and less of the past. I want to jump out of la carreta and get on a space ship, looking to the future. I’m not saying those subjects don’t matter, they are our daily bread. But I suppose I want Puerto Rican writers to be known for their creativity and incredible, explosive imagination, fantastic worlds and unforgettable characters, not just deep research.

A friend of mine who is an Assyrian artist told me that cultural or historical pride was meaningless if one didn’t create something. In other words, what’s the point of shouting, “Yo soy boricua, pa’ que tu lo sepas” (I am Puerto Rican, just so you know!) if I can’t add anything else to it? I understand we are on an eternal search for identity (I am, always!) but as a Puerto Rican writer, I want to put my Puerto Ricanness on diverse scenarios and worlds, not leave it in the comfort zone or where it feels at home.

—by Jonathan Marcantoni

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Jonathan Marcantoni

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and former Editor in Chief of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest, The Feast of San Sebastian, and Kings of 7th Avenue deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. Along with his solo novels, he also co-wrote, with Jean Blasiar, the WWII-fantasy Communion. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. His work has been featured in the magazines Warscapes, Across the Margin, Minor Literature[s], and the news outlet Latino Rebels.  He has been featured in articles in the Huffington Post, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), El Post Antillano, and the Los Angeles Times. He has also appeared in several radio programs, including NPR’s Fronteras series, Show Biz Weekly with Taylor Kelsaw, Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Have Their Say, The Jordan Journal, Boricuas of the World Social Club, and Wordier than Thou. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and an MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs.


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David Caleb Acevedo
(San Juan, 1980). Writer, painter and translator. His books include Desongberd, Cielos negros, Diario de una puta humilde, and Hustler Rave XXX: Poetry of the Eternal Survivor. He is pansexual and lives with his husband and three adorable cats.

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chrisChris Campanioni‘s “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize, and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and lives in Brooklyn. Embrace the Death of Art.

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corina-chaudhryCorina Martinez Chaudhry was born in New Mexico but has lived in California most of her life. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley throughout her high school years, but then made the transition to Southern California where she now resides. Her maternal grandparents were from Chihuahua, Mexico; however, her grandmother was half Basque (Spanish/French). Her paternal grandparents were of Mexican and Native American descent. She graduated from Vanguard University Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in English. In addition, she has completed a Water program through the California State University of Sacramento, alongside a Management Certification Program through Pepperdine University, and currently manages The Latino Author Website.

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Nelson DenisNelson Denis is the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans (Nation Books, 2015). He served as a New York State Assemblyman, and was the editorial director of El Diario/La Prensa in New York City.  His screenplays have won NYFA and NYSCA awards, and his editorials received the “Best Editorial Writing” Award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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isandraI.C. Rivera is an enthusiast of travel, international cuisine and everything exotic. She’s passionate about humanitarian work, and often volunteers at shelters and facilities for asylum seekers. Through her literary work, she aims to raise awareness on different social issues, by writing intriguing and exciting novels with a multicultural flavor.

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ricardoRicardo Félix Rodríguez  (Sonora, México 1975). Writer and psychologyst. His books include The surreal adventures of Dr. Mingus, Asgard: a Saga dos nove reinos, There is No Cholera in Zimbabwe, and The Other Side of the Screen (contemporary writers of Poland).

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charlieCharlie Vázquez is an author and the director of the Bronx Writers Center. He served as New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra for three years and has just completed his third novel.

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richRich Villar is a writer, performer, editor, activist, and educator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. His first collection of poems, Comprehending Forever (Willow Books), was a finalist for the 2015 International Latino Book Award. He maintains his personal blog at literatiboricua.com and is a contributor to Latino Rebels and Sofrito For Your Soul.

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Apr 042016
 

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This has been gathering momentum. I don’t know when the first person tweeted this quote — “A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it.” A year or so ago. Then it would bubble up occasionally. Some online writing coach would send it to subscribers and students. Then a month or two ago someone made an image out it. And then today some marketing content provider got hold of it, and suddenly it was all over Twitter on health, fitness, and, yes, weight loss Twitter feeds.

Obviously I have missed my calling. But now I see the light and NC is going to turn into a health & fitness advice and product site. We are already in the design phase for a line of clothing, also exercise devices, and sex aids. (The Numéro Cinq Midnight Rider is being tested as I write this. The ad copy will read something like: “Orgasmic bliss with the new Midnight Rider. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it — but no more! Also helpful for losing weight and general cardiovascular fitness.”)

I’ve even forgotten where the quote comes from. Either The Enamoured Knight or Attack of the Copula Spiders. So I had to look it up. And there it was on page 11 of The Enamoured Knight, in the section called “Love and Books, an Introduction”. It is possibly the shortest sentence in the book. Here is the whole paragraph so you get a sense of where the quote fits. The paragraph also contains a lovely aphorism on the difference between literature and pornography.

The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.

There are some long sentences here, not suitable for Twitter. I am going to have work on style.

dg