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rlandonRichard Landon—Photo: Rick/Simon

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In late 1988 I was hired to develop a series of year-long programs on current Canadian fiction for the Toronto radio station CJRT, now exclusively a Jazz FM station. The station had had an earlier program on Canadian fiction, but it was felt it was time to update as a new crop of writers had emerged, as indeed they had.

I drew up a list, I underwent a series of interviews and trial tapes, and I took a year off from my main gig, which was as a professor of English at a Toronto university. It was an intense year, 1988-89, both for professional and personal reasons, but my focus was the studio and an accompanying workbook for students who might want to enroll in a credit course connected to my programs, and we were off to the races.

Mavis Gallant was one of a distinguished company of writers and critics and visual artists whom I invited in to the studio to be interviewed.  Of course I wanted the writers to speak for themselves, but I also wanted to have others speak to them, and about them. I spent two days with Mavis Gallant in the fall of 1989, both in studio and in the city proper, but in the summer before I met her I interviewed Richard Landon (1942-2011), then Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, where Gallant’s papers are held.

I felt a conversation with someone who knew her work and also knew her would help me in my planned interview. Over many years of my reading Gallant, I had found her both intriguing and enigmatic. I hoped for some guidance and for some basis for comparison. I wanted to know about the contents of her “living” archives, that crucial period where an artist gets to make a choice about what is to be saved by deposit and thereby directs future commentary and research. And some of the questions which arose in this interview with Richard Landon would surface later in the fall when I spoke directly to Gallant herself.

Although most of her writing life had been spent in Europe, Gallant had been frequently in Canada. Richard Landon knew her well, and was also intimate with her work and of course her papers. He seemed ideal, both as a reader and a scholar, for an introduction to Gallant’s extraordinary talent and her working methods.

— Karen Mulhallen

 

July 27, 1989

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Richard, I’m looking at a xerox copy of a very brief note from Mavis Gallant. I don’t know when this note was written, it’s not dated, but it is something to do with From the Fifteenth District, Mavis Gallant’s collection of nine stories published in 1979. Toronto. What are these two xerox sheets I have in front of me?

Richard Landon (RL): This is a note Mavis wrote when she sent a batch of her papers to the Fisher Library. Her papers come in little batches and sometimes she puts in notes that are either explanatory or give critical comments from her on the material. Sometimes they are about who edited her work for The New Yorker, normally William Maxwell. This note is amusing, because one of the characters in the title story in From  the Fifteenth District is a social worker named  Alicia Fohrenbach who turned out to have a real life counterpart in the United States.

KM: What does she say in this note? Can you decipher it for me?

RL:From the Fifteenth District was written and published in 1978 and in it the name Alicia Fohrenbach was invented. I received several letters from a Doctor Alicia Fohrenbach in the U.S., a psychologist. These coincidences often arise and are tricky to handle. Luckily Dr. Fohrenbach was willing to believe that I had never heard  of her. However, as she had graduated from some institution called Regius, the coincidence was more than close. This is one of my favourite stories, but my readers were baffled and irritated by it. MG” The reference is to the hospital from which Mrs. Ibrahim is being discharged, which is called Regius  Hospital.

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KM: Yes, I see the passage, a little past page 165 at the centre of the collection, probably in all editions? It is curious, more than an odd coincidence. Writers are, I think, prescient. Do you think Gallant is sensitive to the possibilities of intuiting things. After all, one of the stories is about ghosts.

RL: I think she is. I don’t know that she would claim to be prescient in that way at all, but part of her technique is the accumulation of detail, which is one of the most impressive things about her writing, its precision. There is an easy recognition on the part of the reader of things you don’t normally think about. She describes people’s fingernails, small incidents, very precise details of a scene — I suppose the accumulation does somehow give a notion of prescience.

KM: In rereading the stories in From The Fifteenth District, I noticed sentences that didn’t seem to belong to paragraphs. And it’s just what you’ve said, all that detail by the end of a story is in many ways overwhelming. She does this too with metaphors.

I was looking at the opening story, “ The Four Seasons,” just at the end of the fourth section, page 28: “ ‘That’s not our property’ Mrs Unwin cried. The man said ‘You hired me and I am here,’ and kept on sawing.”

This is a scene where the Marchesa’s date tree has grown up again, and Mrs. Unwin is  feeling the perfume fumes from the tree are noxious and she has a successful court order against the Marchesa and her tree. The Marchesa has long ago left her garden and so in comes this local to cut down the tree, and he decides he will not just cut down the overhanging branches but will cut down the whole tree and he breaks through the fence. That’s why Mrs. Unwin says, “ That’s not our property.” Meanwhile in the scene we’re reminded of the chauffeur of the Marchesa. The Marchesa has fled before the coming Allied forces. Mussolini’s war activities are failing, so people are leaving the country as Hitler is failing. The Marchesa has fled because, despite her Italian title, she is an English woman. Her chauffeur hangs around the garden like an abandoned domestic animal.

The chauffeur had walked the Marchesa’s dogs, and on the road there is a convoy of army lorries moving like crabs on the floor of the ocean. You think my goodness what are these army lorries doing? And we haven’t seen him before. And why are the lorries described like crabs in the ocean. Then you realize that the whole story is shot through with these images of the sea, and the maid Carmela looks out to the sea and is afraid, and then she’s underwater. It’s such an accumulation of detail — the sea, the army, the Marchesa’s dogs, her chauffeur, all together. And yet that’s got nothing to do with the cutting down of the tree at the beginning of the whole movement.

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RL:  But it is not the sea as most people notice the sea; it’s quite threatening and boring, and is often described as a line on the horizon and as unattainable. There is always a road or a railway between them and the sea. It is this sense of alienation which they have by some kind of accident in a particular situation. They’re stuck. The Marchesa might get away, but no one else does.

KM: You know she got away because the story begins with her eating ice cream and anybody who eats ice cream in this story is going to get out some way!

RL: But the principle characters never get out. There’s a kind of universal rootlessness about many of the stories. The one that most affected me on rereading is called “Potter.” It’s quite long, one of the longer ones, about the Polish poet and lecturer in Paris and his American lover, Laurie Bennett, and his reaction to her going off with someone else.

It’s a more complete story in some ways because it has a movement of plot. Laurie goes off to Venice, he’s devastated, and a good deal of it is describing his reaction to her leaving. He then has his visa revoked — he’s lecturing in Paris — and at the same time she sends him a postcard telling him she is coming back. The end of the story is about him going back to Poland, from which he might never again emerge, whereas she thinks she’s resumed the relationship. It sounds a bit banal, but it’s the way it’s expressed that is extremely impressive. It’s quite haunting.

KM: What do you find impressive?

RL: Her observations about how people react to each other and to external forces, and even to the city of Paris, to the weather. It all has a real accuracy and is recognizable. You think that’s right, I would never have expressed that, but in fact, that’s how I might feel.

KM: And Mavis has the girl misspelling the word ‘separate,’ which really impressed me. This is the kind of girl who can’t spell in her love letters: “We’re seperating forever,” she says. And in another she described him as a “really sensative person.”

RL: Yes,  it’s those details..

KM …which are her talent?

RL: Yes, in a real way.

KM: Do you find alterations, revisions in the manuscript?

RL: I have here the first three pages of typescript of a story in From the Fifteenth District.  It’s pretty clean.

KM: Does she write long hand, does she type, does she word process?

RL: She mainly types and then corrects in holograph, that is by hand. She might write drafts, but what we get at the Fisher Library is essentially what is sent to The New Yorker magazine. It’s edited there and then sent back to her. So you get two kinds of marks, her corrections and the odd suggestion by an editor with the technical notes about how to set it for printing.

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KM: How did Fisher acquire these papers, which are an ongoing collection, aren’t they?

RL: Yes. It began when the University of Toronto invited Mavis Gallant to be Writer-in-Residence, in 1980, I believe. She wasn’t able to take it up then, but she did come in ’83-’84 as Writer-in Residence, living at Massey College. Shortly after she was invited she wrote to ask whether we would be interested in having her papers, which she wished to give to us, saying in one of the letters she strongly disapproved of writers selling their papers.

KM; That’s interesting, so she just gives them to you. That’s unusual.

RL: And, of course, there is no tax advantage for her either because she  lives in France.

KM: Do you have other writers who have simply given their papers?

RL: Josef Skvorecky, David Solway, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee.

KM: In all those cases, there are also tax advantages.

RL: Yes, they do get evaluated.

But obviously, for Gallant, this is a conscious decision. There is no particular association with Toronto, except that she remembered it from the 1950s. Not everyone’s fondest memory…! One would have imagined because she grew up in Montreal, went to school there, worked there briefly, before going to Paris, which was about 1950, that her Canadian association would be directly Montreal. She did explain that she objected to the Quebec language law and that sort of thing. I think she came to Toronto, was impressed by the city, because it had changed. It would be hard not to be impressed by the difference between 1950 and 1980.

KM: There were no park benches in 1950.

RL:  Right, and so she started sending, every once in a while, a little batch of papers. Mainly corrected typescripts, galleys, some correspondence, which relates directly to her work. Eventually I hope we will get her journals. She adapted her journals for articles on the 1968 disturbances in Paris, and I do hope to see more of them.

KM: So there are no letters, no personal papers, mementos?

RL: My impression is that whatever she decides to give us of that kind of material will be very consciously chosen. She’s not just going to scoop everything into boxes and send it. She will direct, in a way, future critical or biographical work on her.

KM: So an archive can be quite diverse. If you have six archives from six writers they could be quite different in composition. What is your impression of Gallant as a personality. She’s directed, careful, controlled, not only in her prose, brilliantly so, but as a personality.  Is she uniform, enigmatic?

RL: I found her fascinating. First of all, physically she’s quite beautiful and obviously was stunning when she was younger. She’s very direct and a bit quirky. She likes to ask questions that catch you slightly off guard.

KM: You’d like that!

RL: Yes, she asked me to lunch one time. Out of nowhere, in general conversation, she asked me, “What had the men of Canada done to women?”

KM: What did you say?

RL:  I said I didn’t feel I could take responsibility for every man in the country.

KM: What did she mean?

RL: She was asking what was wrong with the women. She’d been traveling around on a promotion for one of her books. Macmillan had sent her across the country on planes, trains, and so on, and she’d fallen into conversation with women. She asked them questions about what they did, how they were feeling, and she found most of them terribly depressed. and the cause seemed to be their relationships with men. So she developed this little theory that the men of Canada were oppressing women, in a kind of spiritual way. This was a new concept to me, and certainly the women I know don’t seem very oppressed. I think she was exploring something in her own mind. That’s another impression I have of her, that she was always exploring, thinking about things, and that someday parts of it would emerge, not this conversation particularly, but some aspect of it might very well come out in a short story. That was one of her methods of working; she talked to people; she listened to what they said, but she asked questions that elicited responses she thought would be interesting.

KM: So she’s one of those people who don’t shut the world out, who keep on processing?

RL: That was my impression. She could be great fun, funny, quite witty, very sharp-tongued. I went to a reading with her one time, she was terribly nervous before, although once she started the reading she was fine, and afterward we sat around and drank wine for hours, and she chatted with people, told stories; it was very amusing.  She got to interview [Maurice] Duplessis because she was so gorgeous. No other reporters could get in to a private interview with him. He obviously fancied her. Funny stories, like that.

She was very engaged with the students, with the junior fellows, when she was at Massey College. They were obviously very fond of her, and people talked to her a lot. She lived in college, and people would drop in and see her. I think she was somewhat less impressed with some of the other people she met around the university.

However, she also said she didn’t get any writing done, although when she’d come to be Writer-in-Residence, part of her plan was to finish her Dreyfus book which she’d been working on for years. She found she couldn’t do it, because her time was taken up or broken up. When people sent her things she read them seriously and commented. She took the job of Writer-in-Residence seriously, I think.

KM: Yes, I think she did. One of the writers I’m interested in and whom I’ve interviewed for these programs is Rohinton Mistry.  In fact he got his start the year she was Writer-in-Residence and sent her a story, one of his first, and she sent it to Leon Rooke who then published it in a New Press Anthology. That was perhaps Rohinton Mistry’s first publication, and after that he just took off. Within a few years he had a Penquin collection of stories, and so that was Mavis.

She’s one of the few writers I’ve heard of who has taken the Writer-in-Residence job with great seriousness. People are in and out of that job everywhere. I know Elizabeth Smart had a position out west and I think enjoyed it, but was not engaged in the way Mavis was. I know Graeme Gibson had a Writer-in–Residence position at the University of Waterloo and I understand he wasn’t very much on campus. It’s the kind of job where the writer decides how to do it.

RL: That was the first time Gallant had lived in Canada for any extended period. She is a Canadian citizen and comes back a lot and is very conscious of being Canadian. More of her books are appearing here and she comes for promotional tours as well. But she has chosen to travel.

At the University of Toronto she was here the whole year, so living on campus, was more engaged than someone coming onto a campus once or twice a week.

KM: Have you been to her home in Paris?

RL: I have never visited her, although I would like to. I am going there next month, but it being August I assume, like the rest of the French, she will likely have left town.

KM: I have been to the house of a friend of hers on the edge of the Marais, Joe Plaskett, who is a painter from Vancouver. There was a group of people who emigrated at the same time and Mavis is close to Joe. He lives near the Place des Vosges in a medieval house which is actually two yoked together. I think she lives not far from Joe. For these programs, I have also talked to Virgil Burnett, who’s part of that group of people. People came and went, but Joe and Mavis were two Canadians who stayed and gathered other people around them over the years. Why do you think she stayed in Paris?

RL: I don’t really know except that it suits her. She has, I think, a fairly highly developed sense of the advantages of a certain kind of isolation. If you live somewhere where you are comfortable, and she obviously is in Paris, but it’s not what you grew up with, it’s easier to investigate in a fictional way; it gives a kind of perspective. Most of her stories are set in Europe, often in Italy or France or sometimes Germany. She did publish that volume called Home Truths ( 1981), which was about Canada, but it still had that sense of distance. I think she finds it useful.

I read an article she wrote for a magazine, a description of Paris. It was in a series by various writers describing places they lived. Hers was very evocative, but it was mainly about Paris in the winter. It rains all the time, it’s dark. It’s only light from 9-10 a.m. Then it’s dark from 10-3 p.m. or grey, and then it’s really dark. The impression was of rain dripping on stone, greyness and the river. There are photographs too. There’s something that speaks to her from the city itself. Although I am sure she has been asked why she stays, I have never read or heard the real answer.

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KM: Did she not talk about being in exile when you spent all that time with her?

RL: I think she doesn’t consider herself in exile in the normal sense. She just considers herself someone who lives somewhere else, who did it deliberately when she made her career as a writer. She has been publishing primarily in The New Yorker, so her audience has been in the States and in Britain. From the Fifteenth District was reviewed as her emergence in Canada, but her books were not before then published here. The dust jacket quotes all of these Canadian writers saying how wonderful she is, so they all knew about her — George Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro and so on, but nobody else did.

But, of course, that ignores the audience of The New Yorker. She published her first story there, in 1951, I think, and virtually everything she’s written has appeared there since. The audience of The New Yorker is about half a million readers, and it’s international, not just Americans, and a good many Canadians. So in a sense she was recognized in Canada and  it is slightly surprising  that a publisher didn’t pick up her stories and collect them and publish them earlier.

The New Yorker connection is interesting. I have been mulling this over: Are you born a New Yorker writer, or do you develop yourself  in such a way that you’re a natural for The New Yorker. The manuscripts which I have looked at don’t have any evidence of The New Yorker imposing its famous style.

KM: Not from the sheets we have in front of us anyway.

RL: What is the influence of someone like William Maxwell or the other editors at The New Yorker, not just on Gallant but on a whole series of writers?

KM: Alice Munro? Woody Allen?

RL:  That’s right. Every time you read something by them you recognize that it reads like a New Yorker piece.

KM: It’s an important question. Writers perhaps unconsciously adjust for their market. I heard of Mavis Gallant  in ‘63 or ’64. She was introduced to me by Miriam Waddington who was from Montreal and knew Mavis. So I started reading her then, and, of course, I thought of her as a New Yorker writer. I was just a student, and just beginning to read those sorts of magazines. Do you think there is a New Yorker style, which Mavis fits into, or perhaps she has helped to create it, too?

RL: I think both those things are true.  When she sent in her first couple of stories, someone there recognized that here’s someone who writes  the kind of fiction that we’re identified with, that our readers want, and we should seize that, and they did. It is true that there are several writers who are so closely identified with The New Yorker that you don’t see them as publishing anywhere else.

KM: And Alice Munro as well. Is it the condition of alienation, when we think about these stories?

RL: Partly that, alienation often in terms of the stories themselves, in terms of the style. Part of The New Yorker style, to me, is that nothing ends, it’s soft.

KM: I was going to say that they wander off.

RL: That’s right, they sort of stop…

KM: Never mind Aristotle, down with Aristotle…

RL: Certainly Gallant has that, always enigmas at the end, so that it could could either way, and it’s strongly suggested that the way it is going to go is not the nice way.

KM: Something we were talking about earlier is detail. When you think about a New Yorker essay, whether it’s on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,  or tomatoes, or the rebuilding of Avery Fisher Hall, any New Yorker essay has more detail than any human being could possibly process. That seems to be to be a keynote of that magazine’s writing. And that also seems to me to be American. Like the social science novel. An American popular genre is so detailed so that people feel they get something for their money. In The New Yorker they get something for the time invested reading. They learn that tomatoes are gas-fired in upper Florida and so on. I think in most New Yorker fiction, including Mavis’s, the detail really serves the end of the story, but it is a feature of that kind of writing.

RL: Yes, sure.

KM: Do you think it is fair to say that’s an American contribution to 20th century writing — detail?

RL: I don’t know.

KM: You don’t have to go on record. You can back out…

RL: I don’t know about that, but the difference between non-fiction and fiction in The New Yorker is not that great. It’s recognizable as New Yorker stuff and her style suits that.

KM: Let’s talk about the two writers, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, who are very different writers, I think. Munro has a tremendous identification with and compassion for her characters. With Gallant there is a distance, she has them on a pin, or is looking through a glass.

RL: I think that’s probably true. With Munro you do feel her engagement with one character or another. With Gallant the relationships are unconsummated, people are observed  but what they are doing with each other often isn’t working either. Yet the descriptions are impressive.

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KM: Is there a moment in From the Fifteenth District where characters seem to connect with each other, or with the reader?

RL: In “Potter” they do. The Poles in Paris, like Potter, or Piotr and his cousin, Marek. The relationship is close but they don’t fully connect in the sense that everyone is coming or going. And the people who are really there are always described in terms of hanging around the cafes.

KM: …or the train station…

RL: Being there physically and being somewhere else mentally and spiritually is an aspect of her characters. What’s really going on has only a token amount to do with the physical circumstances. It doesn’t have to be Paris, except that obviously she can describe Paris better because she lives there. But she will describe in great detail small places in Italy, for instance, where presumably she has spent some time as well.

KM: The Italian Riviera, or the point where Italy and France come together, figures in her stories, doesn’t it?

RL: Yes, in fact that’s one of the points that’s made. How can you tell what is Italy and what is France? They speak French, but the signs are in Italian. Right now it’s part of Italy, but about 75 years ago it was part of France, and who knows what it might be in the future. This is part, I suppose, of European alienation. There is a whole series of countries which haven’t always been there in that form. It would be interesting to ask Mavis what she thinks of 1992 and the grand new Europe. I dare say she has some opinions about it.

KM: I’m sure she has opinions. I wonder what she thinks of Mrs. Thatcher!

RL: She does have very strong views about French politics, and I did talk to her a couple times about that, but always her view is a real Canadian connection, which is curious and amusing. She invented a persona for herself, the name I can’t remember, but when she hears something on the radio that involves Canada, or sees something on television, she phones the stations and asks to talk to the producers, and even politicians and sets them straight, as in that’s not what it’s like in Canada, that’s a wrong interpretation, you really should get this right. So, in a way, she’s a kind of unofficial Canadian conscience.

KM: A gazetteer?

RL: Yes. I think she enjoys that a lot and realizes probably that the French don’t listen very carefully. I don’t know that she’s had any real political effect, but it amuses her to correct them about what is really going on. During the 14th  of July parade she was on television with Peter Mansbridge describing it. A friend told me that a float went by that was meant to represent the French colonial period, and Canada had a small part of it, and she said, “That’s not right, it’s the wrong period.” Of course, Canada wasn’t a colony of France at all, and then CBC cut her off. I wish I had heard that comment. I wouldn’t think of Mavis Gallant as someone to describe a parade to you, but it was an inspired choice. I’m sure that what she said, or at least what they let air, was very interesting and pertinent. She observes the French in that way as well. She wrote quite a lot about the school teacher who had an affair with one of her students — was her name Gabrielle Russier, is that right?— she’s also been very much involved in researching a book on Dreyfus.

KM: That Dreyfus project has gone on for more than a decade, hasn’t it?

RL: A long time. It’s been imminent for several years.

CaptureDégradation d’Alfred Dreyfus” from Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustré no. 217, 1895 via Forward

KM: She’s working on archives, and letters and journals, isn’t she?

RL: And she met the daughter, who might not be alive now, knew her quite well.

KM: Let’s quickly review what happened in the Dreyfus case and try and put it in context. It’s in the 1890s in France and he was drummed out of the army as a Jew and imprisoned.

RL: And Émile Zola took up his case and wrote “J’accuse” and then Dreyfus was brought to trial and was released and then put back in prison.

KM: It was an enormous trial wasn’t it, with many transcripts?

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RL: It’s one of those grey scandals which the French cling to forever. A hundred years later, it’s still fresh. It’s been written about many times and there are at least half a dozen books in print.

KM: There’s a long essay by Sartre, and all kinds of people who try to come to terms with this event.

RL: I think to be a respectable intellectual in France, you must. Mavis has new evidence, has seen some new material, which suggests a new interpretation.

KM: Obviously, it’s an ongoing project for her and a sign of her membership  in an international intellectual community, which is also how I see other people’s engagement with the case. Do you think that is her motivation, or could there be more personal reasons for her being involved, interested?

RL: Well, at some basic level, she is doing historical journalism, and she was a journalist.

KM: So she’s not Jewish; she went to a convent school?

RL: In fact, those potted little biographies for her books always start by saying she went to 17 schools. The first one when she was four was a convent, and there were altogether 17 in Montreal and the eastern United States.

KM: Was she kicked out of them?

RL: Next time I see her I’ll ask her, why 17? There must be some story there. Her father moved around? She was a quarrelsome student? She must have approved the figure 17,  because it appears on everything.

KM: There are so many enigmas for me about Mavis Gallant:  the 17 schools, the rootlessness, which is paradoxical as she is very rooted in one city, which didn’t begin as her own, and her seeing herself as a Canadian. Her characters move around, and then there is the very specificity of her details, which contrast with the rootlessness of the feeling in the stories. And that’s true all through the collection From The Fifteenth District. And it is set in a very specific district, the 15th arrondissement. But the stories themselves are set all over Western Europe, and yet that title story is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake, characters don’t even live there. They live in “other space.” So there are all these paradoxes at work.

Obviously, she’s kept on writing and I think she’ll continue to surprise us. If she is engaged with the Dreyfus book and it gets finished, she is not only doing historical journalism but making her mark on intellectual history, which is what the Dreyfus case is really about, isn’t it?

RL: I think that’s probably true. How consciously she approaches that I’m not sure.

KM: I think that’s one thing you feel with Gallant’s work, her tremendous intelligence. You don’t necessarily move toward her, she’s hard on her characters, there’s not immediately a great sympathy, although there is ultimately compassion, and you feel her intelligence, and it’s admirable.

RL:  She makes many people nervous, I think, because she’s very sharp and bright, so people feel a little hesitant about meeting her, about what she’s going to say to them and will they feel they have something silly or stupid. She wouldn’t do that but people think she might. It’s that general feeling that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, that you ought to kind of watch it. When she’s talking to you, she listens carefully, and you need be conscious about what you say. Not because she’s going to write it into a story, but because she’s listening carefully, and she’s critical.

KM: Someone said something similar about Virginia Woolf, whom I’ve always assumed wasn’t critical, but listened very carefully. In Woolf’s time, they would say she was a person who could elicit your darkest secrets, and she would use them. Not against you, but they would be used. In that way she was dangerous, and I would think the same about Gallant. Writers are observers; there’s no doubt about that anyway. But certain writers could elicit your secrets and your wariness could make you blurt out things. And perhaps those things might in the end be used against you.

RL: I’ll always be careful what I say to writers.

KM: I’m delighted to hear that!

The papers Gallant is placing at the Fisher Library are not full of personal details, but you would think so much of the information in her stories comes about through her keeping notebooks about people, and then using these notes later. It’s exciting to think that her work comes out of a kind of memory repository, rather than something else.

RL: Well, she doesn’t keep things for the sake of having 97 boxes. When she gets a letter, I am sure she doesn’t keep it unless it matters.

KM: So the Fisher collection is small but important?

RL: Yes and it has been used and is likely to be used more. There is a book on her.

KM: Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant? I haven’t read it.

RL: Neither have I but we keep track of the people who use the collections and there’s already a whole file folder of people who have looked at her papers for one reason or another.

KM:  So a critic or a student will come and look at the papers, and then they’ll be able to deduce her working method among other things?

RL:  Yes, they might. I think anyone doing anything serious on her would have to be in touch with her, as you wouldn’t find enough in the papers, although it depends on what you are looking for. It’s a conscious archive, which I rather like, because it means a writer has taken some real responsibility rather than leaving it up to a curator or an archivist to decide at some point in the future what is to be saved and so on.

KM: You actually get rid of materials that people give you?

RL: No, no we don’t, but someday someone’s going to have to. The mountain of paper will become overwhelming to the point where someone will have to make real decisions and that probably won’t be me. Every writer varies so much, but it’s interesting, that someone so consciously forms her archive. So her archive is a little bit like her stories.

KM: I was going to say it sounds as if she is all of a piece. She’s a highly conscious and a highly responsible person. That certainly sheds a very important light on her, because I don’t think you know her as conscious or responsible from her stories, so some of these other things are very very important.  Thank you, Richard. I am very much looking forward to talking to Mavis Gallant next.

—Richard Landon & Karen Mulhallen

Richard Landon (1942-2011) was the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and Professor of English. He taught courses on aspects of the history of the book and bibliography for many years in the University of Toronto’s Graduate Department of English and the Faculty of Information. Among his publications are Bibliophilia Scholastica Floreat (2005), Ars Medica (2006), “Two Collectors: Thomas Grenville and Lord Amherst of Hackney” in Commonwealth of Books (2007), “The Elixir of Life: Richard Garnett, the British Museum Library, and Literary London” in Literary Cultures and the Material Book (2007), and articles in the History of the Book In Canada (2004-2007).

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. Douglas Glover edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and several of her poems have appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq.

 

 

Sep 032014
 

Bydlowska What Women WantPhoto Credit: Jowita Bydlowska

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I get up to close the curtains. Lit-up against this darkness we must look like a dinner-party diorama.

“I was cutting the umbilical cord and I just thought to myself, that’s it buddy, it’s all over now.” Rick laughs so hard the table shakes.

“What’s over?” Helen, his wife, says. She doesn’t look at Rick.

“Oh, you know. Life as you know it,” says my husband. “I’m kidding, Babe.” He smiles at me.

“Although there are many good things about it. Milk breasts,” says Rick.

Helen gets up and goes into the kitchen where she stands by the stove. I follow her.

“Do you have any cigarettes?” she says when I come in.

“I quit.”

I open small drawers punched into the kitchen furniture. Candles, string, tape, sunglasses, a Valentine’s Day card. You are my love and my life.

“The one fucking night we get to spend time with each other,” Helen says and shakes her head.

“There are old Marlboros in a drawer somewhere,” I say and find them. “He’s just drunk. They’re both drunk.”

“We should get drunk,” she says.

“Look what I found.” I show her the Valentine’s Day card. “He thought I was joking.”

“Were you?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

She lights her Marlboro.

I turn on the kitchen fan.

“My grandmother told me every woman wants her husband dead eventually,” Helen says.

“The black fantasy.”

“What?”

“The white is when you dream of your wedding.”

“That’s right.”

“’You’re supposed to just wait it out. It’ll turn. Secret to marriage.’ My mother.” I say the first part in my mother’s voice.

“Amazing.”

We don’t say anything for a while. We can hear Rick and my husband laugh in the other room. They are probably still talking about breasts. Milk breast. Breastfeeding breasts. Leaking breasts. Breasts.

“Are you trying to be writers again?” Helen says.

“He’s reluctant. He thinks it’s a waste of time now.”

“Oh. What an idiot.”

“I don’t know. He says, either you really do it or you’re just dabbling. Anyway, we plan to try again this summer. But it’s hard with Emily,” I say and think how there still isn’t anything I’d like to write about anyway. Maybe a children’s book, something about penguins.

Helen looks away, her face distracted. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

She turns on the tap and holds the cigarette underneath it.

“What?”

“This,” she points with her chin towards the dining room.

I put my arm around her shoulders and she leans her head against me. She smells of Marlboro. “Christ,” she sighs.

We go back to the dining room.

Back in the dining room, Rick says, “Genes. Helen’s second cousin gave birth to a retard. They call a child like that something else now, but let’s be honest, that’s what we all think when we look at a child like that. What?”

Helen’s eyes are closed.

I watch the candle wax slug slowly toward the tablecloth. I stick my finger underneath it like a child. The burn is pleasant, quick then it’s gone.

My husband shows his bottom teeth in a yikes-smile, “Bro.”

I’ve never heard him say that, bro.

“No, but really, bro. The wife’s brother, right? And the husband’s aunt? And yet, they still chose to go natural. What a legacy. All I’m saying is that genes are not always the best thing to preserve. There was an unusual aggregation of you know in their family.”

Rick sits back and stares at Helen.

I try to imagine him on top of me. I used to be able to but now I no longer can.

“Nina says you might try to write this year again,” Helen says. “What about the book that you were working on?”

“I’m looking at some cottages,” my husband says. “I’ve lost that manuscript.”

“No, you haven’t,” I say, unsure if he has.

“I have.”

“Well, write something new then. You should write about us,” says Helen.

“Write what?” I say.

“About him,” Helen says.

Rick says, “I don’t want to be written about.”

“You know how the saying goes, ‘If you don’t want to be written about, don’t have a dinner with a writer?’” Helen laughs.

“Not true. We would never write about our friends,” says my husband. “Anyway. Nobody’s writing anything. Maybe Nina is.” He tops our glasses.

Helen takes a big sip of her wine. “I would,” she says and stares at Rick. “I would write about my friends saying shitty things.”

“I wouldn’t,” I say.

I would.

“Why do you want to be written about anyway?” my husband says.

“I don’t really. I’m just saying we should be careful. Everyone should be careful around writers,” Helen says and laughs again.

“In that case, you have nothing to worry about,” says my husband.

“Good,” says Rick. “We’re so boring and predictable anyway.”

“You are,” Helen says.

/

Later that evening, my husband has sex with me.

I worry about our daughter coming into our bedroom, seeing us.

I wait for the break in thrusts, when he rests his body on top of mine, and I ask him to close the door.

He gets up and closes the door.

I turn off the light.

He lies back down beside me and runs his hand from my collarbone down to my thighs.

“Let’s just go to sleep,” I say.

“Sure. Whatever you like.” He kisses my neck. He pushes against me.

“I’m sleeping,” I say and help to put his penis back inside me.

He thrusts.

I fantasize about repainting our bedroom, the whole house. When he’s gone.

“Nina,” he whispers into my neck.

His body feels like heavy rubber on top of me. A rubber man. It’s not anything he’s doing or not doing.

He stops. “What is it?”

“I’m not feeling it.”

“Oh, baby,” he says as if I needed consoling.

“Sorry,” I say.

He kisses me on the lips; his tongue is aggressive. He grabs the back of my head in the way I used to like and he pushes himself further inside me staring hard into my eyes.

“How does this feel?”

I smile.

Lately, there have been a lot of articles about my husband raping me. Not about my husband specifically but about husbands who rape. The grey area of consent, the drunkenness, the middle-of-the-night inserting, this – what is happening right now.

I don’t feel raped. Many women are speaking up about it. The articles are asking women to speak up. But there’s nothing to talk about. It’s only biology. Traditional marriage: women belonging to men. We sleep next to men with our vaginas right there. What do you expect?

I’ve never stopped him before and I never would. I am not traumatized. I don’t interpret the sex in a negative way because magazines suggest I should. The articles are horseshit.

He is done now.

He wipes his cum off of my thighs, lovingly.

It is moments like this, of tenderness, that are important. I collect moments like this now because every little bit counts, every good thing between us is precious because there are so few of them.

*

Before I had my daughter, I went to Mexico with my father for an All-inclusive vacation.

It was there that my father told me about his father who moved his mistress into the house while the rest of the family was on vacation. Because of that my father as a young boy was homeless for two months and lived in a motel.

That’s why, he said, as if his past was enough of an excuse to explain what he had done to my mother, why he’d left. But it was okay; I didn’t care. We were all grownups now. I had my own life to fuck up.

On our vacation, we swam and sun-tanned on the beach during the day.

In the evenings at the resort, I watched my father take photographs of the local girls dancing in sequined costumes on the stage.

You could see their nipples through the cheap fabric. The girls were beautiful – young and with black hair, dark skin.

There were free drinks everywhere. Everything smelled and tasted of coconut.

On Christmas Eve, a band entertained the tourists in the cafeteria. Jingle Bells and Holy Night.

A young woman dressed as the Virgin Mary sat on a roll of hay and held the beach ball under her robe beatifically.

There were live chickens and rabbits and a donkey. At one point, one of the chickens escaped the enclosure and ran around the cafeteria.

My father got up and chased the chicken with the other tourist men.

A young guy from the band caught the chicken.

It’s Pedro he always does this. He laughed.

The guy’s English was perfect, I thought, just a little bit of an accent.

The reason why I was on an All-inclusive vacation with my father was because I needed to decide if I was going to leave my husband.

I decided yes.

/

He was picking us up at the airport and when I saw him, I felt nothing. He was just a guy picking us up at the airport.

He drove my father to the train station. My father was going back to Montreal where he said he lived with a woman, not anybody I would know.

My father told the story about the chicken, how he caught the chicken.

Before he got on the train he hugged me and whispered in my ear, I never stopped loving your mother.

It sounded like a bad line from a movie. It upset me but I said nothing, just hugged him back.

On the way to our house, my husband talked about how much he missed me and how a houseplant died and how he replaced it so I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but he had felt guilty about it, which is why he was telling me.

I thought about how I didn’t want him to talk. Or how we shouldn’t talk about houseplants because we needed to be in a serious mood. How the shyness of seeing each other at the airport was a good prelude to seriousness and how he was ruining it now with his chatter.

But I said nothing.

After the plant story, he talked about something else, some product launch he attended or a gallery opening. Jokes, who he saw, who got drunk and sloppy.

At home, I unpacked all the sand from my suitcase, and he came up behind me and put his hands around me.

I moved his hands and wrapped them around my neck.

I pressed my back against him.

He said, Whoa.

Whoa, I said.

He said, You smell of coconut.

Tighter, I said.

He did it tighter.

Tighter.

I wanted to feel actual pain, bring myself back to him. But he would never squeeze as tight as to hurt me.

I wanted him to. I wanted him to be someone else – a guy who could hurt me.

—Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016.

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Sep 022014
 

sarah micSarah Clancy

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When asked to contribute poetry to Uimhir a Cúig I was enthusiastic, but on reading the second part of the request, namely that I might also provide a few thoughts on slam or performance poetry in Ireland I grew a little more hesitant. With thoughts of writing this commentary and of my own reluctance to be categorised I conducted a brief and very unscientific survey on my Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask various writers and performers what they thought performance poetry actually is in an Irish context. The overwhelming trend in response was a rejection of the definition of ourselves as purely performance poets or ‘slam’ poets. Many of my fellow writers indicated that the difference between page and ‘performance’ poetry was whether or not our work was memorised and performed to an audience, and for me that is nearly as narrow as classification of performance poetry in Ireland can go.  I don’t particularly want to get into the much-flogged-hackney debate about which form of poetry is more poetic, nor do I want to go over the much-mentioned or mis-mentioned role of spoken poetry in Ireland and literature’s history. Instead I’d like to tease out (with the help of all the people who gave me their opinions) what performing poetry is like here and some of what (other than the obvious) divides and unites the page and stage methods of delivery.

It is irrefutable that a writer personally delivering their work in public has a whole range of what I’ll call emotional manipulation ‘tricks’ at their disposal if they chose or learn to use them:  they have their physical presence, they have their tone of voice, eye contact or lack of it, they can dictate the pace of the poem, insert poignant pauses and depending on how their appearance or manner engages the audience they can add layer after layer of meaning, wit or irony to words that are absent if, as with traditional printed poetry, a quiet reader sitting alone has to interpret a piece unaided. Conversely though, as someone who was dragged around to literary events from a young age I heard many readers, poets in particular who were terrible, terrible readers of their own work and whilst I forgive some of them – (the ones who were nervous or who really wished not to be in the public eye) there was frequently a type of soul destroying reading where the hefty profound pauses between words and thick silences supposedly laden with meaning at the end of each utterance presented poetry as some type of Latin mass to which some people had access and the rest of us never would.

These type of readings now seem to be an endangered species however (thankfully), and I put this down to the good influence of a whole gang of poets who are interested in both the written and performance aspects, particularly the ones who encourage other writers (people such as Kevin Higgins, John Walsh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press, Stephen Murray, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith) These ‘crossover’ poets (and writers) are threateningly at-large on the small literary circuit here at the moment. For any writer going off to do a public reading there’s a great risk now that you might be faced with being billed with Kevin Barry hamming  his way through a variety of his character’s voices, or with the fury and passion of Dave Lordan unleashing his vernacular poetry or ‘frags’ upon you, or with Elaine Feeney’s warm demeanour tricking you into thinking you are in safe hands before she launches into the creative and fearless deconstruction of everything middle Ireland holds dear from the GAA to the catholic church, you might find yourself lulled by Billy Ramsell’s Cork accent and mesmeric voice as with limitless ambition for what language can be made to achieve, he tries to describe music more musically in words than the music can describe itself in notes. If like me you are totally prudish about hearing sexual exploits described in public, you might find yourself squirming beside our adopted Canadian Dimitra Xidous as she takes a totally un-Irish relish in describing her own and others genitalia and how they might combine in a range of inventive ways mostly related to food. There are many other poets just as impressive and engaging that I could and should include here for mention but those will be enough to indicate that in Ireland, the notion of performing your poetry or writing is by now firmly ensconced within the literary scene rather than an outside element. Perhaps it was always like this and I just went to stuffy readings? Several of  the writers mentioned above are award-winning ‘page’ poets who have published collections of their poetry as well as being performers (except for Kevin Barry who is an award winning short story writer and novelist and Dave Lordan who is a playwright and prose writer as well as being a poet).

Whilst there are exceptions to every bold statement I might make about performance poets in Ireland, you will see from the above that it is safe to say that a lot of the poets here who regularly or irregularly perform their poetry are, at the very least as concerned with their written, published work as with their performances. I am even going to hazard a foolhardy statement and say that for the most part even in ‘competitive’ performance poetry in Ireland as represented by long-running annual events such as the Cuirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam Championships, the North Beach Nights Series and the All Ireland Grand Slam Championships (which feeds qualifying candidates through from events held in each province of Ireland) the successful poets[1] seem to owe more to traditional lyric or narrative poetry than they do to rap or hip hop or the influence of the Beat poets, as seems to be the case in other perhaps more culturally and ethnically diverse countries.  We seem here too, to have less of the ‘confessional element’ that I have seen and heard in popular spoken word from North America. Yes we have lots of people with poems about gender and sexuality and politics and bullying etc. but generally here to be successful in competitive events or well received at the others, people’s personal experiences need to be put through a spin-cycle of imagination and deflective imagery that I haven’t seen evident in competitive performance poetry from the US or Canada. This is also the case in many social settings in Ireland though; we are not generally straight or forthright talkers about emotional issues.

For context, a word or two about my own stance on things; I am often described as a performance poet and I vary between being amazed that anyone would call me a poet at all and between being unhappy with the restriction implied by the label. I started to pay proper attention to my own desire to write creatively in around about 2009, and now five or six years later, a relatively short time in the life of a ‘poet’, I have had two full length collections of poetry published and have another one The Truth and Other Stories due out this month. I am not making any claims for the merits or standard of my various emissions – that’s something any interested others can assess as and when they want – what I am saying is that for someone who gets variously described as a slam poet, a spoken word poet or a performance poet (even by my own publisher) I have actually published more written or page poetry than many people who are described as poets without any of the various prefixes attached, and sometimes if I am in that kind of humour, I wonder why should be the case.

In my own writing, I don’t consider the page and performance poetry as separate things and I don’t generally consider which arena or form I am writing for at all when I sit at my computer or scribble in a notebook. I write very instinctively and sometimes when I am finished I find that I have captured something in a way that I like, and sometimes I haven’t.  In the latter case I usually delete it. The ‘finished’ poem then, if it survives my delete button, will sometimes be a piece that lends itself particularly well to the immediacy of performance in public, but in fact if I have written a poem that to my own standards is one to keep then even if it’s not a performance ‘hit’ it should almost without exception, be able to be read or performed aloud in a way that maintains its rhythm and meaning. This does not mean that I’ll necessarily perform the poem in public; what it means is that if it sounds wrong, awkward or uncomfortable when I read it aloud to myself then I haven’t finished it, and I need to adjust or rewrite or rethink whatever lines jar either on my tongue or in my ear.

Speaking personally again, for me if a poem is to be effective in a noisy bar or other public space filled with the circulating thoughts and movements and concerns of others it needs, in some way to be able to claim and own that space. It’s a mistake though to think that performance poems need to be strident or obvious or raucously funny. Often a quiet, eerie poem can silence an audience much better than a more in your face piece.  In a lot of cases with poetry-performed-out-loud-in -public when the performer is doing a whole set rather than just one piece they can usually establish a connection with the audience by presenting some familiar or accessible work and in doing that they can in a way ‘earn’ the right to have more complex or less immediate pieces heard, and in this way anything, even the most obscure or un-crowd pleasing poems, can be aired without losing the engagement and energy that comes from connecting with an audience.  This all sounds weird perhaps, but if compared to a singer songwriter or a band it’s very familiar to us: they play a few old favourite or hit songs or even a cover version (the crowd pleasers) then they play their new material to introduce it to their fans, they let it sit and then they’ll play a few more hits to send everyone off satisfied. This works in performance poetry too. If you’ve gained an audience’s trust and attention they’ll come with you to places they wouldn’t necessarily chose to go by themselves.  I have no proof of this, but I suspect that sometimes when a performance goes well you can get an audience to engage with a poem they may have skimmed over or not bothered to read in your book.

William Wall a novelist, poet and friend who responded to my Facebook question pointed out that for him the flip side of the range of ways a performance-poet has of communicating through poetry is a slight over-determination. In some cases the reader or the audience is told what to feel about the poem, often in no uncertain terms and so the ambiguity or the space for a reader to interpret or respond to a poem themselves, (which is perhaps one of the chief defining criteria of a piece of art) can sometimes be lost or diminished. In terms of detailing differences between the page and stage forms, I think this is a valid point; that page poetry may well retain a capacity within its ambiguity to access the sublime in a way that is very rare in ‘performance’ poetry.

The first two poets I ever saw give what I would call a ‘performance’ of their work in public were Rita Ann Higgins and Maighread Medbh. Both of these poets and those first performances I heard are useful to put the theory of performance poetry as overly-deterministic to the test.  That both are woman is not a coincidence; some of what struck me about both events (which took place some years ago) is how unusual it was or unfortunately still is, to have woman claiming and occupying stage space for their own work on their own terms.  I am not sure how Medbh would self identify if we asked her to classify herself poetically, but I do know that Rita Ann Higgins does not claim membership of any ‘performance poetry’ sub or supra strata in Irish poetry.

Despite the fact that I mostly agree with Wall’s point regarding the narrowing of creative ambiguity when poetry is performed, I’d have to make an honourable exception for Maighread’s work, which certainly keeps one luminous eye on the  sublime. I first saw her perform in the quiet reserved venue of Galway City Library during one of the Over the Edge Series of readings run by Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar Du Mars and she took the space at the front of the room and through presence, energy and movement as well as through the intensity of her poetry created a charge and a level of discomfort amongst the audience that fascinated me- this was not consoling poetry.  I didn’t and still don’t find her poetry immediately accessible. On the page or computer screen I find her work resonant and deeply unsettling but each time I have watched her in the flesh performing I have been moved and impressed by her bravery. Hers was a performance of poetry that blew space open rather than summarised or encapsulated any particular event or experience.

Staying with that point about the possible loss of ambiguity in performances or readings it is worth looking at some of the ways a totally deterministic performance of a poem is in itself (or can be) an act of imaginative creativity. For me a fine clear example of this was that reading by Rita Ann Higgins some years back (I think it took place at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature).

In a crowded room filled with the type of people who attend literary festivals (myself included) she read her poem ‘Some People’. She left no wriggle room for anyone listening, it was her poem, her hook and us her audience were on it.  The poem begins:

Some people know what it is like
to be called a cunt in front of their children

It then continues to describe a litany of demeaning, horrible and sometimes absurd things that some people and their children know before finishing in magnificent understatement:

and other people don’t.

The closing lines and in fact the silence that lingered after them perfectly captured the unbridgeable gap between the majority of her audience and the people who the poem speaks about. As a member of that audience I had no doubt at all that I was one of the ‘other people’.  In this case the poem in question also works brilliantly on the page but it works there in a way that is different from hearing it read aloud in public:

In public it is a direct, confrontational and political act, an intervention in polite discourse.  For a woman to stand on stage at a civilised poetry reading and say the word ‘cunt’ in the way it is used in this poem; as an insult hurled at a woman in front of her children is not business as usual. Right from the off we were far, far out of our comfort zone. The impact of the physical presence of a woman writer standing there and using either her own personal experiences or witness, and her willingness to be personally publicly identified with the demeaning experiences she describes is immeasurably greater than the effect of the words on the page alone.

On the page parts of the poem are amusing, striking and inventive, but performed, in person they are devastating.

The reason I highlight this particular poem is to point out what I see as something vital in poetry that is performed and that is that it necessitates a willingness on the part of the poet to be personally identified with what they have written.   In my experience in effective or good performance poetry there is no dispassionate distance available to the poet because it is that distance (which IS available as an often effective device within page based poetry) that will diminish a performer’s chances of connecting emotionally with an audience.  Even if performance poems are not autobiographical in any strict sense, when they are performed by their writers themselves the creative aspect of the writer’s personality is being demonstrated in a physical public space and that in itself is an intimacy that the remoteness of the covers of a book can help to shield us from.

To a large extent (and possibly a matter for me to take up with my psychologist rather than here) most of my own public interactions in any sphere are performative but what causes me stage fright and nervousness quite often is that in performance poetry even if I am not the ‘speaker’ in any particular piece and even if, as is usually the case my poems are not a verifiably true reportage of anything that has actually happened, every time I stand there and perform one of my own poems, I am exposing my own vulnerable creativity and allowing it to be linked back to my own physical presence, my actual body and voice and demeanour while I stand there on the spot.  For me that is the best thing about performing my own poetry and for me that is the horror of performing my own poetry.  Whilst having a book or a poem published is hugely thrilling to me it is something that happens at a distance, whereas performing is hyper-personal.  In one final point it is worth mentioning that like most writers I know, the making public of my writing either in performance or in a publication (or on Facebook which is my bad habit) is actually a side effect. What I am actually addicted to (other than reading which is my first love) is the act of writing, the excitement of inspiration and moments of realising that inspiration into something that didn’t exist before I wrote it and hopefully each time into something that doesn’t mimic what I have written before. Yehaw, that’s what that feels like.

—Sarah Clancy

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For Lazarus, whose alarm clock is ringing
For Elaine

In the terminal’s time warp the sun-on-glass glare
and the lack of appropriate places to sleep
have me left bug eyed and pacing static-filled corridors
that send sparks through my fingers and hair
when I touch things (or if I touched things) and I’m thinking
of how we came to be each others others and
how it is that people like us come to mean things to each other.
Without knowing it does so, the heat from the sun’s kiss on
the plate glass windows licks at my neck and like it, you and me are helpless
our warmth spreads without any permission, we’ve no borders,
no boundaries and we’ve been friends since we met
so I can say; Lazarus get up out of that because I want to talk to you about how
I’d resolved to be only one person all of the time but then
a woman came in to my ninth floor hotel room and stood
at the window looking down at some city or other beneath her,
I (or the me I was using) stayed at a distance with my back
to the wall and across those great acres of room space and bed space
and sheet span I watched the light burnish her edges;
her ribcage, her jaw and the fine hairs on her arm
and as the evening grew gentler I watched the rise and fall
of her breath while the day itself melted and Lazarus
I wanted to go to her but this me that I’ve chosen to be
all of the time now didn’t know how or where to begin,
I didn’t believe that my static filled fingers could touch her
and that she might welcome it and I wanted to tell you
that I mightn’t be able to stay being me in situations like this
where I have all the ingredients gathered and measured
and then I forget how to cook them (if that was in fact,
me there in the bedroom and not one of my minions)
and I’m saying this because I’ve learned that staying one person
isn’t straightforward and sometimes being truthful is less accurate
than having the courage to act the part beautifully,
and Lazarus I want to tell you whenever you get up
that I might not be able and I know you’ll know what I mean
because we are each others others and we know things
Lazarus, it’s high time you were up.

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It’s the Dark
A poem for my selves

On this day of halogen and helium
we are dodging shadows
our eyes squinting against late afternoon sun
but it’s with us, despite the whiteness;
it’s a hand not held
in a dark bedroom, of a dark house, on a dark street
where no one ever thought to leave a light on for us
it’s every unblown birthday candle
a school of sorts, an education,
it’s a taunting lane with pine trees and a wind channelled down it,
it’s the terror that made our fat legs pedal faster,
made us flee it,
as if in the bright lights of the kitchen hours later
we still wouldn’t feel it
it’s that car journey we didn’t want to go on
those other headlights sweeping past in freedom
and our relentless windscreen wipers beating rhythm
to the place we swore we’d never get to
on a morning night wouldn’t relinquish,
it’s a bridge in an inferno crumbling
and I can tell you there’s no crossing back over
it’s the confessional where we don’t know what to say
or even who to answer
it’s a hundred pagan folk memories;
nameless because they never tried to conquer it
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
and it’s best to leave it be.

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Sad Bear’s Dance

In the middle of a critique of post-feminist lit the academico asked for examples
she cased the joint for samples. ‘You there in the corner’ she pointed ‘how do you
……….identify?’
and like I do when put on a spot I back-answered, retorted; ‘as chat ups go,
……….sweetheart
that one’s a keeper, and I’m really liking the cut of your jib’. She insisted excitedly
that I was manifesting a notably insidious strain of patriarchy and said; ‘Sisters
and the few selected males amongst us, can you see how our specimen is acting
unwittingly contrary to feminist interests… Seems she’s internalised, oh yes she’s
……….aping it.
Picking fleas from my fur I said well in the interests of political correctness, are we
……….talking
here gender or sex? And she; ‘Whichever, I’m asking are you an X or a Y and if
……….you’re happy
with that designation or do you feel you’ve been put in a box?’ Never till now, I
……….was thinking
but yer wan just wouldn’t be stopped; ‘I’m asking did you learn it or just be it,
……….chromosomally
speaking, science we’re talking, not myth?’ And I said ‘Oh science is it? Why didn’t
……….you say?
Well you’ll be happy to know I’m empirical, a walking experiment and I propose
……….that there are
waaaaay more letters than that. I’m a boy if you want, a man for all seasons and
……….when
the moon calls I’m her bitch, I’m a wave that never comes far enough in, an eight
……….year old child
in a dress, in my father’s high heels call me princess — and sure while we’re at it get
……….down
on your knees for your king, and if we’re talking here subject and object then I’m
……….the rent boy
you’ve always wanted to bugger, I ‘m a work in progress – might never be
……….finished,
a construction fallen foul of the bust, so come on in with your cork board and
……….microscope,
sure I’ll prostrate myself for your pin- why wouldn’t I when I’m my own favourite
blank canvas, an artwork unfinished and I’m thoroughly glad of your interest –
……….here listen,
yea I know — Eureka! We could begin our own travelling freak show and go out
on the road if you want, we’ll meander through small towns and hamlets and
……….nothing
and when the crowds surge I’ll get my kit off oh yes I’ll perform to entice them
while you pocket our ill gotten loot, then later when it’s quiet and they’re gone,
I’ll slow dance on your chain like the saddest of bears until someday, when
I’ll about face and savage you, in that way no one ever predicts, however often
this rictus of captive and victims’ enacted, and I’ll be happy at it let me tell you,
happy as a striped jacketed monkey transplanted to the coldest of streets, ‘cos
I’m a one trick pony reading up on peripheral vision, realising she has it and
asserting that I can grind any organ I wish, and I trust that answers it?’

/

Gorse

Your tight lips and stubborn back
and the sound of our dinner dishes
being none too gently stacked
have sent me outside
to sneak a cigarette
in the closest thing a summer night has
to darkness.

My match strike flares
and blinds me for an instant
as I guiltily inhale.
Down on the bog-land
below our house
there are car lights moving slowly,
then going out.
A door thuds shut
and no other sound comes up.

Close-by my ear I hear
your barefeet lubdubing like my heartbeat
across the wooden kitchen floor.
My nicotine plumes fray
then disappear,
and on the uplift of the breeze
an acrid petrol smell
mingles with the gorse, wildflower
and wet earth fumes.

In the morning all there is
is wood smoke and a few blackened patches,
otherwise the gorse bushes
stand out flag-yellow
and unmolested.
Bogland doesn’t always burn
that easily, even after
a surprise late night baptism with petrol
up here, where we are,
a sly sea mist can sneak
in to douse it
so it’s left to smoulder
neither burning nor put out
like we are
like we are.

 

 —Sarah Clancy

/

feathers
Sarah Clancy is a page and performance poet from Galway City. Her first themed collection of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her first full length collection of poetry Thanks for Nothing, Hippies was published by Salmon Poetry in April 2012 and was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature that year. It has since become a poetry bestseller. Cinderella Backwards a CD of poetry by Sarah and her fellow Galway poet Elaine Feeney was released in December 2012.  Her forthcoming collection The Truth and Other Stories is due out from Salmon Poetry in September 2014.

She has had success in slam or performance poetry circles winning the 2011 Cuirt International Grand Slam Championship, twice coming in as runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series (2011& 2012) and in 2013 she was runner up in the All-Ireland Grand Slam Championship.  She has also been placed or shortlisted in many page-poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the WOW awards and the Over the Edge Poetry Competition. In 2012 she received second prize for her poem ‘I Crept Out’ in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition judged by Matthew Sweeney.

/
/

Sep 012014
 

LMMLucy M. May

One morning I stood on a big round rock and put a heavy rock on my head. I was willing to be still, balanced on the rock and balancing the other rock on my head, but in order to keep it together I had to keep a very slight movement, a tiny dance, going on between the two rocks. That went on for many minutes. No one else was awake. —Simone Forti

/

Lucy collageHuddle, Loeb Student Center, New York University (1969)[1]

In the landscapes surrounding the hippy commune near Woodstock, New York where she briefly lived, Simone Forti spent a year of her twenties balancing on stone walls and observing the movements of the world. This is how she began becoming a legendary dance improviser, musician, creator of “Huddle”… In her 1974 classic Handbook in Motion (Contact Editions, 1998), Forti recounts:

One morning I stood on a big round rock and put a heavy rock on my head. I was willing to be still, balanced on the rock and balancing the other rock on my head, but in order to keep it together I had to keep a very slight movement, a tiny dance, going on between the two rocks. That went on for many minutes. No one else was awake.

By paying attention to minutia, Forti’s explorations tie up the essence of what a ‘big’ dance might also achieve, in a single, simple act. Something succinct enough to fit in a drawing, a photo frame./

thisisadanceThis is a Dance: For Simone Forti
Dance by Lucy M. May. Photo by Patrick Conan (2013)

Forti was my muse when I stopped in a national park in Croatia last year and asked my boyfriend to take a picture. I lay face down into the trunk of a tree that had grown out the side of a hill horizontally. Patrick tipped the camera to set me upright. “This is a dance,” I said to myself, as he clicked me into place.

§

In his book of essays on experimental choreography, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (Routledge, 2006), André Lepecki discusses a trend in dance criticism that laments any “down time” interrupting the constant flow of gestures in a dance. He cites New York Times Senior Dance Editor Anna Kisselgoff, who seems to feel that any stilling of motion threatens the very nature of dancing.

As a dancer, I embrace subtlety and especially stillness as integral to my work. Being still is not a “betrayal” of movement, as Lepecki theorizes. And a choreography that takes the form of a photograph therefore is not an oxymoron.

In Larry Lavender’s handout from the 2013 American College Dance Festival Association Conference, the admired scholar and professor defines the contemporary practice of choreography as “possibilizing the presence of people in places.” This necessarily vast definition suits the diversity of what is being made today in avant-garde dance, which includes as much idea as action, as much inactivity as activity, as much challenge and discomfort as pleasure and satisfaction for the viewer, as much happening off stage as upon it…

Lavender goes on to say that “Dance [capital D] is one of the approaches to choreography, and “a dance” is one of its possible outcomes.” So long as people’s bodies are inhabiting a space in time, a dance might be happening.

GertrudeLeistikowGertrud Leistikow performing in a meadow near Ascona, 1914. [2]

In Germany, both slightly before and after the First World War, dances were made for still photographs: figures caught in a landscape or an interior. The photographs circulated as part of an international culture of the body and movement. During that time, author Karl Eric Toepfer writes in Empire of Ecstasy : Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935 (U. of California Press, 1997), that “dance was a cosmic force that was only partially visible in dance performances as such.” Toepfer cites dances imagined by writers Ernst Blass and Paul Van Ostaijen as well as approaches to dance that were about cosmic bodies and forces of nature in the multifaceted movement work of Rudolf Laban. “[W]hen dance assumes this sort of metaphorical identity,” he continues, “its meaning, its power to liberate, derives as much from its image and from ideas about it as from witnessing dance performances themselves.” Performers collaborated with photographers to hold the entirety of their dance inside a single cell of film back then.

§

While I was studying at The Rotterdam Dance Academy in Holland in 2006, dance artist and pedagogue Gabrielle Staiger taught me ways of using physical constraint to create meaning and emotion; following techniques developed by English choreographer Lloyd Newson and his DV8 Physical Theatre company. Just as Christian Bök limited himself to only one vowel for each chapter of his experimental poem Eunoia (Canongate, 2008), we spent afternoons dancing in pairs while limited to only one physical point of contact—back to back, hand-to-throat. We set out to discover what distillation of meanings might emerge from the physical relationships we restricted ourselves to. The results were often stunningly efficient and potent. Creation can be a game of closing oneself into a space in order to find surprising ways out, by driving the imagination to seek new possibilities.

Yvonne Rainer’s silent six-minute “Hand Movie” is a fine, danced example. From within the boundaries of a rectangle of celluloid, the renowned choreographer and film-maker (who emerged alongside Forti and the New York City cohort of the sixties and seventies) made her iconic film while confined to a hospital room. Her palm and fingers behave as surrogates for the body she could not use to dance.

§

The series of danced photographs included below is the product of a challenge I posed to choreographers from several places and time zones. I asked them all to create a dance, following Simone Forti’s inspiration, within the confines of a single photo frame.

Today’s dance makers ask us to pay attention to detail, to open our vision wider than the proscenium, to take in everything that is going on both outside and within our own bodies as spectators. If a dancer’s constant motion is stilled, if her movements are restrained or contained, something is not necessarily out of order—complexity can be uncovered in the simplest proposal if we look closely.

\

An Underground Dance by Dana Michel (Montreal).

DanaMichelPhoto of Dana Michel, taken by Mathieu Léger (2014)

The edges of the photo are littered with evidence of family: birthday card envelopes and balloons, the feet of an office chair and sofa, a baby blanket. At its centre, Michel is radial in a baby’s starfish posture.

Infants first learn to roll over by following others with their eyes. Michel gazes up towards her witness, pre-expressive, lips slightly parted—a sign of release. The comfort and familiarity of Michel’s outfit flow all the way to her curled fingers. She doesn’t reach for the edges of the space, but is only passively oriented in relationship to them. Her limbs kick out towards the skirting objects blindly, which gravitate like moons around her belly. All elements lay on the floor, ceding energy into the ground on a snowfield of spotless wall-to-wall carpeting.

Underground is a place of endings, stillness, recharging… As the winter solstice marks the pause between finality and new gestation, Michel’s dance in her parents’ basement could be one of winter energies, marking the drawn-out conclusion to her own childhood and her son’s infancy.

Michel writes:

photography jokes can fuel us for years. it’s a very lucrative energy source.

i wear all my old shit that i don’t care about when i’m at my parents’ place.  it feels nice to be an asshole sometimes. my favourite thing in the world sometimes is to layer on asshole amounts of layers of clothing when i’m cold. i have bad circulation. and it’s cold as fuck in that basement.

the balloons in the background were leftover from my son’s first birthday party. balloons depress me post-celebration. they just won’t go away.

/

A Shape-Shifting Dance by Jacinte Armstrong (Halifax)

JacinteArmstrongPhoto and dance by Jacinte Armstrong (2014).

From her vantage point above the late spring earth, Armstrong’s movement plays out on an invisible Z axis. The spectator is invited into a game of peek-a-boo across the open space between her body and the ground. We step into Armstrong’s sandals, adopting her skin. Our shared shadow is a wraith interacting soundlessly, weightlessly with the landscape. It embraces a cluster of onion flowers that leap out of an armpit.

Armstrong’s dance is driven by the senses. Smell, taste and light sensitivity guide her towards the plant and into a sunlit tango with her double.

The onions are briefly entangled in a ring-around-the-rosie as they sense the light and shade pass over them. They might be adjusting their length and reach too, however slightly.

Armstrong writes:

The score was to feel the sensory/body experience of communing with the plants and wind, while asking the question “is this a dance?” with my eyes. Then the sun came out and revealed the outline of my body with the Alliums resting on and decorating my shoulder. It went away shortly after. Ephemeral. Then I ate one of the Alliums with a Daylily chaser.

/

A Dance of Entirety and Infinity by M. Eugenia Demeglio (Cornwall, United Kingdom)

Dance by M. Eugenia Demeglio.[3]

Demeglio stands like a patient lightening rod in the centre of a sunny field. She is central, distinct, immovable yet human-sized: we relate to her.

Demeglio acts as an extra-sensory dowsing rod, connected to the sky, the earth and to herself in between. She seems to sense an inner mantra that streams through her body, into the earth below her bare feet and up into the cloudless blue sky above her pointed index. But she also seems to be listening for other human voices.

“Every movement,” Demeglio writes, “is the language through which new meanings can be collaboratively generated with those who witness. The process is transparent. Everything is inherently contextual.”

Demeglio is in a timeless state of consciousness although the sun circles temporally around her, using her body as a sun-dial. It must be late afternoon, but the dance has no beginning or end. I am reminded of performance artist superstar Marina Abramović’s idea behind her four-month-long sitting performance “The Artist is Present”: Abramović saw herself as a mountain to which people would come. She would not move. Demeglio has chosen to be a vector through which our language might pass forever, in the permanency of the photo.

/

An Everyday Dance by Justine Chambers (Vancouver)

JustineChambers Dance by Justine Chambers, Photo by Katie Ward (2014).

Chambers’s dishwashing dance is caught in mid-stride. Her action is, of course, very familiar, but the frame of the photo catches attentiveness in the pinpoints of her black irises. She sees where she is going but is also anchored to where she has come from with strong shoulders and an open chest. The apex of the gesture is paused; the sweeping blur of her arm shows a honed pathway, made precise over time by repetition.

The softness of the camera focus, the primary colors of the scene—red, yellow, blue—bring an artlessness to the piece that invites a close-reading of details and a mindful contemplation of the moment.

Several performers and choreographers of 20th century New York post-modernism (Trisha Brown, Bruce Nauman, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer) focused on the meticulous repetition and accumulation of mundane actions to structure their work, alongside Philip Glass’s minimalist compositions and John Cage’s Zen Buddhist contributions to music. Their  methodologies, motives, practices and modes of presentation have changed shape over time, but an ongoing interest in the beauty of dailyness and unspectacular events has held sway through several generations of dance-makers.

Chambers’s Family Dinner collaboration with the Task Force collectiveis “an immersive dining performance” for an equal number of performers and audience. It literally brings the practice of art-making around a dinner table, where the temporary “family” unpacks the choreography of actions surrounding the collective making and consuming of a meal.[4]

 

/

A Circulatory Dance by Diego Agulló (Berlin)

DiegoAgulloA Circulatory Dance by Diego Agulló (Berlin). Flow Chart by Diego Agulló (2013). Click on the image to view a larger version.

Agulló’s dance of concepts cycles clockwise. Branches snap off into corners. Its movement is directed by arrows that guide the eye and the mind around thickets of symbolic words. Agulló seems impelled by an inner restlessness to say what he knows. He engages us in a charged exchange of symbols across our synapses.

There is an effort to control the relative position of each element in the map. Words cling tightly to the sweep of the designed trajectories. Agulló sifts logic out of chaos but the position he holds balances precariously. The weight of the corpus of words seems to tremble against its structure, and the upheld posture might collapse if the movement stops—as Forti discovered in her rock-balancing micro-dance.

Conversion and translation are Agulló’s blood flow, necessary to the life of his dance. Its movement is propelled by a basic systole/diastole: the back-and-forth insistence of movement felt by all living things, in the human need for dialogue. It is endangered by the stasis of a short circuit.

Agulló writes:

Movement is a guarantee of preventing ossification. Ossification is the process of hardening that leads a system into stagnation and potentially into a dead end. […] translation is also a process of giving an intelligible form to what has no name. This can be considered the mission of art and philosophy.

How to learn to control the oscillatory movement? Perhaps the question should rather be: how to dance the oscillation? How to become the choreographer of your own life trajectory?

/

A Seeking Dance by Katie Ward (Montreal)

KatieWardDance by Katie Ward, Photo by Justine A. Chambers (2014)

Ward’s face is turned away. Her whole spine bends towards the curve of the tree’s trunk. She and the tree share their ‘natural inclinations’ and arch in unison towards one another. We are granted privileged spectatorship of this intimate dance.

A tiny interstice remains between Ward’s left fingertips and the bark of the tree. In that inch, there seems to be a subtle exchange in progress. A garland of the chestnut’s leaves cascades down, contributing to the conversation. Her fingers are antennae that sense and impress upon the matter at hand.

“In my current work, via sophisticated and naïve surveying techniques,” Ward writes, “I explore properties of REALITY: matter, interconnection and imagination. I am inspired by my own intuitive leaps and imaginative versions of scientific explanations… I embark on explorative adventures, where the outcomes are unknown…”

Meanwhile, the man-made architecture of Ward’s sandals and the fence hidden in the greenery are left behind. In the moment of Ward’s intention towards her tall dance partner, straight lines and pre-fabricated structures are of little importance. All of Ward’s physical attention is thrust towards those few interceding millimetres between her body and that of the other. She trusts that something is there to be discovered.

—Lucy M. May

Choreographer Biographies

Spanish artist and self-described dilettante Diego Agulló lives in Berlin, researching the intersection between pedagogy and art. He creates contexts for learning and practicing theory across art and philosophy. He understands choreography as a practice of infiltration, which he applies through interdisciplinary work. His essay The Mischievous Mission intends to problematize the notion of professionalism in the arts.

Jacinte Armstrong is based in Halifax, NS and is newly the Artistic Director of Kinetic Studio, a Halifax-based organization that provides support to Nova Scotian dance artists, and presents a series of showings featuring artists from across the country. She is currently a co-founder and member of SiNS (Sometimes in Nova Scotia) dance collective, a dancer with Mocean Dance, as well as being her own man.

Justine A. Chambers is currently making and playing out of the Ten Fifteen Maple field house in Vancouver, a space she shares with four other artists situated in Hadden Park. She is a choreographer, dancer, teacher, facilitator and maker of things. Recently she has collaborated on the creation of works with Marilou Lemmens & Richard Ibghy, Brendan Fernandes, Jen Weih, battery opera, and Rebecca Bayer. She is one of four facilitator/mentors for the Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery Youth Mentorship Program and was invited this spring to be a guest lecturer at Emily Carr University for Art and Design for the course The Act of Emotion.

M. Eugenia Demeglio is currently living and working in Cornwall, UK, where her practice includes movement and improvisation performances, installations, participatory events, videos, community projects and (body) sculptures. She is an Associate Lecturer in Dance Training at Falmouth University and also enjoys delivering improvisation workshops for non-dancers. “I like to think of myself as a strategist, creating frameworks for individuals to feel free within them.”

Dana Michel is a choreographer and performer based in Montreal, Canada. Her practice is rooted in exploring the disorderly multiplicity of identity using intuitive improvisation and image creation. She has been making and internationally touring work for the past nine years and her newest solo, Yellow Towel, premiered at the 2013 Festival TransAmériques in Montreal to critical acclaim.  It was singled out as a remarkable production at American Realness Festival in 2014 by the New York Times.

Katie Ward is an independent choreographer dancer and most recently a teacher at Concordia University’s Dance department, who lives and works in Montreal. In 2008, along with Thea Patterson, Peter Trosztmer, and Audrée Juteau, Katie founded an artists group The Choreographers, who co-created and presented Man and Mouse and Oh! Canada. Her piece Rock Steady was presented in Lennoxville (QC), Créteil (FR), Maubeuge (FR), and Nottingham (UK) between 2010 and 2012. She presented her new solo The How and Why Machine in October 2013. A new group work, Infinity Doughnut, has creation residencies at Dance4 in Nottingham (UK) and in Créteil (FR), and is slated for performance in the fall of 2014.

Lucy M. May is a New Brunswick-born contemporary dancer based in Montreal. Her work—including choreography and performances in films and multimedia installations, site-specific creations, work alongside musicians, DJs, VJs, visual artists and archivists, and a dance with a horse—has been presented in Canada, Holland and Sweden. May has performed further abroad as a member of Compagnie Marie Chouinard since 2009. Her persistent desire to contribute to her communities has her presently experimenting with new movement training forms and writing frequently for the Canadian publication The Dance Current. She teaches as often as she can.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Photograph by Peter Moore, Score by Simone Forti (from Handbook in Motion, p.58-59)
  2. Dance by Gertrud Leistikow (from Hans Brandenburg, Der moderne Tanz, 1921, reproduced in Empire of Ecstasy).
  3. Digital photograph by K. Scott taken in a meadow near Helford Passage (2014).
  4. http://tenfifteenmaple.org
Sep 012014
 

Rheims Cathedral on fire.

The novel is called The Martial Artist, and it’s based on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, proto-fascist statesman and sometime prince of pirates on the Dalmatian coast. This story is being narrated by D’ Annunzio himself in 1923 to his ex-lover, Eleonora Duse, once the most famous actress in the world, who has come to visit him at Il Vittoriale, the museum-palace on Lake Garda where Mussolini keeps him a virtual prisoner—and figurehead of fascism. In this reminiscence he is telling Eleonora about his first visit to the Western Front in 1914. D’Annunzio was instrumental as a propagandist in bringing Italy, which was supposed to be neutral, into the war on the Allied side, and later fought with great distinction in all three services (he became the most decorated Italian of the war, although he enlisted at the age of 52.)

—Garry Craig Powell

/

First Battle of the Marne, September 1914

The Peugeot waiting at the kerb outside my hotel in the Marais is as shiny and black as the carapace of a beetle. It coughs politely as Bertillon, the owner, cranks the starting handle with his gauntleted hand. Rocco, my valet, loads the trunk with leather suitcases and lays hampers on the back seat. I have had him pack petit-fours, tongue, caviar, paté de foie gras, fruit in abundance, as well as baguettes, pain au chocolat, eau minerale, and a bottle of burgundy for Ugo Ojetti. The engine growls, but before Bertillon can reach the driver’s seat he finds that I have beaten him to it. What is more, Ojetti, in a plain grey suit and trilby, is already in the passenger’s seat beside me. With his upturned moustaches and malevolent monocle, he winks at me.

—Mais monsieur, —Bertillon begins. —I understood when your friend engaged to hire the car that I would be driving.

I fix him with a lordly look. My eyes pierce the Frenchman’s with the certainty that I will be obeyed. I am wearing English riding breeches with puttees, a russet overcoat trimmed with yellow fox fur that curls like a collar of gold around my neck and ears, and a tweed motoring cap.

—I always drive myself, —I say. —You need not fear. I am a superb driver.

Although Bertillon declares he has never before entrusted his machine to anyone, he relinquishes control as if he has no will of his own. He is a plump little creature, as white and doughy as a bread. He climbs in the back, and the bête noir is soon lumbering along the lanes of Picardie. The roads curve like banderols, those ribbon-like pennants one sees in paintings of medieval saints. Pigeons burst from the hedges as though the wing of an angel has suddenly opened, and fall around us in grey squalls.

With my high celluloid collar—oh, so uncomfortable!—I sit erect at the wheel, my shoulders squared like a horseman with a handsome seat. We drive through villages of smashed shops and houses. In one of them we stop and stretch our legs. It is a ruin, deserted: it would touch some archaeologist of the future. On a stucco house-front, blue shutters flap in the wind, banging lazily against the wall. In another dwelling, roofless but intact on one side, a pile of rubble on the other, there is a toothless cottage piano, a vase of artificial flowers such as the gypsies make from pipe-cleaners and silk, and grimy dolls lying on a dusty carpet like the victims of a massacre. Back in the car, leaning forward nervously, M. Bertillon talks incessantly about the brutality of the Germans. I am not listening. I look at the farmhouses, the still-smoking stubble and black sheaves of wheat, the skinny Frisian cows with swollen udders. We see a couple of human corpses, a fat old woman reclining on the grass verge as if taking a nap, and a bony old man on his knees beside her, his face in the grass as if he were grazing, his arms at impossible angles. Then a boy, face down on the road, legs flung out, stiff as a cardboard puppet. Ojetti sighs, moans, perhaps weeps. Bertillon keeps saying Mon dieu, mon dieu, les sauvages. I feel nothing. Too many live, as Nietzsche says. We need this blood-letting to purge us. My heart thumps, excited at the car’s power and speed, or because I will soon be at the Front where I will finally see Death and discover my mettle. Or is it because I am still remembering yesterday afternoon with Mme. Fournier-Kasinsky? It was a routine seduction, nothing out of the ordinary, except that for a bourgeoise she was quick to take to the pleasures of oral love, and surprised me by flinging open the drapes on the windows, although she was naked, apart from her black silk stockings, which were embroidered with cherries.

—You don’t mind the neighbours seeing us? I said. ˗˗˗The lights are on.

Tant mieux, —she said, pouting her lips like a spoilt schoolgirl. —I want them to see us. J’en trouve très passionant. Et vous?

I felt as if I were onstage in a cabaret in the Pigalle. But yes, it was exciting. The smell and taste of her sweaty armpits, the stretch-marks on her breasts and belly—for some reason I cannot get them out of my mind. She raised her upper lip in a sneer as I fucked her, repeating mon Dieu, mon Dieu, as if she were unable to believe what was happening, yet never once looking me in the eyes, which I found disconcerting. So what? Could it be that as Death draws near, the urge to procreate becomes imperative? I must find a prostitute in Soissons or Rheims, I decide as I drive. No, the primitive urge is not merely more imperative, but more significant, more numinous. As the car clatters along the narrow lanes of Picardie between the high hedges, a procession of women flee past, most of them nameless, even faceless, though I recognize many: Splendore, Giselda, the two Marias, wife and Gravina, Olga Ossani, Barbara, you, naturally, Alessandra, Giuseppina, Nathalie, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein, Romaine Brooks, Luisa Casati… Perhaps it is the faces of these women, it occurs to me, that I shall see on my deathbed, and not the spines of my books. Maybe my loves have invested my life with meaning.

But the rumblings and detonations that I assumed was distant thunder are growing louder, and judging by the Frenchman’s agitation—the man yaps like a lapdog—I have been mistaken. A bombardment is underway. We pass muddy army trucks, marching infantry, pack-horses, and tents in the fields, including one with a red cross. The landscape becomes lunar, drained of colour, blighted. Blasted trees stand like scribble against a grey sky. Craters pock the desert surface. Dead horses and mules lie on their backs like beetles, their bellies inflated, their legs in the air.

—So now we are at the Front, Monsieur, we have seen everything and we can turn around, —Bertillon says in a high, strained voice. —N’ est-ce pas?

I speak to Ojetti in the middle of the Frenchman’s utterance, pretending not to have heard him. Ugo keeps up a gay and lyrical banter as we reach the outskirts of Soissons, driving along roads lined with rows of little brick workers’ houses, and factories and warehouses, and elm-trees, dogs running in a frenzy, and a line of blind soldiers, each touching the shoulder of the man in front of him. We pass a parabola of big black nests: in each slumbers a plane. At a barrier a corporal halts us and inspects my pass from General Galieni.

˗˗˗The Germans are shelling the town, ˗˗˗he says. ˗˗˗Do you not hear?

˗˗˗Are you saying we cannot continue?˗˗˗Ojetti asks.

˗˗˗You may proceed, ˗˗˗the soldier says, ˗˗˗although you will probably be killed.

I thank him and put the car in gear, ignoring Bertillon’s womanish wailing. We climb a low hill, winding past carts filled with the wounded, and from its crest gaze upon the city: the twin spires of the cathedral reaching for the grey sky like imploring hands, and between them, it seems to me, an angel balancing on the roof. Without pausing, I take my hands off the wheel and stretch them towards it. All is beautiful. Suddenly there is a flash, like sheet lightning, and the air breaks, buffets us. One of the spires has gone. Now only one arm is raised to heaven, one arm and a mutilated stump. I cry out to the wounded in the carts, who, it seems to me, are bleeding on behalf of that bloodless stone.

Presently we are in the main square. A pond of blood pools in the middle of it: a scarlet man and a scarlet horse lie glistening in it. I halt the car. Beside the red lake is a smashed mess of broken wood, wheels, leather harness, bones and hunks and strips of meat, the remains of a team of horses. Bertillon begs me to turn around and leave at once. One of the towers of the cathedral has been neatly sliced off at the level of the roof of the building; the other still points to the sky like the arm of a prophet. Out of one of the houses a French officer comes running. Even with his crested helmet on, he looks like a teacher or a professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses, but he shouts furiously as he reaches the car:

—Who the hell do you think you are? What the hell are you doing?

—We are here to watch the bombardment, —I tell the lieutenant with a slow smile. —We have a safe-conduct pass from General Galieni.

From the pocket of my coat I extract the pass and wave it at the officer. He snatches it.

Frowning, the Frenchman reads. His eyebrows rise and he shoots a look at me, at last taking in the pointed beard, the waxed upturned points of his moustache, the penetrating eyes.

—You are M. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer?

—At your service.

—Monsieur, allow me to express my surprise. I am the greatest of your admirers. I have read all your novels, seen all your plays; it is only your poetry that I don’t know well, because little of it has been translated into French. But what am I saying? I am desolated by my rudeness. Please forgive me.

—Of course.

—I only wish I had a volume of yours here, so that I could beg you to sign it.

Le Triomphe de la Mort would be appropriate, no? Can you tell us where the battle is?

The lieutenant’s eyes widen. —But this is the battle, M. D’Annunzio. You are in the middle of it. The Germans are less than a hundred metres away, over there.

—Excellent. Might I be permitted to give some cigarettes to the men?

—Naturally, monsieur. You may do anything you wish, though I must warn you that it is very dangerous to remain here.

Bertillon chimes in: —You hear, monsieur? It would be prudent to leave at once. It is very dangerous!

—Don’t tell me you are afraid, Bertillon, ˗˗˗says Ojetti.

Bertillon clutches the secretary’s shoulder with a hand like a talon. —I am mortally afraid, monsieur. Are you not?

Ojetti smiles, impervious to fear, casting an ironic glance at me. I climb out of the car, pocketing the keys in case Bertillon decides to leave without us, and take a big blue box of Gauloises I have brought with me from the back seat. The lieutenant points to the house he has come from, and trots in that direction. Bertillon scampers after him, his arms flailing as if he were falling off a cliff. Ojetti and I follow like men out for a Sunday stroll. When a shell whizzes past or bursts in the air, we gaze around with dreamy expressions. On reaching the shelter of the house, we find two platoons of poilus, who eye us with amazement and disdain, then with amusement and camaraderie, when they discover that I am the playboy they have read about in Le Petit Parisien, Le Matin, and other illustrated papers. As I open the box and throw cartons of cigarettes at the men, they cheer and shout ribald remarks:

—So what’s La Duse like in bed, eh? Big tits? (That is exactly what they said.)

—How does it feel to have Rubinstein’s legs wrapped round your neck, I want to know!

Il est tant petit, ce gentilhomme.

Il doit être grand là bas, où la taille a plus d’ importance. Tu sais ce qu’ on dit des italiens.

He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.

—How about changing places with me, Italian? I want to ride Isadora Duncan. Just once!

—You lucky little bastard!

—And this is how he does it: by writing fucking poetry. Right? You talk about tenderness, and sighing, and the deep pools of their eyes, when all you’re after is getting inside their knickers. Have I got it right?

I grin. —You have discovered my secret.

—But what the fuck are you doing here? a poilu asks. —Are Italians all mad?

—We are mad with love for our Latin brothers and sisters, —I say, with a manly nod at Ojetti, who nods back, —and mad with hatred of the barbarians from the north. I have come here because I want to see the war for myself. And this is my pledge to you: I will not rest until Italy is fighting beside you. I will use my voice to convince my countrymen that they must do so. And if I succeed, I swear I will fight alongside you myself.

While I am speaking, the men grow quiet and stare at me with an intensity I know: at my first speech in Venice—remember?—I learned I had the power to move people deeply with my oratory. When I am finished, there is a moment’s stunned silence. Then the lieutenant cheers, everyone joins in, and soon everyone is crowding around me and Ojetti, slapping our backs and shaking our hands. These are the first steps to the alliance.

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That night, while I visit a backstreet brothel—I have a ferocious Fleming, a tall redhead with a heavy chin who allows me to tie her to the bed but has the temerity to bite me back when I sink my incisors into the freckled white flesh of her shoulder—that very same night, Rheims Cathedral fulfils itself in flames. I am a celebrant at that great, sacred rite.

No, not the night before, my love, but that same one. You are obstinate! And your memory has never been accurate. Yes, I am sure.

And what’s more, strange to recount, I am there too. You can read the accounts in the newspapers. “Monsieur D’Annunzio sat calmly taking notes in his automobile while the conflagration lit up the night sky.” I read it myself in Le Matin or Le Petit Parisien, or perhaps Le Journal: so it must be true, eh? Surely you are not accusing me of making this up?

I remember the dizzying, dazzling flash, but no crash—only an eerie, preternatural silence, an eager, expectant silence, as when the mob gathers in the square beneath the guillotine with bated breath to hear the head of the innocent roll into the basket. Finally there is a crash so loud that I feel it more than hear it, like a box on the ears, a blow from a heavyweight. The earth shakes; the air ripples. From the roof of the cathedral an aurora borealis of flame pours and waves, a cauldron of colour, crimson, orange, butter and black. Sparks fly among the stars.

Someone, Bertillon or Ojetti, tries to stop me, but I cannot help myself. Like a man mesmerized I stumble towards the conflagration at a stately pace. Bertillon is screaming, Quel désastre, quel désastre, quelle tragédie! He squeals at me to stop, but I reply, or perhaps only think, Can you not see how beautiful, how perfect, this is? I hear Ugo guffawing. Perhaps I sleepwalk? As I step into the church, the great rose window, lit by the fire outside, starts to rotate, and the colours of the stained glass—the richest reds and blues, the deepest purples, yellows and greens—are liquescent, sublime. Some madman is still inside, playing a Bach cantata on the pipe organ while the window slowly spins like a kaleidoscope and the fire crackles and spits. Beside myself with ecstasy, I pick up a shard of stained glass, a stone flower, and a strip of twisted lead. I stuff the last two in my pockets but hold on to the thick gold glass as if it were a talisman, choking and spluttering as the smoke billows around me. Rafters rain from the ceiling, forcing me to retire from the glorious spectacle, but not before seeing that a miracle has occurred: the building is freed by the fire from the burden of its weight, and the entire edifice, this vast stone ship, is sailing unmoored into the oceanic sky. Church and firmament are one.

Outside once more, as the fire consumes the roof and I hear the groans and bellows of crashing timbers and masonry, Ojetti appears, Disque Bleu Caporal alight in his lips, to drag me away, shaking his head. I tell him my rapture is not merely aesthetic, for this holocaust is a rebirth, a resurrection, the soul of France is undergoing a Messianic awakening. I have never needed a God to prop me up or comfort me, but there is a spiritual exaltation in all this. It reminds me of the night I hired the organist in St. Stephen’s cathedral at Mulhouse in Alsace, where I had gone at night with Tom Antongini and two bovine Alsatian girls, and sat in the chilly dark for hours listening to Buxtehude and Bach, never once thinking of fucking—or very well, rarely thinking of fucking. Later, when I found myself in a half-timbered inn room with that blonde dairymaid, practical and matter of fact as she was as she took off her clothes, she turned into an ethereal creature, a fleshy seraph like one of Raphael’s, a nebula of stars spinning from her grey eyes like the silken threads of a spider’s web, and I found that I was floating on a vast, sunlit cloud, beyond Time, rippling aloft with that cool-fleshed creature, far above the world, impossibly slowly, impossibly gently; I knew sex as sacrament, just as the fire was a sacrament.

What really happened the night Rheims Cathedral burned? Did I hallucinate my recollection of being there? I would consume cocaine when I became a fighter pilot, to stay awake, but that was later. Could I have been in two places at once? The artist can; the super-man can. I only know what burns on the altar of my memory. No man knows more.

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Certo, Eleonora, they accuse me of lying, of making things up, as if that were a crime. The literalist swine say that the next day I did not see with my own eyes the dead poilus bound upright, to stakes, in bands of ten, in mud and blood-spattered uniforms, their puttees lacerated by barbed wire, their boots broken, cheeks sprouting stubble, open eyes staring like those of soulless madmen. I did not smell the stench of soiled drawers, of stale sweat; nor did I hear the buzzing of the flies around the open wounds. When I said that this sight reminded me the fasci, the rods bundled around an axe on ancient Roman coins, they did not believe me. I only pretended to see and think these things, the pettifoggers insisted. I invented this image of the fascio because it was such a potent symbol, the axe the bringer of life and death, the soldiers standing together like staves around it, strong and stiff even in rigor mortis. This is what they do not understand: that an act of imagination can transform reality. I dream, therefore I am.

—Garry Craig Powell

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Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell was born and educated in England, but now teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His linked collection of stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which is set in the contemporary Persian Gulf, was longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is completing the novel The Martial Artist, whose protagonist, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, was in real life the most famous writer and playboy in Italy, as well as the most decorated war hero, a pirate leader, the founder of a short-lived utopian state on the Dalmatian coast, a proto-fascist statesman, and eventually a prince.

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Sep 012014
 

sl-bird-dog-pete-and-sharptail-Montana

In the slider at the top of the page this month — a selection of work by Sydney Lea. Syd has been a Contributing Editor on Numéro Cinq for nigh on three, maybe four years. I am too old to keep count. He has written essays, poems, reviews, and scripts for cartoons and shepherded other wonderful writers to these pages, notably Fleda Brown and Diana Whitney, not to mention the cartoonist James Kochalka. We have toured together, taught together and I’ve interviewed him (you know, when I had that legendary radio show), and he’s a friend. His contribution to the magazine in terms of work is tremendous but it does not equal what he has given us in terms of spirit and friendship.

His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

He is also the best shot on the masthead.

dg

Aug 292014
 

effortsattruth

Here’s a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago, published in the Chicago Tribune at the time. Efforts at Truth deserves to be remembered and reread, as does its author. God loves the outliers and eccentrics, his hopeful monsters, too.

dg

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Efforts at Truth: an autobiography
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press 1995

Nicholas Mosley is a rare beast — a reactionary revolutionist, what they call in Canada a Red Tory. He is an English lord, son of an infamous fascist anti-semite, a one-time Church of England apologist, and a writer for decades of highly regarded experimental novels in which he explores the ideas of consciousness and responsibility as a way of critiquing what he sees as the victim ethic of liberal modernity.

At first glance, he looks post-modern or avant garde, but he is not. He is just the opposite — pre-modern, if you will, the voice of an older tradition. Mosley is the champion of an heroic Christianity which reflates the Kierkegaardian ideas of paradox and the romance of risk. Not for him the Christian Coalition brand of weak religiosity with its emphasis on being saved — God’s version of Social Security.

Mosley places humans in the center of a mystery, with a duty to spend their lives paying attention, learning, experimenting — their reward being not safety but the chance of discerning a pattern. “To discover what is hidden,” he writes, “you have to go on a journey; what uproar, indeed, before you arrive at what is there!”

The author of thirteen novels and numerous works of non-fiction, family memoirs and screenplays, Mosley is best known in this country for his novel HOPEFUL MONSTERS which won the 1990 Whitbread Award in Britain and capped a brilliant sequence of books collectively called CATASTROPHE PRACTICE begun in the 1970s.

In CATASTROPHE PRACTICE, the same six characters weave through a series of stories dealing with contemporary issues of love, marriage and the upheavals of history. The books are difficult and unfashionably didactic — demonstrations of the paradoxical questing Mosley posits at the center of existence. But they are also immensely interesting, dense with a sardonic self-honesty, humane and accepting.

Now Mosley has written EFFORTS AT TRUTH, a magnificently idiosyncratic autobiography, in which, with characteristic tenacity, intelligence and decency, he tries to picture the patterns that have informed his own life and work.

Sir Oswald Mosley, the author’s father, was the dashing, charismatic, philandering leader of the Black Shirts, British Fascist sympathizers during World War II. Faced with the paradox of loving his father and hating his ideas, Mosley quickly learned to walk a tightrope between admiration and criticism. While his father languished in a British prison, Nicholas Mosley was in the army fighting Hitler. And amidst the fighting, he found time to exchange loving, deeply intelligent letters with his father.

This ability to hold contradictions suspended in thought, to walk psychic tightropes (Keat’s called it Negative Capability), with minefields on either side, is one-half of the Nicholas Mosley equation.

The other half has to do with the Bible, the Church of England and old-fashioned goodness. Mosley’s dissatisfaction with the traditional novel form stems from a commitment to a literal Christianity, the kind that explores earnestly what is meant by goodness, God and grace in worldly and up-to-date terms. Mosley is no born-again tub-thumper — he is the sort of Christian writer who can write, in his inimitably droll fashion, “For the experience of making patterns the word ‘God’ is useful, but not imperative.”

According to Mosley, modern novels portray characters as victims, with no room for assigning or accepting responsibility for actions. “The literary world seemed to have been taken over by a vast army of contemporary fashion in which freedom was denied and ideas of dignity and redemption mocked.” He set out to write books which, in his words, related the inner (thought) to the outer (actions).

This was no easy task. A new form had to be invented. Mosley’s prose style has a functional awkwardness built in (Mosley himself has always stuttered — he speculates upon the relationship between trying to see the world clearly and his inability to speak). He mixes together letters from lovers, wives and friends, excerpts from his essays and biographies, and passages that are formal pastiches from his novels.

One of Mosley’s favorite devices is the rhetorical question, which gives the narrative a questing quality, an open-endedness. Frequently, his syntax stretches for a kind hypothetical uncertainty — “And at the center of the paradox, should it not indeed be something about sponteneity that is learned?” Sentences like this read strangely at first, till the reader begins to see them as tied perfectly to the author’s project: the careful dissection of thought and action in an effort to reveal some central pattern whose nature may be inexpressible in ordinary expository terms.

Mosley’s rhetoric, like that of Jacques Derrida or Ludwig Wittgenstein, has the quality of seeming to teeter at the very edge of language. Those questions, the sudden twists of self-doubt, the leaps of understanding, the conditional hypotheses — have the effect of drawing the reader’s attention to something that is not quite being said or understood.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH weaves back and forth between Mosley’s life and the life of his books, showing how the one influenced the other. The discovery that, in his earlier books, he has repeated the self-sacrificial hero motif, leads him to shake off a post-combat depression and locate an unexamined yen for the Church of England. (What, after all, is Jesus but a self-sacrificial hero?)

He befriends a monk, suspends his novel-writing and takes over an Anglican magazine called PRISM from which pulpit he blasts the church for moral complacency. This wild turn into Anglicanism happens just as the Angry Young Men, writers like John Osbourne and Kingsly Amis, are storming the bastions of English letters and is an example of Mosley’s sturdy inability to stay with the crowd. Modishness is a vice to which he seems singularly, and sometimes comically, immune.

Meanwhile, Mosley has married, had children, and become willful philandering skunk like his father. At one point, father and son meet accidentally while chasing women in the same London dive. But Mosley’s monk-friend takes him aside and gently suggests there is something wrong in his family dynamic, especially in regard to children.

Till then Mosely has taken forgranted the upper class English notion that children should be raised by someone else. Author and wife energetically fire their nanny and begin to teach themselves how to take care of children, how to love them. Later on, he even figures out about the philandering mess — but not before his willfulness has ruined his first marriage.

Mosley has a fling with screen-writing when two of his novels sell to the movies. He suffers a terrible car accident from which it takes him a year to recover. He goes into analysis and marries a fellow analysand, both of them embarking on this venture in the charmingly naive belief that they have achieved wisdom enough to assure a problem-free marriage. “Here were Verity and I intending to be model spouses and parents in some psychoanalytically re-cycled Garden of Eden. Oh dear!”

Mosley is unsparing of himself, exploring his own smokescreens and cruelties, detailing the awful consequences of his infidelities. One woman has a nervous breakdown, another an abortion. In a letter, his first wife writes: “We are beastly when we are together, but I like you when you’re away very much.” One gets the impression of a creative volcano, an immensely intelligent and self-willed personality, guaranteed to give a rough ride to whoever comes within reach.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH does not set out to be a popular autobiography. There is no name-dropping, little inter-twining of current events (surprising for an author who, in HOPEFUL LOSERS, wrote a masterful historical novel). Mosley sticks with his work and his family, knowing that within this narrow ambit most of the great mysteries of life are played out.

All this is told with infectious brio. Despite the in-built difficulty of the argument, EFFORTS AT TRUTH radiates a cheerfulness, a curiosity about life that is fundamentally healthy and humane. Mosely marks his sins but does not compound them by wallowing in guilt; he does not present himself as a victim of his own faults.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH is an antidote for those who feel the current debates between the right and the left, the Moral Majority and the advocates of a social safety net, have bogged down in stale rhetoric and endlessly circling arguments. It is a brilliant work of literary artistry and an act of faith — a message of mysterious complexity that goes straight to the heart of existence.

—Douglas Glover

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Aug 272014
 

7-Who Me- Pornithology seriesBy artist Michael Oatman from his Pornithology series.

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Fernando SdrigottiFernando Sdrigotti

Breathless. I dunno. Another issue. Where do they come from? Have I mentioned before that we do in a month what most magazines do in a quarter, in six months. Reviews, art, fiction, poetry, essays, translations, writers from around the world. And you get it for free! Stop me before I hyperventilate, before I start to foam at the mouth, before my eyes roll up….well, just stop me.

Amazing issue this month topped by a tremendously wise and poignant essay by the London-based Argentinian expatriate Fernando Sdrigotti who meditates upon the new world of shifting identity. We are all playing musical countries these days; essentialism is out the window; and we have to learn to read ourselves and the world afresh every time the sun comes up.

“When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others.” —Fernando Sdrigotti

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This month the spotlight is on legibility, language and speed, as in “Speed is Witchy!” a provocative essay by the great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, translated by Genese Grill and published here in English for the first time. There are two new Musil essays in fact.

“Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.” —Robert Musil

TreePad LiteMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

And then, and then! (Remember to breathe.) We have a special gift for our readers, a three-part riff on the late great short story writer Mavis Gallant who started out in Montreal but spent most of her life in Paris and wrote, naturally, for The New Yorker, became, in fact, the quintessential New Yorker writer. We have two never-before-published interviews, one with Gallant herself and one with Richard Landon, the venerable Toronto librarian and archivist who worked extensively with Gallant after she donated her papers to the University of Toronto, both interviews conducted by the poet-scholar-magazine editor Karen Mulhallen. This is an amazing coup for the magazine, a snapshot of a great writer at the peak of her career.

Also a sweet little memoir of lunch with Gallant in Paris by the indefatigable Robert  Day as part of his on-again, off-again Close Encounters of a Literary Kind series.

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman

THEN! Spectacular art by Michael Oatman.

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke

AND! A brand new story by the spectacularly speedy Leon Rooke, a writer who takes age as license to turn on the afterburners. The photo of Leon was donated to NC by the great First Nations writer Tom King (bonus).

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glenn Sorestad in Cuba

Also poems by the Canadian prairie poet (on visiting Cuba! yes, one of the best author photos on NC in ages) Glenn Sorestad.

AuthorJowita2014Jowita Bydlowska

Also more fiction. A grim, telegraphic (as in stripped down and fast), intensely intimate married couple story, excerpted from a novel by Jowita Bydlowska, the Polish-born Canadian writer, author of last year’s brilliant, scandalous success Drunk Mom.

And, yes, of course, September is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Marne (many readers wrote to tell me). And to mark the occasion we have a piece of fiction by Garry Craig Powell, “The Apotheosis of Cathedrals,” narrated by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, who  was there.

josephine-jacobsen-448Josephine Jacobsen

More. There’s more. Julie Larios brilliantly reminds us of the charms of the poet Josephine Jacobsen who wrote such things as this:

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

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NC newcomer Lucy M. May contributes a startling essay (with photos) on dance, but not the kind of dance you’re used to. This is Oulipian dance, dance as still photography, dance without motion,  frozen dance.

sarah micSarah Clancy

And Gerry Beirne does Irish slam poetry a turn with a piece on Sarah Clancy, with words and sound files so you get the complete experience.

WInterbach by Leanne StanderIngrid Winterbach

Also, finally, but perhaps not finally, you never know with NC, work keeps coming, some I can’t wait to publish, it just happens (did I mention breathless?) — Ben Woodard reviews South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth and R. W. Gray contributes another NC at the Movies (though I don’t know what it is yet, seat-of-the-pants operation that we are — you can bet it will be edgy, beautiful, surprising and, probably, weird).

Just a word: We have a lot of new readers and sometimes they are mystified by the NC roll-out. We are not like other magazines. Aside from having monthly issues, we eschew the old print model. Each issue contains 16-18 items. And we publish one item each day through the first 16-18 days of the month. We don’t dump the whole issue in one day because we’ve found that after a brief feeding frenzy readers tend not to look past the last one or two items. Great bits of writing and art get lost in the shuffle. So we publish one piece per day. Every piece gets its day in the sun, full-on, top of the page.

Not only that (because we take care of our writers and artists at NC), we have a beautifully logical and accessible archive system. Each published piece stays on the FRONT PAGE for three months (see the Recent Issues) section. Then the issues go into the archives. All our issues can be accessed as issues (divided into volumes—years) in the Back Issues section of the magazine. Plus each piece is placed in the appropriate genre Contents page (which you can access by the navigation buttons down the right hand side of the page).

Nothing ever disappears at NC. At the most, it’ll take you four-five mouse clicks to find even our earliest publications.

dg

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Aug 152014
 

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In David Cho’s “Where We Are,” the film’s assertive title is betrayed by a montage of images under the dialogue of two lovers who wonder where they might be now, both geographically and emotionally. The title might suggest a destination, a place where we and they will find one another, but the tension between what the characters say and what we see in the film instead reveals that either one or both of the characters would rather not arrive, would rather carry on desiring across the distance between them.

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The film’s dialogue is composed of what might be an intimate phone call, non-diegetic sound for an otherwise silent film, separate from the pictures we see. In an interview over at directorsnotes.com, Cho indicates that he saw these voiceless and soundless images to be flashbacks. He connects these to his “themes of separation, distance, and memory” and adds that he’s interested in “blending what characters see in their minds’ eye with reality and the present. It’s something that our minds do so seamlessly and we can fall into daydream without even realizing it.”

Film language, in its most realist forms, cannot show or represent the reality of this stream of consciousness and memory which is so indelible human, so it falls to more formalist, styled film choices to show us what that visually might look like.

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The peculiar thing about “Where We Are” is that Cho chooses to shoot the visuals in a more realist, hand held, improvised fashion. On the one hand this captures the randomness of moments in desire, but because these moments are small here and not momentous or overwrought in terms of symbolism or narrative significance, they do not necessarily read like memory.

The visuals have the kind of Terrence Malick style that Nick Schager laments in his Vulture article, and, indeed, the content is visually pleasing but the content is not necessarily distinct, unique, or revealing of character or plot. Yet that is probably the point. These are small happy moments, the kind most easily lost to memory.

Traditional film syntax would Vaseline or blur the lens, but Cho resists this for the most part; the images are warm and sometimes there’s soft focus, but nothing overt. The absence of diegetic sound (relating directly to the action) does to some extent dislocate the images, contain them in a way which makes them more memory like, but there is something insistently present tense about the visuals.

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“Do you wonder where I am?” “Do you miss me?” The woman on the call persists with her questions. When the man suggests the woman should come to him, however, she replies, “I’m happy here.” On the most overt level, this is the woman defining her contradictory desires, where she seeks the answer to “Do you miss me?” before she will assert “I am happy here.” Come here / go away. This is Anne Carson’s “sweetbitter,” cultivated by the woman who wants longing more than having. On another level, the dislocated dialogue appears over these memories and the “here” where she is happy could be memory, specifically these memories.

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When the man replies with his checkmate question, “Are you? Are you happy with him?” he unfolds a second possible reading of the film, one where he is not the man in the footage. Supporting this, there is no diegetic sound moment where we hear the voice of the man on the call connected to the body of the man in the film. Granted, I am a little oversensitive to these dislocations since I just shot a film on super 8 film that has no sound and then after the fact had to find some way to identify voice overs with bodies in some symbolic fashion. I found, as I find here, that voices divorced from bodies can sometimes be symbolically useful. Here, it adds an indeterminacy: we cannot know if the man who speaks is the man in the film and we cannot know if what we see is the love he once had with her or the love she left him for. The more realist, improvised footage also more readily supports this later interpretation, looking less like memory and more like caught moments.

Where-We-Are

If it is not memory, then whose perspective? Is it the man’s fearful imagining of how happy she is now with this other man, or is it real, present footage of her current happiness with the man she has chosen over him?

If it’s her perspective, what we see and hear is a woman happy with one man while she longs for another. She lures a declaration of longing from the man in the dialogue while we see her being happy with another man, one who is perhaps oblivious to her duplicitous heart. Then, her last line — when the man asks if she is happy with the man she’s chosen instead of him, when she replies “I love this place” –reads even more like betrayal. She has chosen “this place” over the one who longs for her, and chosen the man she’s with for his place.

Or maybe these are just memories, the title playing off the more Hollywood narrative The Way We Were. Regardless, “Where We Are” ultimately won’t let us know where we are, just leaves us in a space of indeterminacy. All of these interpretations are possible and true. All of these desires, these words, these images, lovely memories or not, suitably point to just how impossible and contradictory desire can be.

— R W Gray

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Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go. —Darren Higgins

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In “Lawn Chairs,” the last poem in her new book, Translations from Bark Beetle, Jody Gladding writes about “stars / so far away / they’ve long stopped burning.” “Unfathomable Mystery!” she goes on to exclaim, without a hint of pity or mourning, which, if we’ve been paying attention, should come as no surprise. Bark Beetle presents one unfathomable mystery after the next—stars burnt out, relationships damaged, butterflies blasted by traffic—but in this magical collection, that’s no reason for despair. As Ovid, another poet concerned with metamorphoses, has written, while everything changes, nothing is lost.

“Process and decay are implicit,” says the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. “Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.” Gladding has come to celebrate, or at least embrace, such impermanence. Yes, she is the kind of poet who will incise a poem (“Habitat”) on an icicle:

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

The icicle, of course, is long gone, yet the words, and the act of their creation, persist. I imagine that final period falling away in a drop of water, followed, in the rising light of the winter sun, by everything else. With its specimen-box cover design, Bark Beetle serves as reservoir or record of numerous such disintegrations. Indeed, there is a photograph of the melted icicle in the back of book, along with images of other “object poems” that served as incubators for and partners to the poems on the page.

I should rephrase that: the object poems are poems in their own right. Over the course of her career, Gladding has come to see poems, whether on the page or off, as physical things built to interact with the world. She writes on paper, of course, but also on feathers, tongue depressors, milkweed pods, X-rays, split logs, eggshells, and change-of-address forms. Bark Beetle, by juxtaposing textual poetry with full-color images of these object poems, gives readers and viewers an unprecedented glimpse of the remarkable range of her poetic art and artistic ambition.

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

Gladding’s interest in objects, nature, and the changeable language and life within landscapes is not new. “Midwifery,” the first poem in her first book, Stone Crop (winner of the 1992 Yale Series of Young Poets Award), begins:

These stones
I unearth
squatting
in my garden
working them
into the light

Taking us from “pregnant” garden stones through to the birth of her daughter, the tactile, sensory poems in her debut collection are grounded in seasonal shifts, in soil and snow, death and life, cycles unending. In Bark Beetle, she again unearths stones, but there is a difference: here she has made them poetry (see “Seal Rock” or “Gris-gris is a powerful charm”).

Seal RockSeal Rock

Other recent projects also spring from a sense of such poetic transformation—wrapping a quarry in blood-red bolts of cloth, making a series of site-specific nests with grasses, sticks, and strips of text, and weaving yarn and wool around the interior of an ancient stone shelter in France. Spaces, openings, margins, sanctuaries.

In “Triphammer Bridge,” A.R. Ammons writes,

sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound—a place.

Gladding knows the sound of such places. She is a great listener, a great believer in listening. In this increasingly amped-up, on-demand-everything world, she makes us stop and listen too. Take “Sonogram of Raven Calls,” from Bark Beetle:

rapp
……………………………..krapp
…………kra
……………………………………………..pruk
……………………………………………………………..quork
………………..gro
……………………………………………………………………………………kaah

While the lines in her early work tend to arrange themselves obediently on the left, Gladding’s words in recent years have begun scuttling across the page like beetles on a log. And so “Sonogram” continues, corner to corner, placing us in a forest of song rising up from the white. You can hear the music here (“the imagination of the sound”), but you can also see it. You are in it.

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go.

—Darren Higgins

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I first met Jody Gladding twenty years ago at Cornell University, where she was kind enough to say that the tortured poems I kept submitting for her writing seminar showed promise. Recently, over a series of weeks, her kindness undimmed, she took the time to speak to me—in person, over e-mail, and on the phone—about her poetry and art, her new book, and how she approaches her work.

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

DARREN HIGGINS: How long had you been making the pieces that are found in Translations from Bark Beetle? Did you see them from the outset as constituting a greater whole, or did that sense of unity or cohesion only come into focus over time?

JODY GLADDING: The oldest piece in the book, “Gris-gris is a powerful charm,” goes back a decade to the 2004 elections. After Bush stole the presidency in 2000, after his warmongering response to 9/11, after all the eloquent, articulate arguments against him, how could he have won? Maybe it had something to do with what those arguments were written on. Which led me to try writing on/in stone.

As my work over this time drifted further and further from the page, it seemed less and less likely that a book could come of it. So, no, I had no sense of a greater whole, only a growing excitement about the possibilities that were opening up to me. Then, a couple years ago, I looked at what I’d been making and tried to see what might be lured back into a printed format—which became the manuscript for Bark Beetle.

Mobile Since Mars won’t be this close to Earth again

DH: I love the handcrafted feel of the book itself—part field guide/notebook, part artist book. How did the publication come together, and how involved were you able to be in the layout, image selection/placement, and so on?

JG: Milkweed Editions was absolutely wonderful about collaborating on the production of the book. What I submitted to them as “manuscript” included poems, rubbings, photos, and notes. I knew the poems required landscape orientation and the bark beetle specimen box should serve as the cover. Milkweed’s Jeenee Lee came up with the design itself, plus the typewriter font, which makes the whole thing feel provisional, like field notes. I love the sense that you’re opening a specimen box as you turn the first pages.

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

DH: Could you discuss how some of these pieces were created? Do you collect objects that fascinate or engage you, only to figure out what can be done with them later? Or do you head out into the world with a poem in your head, seeking its perfect medium or vessel?

JG: It’s different for each piece. I had the tongue depressor before the poem with “swallow,” but “roc” was on paper long before it found its way onto a feather. With “Nesting Ravens,” from the beginning it needed an egg. But would the egg be whole or broken? In a nest? It wasn’t always a broken egg. Before it broke, I could actually read from it at readings—slow going, because the print is small and the egg has to keep turning. Once at an area high school, a student came up afterward and said it was like the words were coming out of the egg as I read them. Ideally, that would be true for all these object poems.

Featherroc

DH: I had the pleasure of seeing “The Object Poems: Translations from Bark Beetle,” an exhibition of your artwork, photographs, and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts gallery. You wrote something in your artist’s statement that I keep coming back to: “I consider the objects themselves to be the poems. I’m interested in how poetry operates in physical acts, in three-dimensional space, in the world at large.” At what point, then, did you begin to think that the writing could live apart from the art (or vice versa, as the case may be)? Were there pieces for which this kind of vivisection was not possible? More broadly, does the success of the art depend at all on the separate or distinct success of the text? That is, would you consider the art incomplete if the text could not find a home on the page?

JG: All good questions. The word “success” makes me nervous, but yes, in compiling the manuscript there were poems I rejected because, separate from their objects or sites, they seemed insufficient. I’m coming at this process, this way of making art, as a poet, so the text itself must feel as viable to me as any poem I write—that is, what it’s on or what larger project it’s part of can’t act as an excuse for it. On the other hand, I don’t think of the page as the poem’s final home. Some of the poems that are in the show didn’t make it into the book, not because they were any less “successful,” but because the book just couldn’t accommodate them.

EggShellNesting Ravens

DH: In the gallery show and in the book, translations abound: Your printed poems as a kind of translation of the object poems. The objects as translations of landscapes or specific sites. The photographs as translations of the objects. In addition to being a poet and an artist, you are a translator of French. What is it that excites you about translation? And can you talk about the differences between, say, translating from bark beetle and translating from French?

JG: I think translating makes you aware of the spaces between languages, and I think that’s where poetry springs from. I translate French to earn my keep, so my excitement about it ebbs and flows depending on the project. Translating French generally pays—that’s one difference. Translation lets us rethink our own linguistic frameworks, lets us transit across, beyond or through them. That was certainly at the heart of my attempts to translate bark beetle.

DH: You have spoken elsewhere about your embrace of the ephemeral. Many of your recent art projects have channeled transience, living purposefully fugitive lives. Many of the object poems in Bark Beetle are fragile and clearly not meant to last. Have you always been this comfortable with disintegration? If not, how has it come about? And does your attitude extend to your writing?

Hard WoodHardwood

JG: I’d like to say I’ve always been comfortable with transience, but the fact is that when I put together my first collection of poems, in about fifth grade, I imagined archeologists excavating it from ruins eons hence, and I wrote “by Jody Gladding (a girl)” on the cover, so they wouldn’t be misled by my gender-neutral name. I can’t say when not lasting, limited shelf life, became more appealing. It just makes sense. I’ve always been saddened by library discards, stacked remainder tables at bookstores. Better a beautiful demise. The ephemeral works of Andy Goldsworthy or Cecilia Vicuña, are profoundly moving to me. A.R. Ammons, who we both knew at Cornell, has this little poem:

Providence
To stay
bright as
if just
thought of
earth requires
only that
nothing stay

Scan11 Sentences

DH: It seems to me that your pages have themselves turned into landscapes, and that your words—as printed, typographical objects—have, for a while now, been inclined to wander somewhat restlessly across them. Do you ever feel constrained by the page?

JG: It goes back to that notion that poems operate as physical acts, in physical space, in the world at large. Visual artists or installation artists, especially those with poetic sensibilities—I’m thinking of Ann Hamilton, for instance, or Roni Horn—have long worked from that premise, they just didn’t begin on the page. I’m coming to a similar place but from another direction.

Vellum book stitch

DH: After reading Bark Beetle, I was left imagining an inscribed world, a familiar place utterly transformed. Your work, both on and off the page, has long been associated with place. Do you feel that the landscape itself has something to say? In other words, are your works an interpretation or translation of that natural “language,” or do you feel that you in some way impose a language on the land? Can language be trusted in this context? Merwin writes, “our ears / are formed of the sea as we listen.” I suppose I’m really asking how you feel about failure.

JG: I do feel that the landscape has something to say, not to say to us, in some romantic or mystical way, but that the landscape is speaking all the time and we can only benefit by listening, which means expanding the boundaries of what we allow to be language. Recent studies on loons reveal that the particular call that echoes from a particular lake belongs to the lake itself and not the loon. That is, when a new loon takes up residence at a lake, it adopts its predecessor’s call, even if they’ve never met. And a loon moving from one lake to another will change its call to match its new home. If I entertain the notion that language resides in and issues from landscape, the realm of “linguistic beings” increases exponentially. The poems that then emerge? Closer, I hope, to translation than to imposition, to play than to betrayal, but there’s always the danger of making things up.

Failure? My language may fail (and I like what Andy Goldsworthy writes, that “each failure has taught me a little more about the stone”), human language may fail, but language? As a natural phenomenon? Failure is out of the question.

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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Jody Gladding’s newest poetry collection is Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014). Recent poems have appeared in ecopoetics, Orion, Terrain.org, and other journals. She lives in East Calais, Vermont, teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and translates French. Her work includes site-specific installations that explore the interface of language and landscape. 

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  

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Aug 142014
 

Biss

In my recent interview with the brilliant essayist Eula Biss, we spoke at length about one of the major themes in her new book: the continuity between human beings and the environment we inhabit, as well the continuity between all human bodies and human minds. I find this to be an evolution of a major theme in Biss’s last book, the remarkable 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land. This book, which established Biss as one of the great nonfiction writers at work today, is predicated on the continuity of past and present. There can be no separating ourselves from history. In Notes, Biss invokes of the great crimes of early America and confronts the myriad ways we encounter their echoes—in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our fractured families and complicated identities. Best of all, Biss immerses herself in each essay, examining the place she occupies—as a researcher, a writer, a neighbor, a daughter—in the various attitudes, narratives, and institutions the book seeks to expose and challenge.

This lens, at once highly confessional and fiercely critical, is put to use once again in On Immunity: An Inoculation. Biss and I spoke about her desire for the book to highlight “the intellectual work of mothering.” Indeed, On Immunity might easily be read as a personal struggle with information; an intellectual odyssey. But the added drama here is that the life of one’s child depends on that struggle.

In the following excerpt, Biss confronts the common model of the human immune system as a defensive military force eternally on high alert. Our metaphors have consequences. Late in On Immunity, Eula Biss quotes George Orwell from his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” I find that one of the driving forces behind On Immunity is a hopeful reworking of this idea: if thought enriches language, language can also enrich thought. On Immunity is a challenging book, often as sharply critical as its predecessor. But it is also, as Biss noted in our interview, about moving forward. It is an incitement to “live one’s life reparatively.”

— Adam Segal

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Three immunologists on a road trip in 1984 became excited about the possibility that the cells of our bodies might, like the humans they compose, use a system of signs and symbols—a kind of language—in their communication with each other. After traveling for seventeen hours in a VW bus with a ripe wheel of Taleggio cheese and an Italian edition of Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, they determined, through some rough translations performed by the Italian among them, that a better understanding of semiotics, the study of how signs and symbols are used and interpreted, might enhance their work in immunology.

When I learned of the resulting conference on “immuno-semiotics,” I was excited by the possibility that it was devoted to the discussion of metaphor, a semiotic device. I thought I had found a group of immunologists interested in dissecting their own metaphors. To my disappointment, the conference papers revealed that they were much more concerned with the question of how our bodies, not our minds, interpret symbols. But as the immunologist Franco Celada proposed in a paper titled “Does the Human Mind Use a Logic of Signs Developed by Lymphocytes 108 Years Ago?” our minds may have learned the ability to interpret from our bodies.

“Immunologists are forced to use unusual expressions in order to describe their observations,” the semiotician Thure von Uexküll observed at the conference. “Expressions like ‘memory,’ ‘recognition,’ ‘interpretation,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘reading,’ ‘inner picture,’ ‘self,’ ‘nonself,’” he maintained, were unknown in physics or chemistry. “Atoms and molecules have no self, memory, individuality, or inner pictures,” he said. “They are not able to read, to recognise or to interpret anything and cannot be killed either.” Some of the other semioticians at that conference, most notably Umberto Eco, would question whether the cells of the body were literally engaged in acts of interpretation, but the immunologists seemed less skeptical.

When the anthropologist Emily Martin asked an array of scientists to discuss descriptions of the immune system that depended on the metaphor of a body at war, some of them rejected the idea that this was a metaphor. It was, they insisted, “how it is.” One scientist disliked the war metaphor, but only because he objected to the way war was being waged at that moment. In her study of how we think about immunity, which was conducted during the first Iraq war, Martin found that metaphors of military defense permeate our imagination of the immune system.

“Popular publications,” Martin observes, “depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders.” Our understanding of disease as something that we “fight” invites an array of military metaphors for the immune system. In illustrated books and magazine articles, the body employs some cells as “infantry” and others as the “armored unit,” and these troops deploy “mines” to explode bacteria, while the immune response itself “detonates like a bomb.”

But this war imagery does not reflect the full diversity of thinking Martin discovered in her interviews. Alternative medicine practitioners, as a group, consistently refused to use war metaphors in their descriptions of the immune system. Most other people, scientists and nonscientists alike, tended to gravitate toward militaristic terms, but many were able to suggest different metaphors and some explicitly resisted military metaphors. “My visualization would be much more like a piece of almost tides or something . . . the forces, you know, the ebbs and flows,” a lawyer remarked, clarifying that by forces she meant “imbalance and balance.” A number of other people, including scientists, echoed this idea of a body striving for balance and harmony, rather than engaging in armed conflict. The inventive metaphors with which they imagined the immune system ranged from a symphony to the solar system to a perpetual motion machine to the vigilance of a mother.

The term immune system was used for the first time in 1967 by Niels Jerne, an immunologist who was trying to reconcile two factions of immunology—those who believed that immunity depended largely on antibodies and those who believed it depended more on specialized cells. Jerne used the word system to unite all the cells and antibodies and organs involved in immunity into one comprehensive whole. This idea that immunity is the product of a complex system of interdependent parts acting in concert is relatively new to science.

Even so, what we know of this system is staggering. It begins at the skin, a barrier capable of synthesizing biochemicals that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and containing, in its deeper layers, cells that can induce inflammation and ingest pathogens. Then there are the membranes of the digestive, respiratory, and urogenital systems with their pathogen-ensnaring mucous and their pathogen-expelling cilia and their high con- centration of cells equipped to produce the antibodies responsible for lasting immunity. Beyond those barriers, the circulatory system transports pathogens in the blood to the spleen, where the blood is filtered and antibodies are generated, and the lymphatic system flushes pathogens from body tissues to the lymph nodes, where the same process ensues—pathogens are surrounded by an assortment of cells that ingest them, eliminate them, and remember them for a more efficient response in the future.

Deep in the body, the bone marrow and the thymus generate a dizzying array of cells specialized for immunity. These include cells that can destroy infected cells, cells that swallow pathogens and then display pieces of them for other cells to see, cells that monitor other cells for signs of cancer or infection, cells that make antibodies, and cells that carry antibodies. All of these cells, falling into an intricate arrangement of types and subtypes, interact in a series of baroque dances, their communication depending in part on the action of free-floating molecules. Chemical signals travel through the blood from sites of injury or infection, activated cells release substances to trigger inflammation, and helpful molecules poke holes in the membranes of microbes to deflate them.

Infants have all the components of this system at birth. There are certain things the infant immune system does not do well—it has trouble penetrating the sticky coating of the Hib bacteria, for example. But the immune system of a full-term infant is not incomplete or undeveloped. It is what immunologists call “naive.” It has not yet had the opportunity to produce antibodies in response to infection. Infants are born with some antibodies from their mothers already circulating in their systems, and breast milk supplies them with more antibodies, but this “passive immunity” fades as an infant grows, no matter how long it is breast-fed. A vaccine tutors the infant immune system, making it capable of remembering pathogens it has not yet seen. With or without vaccination, the first years of a child’s life are a time of rapid education on immunity—all the runny noses and fevers of those years are the symptoms of a system learning the microbial lexicon.

When I asked for help understanding the basic mechanics of immunity, a professor of immunology gave me a two-hour explanation of the immune system in a coffee shop. He never once, in those two hours, used a military metaphor to describe the workings of the body. His metaphors tended to be gastronomic or educational—cells “ate” or “digested” pathogens and “instructed” other cells. When he spoke of something being killed or destroyed, he was referring to literal death or destruction. The scientific term for a type of white blood cell capable of destroying other cells, he told me, is natural killer.

Later, I attended a series of lectures by the same professor. While I was learning the distinction between innate immunity and adaptive immunity and trying desperately to keep track of a proliferation of acronyms—NLRs and PAMPs and APCs—I would note that the cells of the immune system lead lives in which they kiss, are naive, eat, purge, express, get turned on, are instructed, make presentations, mature, and have memories. “They sound like my students,” a friend of mine, a poetry professor, would observe.

If a narrative of any kind emerged from those lectures, it was the drama of the interaction between our immune system and the pathogens with which it coevolved. This drama was sometimes characterized as an ongoing battle, but not the kind that involves Apache helicopters and unmanned drones— this was clearly a battle of the wits. “And then the viruses got even smarter,” my professor would say, “and did something ingenious—they used our own strategies against us.” In his telling, our bodies and the viruses were two competing intelligences locked in a mortal game of chess.

— Eula Biss

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org

 

Eula Biss  is the author of three books: On Immunity: An Inoculation, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, andThe Balloonists. Her work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The BelieverGulf CoastDenver QuarterlyThird Coast, and Harper’s. Eula Biss and John Bresland are the Chicago-based band STET Everything.

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Aug 122014
 

Eula Biss Eula Biss photograph by Akasha Rabut

 And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. — Eula Biss

Capture

On Immunity: An Inoculation
Graywolf Press, September 30 2014
216 Pages; $24

 

I would often wonder, during my time in that town,” writes Eula Biss at the outset of “Is This Kansas,” published in her 2009 collection Notes from No Man’s Land, “why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned.” This is the theme of an essay that critiques the white-washing of Midwestern collegiate debauchery by setting it against the narratives we cling to regarding the urban poor, particularly poor black Americans. That town, incidentally, is Iowa City, Iowa.

Eula speaks of Iowa Avenue as an epicenter of overindulgent partying life, while Lucas Street, “with all the hooting from dim porches and the boys smashing beer cans, [was] significantly scarier than anywhere I had ever lived in New York.” Some years after she left, I once happened to live, during my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, in an old white house on the intersection of those two streets.  So the honor I was recently granted of interviewing Biss was tinged with a soft, highly personal strain of shame. I believe there is much for which to apologize.

“Is This Kansas” stands out to me for its personal immediacy. But it also exemplifies Biss’s style as an essayist: her frustration with conventional narratives about race and privilege, her desire to expose the coded language we use to cover up our uglier thoughts, and her desire to visualize the derelict buildings, the dried-up or overflowing rivers, and the unfulfilled promises that make up the ruinous legacy of American injustices.

This September, Graywolf Press is publishing Eula Biss’s new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation. Inspired by Biss’s experiences as a new mother, On Immunity is a manifesto on the intersection of public and personal health, as played out in our own bodies and the bodies of our children. Central to the narrative—for there is a narrative here—is the contemporary controversy over vaccination. I’ll allay quickly-aroused fears presently and say that Biss is not against vaccination. But neither is this book a single-minded crusade in the name of vaccination. There are, I’m sure, hundreds of printed and digital articles one could read to that effect.

Biss uses this book to explore the complicated history of immunization. She examines the metaphorical language we use to describe immunity, and relates the often maddening work of a parent to navigate the endless streams of conflicting information in order to answer the primary question: how do I care for my child, and how do I care for the children of others? And is there a way to do both? That we still inhabit the imperfect world of Notes from No Man’s Land is made explicit in On Immunity. Here we must come to terms with all that humanity has wrought upon this Earth—the injustice, the pollution, the chemicals in our food and in our bodies—and accept that it is now a part of us. This time, Eula doesn’t leave us in ruins. She leaves us with something perhaps more useful: a vision of humanity enduring, proceeding, together.

Recently I corresponded with Eula Biss by way of email. We spoke about the place for personal narrative in nonfiction, the power of a carefully chosen metaphor, the illusion of bodily and mental independence, and the debts we owe to our parents and our children.

—Adam Segal

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Adam Segal (AS): Your new book is heavily influenced by Susan Sontag’s 1977 Illness as Metaphor as well as its 1988 follow-up, AIDS and its Metaphors. Both books work to disentangle disease—particularly cancer and AIDS—from the associated narratives and metaphors Sontag saw as harmful to literal patients of those very real diseases. Our metaphors, she argues, obscure and distract from the reality of suffering, and often increase suffering by instilling shame in patients and preventing people from seeking effective treatment. In Illness as Metaphor it is never mentioned that Sontag herself was diagnosed with cancer, a decision she explains in AIDS and its Metaphors in the following way:

“I didn’t think it would be useful – and I wanted to be useful – to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage… though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea.”

You note in On Immunity that Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring with similar feelings. “She did not want her work to appear to be driven by anything other than scientific evidence. And so her personal struggle with cancer was told only through dwindling numbers of bald eagles, through eggs that did not hatch, and through the robins that lay dead on the lawns of suburbia.” On Immunity, in contrast, presents your own story prominently. That you present yourself as mother in addition to being a writer and researcher is perhaps what makes your new book so relatable. We all fear for our families, we all want to care for our children, whether real or potential. But was there was a time in the writing process that you considered following the example of Sontag and Carson in keeping your personal narrative out of the finished work? And if there was, what finally made you choose to write On Immunity as you did?

Eula Biss (EB): I suspect that there was a lot more than a desire to be useful behind Sontag’s decision not to write a personal narrative about her struggle with cancer. Her aesthetics as an essayist, for one, don’t seem to favor such a work. And—this is purely speculative, as I am an admirer of Sontag but no scholar of her—perhaps the pressures of being a female intellectual in her time also played some part in that decision. Rachel Carson, who studied biology when that field was almost entirely dominated by men, likely faced similar pressures.

I know about those pressures, but I don’t really feel them when I am writing. My work as an essayist is heavily influenced by poetry, and I was lucky to be reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath as I was finding my way as a young writer. I count that as one of the reasons why I tend to think of personal narrative—particularly when it concerns the body or domesticity—as a perfectly viable space for intellectual exploration. Both of my previous books use personal narrative to explore ideas and problems. But when I first began writing On Immunity, I found myself gravitating toward information and abstract ideas more than narrative. Sontag was a valuable guide to me because she is so very comfortable in the meditative mode, and so adept in her handling of ideas. Part of what I felt driven to do, in the early drafts of On Immunity, was to address the intellectual work of mothering. There is some acknowledgment in our culture that mothering is physically demanding and emotionally demanding, but I think there is less acknowledgment of the fact that it is intellectually demanding. So the ideas came first.

I was nursing a child and changing diapers—very viscerally engaged—but I was most captivated by disembodied ideas. As I worked, some personal narrative emerged, in part because it was, in places, the best way to address the ideas that interested and vexed me. I struggled, for instance, to write about the complexity of paternalism in medicine until I used my son’s surgery as a window into some of the contradictions of paternalism. I was very reluctant to write about that experience—in part because thinking about it was still painful, but also because I wanted to offer my son some privacy. (With two parents who write personal essay, he is at risk for quite a bit of exposure!) The narrative of his surgery was ultimately much more effective at communicating my thinking than my initial draft, which was not narrative at all—I have Maggie Nelson to thank for that, as she encouraged me toward personal narrative in that case.

AS: You’ve certainly succeeded in addressing the intellectual work of mothering. One of the more compelling aspects of On Immunity is that the story of your search for (and struggle with) information—as a mother and as a writer—is as important to the personal narrative as your stories of motherhood.

Sontag writes in AIDS and Its Metaphors that her two books on illness are an exercise in being “against interpretation.” So in her books on illness, she asks that we speak of illness without reaching for further meaning. “Of course,” she admits, “one cannot think without metaphors. But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.” But where Sontag’s books are purely dedicated to stripping illnesses of excess metaphorical weight, you have a different tactic entirely. Often in On Immunity, you seek to replace an arguably harmful or archaic metaphor with one that is more fitting or more positive. For example, in assessing negative associations with paternalism in medicine, you write, “If fathering still reminds us of oppressive control, mothering might help us imagine relationships based not just on power, but also care.”

You once wrote, in an essay pitting the myths of New York City against an individual’s actual lived experience of that city, “I know now that it is very difficult to dismantle one story without replacing it with another.” Is this why you’re so interested in choosing new metaphors, rather than just dismantling them as Sontag does? And do you suppose it’s really possible to, with active surveillance of the language we employ, find metaphors that don’t harm or distort?

EB: I think it is entirely possible to employ metaphors that do more good than harm. They just need to be apt metaphors. As Sontag notes, we can’t think without metaphor. Nor can we speak or write without metaphor—our language is dense with metaphor, much of which we no longer recognize as metaphor. My project in On Immunity was never to strip immunity of its metaphors—not much would be left in that case, as even the technical language of immunology is built on metaphor—but to make the metaphors we employ around immunity visible enough for us to think about them, rather than simply through them.

Early in my research I read a book called Bodily Matters, which is a history of the anti-vaccine movement in England from 1853 to 1907. The book is full of surprises, but I was most surprised to discover that some of the metaphors I was hearing in contemporary usage around vaccines were already in use over 150 years ago. The metaphor of pollution, for instance, is an old one. Victorians were very concerned about bodily pollution and the threat of a foreign substance polluting the blood set off some of their anxieties around purity, anxieties closely tied to class and race politics. We still have those anxieties, but the metaphor of bodily pollution has gained even more power for us from its association with environmental pollution. This is a loose association, and environmental pollution is not a good metaphor for much of anything that goes on in vaccination, but our anxieties around everything we associate with pollution tend to be intense.

While I was reading Bodily Matters, I reflected on the source of my own fears about vaccination. Many of those fears were tied, I realized, to metaphors of pollution. The idea that vaccines contained “toxins,” for instance, invited all my concerns over the ambient toxicity of our environment and the destruction of our environment to bleed into my thinking about vaccination.

But when I thought more deeply into both vaccination and environmental pollution, I began to feel that the metaphor of a vaccine as a pollutant that enters the environment of our body and degrades it was a highly inaccurate metaphor that obscured what was really happening. And yes, I did ultimately feel moved not just to critique that metaphor, but to replace it with a new metaphor or metaphors related to environmental preservation. It seemed to me that the metaphor we were using was so wrong that it was actually suggesting the opposite of what was true, so I tried turning the metaphor around. There are a handful of metaphors that I turned in this manner: I replaced metaphors of pollution with metaphors of habitat preservation, I replaced metaphors of fiscal corruption with metaphors of fiscal responsibility—banking is a persistent refrain throughout the book—and I replaced the metaphor of the vaccinator as a vampire preying on babies with the metaphor of the unvaccinated person as a vampire preying on the social body.

AS: Another of your projects within On Immunity is to engage with and revise the language we use to position ourselves as somehow Separate. Separate, for example, from an idealized “nature.” Separate from the viruses and bacteria that thrive in us, have evolved with us, and have become a part of us. And separate from the pollution we’ve collectively brought upon the natural world. One of my favorite passages from your book makes it perfectly clear that such a separation is impossible:

“If we do not yet know exactly what the presence of a vase range of chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breast milk might mean for the future of our children’s health, we do at least know that we are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted. We have more microorganisms in our guts than we have cells in our bodies – we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

It is in this last point that I am most interested. Much of the book’s later portion is dedicated to examining the extent to which humans are continuous and codependent. You quote your sister, a professor and Kant scholar, as saying “you don’t own your body – that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making… The point is there’s an illusion of independence.” On Immunity makes a compelling case for the idea that our bodies are not the self-contained systems we imagine them to be, that the skin around our flesh is not an impermeable boundary between Us and Them. “From birth onward,” you write, “our bodies are a shared space.”

But I sense that the most basic way we feel separate from others isn’t in the perception that we have separate bodies, it’s in the acknowledgement that we have (or seem to have) our own inner lives, our own consciousness. Whether one sees the mind, soul-like, as independent of and higher than the body, or whether one sees mind and body as utterly inseparable, a model of humanity in which all human bodies are continuous with one another complicates the idea of an independent consciousness. Suppose the model of a broader human body you present were to take hold, how would it affect the way we understood the conscious mind? This illusion of independence, does it extend to the inner self?

EB: I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand I want to believe that, yes, my consciousness is mine alone. I remember a moment from a Faulkner course I took with Marilynne Robinson when she answered a student’s question about the difficulty of The Sound and the Fury by talking about the inherent difficulty of entering the consciousness of, for instance, Benjy, a mentally disabled adult. Literature is, she suggested, the closest we were ever going to get to inhabiting another consciousness. I think of that often when I am writing—literature can bring a consciousness to the page to be shared.

But part of why I was surprised when I read Bodily Matters is because I recognized, in reading that book, that my fears around vaccination weren’t original to me. They weren’t, in fact, even original to my time. They were historically sourced, bred by shared social anxieties, and fed by collectively embraced metaphors. Our minds and our emotional lives aren’t self-contained—they are constantly informed by the people around us. The results of a well-publicized study recently suggested that one can “catch” happiness from one’s friends—emotional states are, to some extent, contagious. As is obesity, for many of the same reasons. The health of our minds, like the health of our bodies, depends on the people around us. Our minds don’t exist in isolation and isolation isn’t good for our minds. Solitary confinement, for instance, can be psychologically harmful. The mind doesn’t thrive when it is cut off from other minds.

But yes, in a culture that is as thoroughly steeped in Enlightenment values of individuality as ours is, it can be even more difficult and threatening to think of our minds as connected than it is to think of our bodies as connected. I’m reminded of the Borg on Star Trek, the alien race that is made up of many species that have all been “assimilated” into a collective that is made up of somewhat autonomous bodies that share a “hive mind.” The Borg is a persistent threat in various episodes of Star Trek and it remains sinister in part because it offers us an opportunity to explore our fear of the collective, especially collective thought. The idea of a shared mind terrifies us. But it’s not science fiction. One of the things my research for On Immunity taught me is how much of our knowledge, as well as our information, is a product of a hive mind. Our most pressing scientific inquiries are performed collectively. Insights are arrived at through the collaboration of many minds. We do not know alone.

AS: The moment that I found most affecting in Notes from No Man’s Land wasn’t within any of the essays, it was actually the endnote to the final essay “All Apologies.” In that note, you compare our relationship with the past and present injustices of our nation to the relationship you have with your parents:

“If America was a young country during slavery, then she is now an adult who must reckon with her childhood. The guilt I have lived with longest and felt most deeply is my guilt over all the debts I will never be able to return to my parents, and over all the impossible apologies I owe them. In this case, I can only hope that my life, which is my crime, might also serve as my apology.”

After a book of essays chronicling the legacies of American injustices, this final passage offers a suggestion on how to move forward: To recognize (but not necessarily to dwell upon) all that has been done and cannot be undone, and to live one’s life as an apology for that wrongdoing.

But in On Immunity you no longer play the role of child. Here you are very clearly a mother. Do you feel that this new book is a continuation of that lived apology? Has becoming a mother perhaps changed your understanding of these impossible apologies you owe?  (Does the debt now belong to your son?)

EB: When I began working on On Immunity, I didn’t really think the book had much relationship to Notes from No Man’s Land. The subject matter felt like a departure, and it was stylistically different. But as I worked, I did begin to think of it as a kind of continuation of Notes. The idea of living one’s life reparatively, rather than destructively, emerged in Notes, but even after the book was published I was not certain that I really knew what that looked like in a practical sense. And then I found myself confronted, through my research for On Immunity, with all the ways that refusing vaccination resembled other manifestations of privilege. I understood that if I really believed in living reparatively, I was going to have to act out that belief through my son’s body. And yes, it caused me some anguish to hold down his arms and legs while he screamed and struggled against vaccination. I told him some version of “this is for your own good” at the time, but the truth was more complicated—this was for his good and the good of everyone around him.

When he was first born, I thought a lot about what it meant to live a “good” life. My parents raised me with a moral vision that was mostly communicated not by what they said, but by what they did and how they lived. One of the many debts I owe them is that vision, and as a mother I can see that I may not be able to pay that debt back, but I can pay it forward by casting their moral vision into the future through my son. I want him to grow up knowing that the wellbeing of the people around him is important.

And yes, becoming a mother has changed my understanding of impossible apologies. I have taught my son to apologize, but I want no apology from him. Nor, I am now certain, do my parents want one from me. We do what we do as parents out of love. When my son was quite small, around three, one of his good friends lost her father. So we had a lot of conversations about death. He asked me questions like, “Can you still see after you’re dead? And can you still hear?” And then he asked me, “Can you still remember your life after you’re dead.” I told him that nobody knows, and then I asked him what he would like to remember from his life. He said, “loving you.” I still haven’t recovered from hearing that. I told my husband recently that I hope to have earned that sentiment by the time my son is grown.

—Eula Biss & Adam  Segal

 

Adame Segal

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

 

Aug 112014
 

author pic Shane JonesShane Jones

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. —Sebastian Ennis

Crystal Eaters cover

Crystal Eaters
Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio (June, 2014)
Paperback; 183 Pages; $16.00

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Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters crossed my email with no more description than “tight prose, reckless imagination.” Basically: take note. This is the real thing. His debut novel, Light Boxes, was about a town that wages war against February. Jones followed that with The Six Failure, a “sick little fairy tale” set in a town where speech filters through a dream-machine of recycled bureaucracy and shuffles through stacks of papers so tall they touch the sky. That one’s about a group of messengers tasked with telling the life story of an amnesiac. It’s a novella of rhythmic variations and the unbecoming of memory. Then came Daniel Fights a Hurricane, which Jones described as “a novel of hallucinations.” This one popped up on our radar at Numéro Cinq. “[Daniel Fights a Hurricane] is a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics,” writes Jason DeYoung:

but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.

DeYoung, plenty risqué on his own to be sure, was actually quoting Jones there, from an interview with BOMB Magazine:

Beauty in novels is important to me. I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.

(I’ll come back to this.)

And now there’s Crystal Eaters, published by Two Dollar Radio, a family-run outfit you should keep an eye on. It’s about a village where people believe they’re born with 100 crystals inside their bodies (probably in their stomachs), and as they age, as they get hurt, their count goes down. It’s also a family saga and a coming of age story; it touches on modern life, rituals, myths, and bygone days; it’s hallucinatory, dreamlike, lapsing into memory, collapsing landscapes and dreamscapes and mental states in drug-induced sensory overloads; it’s about a city that grows on its own like a fungus in the night spreading a quarter-inch further across the horizon each day; it’s about a mother dying; it’s about the sun colliding with the Earth; it’s one of those stories that seems familiar yet not, sci-fi but not really, poetic but only just, even _________ (but I can’t write “Kafkaesque” here; however apt, it’s a dull and overused adjective).

Here’s the thing about Jones and Kafka though: they both know how to do “fucked-up and beautiful.” Not only that, but their writing does something to us; it suspends fear and beauty in a complex and inescapable space of mundane human struggle, and by no more than presenting it thus, without overnaming the anxiety we feel when we realize the paradox of our situation, it creates a terrible effect (terrible because it’s impossible to place, impossible to trace back to an origin; it shouldn’t be and yet it is everywhere). Ben Marcus’ recent article on Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” pinpoints these feelings and their transformative effect:

The kind of feeling that Kafka traffics in I find especially appealing because of its contradictions and conflicts, and because of the mixture of fear and beauty, the seemingly incompatible sensations are suspended and held aloft and presented to us . . . An individual sentence can be penetrating, almost like a drug when it gets into me. I read, and as I read I find myself rearranged and transported and moved, as if I’ve swallowed a little pill. I love sentences that instantly hit my bloodstream and derange me.

The pills might look different, but the effect that Jones and Kafka produce when they’re at their best is the same: it’s what Marcus calls “defamiliarization”—it’s the sort of word that crawls out of your mouth one leg at a time, like some nasty academic thing. Describing the effect of Kafka’s intimate prose, the way it drags you in deep and shakes you off in a familiar place before spitting you out the other side of elsewhere, Marcus writes:

This is a stunning feat of defamiliarization—we’re not in the real world, and yet the world is entirely familiar to us—from stories, from myths, from legends. It’s dreamlike. It’s not invented to the degree where you have to suspend disbelief—there’s a feeling of plain normalcy, this banal particularity that is our world, at the same time it’s otherworldly.

Marcus doesn’t mention “the uncanny” here, which, given its proximity to what he’s describing, seems odd. Maybe because “uncanny” is as hard to define as “Kafkaesque”; as Freud put it, the word “uncanny” is not always used in a clearly definable way, but we expect that it implies some intrinsic quality which justifies the use of a special name. Of course, then Freud went and famously defined the uncanny as: “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Something uncanny seems unfamiliar at first and then all too familiar; it syncopates between the two. So the uncanny produces an effect that can also be called “defamiliarization.” And yet, while the uncanny uncovers a banal strangeness we’re used to, it goes about it in a different way than what’s going on in Kafka and Jones, who aren’t particularly terrifying. Instead, they use the fucked-up, the odd, the out of place in a way that’s just familiar enough to affect not a gestalt shift but the feeling of a putting in question, digging at our beliefs from the edge of a precipice.

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, when asked about the layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters, Jones said: “The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death.” Belief moves the soul outside itself, and it’s going on all around us—this form of transcendence—in a very mundane sort of way that might not mean anything. For Jones, the absurd beauty of belief isn’t reserved for the dirt dwellers, who, here, believe they have a number of crystals inside them; but a myth like this shows us something of our own beautiful distractions, our everyday beliefs and all we take for granted that’s odd and out of place in our lives while seeming unremarkable. Of course, it’s all absurd in the face of death and maybe it’s a bit fucked-up, but, hell, if it isn’t beautiful all the same.

— Sebastian Ennis

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Sebastian Ennis

Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He is a graduate of the University of King’s College in Halifax with a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.

 

Aug 102014
 

Harvey imageMatthea Harvey

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions,  and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. —A. Anupama

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press
160 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 978-1-55597-684-2

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In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. And if that’s not enough, the list of collaborations and co-inspired projects at the end of the book adds audio, film, and even more poetry and visual art to the experience.

Matthea Harvey is the author of four collections of poetry and two children’s books. Born in Germany in 1973, she lived in Marnhull, England, until age eight, when she moved with her family to Milwaukee. She earned a BA in literature from Harvard, then an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third poetry collection, Modern Life (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was also a New York Times Notable Book.

A silhouette of a mermaid with a hand-saw for a tail greets us on the first page of this new collection. And the mermaids tie back to that earlier collection. In an interview about Modern Life, Harvey said, “My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.” The strikingly beautiful sequence of mermaid poems that opens her new book could have leaped right out of “You Know This Too” in Modern Life:

…through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffiti—Long Live the Berlin…. The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

As Harvey scissors back into the subject, various types of mermaids sing their grievances in brief prose poems. “The Backyard Mermaid” suffers namelessness as well as persecution by the neighborhood cat, and “The Straightforward Mermaid” has learned through experience to avoid hooks and sailors. The lament of “The Objectified Mermaid” reveals that:

The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it!’ He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine. Without asking, the assistant resprays her with glycerine…. After an hour under the studio spotlights, she’s starting to smell pretty fishy. Can’t blame it (as she has before) on her standard seaweed bra because this fool of a photographer has her holding two clear fishbowls in front of her breasts so it looks like goldfish are swimming past her nipples. She’s supposed to pretend it tickles. She wants to ask if he’s heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’ which she recently learned at Land Berlitz. When asked if she’s tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.

Objectified Mermaid

In another brilliant sequence, this one titled “Inside the Glass Factory,” Harvey pretends to invent a new type of mythic creature: girl factory workers who live entirely within glass walls and glass ceiling.

Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.

When they make a girl out of glass, the creative process anneals to reveal that their kiln-born invention is an accomplice in escape:

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
about their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.

Rhyme slides like reflections across glass throughout this sequence and the collection as a whole. Harvey creates special effects with slant rhymes, like “cross-legged” and “fogged,” or various styles of non-end-line rhymes, like “she,” “see,” and “key” in the middles of lines 6, 7, and 8 in this poem. Often Harvey uses one end word and one internal word as a rhymed pair, as with “lead” and “heads,” or she flattens the poetic line with placement of one word in the middle and the other at the end, as in “smeared the sky. At break they lie….” In the three lines beginning with “Once a stag,” Harvey’s combination of slant rhyme (scraped / gasped), end word with internal word rhyme (wall / all), and assonance with alliteration (glass / gasped) and consonance (stag / past / gasped) reveals the dimensions of kaleidoscopic reality. At the end of the sequence, Harvey remarkably renovates one of the most clichéd rhymes in English poetry: trees / breeze.

Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.

Harvey - glass factory image

The titles of the poems in this sequence are photographs of glass bottles, which distill space, color, and light in a dazzling movement. The images and texts scissor past each other, raising the highest temperatures of sensory attention. My review copy offered only black-and-white reproductions, completely unlike the full-color experience, which I was happy to find available online at the American Public Media website along with an interview and audio performance. This set of poems and their photograph titles were commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between the Poetry Foundation, American Public Media’s Performance Today, and the White Pine Festival, as a multidisciplinary performance of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5” with the Miro Quartet.

Before I snip loose threads and sew up this review with glories from the substantial final sequence, let me add a few poems from the middle of the collection that reveal some of Harvey’s poetic tone. “When the Water Is at Our Ankles” devastates with its calm, dark voice cutting through to reality in the form of global warming.

Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two…

“Last Stop Dreamland” prefaces a string of post-apocalyptic poems, most of which are titled by photographs and which I marked as little marvels, beautifully imagined and individually distinct. In this particular poem, the robot–beverage cart on a train “is careful about feet / so careful about feet. Once someone slapped / it, and the cart thought, ‘this will serve me a lesson / to look where I step’….” Later in the poem, Harvey observes this—

…Through the window,
a flash of horse nodding in the field (nose to
the hay, nose to the sky) and the chorus
of sugar maples above singing almost there, nary
a care, as the passengers gather their reflections
from the windows and slap them back onto
their faces and chests, flex their feet, and
arch their backs to erase the shape of their sitting.
The ice cubes are all melted, the books are
stowed away, and as the people exit the train,
they look dazed, hazier, as if their bits aren’t
quite put back together. The Treatzcart hums
along happily—soon it will start over, chugging
down the aisles offering bagels, coffee, juice.
It loves to watch the faces waver as they choose.

The passengers’ staring into glass for a semblance of themselves echoes the action in the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory.” Harvey manages this evolving repetition masterfully throughout this collection. Another example: the ice cubes melting in this poem echo an earlier sequence of photographs of objects embedded in effervescent ice.

The last sequence, “Telettrofono,” echoes the mermaids in the form of Esterre Meucci, wife of the inventor Antonio Meucci, who is credited by some with creating the first telephone. The dramatic scene-by-scene text reads like an instruction manual or patent application, with scientific figures illustrated in embroidery. The first of these figures is a cross-section of Meucci’s telettrofono, featuring a double-helix in periwinkle thread next to a microphone stitched in chartreuse. The first instruction reads: “Hello? Please turn off all twenty-first-century gadgets, as they will interfere with the delicate instrument you are holding in your hand.”

The delicate instrument could be the long poetic sequence itself, measuring the precise length of a love of sound:

Esterre wants her ears closer to the clouds,
wants them to stretch over the water
so she can hear the opposite shore.
You give her one thing, she wants more.
I bring her a hare after a long day of hunting
and she cries and strokes its long ears.

and the density of a love affair:

…She gave me scraps
of white cotton and muslin for my snow cradle—
we suspended the bag above the stage and a man
in each wing shook the strings gently, gently
so the snow-cloth sifted through the holes
in the bag and drifted down onto the singers.
That snow scene was the only silent thing that
ever made her smile.

Some of the segments of text are framed as stage directions for an opera, dramatic monologues, math problems, or fairy tale. The sequence takes up the last quarter of the collection—a significant portion of the work. Harvey created the sequence as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett, and the hour-long audio is available on the Poetry Foundation’s Soundcloud [https://soundcloud.com/poetryfoundation/telettrofono-by-matthea-harvey]. The full text and images are also on the Poetry Foundation’s website. If I could snip a couple of favorite images from this sequence, they would be the bone xylophone and the marine telephone—beautifully close to seeing Harvey’s poetic language and imagining the sound she had in mind.

harvey_bone xylophone

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? contains worlds and collections, which spill intimately, like your suitcase probably would upon security inspection, and pronounces what you already know: you’ll never get that thermometer back.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Aug 092014
 

Lee Thompson

 

George and Chiara spotted the sea monster not far from where they had set down their picnic blanket and basket.  It was George who had recommended this spit of rocky tongue that overlooked the sea, but not because he thought a monster might be floundering a stone’s throw from Chiara’s smooth, tanned knee, but because he wanted to be alone with her, away from the hotel, and on Chiara’s map she had written ‘hidden lover cove’.  But it was while gazing at her knee – which had small, pale scars – and while letting his gaze slip higher that something beyond her hip caught his eye.  That hip now, the hip he had held and pulled to him last summer, that hid beneath a thin summer dress, there was no reason for his eye to leave that hip, especially as his cock began to stir against his thigh.  It is not so easy this time, Chiara had said as they set the blanket down.  There are… complications.

It is hungry, was what Chiara said, after they had wandered to the shore.

It was green-black, serpentine, had a dog’s head and fur here and there where its stubby limbs joined the body. The fur was more a bronze colour, and thick.  It didn’t look real.  It had nostrils that flared and closed, like a seal, and Chiara said it is just a weird sea lion, George, and George remembered her way of saying weird, and other strange inflections.  Its mouth, when it opened its mouth, was wide, sucker-like.  OK, it is not one of those, said Chiara.

I do not like it.

But we should feed it.

.           

If there was divine form in the universe, it was that sweep of hip, that fall and cradle for a cheek or a palm. In bed last summer, in Chiara’s childhood bedroom, her mother having stepped out to get a few things at the market, George had thought this and tried to tell Chiara.  You think too much, George, she said.  Once, I thought too much.  But no more.  Do you understand?  And she had moved over him so slowly, like a curse, and took him in her mouth.  She did not stop when her mother returned, calling out from down the stairs, nothing George understood for he was distracted and not good at Italian.

How did he feel when she went below and then kissed her mother on the forehead?

And how did he feel when her mother kissed her, on the lips, and then met George half way up the stairs and kissed him, too?  I love… this man, she said, proud of her daughter’s choice, and her own passable English.  Keep him.  And they ate.

.

Why does it not like fish, George?  It is a thing of the sea, it has the smell of the sea, but look, you throw it fish, dead fish, alive fish, and it is like you give it shit.

George told her not to stand so close.

Why, it won’t eat me!  Chiara stuck her foot toward the monster, told it to take a bite, and before George could move – for they were on slick rock – the thing had lunged and perhaps only her falling back had saved her, that and her swearing.  She had bloodied her elbows but was never one to feel pain, unless it was the pain of the past.

It needs a pig, she said.

So they left it in its shallow pool on the edge of the spit and gathered their picnic blanket and basket and hopped in her old French car and drove inland, to the mountains, where she said they would catch a pig, a wild boar, with their hands, no, but with the blanket and put it in the basket, yes, that was a better idea.  George recalled last summer when she would not make love in the forest for fear of boars, and now she wanted to scoop one into a basket?  She laughed.  Just a baby one, but you will have to keep the mama away.

They did not catch a wild boar.

But she told him about the complications.

.

There once was a man and a woman, George.  And the man and the woman lived very far from each other.  They lived so far from each other that there was water between them.  So much water.  And the water was full of salt, like tears, like crying tears, not tears like rips.  Am I saying it right?  Tears. Teers.  Stupid language.  Why is your language like this?  Why do you not fix it?  How do you English talk to each other without every body saying what, eh, huh, excuse me?  Squid!  Stop the car, turn around, George!

It’s context.

What? Turn around.

At the roadside market she bought too much squid, but she liked it, too.  And squid was also a weird word, she said.  She squeezed her hands together, delighted.  Squid squid squid, she said, pretending to squirt something then looking him in the eye and saying oh Georgie, I want to squid you.  I am very serious. So they drove back to the serpent while the sun sank through the sea and set the blanket down once more and made love.  The serpent thrashed in its shallow pool.  Its odour, and the odour of the squid in the bag, and the scent of Chiara’s hair and the musk of her body lotion and the breeze from the shore had George drunk and not worrying about anything beyond Chiara’s movements.  Her mouth covered his and she held him between her thighs, would not let him pull out.

I am pregnant, she said afterwards.  So do not worry.

Naked, they threw squid into the tidal pool.

But it did not eat.

.

It wasn’t his, and that was the complication.  She would not say whose it was, saying only there is so much water, George. He had his hand on her brown belly, his pinky finger in her pubic hair and his thumb over her navel.  A baby?  She shrugged.  Are you sure?  She nodded.  I stopped bleeding, did the stupid test, now it grows in me.

Could he make love again?

She took hold, tried to tease it back to life.

Why won’t you eat, she said to it, then laughed.  She spread her thighs.

They left the motel and stopped the car alongside the highway, for there was a stench.  A bag of hot squid in the trunk.  George said it was a waste but Chiara said the sea birds and homeless cats would not let it go to waste.  But yes, it is sad to throw it out.

The tide had ebbed, flowed, left behind wrack and dreck, had easily washed over the sea monster’s pool, but had left the creature behind.  It is dead, said Chiara.  And I am hungry.  Throw a stone at it.  George lobbed a stone underhand and the sea monster sloshed its tail.  Chiara swore, said she would not spend her vacation doing this, said let’s grab it and George said we should just tell someone.  Who?  Isn’t there a marine centre, or?  They have seals and dolphins, George, not these.  She took off her sandals and before George could stop her – he had returned to the car for his camera – she  entered the pool.  Are you fucking crazy, George shouted. Chiara, turning, made a small sound deep in her throat and collapsed.

.

He would rescue his beloved with her car.  He would put it in neutral and push it over the edge where it would tumble down the rocks and land atop the beast. He stood at the edge of the pool and saw the car topple, pin the sea monster. Just kill it, kill it.  But how do you put a standard transmission in neutral?  Where are the keys? Hit it with a rock!  Who had she fucked?  Why did she do that?  There was a metre of water between them.  If he leaped in?  Distracted it? Call, call for help.  If it ate her it would also eat her baby.  He couldn’t watch it eat her.  He was doing nothing.  How could she just stroll in like that?  Really, how messed up is that?  It’s like you’re that kid who strolls into the tiger exhibit holding out his sandwich.  But that’s it, isn’t it?  That explains why she had fucked around.  And come on, there was Paul, remember?  George, Paul will not be happy with me, I should not see you.  What about Ringo?  She paused, then laughed, was sputtering, was crawling for the edge of the pool reaching for George, who pulled her out.

If anything, the sea monster had moved farther from her.

It won’t even eat me now, George.

It was electric, she said, lying in his arms.  Zap.  Zap zap.

____

Days later, when Chiara could walk again, for she had indeed taken quite a shock, they returned to the tidal pool. It was dusk and high thin clouds swirled.  On the salmon-hued horizon a sailboat’s mast swayed and they could hear the sea crashing.  This is the Ostro, Chiara said, or the unhappy wind, so we mustn’t stay long.

He told her he wished she wouldn’t.

My hair?  It is mine to do with.

But I love your hair.

You are leaving, George, what do you care?

On the drive along the rocky spit she had said she could feel it in her hair, the creature, that it had discharged in the pool, peed or squirted something, but you wouldn’t understand.  This is because no one understands.  She placed her hands on her stomach.

She hadn’t lost the baby.

At the hospital George changed the story Chiara had burbled while under pain killers.  Not a monster, he said, non e monstro, non e animale, era… uh, lightning… rumble sounds and sky gestures.  The doctor’s brow furrowed, una tempesta? ieri sera?  Si, George said, ieri sera, tempesta, ma… piccola tempesta.

You should not even try, Chiara had said.

Little storms pop up all the time, George had said.

You are foolish, Chiara had said.

And the mood was no better an hour later.  Why should he be bothered if she wanted to cut her hair?  It was long and black and cutting it would make her much less attractive and, but what did that matter, too?  She was expecting another man’s child.  How did that happen?  With him she was always  insistent on condoms, saying a baby would be a disaster, there would be rumours in her hometown, her father would know she’s not a virgin (she laughed), she’d have to quit her job teaching kids to dance, which would leave those kids with nothing to do all summer and maybe they’d start smoking, drinking, get pregnant…

The sea monster was still there.

.

We will get gasoline and set the pool on fire.  But we should do this at night, when no one will see the smoke.  I know what you are thinking, but smoke will hide the flames.  No, I do not have experience with this, George. But it is common sense.  This is cruel, though, so we won’t do this.  We should get a shark and put it in there.  Well, a small shark, please George I am not stupid.  But we have to do  it. It is our responsibility.  What if children come here to play?  It will kill them all.  We will be guilty.  Maybe you can throw a stone at its head?  You throw stones well.  But that could take a long time.  A gun?  No that is crazy, you cannot get a gun on the island.  Why are you looking like that?  You don’t think we should kill it?  It tried to eat me, George.  Let’s wear boots and drain the pool, OK?  Yes, this is the best way – it will leave the pool when there is no water, or it will die.  Both of these things are the best things.  So we need the little buckets and rubber boots.  But you cannot buy rubber boots here, we must steal them from fishermen, who buy them off the island.  They only sell sandals here, and flip flops.  No, no we don’t need to stand in the water, we’ll just scoop the water out.  We will do this tonight.  I will make us sandwiches. 

.

To Chiara, a sandwich was a brick of dry bread with a chunk of brie stuck in the middle and George wondered what kind of wife she would be.  She had a fear of corners, and she talked about this as if it were a common thing.  My fear of corners is worse than most.  She didn’t allow him to touch her clitoris directly, but would tear the hair from her loins with a brutal, buzzing device.  He watched her while she did this, one leg set on the bathtub ledge.  You like to watch me torture myself, George?  But everything was a kind of torture. 

In bed she was erotic, but a prude.

She often called him a sorcerer.

You have a big belly (he didn’t!), so how do you do this to me?

They lay in bed, the sheets soiled from two weeks of heat and secretions, his cock aching and his underarms rank.  She was two months along, she’d said.  She liked not having her period, not bloating like a seal.  It hadn’t set in, really, that she’d be a mother.  She asked if he was angry?  She said no you are not, you do not anger, and George shrugged.  Or is it only fucking, George?  He said it wasn’t, but it was, though it wasn’t, so he didn’t say anything for he saw her as volatile, not dangerous, not a storm, just…  Well, admittedly, if he’d arrived and she’d said I’m pregnant and we cannot have sex, it would have been different.  He’d be unhappy, yes.  She started to stroke him, no longer surprised that he was hard again.  She wondered if it, the monster, had a cock.  Maybe he only wants a girlfriend?  Maybe he is the last of his kind.  Poor guy.  She stroked him slowly.

.

As midnight approached and the rising moon slipped in and out of mackerel clouds, the creature began to keen.  Above the falling surf it keened, a sound that was not like a baby’s mewling, though that’s what George thought of.  It keened as they scooped seawater from the dark pool and Chiara said it knows what we are doing, George, but George said perhaps it keens every night.  Chiara started to cry.  George held Chiara.

They were racing against the tide.

There is too much water, said Chiara through her tears.

.

They slept in the car, the back seats set back and Chiara sprawled over George, who woke to the sound of rain.  The remnants of a dream slid across the rear windshield and the car shook.  His heart raced.  It had been in here, or it had tried.  Through the rust it had moved, the vents.  The car shook and it was the wind, he knew, lashing from the sea. The Ostro whistled through the rocks below and he moved out from under Chiara, an arm numb, moved out and slipped into the front seat, started the car and turned on the headlights, saw sheets of rain and white crests of waves, tried to put it into gear, stalled, remembered that she had parked too close to the edge, the drop was there, the passenger side.  He turned the headlights off, then the car, slept in the front seat until the sun woke him.

When it did, his lover was not there. The car’s rear hatch was open.

And he did not find her down at the shore, sitting at the edge of the tidal pool, watching over the  serpent, which was gone.  He walked, then ran along shore, stumbling over rock, seaweed, stung by plump purple jellyfish when taking to the water, thought he saw her offshore, on a jagged excuse of an island the locals called Scoglietta, the Little Stone, so he stripped nude and swam part way, but nothing was there and the current took him far from the spit.  He drifted, tread water, trusted the tide would return him to shore.  After an hour he stopped calling her name.  After two a local on a surfboard helped him to a beach, which was filling with sunbathers.  His nudity did not shock them, but the violet blisters from the stings did.

____

George, wake George.  Wake up please.  Why can’t you wake up, George?   We don’t have all day.  Can I slap him?  Why did he swim?  What kind of fool swims with jellyfish before breakfast?

George.

He felt a soft touch on his face, then his cheek being pinched.

Were you looking for me, George?  You were?  Yes?  No?  He heard her ask if people swim in their sleep, heard a grunt in reply, heard her say he talks in his sleep all the time, talks nonsense.  He could see her gestures, but the rest was a blur.

You are a mess, George. You are like… bubble wrap.

Crap, he said.

I don’t think we can have much fun on your last week.

Damn, he said.

She whispered, Well maybe you can watch.

She said that, he knew, to wake him, rouse him under the sheet.  Was there stirring?  He was very tired, he said, but tried to smile.  You swim for, like, ever, George.  They found you in the lido next over!  I drove to the hotel for my phone, and then there are sirens so I thought yes, those are for George….

You know me well, he said.

And then I thought no it’s just a crazy man showing his penis to every body.

Oh…

She sat on the bed next to him.  But I kind of recognized…

.

Chiara drove George back toward the hotel the following morning, happy that he’d only truly been suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.  The stings would heal, but leave purple scars.  She liked scars, she said, scars told the truth.  Her mother, she told him, was arriving later that evening, so they had to meet her at the port.

My mother likes you, George.

The sea monster, she said, laughing, it was some kind of plant.  Like a vine.  She’d gone down to the pool while he’d slept snoring like a toad, and everything was a mess, seaweed and sand and garbage and there it was, George. I gasped. It was trying to get out. It was crawling toward the car and I had no time to wake you so I grabbed a piece of drifting wood and I thought it’s going to eat me and my baby but I smashed it.  I am a tiny woman, you know, but when I get angry, bam bam bam.  She laughed, then shuddered.

It had strings in it, and green blood!

Strings?

You know, like rope, like… sedano.

Fibres?

It was a stupid stupid plant. That is all.

Well, but… no, Chiara, that’s not

Yes, and it lives in the ground, George.  I bashed it and it started to move, just a little bit.  And I said George, George come and see and then like, like a noodle it was sucked back in.  Into the hole, George!  And then all the water, too.  I must be hallucinating, I must be dreaming this.  And then I go back to the car and you are gone, so I run down the road looking for you.

Crazy, crazy morning.

.

Chiara did not stop at the hotel, but drove on through the royal palms and roadside agave saying she hated the hotel and wasn’t it too much like a hospital room?  You smell like a hospital, my lover.  On the west side of the island there will be no one, she chirped, the beaches are too rocky, but the wind is happier.  It is the Mistral. We will lay you out on the shore, George, take off your bandages, cover you with a soothing balm and we will kiss you where you have not been stung.  Will you show us where you have not been stung?

George’s cock stirred against his thigh.

And then we will go get mother.

—Lee D. Thompson

 

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

 

Aug 082014
 

Paul PinesPaul Pines

yggdrasil gamle naboerYggdrasil

 

Probative Values

The future of High Culture in today’s world is a daunting question, assuming there is a definition that we can agree upon. One might well ask if High Culture even exists. And if it exists, where do we find it? Perhaps in the historical consensus of universally valued products like Phidias’ 5th Century BCE statue of Athena Parthenos, the poetry of Li Po who died in 762 supposedly trying to embrace the moon in the Yellow River, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” painted in 1665, or Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” in 1795. There are the obvious venues of High Culture such as the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center offering “La Boehme,” or The Getty Museum in Brentwood displaying a restored Jackson Pollock, “Mural,” commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. Then there is the anti-elitist vision expressed by Matthew Arnold in his 1875 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” as that which makes “the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” All of it buckles under the weight of changes in the last century that make it unclear what High Culture looks like, or how it functions. We may, like young Parsifal in the spectral castle known as Mount Sauvage, ask the wounded Fisher King: Who does the Grail serve?

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal searches for the grail in a Waste Land devastated by war. Nathanael West’s novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, written in 1933, describes just such a landscape stripped bare of traditions, symbols and long held beliefs that once provided comfort and civility. Standing in the Waste Land of a Civil War field hospital, Walt Whitman wondered what had become of the grail he’d called “democracy”, and soon after wrote that we might be growing “an expanding material body with no soul.” For Whitman, as for West’s wounded Miss. L., soul loss is an abiding wound that can only be healed by the poetic imagination.

Whitman declared the poet as shaman, able to call forth the vision to unite a culturally diverse nation. Only the poetic imagination could forge this connection, give birth to a High Culture that would water the flowering tree at the center of our garden. There is evidence that the symbols of this idea have been buried in the relativist trope of Post Modernism and the expanding web of electronic media. Ominous clues suggest that poetic imagination has been reduced to a retail commodity in the global economy. High Culture, subject to a rate of change equivalent to that of the G-force that pulls space craft loose from gravity, may be unrecognizable.

gimbutas-Spirals-60ANeolithic Spirals — Maria Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess

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Starting at the Centre

…he drew a circle on the face of the deep…Proverbs 8:27

In considering the plight of High Culture in our time, it may be helpful to examine its roots. Around 8,000 BCE patterns appear on Paleolithic vessels from the Great Mother Culture representing forms of energies,  i.e. the chevron (bird), waves (water/frequency), swastika (wheel of life in motion), and the most basic orienting symbol of all—the circle  traversed by four lines converging at its center: the circle-squared. Visible in this structure is the paradox of stillness (center) and motion (periphery) and basic orienting division into four starting with the four directions, four seasons, and four phases of life. The center still point, axis mundi, is often depicted as a tree with roots below and branches above. Energies flow from upper and lower worlds through the nexus where time meets eternity to animate the material world.

This paradigm can be found in Plato, the Egyptian Night Sea journey of Osiris, Sioux Medicine Wheel teaching and indigenous Central American cultures. Most often the center is anchored by a tree, the Mayan Tree of Life, the Kabbalist’s Yesod and the Norse Yiggdrasil. In these systems the dark world at the root works in tandem with branches flowering in the light. Where the center holds, masculine and feminine, the whole congress of opposites work to form the unus mundus, one world composed of many parts.

In Vedic discipline the world-tree is the spinal column rooted in the pelvic chackras rising through the heart chakra to an opening between the eyes through which the soul-bird is released at death. The snake and the bird inhabited the Tree at the center of Inanna’s Sumerian garden as early as 4,000 BCE. Quetzalcoatl, the snake-bird, was equally at home in the roots and branches of the Aztec/Mayan World Tree in 1511 AD when the Spanish first cruised past the gleaming towers of Tulum. It is interesting to note that the soul’s double-nature carries the morphic resonance of the biological link between snake and bird.

The most complex form of the circle-squared is the mandala common to Navajo, Ancient Egyptian, Cretan, Jewish, Druidic, Roman, Christian, Indian, Aboriginal and Tibetan cultures. A Chinese alchemical text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Wilhelm, speaks of a Golden Flower (lotus), four petals rising from the center. Psychologist Carl Jung recognized in it his own mandalic structure, the flowering of the individuated Self/Soul. Nomadic groups in Paleolithic Europe or the buffalo rich Native American Plains left little physical evidence of advanced civilization, but poetic imagination abounds in the symbols on Venus figures and exploits of Coyote of oral tradition: the metaphysical system of the circle squared may well be an Ur-product of High Culture.

cross-circle-horned-serpent-3Aztec Serpent Wheel

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The Original Vision

And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops
that made 
one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight,
and in the center grew one mighty 
flowering tree to
shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

Black Elk Speaks, J.G. Neihardt.

Oglala Sioux shaman Black Elk, cousin of Crazy Horse, had a Great Vision as an eleven year old while deep in an illness those around him thought he wouldn’t survive.  During this time he was taken to the center of the world he saw “with the sacred eye” his nation as one of many sacred hoops. The year was 1874. Wasichu were passing through Sioux land on their way to the gold fields. He was given power-gifts to save the flowering tree at the center of his nation. Fifty-one years after the battle of Wounded Knee, that sounded the death knell of his people, Black Elk agreed to share his Great Vision with ethnologist J.G. Neihardt, who found the old man at the rear of a squalid reservation. He had lived the last two-thirds of his life there lamenting his failure. In spite of his efforts, the tree had died. But as the end approached, he thought his Great Vision might instruct others, its truth find a way back into the world.

After all, his hoop was one of many. He saw that when the tree dies, the center is lost. When a center is lost, it is buried and must be renewed. Black Elk’s cry to the Grandfathers at the end of his life echoes those other visionaries for the loss of their cultures: the buried Merlin’s grief for Camelot echoes through the wood, Ezekiel weeps for Jerusalem, Aztec poet Netzahualcoyotl

(Hungry Coyote) who appears on the Mexican 100 peso note, divines as the bearer of High Culture: The smoking stars gather against it; the one who cares for flowers is about to be destroyed.

Pauli_s_World_ClocknewThe World Clock: Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel laureate physicist saw in a dream this image that came to be known as Pauli’s world clock. It is a multi-tiered mandala similar to the circle squared where a vertical and a horizontal circle share a common centre. Pauli and C.G. Jung suggested the image supported their intuition of a unified psychophysical reality that interfaced with individual consciousness.

T

Ralph Loves Walt

Thirty years before Black Elk received his Great Vision, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay, “The Poet”, calling for “one with tyrannous eye” to unite “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas…” He promised that poet, “Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor…”

Implied in his call was the fear that without poetic imagination the culture would fall apart. Ten years later Walt Whitman sent Emerson the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In the introduction he stated: “The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets.” Whitman articulated a version of democracy in which our very atoms resonate, but enjoined us also to prize individuality—a High Culture built on poetic imagination, its ability to integrate as well as renew experience.

Later this vision, like Black Elk’s, dimmed.

The nation divided by Civil War left its youth for dead in heaps, and shuffled others into make-shift tents. Whitman threaded his way through the fetid field hospitals of D.C. nursing the boys he loved, navigating their corpses, lost limbs, buckets of blood swinging from broom handles; his optimism darkened. It may have been with a touch of PTSD that he wrote in his late essay, “Democratic Vistas,” dated 1871, of the failure of poetic imagination to take hold, and the withering flower at the center of his hoop:  “…with unprecedented material advancement–Society in these States is canker’d, crude, surreptitious, superstitious and rotten…I say we best look our times and land searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease…It is as if we were being endowed with a vast and more thoroughly appointed body, then left with little or no soul…

meta_navajo_sandNavajo Sand Painting

.

The Centre Cannot Hold

Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1949, from the buffalo-rich open prairie to the post Holocaust reality in the wake of WWII. Even so, he held on to the core of his Great Vision. Prior to the 20th Century, the circle-squared archetype of wholeness passed easily from one civilization to the next until it hit a hard edge mid-way through Modernism, and broke. Cracks had appeared at the dawn of the 19th Century, but went largely unobserved.

In 1807, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published his theory of Geist in his Phenomenology of Spirit. His idea of Geist, translated as “spirit” or “mind,” is essentially an examination of consciousness. The consciousness in question is a collective one realizing itself over time through the philosophical work of individuals starting with Heraclitus and culminating in Hegel, who posited that the history of philosophical enquiry ended with him; from that point forward consciousness didn’t so much unfold as contained absolute knowledge. This was cause for celebration in the Hegel household. He had secured the Paleolithic/Platonic ontological center of the circle squared. That’s when cracks appeared in the saucer of Hegel’s teacup. Something dark began to shimmer in the wings of the departing century: the swan-song of the Victorian age. Nietzsche, Freud and Marx danced onto center stage in bow ties and patent leather shoes. Billed on the marquee as The Hermeneutics of Suspicion, they declared that nothing is what it appears to be; all received wisdom and articles of faith must be regarded with suspicion.

By mid-century, philosophy no longer addressed general questions about the human condition, but cracks into numerous specialties each in search of a foundation. The dervishes of Post Modernism, chief among them two Jacques, Lacan and Derrida summed it up. Lacan called The Real “the impossible.”  Derrida thought any inquiry outside the limitations of language unthinkable, and everything inside of it only spin.

..

The Crack Up

The Great Depression confirmed for many that there was nothing of substance at the center. A few grieved the demise of High Culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West wailed in the 1930s Waste Land. West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts as a night clerk at the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village, and then at the Hotel Kenmore on 23rd Street. From his desk at the latter, looking out on a second floor terrace, he watched bankrupt millionaires fall from the top floor, “lovers leap.”  He observed that in the absence of a center, pain can’t be addressed. The result was a culture of cruelty and disconnection. His novel follows a sports journalist reassigned by a sadistic editor to the Advice Desk where he answered letters from the heartbroken as “Miss. L”. His attempt to take on the burden of the suffering humanity fails. Miss L. experienced a psychotic breakdown rather than what at an earlier time might’ve been mystical union or a redemptive renewal of faith.

West never made a penny on his novels. He moved to Hollywood in 1935. He met F. Scott Fitzgerald on the lot of Republic Pictures, aka Repulsive Pictures, where the major stars were singing cowboys. Fitzgerald’s royalties plummeted to $50 in 1933 from an earlier high of $29,757.85. The author who once defined The Jazz Age, now analogized himself and the world in which he found himself to a cracked plate. It might be glued and used, but would always be a cracked plate, not suitable for company. In essays for Esquire published posthumously as the Crack Up in 1940 by Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald wrote about the death of High Culture. The novel, which he’d thought “the most powerful medium of conveying thought and feeling from one human being to another,” had become “subordinate to a mechanical and communal art…capable of only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.” Poetic imagination had given way to Hollywood, a collaborative medium which fed on the obvious.

In West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust, the “dream machine” fabricated and recycled virtual realities for financial gain. Its illusions were paper thin, but addictive. The novel ends with an apocalyptic riot; a panicked crowd covers the land like locusts driven by a viral hunger to consume their own medium. Fitzgerald and West became fast friends. One day after news of Fitzgerald’s death reaches him, West collided with another car. He and his wife, Eileen, returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, were killed. West is thirty-seven.

-axis-mundi ldsanarchyAxis Mundi — LDS anarchy website

.

Chinatown Chicken

As a young man in search of a center, I engaged in numerous addictions, but none so telling as one in Chinatown. The object of my hunger for The Real, which Lacan labeled “the impossible”, was a chicken. Not the edible kind, baked in clay or shredded with almonds and bean sprouts, but a live fowl, occupant of a glass case mounted on a platform in an arcade south of Canal Street.

The challenge overhead read: BEAT THE BIRD.

No one ever beat the chicken at its own game: tic-tac-toe.

A quarter in the slot, and the game was on. A board at the base marked each move with an illuminated X or O. The chicken didn’t have to see it. His attention was on the pellet that dropped into one of several dishes to prompt his next move. The whole affair was run by wires and electrical connections to which the player became attached as an input in an otherwise selforganizing system. It didn’t really matter who performed that function.

It was not simply passive pleasure that held me, but the hunger that drove West’s substance starved movie audience to swarm like locusts. I became infected by the inevitability of defeat, but couldn’t stop hitting keys, a glimpse of the addiction that would later wire me to Facebook. Years later teaching an essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” I asked my American Literature class at a small college in the Adirondacks if they agreed with William James that “the pleasure culture” posed a greater danger to us than the “warrior” culture. Facing the fear of death-in-battle deepened those who survived it. Entertainment and entitlement in pursuit of pleasure offered only endless adolescence. James suggested that we find moral equivalents for those rites which made men of boys, but without the violence of warfare.

Was my attachment to the tic-tac-toe chicken an early immersion in pleasure culture, or a moral equivalent worthy of a warrior?

There was no contest; the chicken always won!

But I succumbed to the addictive thrill of punching the buttons to watch the chicken dance in front of the feeding tray. Who does the Grail serve?

What would William James say? I see him as a young man who feels like a failure and suffers a nervous breakdown. No warrior, he pays for another man to face the rebel yells in his stead, and most likely die. Older, at his desk, scruffy beard starting to grey, he sniffs ammonium nitrate from a beaker, giggling as he makes notes for an article, “Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide,” in the Psychological Review (1898). High Culture gives way to getting high, William James, in pursuit of altered consciousness, uses an anesthetic gas. Foldedin the chemical hilarity, James writes:

Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
But–
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

Integra Natura—The Whole of Nature (1671) – Robert Fludd physician, alchemist, philosopher and artist depicts in this engraving the correspondence between realms linked in the Great Chain of Being by the World Soul, Anima Mundi. From his two volume masterwork Ultriusque Cosmi.

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Numbness and the Mediated World

Here is a conversation recently overheard between two girls at Starbucks in NYC.

GIRL 1: I mean…it’s like he doesn’t even care.
GIRL 2: Why do you think that?
GIRL 1: I posted something super nice about him on Facebook and he never liked it!
GIRL 2: When did you post it?
GIRL 1: Like…an hour ago.
GIRL 2: Oh, that’s serious!!

Thomas de Zengotita’s “Numbing of the American Mind, Culture as Anesthetic,” (Harper’s, 4/02) captures the ironic relationship of stimulation to numbness. It opens with a quote by Nietzsche: …the massive influx of impressions is so great; surprising, barbaric, and violent things press so overpoweringly–balled up into hideous clumps–in the youthful soul; that it can save itself only by taking recourse in premeditated stupidity. The philosopher isn’t referring to I.Q., but to being anesthetized. “Ever notice how, when your hand is numb, everything feels thin?” asks Zengotita. “Even a solid block of wood lacks depth and texture. You can’t feel the wood; your limb just encounters the interrupting surface. Well, numb is to the soul as thin is to a mediated world.”

His point is hiding in plain sight: the effect of constant stimulation is numbness. The absence of sensation is not linked to sense-deprivation, but to excessive input of shifting images and messages claiming our attention. The excitation is numbing.  When the surface becomes all there is to life, stress is “how reality feels.”

Post Modernists assert we live in closed, self-referential systems such as language, culture, identity, politics—constructions of the moment. We can’t claim to live in reality, only our representation of it. Derrida insists that there is nothing outside the text, but more text, which we create to describe the purport of our text.

What happens when the soul turns numb and poetic imagination goes underground? What difference does it make if our children are fed packaged imagery designed to sell product but leave their inner worlds atrophied? Why should we care if there is no perceived difference between news and entertainment, advertising and information, Vivaldi and Kenny G.

Nezahuacoyotl Peso

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The Submerged Centre

There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course…

—Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

It may be impossible to endure the crushing G-Force, that propulsive rate of change, without a degree of protective numbness. At the same time, the structure of the psyche remains the same since it gave birth to Paleolithic images on cave walls.  Symbols rising spontaneously from its depth inform and guide us.  Polymath anthropologist George Gregory Bateson tells us that the ordering process of self-organizing systems is not imposed by the environment but established within the system itself. Two dynamic principles are at work here: self-renewal and selftranscendence–the ability to reach beyond physical and mental boundaries in the process of learning, development and evolution. A system that becomes stressed—read here “numb” or “stupid”—will become rigid and unable to adapt, connect to its own symbols, and hear its inner voice.

Socrates called his inner voice the daemon. Romans, the genius.  Native Americans, the Spirit Guide. Mayans know it as the Nahual. In analytical psychology it is the Self or Objective Psyche. In a study of destiny, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman refers to Plato’s myth of Er, in The Republic. Er returns from a near death experience to describe the protocol of returning souls. Before crossing to the re-birth destination, each soul witnesses the Fates spin, weave and cut the cloth of its destiny. The soul knows the unique pattern before it drinks from Lethe. Some drink more deeply than others. Those who hears the spirit guide whisper in its ear, are said to be touched by Genius, the submerged center.

This is another way to describe poetic imagination and its ability to give birth to works that constitute High Culture. Poetic imagination rises from the same intelligence that conveys information about the destiny of individuals and civilizations. Even unheard, at times when the center collapses, the Genius speaks, seeks a way to break the surface of numbness and denial. William James curiosity about altered consciousness, including his love affair with Nitrous Oxide, can be viewed as a search for the pharmakon, that remedy mentioned by Plato which is both cure and disease. It can be argued that those most in touch with poetic imagination in the last century were scientists, not poets.

Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, "The Civilization of the Goddess."Sacred Script: Catalog of signs collected by Marija Gimbutas, showing core signs at left and derivatives at right formed by additional dots, lines, curves or alternate orientations; from her ground breaking work, The Civilization of the Goddess.

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Albert Einstein’s imaginative “thought experiment” in 1905, working in the Swiss Patent Office, led to his theory of special relativity. Using poetic imagination, Einstein was able to formulate the behavior of movement at the speed of light when time falls away. Later, he would write in his essay, On Science: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Depth psychologist Carl Jung asserted that imagination and its products must be understood as facts. Jung worked with quantum visionary Wolfgang Pauli to explore the phenomena of meaningful coincidence, which Jung called synchronicity, and Pauli non-local causality. They published a paper together in 1952, “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche,” concluded that “the observed patterns of matter are reflections of patterns of mind.”

But the question remains, how can we discern the voice of poetic imagination, rooted in the archetype of wholeness, through the numbness of surface stimulation?

350px-Mandala_of_VajradhatuMandala Of Vajrahdatu

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The Face of the Deep

“My core fear,” writes Sven Birkerts in The Guttenberg Elegies, “is that we are as a culture, as a species, becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth…and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture…” Birkets views the changes to our world, (and our psyches), as a Faustian trade-off.

Cyber-technology promises mastery of time and space, the ability to make love to a virtual Helen or Hercules, circumnavigate the globe in a heartbeat, and access financial markets at a key stroke. The reality is that we are trapped in an “electric tribalism” where individual development is not a goal but an impediment. Instead are offered superhuman avatars, but exist as insects stuck in a web, or as Birkerts would have it, bees glued to a hive. He may have reason to fear the hive mentality and it consequences for depth of any kind. For example, the most frequent and celebrated activity on Facebook is the ritual changing of the Profile Picture. Two recent examples of this drifted through my timeline this morning.

Which 80s Superstar are you?
Which mystical creature are you?

Two “friends” linked to me by the wireless network for no apparent reason but that we share the technology, responded to these challenging questions with answers applauded by each of their networks first separately and then on a “share”, together:

Madonna (w/photo), responded one.
A Fairy (Tinkerbelle), declared another.

My “profile picture” of choice belongs to Sri Ramana Maharshi  on the cover of his collected works published in the early 60s. When I first opened the book years ago I was stunned by its simplicity the teaching. The man in a loincloth with a trimmed grey beard lean body curved slightly like a question mark broached this call and response.

Maharshi posed what philosophers today would call a foundational question: Who am I? He then instructs the student to answer: “Who is asking the question?” This may fairly characterize the sum total of the teaching.

Who is asking? He persists.

I repeat this over and over to myself, going deeper with each repetition. Eventually one understands:  Who am I? is not a question.

Who breaks the surface by asking Who.

Who delivers the intelligence that draws on personal and collective fields.

Who messages in dreams, epiphany, and the shaman’s visionary consciousness.

Who pre-exists language and can’t be deconstructed, embedded in the structure of the psyche.

Who rises from the submerged center.

Who hosts the poetic imagination, and interfaces with the informational field that holds all forms in potential?

Who in the psyche that knows the knower.

Who looks back at me through my eyes but remains unseen.

Tree_of_Life_geometry2Tree of Life geometry

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The Problems of High Culture

There are many ways to understand the term High Culture. On the most obvious level it is a privileged procession of products agreed upon by consensus, i.e. Michelangelo’s paintings on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which he did under protest; on another level, self-selecting groups of esthetes may admire carved duck decoys or Faberge Eggs. Those whose products are deemed worthy of High Culture might often be more at home in the Cedar Bar than on Park Avenue, while the reverse may be true of those who consume those products to verify their status. Then there is the culture of improvisation that takes place in smoke filled rooms, street theater, subway mimes. For example, French composer Darius Milhaud, foremost among the Les Six, disembarked in New York and went directly to Harlem instead of Carnegie Hall, to hear authentic jazz, arguably the only high art form created on this continent. We are familiar with High Culture Enshrined, but what about the numinous moments that pass and are gone, High Culture In Time? About which Thelonious Monk said: “If you’re not there, you miss it all.”  Perhaps there is a working definition that connects them.

High Culture: that which connects us to the submerged center, conduit for poetic imagination, moves people beyond numbness, dumbness, violence and blind belief, absorbs pain that is otherwise not addressable—and suggests something permanent in the midst of impermanence.

Does such a thing exist?

And what becomes of a Rothko painting once it appears as a postage stamp?

High Culture may slumber like Schrodinger’s cat closed in a box that regarded from the superposition suggested by complementarity is both alive and dead.

As we move forward, it is important to understand the proof that haunts our dreams, the archetypes of totality, refrain of oracles and sages, often using the same words.

Empedocles: “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Timaeus of Locris (via Plato): “A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”The Timaeus

Hermes Trismegistus: “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” Book of the 24 Philosophers.

Alain of Lille: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Nicola of Cusa: “Your eye is a circle—or better, an infinite sphere—sees—all things at once.” De Visioni Dei

Hildegard of Bingen: “In its workings the Godhead is like a wheel, a whole.”

Voltaire: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” The Philosophical Dictionary

Blaise Pascal: Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Pensees #199 in Penguin tr.)

It’s as if we all woke up from the same dream!

Or were enfolded in it.

We thirst for that long draught of what Mircea Eliade calls a thirst for the experience of being, the ontological soul-bath. If in this metaphor God/Self/Genius is understood as the center of consciousness, that circle of wholeness in the depths of our psychic field, is everywhere, then it can be accessed wherever we find ourselves. The voice from the submerged center calls to us,

“Drop your bucket anywhere and pull up sweet water. Break the surface and be healed.”

Buddhist Wheel of LifeBuddhist Wheel of Life

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Damage Report

In The Guttenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts opines that electronic media destabilizes “our entire collective subjective history;” reduces our capacity for “inwardness,” and repeats William James’ warning. The “pleasure culture” has given birth to the “hive mentality,” a form of mindless collectivity. Absent a concrete center, Birkerts sees every dissolving digital byte as a “metaphor for chaos.”  The energies of eternity flowing into time have gone underground, along with historical memory.

Until recently, the cultivation of memory has been central to education. Simonides handed down his memory system in the 5th Century BCE after the roof caved on friends at dinner while he was standing outside. The bodies couldn’t be recovered but he found a way to recall who was there by remembering where each friend was sitting. Cicero’s memory system linking things to remember with rooms in his villa was used by Renaissance luminaries like Ficino, Picus, Campenella, and Giordano Bruno. In the 16th Century Guilio Camillo built his Theater of Memory to contain the entire history of man.

One might observe without hyperbole that memory is the guardian of meaning. There is no High Culture without it. Unfortunately, memory has been a prime casualty of the pleasure culture and hive mentality. We can access endless information at a keystroke, but ignore the scaffolds for memory to support a coherent vision of events and ideas.  Abjured in the schools, memory has become a fatality of impact and speed.  We entered the 20th Century on horseback and exited with the first man on the moon. At that speed, a collision of Historical Memory with the Virtual Present is both inevitable and catastrophic.

No doubt the accident took place on a difficult merge. According to the report, Virtual Present did not give way. Historical Memory was forced to pull into oncoming traffic. Witnesses fled the scene. Most severely injured, High Culture was rushed to the ER, admitted after a long wait, and then placed in ICU.

There are no clear directives, no Proxy Power of Attorney, DNR or Organ Donor plans. The court may have to appoint a Medical Guardian. Fortunately, the vitals have stabilized and High Culture, uncovered by private insurance, was moved into a public ward. It is however resting comfortably, hooked up to IVs and monitors charting oxygen levels, heart rate and BP.

There’s been discussion of rehab, but it’s premature.

The speculation is that High Culture may continue to exist, but more as an idea within the  virtual body of ideas, rather than as a direct experience

Maya worldtreeMaya World Tree

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Summing Up: The Pharmakon

Plato talks about the pharmakon as both a remedy and a poison. It is the cure in the disease and the disease in the cure. That medicine had a double nature was well known to Galen and Asclepius as well as Paracelsus and Derrida. The pharmakon may be the Objective Psyche or the submerged center. By the same token Post Modernism, with its claim of absolute relativism married to Faustian promise of technology and instant information may be the poison in which the panacea is secreted. Caught between the dreams of virtuality and globalization, a wounded poetic imagination bombarded by packaged images for consumption, symbols replaced by brands, we must not retreat in grief and anger, or to easy answers. In her exploration of centrality, Dreams of Totality, Sherry Salman warns us that where the old symbols no longer hold and new ones have yet to emerge, we must be wary of “the pull toward passive or righteous identification with either utopian faith or dystopian demise.”  If we hold the questions in our consciousness, the submerged center, Genius, Objective Psyche will in its own time yield answers, give birth to new symbols. Beyond that, the sense of helplessness and fragmentation is inevitable.

“We know that in order for new dreams of totality to emerge,” Salman continues, “the old ones have to be broken, and that this happens at the point of weak links, where disenfranchised elements create the tension. Stay near this edge between order and disorder. Have empathy for what’s dying and being born.”

What is the future of High Culture in the world as we now know it? Where is a credible center, or conduit for poetic imagination? We may well ask again, like Parsifal, “Whom does the Grail serve?”

What lies ahead may be taking shape in us even as we question its existence.

The Genius whispers, “This way.”

— Paul Pines

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Bibliography

ACZEL, D. Amir, Entanglement, The Greatest Mystery in Physics, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001

BATESON, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press.

BIRKERTS, Sven, The Guttenberg Elegies, The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, NEW YORK: Fawcett

Columbine, 1994

BOHM, David, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1987

DANIELSON, Dennis Richard ed., the book of the  cosmos, Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, NEW YORK: Perseus Publishing, 2000

DERRIDA, Jacques, Disseminations, tr. Babara Johnson, Chicago, Universit of Chicago Press, 1083 EINSTEIN, Albert, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, New York, Covini-Freide, 1931

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

EDINGER, Edward, Ego and Archetype, New York: Putnam, 1972

GELL-MAN, Murray, The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and Complex, San Francisco,

W.H.Freeman, 1994

HILLMAN, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1977

———————, The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 1997

HEGEL, G.W.F., Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

HOLLIS, James, 2004, Mythologems, Incarnations of the Invisible World, Toronto, Inner City Books.

JAMES, William, The Principles of Psychology, vol 1, New York, Cosimo Classics, 2007

JUNG, C.G. The Collected Works, (Bollingen Series XX) 20 vol. Trans. R.C.F. Hull. Ed. H. Read, Princeton University Press, 1953-79

————————–, Man and his Symbols, New York Doubleday and Co;, 1964

————————-, Memories, Dreams, Reflection, Ed. Aniela Jaffe, New York, Pantheon Books, 1961

—————————,”Commentrary of ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’”, 1957. In Alchemical Studies, vol.   13, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

————————-The Red Book; Liber Novus, Edited and introduced by Sonu Shamandasani. New York,  W.W.

Norton, 2009

JUNG, C.G., and Wolfgang PAULI, Atom and Archetype: The Pauli-Jung Letters 1932-1958, Edited by C.A.

Meier, Princetone NJ; Princeton University Press, 2001

MCQUADE, Donald, et.al., The Harper American Literature, vol 2., New York: Harper Collins, 1993

NIETZSCHE Friedrich, The Portable Nietzsche, Ed. Wlter Kaufman, New York, Viking, 1972

PEAT, F. David. Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind, New York: Bantam, 1987

——————–Infinite Potential, The Life and Times of David Bohm, MASS., Addison-Wesley, 1997

RUDOLF, Anthony, 2013, London, silent conversations, Seagull Books

REGIER, Willis G., Masterpieces of American Indian Literature, New York: MJF Books, 1993

SALMAN, Sherry, Dreams of Totality, Spring Journal Books, New Orleans Louisiana, 2013

SHELDRAKE, Ruppert, The Presence of the Past: morphic resonance and the habits of nature, New York, NY:

Times Books, 1988

TALBOT, Michael, Mysticism and the New Physics, Toronto, Penguin Arkana, 1993

TODD, Peter B., The Individuation of God, Integrating Science and Religion, Ill, Chiron Publications, 2012

Von ESCHENBACK, Parzival, New York, Vintage Books, 1961

Von FRANZ, Marie-Louise, Alchemical Active Imagination, Shambhala, Boston, 1997

WHITMONT, C. Edward, The Alchemy of Healing, Psyche and Soma, CA, North Atlantic Books, 1993

YATES, Frances, The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966

 

 

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published ten books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding Light, Taxidancing, Last Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness and New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros. The last collection recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. His eleventh collection, Fishing On The Pole Star, will soon be out from Dos Madres. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

 

Aug 082014
 

Capture

Not to be too confusing, but this is a review of Butterfly Stories, written eons ago in the time before time (1993 to be precise) for Boston Globe Books. It came up in conversation just now, and I looked to see if I still had a copy. It was on a disc of old files in my safety deposit box. Go figure. I liked what I wrote. So here you go.

dg

Butterfly Stories
A Novel
By William T. Vollmann
Grove/Atlantic Press
200 pp.; $22

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William T. Vollmann is a certified literary phenomenon. In his early thirties, he already has seven books to his credit, including two installments of a multi-volume fictional history of the North American continent. His journalism appears in high profile glossies like Esquire magazine. The Review of Contemporary Fiction recently hailed him as a writer destined to “eventually achieve historical importance.” He even runs his own publishing house, specializing in limited art editions of his work selling for thousands of dollars.

Vollmann’s latest novel Butterfly Stories — not part of the projected continental magnum opus — harks back to the author’s earlier and continuing obsession with prostitution. In The Rainbow Stories (1989), for example, Vollmann wrote about hookers and hangers-on in San Francisco’s slums. The Review of Contemporary Fiction spread features photographs of the author with assorted prostitutes — in one the author has his hand up the skirt of a black prostitute identified as an AIDS victim. His self-published The Convict Bird sports a bookmark made with a lock of a prostitute’s hair.

This time Vollmann, or Vollmann’s fictional alter-ego — identified as “the journalist” — ranges through Thailand and Cambodia with a photographer accomplice, flitting like a butterfly from one prostitute to another, tubes of K-Y jelly in one hand and packages of (mostly unused) condoms in the other.

The journalist catches an amazing array of sexually transmitted diseases. He worries about Pol Pot and the terrible things some of his whore-lovers and their families have suffered. He falls in love with a Cambodian hooker named Vanna who vanishes. Then he returns to the United States so haunted by Vanna’s disappearance that he divorces his wife and devotes himself to tracking down the missing prostitute. He also discovers that he has won the STD lottery and is carrying the HIV virus.

Butterfly Stories is a startling amalgam of self-destructive behavior, seedy detail (so much as to raise the issue of puerility, though perhaps this is a reaction the author intends), arcane philosophizing, and over-ripe prose that works by virtue of its very strangeness. Butterfly Stories reads like a cross between Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs and something written by a kid with a green mohawk, EAT MOMMY tattoos, and nails in his ears. Or it reads like one of those postmodern art installations — chaotic, temporary, challenging in its bad taste, and riddled with scattershot culture-bashing.

“The journalist never tried the photographer’s condoms,” writes Vollmann, “because he didn’t even use his own as much as (to be honest) he should have; but the photographer, who tried both, decided that the journalist had really made the right decision from a standpoint of friction and hence sensation; so that is the real moral of this story, and those who don’t want anything but morals need read no further.” [p.26]

This is interesting, this is new, this is weird. No doubt about it. This is the death of modernity with a vengeance. And what we are left with, Vollmann seems to say, is not Nietszche’s Superman or existentialism’s romantic loner but a kind of Judeo-Christian moral sludge. This moral sludge, with its self-absorbed pop spirituality, neo-racism, platitudinous liberalism, and open acceptance of violence as a form of human interaction, is the dominant philosophical system in America today.

The argument of Butterfly Stories is rigorously logical. Pol Pot persecutes prostitutes (Vanna wears the scars of her persecution on her back). America persecutes prostitutes. Therefore, America and Pol Pot are identically tyrannical, fascist, and genocidal. This simple syllogism turns all our cultural assumptions upside-down, and wanting to catch AIDS from a Thai prostitute named Oy or Toy becomes an acceptable ethical choice. The homely little HIV virus becomes the Holy Grail of an inverted universe of values. (It is important to note that these prostitutes are not real characters. Nor is this book titillating or even informative about prostitution. Prostitutes are simply Vollmann’s shorthand metaphor for the mudsill, bottom-level victims of society.)

In this new universe, words like “love” begin a strange migration. Thai chambermaids say, “I wuff you.” Having sex with a sick partner without a condom is love. A prostitute allowing a john to kiss her on the mouth is love. Trying to get an erection, despite debilitating illness and lack of interest, so you won’t hurt a prostitute’s feelings is love. Buying a prostitute drink after drink so you won’t have to sleep with her and be unfaithful to another is love. And, conversely (since, in the world of moral sludge, consistency is a fascist value), being unfaithful, sleeping with another prostitute, though regretting it, is love.

Butterfly Stories ends up being a parody of the traditional romance novel in which the knight errant-journalist falls chastely in love (love is just wanting to hold a prostitute without having sex) with an unreachable, ideal woman who becomes the goal of his adventures. Vanna disappears only to become Western man’s traditional absent love object (the fantasy wife as opposed to the real wife at home doing the laundry). The fact that she may just be hiding out from a tiresome john is heavily ironic, even comic.

The joke, finally, is on the journalist-hero who wanders through Butterfly Stories sick and sick at heart, toiling in the coils of romantic calf-love, and spreading disease in the name of sexual adventure. He doesn’t even have a name. He is Graham Greene’s ugly American and he is Everyman. He is the new hero, the epitome of moral sludge, a walking, talking, self-incriminating critique of the Western world.

Vollmann goes farther than any American writer in expressing his national self-disgust. He consigns his readers to a region of despair where even the hope of hope is lost, where even the consolation of some fragmentary beauty is denied. Butterfly Stories is one long, intricate and disturbing epitaph on a dying civilization.

—Douglas Glover

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Aug 082014
 

dancersDancers, Photograph by John Oughton

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Dawning

“To many, the language of birds is therefore nothing more or less than a series of secret codes and phrases, which pass by in daily conversation, except for those with ears that ‘hear’.” —Philip Coppens[1]

Before the human eye can catch the light
birds call up the sun,
each giving a separate secret name
understood only by them and the awakening star.
One robin calls: warmer-of-lost-eggs
and a cardinal: bleeds-the-eastern-sky
a jay announces: shards-you-can’t-look-at
and whipporwill: courser-of-clouds

when all these qualities are uttered
the new-known sun arises
and birds fall silent,
drained of aspects to declare.

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Force Field

A field, a dance floor,
The poem can be.
A tennis game (with Rhymes)
But what if it’s a vacuum, abhorred,
massive black hole around which
one galaxy turns?

Everything sucks into its event
horizon. Nothing achieves escape
velocity. So, circulating in this hive
of form: the hardest scream
life can draw from your throat,
Lost loves, the scent of flowers
your face was pressed into, unwilling,
The moments you thought death
came next, all the lines you never wrote down.

And this: last night’s dream,
growing anxiety as you couldn’t
find the black car you’d parked to
get an aged aunt home, the midway ride
twirling in air around the belfry
pealing clangour,
an endless paean to midnight.
Your shame, your surprise,
Your last word.
In this poem.

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Arise

Waking, I trail a skin of dreams
like a caul, contrail
I am the sniper – crosshairs aligned
on the joy of a clean kill

rainbow-scaled, I fight my way up the ladder
flying is only walking with more will
I am the wise child, lost man
with breasts, knee-length beard, new needs
dogged, fur pelts forth
I lie cat-kin along possibility’s wall

From this surfeit of symbol
I rise slowly, half thought, half felt
become small waves in a cup of coffee.

—Poems & Photographs by John Oughton

birdbath Birdbath by John Oughton

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Oughton

John Oughton has published five books of poetry (most recently Time Slip, new and collected poems from Guernica Editions). He has also produced several chapbooks, over 400 articles, reviews, blogs and interviews, and a suspense novel which will be published by Neopoeisis Press. He is a member of the Long Dash writing group. As a photographer, he has had three solo exhibitions, and his images have appeared on book covers, in journals and e-zines. John works as Professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College and is completing a doctorate in Education at York University in Toronto.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. From “Tweet tweet: the language of birds” http://www.philipcoppens.com/birdlanguage.html
Aug 072014
 

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The sky is all taunt and taskmaster, even though I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. Or maybe because I’m closer to it than I’ve ever been. The air is thrilling, illusive, a blade that sings without a sound. I and my sister trekkers gulp it down as we climb well before dawn—4 a.m., to be exact—to reach the highest point of our eight-day trek and be rewarded, hopefully, by the most spectacular in a week of spectacular views before the day’s usual clouds set in.

We camped last night at over 14,000 feet, after five days of almost steady climbing, although we took one day off to rest and acclimate when we reached 12,500 feet. We made our way through dense vegetation at first, tall trees lining our paths and the rivers we crossed. Then rhododendrons, a whole day of them, their leaves deep red in the early October sun. Plant life thinned as we climbed, trees turning to bush which then turned to scrub. The tree line is very high in this part of the world, Sikkim, a little sleeve of India, once a separate country tucked between Bhutan and Nepal.

When the sun peeks through the almost constant cloud cover, especially in early mornings, we are surrounded by white peaks, whole walls of white  that make me feel I’m at a remote northern reach, even though Sikkim lies at a latitude similar to that of central Florida, closer to the equator than most of the United States. Now, as we trek through the dark in our good hiking boots and headlamps, there is scant vegetation to interfere with our climbing. But the step-like rocks give us enough to work with, as does the air itself, an odd mixture of presence and absence that keeps me focused on my breathing the way I’ve never managed to do in a yoga class.

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I have skied and hiked in high places, but this is the first time I’ve experienced the altitude as a personality, as something to negotiate. I’m not uncomfortable, exactly; rather in something of an altered state, aware of what every muscle is doing, and focusing on one rock at a time. I place my each foot just so, not wanting to waste any energy regaining my balance. And then there’s the fatigue, a feeling of being packed in cotton, all excess tamped down. For once, none of us have social energy to spare, even though we are eight women from Moab, Salt Lake City, and Taos, middle-aged athletes and power-shoppers who normally have plenty to say.

We climb silently through darkness that begins to lift now, only to reveal thick mist and cloud cover. Not a good sign. Normally dawn is clear in this part of the Himalayas, and already we have gotten a few early-morning glimpses of Mt.Pandim, the third highest peak in the world, a mass of blinding white that is sacred to the Buddhists of Sikkim and said to be unclimbable. Our goal today, and perhaps the goal of our entire eight-day trek, is to get an unprecedented view of this mountain whose presence all week has beckoned and then disappeared into mid-morning clouds.

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The dawn grows brighter, but not bright enough. We have arrived at our lookout point at 16,500 feet, the light grey around us and rain beginning to sprinkle, then fall with conviction. Our guide Namgayl pulls on a bright blue poncho, and our Sherpa helpers don their own red, yellow, grey, and blue rainwear before handing around mugs of tea, hardboiled eggs, apples, and brown breadlike slabs of something thick, sweet, unrecognizable and sustaining, which they baked the night before. Never has an egg tasted so good. And the tea, lemony and sweet. As for the apple—by now I trust that it has been washed in thoroughly boiled water, and I take a huge, thirsty bites, feeling none of my earlier fears of contracting something ugly.

We are all bent over our breakfasts like this, chattering again, energized and even happy while the rain pelts down, when one of the women suddenly gives a cry and points behind us. The clouds have broken just over Mt.Pandim, and now it hovers larger than I could have imagined, so close it seems to be breathing over us. We feel held in something like a kind hand made of air and sky, a hand that has parted those clouds just for us, just for these moments, as we stand in the rain three miles above the earth’s floor. The mountain seems to bless us, dwarfing us and then offering all of its calm self, its whiteness, its unconquerable splendor. We offer back our silence. And our tears.

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—Leslie Ullman

 

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her awards include the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and two NEA Fellowships. Now professor Emerita at University of Texas El Paso, where she taught for 27 years, she continues to teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. For the past eight winters she also worked as a full-time ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

 

Aug 062014
 

imageDavid Hayden

In his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust famously introduced the concept of involuntary memory where the taste of a madeline dipped in tea brought back to his narrator, Marcel, a memory of the past, the memory being triggered unconsciously, effortlessly, by a sensory experience. Memory researcher and cognitive psychologist, Marigold Linton, rather poetically, described these involuntary memories as “precious fragments,” and I was reminded of these precious fragments when first reading David Hayden’s story Memory House.

Generally by placing events in sequential order and suggesting a connection between them, the writer gives meaning to plot, the narrative allowing causality to be inferred, but here the construct of the narrative replicates the fragmented process. If we accept that selfhood exists in the continuity of memory, then the narrator’s search for identity lies in the retrieval of encoded past experiences. In this regard, Hayden’s vivid language is rich with the sensory detail necessary to provide the triggers. Ultimately, however, we learn of the narrator’s personal history not through the memories themselves (which are not described) but through their metaphorical impact.

Metaphor, as we know, is not simply a figure of speech but a form of thought, and the associative nature of Hayden’s writing coupled with the sheer power of his imagistic words reveal marvellously the internal unseen world.

—Gerard Beirne

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Memory House

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The memory house is in my mind; today and everyday. Each thing is itself and is a way out to another object or to a time that happened or almost happened or didn’t happen.

I am the broken plate lying on the kitchen floor. Eight main pieces are grouped together on the yellowed linoleum that is cool beneath my bare feet. Scores of fragments are scattered in the greasy shadows, or wedged under the heels of the table.

The warped, lemon-shaded light is my mother’s eye. It gives off a gentle heat and can see nothing. Each chair is a misplaced friend. If I sit down I will remember who, and why they became lost and, perhaps, where they are today.

The table is a stony beach on a Cretan shore. Facing north, a salt-thickened breeze pushes back my hair. There are lights out to sea but none behind me. My baby boy rests warmly on my hip, his eyes narrowing as he looks out into the future.

From upstairs I hear the blunt crack of steps on a broken board. I should be alone here. I’ve always been alone here. But lately I’ve found evidence of a visitor. In the bathroom I found a damp, half-smoked cigarette in the sink. The sink is my broken tooth with taps for tears; hot and cold. I didn’t see the assailant’s face and I still wonder if he cut his hand.

The air is coloured with the smell of bay rum and sandalwood. I look into the empty bath. It is the smile of a girl I liked at school forty years ago. I open the window and the staleness is sucked out into the dark leaving the room cold and alert.

I’m on the stairs sounding like a horse and then comes the kitchen.

From the shadowed pantry three white eyes stare out. They are flour, rice and sugar. Clouds of flour become thoughts cased in bone, grains of rice pulse out from my wooden heart through cracked ceramic veins, sugar crystals swell in my bladder.

I must go.

Down two steps, across the rushing carpet its pattern forming, distending and breaking; the floor underneath could be one great muscle. I am at the bottom of the stairs and at the top of the stairs with no motion in between. I follow the urinous smell to a battered door.

I pull the pure cord in the dark and something white and sticky pours from the ceiling; it is light. The cord is clean from the fat circular fitting at the top but halfway down turns brown as a stick, ending in a grey, plastic bell fragment.

I relax my muscles and micturate a stream of sugar into the bowl which piles up on the slope before slumping into the water. I shake and grains patter on the floor.

The hair moves on the back of my neck, tall, dry grass, my head a rounded dune travelling slowly to the shore, a mud-choked littoral, the smell of ozone, sewage and tobacco smoke. I turn around to see a fat, white cigarette left on the top stair post, it is burning rapidly and by the time I am within reach it is all ash.

There is a clatter in the kitchen but from where I am I cannot move. Someone shouts and the sound billows out behind me then funnels away before sweeping back over my head and down the stairs. I follow, passing the mirror at the bend in the staircase. I look into the glass and a seagull gazes back, stone blue pupils, yolk yellow iris, beak wide open dripping black tar. I hiss back.

Downstairs the sea crashes against the windows, a pane shatters, the grey water plunges in then the wave rescinds taking the glass with it.

All stills.

In the kitchen a broken umbrella and belted raincoat lie on the table. I don’t recognise them and return to the living room where I squat in front of the fireplace placing coal in the grate a piece at a time from a galvanised bucket using a pair of brass tongs. The matches are damp but one flares and I start the kindling. Moonish smoke rises from the pyre and begins to fold on top of itself, layer after layer. I lie on the mossy sofa, a spring pressing into my back. The fire begins to roar orange and my fingers unclench in the easy warmth.

Rolling forwards, one hand forks over my face and I sneeze, a green smile twitches on the floor like a tapeworm. The smile ripples towards, then over, the tiled surround, puckers slightly then kisses the hot coals. I hiss again, bitumen breath and a white gas cloud the size of a sugar cube puffs from my mouth. I put my hand behind my back, dig under a cushion, pull out a bag of broken biscuits and begin nipping off the hard pastel frosting. I throw the biscuit discs towards the fire but I miss each time.

The radio comes on loud in the yellow bedroom. I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. I get up and the sofa’s skin stretches and snaps back to itself. I stumble for the stairs. Light is washing and blinking around the trembling frame of the bedroom door. The handle rattles. I know I will be shocked if I touch it. There’s a rushing sound behind me and I run into the bathroom waving steam away. The shower is on, yellow, green, red, sprays from the head into the tub and onto the floor. I close my eyes and grab the tap turning and turning, and when the flow stops I stand up and hear silence where the radio’s clamour was. I undress and get into the bath which frees me of the need to sleep that I have had for as long as I can remember.

The dark, unfilled rags that are my empty clothes wrap around each other on the floor. I step back into them and walk into the yellow bedroom. A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves. On the bedside table there is a glass full of water in which is a pair of dentures made with far more teeth than can be contained in a human mouth. A small metal box, a radio, shines next to the glass. I switch it on and there is a loud belch followed by a round of applause. I switch the radio off.

On the stool in front of the dressing table is a coat. From behind me there is a gagging then a throaty gurgle, a wet, chunky evacuation, perhaps through the nose as well as the mouth. On the bathroom floor in front of the toilet bowl lie strands of tomato and lumps of shrimp. I clean the floor and open the window, which slams shut immediately that I release it as if the outside air were resisting the gastric stench within. On the third attempt I manage to wedge the window open with a toothbrush.

I look up through the glass into the massing sky, bruised silver-grey and violet, and raise my arms, my hands, thinking through the sudden pain in my head, and see a frozen lark fall at great speed before exploding on the concrete path, scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments.

I open the back door and for the first time walk outside and when I look back I see nothing but trees. I sit on a rock and watch the nearest one to me. Silver bark crumbles from the trunk and snows onto the ground. The tree trembles.

I stand up in brilliant sunshine and turn to look over a rotten stile at a meadow that slopes away; long grass, scrubby, clumping weeds with tight pink buds, yellow butterflies twitch in the air, white mushrooms nose up through the damp soil, swallows dip and roll. In place of the sun a giant, golden, severed hand radiates in the sky. The hand closes into a fist making the world dark. Turning around, I run for the trees, eyes twitching up to the trunks and boughs that are scarred with hoops that glow orange ember. I trip over the step and fall into the kitchen smoke rising from my jacket.

The smell, like toasted marshmallows, makes me feel sick and hungry at the same time. I roll to my feet and approach the bread bin, carefully lifting the lid and, as I put my hand in the loaf scuttles into the corner pressing up against the side, palpitating under the bag tie.

This is my hunger.

I put the hand under the tap and watch it turn red.

Walking quickly from the sink I step out of my shoes, they float away and I feel lighter and truer. There is a breakage far in the distance but still inside. The stranger is coughing and laughing in the parlor.

I reach the door which gasps softly as I push against it and sighs as I pull it back. I refuse to do this again.

I step onto an irregular orange rug, the burning sand cradles my feet, one move, two moves and I am struck by a jag of glass that pierces my foot to the pith and I stand bleeding freely. The desert turns red and I become blue while my foot pulses. I move off into a corner and reach for the floor which spins around to meet me. Within reach there is a narrow bed and, propped next to it on its side, an empty television. I can’t remember all the programs I must have watched there when it had a screen but I know the time must have passed because here I am inside, looking at myself, watching nothing. I cough and, for a moment, I think I must be the stranger – I am a man after all – but I hear laughter outside the window, and then I think that he must be a piece of me that has broken off and is living a happier life than the one that I lead but, somehow, still cannot completely escape the original self who now lies maimed on the parlor floor.

But then I remember.

I don’t smoke.

I can’t be the stranger.

The pillow ascends and approaches as if interested in my breath. It becomes as big as the moon; or maybe it is merely close and white and glowing cold like a pillow does before one falls into its plump, lightly wrinkled face with one’s own red, heavily wrinkled, bewhiskered one. The moon or the pillow is behind me and my face is in front of me and the lack of a breath is not troubling me and I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down. I land heavily on my knees. (There will be a bruise.) The room shakes awake and I long for a blanket. I hear a long crisping sound, a suck and a pout, nearly silent, and a louder, but still quiet, exhalation, sour smoke drifts over my head and I struggle to stand, to turn, to see the secret smoker, to seize him – because it must be a him – to push him over, to crush his pack and kick away the yellow lighter, with its grind wheel and shimmering liquid gas, into the shadows of the shadows under my bed where I will reach for it in the morning – should the morning come.

I scramble sideways, pull myself up and balance on toe-tips, fingertips, before shuffling forward and rising in one long stretch. On the stairs I hear the rolling grind and fat thump and thump of a heavy ball descending.

I press my fingers into the palm of my left hand to dig out a chemical itch. I hold the sparkling hook in the air above my head before dropping it into my mouth and swallowing. There’s a fishy wiggle and a tickle and then it’s gone into the acid darkness.

There is a tapping under my feet, not on the plaster ceiling some distance below, but a hard, sore-knuckled rapping on the boards directly beneath the coarse leather of my shoes. There is a muffled shout from the same place; it must be hard to breathe there. I stamp my foot twice, three times and the sound stops. I fold over and put my ear to the warm wood.

The dark is hovering in the dark and behind these are the walls.

“Are you there?” I say but when I realise that I’m talking to myself I stand up.

Vines twist around the iron loops and knots of the bed head. There is a force of sweetness passing through these living cables, swelling the grapes that group together and nod towards the pillow. Dragonflies rise and fall in the turbid air, rapid wings making a deep hum and I imagine that this is what makes my glasses tremble and slip down my nose. I go to lie down and I’m relieved to be that little distance further from the earth, pleased to be upheld, and I recognize the vastness of the effort required to keep flesh, bones, skin, frothing blood and the soft, thinking matter of the brain from parting, each from the other, and sliding into the soil.

I sense the possibility of no more happening.

There is a sudden fall, a cough, of soot in the chimney and a small cloud passes over the tiles and settles on the carpet.

The stranger’s sounds make sense for the first time.

He is saying: “Get out of my house.”

I turn around and a man is standing close to me swelling large on the in breath, shrinking and warping on the out breath.

I talk and my words run backwards but I pull the sounds in and blow them out in the right direction.

“This is my home… my house. I have the deeds in my pocket. I always carry the deeds.”

I hand them over for his inspection.

“You see,” he says, waving the papers in the air. “I have the deeds. This is my house.”

“But all of this is mine. It’s what I’ve lived. Look – look… The rug there – it’s the skin I tore from my back when I fell off my boy’s scooter after steeping down a gravel path in the park.”

“Everyone has skin.”

“My books. All my books. I’ve read them.”

“No one has the words. The mind is on a slope and the words pour off like water and who knows where they go?”

“Not the words. The books. They’re mine… Downstairs… in the drawer. The knives. They cut my food.”

He has folded his arms and begun a slow, wet smile that I fear may never end.

“There’s no food in this house.”

I point upwards to the ceiling, his gaze follows and he cries out at the rough, fibrous shag of an over roasted slice of beef; wet strings of fat hang down, bloody drops pendulate, hesitating to fall.

The stranger reaches over and returns the deeds.

“It’s your house. It is.”

He stands wavering; thinning out.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been scaring me.”

“I was happy scaring you. I never thought that it was my house. I was lying.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t live in a house like this.”

“Neither do I.”

The stranger looks down at his shoes and so do I. They are just shoes.

“The truth is… I can’t remember anything.”

—David Hayden

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An Apple in the Library

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The librarian sits at her desk; unblinking, because unable to blink, unmoving, because unable to move. Air rushes between the stacks making a hoarse throat-music. The lamps are on and the ceiling is covered in scars.

The books know but are still.

The reader pushes at the door, considers his choices when it resists him, then pulls on the door, which opens. There is no knowing what the librarian is thinking. It is possible to know what the librarian is thinking.

The reader approaches her.

“Do you have an apple?”

If it were possible she would be nodding, not talking, nodding; indicating the shelf behind the reader where the apple is. He turns around and turns back.

“I’m sorry. I need the apple. And you can’t help me?”

The librarian stares at the reader. She knows that she cannot help. He smiles, considering his own simple appetence, it is a lovely thing, perhaps better than the apple sought; but still he must have the apple.

“Who brings you here? Are my questions cruel? I don’t feel cruel although I know what it is. I can look at you and in seeing you not see you, only a dark part of myself which I do not recognise as myself but as you; the surface of you, made a thing; a thing I see and want, or don’t want, to look at, to act on.”

Every day. Every single day,” thinks the librarian.

This is a loud thought but the reader can not hear it. She thinks it again.

Every single day.”

“I’m sure the apple is near,” says the reader.

“I have the idea of it in my hand. I possess the weight of the idea; not much, it is sufficient and, while lighter than many ideas, it is, at the moment, larger and more present than all those other thoughts.”

You are loud, unsheathed and boring, but you have a good smell; cleanliness with a superadded element, a bright unguent applied on the face with the fingers of each hand in a soft, swirling motion that awakes the skin, makes it live and feel like my skin, my flesh, once felt; a good smell; the odour of self-love, of care, of caring to be seen, of inhabiting one’s aliveness and feeling it both never ending and short-lived.”

The lights blink off and the library stages a presentiment of endless darkness. The reader can smell the apple now; it is behind him or, perhaps, over his head, floating. He reaches up into the dark pursuing his sense and the lights blink on and he is staring at his hand reaching out to nothing.

The librarian has a thought but it is not in words. The reader wants to be guided to the apple by words, by the alphabet even, but the fruit is before, or outside of all that; it is possible that the apple leads to the words but not the other way round.

“I will look at the books. It’s all right that I look at the books?”

The reader looks again into the librarian’s face.

“Everything I need to know today is in there. What do you do with it all, I wonder?”

Love. It’s enough.

“The apple is near and you are here and if I take the trouble to search I will find it.”

You are so vehement. It’s right behind you; you might not find it; perhaps you will.

“I like being here with you; so little moving.”

Your lips are moving.

“Everything that I need here and unable to leave.”

Nobody talks like you; it’s not credible; it’s not a good thing.

“There’s no resurrection except in small moments.”

The reader turns and finds the apple; the apple finds his hand. The apple is more than one simple green, perfectly imperfect as a minor sphere with spongy facets that can take the light and appear white in patches, but never completely. Wood, a stalk, and a tiny, heart-shaped, serrated leaf which, when lightly tugged, pulls back, belonging to the apple. He pushes the fruit into his mouth; his tongue’s memory of other apples creates an unthought motion to test, to paint the smooth, cool surface. Between the head and the hand: the apple; and out of the head, the mouth, the teeth. The reader is biting and chewing and it’s all happening very quickly.

The librarian thinks:

Is he eating the apple? Is the apple eating him?

The apple is finished.

The reader stands with one arm and hand free, the other bent slightly at the elbow; the core pinched lightly between his thumb and fore and index fingers.

“What I have had must come back to me; a thing, an event; done to, done by, me or who or her or him. The core turns brown, my fingers wet and sticky and fragrant.”

My eyes pour out meanings, longings – not him – meanings that stop at my eyes, which are dry; terribly dry.

The reader raises the core to his mouth and his tongue works, the teeth click and snap, and white flesh pulses out and around the fibrous, seedy pith and the apple grows fuller and more itself, and a waxy, green ribbon peels out from the reader’s mouth and spins around the fruit until it is complete.

The reader places the apple back on the shelf.

“Thank you.”

The librarian blinks.

The reader leaves.

—David Hayden

 

David Hayden’s short stories have appeared in The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Memory House is from his unpublished collection of short stories titled It’s Darker With the Lights On.