Oct 032014
 

Karen Mulhallen

These poems are close to my heart. Karen Mulhallen Karen and I are both exiles from Sowesto (aka southwestern Ontario), and the places of which she writes — Lake Erie, Port Dover, the Halton Sand Hills, Turkey Point, and Long Point — are ancestral touchstones for me as much as they are for her. For more about Karen, please see the introduction I wrote for her book Acquainted With Absence: Selected Poems. For more about the land of which she writes, see my “Long Point, A Geography of the Soul.”

Fishing Poems, just published by Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press, will be launched at The Windup Bird Café, 382 College Street, Toronto, Monday, 3 November. All welcome!

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fishingpoems-cover

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Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1845)

 

I

The Fishing Poems, An Album

I have kept my Fishing Poems close by for many decades. Their essential topography began to develop in my childhood and adolescence. As a family, we often drove from Woodstock in my father’s bright red Buick on hot summer weekends to Lake Erie to the Houghton Sand Hills, or we constructed a picnic in the parks and the beaches at Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Dover. Sometimes my parents would rent a cottage, a small wooden shack.

In adolescence, when the freedom offered by the family car came into play, I went with other teenagers to hear music: Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry; they all performed in Ontario’s deep southwest.

And more rarely, but memorably, in adulthood, my brothers and I would go off to spend the day in west Norfolk at the Houghton Sand Hills, towering 250 feet in the air, ever changing, and shaped toward the east by the southwest winds which revealed potshards and arrowheads in their passage and the shadowy presence still of a look-out, aboriginal or white, gauging the approach of a stranger across the long narrow stretch of lake below. Erielhonan, Iroquois for long-tailed.

Welded with these scenes was my indelible reading, when I was thirteen, of Alain Bombard’s Naufragé Volontaire (1953). Bombard sailed across the Atlantic from France to the Barbados, a distance of 4400 km, in an open boat, an inflatable he invented himself, and which he called L’Hérétique. With only a sextant, a few provisions, and an indomitable will, Bombard epitomized for me all those other great voyages on the oceans of the world, all those heretical abandonments of the known, those searches for a new found land.

It is easy to get shipwrecked, or to drown, in the search for freedom.

*

In the early seventies, I lived in Toronto in a second floor apartment in a house on Brunswick Avenue. In the rear ground floor apartment was a photographer named Brian Ramer who hailed from Brantford. It was Brian who initiated my tertiary enchantment with Norfolk County as we explored our shared childhoods and talked of climbing the towering Houghton Sand Hills, white grains slithering between fingers and toes, and the shallow warm welcoming waters and sun-dappled sandy beach at Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie.

Brian was making a living as a photographer and spending all his spare time in our back yard teaching himself solarized printing. The old buildings of Spadina Avenue with their cross hatchings of street car lines, their eccentric turrets and false façade pediments and elaborate brickwork niches would appeared in brown and the palest gold, like ancient sepia prints, on sheets of paper, spread over the weeds under the clothesline. Upstairs I’d given up Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology and was teaching myself structural linguistic analysis with an eye on those lush passionate melancholic tales of William Faulkner.

Four of us piled in Brian’s old Chevy and drove off for the day to Dover. Brian had been a couple times lately, talked to John Simple, and hung out on the beach, eating foot-long Arbors and watching the farm kids from Hagersville with their six foot inflatables, the big kings of the surf.

It was a tiny town, not much bigger than in Brébeuf’s time, although now it was all white. Brian had walked the main drag. Mr Vary still had his store at number 421 Main Street which he’d set up in 1908, when there were 1500 folks in the town.It took nearly forty years to double that. He was 87 now but his memory was good, which is what we found in everyone we talked to.

We headed up St Andrew which curves like a comma back to Main at the Water Tower. It was early, the beach mottled from the night rain, the sun rays small. For a moment it clouded over, and the sun shone through an aperture, the narrow band a hot vertical arc light. The tide was coming in, the water flashing diamonds in front of a large white yacht. A small blue sailboat cut across the bay, just behind a coral yacht at anchor. I knew by noon the whole beach would be a quilt, one blanket after another. The Blue Pickerel was still the best fish shack on the beach, “no bones about it”, but at that hour we had no inclination to “Try some for the Halibut”, despite the faded old sign, hung proudly on its front. And anyway the louvres were only partly open.

The gulls were swooping around a fishing boat way out there. We squinted into the sun as a yellow paper bag came floating along the horizon line,like a double- masted iceberg. Then we decided to climb up toward the drawbridge through the underbrush, dead twigs snap snapping against dusty gravel. Just then the bells began to ring.

My sandals were no good for climbing and I had to pick my way barefoot around fallen thistle burrs, old nails, and cigarette butts. The bridge began to lift cutting a diagonal right across the sky as a bird with a fish by the tail came swooping under, heading up the canal toward the river. There were three kids on the bridge, a couple of bikes dumped by the side on the gravel slope. Two of the kids had fishing poles, and there was a large tomato juice can full of minnows on the ground.

We were going to talk to John Simple in the evening about gill netting in an open boat and about dragging for smelt, and the lore of the town. We knew where the Alma would dock and I’d already put my hand down into the split car-tire buoys full of small soft spiders lining the Alma’s spot.

Brian and Tony climbed up to the top of Bank Street on the edge of the highway, just over from the big yellow fork- lift machine, while Bill and I went on another amble in the town centre. We knew we’d all end up back on the beach to make a supper out of golden orange sweet honey glow drinks, a dog and an ice cream cone at the Arbor shack, where a scoop of blueberry or loganberry was only 10 cents.

Near the dock was a mass of orange net and a pile of green and white and grey buoys. The Dover Rose slid into harbor loaded down. We picked up the boardwalk and headed to Globe & Mail Park where we all met up with Shelley and Sheri and Dougie playing on the stone lions at the bandstand steps. I figured them for 13 or so, and I wasn’t far off. We did the standard adult tack, asked them about school. “ You guys are lucky. I don’t learn nothin in school” said Dougie. “ The other kids are too noisy.” “ Is the teacher young?” “ No, but not old either. She’s got veins in her hands.” Brian’s camera was handed over and Sheri cracked a real Marilyn Monro cheesecake. “She looks sharp without the camera” says Dougie, “through it she doesn’t even look smart.”

Brian and I went several more times to Dover that summer to walk the beach, to talk to the fishermen, and to spend time in the small town library archives.

*

When I was growing up in southwestern Ontario, the past and its passions were everywhere present. I went to the Indian reserve at Oshweken with my father, and to farm auctions where old farm houses and barns yielded vestiges of pioneer days. In July, there were Highland Games nearby at Embro, and the Battle of Culloden was fought over and over, as children in kilts danced over swords, and the Amish families, all modestly dressed, arrived with their horses and buggies. The world champion tug-of-war team, originating in the 1870s, was a group of six farmers who lived near Embro. They called themselves The Mighty Men of Zorra, after the township they lived in. For a child there was always an odd sense that many of the rituals I encountered and the people I met had come from away. How did they get here; what was this place for them; were they really here, or were they still there?

And always beyond the early settlers and their descendants and the native peoples there loomed the distant past, a world of animal and spirit forms, manifesting themselves in nature.

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While I lived on Brunswick Avenue, Lorraine Monk had published, for the National Film Board of Canada, a book to celebrate Canada’s centenary, a picture book, Canada: A Year of the Land, with poems by my friend Miriam Waddington. Brian Ramer and I were inspired by its format and began to plan our own book of text and pictures. When our book was done, I sent it to the NFB and then to two other publishers, and it has remained unpublished. Brian left 411 Brunswick and eventually I moved on as well. But before I left Brunswick Avenue I went to the Pacific Ocean where I met a sailor who had built his own trimaran and sailed south from northern California, past the Baja coast where the spirits and the winds are strong, to a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.

I can still hear the crackle of the light blue onionskin airmail letters as they slipped through the front door mail slot bearing the beginnings of yet another version of Fishing Poems. For although my fishing poems had begun in childhood, they also now included the death, by drowning in the Tiber, of my friend Chris, as well as the end of my marriage, which had been primarily enacted by water, to a man who had been schooled on a ship, as his own father was its commander. So although I was born landlocked, I was early, or from the very beginning, marked by water.

I met the sailor on the beach in the old fishing village of Zihuatenejo. I had been to a shack for dinner where a thin, gray-haired white woman in pajamas, hands shaking, served us dishes of lobster by the light of an oil lamp hung on a peg from the roof rafters. Afterward L and I went for a walk on the beach, and then took a taxi up the hill to our hotel, The Irma, determined to move to the beach in the morning. B was on the beach that night, but I didn’t know it.

The next morning, settled in to our beachfront double room, with its louvres opening toward the sea, we took a stroll and met the crew of the Tattoo, three tall bleached-out northern California sailors, of which B was the captain.

Ixtapa was being carved out of the cliffs, south of town, and we ran along the coast in the Tattoo looking up at tiny figures crawling like white ants over the face of the rocks. We beached below the vast hive, ate shrimp cooked on an open fire by a local fisherman, then walked up to the waterfalls, and stood under the cascades, fully clothed, as the water plastered hair, dresses, shorts, and T-shirts to bodies.

The following day, just before noon, we went up the hill to the village lending library, where I showed B the diaries of Simone Weil, while the resident king parrot squawked, and then took a bite out of my finger.

In the morning, L and I took a light plane back to Mexico City. I can still remember looking out from the small porthole down on the rough field landing strip where B stood tall against the wooden shacks, his long blond ponytail still damp from our morning shower.

It would be more than twenty years before I let myself fall in love again with a sailor, and in the meantime I would have taken to the sea myself.

*

The Fishing Poems and the deep southwest have stayed with me and I have carried my manuscript to Scotland, to Venice, to Australia and to Toronto Island. Anyplace I went on retreat to write, the Fishing Poems went with me, always rewritten, never released. They have allowed me to write about the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Baja Peninsula, the Great Barrier Reef, and that great fresh water sea at the base of the city which is my home, Lake Ontario.

I have come to recognize that my relationship with the Fishing Poems and with water is a trope writers know intimately. There is a book always close to you that you cannot finish and cannot truly let go. It is the catalyst for other excursions. If you are William Faulkner, it is your Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County; if you are Mavis Gallant, it is your study of the Dreyfus Case; if you are Mr Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is your very Key to All Mythologies. Fictional authors or the real McCoy, there is always the book which eludes and leads us.

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Ondine’s Lament

I have been acquainted with absence;
Neither air nor water is my element.
I have been acquainted with absence,
Moving as amphibious creatures ought.

The old woman warned me
Returning from the arroyo:
You have remained out too long, she said,
After dark is dangerous.

I am the air when full—
My heart is beating;
I am the evening wind—
My blood is coursing.

Here the wing of the fragrant fly
Mimics my flight,
Holding me in his embrace
Clasping my clasping hands.

When it is damp, the water sinks—
My eyes are flickering.
When it is dry, the fountain sprays—
My veins are pulsing;

When it is sunning, the prisms crack—
My core is throbbing.
When it is darkling, the stars shine—
Myself am waiting:

Neither fish nor fowl
Always smooth but plumed:
Myself am waiting,
Myself am curling,

Myself am turning
Toward the horizon without end,
Shore without line, sound without presence:
The voice, the touch, the texture,
…………..which renews.
….I am not Griselda, nor was meant to be,
………am an attendant slave.

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The Sailor’s Letter

3.

Nine days later, evening, becalmed,

In the waiting there are many dreams—the half moon behind the ragged clouds, the soft sparkle of phosphorescent animals, as the boat slightly rocks in what remains of the swell. Lamp-lit cabins, and companions so close we need hardly speak.

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Captain Alexander McNeilledge

(1791-1874)

Captain Alexander McNeilledge committed suicide at the age of 83.
This is the last entry in his diary, 20 August 1874:

I last saw my mother on July 12, 1806, when I left Scotland expecting to be gone 3 or 4 months.
I was shipwrecked, and did not return to Scotland for 40 years.

They were all shipwrecks, maddened, these men,
gathered in that village in the wood, dreaming of prosperous towns,
perchance a great city, other civilizations,
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

One log house, the Birdsells, halfway to Van Allen’s place;
a small house on Prospect Hill, where Silas Knight the lawyer lived.
A school was raised; and at the mill, a small store,
kept by John Kirkpatrick and Colin McNeilledge—

And that mill, The Granary, haunted by Rob Roy, on its fascia mounted
the figurehead of the schooner called Highlander
wrecked on the treacherous sheet of water,
painted in Campbell and MacGregor colours,

and each 30th of November, St Andrew’s night,
Scots gather at Sandy’s Tavern in Dover,
raising a glass, drinking a dram, crying aloud
with haggis and pipes, and all the accompaniments,

skirling their longing,
Red Robert, Red Robert,
Rob Roy, Rob Roy

 /

Children at the Beach

Take thy bliss, O Man!
And sweet shall be thy taste & sweet thy infant joys renew!

William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

1.

Where the water tower stands
St Andrew Street like a comma
curls back to Main.

2.

Remember mottled wet beach like this after the rain?
No, but I remember morning beach when the rays were small.

3.

When you came here with your family
and you were twelve and you were starting to look
and starting to get together and tell your jokes
and a couple was behind the high school
and a policeman finds you and you says you’re only necking
and he says, well, put your neck back in your pants
and get outta here.

4.

You can get smashed by this lake,
but I don’t know what this means.

5.

Diamond flashing water coming into shore
before a large white yacht.

6.

Days when through the cloud
a narrow band of sun lights.

7.

Farm kids from Hagersville
with their 9′ inflatables—
the big kings of the surf.

8.

Remembering: days when there is just one blanket
after another—the whole beach a quilt.

Seeing a fishing boat with gulls
behind a yellow paper bag
floating like a large berg on the horizon:
a double sail.
9.

Norfolk Hotel
Ladies and Escorts
presenting Mr Bruise B.

Mr Bruise B,
loves like a bee
kisses like a wasp,
oh no
Mr. Bruce B.

oooooh eeeee—Mr Brian R.
mouth like a bar
when he does he goes up far
ooo—–eeee

oooo–eeeeee
oo-ah ah
ting tang
wally wally bing bang
oo–eeee–oooo–aa–aa–
ting tang tanga
wallywally bing bang

Stevie Crozier—here he is
waiting for his hard on to go down to piss
while pencilling on the wall seven foot tall
Polonius Sucks

John and Mary up in a tree
K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
first comes love
then comes marriage
then comes Mary
with a baby carriage
oh-oh

Tiny Tim
went to the doctor
doctor wasn’t in
went to the nurse
nurse had the curse
oh oh Tiny Tim

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Arrivals

1.

Rain on the River

In the fog we drift hither and yon over the dark waves.
At last under a maple, our little boat finds shelter.

Above the veil of mist, from time to time, there lifts a sail.

2.

Coming in

We rowed ashore. Early this morning we took a tour along the coast of the bay.
It’s all a montage now, looking back on it.
You are in my mind here, Sarah, your presence.
Two white birds in a windy sky.

3.

the sixteenth

…what is it ? The dream began it. The writing started then.
Any point to this is there, blowing all through it, invisible, yet heard.
I am afraid to say like the wind in the trees.

4.

the seventeenth

Tonight the dream came again, and a healer touched me with his index finger,
just below my clavicle, saying pain is serpentine —here is its point of entry—here
is its point of exit. As he touched me all the pain of my life came rushing out,
and you were there, watching, as it left.

That’s all for now.
Adios.
Until we see each other again, carry my love with you,
B

 

—Karen Mulhallen

These poems are excerpted from the book Fishing Poems (Black Moss Press, September 2014).

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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.

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Oct 022014
 

murakami via http://www.sequenza21.com/dillon/

The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the puzzles Tsukuru attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains. — Steven Axelrod

colorless_tsukuru_tazaki_and_his_years_of_pilgrimage_by_haruki_murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami
Knopf (August, 2014)
Hardcover, 386 Pages, $25.95

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Haruki Murakami’s career been an extraordinary one by any standard. His status in Japan falls somewhere between J.K.Rowling and the Beatles at their peak of popularity. Japanese fans line up for hours to purchase each new book, despite the establishment cavil that he is a little too interested McDonalds and Walt Disney, Raymond Chandler and rock and roll. His various works of fiction and memoir have earned him constant critical acclaim and many literary prizes, including the World Fantasy Award (2006), the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006), and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).

Murakami’s novels deploy a quiet, austere prose-style to describe bizarre alternate realities. In books like 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his protagonists descend – down an emergency stairway on a Tokyo highway, or into a dry well – to find themselves in new and uneasily altered worlds. The quiet young bachelor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a common type in Murakami’s oeuvre) receives healing powers from a random sexual encounter, learns that some sinister supernatural force is altering the political landscape and recognizes the voice of doom in the call of a mechanical bird. The heroine of 1Q84 finds herself in a world with two moons, where tiny creatures emerge from the mouths of cult members to create an “air chrysalis” a cocoon woven out of thin air, from which some sort of human golem is born. In Kafka on the Shore a ghost appears as Colonel Sanders (he would have preferred manifesting as Mickey Mouse, Disney is so litigious!). Mackerel and sardines fall from the sky like hail.

These examples scarcely begin to catalogue the surreal inventory of Murakami’s imagination. But earlier in his career, he worked in a more naturalistic style, to which he returns for his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.

The book, elegantly translated by Philip Gabriel,  tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, who after being mysteriously spurned by his close cadre of high school friends and stumbling through a decade of confusion and despair, finally sets out to discover why the four people he cared about the most could have rejected him so ruthlessly. His quest for understanding takes him deep into their shared past, offers troubling revelations about their present lives, and ultimately provides some tentative hope for the future.

Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, features many of the same narrative devices as the new book: the group of friends shattered by an untimely death, a nondescript almost extravagantly ordinary “everyman” led by a beautiful vibrant woman into an examination, and ultimately an understanding, of his life. As usual, Murakami chooses a musical theme to set the tone – Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Janacek’s Sinfonetta in 1Q84, or the Beatles song in Norwegian Wood.

Here he chooses Franz Liszt’s Le Mal du Pays, from the composer’s Years of Pilgrimage Suite, meant to invoke “a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.”

There’s a lot of melancholy in this book, as there was in Norwegian Wood. Premature death smothers the living like a snowfall of ash. But there are crucial differences between this new effort and the earlier novel. Norwegian Wood was set in motion by an inexplicable suicide; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by an unexplained act of violence. The modulation is from the internal to the external, and the mysteries Tsukuru Tazaki attempts to solve actually have answers. They draw Murakami away from his usual narrative tactic of ambiguity. Still, even here, after what most readers would have to call a satisfactory conclusion to a well-made tale, some essential mystery remains.

Two central aspects of Norwegian Wood are reiterated in the story of Tsukuru Tazaki: The childhood tragedy viewed with adult perspective, and the brilliant woman who will function as the emotional catalyst that sparks all the inert elements of a monochrome existence.

As Murakami put it in his 2004 Paris Review interview, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.” In this case the woman is named Sara. Sophisticated and worldly, she is drawn to Tsukuru, but quickly detects his emotional disabilities. When she hears the story of how his friends inexplicably shunned him, she understands intuitively how to heal his distance and disconnection.

The issue is baffling even to Tsukuru himself: more than a decade before, his four best friends cut him off absolutely, with no explanation. Clearly they assumed he had done something unforgivable, but he still has no idea what his crime might have been, and no way to defend himself. The mysterious exile tipped Tsukuru over into a suicidal depression, but never carried out the ultimate act. Instead the pain gradually dulled to a constant ache, a permanent cloud cover dimming the landscape of his ever more regimented, asocial, mechanical life. He studied engineering, sat in train stations watching the commuters come and go; ate and slept. The hole in his psyche couldn’t be patched or filled in, so he simply tried to ignore it. He has lived like a hoarder in a cluttered old house, moving in ever more narrow paths through the teetering jumble of an unexamined life. Until he discards the rubbish, packs the valuables and cleans up, he can never move out or move on.

Sara grasps this instantly, and she sets the plot of the novel in motion by setting the terms of love affair with Tsukuru: nothing can begin with her until Tsukuru finds his old friends and discovers why they cut him off.  So Tsukuru starts investigating his own past, as well as the present day lives of his four friends, and this quest becomes the central engine of the novel.

For Tsukuru, it began when he was the “colorless” member of a five-kid clique in high school: three boys and two girls, constant companions.  Their last names all invoke actual colors — the two boys, Akamatsu (“red pine”) and Oumi (“blue sea”); the two girls, Shirane (“white root”) and Kurono (“black field”). For convenience, I’ll just refer to them by their nicknames here: Aka (red), Ao (blue), Shiro (white), and Kuro (black). But Tsukuru is just Tsukuru. The chromatic distinction is not simply one of personality (though Tsukuru feels crushingly ordinary compared to the others).

Murakami has chosen his palette with care. The boys, simple souls, reflect primary colors. The girls are black and white, each embodying the contradiction inherent in pigment and light. In pigment, black signifies the combination of all colors, white the absence of color. In light it’s precisely the opposite. Black is the absence of all colors, and white contains the full spectrum. Shira, with her love of music and the spiritual life, is the white of light, holding every hue inside her, as does the more earthy and practical Kura, whose black pigment also combines every tint.

In high school, Aka was short shy and stubborn, always at the top of his class though he never had to study. Ao was a jock, a big handsome charismatic boy – a good listener and a born leader. Shiro was slim and beautiful: “A Japanese doll”. She was painfully shy but a spectacularly talented musician, happier with children and pets than other people; and happiest at the piano. Kuro was the class clown, a big girl, fast and funny, clever and sarcastic. Alone in this “Breakfast Club” gang, Tsukuru lacked any obvious talents or eccentricities, with only an obsession with train stations to set him apart from the crowd.

Murakami actually gives very little detail about these early years, but the vagueness of Tsukuru’s glory days works a function of the character’s memory, not the author’s laziness. The golden haze that dims Tsukuru’s recollections is crucial to the mystery of how the idyll failed.The first cracks appear when Tsukuru leaves the suburb of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo. The other four remain at home. Some emotional distance occurs naturally in the separation, as visits become less frequent. Then the blow falls. The severance is absolute, non-negotiable and impossible to understand.

Tsukuru only makes one friend during his decade of exile, a young man named Haida, whose name appropriately refers to the color gray. They swim together at a local pool and discuss philosophy. Haida tells Tsukuru the story of his father (or was it Haida himself? Tsukuru never knows for sure) meeting a pianist named Midorikawa (It means “green river”, another colorful name) in a hot springs resort in the mountains. Haida’s father found himself captivated by the music and by the fact that the musician could see a nimbus of color around everyone he met. The gift could only be passed on to people who had accepted death, which would have made Tsukuru, with his suicidal fixation, an excellent candidate.

Tsukuru never learns to detect auras, but just hearing the story starts him dreaming at night, as his hibernating sexuality reawakens: passionate sexual encounters between himself and the long-lost Shiro and Kura, though their friendship was always strictly platonic; and with Haida, though neither one of them is homosexual in waking life. The friendship with Haida ends abruptly, without explanation, and Tsukuru is once again left alone.

This Purgatorial interlude finally ends when Tsukuru meets Sara at age thirty-six, and begins his quest.

Tsukuru learns that the boys, Ao and Ako, have turned into salesman, one pushing expensive cars and the other hustling a tawdry, pedestrian self-help system. They’ve made their fortunes but turned themselves into colorless capitalist cogs — a fate that Tsukuru, with his quirky love of train stations and his engineering degree, has managed to avoid. In another trope borrowed from Western movies, the boring geek has grown up to outshine the cool group who shunned him. But at least they’re glad to see him, both forthcoming and regretful about the events that poisoned their friendship.

This is what happened: Shira had been raped, and she told the others that Tsukuru was her attacker.

The allegation sounded crazy to Tsukuru’s friends, but Shira was so adamant in her certainty of his guilt that they were forced to close ranks against him. Making things much worse, Shira became pregnant from the attack, decided to carry the baby to term, but lost it. She moved away from Nagoya to a small town on the coast. But tragedy followed her relentlessly. She was murdered, a crime never solved or explained.

As time passed, Tsukuru’s culpability seemed more and more unlikely to his friends, but the confusion and social awkwardness of their first response metastasized with time: the years of silence accumulating like black mold.

When Tsukuru finally tracks them down, though, Ao and Ako are glad to apologize and set things right. They tell him their stories, and the forward rush of the narrative pauses so we can listen. And “listen” is the proper word, as these tales echo both Murakami’s earlier work (The harrowing accounts of war crimes and the slaughter of zoo animals in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the novel-within-a-novel in 1Q84) and the professional story-tellers of Meiji era Japan. These purveyors of Ninjobashi (or sentimental stories) reached their height of popularity in the early twentieth century, when performers of Hamashika , which, much like The Moth today, involved talking without notes on stage, filled the Yose theaters with audiences from every strata of Japanese society.

Concurrently, the invention of Japanese shorthand allowed for the transcription and publication of these stories and hastened the loosening of Japanese formal written language into a more colloquial and approachable style. The Englishman Harry Black came to japan in the 1870s and started presenting Japanese versions of European novels at the Yose theaters. In these adaptations, called Han’anno, you see a clear precedent for Murakami’s fascination with western culture.

But Murakami’s work harks even further back, to the Buddhist Sestuma parables of the 10th century. Like the itinerant priests of the Shoan era, Murakami means his fables to enlighten.

In the life-stories told by Tsukuru’s friends you can trace the development from disconnection and falsity to an enlightened authenticity. Ako sells a bogus self-help course; Ao sells cars. Kuro has moved to Finland, and actually makes something – her beautiful free-form pottery. And of course Tsukuru – whose name means “builder” – helps to design train stations, the most practical and grounded vocation of all. In fact Tsukuru has possessed the very thing he has been seeking all along.

When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, he finds her still haunted by the past. She has married a Finnish potter, and changed her name to Eri in a futile effort to extirpate her previous existence. But it’s a hopeless task. “You can put a lid on memory, but you can’t hide history,” Sara tells Tsukuru.

Eri knows it’s true. She regrets siding absolutely with her friend against the absent ‘culprit’ but still doesn’t know how she could have acted differently. Evil spirits, the trauma of the event, followed Shira everywhere, like “dark elves in a forest.” Shira needed protection and absolute fealty from someone. Eri was the only one who could grant it to her.

The answers Tsukuru needs most — who really committed the crime, and why Shira chose to blame him, died with her. He will never get to ask her the most important questions, as he will never get to hear her play  Mal du Pays on the piano again.

Tsukuru returns to Japan from Finland, where his long-standing sense of solitude and exile had finally found some objective correlative: eating strange food in cafés, surrounded by the clatter of a foreign language, the street signs and newspapers inscrutable behind a foreign alphabet. Back in Tokyo, returned from exile, the city starts to feel like home.

In the closing moments of the book, Tsukuru thinks:

If Sara chooses me, I’m going to propose to her right away. And give her everything I’m capable of giving – every single thing. Before I get lost in a dark forest. Before the bad elves grab me.

Not everything was lost in the flow of time. That’s what Tskuru should have said to Eri when he said goodbye at the lakeside in Finland. But that point, he couldn’t put it into words.We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something – with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

He calmed himself, shut his eyes and fell asleep. The rear light of consciousness, like the last express train of the night, began to fade into the distance, gradually speeding up, growing smaller until it was finally, sucked into the depths of the night, where it disappeared. All that remained was the sound of the wind slipping through a stand of white birch trees.

Murakami has returned to an earlier style of story-telling here, but the intervening years have left their mark. Anchored in reality as Norwegian Wood was twenty-seven years ago, the mundane reality of the new book is imbricated with dreams and magic, from the image patterning of music and color (Sara’s name is as colorless, finally, as Tsukuru’s), to the psychically gifted pianist and the mysterious effect of the music he plays on Tsukru’s sexual, violent, inexplicable dreams. In one of them, Tsukuru is flayed by birds, his skin replaced by some unknown substance between eggs and feathers.

Do the auras the pianist sees really exist? Does embracing death really render them visible? Are the dark forest elves real that pursued Shira real or metaphorical? Did Tsukuru actually attack Shira in some somnambulistic fugue state? Did he have sex with his friend Haida, or merely dream it? The author leaves these mysteries unresolved, like the tragic events of Shira’s life and death. But their presence deepens and invigorates the most straightforward and open-hearted book Haruki Murakami has ever written.

—Steven Axelrod

 

Oct 012014
 

liam3
Liam Carson’s memoir, Call Mother a Lonely Field (shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize), was described by Pol O’Muiri, writing in The Irish Times, as “a lyrical prose poem about being one of the first generation of Belfast children to be actually raised – reluctantly at times – with Irish.” The opening and closing chapters framing the memoir are both titled Tearmann, the Irish word for sanctuary. For his father, Liam Mac Carráin, Carson tells us in the opening chapter, Irish was a place of refuge. “He was once interviewed for BBC Radio Ulster’s Tearmann— where guests were asked what gave them sanctuary in their lives. He chose the Irish language itself. He hid within and took comfort from words.” Carson himself when he eventually resolves his relationship with the Irish language describes it as “a blessing that—finally—I have returned to the linguistic sanctuary my parents bequeathed me, for which I am eternally grateful.”

“Will Irish survive?” he ultimately wonders. “Nobody knows,” he determines. “If it does, it will not be the language of the past, because we are not the people of the past. But a generation ago, men and women like my father and mother gave their children something that still fights erasure. If it endures it will be because there must always be a return to one’s own tearmann, where something of one’s soul and being is kept alive.”

If the Irish language survives, it will be because of people like Liam Carson also who has dedicated so much of his time to bringing the Irish language and Irish language literature to the forefront of our cultural life providing us with comfort and a much needed sanctuary.

—Gerard Beirne

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Once upon a time…I was a reader, but not a reader of literature in Irish. I was a speaker of Irish, or a kind of Irish, having been brought up speaking the language in Belfast in the 1960s. My father had many books in Irish – the classic Gaeltacht memoirs and novels by writers such as Séamas Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna, Maurice O’Sullivan, Peig Sayers, and Tomás Ó Criomhthain. I never read these books. For one, I didn’t feel my Irish was good enough to engage with them. For another, they didn’t seem to have much to do with the world in which I lived – in 1970s Belfast, my cultural reference points were Bob Dylan, The Doors, punk rock, and science fiction. English was urban and urbane, Irish was a harkening to a mythical rural idyll that never existed in the first place. Like many Irish schoolchildren I went to the Gaeltacht in the summer, and whilst we improved our Irish at morning classes, there was never any mention of poetry or literature, other than that which we encountered in wonderful songs like ‘Thíos cois na trá domh’.

There would be occasional moments when what seemed to me like two disparate cultures would meet. I remember seeing the Donegal band Clannad in a theatre in Gaoth Dobhair. They came on to the stage, hippies with their long hair, jeans, waistjackets and began to sing ‘Níl sé ‘na Lá’. Here was a traditional song reworked, with modern jazz bass lines quivering under a folksy surface. It was magical.

Years later, many years later, I became interested in Irish again – and through the medium of literature. On a visit to Donegal, I felt the language calling to me again. At the Oideas Gael bookshop, I bought a couple of poetry collections by Cathal Ó Searcaigh — and Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues, by Gearóid MacLochlainn. This book shattered my ignorant notions of what existed within Irish literature. I realised what I had missed by not reading Irish. It is not the purely nostalgic literature I once imagined; it can be very much of the present. MacLochlainn writes about my home — west Belfast – and learnt much of his Irish from my father. I recognized myself and my city in his poems. Here were the soldiers, the helicopters, the sirens, the plastic bullets and the Molotov cocktails. Here were people listening to reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, punk and rap. Here were people swimming between Irish and English. Cathal Ó Searcaigh combines a profound knowledge and love of his Donegal tradition — the poets and storytellers who came before him — with the sensibility of somebody who has read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lorca and Cavafy. I learnt that some of the most engaged, innovative, and beautiful writing emerging from Ireland is in Irish. I became like a thirsty man, drinking from a long-forgotten well. Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí says Ó Searcaigh — we will have to return to the springs. And in this, we hear echoes of English poet Kathleen Raine’s mission of ‘defending ancient springs’.

It wasn’t long before I was trawling second-hand bookshops for back issues of the wonderful poetry magazine INNTI, brilliantly edited by the mercurial Michael Davitt (whose book title gleann ar ghleann is surely a conscious nod to Bob Dylan). And what Dylan’s blonde on blonde was to the rock lyric, so INNTI was to Irish language poetry. It exploded the categories, crossed borderlines, broke the rules.

I also discovered the dark and surreal work of Dáithí Ó Muirí, one of Ireland’s finest short story writers in any language. Ó Muirí sculpts language with consummate skill, fusing clean accessible lyric Irish with the hipster prose of modern rock journalism. He work carries the influence of fantasy writers such as Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. This is Irish magical realism, a literature that exists in the context of Borges as much as Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

In his stories people can fly; a mother and daughter see visions of an ice castle on an Indian mountain, and discover a holy well that seems to vanish into thin air. What permeates these tales is the surreal logic of dreams.

But within his alienated landscapes, there exist potent reminders of the world we know. In ‘Cogadh’ (War) we find the fear of the other that lies at the heart of war. His imaginary citizens erect a wall to protect themselves from attack – and immediately the reader is reminded of the twenty or so ironically named ‘peace lines’ that still separate catholic and protestant communities in Belfast; or of the ‘security wall’ that the state of Israel has built around the Palestinian territories.

In many of his stories, the background is replete with televisions pumping out the news of a tireless vaguely defined conflict that echoes the ‘war on terror’. African immigrants ‘éalú ón gcruatan thall, bochtanas, gorta, foréigean’ (flee from distant hardship, poverty, famine, violence). This is Irish literature which is simultaneously global.

Irish cultural commentator Diarmuid Ó Giolláin recently put forward the provocative proposition that traditional folklore might find a rebirth in a post-modern culture where the grand narratives of the 20th century novel are in retreat, and where ‘little local stories’ (‘scéalta beaga aitiúla’) have been re-invested with value. In Irish literature, these ‘little stories’ have recently found potent expression in Alan Titley’s delightful Leabhar Nora Ní Anluain. On the one hand, it is utterly Gaelic, and takes as its model or framework classic collections of traditional folk narratives such as Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill – and some have also compared it to Boccaccio’s The Decameron. On the other hand, it is a book utterly of our time, with a subversive critique of global neo-liberalism and all forms of colonialism at its heart.

But it is not enough for a literature to exist. A literature needs readers. Writers need readers, listeners, they need a platform on which to sing their songs. In 2004, with the assistance of Poetry Ireland, I set out to create the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival. It was co-founder poet Gabriel Rosenstock who named the festival IMRAM – a ‘voyage of discovery’. It means constantly finding new ways in which to frame Irish language literature – through eclectic and imaginative event programming that fuses poetry, prose and music. IMRAM has also featured film, drama, puppetry, debates, lectures, and writing workshops for both adults and children. IMRAM’s core mission is to bring writers and readers – and particularly new readers – together.

IMRAM’s message is positive – and places the Irish language and its literature at the heart of public life within a modern, energetic and multicultural framework. IMRAM believes that it is crucial to place Irish language literature in an international context. Irish language writers do not exist in some strange Gaelic ghetto cut off from the rest of the world. It is impossible to imagine Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry without the influence of John Berryman or of Marina Tsvetaeva. And it’s worth noting that her poem ‘Dubh’ (Black) is an impassioned cri-de-coeur response to the tragic fall of Srebrenica in 1995, during which Serbian forces under the command of the notorious General Ratko Mladic slaughtered eight thousand Bosnian men and boys in the single worst act of genocide on European soil since the Second World War.

Liam Ó Muirthile has spoken of his deep attachment to French poetry, particularly poets François Villon and Jacques Prévert. Gabriel Rosenstock has long engaged with eastern literature – Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. He is one of the world’s foremost writers and translators of the haiku, possessed by the spirits of Basho, Buson and Issa.

There has always been traffic between Ireland and the rest of Europe, Ireland and the world at large. And there have always been writers who have reflected the spirit of the age in its broadest sense. Seosamh Mac Grianna wrote what I would describe as existentialist noir, he evoked the zeitgeist of the 1930s, and of the individual trying to come to grips with the darkness of the age.

For IMRAM, the trick is to find the points where literatures and cultures meet. For me, it was obvious that Bob Dylan should be translated into Irish. His songs draw on a tradition with Gaelic roots, they have traditional themes, airs and lyrics that lend themselves perfectly to translation to Irish. In Gabriel Rosenstock’s hands, these lyrics were not just translated, they were transmuted, as if by a process of literary alchemy. Thus the questioning ‘how does it feel’ of Dylan’s original becomes a demand to simply tell one’s story – ‘mínigh an scéal’. Or in Dublin parlance, ‘what’s the story?’, Dylan’s ‘like a complete unknown’ becomes ‘i do bhard gan dán’ – a poet without a poem. Thus storytelling and poetry become the core of Dylan’s torrent of language.

Creative and themed events are at the heart of IMRAM’s mission. We believe that literature must engage with othe art forms – music, visual arts, dance, drama. In 2009, IMRAM staged The Riverrun Project, a bli-lingual poetic and sonic voyage through modern and historical Dublin. This featured specially commissioned work by Biddy Jenkinson, Dermot Bolger, Liam Ó Muirthile and Máighréad Medbh, performed to original music and sound effects created by Seán Mac Erlaine. Graphic artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections, showing a mesmerising series of often quite beautiful images of modern Dublin, carefully selected to match the poems being read.

In 2010, IMRAM transformed experimental poet Séamas Cain’s book tríd an gcoill was transformed into a sonic and visual installation by sound artist Slavek Kwi, and staged in City Arts over five days. Slavek Kwi fused Cain’s recital of the poem with a sound-track of sounds gathered in Dromore Wood in County Clare; in addition hundreds of still images and film-clips were used, both on a large screen and on a small screen within a ‘speaker-tree’.

For the 2011 Dublin Writers Festival, IMRAM produced two special commissioned performances. The first of these was The Aisling Project, in which poets Paddy Bushe, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Dairena Ní Chinnéide performed newly composed poems in the aisling form addressing the current state of Ireland. These were performed to beautiful effect with specially composed live music by acclaimed composer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Mac Erlaine, and powerful on-screen projections by artist Margaret Lonergan.

In conjunction with the Goethe Institute and Poetry Ireland – IMRAM and the Dublin Writers Festival also staged Orpheus Sings a tri-lingual celebration of Rainer Maria Rilke. Peter Jankowski read the original German texts. Celia de Fréine read her sparkling Irish versions of Rilke, along with selections from Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s translations of Duino Elegies and Valentin Iremonger’s translation of The Life of Mary. Eva Bourke read fresh new English versions of Rilke, including selections from his earlier work and from New Poems. The poets were read to musical from harpist Cormac de Barra, and artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections of photos and art celebrating Rilke’s life.

For a number of years now, IMRAM has been working in close association with design and typography students in the Dublin Institute of Technology, creating an annual Cló Project. Poems and short prose texts are selected and given to students, who create imaginative new typefaces and graphics for the poems and stories. In 2012, we took the project to the streets of Dublin, producing 30 large billboard poems. This meant that Irish language poetry had a significant visible presence, seen by thousands on their way to work.

In 2012, IMRAM also experimented with dance, commissioning acclaimed choreographer and dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir to create an otherwordly exploration of Daithí Ó Muirí’s surreal novel, Ré. Using live dance, music and visuals, the show featured dancer Ríonach Ní Néill, with music by Alma Kelliher, and lighting by Ciarán Ó Melia.

IMRAM staged La nuit est ma femme at the 2013 Dublin Writers Festival – a literary exploration of Kerouac’s relationship to French, to Catholicism and Buddhism; of his bi-lingual identity; and of his fraught relationship with America. The selections drew on poems, haiku and novels. Two writers – Gabriel Rosenstock and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn – both translated and responded to Kerouac’s work. The texts were read to improvised jazz accompaniment by The Dirty Jazz Band and on-screen projections created by Margaret Lonergan. This event saw a capacity crowd (the majority students in their twenties) in the Workman’s Club.

IMRAM is eleven years old this year, and we are currently developing beyond being an annual festival into an organization that programmes and curates events for other literary organizations and festivals throughout Ireland and beyond. We are always open to creative partnerships, open to new ideas, dialogue, and communication. We are here to celebrate literature in Irish – a literature that has proved surprisingly alive and flexible in the face of all the challenges that face any minority language. We continue our mission, like a rolling stone…

—Liam Carson

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Liam Carson was born in Belfast, and is the author of Call Mother a Lonely Field, published by Hag’s Head Press and Seren Books. He is the director of the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival, which he founded in 2004.

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Oct 012014
 

AFSullivan-Insideco

 

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

It was there in the tractorbeam above their farmhouse twenty miles outside Lethbridge that Abbie finally saw everything, even the pieces she never wanted to find. She did not see the horizon or the world around her; she saw everything inside Derek, inside the tractorbeam hoisting them up into the air, soundlessly, the saucer above them just an aluminum pan stuck in rotation. Memories of frogs exploded with firecrackers, of a mother’s fist whacking Derek’s mouth, of dead mice in the attic fed to the cat by hand. The blue light pierced them both in a way that she and Derek became one, unleashing every fear, every hate and those deep kindnesses most humans can’t remember. They washed over her mind, seeped into the corners of her skull. Abbie saw her husband pull a boy out a house fire while he was wasted, saw him leave a friend outside in the winter cold when there was not enough room in the truck. She watched him hold his first niece, felt the size of his heart almost cripple his skinny chest. She learned of the horrors his father had described, but never enacted on his offspring. She and Derek rose up through the darkness, swaddled in blue and not even the moisture in the air could touch them.

Abbie watched Derek’s eyes move toward her, felt him there, showered with her oldest thoughts, the time she cut her hand and didn’t cry but just watched the blood run through the lifeline of her hand, watched it trickle down her arm and slide off the point of her elbow. It was only then that she told her mother, only then that she had wept because that was what you were supposed to do when you were five and someone saw you hurting. This was your signal, your cue. Derek had access to all of this, but he wasn’t probing, he was being showered with these memories, these horrors and fears and revelations. She always wanted him to refuse a shower before they made love, to smell the day on him, the sweat, the shit, whatever and now he saw this, knew this and they kept rising into the air. The saucer above drew closer, but it could not be a saucer. These were not true stories, these were fantasies. She wanted to call it a dream, but the blue light tasted like a socket and she could not pinch herself. No dreams, no nightmares. Just a now.

As a small hum of the machine above them drew closer, Abbie pushed words out toward her husband, letting them swim through the blue light toward his head. What is this? Why is this?

Derek only could send back colours, bright yellows that hit her brain, reds that made her tremble somewhere within, where the blue light could not reach. Finally, small words began to trickle in to her brain, into her consciousness, if that’s what she could call it here, hovering above their house and the snow below.

Something. It is. Do not. Do not. Let go. Let go. Hold. Hold. Hold.

It was when they bumped against the aluminium that the darkness finally closed around them and the last word she could taste, could smell, could hear was rye and ginger and Us like a whisper pushed through chipped, clenched teeth. And then she knew everything.

The next morning Abbie and Derek woke up in the backyard. She was still naked in the snow and his shirt was still ragged. They crawled toward each other against the cold and did not need to speak. Each one had somehow been inside the other up there in the sky; there were no more intimate places to hide, no more shame, no more secrets. They groped each other, looking for wounds, for missing parts, for seams or zippers where there had been none before. They found nothing, only what they knew, what they had always wanted. Abbie ran a hand down her husband’s spine, pushed her lips into his. They would tell no one of what happened. No one would believe them anyway—no one would understand outside these two beings. They remembered nothing after the aluminum, but everything from before. They had halls to walk, museums to explore that never seemed to end. The world could become a person if you were given enough access—the world could become a person if that was all you cared to know.

After a few minutes kneeling in the snow, they finally realized they were cold.

-

It was five years before they rose again in the middle of the night, bodies pulled slowly from the bed, perfectly flat toward the ceiling. Derek wore the same t-shirt which now had spots of puke decorating its front. Abbie still remained naked, but it was summer and her sweat had filled the sheets. The blue light was the same. Owen was two years old and sleeping in the other room. He was just learning to make it through the night. Abbie’s heart began to ripple quickly inside her as she rose; there were never any guarantees that they would come back, there were no promises with the light. It came when it wanted to it seemed, it raised them in the dark with no warning.

We knew this was comingWe will come back. We will always come back.

Derek’s voice was inside her, his words sliding up against her glowing teeth. Her eyes found his and she saw the fear in her rain down toward him, a lonely child, a bitter boy with no parents in this world, sent to live with ancient relatives who could not spell kindness, much less show it. Rotten fruit, rotten kids at school, a boy stunted by a lack of diet, a lack of love. This would be Owen and Derek’s dreams filtered back toward her, the night the cattle got out and he had kissed Owen goodnight three times, how he had come back between each run and looked down on his son, placed a gnarled hand against the smooth surface of the boy’s head. Abbie’s fear plunged away somewhere hidden, and she found the old pieces she wanted to recognize, the first time Owen had bit her while breastfeeding, the first time he had fallen down and got up by himself. Children would eventually grow, eventually change. Derek’s mind showed her how he stayed up some nights just to watch over her, how he ate the overcooked chicken breast without complaint, how he threw out a vase he smashed one night after a bachelor party and she never noticed.

She found little bits of Owen inside him as they rose through the light. Private moments a son had shared with his father, things the boy would way day forget, but that would linger on for the man beside her, naked in the air, floating in the heat of summer, teeth lit up like exposed wires under a foreign sun. She knew Derek found the first steps Owen had taken with her while he had been out haying in the summer before, the way the boy had clapped to cheer for himself and then fallen over directly into the coffee table. Only three stitches, but those stiches were woven into Abbie’s heart now, into her being, she could feel them there even in the blue light.

There were secret loves here, things that had changed, grown deeper, creeks that had become rivers, ditches into canyons, but they were not divided, they were still drawn toward one another. The blue light tightened this bond that had once just been a child, held it close against them. The sky was clear and they could have stared for miles around them, taken in the beauty of a world about to change, a season fading into the next, the idea of distance, of space, of whatever it was dragging them up into the sky, but here, in the tractorbeam, Abbie could only find her husband, could know him more than any other place, any time. It sucked them both up into the sky, drew them towards a deep unknown and all she could find was how he liked to swallow his toothpaste water, how he liked to wrap his hand inside her hair, how he could slaughter a pig and think of Morrissey and laugh. And Abbie wanted all these things, she had all these things, they were hers and his and there was no separation, no line, no demarcation. They eroded into one another, in the blue, in the light, until they were swallowed once again, not as a two, but as a single organism.

They agreed never to tell the boy, again deposited outside their home in the early hours of the day. There was now a new knowledge between them, a third, displaced understanding of their son within their lives. Abbie could hear the cows bucking up against the fences near the house—they understood something, but could not articulate it beyond their fear. From inside the house, she could hear a voice and for a second, the sensation was too old, too ancient to count as a memory. Her knowledge came from inside, came from a knowing that Derek could share alone, a long understanding that needed no form the outside world could understand. This was a human sound and Derek moved before she could, a crying coming from within the house. Owen was awake. She gathered herself up in the grass, not even bothering to look for a wound or a puncture, no soreness on her body. Whatever they had taken from her, they had given something more. Abbie knew this. This was an understanding she would have, a knowledge she could keep. This was not magic or science, or fantasy. This was simply the future, she told herself. This is something we deserve. As she came through the screen door, she watched Derek in his dirty shirt swing Owen up into his arms and then remembered she was naked and did not care.

-

They slept in separate beds during the third occurrence. Separate rooms even. It wasn’t until Abbie rose through the dissipated ceiling, her body now covered in a nightgown in the fall air, that she saw Derek rising with her, his hairy body turned away from her, as if their gaze was what connected them in these strange and foreign moments. His body seemed to fight the light, she could see striations of him straining, little bundles of muscle fibre slowed and stunned by the blue encompassing them. There would be no escape. They both knew this and so Abbie did not resist. She welcomed this, dreamed of being taken away to another planet, to another place, away from their house. It had to be cursed now; maybe the blue light had cursed them, given them too much. She wanted to see the grief inside Derek, the places where he was no longer whole, to let herself know that he too was shattered, splintered, a series of fragments stitched together by will alone, will and some bizarre desire to keep living in the wake of Owen’s absence.

All that she found was rage though, a seething mass of red bombarding her skull, the contents of Derek shelling her with images of other women, of flesh on flesh, of an email he had read where she confessed her desires to a man in San Francisco, the hand of Owen slipping from hers near the river two summers before, Derek wasn’t there but he had imagined it well enough, almost had Abbie shoving their son into the deep, dark cold. She dove in after him, but Derek had painted it with hesitation, had nixed out the Skidoos and the screaming people, had rendered it into some strange tableau and so her own black bile filtered through the blue light to him, their semi-naked bodies hurling insults and rage at one another in the sky. It was raining and the water could not touch them, it fell in a cone around the blue light while the saucer spun above them, nameless, eyeless, watching nonetheless, its blue maw pulling them higher and higher.

Agony had new terms here, was an eternal reliving of that loss, of the ways they had tried to cope, the new flesh Derek had pursued in town, the cats he had shot in the middle of the night, drunk in the barn, aiming for raccoons or anything to stomp the life out of to quiet himself. Abbie found the ways she retreated already well-worn routes into the arms of old high school boyfriends grown wide and sedentary, but still welcoming. She mainly slept on their couches, drank their beers, asked how their ex-wives were going.

Murder spun between them, acts of imagined violence, divorce always gloaming up into the dark but never quite taking shape until now, until the memories seemed to be boxed up and divided, the museums closed to one another, but still memorized, so all the wounds still burned hot even in the blue. Words still filtered through to express failures, to express desires best left unsaid.

Loathing is too weak.

Abbie could feel this on her neck, coupled with the yoke of Owen’s body never moving from her shoulders but here in the blue with her crackling teeth, she cast it off to build up her own defenses—you never could be a man to recognize. You would not identify the body.

He had disappeared down the river and it had been weeks before they pulled out what was assumed to be the Kirkland boy. Abbie found images of Derek weeping in his truck outside the coroner’s office, battering the steering wheel, prying his teeth into the leather, the sobs wracking his chest like a death rattle. She threw these through the air toward him, split his weaknesses into tinder and lit it. The blue light did not allow Derek to run and so he burned and burned and she can feel him flush the blood and bile toward her, unspooling older hatreds she already knew but had let mold and drift away. Her mother slapping her in the face outside the church, outside the corner store, outside the school. Her father sitting in the car and just watching, just watching.

Just watch a boy drown, just watch, just watch.

They rose slowly together even through this maelstrom, even through this hate as the rain fell and now Derek was the one closer to naked, closer to the start, he was sleeping in the guest room these days and doing his own laundry at Sheryl Ann’s place and she liked to take him in her mouth before he left at night and Abbie couldn’t help but know these things, they must both know all these things, this was what the blue light has always promised and so when they hit the edge of the aluminum, when the dark descended again and cancelled everything, there was no love, no loss, no want between them—just flame and salt and whatever was left of hearts untended.

They were never dropped into their beds. They were in the yard again and they awoke with no outer wounds, no zippers, no portals through their stomachs. They awoke clothed and damp and it was still raining and the cows were in the barn and they did not look at each other. Abbie rose with her cheeks bright red and her eyes filled with crystals of some sort, they were tears, they were stuck to her eyes it seems, but she did not make any noise. She rose and walked toward the house, saw Derek stumbling toward his axe at the woodpile and then shuffling toward the barn.

Abbie stepped into the kitchen, turning one of the burners on, placing a skillet over the rising flame. She stared out the wet window, watched her husband bring a pig out into the yard, watched him raise the axe above its head. No artistry out there in the wet, just rage, just red, just splashes of fury out onto the dirt and the grass and his half-naked body. This was how it would show itself, the wounds the blue light had provided, the ones lingering within them for that year, for that loss, for what a river could take away and never apologize for because it was never the same thing twice. The river was never static enough—there would be no blue light there.

Abbie pressed her bare palm down onto the skillet and did not scream. She let it sizzle and burn until the pig outside stopped wailing and Derek had fallen to his knees in the mud.

Only then did she pull the melted flesh away like a human glove, knowing there and then the inside was still worse off. The rain did not wipe anything away; it only blurred the edges until everything outside looked like a wound. Abbie ran the tap and let it all slough down the drain.

-

Fifteen years passed and they stayed in that same farmhouse, working the same land, living the same life as before in the same separate beds in the same rooms and they rose in that blue light again, but older, fatter, more tired. Everything gets tired, everyone gets tired, even the blue light seemed weaker for once, or maybe they were just used to it by this point, this fourth ride into the sky so delayed from their earlier voyages. Abbie did not turn away from Derek, she could almost move her face toward him. He was wearing a coverall from the barn. He had not even bothered to change before lying down in the bed, placing his balding head back against the sweat drenched pillow. She could feel the fear begin wafting off him, all the knowledge she could find inside him leaking out for the world to see.

Abbie had tried to forget things, tried to heal her burnt hand, but it was never quite the same. At one point she almost told the doctor about the beacon in the sky above her bed, the sensation of floating through your own attic with your husband beside you, the deep knowing of your guilt in every synapse in your brain due to this terrible blue light, this terrible illuminating technology, a gift, a curse, all these things at once, but she kept her mouth shut because there were mornings where she could not believe, where she would go to Owen’s grave and weep and blame the river and the sky all at once. It resided in each molecule of her, it hid all its stories and memories in her flesh, bound Derek to her in each and every day. They had never harmed her, but Abbie knew she would never be the same. And no doctor would help with that.

Why? Derek’s word slipped into her like a long forgotten transmission, a recoding he’d kept in storage for this moment, wanting her pardon. Why rise again, why bring this pain again?

Abbie could see his yellowed teeth crackling in the blue light like before, she could see the pieces of Owen within him and the old pieces of the love they’d built, the love he’d tried to find with other women, with Sheryl Ann and Debra and Ms. Gibbons from the elementary school. None of it lasted though and he had stayed on in that house with her, stayed away from the river, from the scenes of devastations and house fires and missing children. Abbie was not shocked to find new things in him, new things she wanted to absorb, to find and remember. There were newer hurts, newer fears, the same old longings he could never outrun. There was a baseball game on tomorrow that he wanted to watch, a dream he wanted to forget about frogs and death and the ghost of his father’s right hook.

Abbie knew why. She wanted to know Derek as she always had, as he would want to be known. And they could still build Owen in there somewhere, maybe, maybe out of disparate parts and all the new terrible and awesome things they had come to know—awesome in the old understanding of unknown skies and seasons. The world could be just two people, could just be a single person if you were given enough time, enough delay in the sky.

Abbie Kirkland knew why.

Fascination.

Abbie’s voice wasn’t a sound, it was a colour and a fury, it was a sky before the storm, it made the blue light pale against Derek’s exposed face. It spread through him as a pink glow inside his sluggish blood and there was no aluminum above them, no maw to swallow. They were both here and they could know everything. All they had was a now. Her voice knew it.

 —Andrew F. Sullivan

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Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of WASTE (forthcoming Dzanc Books, 2015) and All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), one of The Globe & Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.

 

Oct 012014
 

Jacob Glover

At the Top of the Page this month: essays and reviews, a selection of Jacob Glover‘s contributions to the magazine. Jacob Glover has been an accomplice, co-conspirator, helpful presence from the magazine’s inception. He’s contributed essays, reviews, translations, poems, blog posts, and contest entries (in the days when we ran contests), also performed as a singer-songwriter with his brother Jonah and allowed dg to post funny pictures of him now and then. He has done background layout and scouted and curated pieces for the magazine, most recently the Wayne Hankey essay on conversion and novel plots in the July issue. He entered into the spirit of the place from the start. He’s one of the old guard at NC. On the current masthead, only Rich Farrell can claim seniority.

Sep 262014
 

Savage Love PB cover2 small(Click on the image to read reviews.)

“This was, hands down, the best book I read in 2013.” National Post

“…stories as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature.” Los Angeles Review of Books

“…demands comparison to McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner.” Music and Literature

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Publisher’s web page.

Sep 242014
 

2-Salgado-The Party_180x190cm_2014_oil on canvasThe Party by Andrew Salgado

Art is the human/inhuman attempt to get at what is beyond the words, the thing that cannot be expressed, whether love or sadness or joy or awe. Paradox there, I know. If you’re writing words, how can you be trying to get beyond words? But you are. Think about it.

The amazing Canadian painter Andrew Salgado has a new exhibition going up October 7 in London called Storytelling; storytelling but with paintings, with images, oil on canvas, his medium for what cannot be communicated. We have excellent paintings and an interview curated by Numéro Cinq newcomer JC Olsthoorn.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial, Tom Simpson Photo

Long story: in 2010 we published a gorgeous sequence of poems by the Bosnian-Canadian poet Goran Simić. Flash forward to this summer: I got in touch with Goran in Bosnia and he said sure but he needed some translation help. Contributing Editor Sydney Lea put me in touch with Tom Simpson at Philips Exeter Academy who knows Goran and has a personal stake in Bosnia. Tom flies to Sarajevo and he and Goran have what I can only say must have been a wonderful time together, sitting in Bosnian bars and coffee houses, mulling over the poems.  The result: We have in this issue a brand new, freshly translated (by Goran and Tom) sheaf of Goran Simić poems, plus a terribly moving, passionate memoir of Thomas Simpson’s travels in Bosnia, his friendships and epiphanies.You will have to read the poems and the essay; words fail, and the story of pain, loss and human will embodied in the word Bosnia can only be re-experienced in their art.

But wait, there’s more (ah, the endless adventure of editing NC): A week and a half ago, Tom wrote to say he’d gone to a Sydney Lea reading (they had never met before), and Syd had read a poem about and for Goran Simić that nearly brought Tom to tears. So I wrote to Syd and got the poem for NC. Much gratitude to Tom and Goran and Syd for combining on two continents to bring this to pass.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

—Goran Simić

Goran SimicGoran Simić

Samuel Stolton in his brilliant brief essay “Plato, Heidegger, Kant & Habermas Play Pass the Parcel: Poiesis and the Philosophy of Art-Creation” turns the problem of art (the paradox of expressing the inexpressible) on its head: How do you create something out of nothing?  He then does a forensic analysis of the philosophy from Plato to Agamben and Habermas. I adore the concept herein of “weak thought,” the sort of  artistic noodling around that is neither focused or intentional but is a precursor to creation. But there is so much more.

Samuel StoltonSamuel Stolton

And Natalie Helberg (one of our own) contributes a stunningly dense and erudite essay on the great Canadian experimental novelist Gail Scott  (who can forget her first novel  Heroine?), focusing on Scott’s 2010/12 novel The Obituary with its complex overlapping point of view structure. The essay begins with a paradoxical question: “How to do justice to a text so rich that I could only do justice to it by repeating it exactly?”

Author PicGail Scott

And then because I have a dog and have always loved that J. R. Ackerley memoir My Dog Tulip, which, among other things is about love and communicating without words, we have a nice little review (by animal rescue activist Melissa Armstrong) of Han Dong’s new novella A Tabby-cat’s Tale just published by Frisch & Co in Berlin. (I also have a new dog in my life but will restrain myself from adding several irrelevant photos here. Just so you know.)

haystack-rock-e1407876106174-768x1024Melissa Armstrong talking with her dog.

We also have in this issue — at this point in the preview, the writing of the preview, I generally start to hyperventilate and need to breathe into a paper bag (or walk the dog) — scads of new fiction. First and foremost, a brief tale of the grisly and unspeakable (might as well keep the theme going), baby-selling, from Benjamin Woodard.

WoodardBenjamin Woodard

And then a fantastic story by Andrew F. Sullivan, one of my favourite young Canadian writers, a story of, yes, that thing you don’t usual talk about (if it happens to you — for me, only twice, and till now I have kept my mouth shut), of alien abduction called “Nights in the Tractorbeam.”

The first time they floated through the ceiling, Abbie Kirkland was naked. Life was full of constraints, obligations and restrictions—sleep was one chance to abandon all of that. Even in the winter months, she hated sleeping in her clothes. Quilts were piled up on the bed, but she and Derek floated right up through them, their skin lit up blue under in a wide circle of light. Derek wore only a ratty t-shirt, the armpits gaping holes. The clock read 3:00 AM, but Abbie could not speak or cry out. Her body was almost frozen, slowed down so every moment was an ache, an endless task. Her eyes could move, but all they saw was blue light and Derek beside her, his own face stuck half-way through a yawn. There was fear trickling out around the corners of his eyes, but he could not say a word. His teeth looked electric, sharpened in the light. Abbie wanted to scream, but then she passed through the ceiling, through the attic, through the roof of the farmhouse, and nothing could touch her.

AFSullivan-InsideAndrew F. Sullivan (who takes a good picture, too)

Also a gorgeous story by Timothy Dugdale (who has appeared before as a book reviewer): “Back Spin” — a terse, grim, Carver-esque piece on snow, dog-walking, and the thrashing death of a deer.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But it was front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and  swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady, ” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Timothy DugdaleTimothy Dugdale

We have more, much more (and I am past the hyperventilating mode). A lovely interview-with-poems from Ann Ireland who talks to the amazing wife and husband poetry-writing duo Roo Borson and Kim Maltman.

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing roomKim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing space

And a review of the new Murakami novel by Steven Axelrod, a novel excerpt from Gladys Swan, another Numéro Cinq at the Movies by R. W. Gray who has recently been busy premiering his own film Zack and Luc at the Atlantic Film Festival and, yes, even another Uimhir a Cúig (a piece of NC that will always be Ireland) featuring an essay by Liam Carson on Irish language writers.

That should be enough. That should hold you, oh ravening beast readers of NC.

Ok.

DSCF8568New dog at Casa NC.

dg

Sep 232014
 

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.

Read the essay at Race & Art in America: The Invisible Man meets Django Unchained — Laura K. Warrell » in the Numéro Cinq Archives.

Sep 202014
 

BergerJohn Berger

Here’s a review I wrote of John Berger’s early novel Corker’s Freedom 20 years ago, rescued from an old disk. The novel was first published in the UK in 1964 and was finally published in the U.S. in 1993 by Pantheon Books. This review appeared in the Washington Post in February 1994. Berger, as you all know, went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G. and became a famous BBC TV art critic. An amazing, knowing writer. Get the book.

dg

corkers-freedom-frontcover-5a44cf4884f45f8f48187085a26d3304The Verso edition.

Corker’s Freedom
A Novel
By John Berger

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Dostoevsky once said we all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat by which he meant that the roots of modern storytelling all trace back to Nikolai Gogol’s tale of a humble clerk whose great adventure was buying a brand new overcoat which someone immediately steals.

John Berger’s novel Corker’s Freedom is contemporary masterwork in precisely this Gogolian mode — the old-style noble hero is dead, and in his place we have the drama of a little man who throws all his passion and yearning into some minor, shopworn achievement and inevitably fails.

First published in England in 1964, Corker’s Freedom took almost thirty years to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a slow passage by anyone’s reckoning. I won’t say it was worth the wait because a delay like that is unconscionable, though not inexplicable.

Berger went on to win the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G., but he also has an immense reputation as a (Marxist) art critic and avant garde film maker, a reputation sure not to make the hearts of commercial publishers flutter with anticipation.

Corker’s Freedom is about the 64-year-old owner of a grubby little London employment agency who one day decides to leave the home he shares with his invalid sister Irene and set up house in the empty flat above his office. William Corker is humble clay. He and Irene are emotionally pinched — what everyone today would instantly recognize as co-dependent. The single relationship that Corker can recall in anything resembling warm tones is his brief childhood acquaintance with a Viennese nanny.

The move from Irene’s house to the agency flat is the great adventure of Corker’s life, his last, desperate bid for freedom before the long night falls. In the midst of rearranging his mother’s old furniture to make a bedroom, he pictures himself as Lancelot holding the Grail. He thinks he has struck a blow for “The right of a man to be himself, the right of a man to find a way out of his suffering, the right of a man to live where and as he wishes — eager, curious, hopeful, experimental — the right of a man to say: I wish to begin again.”

These are brave, rousing words uttered in the cause of personal transformation in a godless modern world. But they come to nothing. In a horrifyingly comic climactic scene, a drunken Corker discourses on the meaning of life, liberty and art in the midst of an ill-attended church hall slide presentation on his recent holiday in Vienna. His sister sits in the audience tapping her canes irritably. His agency assistant Alec fondles his girlfriend. And a pretty young woman with whom Corker thinks he has fallen in love watches cagily while her burgler lover breaks into the employment agency and makes off with the company safe. Ruined, Corker ends up making crank speeches from a Hyde Park soap box and conning tourists for his lunch.

Berger pushes against the constraints of the novel form, using passages of screen-play dialogue and parenthetical stage directions as fictional shorthand to stand for everyday narrative machinery (set-up and background) that might take pages and pages in a normal novel. This is so that he can pay attention to what he wants to pay attention to, which is the gap between the inner thoughts and public statements of his characters, the tragic and ironic distance between what they know or feel and what they can say.

The drama of the book, in Corker’s case, is the gradual narrowing of this gap — at the end of the church hall scene he is saying what he thinks and knows, which, as Berger sees it, is a kind of folly bordering on madness and leads directly to Corker’s downfall. (Hence the irony of the final pages with Corker endlessly exercising every Englishman’s right to free speech to a sparse gathering of unemployed hecklers and baffled tourists.)

Corker is already done for when he announces to his slide-show audience: “To the best of our ability we must choose happiness. That is my choice. I may be interrupted, prevented or defeated by circumstances but at least I know what I want and what I am doing. I am making myself happy.” The final sentence is, of course, untrue, which makes the speech achingly tragic and absurdly funny at the same time.

Berger writes with amazing aplomb, packing his pages with pyrotechnic ethical wisdom, trenchant social criticism (couched dramatically in the life stories of a succession of deftly sketched secondary characters), and sly comedy (Corker getting progressively drunker on Austrian kummel while reflecting on the glories of Vienna and his long-lost nanny).

Corker’s Freedom is an exhilarating achievement, wise, unsettling, and alive with a sense of humanity that is flawed, doomed, yet oddly indomitable.

—Douglas Glover (Originally appeared in the Washington Post, February 27, 1994)

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Sep 202014
 

My old roomie (and frequent NC contributor) Mark Anthony Jarman and I are reading together at the Goose Lane Editions 60th Anniversary party in Toronto, September 30. Many others are reading, too (including David Seymour, reviewed in these pages earlier this year). So you won’t be bored with, you know, just me.

Details: September 30, 7:00 pm at The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON.

This is also the launch for six@sixty: Goose Lane Anniversary Collection, a very cool boxed set of six stories by six Goose Lane authors, each story as a separate small book. My contribution is the story “Woman Gored by Bison Lives” from my collection A Guide to Animal Behaviour. It’s a story about love, sex, death, and great steaming herds of charging buffalo. Not to be missed. It begins:

Days, while my husband is at work, Susan and I make love on the couch in her parents’ basement. It is a desperate thing to do, and we are both a little stunned by it. But something has pushed us to the edge of caring.

Gabriela, the baby, is upstairs sleeping, while Susan’s mother does housework or watches soap operas. We keep our clothes on, manacled at the ankles by a tangle of underwear, jeans and belts.  And when Susan comes, I press my palm across her lips to keep her from shouting out her joy.

I don’t know if we are in love. But we are both in need of solace, and our sex is a composition of melancholy and violence, as though we are seeking to escape and punish ourselves in the same act.

This story also contains the immortal lines: “There are certain things you have to know. Suicide is not an option. Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants. Masturbation is healthy, the sooner started the better. It’s a sin not to take love where you find it. That is the only sin.”

PLUS!!!!!!!! The paperback edition of Savage Love is coming out. I got copies in the mail this week.

dg

GLE

 

Sep 192014
 

Wendy1Wendy Voorsanger in her novel skin at Burning Man. Click the photo for more.

One of the side benefits of Numéro Cinq is the outrageously extensive network of friends, contributors, passionate readers and interested parties committed to the cause. My son Jonah, himself an NC contributor, is on a work term (from University of  Waterloo) in San Francisco. He moved there late August, but before that, I put out the word to the NC Tribe and got some amazingly helpful responses. Best of all was Wendy Voorsanger (check out her contributions in the Art contents page, or click the photo above, or read her What It’s Like Living Here essay) who offered Jonah a place to stay till he got on his feet, a warm and generous (thoughtful, caring — I could go on) invitation from someone with a family of her own to look after. Jonah moved into an apartment at the beginning of September, but Wendy’s parting gift was a quick & dirty list of the best things to see and do during his four months in San Francisco. The list made me want to move to SF. Hell, the whole thing made me want Wendy to adopt me. I thought it was too good to leave in an email. So here it is. A friend’s advice to my son on what to experience in a new city. I am eternally grateful.

dg

Jonah and sf skylineJonah on Telegraph Hill. Click the photo for his NC Archive Page.

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1. Off The Grid food truck dinner market (http://offthegridsf.com). I suggest the Haight on Thursday night or Fort Mason on Friday night. If you do Fort Mason on Friday, you can pair it with SFBATS improv comedy theater (http://www.improv.org). Super funny, and cheap entertainment.

2. Have pasta and chianti in North Beach.

3. Visit Coit Tower to see gorgeous WPA frescos painted inside (some by Ralph Stackpole, who did the nudes in our dining room of Conrad’s grandmother, when she/they were young). Don’t forget to go to the top!

4. Have cheap Chinese food in China Town, I suggest Hunan Home’s Restaurant.

5. City Lights Books, Green Apple Books, Dog Eared Books.

6. Visit the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and bike through the park (it’s closed to traffic on Sundays) to the ocean beach and have lunch at the Beach Chalet. Upstairs is sit down, out back is more casual. Don’t forget to check out the frescos inside here too.

7. Walk (or bike) from Crissy Field for Ft. Point Cafe under the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny day.

8. Bike over the GG Bridge.

9. Take a ferry to Tiburon and have brunch at Sam’s Cafe outside on the pier.

10. Get a burrito at La Taqueria in the Mission.

11. Walk behind the MLK waterfall in Yerba Buena Park. Read the wall.

12. See a movie at the Kabuki Theater.

13. Order a California Roll at Sushi Boat Restaurant.

14. Visit the SF Art Institute (a private art school founded by Ansel Adams) and ask to visit the Diego River Mural in the main gallery.

15. Attend a Litquake event, SF’s literary festival in October.

16. Visit Stanford in Palo Alto.

17. Visit UC Berkley across the Bay.

18. Visit Muir Woods in Marin and see the giant Sequoia Redwoods.

19. SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) in Capitola.

20. Climb Mt. Tamalpais all the day to the fire look out on a clear day for a 360 view of the Bay Area.

(21. Visit Steve Jarret at Facebook!)

—Wendy

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Sep 182014
 

Bonnie Prince CharlieBonnie Prince Charlie bidding farewell to Flora MacDonald on the Isle of Skye after the Battler of Culloden, from the London Illustrated News.

Okay, the referendum is today. A brief memoir: I have Scottish blood, McCall and McInnes. On the McCall side, there was a Scottish soldier who fought with Wolfe at Quebec and then came west along the Lake Erie shore during Pontiac’s Rebellion. He was demobilized in New Jersey, but left the United States after the Revolution and ended up in what became known as the Long Point Settlement in what is now southwestern Ontario. On the McInnes side, there was a fatherless boy, taken up by Sir Walter Scott, educated and sent on the Grand Tour, who then inherited slaves and a tapioca plantation in Curaçao. Later he became the youngest slave owner indemnified by the British government for giving up his slaves. He took the money, moved also to southwestern Ontario, and never worked again. The two families eventually intermarried and my great-great-grandfather Daniel McCall ran a store in St Williams, Ontario, on the Erie shore. At some point, someone in the family cut this illustration from the London Illustrated News, framed it, and hung it in the outhouse (posh outhouse). Later, my grandmother, who grew up with it, took the illustration to live with her. Now it lives with me, hangs above my desk. So now you know which way I’d vote. On the other hand, these things always have a way of disappointing romantics, so I can’t bear to watch the news today.

dg

 

Sep 152014
 

In Justin Anderson’s “Jumper,” a mid-century modern styled family is taunted and tempted by a naked stranger who troubles everything that lies beneath their well-mannered dinner. The film pays homage both to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teruma and David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings while it more specifically pays tribute to British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders on the 10th anniversary of his label. This melange of fashion, painting, and film is characteristic of most of Anderson’s work, but in this short in particular his play between texts works perfectly with the film’s themes of repression and beautiful surfaces.

pool_2_figures_72_f

The film starts with a pool sequence that pays homage to almost every painting about a pool David Hockney ever made. Hockney’s pool paintings reveal his excitement and celebration of what he found in 70’s Hollywood when he moved there from England: an expressive, carnal, sun-bronzed eden. This creative time and the life of Hockney and his friends was captured in the documentary A Bigger Splash (1973). The  Hockneyesque pool is both something that inspires the man to strip naked and, when he climbs out on the other side, is the place where he is transformed from naked man into a profound messenger for the woman waiting.

JS_02_01_5

The house wife the naked man finds on the other side of the pool stands with a pained, pleased expression, her mouth parted, as water trickles down his chest. She responds to this rupture in her life, to the excitement he provokes in her by turning away, walking back into the house, and carrying a plate of pasta to the dinner table. She walks away from her desire and in a sense all the desires and corruptions that follow stem from her walking away from this naked man. Perhaps if she had given over to her appetite, he would not have loomed over their meal, their lives, tempting them one by one. Perhaps she could have consumed him, but now he will consume them.

Jonathan-Saunders

Anderson’s work leans into the absurd, focuses on awkward details that seem conscious of themselves as symbols while they contradictorily resist their symbolization. Water is a key example here: it is the pool he swims through; it drips off his torso, distorts how we see the dinner through the water jug, overflows on the table; the daughter sucks it from the soaked napkin and the father penetrates the jug of it with his hand and wedding finger. Water means so many things that it becomes either numinous or an empty symbol, impossible to be fixed, just like the naked man’s influence over the family.

10442583_939831282700954_939831062700976_13898_1217_b

The troubling stranger in films is both a perverse and sometimes queer trope. In the aforementioned Teorema, a man sleeps with all the members of a family and the maid, in the Argentinian Apartment Zero, a mysterious James Dean sort of figure has all the denizens of an apartment complex fall in love with him, particularly his roommate (Colin Firth), and in Holy Motorsthe enigmatic and mercurial figure who traverses a cornucopia of little worlds full of confusion and excess. There’s a masters’ thesis here.

JS_01_13

In “Jumper,” though, the film seems less about stirring up trouble than it does the sort of tenderness and beauty that can come from connecting with this stranger, connections that seem impossible in the context of the family, even between husband and wife. Certainly Anderson employs a fetishistic camera that troubles the eye, confuses and overwhelms, but the effect I think is not horrific, but alienating, so that the moments of tenderness when they surface look like life preservers.

Anderson’s other works also marry art and fashion and he’s more recently been hired by the likes of Italian Vogue. His short “Fleurs du Mal” flirts or cruises the line between the beauty and violence of lingerie. Though his work is definitely more sexualized, there are some interesting similarities between the fashion / horror elements in some of Anderson’s films and the fashion short films made by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, her works (“Muta,” “Fish“) previously featured and written about here on Numero Cinq by Sophie Lavoie. Fashion and film seem to share a similar love for where the beauteous and the disturbing meet.

–R.W. Gray

 

Sep 142014
 

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward

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Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample

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Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.

 

 

 

Sep 132014
 

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

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This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings

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Sep 122014
 

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

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Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

Beneath the roil and roll of the turquoise surge the restless Gulf
lies before him, an infinite mystery the young man is trying his best
to fathom, as others before him have done. He seeks to unbolt
the buried treasure chest of marine knowledge. With each flick
of his right wrist and follow-through of hand and arm, he hurls
his line and baited hook out to the limits of his developing skill.
With each cast he is a pilgrim tossing his coin with religious fervour
into a fountain of miracle. The youth has learned the timeless art
of delving below the surface of things, an unseen world in which he
has become one with the fish, so he may hear the subtlest voice
in the tension of line as he draws it, slowly, ever so slowly, back to
him, intuiting movements he can interpret only through the thinnest
monofilament, conveying its messages to his sensory receptors over
the tip of his index finger only.

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Guillerucina

The name card left atop the TV
tells us our maid has this uncommon name –
uncommon at least for us,
coming from a country not rife
with Spanish names.
So for the first few days I roll
a variety of bumbling pronunciations
off my Anglo-thick tongue, imagining
the placement of the various accents.

Her name sets her firmly apart
from the myriad Marias
and repetitive Rosas as one
who certainly cannot be easily dismissed,
nor taken lightly, one with whom
to trifle would involve risk.
Guillerucina is a name one might
expect to find on a building nameplate,
someone of considerable consequence,
perhaps even a figure of power.
We tip her well.

This afternoon when we return
to our room Guillerucina has swirled
our fresh white towels into an unmistakable swan
afloat on the pond of our bed, and fallen
alongside – a scarlet hibiscus bloom.

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The Bus Stops Here

We are waiting for the morning bus
into Havana, a cluster of us from the hotel,
when one of the women indicates a man
standing near the front of the group, clad

all in white, middle-aged, a curly black
haphazard thicket of mad scientist hair.

You know, he’s got to be the first to get on the bus,
or else. He’s caused all kinds of problems with
the staff and the rest of us, says the woman,
here with her husband from Toronto.

I have noted this person for several days,
an obvious loner, anti-social, demanding.
A walking frown, he could be
from an Andy Capp comic strip

So I ask her, Does anyone know his name?
Asshole? she suggests helpfully.
Would that name be all in caps? I enquire.
No! And she becomes quite adamant.
Lower case — very, very small.

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Cuban Sunset

When dusk arrives here it is no lingering suitor —
no gradual softening of light, no slow fade
to the deep, thick stillness of night.

The sun dives into the Gulf like a tossed stone;
the dark pursues, pell-mell, dragging a duvet
of night over land and sea.

—Glen Sorestad

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Glen Sorestad is a Canadian poet who lives in Saskatoon. His poems have appeared in literary magazines all over North America and other countries; they have been translated and published as well in seven languages. His poems has appeared in over 60 anthologies and textbooks, as well as in his more than twenty books and chapbooks of poems published over the years.

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Sep 112014
 

josephine-jacobsen-448

Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen

 

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.

Sisters2

The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

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.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.

sisters4

Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.

Terrestrial

The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios

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Sep 102014
 

WInterbach by Leanne StanderAuthor Photo: Leanne Stander

The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts. — Benjamin Woodard

Elusive_Moth_cvr

The Elusive Moth
Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter
198 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-1-934824-77-1

 

Often, we travel for the same reasons we read stories: escape, insight, knowledge, adventure. Stepping off of an airplane in a new environment offers the same opportunity for internal charge (or recharge) as the mental submersion provided by a great narrative. In both cases, home is far away—if only sometimes in the reader’s mind—and endless opportunities await engagement. So it’s no surprise that Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, originally published in 1994 but now translated for English-speaking audiences, succeeds as both a novel and literary expedition, for as Winterbach ushers her protagonist, lepidopterist Karolina Ferreira, from her urban home to the small community of Voorspoed in the Free State—a town full of singing lawyers, seductive economists, and corrupt officials—so too does the reader feel the pull of investigation. This land functions as setting and as a character, with its intense heat and unpaved roads, providing an ideal stomping grounds for Karolina and her associates. And while the novel lingers in a period two decades removed from our own, never does it read as a dated volume of yesteryear. Rather, Winterbach’s clever, fascinating meditation on gender and power echoes societal flaws still present around the world, making the volume vital and timely.

As The Elusive Moth opens, Karolina spends her days in the veldt outside Voorspoed with Basil, a part-time resident of the town who she picked up during her travels. Here, she studies moths, specifically the “distribution and breeding patterns of the moth species Hebdomophruda crenilinea,” while Basil, himself a pupil under a local herbalist, scours the land for unusual vegetation and natural remedies. In the evenings, back with society, the duo loiters at the nearby hotel bar, playing games of snooker, drinking whiskey, and observing the locals. As in the scrub fields, their critical eyes work overtime in town to separate the wheat from the chaff, finding focus on those that make the community’s ecosystem function. They make fun of some, like the sullen magistrate, or the lawyer Pol, and question the political tactics of others, particularly Lieutenant Kieliemann, who sexually harasses Karolina nightly, pressing against her until she forces him off, and his boss, Captain Gert Els. There are also the many fleeting groups that interact with Karolina and Basil: a theatre troupe secretly organizing the residents to rise against the town’s authorities, a man trying to escape his captors, and a pair of travelers who befriend Karolina while passing through the area. As these characters and engagements slowly stack up, Karolina devotes far more time to the community of Voorspoed than its desolate outskirts, dancing on Saturday evenings, striking up a romance with a man named Jess, looking for a pair of mysterious lovers in the cemetery, and investigating the men who run the small town with inordinate amounts of power. Her research shifts from moths to men.

And yet, much like the long, lazy days that it paints on every page, The Elusive Moth refuses to latch onto Karolina’s suspicions in the same way a lesser novel would. Instead of using her wariness to sprint forward in a series of action set pieces, Winterbach lets her characters meander. While Karolina supposes Gert Els of nefarious doings, she never acts quickly to call in the cavalry. Instead, she goes on long walks with Jess, or picnics with Basil. And this is one reason the novel works so well: it establishes a firm rhythm for Karolina early—some combination of research, drinking, snooker, investigation, repeat—and then rarely strays from this framework. As such, there’s an authenticity, not to mention a relatability, to this routine and the way Karolina approaches her actions. Instead of molding the generic Hollywood heroine who instantly transforms into a superhero the moment she doubts an individual, the author constructs characters that experience life as it comes, fitting in cries disbelief between rounds of snooker. Karolina does not see herself as the hero, therefore, she does not act as the leader to right wrongs.

This is not to say that Winterbach crafts a novel of little consequence. Far from it, for nestled firmly within The Elusive Moth’s brisk 198 pages are several shrewd musings on gender and power. For example, there is a certain reasoning argued by Winterbach for Karolina’s lack of heroics. Throughout the novel, Karolina’s interactions with the opposite sex tend to materialize in two forms: from those who view her as an intellectual equal; and from those who view her as a sexual conquest, complete with lustful, unwanted advances. These second encounters frequently come from men of certain high regard in the township and help reinforce Karolina’s distrust of authority. And though she never finds a way to articulate the feeling of this emotion and confusion verbally, an artist friend composes a strong definition in a letter written to Karolina, which appears about halfway through the novel:

“In her paintings she was trying to portray herself as a hero, but it seemed it was not easy for women to be heroes, she said. One could not portray a woman in the heroic style in the same way as one could a man. Anything experienced by a man—however deviant—is immediately regarded as an extension of human experience, whereas the experience of a woman remained deviant, eccentric, idiosyncratic.”

When examining The Elusive Moth with these words in mind, Karolina’s languid advancement toward the evil of Voorspoed reads less like a conscious decision of the character and more as a commentary on South African culture in the early 1990s, one filtered through the pen of a wise female, South African author. There is a suppression and degradation of women at play, one, in other words, that makes it difficult for Karolina to be taken seriously by most, and even harder to lead the charge, even within her own story, a hindrance that continues to bare its teeth in many corners of the world today.

In addition, Winterbach uses these same ideas to speak of peaceful protest in the face of abusive power. Eventually, the power hungry are confronted, and though Karolina does not head the group of townsfolk who bind together in an effort to remove Gert Els from command, she is present for their final confrontation:

“’We have come once more to bring the charge that the captain would not receive this morning,’ the man said calmly.

‘I am not accepting it,’ Els said. (His tongue heavy and cold.)

Philemon Mhlambi stepped forward suddenly. ‘You have to accept it!’ he said, and held out a piece of paper to Gert Els.

Els stepped forward too, and slapped Mhlambi’s face with the side of his hand, causing him to stagger to one side and fall down.”

The confrontation quickly heightens in intensity: Els trains his pistol on the unarmed group, and as he threatens their lives, Karolina hears an explosion from the snooker room nearby. The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts, perhaps, and placing the virtuous in a camp similar to that of women in South African culture: Regardless of effort, of desire, the truly powerful will always find a way to strike, even when facing the ultimate downfall.

In the end, The Elusive Moth succeeds thanks to Ingrid Winterbach’s fearlessness, both in penning a work unafraid to relish in the minutiae of life as well as one willing to speak to the abuse of societal power found in South Africa. The novel is wise, funny, and playful, and through its slow amble toward an enlightened conclusion, the reader is able to see reflections of today in a world twenty years old.

— Benjamin Woodard


Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Sep 092014
 

Fernando Sdrigotti Fernando Sdrigotti at Shakespeare and Co, Paris

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When you are re-born in this manner it is as if all the possibilities are open; you are given a chance to re-fashion yourself into whatever shape you choose. You are your own demiurge: out of nothing, as it were, you can become everything.”
Costica Bradatan,
Born Again in a Second Language

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In his film Tangos: El exilio de Gardel, Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas narrates the misadventures of a group of Latin American exiles in Paris during the early 1980s. They are a motley crew of musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. They want to put on a tango-ballet-opera about their plights, the people they have left behind, the political situation in the continent that expelled them, their present in an alien place. To sum up (albeit abruptly) a remarkable film, it could be said that their project collapses when they fail to find an artistic language that is authentic yet legible enough to garner the interest of the French public. I have no knowledge of any other film that captures the situation of the displaced Latin American intellectual or artist better than El exilio de Gardel. And the film’s characters are in Paris, in a city that due to cultural affinities, and a common history of movement in both directions, is familiar with Latinamericanness. And what if this story had taken place in London? I am of the impression that in this city Latin Americans are even more illegible. Illegible, for it is always about reading—about reading and writing, and about literature. Not that I was always aware of this. It took some time for me to realise it. And it took displacement.

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. In this new context I realised the falsity of my biography, the artificiality of myself. And writing became necessary and unavoidable. If your biography is revealed as a fallacy, then why not write yourself anew? Not to arrive at any truth, but to feel in command, to exist on the safety that a gerund provides: writing, becoming, becoming through writing. Every biography is a forgery. You might as well be the author.

It is always about literature, yes. About histories, documents, application forms, legal documents. They provide you with a personal narrative or they deny you one. Back in Argentina I was (I embodied) a major literature. Soon after arriving in the UK, I was written as an immigrant and a white, other—I was minored. This was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and the most perplexing too: a whole set of certainties came crashing to the ground. What does it mean to be a white, other? Can it really explain my experience of displacement? How is an Argentinean perceived abroad? Are we really perceived as white, others by the other whites who are not others? Does it matter? How do other cultures perceive us, the others who aren’t white? And more importantly, how do we—Latin Americans—perceive ourselves—our different cultures—here? How do we read ourselves here? Do we read ourselves with the bullet points that we passively receive? I hope that we don’t. For none of the narratives that aim to crystallise reterritorialised people are in place to help them read themselves. They are in place to facilitate readability by others, a bit like a footnote in a literary translation: “X in this context means Y”. Processed or illegible—translatable or authentic.

It is always about literature. And when it comes to writing literature my experience is always the same, it is about juggling legibility and authenticity. How can I write for people who can’t pronounce my name? Should I write from the point of view of an immigrant, a white, other? An other, non white? Should I write from the point of view of one of them, those who are not others? Who am I? Where am I when I am writing? Who and where are they? How legible and authentic should my characters be? What would be the right balance? And so on. It is always about that process of negotiating authenticity and legibility and it is always most certainly a failure, because the seminal question at the end of the day is always “who is writing?”. I can’t answer this question. And that makes me feel a bit like a ghost.

Because I am a ghost myself I get the impression that I am writing for a ghost readership…“The people are missing,” says Deleuze of modern political cinema, minor cinema. For Deleuze the problem faced by postwar auteurs is that the idea of a people collapsed—postwar auteurs don’t have the safety net provided by a people, they have to invent them one frame at a time. This applies to minor literature too. The people are missing, the people as readers, the people as writers. The invisibility of the people persists, even today. And the people are not there yet, they are being written, one paragraph at a time. Maybe some people have been invented while I wrote these paragraphs. Maybe I have invented myself in these paragraphs. Maybe I am already a bit here now, a bit less of a ghost. Or maybe I erased myself even more. I can’t tell.

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Some form of biography, something forged, any forgery that grants an illusory form of self-identity, is necessary. Forgery. It is always a creative process and my way of partaking in it has always been through writing. I know of much more creative people than I: those who choose to come up with a whole different persona; those who need not explain themselves-in-displacement to anyone; those happy to become a carnival, nomad chameleons, always ready to change for the audience. They are their own works of art, their own Elmyr de Hory—the uberforger—and no less of a fantasy than any of my words. I see them clinging to this or that other stereotype. I see them rejecting stereotypes. I see them tactically shedding skins. And this is no criticism. For it is possible to live in a state of fantasy, to rewrite oneself completely anew, forge oneself as many times as required. Being a good forgery is always better and more honest than being a mediocre original. It is always more desirable than assuming some of the identities you are forced into.

I was reading the paper yesterday when I accidentally fell head-first into a football article. I am not interested in sports, nor in the genre of sports journalism. Sportsmanship bores me to death and sports journalism—most of the time—confirms that it is perfectly possible to put words on a sheet of paper whilst remaining quite distant from thinking. In this article the author was “analysing” regional idiosyncrasies whilst providing a pop-anthropological account of the phenomenon of Argentineans travelling en masse to Brazil during the World Cup. The thing was a rehash of many recurrent stereotypes: that Argentineans are arrogant, that they are hated all over Latin America, that they are belligerent, that they envision themselves as more European than the rest of Latin America, and so on. Stereotypes might be popular because they contain an element of truth, however diminutive it might be. But more often than not they just provide an empty vessel, a lazy signifier through which to misread the stereotyped party (through whichever lens the reader might have at hand). It went on and on and I kept reading because I wanted to figure out whether I was reading an article written by someone incredibly myopic or cynical—it is of course possible to be both. The piece ended with full colours: “For the time being, the Argentines are making the most of what is their most emphatic annexation since Goose Green.” This line made my blood boil: I never felt like launching a naval war in the South Atlantic.

Is this the idea the British have of Argentineans? Are we perceived as a bunch of violent warriors? Is it fair to reduce a culture to the delirium of a military junta that ruled the country over 30 years ago? (This is the same junta that killed thirty thousand Argentineans, by the way). Perhaps these kinds of mindless statements shouldn’t be taken seriously. Perhaps. But we can’t deny that many people swear by this kind of essentialism. This is the type of narrative that the mass media excretes on a daily basis. The only antidote, I believe, is to balance things out, to reject any imposed biography in order to forge our own identity, however artificial and Quixotesque this endeavour might be. To write a literature of oneself and in that way to summon the people who are still missing. To bring them one step closer. To hope that, in the act of writing ourselves, we will also write readers able to read us on our own terms. The alternative is leaving the gaps open for anyone to write us into this or that reductive stereotype.

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One of the most interesting effects writing in a second language has had on my life is that of English dripping into my mother tongue, affecting the way I write in Spanish, the way I think in Spanish, the way I talk. I haven’t become legible in two languages—my relationship with the word is now accidental even in the language I call my own (not that I ever really owned it). In other words, I am never at home anywhere—other words, other words. It is always about those other words that can’t be summoned when you need them. How can I explain the insulting familiarity of the Argentine word boludo to a British person? How can I explain the insulting distance of mate to an Argentinean? The page of myself is full of footnotes. And nobody reads footnotes.

Going back home also demands that I become readable. It entails that I take notice of parts of my own biography that I have deleted or edited. It entails that I acknowledge the existence of pages that have been ripped, rewritten, or written over. Back home I am always a translation of a translation, an existential palimpsest, a mess of a text. I imagine that if I ever resettled back home permanently I would have to erase and rewrite myself all over, that I would be intervened and questioned by a completely new literature, read by different eyes, and that I would write and edit myself again and again, to the point of exhaustion. And perhaps even to the point of silence.

What is it like to always live, write, think, exist in the same language? Is this even possible? Are there people out there who are always legible? Perhaps it is about different modes of illegibility—perhaps we are all illegible to an extent and for a certain audience. Aren’t we all writing ourselves all the time? Aren’t we all failing all the time? For writing is always impossible, and if it is not it might as well be unnecessary, and we should get rid of all the typewriters, word processors, and use pens and pencils only to scratch our ears or fill-in our Lotto tickets. Screw all literature—screw everything ever written. Nothing but sorrow comes from all these documents, books, application forms. Why do we insist in writing when the reader is missing? The ghost readership gets to me.

Deep inside I know that I write these words in order to bring the people to come a step closer. But I also know that I write them for myself. Not to understand myself, but to become myself, to produce myself, to keep on living, to forge myself into another forgery, the gerund I was speaking about above. Writing, becoming, becoming something through my writing, forging, fabricating, and fabulating.

— Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti: is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Sep 082014
 

Desktop12

The Austrian novelist, Robert Musil (1880-1942), who was trained as a mathematician, physicist, and behavioral psychologist, spent most of his career working on his magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, which, despite the thousands of pages completed, remained unfinished at his death while in exile in Switzerland. But he also wrote many essays, a few plays, a good deal of criticism, many philosophical and sociological essays, and many shorter prose pieces, including a novella and a number of longer short stories, published during his lifetime in book form and in numerous journals and newspapers, not to mention endless unpublished drafts of his novel, and for other literary, essayistic, and theatrical projects. Musil’s short prose pieces, which are a mixture of different sorts of experimental stories, of period vignettes, feuilletonistic sketches, and glosses on social and cultural issues, situate Musil within the literary, social, and philosophical concerns of his times, and show him struggling with incomparable wit and insight with problems, such as the commodification of art and culture, the sloppiness of language, the tension between individualism and conformity, and the decline of critical thinking, still very much unsolved today. These two short glosses, from the mid-twenties, which were published in 1926 and 1927 in a number of journals and newspapers, address the question of modern art, commodification, and the imprecision of metaphoric language. They are part of a collection of translations of previously untranslated Musil stories, glosses, and literary fragments I will be publishing with Contra Mundum Press in 2015.

This excerpt has been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

—Genese Grill

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Speed Is Witchy!

It is always good to use words as one should, without thinking about it, that is. One can easily go on for ten sentences before a word pops up that needs to be thought about. This is doubtless a freewheeling kind of style that has about it an air of speeding traffic over long distances, and it seems that the intellectual tasks of the day can only be mastered with its assistance. But if one pays niggling attention to details, one will go flying into a hole in the language. Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.

Consider for example the phrase, “head over heels”; what an important and much used phrase in a time which depends so much on tempo! How many people use this phrase in a rush without considering how many difficulties it creates for speed? For to fall head over heels toward somewhere would be to develop such a frantic acceleration that your body would seem to be wheeling over your feet, and your feet over your head; speed grabs you by the cuffs of your pants, the law of inertia shuts down in your head, and you are torn out of yourself like a rabbit out of his hide. But when was a person ever in such a mad rush? God yes, as a child, when one ran with unsteady legs. As a boy when one rode one’s bike down a steep hill. Maybe as a knight when one didn’t really know how the quest would end. At a paltry speed of ten to twenty miles per hour! If a car or a train wanted to drive head over heels they would have to creep!

Head over heels does not express a speediness then, but rather a relationship between the quickness and the danger of the conveyance or between the quickness and the excitement of extreme exertion. The streamers have to fly, the eyes have to lather, and the flanks must cramp. But then even a snail rushes along head over heels, in an utterly accelerated snail tempo, mad cap, in peril. Secondary observations are once again always the decisive ones. It is said that a small car speeds faster than a large wagon, and the more worn down the rails are, the faster a train speeds. Even romping is a matter of habituation. We have neighbors who think it means carefully gliding along through life as if on waxed floors.

One looks around in language for more solid expressions. How would it sound, for example, if one said: “He stuck the dagger in her heart head over heels?” Even the most daring novelist wouldn’t bring that over his quill. He doesn’t know why. But he makes the dagger thrust like lightning. Quick like a thought would not quite be the correct speed for it. But a lover is with his beloved as quick as a thought and never suddenly like lightning. These are mysteries.

A general always charges in forced marches. Someone who has finally been found falls into your arms, but runs to greet you. A general director storms around; his office employee, on the other hand, enters breathless; the speed of movement has, for each of them, the opposite effect on their breath. Perhaps it also should be mentioned that one always comes flying, but is gone in a flash.

One can see that these are difficult problems. But the worst of it is that modern life is filled with new speeds for which we have no expressions. Remarkably, speeds are described using the most conservative expressions that exist. Despite the train, the airplane, revolutions per minute, slow motion, the outermost limitation of speed expressions is the same today as it was in the Stone Age; nothing in language has gotten any faster than a thought or lightning or any slower than a snail. That is a devilish situation for a time period that has no time and that believes itself called to give the world a new speediness; the apples of quickness are dangling in front of us, but we cannot seem to open our mouths.

But maybe the future will be totally different. Classically experienced speeds still do exist today, but only in places where one would least expect them, like for farmers in the country. There lightning still flies through the air, the passing car blasts through the chickens, and there are paths where one can fall on one’s nose for rushing. In the city, the only speed one still senses is that of the connection that has to be made, the haste of disembarking and the uncertainty about getting somewhere at the right time. Without the blessing of neurasthenia we would have already lost this kind of speed too, since, in the worst case scenario, the person in a hurry, instead of wheezing and perspiring vapors, relinquishes a buck fifty for a car that will do this for him. And the higher one rises in the realms of power, the quieter it gets. A turbine factory with fifty thousand volts of horse power hums almost silently, and the most monstrous speeds of technology are still only a gentle rocking. Life becomes more prosaic and practical the larger it gets. A boxing match between two masters makes a lot less noise than a street fight between two laymen, and an explosion is not as dramatic as a knifing. The great new intensities have something that our feelings cannot grasp, like rays of light for which an eye does not yet exist. But it won’t be very long before we say relaxing-train instead of express and only use the phrase head over heels when we want to describe or depict something like the evening stillness, when far and wide nothing stirs, and the rare quiet rushes over us like an ocean.

(1927)

 

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Intensivism

Don’t waste too much time on art! Find yourself without further ado on the pinnacle of expertise! All you need is two rules.

Always declare that a picture that does not please you or that you do not understand is old-fashioned. Don’t include anything that will let on whether you have taken it to be second or twentieth century, a watercolor or a woodcut. For one can argue about those things.

Secondly, maintain, if people ask you for the reasons for this judgment, that the painting style of the future is Intensivism. And if they ask you what this is, refuse to answer and say, that’s self-explanatory.

This is, after all, how it is always done. This is how Impressionism did it and Expressionism. I will not tell you, of course, what these two words mean; happily, that no longer concerns you. And if I tell you a bit more about Intensivism, it is not with the intention of giving you an idea of it—because, if the adherents of a movement had a clear conception of it that would paralyze their momentum —, but so that you can get a feeling about how this coming art will become the nerves, the will, and the vitality of painting; stick to this resolution, forget everything else.

In the old days people painted larger pictures than today. That was because the living areas were larger. You see how simple the rules of art are.

When we lived in castles, we covered whole walls with a single picture. Later, when we lived in a house, the pictures were 5 x 6 ½ feet at their largest. Today even massive people can only afford apartments with a few rooms, rooms only half as high as they were before, and the pictures correspondingly have a format of only 3 ¼ feet; and if, as is to be expected, the building activity in Europe stagnates for much longer, the pictures will get even smaller.

But they have not become correspondingly less expensive. From this follows that the ground and surface of the picture has gotten more expensive, the ground rent of the canvas per square inches has become larger and the same spiritual profit requires an intensivist economizing. That is the root of Intensivism.

Secondly, it demands psychic energy. Look at a landscape, and you will usually find a third, if not a half of the picture covered with air or water. Such pictures are more or less fallow land. It cannot be contested that a quarter inch of painted blue or an explanatory note are quite sufficient to let us know whether sky or water was meant; every person knows what they look like, there is nothing new about it to depict, it is just a matter of habitual waste of going through the motions. Naturally, you discover the same thing when you look at a portrait. The painter does not fill the whole picture with it, but spares himself with a background, which fills at least half of it.

I could, for example, paint you two times, or you and then after you your rival while you step on his neck, the great day when all paper securities skyrocketed, or the black day when everything collapsed. Don’t be afraid of such demands; all truly original epochs of art came about quite naturally. Consider that one can paint many pictures inside each other; but I won’t jump ahead, this art is already developing on its own. Just keep a firm hold on the wish that painting will soon turn to race horses, hunting scenes, automobiles, airplanes, and whatever you find truly beautiful, and tentatively demand that we put an end to all these underutilized spiritual surfaces.

Intensivistic life in the smallest portion of a picture, nervous surfaces, introduction of the victorious energy of modern life into the frame of the picture: that is Intensivismus! If you see something that already seems to tend toward it, then say nothing more than: but is that ever intense! If this is too hard for you, then bring your wife along, she will get it right.

(1926)

—Robert Musil, Translated by Genese Grill

These short essays have been published by permission of Contra Mundum Press. Robert Musil, Short Prose, tr. by Genese Grill (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2015).

All original texts taken from Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009.

Intensivism. “Intensismus”. Berliner Tageblatt (1926), Der Tag (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1978), pp. 681-683, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte Kleine Prosa.

Speed is Witchy! “Geschwindigkeit ist eine Hexerei”. Vossische Zeitung (5.28.1927), Prager Presse (7.6.1927), Magdeburgische Zeitung (7.29.1927), Der Tag (9.20.1927), Vierzehn Federn (1927). Posthumous printings: Frisé (1957), pp. 542-544, Frisé (1978), pp. 683-685, Klagenfurter Ausgabe: Lesetexte: Kleine Prosa.

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Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.