Feb 032015
 

RW with trout

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How The Blind Dog Perceived Human Sadness

was a mystery no less than her willingness
to attend to it. The way she nuzzled a hand,
so that it might be extended to her and washed clean

of whatever it was that afflicted it, which she smelled.
It had to be, for she was deaf too, there was no way to tell
her of it otherwise, that fragrance, that human blue fetor
no human could detect nor make better any better

than she, with her vast practical capacity
for affection, her sadness-eating dog reciprocity,
her thoroughness, the skin salts delectable and relished,
the milky eyes from which her world had vanished

and reappeared as a scent she did not understand
and might not have needed to, except that a man
she loved somehow exuded it, and she smelled
his breath then too, as he spoke and told

her what it was, which she could not hear.
Still, it may have been, because she was so near,
something her nose could actually discern
and why it was she left the hand behind

to lick his face as well, and it was in the things he said
to her and were about her too, in ways
that reeked of misery, except that she was good,
which she most of all wanted to know, and did.

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Uncle

You should understand she does not hate you
and wants not the least of what matters most
in your world. Rather, you should try to grasp
how much she pities you. Maybe you do

somehow, and it’s pity you can’t abide.
You would prefer hate, but you won’t get it.
Your need for power, or money, is a habit,
a scar from some wound very deep inside,

deeper in the bone than blood or brotherhood.
A vicious and powerful man is a pathetic thing,
but for residual love by another, undeserving
even of pity. If not in yours, it must be in her blood,

who remembers loving you, back when you were
the man she remembers, not the man you are.

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Chances Are

“While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings”
…………………………………..—Oliver Wendell Holmes

I woke this morning with it in my mind
and it could not be dislodged, removed,
or replaced: the silken, almost-but-not-quite
cloying voice of Johnny Mathis, on whom
my mother had a crush. He was, in those days,
she said, a very pretty man. The problem,
for me, is the prettiness of the productions,
the way this tune begins with plucked chord
from a harp, of all things, then resolves

to a decorous but appropriate piano and guitar,
just before the truly cloying strings come in.
I don’t remember feeling it odd
that my mother would have a crush
on a black man. Maybe the delicacy
of his features and that mild, yes, silken, voice.
What if it had been James Brown, I wonder?
She preferred pretty. Pretty man, pretty
voice, pretty song. There’s a weird, ethereal

soprano, it sounds like, ululating
over the song’s unctuous bridge: what
were they thinking, those producers?
They were thinking of my mother, I suppose.
All I know is that it won’t go away
until it does, and I wake one morning
with James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s
Man’s World” similarly lodged in my mind.
Or Johnny Hartman’s “You Are Too Beautiful,”

or something by the Beatles, or Janis Joplin,
who managed beautiful but never quite pretty.
My father’s not quite an invalid, and every morning
my mother dresses him as though he’s got somewhere
to go, and chances are tells him he’s pretty,
then leads him, as usual, to his chair.
That’s where he’s sitting when I call.
He’s listening to Johnny Hartman, which she chose
for him. She’s peeling and slicing him

a perfect summer-succulent peach.
She’ll want to get him to bed soon,
so I ask her about the crush on Johnny Mathis,
and she says “Yes, I did. A very pretty man
with very pretty voice.” They don’t socialize much
anymore. We talk about Mathis. She misses
their neighbors, a gay couple across the lake.
“Such wonderful decorators,” she says, then worries
she should not have said such a thing.

“Why are you asking this, Bob?” she inquires.
And so I tell her even now, as we’re talking,
that “Chances Are” is lilting through my mind
in the background. She rouses my father to say hello
and goodbye, the extent of our talk these days.
Still, it’s what we’ve said that does it,
I think. It takes me a while to realize,
but it’s true. I don’t know what else is there,
but in the time since we hung up, in my efforts

to formulate a better answer for her, “Chances Are”
has disappeared and been replaced by those efforts.
Regarding Mathis, the last thing she said was
“I hope he’s happy now, don’t you?” Recalling that
brings back the song, and I find I am happy too.
Or happy as my mother is,
which, given her situation with my father, seems
like a miracle, or at least something awfully good.
Chances are, just because, awfully good, the last phrase’s

syllables elided, so that awfully is a trochee,
a pretty bit of pronunciation, metrical accommodation.
There’s something about the way pretty diminishes
that which it describes, a function of class perhaps,
the strictures of modesty militantly enforced.
The danger of beauty, lunatic infatuation, avarice
and woe, sinkhole of the mirror, the hubris
of aspiration, something rotten in the apple that isn’t.
How is it I awaken every morning with a song

in my head, but never, not once, a poem.
“Beauty without dignity, neat elegance without
elevation; beauty of a slight, diminutive, dainty,
or childish kind, without stateliness”: the demarcations
of prettiness thus expressed, the dictionary
in its twenty volumes is pretty on my shelf,
beautiful and savage, by definition, inside.
You can look up Mathis’s Beverly Hills mansion
on the internet and find that it is stately.

I think it’s safe to say I will never awaken
in such a house nor with a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
on my mind, unless it had been secretly set to music
and recorded by James Brown, whose name,
of course, is a spondee. A diminutive man,
only five-six, a bomb, a dervish, a sex machine.
Johnny Mathis is five-seven. My father was five-nine
but is bent approximately to my mother’s five-four
now, and, chances are, bruisable as a peach.

.

Or Possibly Languor

So many words for it lovelier than
what they describe: lassitude, torpor,

lethargy, ennui. The phalanges of lead,
the lifting of eyelids requiring hydraulic force.

I am interested in the fact that lassitude—
the word, that is—has declined

in use by nearly fifty percent
over the last two centuries, lethargy

likewise, by almost half as much. Also
that enervation peaked around 1875,

along with ennui. How can that be?
And torpor, if linguists and lexicographers

are correct, is almost all gone now.
Indolence, however, thrives, even though,

or maybe because, it is October,
even the local birds burdened with it.

This rumpled nuthatch, for instance,
having sidled along the deer rib perch

from the nubbined spinal end
to the very point at which the bone’s screwed

to the porch post, where the bird sprawls
against the cedar and does not sing not at all.

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Sunnyside Bench Church, Abandoned

The farmer who converted it to a hay barn
might know the date of the last Sunday service.
It’s spring now, almost all the hay is gone.
The steeple bell’s a redtail hawk, looking askance

out over the graveyard across the gravel road.
A fire blew through last August, a few stones
show scorch marks still, and the wooden posts
of the barbwire fence around it are black and lean.

Out front the glass of the announcement box
is gone. A few letters of the old minister’s
name have yet to fall: Rev T OMA OX: Cox,
possibly Knox. Thomas, of course. For listeners,

there’s abundant birdsong, the plunge of the river
rising from a thousand feet below. Inside,
there’s mouse scrabble, the thin clatter-quiver
of a windowframe, loose in its sash. A few shed

snake skins glitter in a corner, under a row
of extant coat hooks from which a pitchfork hangs.
There’s a single, mostly whole stained glass window
in the eastern wall: a serpent showing its fangs,

perched in the boughs of the famous tree,
a bullet hole, it looks like, through the trunk.
No pulpit or altar on the holy of holies.
The pews were sold or cast off as junk.

Whatever it was the Revered Cox or Knox
intoned from up there isn’t hard to imagine.
The usual talk of heaven and hell all such flocks
heard and still hear, ordinary praise and sin.

What’s strangest is the presence of the cross,
still hanging on the high back wall.
Hand-hewn pine beams, a bird’s nest
tucked in the notch at the cross-beam’s right angle.

—Robert Wrigley

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Robert Wrigley has lived most of his adult life in the Northwest—in Washington, Oregon, and Montana, but mostly in Idaho, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. He has published ten books of poetry, including, mostly recently, Anatomy of Melancholy & Other Poems and, in the UK, The Church of Omnivorous Light. A recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Poets’ Prize, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and a Pacific Northwest Book Award, he has also been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and the Times Literary Supplement, among many other magazines and journals. He lives in the woods with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.

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Feb 022015
 

WittgensteinandMusilRobert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist, philosopher, student of mathematics, physics, behavioral psychology and engineering with mystical tendencies, and the author of the great unfinished experimental novel, The Man without Qualities. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian philosopher whose thoughts on logic, mathematics, language and ethics have been extremely influential in both philosophical and artistic circles. He is the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and many unfinished works, including Philosophical Investigations.

Disclaimers: 1. I do not pretend to be an expert on Wittgenstein. These, my observations, come from a mere few years of study of a philosopher who deemed that even his closest peers did not understand him. By comparing my interpretation of his ideas to those of Robert Musil, I am merely suggesting connecting strands, and possible shared concerns, and generally avoiding here (in the interest of space and time) the very real and complex differences between their world views. 2. Since I have spent decades studying and writing about Musil, I have concentrated mostly on Wittgenstein in this essay, assuming a general knowledge of Musil which is probably quixotic at this point in his ill-fated English-language reception. Hopefully the hints and references to his ideas and works will lead the reader back to the primary sources and also to my more thorough treatment of things Musil in my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s &c.,&c. . 3. This essay could only be “completed” if I allowed it to be just that—an essay, or “essai,” a trial, and not at all a finished work of writing. It is an attempt to pull together many, many related but still insufficiently synthesized ideas. It will take a lifetime to get all of this into some truly presentable shape.

— Genese Grill

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“Necessity is nothing but Existence, which is given through the Possibility itself.” — Immanuel Kant,
The Critique of Pure Reason

“It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.” — Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

“It is clear that however different from the real one an imagined world may be, it must have something—a form—in common with the real world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“Thought is surrounded by a halo—Its essence, logic, represents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought…prior to all experience [this order] must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to effect it—it must rather be of the purest crystal…” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

One of the most troubling challenges of living in what is nowadays assumed to be a relativized subjective universe is never knowing for sure whether what one sees, understands, or experiences is the same as what someone else sees, understands or experiences. What once was conceived to be solid shared reality, describable with definable words and measurable by standardized tools, has, since Kant (and, over the next century, in the wake of Einstein, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud), been deemed increasingly fragmented, uncertain, and relative. After philosophers spent centuries wrestling with the question of what could be known about the world and the related question of what, in fact, reality is, with or without the intervention of the subjective experiencer, the so-called “linguistic turn” in twentieth century philosophy took this question a step further by concentrating on the role played by language in describing, creating, delimiting, or expanding our experience and knowledge of the real. Modernist art and literature wrestled with these problems of knowing and communicating and earnestly strove to find ways to build bridges between the individual alienated person and the shared world of nature and culture. To put it simply, Kant was looking at the limits of thought; Wittgenstein at the limits of language. But both were concerned with the way philosophy had hitherto claimed to know or say certain things (of a metaphysical sort) that in their opinion could not be known or spoken of with certainty. Despite these reservations about the possibility of knowing or speaking certain things, neither Kant nor Wittgenstein rejected the realms of ethics or metaphysics as valuable aspects of experience.[1] And Musil made it even more clear than Kant and Wittgenstein (through his experimental fiction; through showing, not theorizing or merely saying) that aesthetics was the realm wherein one could begin to know, experience, and articulate those things which could not be grasped otherwise. He called this realm the realm of essay, of the ethical, of the aesthetic, of the other condition, and, despite his training as a mathematician and scientist, despite his tendency toward philosophical precision, he valued this realm above all others, choosing to write a novel rather than a scientific treatise for reasons with which Wittgenstein would probably have concurred. But the philosophical question of what could or could not be known of the shared world of phenomenon, and, thus, expressed in language (what kind of language became a heated question in Modernist poetics) haunted writers in the early twentieth century.[2]

Another philosophical conundrum discussed by Kant and then revisited by Modernist thinkers was the related question of ethics and the nature of the willing, determining self. For Kantians, as Anthony J. Volpa notes in his biography of Fichte, “At issue was whether selfhood as autonomous agency was an illusion and indeed whether the very notion of an integral self dissolved if the individual was merely one more object in a web of causes” (46). A hundred years later neo-empiricists like Ernst Mach (whom Musil critiqued and praised in his doctoral dissertation) were definitively denying the nature of the integral self and casting doubt on the individual’s ability to determine his or her shared reality—for quite other reasons and with quite other consequences than earlier thinkers. While in Kant’s time the debate was one between a divine determinism and the free will of the ethical individual, in contemporary philosophy the debate is between a random chaos or a mechanistic universe and a treacherous social construction wherein the individual plays no meaningful role. What exercised Musil and Wittgenstein was the quest for some direction for individual ethical behavior; and the search for some conduit to meaning amid the increasing fragmentation and uncertainty. In contrast to the abstract philosophizing of many logicians, Musil and Wittgenstein were, like the transcendentalists before them and the existentialists to follow, engaged in exploring philosophical questions that could help human beings figure out how to live.

320px-Klagenfurt_-_Musilhaus_-_Robert_MusilDepiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

According to Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, “Musil saw no place for human concerns in Mach’s limited positivism…in critiquing Mach he was already thinking of science’s uses for humanity…[Musil was] troubled by Mach’s idea of truths as mere fictions…” (34). Tiher goes on to say that Musil’s critique of Mach in many ways works as a critique of Wittgenstein’s belief that language could only depict the substance (not the core) of reality (“propositions mirror the exact part of facts, though nobody could ever point to exactly what they might be…all that can be meaningfully said is what can be mirrored in propositions in language”) (Tiher 42). Musil wanted to at least consider the possibility of knowing the thing in itself, whereas Wittgenstein may have been more skeptical about such certainty. Yet Tiher also points to commonalities between Musil and Wittgenstein, noting that both “yearned for a reality beyond the limits of positivist propositions and functional relations” (42). Both Wittgenstein and Musil “reacted to Mach’s limitation of knowledge to the realm of functional relations” (42). Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus, 6.52 “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”. Tiher concluded that “Both conceive of aesthetics as a ‘showing’ of ethics, and of ethics as the realm where values are as real as any other aspect of reality” (43).

Early twentieth century Machian positivism inspired a new set of concerns for contemporary artists, writers, and philosophers, who were struggling with what they called a crisis of language (like the Kantkrise of an earlier generation of artists) amid a greater crisis of values. Did the breakdown of some certainties mean that anything was possible? Or rather nothing? Or were there natural parameters or boundaries, some sort of a priori order to things?[3] In the wake begun so long ago, today many heirs of two generations of skeptical inquiry err on the side of a radical openness and relativity of values to which Kant, Wittgenstein, and Musil would not have subscribed.

Many 20th century thinkers and artists, following the spirit if not the law of Kant’s ethical aesthetic imperative, believed earnestly in the possibility of redemption through art and an ethical conduct of life born of the friction between experimental empirical assessment and some sense of essential but shifting truths, between personal and shared reality, between repeating patterns and new arrangements, and between established archetypes or forms and new metaphors and synthesis—in short, in a kind of proto-aesthetic existentialism, whereby the artist and thinker expands the possibilities of the real (through seeing for the first time what was always there)without denying reality’s concrete parameters. These thinkers and artists were dealing with a struggle between necessity and arbitrariness, a priori truth and creative agency, asking such question as: What do we have agency over, what not? And how do language and art function in this interchange between what is necessary and what is possible or even merely constructed? How does the word or image “make” the world (as Musil and Wittgenstein suggest repeatedly), how does language respond to the world, answer the world? Is it like a call and response? A mirror, a warp, a description or re-creation? A betrayal, a social construction, a deception? Are certain facets of reality best described by showing, not naming, as Wittgenstein suggested and Musil modelled? Or is it impossible to know, and then impossible to describe or communicate at all?

While it has been the fashion for the last half century at least among sophisticated theorists and artists to maintain that nothing whatsoever can be determined, communicated, named, or delimited, past masters of precision and soul were capable of carefully examining what in fact still remained in the shared universe that could be established to be repeatable, certain enough, objectively measurable, and to what extent language could in fact be used to communicate not only what was solid, but even those more tenuous shifting internal subjective states that made up so much of the content of the art and literature of the psychologizing 20th century. The distinction between a world where nothing at all can be determined and one in which only certain things can be has been too often slurred over. The difference between a world wherein language means nothing and one in which language can approximate and approach meaning is considerable; and it takes patience and daring to dwell in this uneasy borderland, exemplified by Robert Musil and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

ludwig-wittgenstein-nacido-en-viena-austria-1889-fallecido-en-cambridge-reino-unido-1951-125700_w1000Ludwig Wittgenstein

These two thinkers lived almost side-by-side on Rasmofskygasse in Vienna for about a year sometime between 1920 and 1921, possibly without ever making each other’s acquaintance. They were both snobs who craved discourse; both were scientists who had more faith in art than in philosophical logic; both were individualists who were suspicious of collectivism and resisted joining groups or being categorized into positions or ideologies[4]. They both rejected externally-imposed morals and social judgments in favor of a personal rigorous ethics and conduct of life. They both had ambivalent relationships with the scientific positivists of the Vienna Circle. In contrast to the members of this circle, both wanted to connect philosophy and science with aesthetics and ethics and make it meaningful for human life[5]. Both resisted theory in favor of experimental empiricism. Both had mystical experiences as soldiers in World War One, leading to puzzling relationships with something they both sometimes called “God”; both were mathematicians suspicious of mathematics; both were engineers and inventors; empiricists and idealists; pragmatists and utopians. Both looked to anthropology to present alternative possible ways to live; both loved Dostoevsky; both worked and wrote in a non-linear,[6] inter-disciplinary fashion; both liked to go to the movies. Both of them were obsessed with using language precisely; but both rejected language skepticism, while acknowledging the limits of language and knowledge; and both saw metaphor as the best possible mode of expressing certain experiences and truths. Both were so committed to the experimental method and a resistance to closure or final solutions that they were almost pathologically unable to finish their works. They are exemplars of a special breed of idealist-realists—a group of people who throughout history have simultaneously hugged the surface of the real “what is” while reaching for the ideal “what could be”; thinkers who have labored to establish what can and cannot be known or spoken, thinkers who have eschewed what Musil called “Schleudermystik” (wishy-washy mysticism) and Wittgenstein called “transcendental twaddle,” and, at the same time, kept at bay a nihilistic relativism or void of all values. (Other thinkers in this cadre include Thoreau, Blake, Novalis, and Nietzsche).

(c) Bridgeman; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe Rasumovsky Palace, Vienna, Corner of Rasumofskygasse and Geusaugasse, by Carel Victor Morlais Weight

To harbor some belief in a repeatable recognizable shared reality and a language that serves well enough to communicate what we think, want, and care about is to fundamentally take responsibility for our place and agency in the world. The opposite tends toward an adolescent “whateverism” wherein everything cancels itself out and wallows in bankrupt cynicism. In contrast to this hollow sophistication, Wittgenstein and Musil are related to the transcendentalist age of self-improvement and both earnestly struggled with determining what was the right way to live. Their “sense of possibility” (Musil’s phrase) and skepticism about social conventions and abstract propositions about right and wrong was not the same as absolute license, total openness, or self-indulgence. Looking back to Wittgenstein and Musil, we find an alternative to the total relativity of values and vacuum of meaning—a veritable model of existential responsibility and an ethics grounded in a complex analysis of what can and cannot be known, expressed, or experienced—an ethics, in short, grounded in aesthetics. Ironically, the refusal to accept any shared reality today in some philosophical circles has led to a situation similar to the age of faith. While in the latter the realm of truth was found in scripture or metaphysics, in both cases truth is not recognized in the real exigencies or material experience of life. In both cases truth is an abstraction, although in one this abstraction is to be mistrusted while in the other it is to be uncritically believed. High Modernism marked out a middle zone between skepticism and non-critical acceptance of abstract generalities and ideals. This middle zone is difficult to navigate, but it is imperative that we abide here in uncertainty to catch the shirt tails of agency as reality flies past our subjective indifferent gaze.

We have come so far from that comfortable pre-Kantian world of shared beliefs, and we have heard so much skepticism about shared reality that we have almost become blind to the palpable real that is right in front of us, to the facts of our shared existence—birth, death, seasons, dusk, bodies, beauty, the night sky. Many contemporary theorists would have us scoff at the possibility of experiencing anything real at all, or at the possibility of using words to describe what we feel or see. But they must be blind themselves, and lacking fundamental sense organs, to arrive at such a bankrupt state of existence wherein nothing at all is real and no combination of words can resonate with an external or internal event. I have a young friend, so steeped in the allurements of this “philosophy” (it should be called love of no-truth, not love of truth, since, according to its basic tenets there is no truth to love) that he feels the need to create a new mythology, a trumped-up mythological meaning, since there is, he fears, no real one anymore. But wait! There is still meaning, there is still a real world, and words can still be used to celebrate and lament it! And this meaning will come from our sensual, aesthetic, experiential contact with the real, mediated through the mind, the senses, language, and images, the only tools that we have. Herein we may have some glimpse of the meaning behind the pronouncement (which we find in both Musil and Wittgenstein) that “ethics and aesthetics are one”. For aesthetics does not merely connote fantasy and fiction but sense experience, a living palpable conduit between the abstracted mind or pen and the real breathing, smelling, scintillating, churning world. How we see and experience and the way in which we formulate what we see and experience depends on sensations, formal arrangements, and the process and poetics of space, time, and shifting perspectives. And these perceptions determine our actions and judgments about how to live.

Wittgenstein is thought to have changed his ideas on the relationship between language and reality in between his writing of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, maintaining later that language is not necessarily a picture of the world, but, rather, that language determines what we see and, in effect, makes our world. But neither position is based on a radical separation between the mind as language-maker and the reality that it attempts to describe. Instead, it is a matter of interpreting, and expanding or limiting (waxing and waning, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology), our perspectives. According to David Pears, Wittgenstein, “abandoned the idea that the structure of reality determines the structure of language, and suggested that it is really the other way around: our language determines our view of reality, because we see things through it” (13). As my friend Dharman Rice put it, Kant’s theories suggest that the mind is not a camera simply recording what is out there, but rather has something to do with choosing, selecting, and arranging the phenomena it encounters. According to Kant, phenomena are transmitted or filtered through transcendental schema or structures of the mind (space, time, etc.); according to Wittgenstein, this arranging occurs through the process of language use. I scoured Kant in vain to find an answer to the question of whether this means that what the mind sees is an illusion, I could find no definitive answer (probably because it is the wrong question. Kant is not concerned with what is or is not there, but rather to what extent we can determine it). It seems to me that he does not assume that the filtered view is false. It is merely filtered. The same seems to be true for Wittgenstein. What changes in between the Tractatus and The Philosophical Investigations then is not Wittgenstein’s conclusion about a priori reality, but his process of arriving at a conclusion at all. In fact, one could say that there are really no conclusions, only a process. While in the Tractatus he relied heavily on what he came to see as a priori givens or logical abstractions, in the Investigations he is modelling a process of experimental empiricism, a method quite close to Musil’s aesthetic of experimental essayism, one which resists theory and final conclusions in favor of what Musil would call “partial solutions” or the “utopia of the next step”.

According to Ashok Vohra in his Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mind, this process is not a refutation of realist philosophy, although a realist might consider it to be. Wittgenstein,

[M]aintains that acceptance of any proof is an act of ratification which is independent of any previous acts of ratification. Nothing that we have done in the past forces us to ratify, or to withhold ratification from the proof which we are now being offered. This sounds absurd, because we naturally assume that the meanings of the terms used in the proof of the would-be theorem or equation must have been fixed in advance. But what Wittgenstein is suggesting is that their meanings were not completely fixed in advance, and that their full meanings accrue to them bit by bit when the later ratifications are made or withheld. (136)

In other words, the human mind continually participates in making and acknowledging a shifting changing world. This is an alternative to the chicken and egg question of whether the mind makes the world or the world the mind. The answer to the riddle is that the mind and the world constantly work together to fashion a meaningful approximation of reality. Further, of course, the mind is a part of the world, a part of nature, and thus should not be so very different from what it sees and records as to prohibit correspondence!

Immanuel_Kant_3Immanuel Kant

C. N. Wilson explains in his book, God’s Funeral, that Kant “was trying to marry the twin truths: namely, that by the very process of perceiving and knowing, we invent our world; and also that this world has a reality of its own.” In a note, Musil summarizes the paradox: “Kant: Concepts without observation are empty. Observation without concepts is blind” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1820). In another formulation he explores the question of how the phenomenological world interacts with the human mind: “In truth, the relationship between the outer and the inner world is not that of a stamp that presses into a receptive material, but that of an embosser that deforms itself in the process so that its design can be changed into remarkably different pictures without destroying its general coherence” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1435). In a conversation about ideality and reality with some high school students from The Walden Project here in Vermont, two of them came up with a marvelously helpful image: the ideal is like a light shining on the real, but it has to be plugged in to the real to shed light in the first place. The real, without imagination, ideas, dreams, or light, is nothing but a mechanical mass; the ideal, without the real, would have nothing to shine on.

In answering the related questions of what is determined and what determinable, or what is essence and what existence, what transcendental and what existential, or how much do our perceptions contribute to shared reality (beyond doubts about knowing the thing in itself), both Musil and Wittgenstein were pragmatists of sorts, who believed that we know the world well enough to avoid burns, bumping into tables, walking into walls, and well enough to understand basically the words others use. They also, as scientists, must have seen that the mind was not separate from Nature in some Cartesian sense and that such a natural structure or lens would probably see in a fashion more or less consistent with the reality of nature. As David Pears writes, describing Wittgenstein’s general perspective, “When the field [of observation] is extended to the limit, there does not seem to be any possibility of discovering that thought and reality might fail to fit one another[…]. [T]he fact is that in certain general ways thought and reality must fit one another”.[7]

Prop 5.6—5.641 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus states: “The world is my world’, ‘I am my world. (The microcosm)” and “The subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world’. But this need not contradict his emphasis on what Thoreau would call “fronting the real”. This is, in effect, the same paradox of Emersonian Self-reliance and the Kantian categorical Imperative and its subsequent iteration in existentialism: what is true for me is true for all men; what I do determines what others do; existence precedes essence. Our actions change the world; our perceptions expand and contract it; reality waxes and wanes depending upon the words we use to describe it; but that doesn’t mean that we change the basic coordinates of nature. Proposition 3.032 states: “One can depict something that contradicts logic in language just as little as one can present a figure in geometry whose coordinates contradict the laws of space; or give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.” And, again, in proposition 3.033, we read: “One used to say that God could create anything except something that contradicted logical laws— in other words, we couldn’t say what an illogical world would look like.” And yet, certain strictures, like grammar and some mathematical rules, are arbitrarily limiting. And there are socially-constructed morals and prejudgments that inhibit a fresh experience of the real. These must be resisted and continually tested. Musil wrote: “The period and the semicolon are symptoms of stasis. We don’t make them because we learned to, but because that is how we think. And that is the danger in them. As long as one thinks in sentences with end stops, certain things cannot be said; at most they can be vaguely felt. Infinite perspectives (moving inward) would have to be expressed like infinite rows” (Notebooks II, 822). As such, the way we use language to talk about our world can limit or open up what possibilities we see in it.

Perhaps the answer to the alleged problem (Wittgenstein would probably say that there is not even a problem to begin with!) is that knowledge of reality does not comes solely from empirical experience (as opposed to a priori essence), but that it comes from a process of synthesis and the constant creation of fresh, repeating—not rigid and unexamined—metaphor. A metaphor which, chez Wittgenstein, always points outside itself by virtue of its very nature as metaphor. Both Wittgenstein and Musil repeatedly make the distinction between living language and dead cliché, and this distinction is linked to their common cause of experimental empirical ontology and the processes called, respectively, the utopia of the next step (Musil) and re-ratification (Wittgenstein), whereby nothing is certain until one takes into consideration what comes next, or, until one re-tests it within new circumstances. Musil writes: “Living word full of meaning and correspondence in the moment, bathed in will and feeling. An hour later it says nothing although it says everything that a concept contains.” And Wittgenstein writes in his Philosophical Investigation, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?–In use it is alive. Is life breathed into there?—Or is the use its life?” (432e).

Instead of adhering to one polarization of the empiricist/Platonist spectrum, Wittgenstein (like Musil and Nietzsche too) posits another kind of process of world-making (one that acknowledges a reality outside of abstraction, language, and theory), one which involves a conscious awareness of our use of language and image to create a good deal of what we consider reality and truth. The trick, as Nietzsche explains in his “On Truth and Lying in a Supra-Moral Sense,” is to never forget that the metaphors which we invent to describe and see the world are not rigid absolutes in themselves, but rather living, self-generating, shifting approximations or, to use Wittgenstein’s term, “family resemblances” rather than exact representations— likenesses, overlapping commonalities.

Although there are multifold possibilities of how language may be used to describe reality, there are not infinite possibilities. There are limits; and these limits are the limits of logic, reality, nature, experience and shared human and social life. And these limits have very important consequences in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s world views for determining a conduct of life. In fact, both of these individualistic—one might even say anti-social—thinkers, were deeply concerned with questions of society and the problem of solipsism. Wittgenstein’s rejection of the idea of a private language is one answer to the Modernist question of artistic solipsism, and touches on a central problem never solved by Musil: how might the mystical experience of “the other condition” depicted in his unfinished novel expand from the private specialized realm of two people to become a social utopia for the many? And how do his insane characters (Clarisse and Moosbrugger) serve to both destroy and invigorate common language with their private idiolects (Clarisse, in one very Wittgensteinian scene in the Nachlass chapters of the novel, tries to remove the meanings from words by taking them out of their natural order, by repeating them, by underlining them). One of Wittgenstein’s answers to the problem of solipsism is his conclusion that, as Vohra writes, “the real relationship between words and physical phenomena is not contingent but essential, and that language is not the product of one person, but has evolved with human life” (6). Although we do have private (i.e., nontransferable) sensations, they are stimulated by public, shared phenomena (the objects of observation) (Vohra 16-17). The necessity of communicating with others is served by a union of aesthetics and ethics, requiring an awareness of reality taking the special case into consideration rather than an abstract impersonal morality. Individual responsibility is born in each new moment— in concert with others. As opposed to an alienated despair or nihilism about the ability to ever share values, ideas, goals with others, Kantian, Wittgensteinian, Musilian individualism breeds ethical consciousness when it includes other-directed awareness. Anti-individualistic collectivism, on the other hand, can be the seedbed of a lack of self-responsibility. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that the problem with the idea of private language is its lack of practical social consequences. A private language is like one’s right hand giving one’s left hand money (80) or the absurdity of a person giving “himself a private definition of a word” (80). What would understanding be, what consistency? It would be, Wittgenstein writes, like “… a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (81). “Imagine,” he continues,” someone saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it” (82).

There is a real world outside of or in correspondence with the mind, and its parameters do limit and guide what can and cannot be correctly said. Wittgenstein “holds the view that one who attempts to use a private language not only fails to communicate his meaning to others, but also does not have a meaning to communicate even to himself; in other words, he does not succeed in saying anything at all” (Vohra 38). Sensations, while they can be kept private, are communicable (Vohra 52). A private language is category mistake, according to Wittgenstein, that ignores the social nature of language. Language is a set of activities, and practices, defined by certain rules, and uses, “a form of life” (Vohra 66). As such, the individual has a social and ethical responsibility to use language in a way that corresponds to a shared social reality. While today some theorists might see this as a treacherous crime, or a sort of social coercion applied to the idiosyncratic non-contingent mind, Wittgenstein and Musil probably saw it as a pragmatic and workable means to attempt to communicate ideas and feelings. People who imagine Wittgenstein as the patron saint of silence and the impossibility of communication may be surprised to read this rather characteristic statement from the Philosophical Investigations: “The sign post is in order—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (35 e). Inexact, he suggests, does not mean unusable.

And while Musil too (following Nietzsche’s metaphor theory in On Truth and Lying) is clear about the fact that metaphors are inexact, that, in fact, every time we make a metaphor we are perpetrating a sort of crime against the true differentiation of each entity or idea, he is equally clear that this process of inexactitude and imprecision is just what humans must do in order to bring “beauty and excitement” into the world. Making metaphors is a form of human-generated, reality-generated meaning-making which continually resists ossification, cliché, and fixed ideas. It is an ethical and aesthetic process of existential engagement in expanding (without denying) the boundaries of the real, of nature, of truths in their varied, shifting relativity. And this expansion of boundaries—what Wittgenstein called waxing—works in tension with the constriction of the already known and accepted, the already established conventions (a waning), as well as with the eternally reverberating archetypal and naturally recurring realities of shared human life (trembling aliveness of ancient energies). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: “6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language…. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.”

All philosophical theories are rooted in pictures (metaphors); and every already-known picture must be continually uprooted by the introduction of a new picture, a new metaphor: once a simile or metaphor has been accepted, it is too often taken for granted, no longer seen as a picture but taken as a reality or an exact representation. The creation of new metaphors is necessary not only for the successful creation of new meaningful art objects, but, moreover, for the enlivening and generation of ethical life through living language and living forms. Wittgenstein writes: “The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy” (qtd. in Monk, 302). Monk glosses: “In understanding ethics, aesthetics, religion, mathematics and philosophy, theories were of no use” (304). In lieu of theories then: art, the realm of the individual case.

Each poetic pronouncement or artistic expression is at once a free act, individual voice, new note, an addition to and a conversation with, response to, answer to what has already been. And it can only be understood within such a linked context of history, cultural discourse, and shared experience of the world and its cultural products. Rampant skepticism, anti-intellectualism, and obfuscation lead only to careless, speechless, inarticulate grunts and irresponsible confused beings. Art, again, is often the best medium for communicating what cannot be shared otherwise and it models a process of generative re-visioning and a creative tension between what is and what can be, between the abstracted whole and the individual unique non-repeatable experience. Wittgenstein writes: “We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by another. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In one case the thought in the sentence is something that is expressed only by the words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)” The use of poetic language, the ongoing conversation of form and image is a fruitful correspondence between particular individualized once-in-a-world empirical experience and a store of family resemblances, likenesses, and shared cultural and natural reverberations.

While sometimes the most valuable aspects of these human experiences (shared or alienating as the case may be) cannot be easily imparted, what can be shown but not said (in art rather than logic) is nevertheless sometimes stammered (one tries to say it, denotes it, suggests it, points to it) before it disappears. As Kafka wrote, “Truth is the light on the shrinking grimacing face”. We try to bring the wordless phantoms up from the depths or catch the rush of a flying experience of nature with words that are all too clunky, all too general. But they serve. They have to serve. And sometimes they serve brilliantly.

Wittgenstein apparently saw himself as “a disciple of Freud because of Freud’s use of similes: ‘It’s all excellent similes’, he said in a lecture on Freud’s work; and of his own contribution to philosophy: ‘What I invent are new similes’” (Monk 357). And Wittgenstein’s late philosophical technique even seems a bit like the technique of modernist fiction. The playing of “language games,” according to Monk, was a “method of inventing imaginary situations in which language is used for some tightly defined practical purpose. It may be a few words or phrases from our own language or an entirely fictitious language, but what is essential is that, in picturing the situation, the language cannot be described without mentioning the use to which it is put. The technique is a kind of therapy, the purpose of which is to free ourselves from the philosophical confusions that result from considering language in isolation from its place in the ‘stream of life’”(330). Wittgenstein’s anthropological approach has a good deal in common with the process by which fiction helps us to think about ourselves and our social assumptions by presenting alternative or slightly oblique visions of reality. This is, of course, a technique which Musil utilized expertly. Monk’s description of Wittgenstein could be a description of Musil the possibilitarian whose protagonist Ulrich was always imagining how things could be different; who was working on a utopian novel imagining all sorts of different ways to live; and whose short prose piece “Cannibals” describes a society of flesh eaters in a way that mirrors our own moral justifications for things that might be seen as aberrations: “By imagining tribes with conventions or ways of reasoning different to our own, and by constructing metaphors different to ones commonly employed, [Wittgenstein] tries to weaken the hold of certain analogies, certain ‘similes that have been absorbed into the forms of our language.’ He attacks, for example, the Platonism that regards logical propositions as analogous to factual propositions. ‘Isn’t there a truth corresponding to logical inference?’ he makes his interlocutor ask. ‘Isn’t it true that this follows from that?’ Well, replies Wittgenstein, what would happen if we made a different inference? How would we get into conflict with the truth? […]The point here is that the criteria for correct or incorrect reasoning are not provided by some external realm of Platonic truths, but, rather, by ourselves, by ‘a convention, or a use, and perhaps our practical requirements’” (Monk 381).

Wittgenstein’s new method in Philosophical Investigations rejected the earlier essentialist method of the Tractatus as metaphysical. His theories, he deemed, did not match real language or real experience (Pears 105-7). The generalizations arrived at intuitively were not results of empirical investigations…and, “he had wrongly assumed that the multifarious uses of language must have a high common factor [a generalized abstraction]. The truth was more complex: each resembled each other in many ways [family resemblances]” [and thus, he] “turned his investigation onto the multifarious differences” (107). Wittgenstein’s new method mirrors Musil’s:  “[I]t is empirical…it shows great respect for the particular case and …it is more like art than science, because the nuances of particular cases are not caught in any theory, but are presented in careful descriptions of actual linguistic practices…”(105).

Such an experimental method is actually a conduct of life—one requiring an open-endedness resistant to closure or absolute solutions. Demanding, in fact, a constant new re-visioning of fresh circumstances and combinations and a radical skepticism about received ideas and established categories. Wittgenstein’s work method was quite a lot like Musil’s, whose Nachlass is thousands of pages of versions, alterations, notes, sketches, and cross-references. Wittgenstein, according to Monk, would begin by writing remarks in a notebook; then he would select the best of these, write them out, “perhaps in a different order, into large manuscript volumes. From these he made a further selection, which he dictated to a typist. The resultant typescript was then used as the basis for a further selection, sometimes by cutting it up and rearranging it—and then the whole process was started again. Though this process continued for more than twenty years, it never culminated in an arrangement with which Wittgenstein was fully satisfied, and so his literary executors have had to publish either what they consider to be the most satisfactory of the various manuscripts and typescripts…” (Monk 319).

The work of philosophy, the work of the artist, in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s sense, is a job with no end. One can never arrive at a conclusion. Monk explains: “This conception of philosophy, which sees itself as a task of clarification that has no end, and only an arbitrary beginning, makes it almost impossible to imagine how a satisfactory book on philosophy can be written. It is no wonder that Wittgenstein used to quote with approval Schopenhauer’s dictum that a book on philosophy, with a beginning and an end, is a sort of contradiction” (326). Musil, who never finished his magnum opus, would have concurred. In fact, as long as one lives, the work of being a human being is likewise an open experiment. We can never rest, but must always strive for the utopia of the next step, ever re-ratifying what we thought we once knew. “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

— Genese Grill


Genese Grill2

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.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Wittgenstein speaks of a certain kind of experience, similar to Musil’s mystical “other condition,” in which “I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’…another experience…the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’”. Monk writes that Wittgenstein “went on to show that the things one is inclined to say after such experiences are a misuse of language—they mean nothing. And yet the experiences themselves ‘seem to those who have had them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value’. They cannot be captured by factual language precisely because their value lies beyond the world of facts” (qtd. 277).
  2. In my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities,” I wrote:

    Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to the modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for articulating individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (that is, metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language. What philosophy and science could not describe or explain might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the inherent inaccuracy and generalization of rational and scientific conceptualization or logical abstraction. On the other hand, the selection process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony. Marjorie Perloff, in her book Wittgenstein’s Ladder, wrote: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of ‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry’ dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death)” (i)

  3. In The World as Metaphor, I wrote: “Wittgenstein wrote that the central question that exercised his entire life’s work was: “Is there, a priori, an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?” What, in other words, is the nature of the order of the world and what is the role of the human subject in maintaining, producing, destroying, or rebuilding our shared reality? And while the easy answer is that Wittgenstein negated the possibility of an a priori reality, declaring instead that humans construct their shared reality out of language and perception, the fact remains that in many pronouncements he suggests that there might actually be such an “essence of the world,” one that we simply cannot access or express. “What belongs to the essence of the world,” he writes, for example, “cannot be expressed by language” (31). Making meaning of the world, whether through discovery of, or invention of, patterns and recurring forms, seems to be a requirement for survival, an aesthetic operation conducted upon possible random chaos to make life bearable. Gunter Gebauer explains, quoting Wittgenstein: “Only if we see the world in the proper perspective are we filled with ‘enthusiasm . . . (But without art, the object is a piece of nature like any other’); this occurs through a particular method of description. With the help of the art of description, the wonderful side of the world can be grasped” (35). Conversely, Gebauer continues, “Wittgenstein also knows the moments in which he loses this vision of the world,” when he has, “‘done with the world,’ he has created an amorphous (transparent) mass, and the world in all its variety is abandoned like an uninteresting junk closet” (34–35). This description is eerily reminiscent of many of Musil’s descriptions of a world miraculously flooded with, and just as suddenly drained of, meaning. In keeping with Musil’s constant allegorical comparison of world and word, this process of meaning and meaninglessness is most often described by him as the difference between living and dead words. The living word, like the living world, does not mean anything definite or fixed, but is imbued with meaning by the creative subject. The dead word, or “concept,” like the petrified world of received ideas and unexamined “facts,” is always the same word/world, no matter what one brings to it”.
  4. “The search for essences is, Wittgenstein states, an example of ‘the craving for generality’ that springs from our preoccupation with the method of science…’The tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness”…”Wittgenstein’s avoidance of this tendency—his complete refusal to announce any general conclusions—is perhaps the main feature that makes his work difficult to understand, for without having the moral pointed out, so to speak, it is often difficult to see the point of his remarks”. Ray Monk. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 338.
  5. Wittgenstein gave this explanation of the anti-positivist intentions of his Tractatus in a popular lecture to the “Heretics” club: “My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics, so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it…” (qtd. in Monk, 277).
  6. Philosophical Investigations. Foreword: “My thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination—and this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought crisscross in every direction…The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made…” (ix).
  7. David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Viking Press, 1970, 31.
Feb 012015
 

OndjakiClose

This past summer, I reviewed Angolan author Ondjaki’s novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret right here at Numéro Cinq. I loved the book, which read like a fun kid’s action/adventure film from the 1980s, and thanks to modern technology, Ondjaki and I began chatting on Twitter after he saw the review. Over time, our conversation—a direct message or email here and there across several months—turned into an interview, which is transcribed below. 

— Benjamin Woodard

 


Benjamin Woodard (BW):
What drew you into wanting to become a storyteller?

Ondjaki (O): ​I really don’t know. I guess each time someone asks this, a writer lies. I happen to like short stories, tales, and literature in general. One gets caught up in this “thing” of reading, and then eventually comes the writing.​

BW: Granma Nineteen… is only your third work translated into English. How interested are you in having your work translated? Is it important to you to have your stories reach a non-Portuguese speaking audience?

O: I am not that worried about that. I mean, I really think these things [translations] happen as they do, when they do. It’s important to me to be happy with a short story, a poem, a book. Of course translations open new doors. I don’t mean that I don’t care, but “important” could be a strong word. I see it as I write, and then some translations happen. I am happy with the result so far.​

Granma

BW: You mention “being happy with a short story, a poem, a book.” What kind of process does a piece go through before you consider it finished? Does it vary?

O: I think it does. And many times I guess it’s a shot in the dark. When and how can one say “it’s ready”? I’ve had things that took me a year or two to “become” ready. And I also have pieces that took five years. Sometimes, when you’re just “preparing” (which I think is also writing), the idea can linger for more than five or ten years. In the end, you have to be happy with the result. But trying to be happy now, and forty-three years from now, it’s a long shot in the dark future…

BW: Branching off of this, you’ve amassed a rather large library of published work already in your literary career. Is seems you must have quite a bit of discipline when it comes to writing. Could you expand on your writing schedule?

O: You cannot imagine how I am laughing right now. Discipline? Me? I don’t think I recognize the word. Not when it comes to writing. I really do a tremendous effort to “wait” for the right moment. I keep working things in my mind, but as for the writing moment I tend to think there has to be some sort of magic. Or not. I convince myself that I write when “everything in me” is ready. I do not mean to bullshit, it’s just what I feel. For now. That’s why, in fact, I love short stories more than the rest. They tell me when they want to show up. Novels, yes, they require some sort of schedule, but it’s more just being available. Waiting. Like when you go fishing or hunting: it’s not about the amount you catch. It’s about the quality of the waiting time. I am still a beginner, but I “began” to understand that it’s important to wait. Just wait. The poem will come. The short story will come. Or not. I think writing is also about learning to be untroubled with both of these results.

BW: What was your literary exposure growing up? The boys in Granma Nineteen… seem to have a steady diet of 1980s adventure films, and their story reads like a children’s adventure film. Do any of these forms of media come into play with your writing?

O: I remember, after Asterix and some stuff like that, reading some “serious” Brazilian authors (Erico Verissimo, and then Graciliano Ramos), and Gracialiano was so powerful and “dry” and sad. But I liked it right away. After, don’t ask me why, I chose to read Sartre. Two or three years later, Garcia Márquez would be the most important of writers. Now, about the movies, I actually forced myself to remember certain films for the book, and that’s also to honor those days in which fiction also came into our lives through cinema and television. By fiction, I mean movies, but also soap operas. And I am aware that these were very important for my generation, so it’s also for them that I include some scenes or movies. It’s also for me: I actually would like to be there right now. If I could use a time machine only once, I know where I would go: a magical place, dusty, yellow, called the 80’s. That’s me. Still today.

Nausea

BW: How old were you when you read Sartre? That seems pretty intense for a kid to read.

O: I think I was around fourteen. It was…somehow it was different. I remember I got two books at the same time, Márquez and Sartre’s Nausea. I did like Nausea’s main character a lot. He was lonely, he was weird, he seemed to me like a sad real person. I am not sure how much I got from that book then. It does not really matter. Every book is different each time we open it. Not so much the book, necessarily, but we are different readers in different moments of our lives. And I was in that sad mood at fourteen. Right after or right before that, I read The Hermit, the only Ionesco novel. Another sad character, another strange book. It made sense during those days. I am not sure I know why. I am not sure I want to remember why.

BW: Who do you look to as an example of a great writer?

O: I think books are more important than writers. But, right now, I guess there are three names I could not leave out of this answer: Ruy Duarte de Carvalho (Angola), Raduan Nassar (Brazil) and Erri De Luca (Italy). Any of these three (and two are still among us) should have won the Nobel.

BW: What makes you say that “books are more important than writers”? Do you mean that they are bigger than the authors who construct them, or more influential?

O: They are bigger, for sure. It’s what’s within the books that counts the most. Not the writers. It’s the body of a poem, not the hand who wrote it. It’s the memory that we have of a tree or a mountain, not so much the tree itself. Maybe the important part of a book is what you feel (or what you become) while you’re reading it. Do you feel a change in your skin or smile when you read something? Can a few (or a thousand) words change what you feel, what you are? Can a poem convince you that you can fly for thirty-seven seconds? Did you think that you could fly for thirty-seven seconds and a book made you fly for forty-nine seconds? It’s always about the meeting point between you (the reader) and the book. Sometimes, so many times, magic happens in that place.

BW: Does travel influence your writing at all? Am I correct in thinking that you now live in Brazil?

O: I think I live in Brazil now. This is where I stop most of the time. I travel a lot, I try not to, but sometimes I do travel a lot. I don’t know how it reaches my writing. I really don’t. I tend to like meeting new people and seeing cities, but sometimes it’s too much. Too many eyes, too many voices, too many airplanes. So lately airports are strange places for me. They make me sad, especially when I am returning from any place I call home. Luanda is still home for me. It’s a place that stays inside, though I’m not sure if it’s still the real Luanda. I don’t write exactly about the places I visit. Usually it’s more about the remains of those places in me. People. Moments. Trees. Colors. Shadows. Dreams. Hands. Shoes. Fogs. (Secret: sometimes I think I live somewhere in a lost bridge between now and the past.) I spend too much time not in the present. And I pay the price.

— Ondjaki and Benjamin Woodard


Ondjaki
was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. He studied in Lisbon and Portugal. Ondjaki is the author of five novels, three short story collections and various books of poems and stories for shildren. He has also made a documentary film, May Cherries Grow, about his native city. His books have been translated into eight languages and have earned him important literary prizes in Angola, Portugal and Brazil. In 2008 Ondjaki was awarded the Grizane for Africa Prize in the category of Best Young Writer. In 2012, The Guardian named him one of its Top Five African Writers. Good Morning Comrades marked Ondjaki’s first appearance in English. Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, launcing Spring 2014, is his newest English translation.

Woodard Bigger

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

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Jan 312015
 

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Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. A graduate in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

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Jan 242015
 

Keane3
When is a good time to think about death? asks Lawrence Sutin in his dab (as in dab handed) little essay of the same name in the coming issue, and I think NOW! Dead of Winter, armpit of the year (this does not apply in California where you sybarites escape the annual backbone inducing death and resurrection of Nature of the northeast), long night of the Soul (Seasonal Affective Disorder), Melancholy, Dyspepsia, and, yes, Thoughts of Death. So why not the Death Issue? And after that it’ll be March and things will get better.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALawrence Sutin and Murphy

Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate. (Lawrence Sutin)

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From Contributor Tom Faure, a video/music performance thingie (a word we use around here) on death and the spam filter. Not to be missed.

Ian ColfordIan Colford

Ian Colford, a librarian in Halifax, has been publishing in Numéro Cinq since nearly the beginning, essays and fiction. This time he offers his mass death story, reminiscent of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez title, “How the Laughter of the Nation Led to the Pitiable Deaths of Claudia and Francisco Cordoba’s Ten Children” — each death has its own little chapter.

…Luis and Alonzo were not interested in fairness, and when the blade penetrated the tender flesh between Pedro’s ribs and punctured his lung, and his blood had left its stain on the grass of the empty lot, both boys felt that justice had been served. As for Pedro, whose only regret was that he would never have the chance to tell a soul what it was like to die at the peak of his youthful form beneath a blazing afternoon sun, the moment was everything he had longed for. (Ian Colford)

BraddBradd Allen Saunders

And then we have a full length prize-winning play by the inimitable Bradd Allen Saunders entitled “Detective Nicky Carruthers is Dead,” a kind of Eugene Ionesco-meets-David Mamet sort of play, an existential police procedural comedy of identity, the sort of thing we specialize in here at NC. (Time also to remind readers that we are one of the few — if any — magazines that publish full length plays and screenplays, not huge number so far but a gradual accumulation well worth looking through.)

CARILLO

So you’re a positivist. That’s just another philosophy.

CARGNISCENTI

You cannot be in two places physically at one time you asshole!

CARILLO

What if I was standin’ on the border and had one foot in California and the other in Arizona?

(Bradd Allen Saunders)

Patrick J Keane 2Patrick J. Keane

What happens after death? Always a mystery. Death and judgment are the chief causes of insomnia (and loss of faith). Our brilliant and indefatigable Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane has an essay on death, judgment and the smug schadenfreude of  the elect. As usual, brilliant,  erudite, and witty.

I was struck, in reading The Iliad, by those panoramic scenes of the Homeric gods looking down from Olympus, taking pleasure in the entertainment provided by the spectacular carnage of the Trojan War. I was aware, too, of a famous passage in a favorite text, De rerum natura, where Lucretius captures the emotion of Schadenfreude in an extended image: Suave, mari magno turbanti aequora ventus, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem [It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds]. (Patrick J. Keane)

Susan Paddon2Susan Paddon

Patrick O’Reilly reviews  Susan Paddon’s new poetry book Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths.

As the mother’s death draws urgently near, it becomes clearer and clearer to Susan that she is not going to get it, that whatever secrets, stories, even anecdotes her mother has will go with her. Like anyone else, the mother is both finished and uncompleted, leaving Susan with the fragments of a story and no satisfying conclusion. (Patrick O’Reilly)

Two Tragedies cover

arthur and sl at soccer gameSydney Lea and grandson Arthur

But not all thoughts of death need be lugubrious and another stalwart contributing editor Sydney Lea has in this issue a lovely little essay about standing by the grave plot his wife has just bought.

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous. (Sydney Lea)

RW with troutRobert Wrigley (with a dead fish so as not to depart from the issue theme)

Also in this fabulous issue—did I mention it was a fabulous issue? none better? we rise and rise—an amazing handful of poems by the esteemed Robert Wrigley (I have had my eye on him so long now, first mentioned him on NC in 2010).

How The Blind Dog Perceived Human Sadness

was a mystery no less than her willingness
to attend to it. The way she nuzzled a hand,
so that it might be extended to her and washed clean

of whatever it was that afflicted it, which she smelled.
It had to be, for she was deaf too, there was no way to tell
her of it otherwise,…

(Robert Wrigley)

Dao StromDao Strom

Also in this issue, not all death-related, a gorgeous hybrid photo/page layout/memoir from Dao Strom, inspired at least in part by the Chaulky White piece we published two issues ago.

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And (superlatives are beginning to fail) did you know that Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Musil used to live on the same street? One of the little known facts of Modernism revealed in Genese Grill’s magnificent essay on modernity, philosophy and literature: “‘Ethics and Aesthetics are One': Living Language, Experimental Ethics, and the Earnestness of High Modernist Conduct of Life in Wittgenstein and Musil,” which is a mouthful but continues in depth Grill’s exploration of Modernism on these pages. To be brief: it’s an essay about the problem of the relativity of knowledge and the incompleteness of art (both Musil and Wittgenstein never completed their great works).

Genese GrillGenese  Grill

Desktop2Wittgenstein & Musil

And that’s not all, by any means (remember, we do this once and month!). You will love Benjamin Woodard’s delightful interview with the young Angolan writer Ondjaki.

OndjakiCloseOndjaki

Luanda is still home for me. It’s a place that stays inside, though I’m not sure if it’s still the real Luanda. I don’t write exactly about the places I visit. Usually it’s more about the remains of those places in me. People. Moments. Trees. Colors. Shadows. Dreams. Hands. Shoes. Fogs. (Secret: sometimes I think I live somewhere in a lost bridge between now and the past.) I spend too much time not in the present. And I pay the price. (Ondjaki)

Plus, yes, poems from the Irish poet Thomas McCarthy;

I watch the timeless candle burning at both ends.
At one end it must be my mother’s face
And her infinite correlation with my own fate.
There’s no other end that I would put in place

a review of the great Charles D’Ambrosio new book of essays Loitering by Melissa Matthewson;

D’Ambrosio’s essays are small journeys—episodic, anecdotal, rambling—but, also ruminant and ironic. They are addictive not only for the strength of D’Ambrosio’s humor and insights, but also for the language, syntax, and rhythm of each sentence. Let’s take the title essay “Loitering,” in which D’Ambrosio takes us to Belltown in Seattle lingering as a bystander in a standoff between police and a gunman who has taken hostage his girlfriend. The opening sentence exemplifies how D’Ambrosio decides to portray himself as a narrator for the entire collection to come. “This is totally false, but for the sake of the story let’s say the events in question begin around 2:00 a.m., just because that’s when I show up on the scene.”

and a review of Jay Rogoff’s new book of poems, Venera, by our own Mary Kathryn Jablonski (taking a break from curating art posts for the magazine);

…a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death.

and last but never least a new NC at the Movies.

Jan 132015
 

four_weddings_and_a_funeral-362264622-large

I used to teach this movie over and over to creative writing classes. First of all, it enchanted me, then I began to notice the structure, the repetitions, the mirrored scenes, the composition of the scenes, the rhetorical flourishes, and finally I began to think about so-called realism and the romantic comedy. The romantic comedy, a genre I adore, is a deeply conservative confection, a bon-bon based on the idea that out of all the people in the world, there is one true love for you, a person with whom you’ll form a mystical attachment and have many babies and people the earth (these kinds of dramas have their roots in ancient fertility rites, which existed long before we realized that lots of people only meant pillaging the countryside and causing global warming). Nevertheless, they appeal to us because deep down we’re programed to believe that somehow our sexual instincts, love and society will/should converge and create many years of happiness (and babies). This movie is just full of weddings, not just the four in the narrative, but the funeral itself is coded with wedding thematics, and then there are a bunch of after-plot wedding photos at the end.

In any case, what you have here is my teaching outline for taking people through the movie. I am an incredibly tedious person when I have the AV remote in my hand. I describe things, let you watch a few seconds, replay it again and again, whole scenes are repeated, then I explain again and digress and so on and so on. But invariably you begin to see that though this seems (aside from the fantasy aspects of the genre) a fairly  realistic treatment of a bunch of young friends looking for love, the movie is actually a carefully constructed artifice, every word, action, and scene carved to contribute to  the larger work. And the writing is superbly witty (and full of classical Greek rhetorical devices). The screenwriter was Richard Curtis, who also did Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually (which repeats the ensemble cast/multiple plot structure of Four Weddings and a Funeral).

If you watch the movie with the notes in hand and use them to trigger a deeper technical analysis of what is going on, then watch it again and again, till you can really FEEL the repetitions, catch the nuances and tie-backs, see the thematic passages inserted, watch the multiple plots each advance step-by-step, if you pay attention, you’ll learn a good deal about the structure of narrative. Or you can read through the notes and watch the example scenes first.

For as long as it’s available, you can stream the entire movie here for free.

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Genre: Romantic comedy (true love); ensemble structure with multiple subplots. A fanciful, socially conservative genre, much like the ancient tales told around campfires in caves that educated the audience in the ultimate mores of the tribe. Get married, have children. An ancient, conventional genre, the art is in manipulating the conventions in a witty and original manner.

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Basic composition principles:

1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. Note the repetitions of “meringue” and “lovely” and “sheep,” e.g.

2) Strict time control. In this case by using invitations, text time markers, and the clock (lateness) comic motif throughout.

3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps.

4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The informing desire varies and can be quite simple. E.g. In the the movie’s third segment, Charlie must simply not be late meeting David. Many small dialogue scenes begin with a simple question. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, speech impediments (in this movie), suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction.

5) Clear announcement of thematic material. In a movie, this has to take place in dialogue.

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1.      Overture: Music closing with the words “when every happy plot ends with a marriage knot.”

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2.    Wedding #1 (Broken up into segments: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception. Each segment then broken up into separate steps and scenes.)

a.    alarm clock motif (note how it repeats and varies throughout; call it a species of anaphora)

(1)    Note how the lateness+alarm clock anaphora is used in a series of parallel structures to introduce the various characters economically

b.    wedding invitation+time switch device (time control)

c.    lateness motif

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Lovely dialogue: The only words used are “fuck” and “bugger” (only once at the end).

d.    wedding ceremony (ring issue; meringue word repetition starts up)

(1)    The chief technical problem here is that weddings are all the same. The writer had to invent technical ways of creating dramatic interest in each wedding ceremony. Obviously, the ceremonies are all cut down one way or another. But also note the different other devices that make the weddings interesting. In this case, the device of the scene crunch: while the ceremony is going on, Charlie also has to find replacement rings.

e.    wedding photo motif

f.    walking to reception (Gareth/Mathew thematic scene structure established)

(1)    Secondary subplot (Bernard and Lydia) starts up and goes through preliminary steps, leads to second wedding

(2)    David’s romantic subplot starts up

g.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MEETS CAREY

h.    bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man

i.    speech motif (Charlie; sheep word and image repetition begins; note suspension in speech)

Speech rhetoric:

Charlie begins with a joke narrative, leads to a suspension (“there are now skeletons…or so I thought”), followed by a moment of truth-telling about himself and his awe of people who get married, then the suspension ends: “But now back to Angus and those sheep.”

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j.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED BUT SHE LEAVES NEXT DAY (Note word play in sex scene, esp. the repetition of “skulk”.)

Sex scenes: difficult to write; three different strategies offered in this movie.

1) word play over sex scene, e.g. skulking;

2) scene crunch (Charlie trying to be alone while Lydia and Bernard have sex);

3) elided.

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3.    Wedding #2 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, wedding, reception, post-reception)

a.    alarm clock

b.    wedding invitation+ time switch

(1)    Bernard and Lydia subplot advances

c.    lateness

d.    wedding ceremony (mispronunciation gaffes)

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e.    wedding photos

f.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE SEES CAREY BUT SHE’S ENGAGED

g.    speech (Tom’s travesty of Charlie’s speech)

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(1)    Fiona’s subplot (dialogue scene)

(2)    Scarlet’s subplot (dialogue scene)

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(3)    David’s subplot advances (meets love interest)

h.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE AND CAREY IN BED AGAIN

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4.    Non-Wedding Interlude Segment (Broken up into: waking up, wedding dresses, list of lovers, conversation with David, Charlie’s near declaration of love.)

(1)    Note here how the wedding motifs are dragged into a non-wedding segment: invitation, wedding gifts, trying on wedding dresses, etc. (This is an example of thematic forcing.)

b.    alarm clock

c.    wedding invitation

d.    lateness

e.     backfill: gorgeous scene with a LIST and a SUSPENSION.

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f.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE ALMOST SAYS HE LOVES CAREY (lovely word repetition begins)

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5.    Wedding #3 (Broken up into: wedding, reception)

a.    invitation

b.    lateness (this time not comic)

c.    wedding (truncated by Charlie’s lateness; note the point at which he enters the wedding ceremony and how this segment of the ceremony is repeated in the next wedding)

d.    Gareth/Mathew thematic scene

(1)    Scarlet’s subplot (meets Chester)

(2)    Fiona’s subplot (admits love to Charlie)

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(3)    Hen’s subplot (new boyfriend)

e.    speech again (Carey and Hamish)

f.    PLOT STEP: GARETH DIES

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6.    Funeral (Funeral and post-funeral dialogue)

(1)    Note how the language in this segment turns the funeral into a wedding: the church setting, the various tie-backs to ongoing plots, the opening words of Mathew’s speech, the dialogue between Tom and Charlie in which Mathew and Gareth are identified as being married

(2)    Note also the way the comic motifs are omitted: no alarm clock, lateness, no time switch (because the funeral follows so quickly upon Carey’s wedding)

b.    speech again (Mathew)

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Note how the camera marks the various plot and subplot characters through the poem.

c.    Tom/Charlie thematic dialogue on true love (thunderbolt repetition begins)

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7.    Wedding #4 (Broken up into: waking up and getting to wedding, non-wedding, aftermath and real not-wedding)

a.    alarm clock

b.    invitation (note suspension)+time switch

c.    lateness

d.    bookend devices: Hen’s brother and the demented old man

e.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE MARRYING HEN, BUT CAREY SEPARATED

(1)    Fiona subplot advances

(2)    Scarlet advances

(3)    Tom subplot advances (meets Deirdre)

(4)    First marriage couple advances (now have twins)

(5)    Second marriage couple advances (Bernard is “exhausted”)

f.    Mathew/Charlie thematic dialogue in vestry

g.    wedding (interrupted by David; note use of suspension)

h.    PLOT STEP: CHARLIE PROPOSES TO NOT-MARRY CAREY; SHE SAYS, I DO

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8.    Epilogue

a.    multiple subplots end in marriage (except for Fiona)

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Some definitions:

Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez

Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham

Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez

Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.

Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm and add textual density.

Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.

But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.

—Douglas Glover

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Jan 122015
 

Chantal Gervais, Karsh Award 2014 recipient. Photo Credit: Jonathan NewmanChantal Gervais, Karsh Award 2014 recipient. Photo Credit: Jonathan Newman

One thing does lead to another and several vectors converge in Chantal Gervais’ body of work from over the past twenty or so years. Look at the big picture of Gervais’ mostly photographic art projects. A strange inter-connectedness emerges starting with her studies of the human body. Through photography she exposes its external strength and frailty in Duality of the Flesh (1996-1997), The Silence of Being (1998-2000), Without End (2003), and Between Self and Others (2005). She then focuses on her own body, starting on the outside using a flat bed scanner to create her version of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and with a further shift from photography to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to expose herself from the inside out in Les maux non dits (2008 – present).

Her video, Self-Portrait (part of the Les maux non dits project), is a finer distillation of that inner self-exposure, and a more personal take of the Corps exile (1999) video of bodies floating, suspended and moving in white light and grounds. And then there is her look at how other life forms suggest intimate parts of the (female) human body as represented in Les bijoux de la chair (1997), and ten years later, in Études de bivalve, a display of splayed bivalvia close ups.

The converging trajectories of the human body explored outside and in, the videos, and the other life forms as representations of things human, appear quite strikingly, if not symbolically, in Transformations, Gervais’ first attempt to document the metamorphosis of the dragonfly from the alien-looking nymph. Where will she take it next? I asked her and she told me when we met at the Karsh-Masson Gallery where her work was exhibited as part of her being the recipient of the City of Ottawa’s 2014 Karsh Award.

Chantal Gervais teaches visual arts at the University of Ottawa and at the Ottawa School of Art. She enjoys engaging in constructive and critical discussions with her students about art and their work. One of her former students, Ottawa artist Virginia Dupuis, found her to be “highly engaged, focused and curious” making Gervais to sound more like a student than a teacher.

Gervais’ undergraduate studies in the fine arts were an eye opener for her. She started in realistic drawing and became attracted to photography as she saw that both art forms required a great level of observation of the world we live in, and photography began to develop in her. Now, in her artistic practice, she pushes the boundaries of that medium by working with flatbed scanners, MRIs, and multichannel videos.

Calling Ottawa home, Gervais grew up in Val-d’Or, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Québec. She graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1993 with a Bachelor in Fine Arts (photography), and four years later completed a Master of Arts degree in Art and Media Practice, at the University of Westminster, UK.

—JC Olsthoorn

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Transformation 4:33 minutes, Single-channel, (2014)

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): While watching your video installation, Transformation, just outside the Karsh-Masson Gallery proper, I realized that I didn’t know dragonflies emerged from an alien-like creature, a nymph. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in biology class. You mentioned to me earlier this piece is a first version. What prompted you to create it?

Chantal Gervais (CG): The metamorphosis of the dragonfly made me marvel when I saw it for the first time at the cottage. This radical change of living environment from water to air of the nymph changing into a dragonfly made me think of the human body, from birth and beyond. I was fascinated with the process, the vulnerability, the delicateness of its body and its strength, resilience, and all the energy as well as the raw physicality of the insect going through its extreme transformation. Also, the insect seems to get sporadic spasms just before the dragonfly emerges from the nymph. This whole series of events reminds me of how we are going through different physical and emotional stages through our life – but here it is happening in a very short period of time – yet this insect is one of the oldest on earth. I believe it has been around for 300 million years. It comes from so far away, from so long ago. It’s incredible. There is something really astonishing and ritualistic about all this.

At times the dragonfly reminds me of mythological and religious figures found in Western art history. I can’t say exactly what it is yet, but that’s one of the aspects that I will reflect on further. At every moment, the insect seems unbearably at the mercy of any predators and its surroundings. It appeared extraordinary when it made it through its metamorphosis, but then the water got agitated by passing motorboats. After all this, in an instant a wave was going to end it. That is when the dragonfly flew away!

JCO: And the connection you see to your other work, other processes?

CG: I see the link with my quest to explore the human body as a vessel of lived experience, and my interest in a representation of the body’s corporeality that conveys intense physical and emotional states. I have always been inquisitive of transitional states, and so is my interest with the inside-outside boundary of the body which I find exquisitely explicit and tangible with the dragonfly.

If you look at my early series, The Silence of Being, I used chiaroscuro lighting and cross processing to accentuate the corporeality of the body such as discolorations or blemishes on the skin.

Untitled #4 from the series The Silence of Being, 126 x 96.5cm, Chromogenic print (1998)Untitled #4 from the series The Silence of Being,
126 x 96.5cm, Chromogenic print (1998)

With Between Self and Other, the people I photographed had experienced radical changes to their bodies as a result of surgery, accident and aging. So again, it’s the inside speaking on the outside. There’s something about the relationship between the inside and the outside of the body that I find fascinating.

Untitled #5 (Marina) from the series Between Self and Other,
101.6 x 315cm
3 print of 101.6 x 101.6cm, 3 Chromogenic prints (2005)

JCO: There are linkages and I get a sense of optimism from what you are saying. We have an insect that dates back 300 million years, one that is quite fragile and vulnerable as it transforms. Where are you planning to take it next?

CG: I want to connect it somehow to the human body. I’m not sure how yet. Technically, I know that the recording has to be executed better. The images are too shaky so I will re-film it using a tripod. When recording it, I found myself wanting to capture the transformation from all sides simultaneously. For the next version, I’ll probably use more than one camera with them positioned all around the insect.

I’m not sure yet of its final presentation. Perhaps multiple large-scale projections? When I redo it, I want it to be more poetic. I find it didactic now. Maybe that’s the “educational” that’s coming across. I want it to be a metaphor of the mystery and the complexity of the human body.

There’s a fine line, a red flag for me. As a nature show, it presents the development of the nymph into a dragonfly from beginning to the end and that’s one of the things I worried about. But in the meantime, I was torn because I felt that it was essential to include its complete metamorphosis.

JCO: It doesn’t work the same way as, let’s say, in the video projection Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits).

Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
1:58 minutes excerpt | 6:28 minutes (looped), Life-size video projection (2010)

CG: In The Body Ineffable video projection, the technology has an immediate impact on the way the subject is performing. The work engages how the technology transforms how and what we see. I mechanically and impartially mapped my body in numerous short 2 minute videos I re-assembled together and layered with the MRIs to reconstructed it.

JCO: Opening yourself up to being scanned or photographed, opening your or someone else’s space for the very different aspects of exposure sets up a vulnerability, does it not?

CG: It is interesting how the content of my work with time became closer and closer to me. I started by photographing professional models for the series called The Silence of Being. After that, I was working with friends and friends’ family members for Between Self and Other. I then turned the camera onto myself with The Body Ineffable and my late father, or rather, the relationship with my father, with the work called Portrait of my father Paul.

What sets up the “vulnerability” is the high level of observation often engaged in my work, not so much the fact that it became closer to me. It happens through the different ways I choose to map, observe, and image different experiences of living. With Between Self and Other, each individual is composed of three photographs, which depict different views of their bodies, which have moved slightly during the same photo shoot. Looking at the composite, these people exist in viewer’s mind, not as a fixed image but a body in continuous movement. Hopefully it keeps a sense of their subjectivity and challenges their objectification. The photographs’ reference to various pictorial genres is also significant…close your eyes and think of someone who is injured or an elderly person…what do you see? I hope the image in your mind is nothing like the photographs included in the series Between Self and Other!

Vitruvian Me is also a composite, one inspired by Vitruvian Man by Leonard Di Vinci. This work is part of The Body Ineffable, which includes a series of self-portraits created from MRIs of my body. When I was in the MRI machine I thought it would be interesting to create an ambiguous border between the interior and the exterior of the body so I scanned myself piece by piece using a flat bed scanner. I then reassembled them in Photoshop. The performative aspect of this work is an important part of the piece. The process involved mechanically and rigorously scanning 4 inch squares of my body to transcript and to compare the composite of scans to the drawing. In doing this, I performed and played with the idea to contain, control, immobilize and decontextualize the body in order to understand it.

Vitruvian Me from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits), 88.9 x 81.3cm, Inkjet Print (2008)Vitruvian Me from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
88.9 x 81.3cm, Inkjet Print (2008)

300px-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_ViatourLeonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man via Wikipedia

JCO: Not a comfortable one at times.

CG: No, but it was kind of funny at the same time. I’m a perfectionist. I made sure that every scan was captured properly to then be joined and lined up correctly. I redid it repetitively until I got it right. It is ironic to think that in the end I was never in that position itself.

JCO: It seems like a different type of objectification of the body in your work. Because it is an art piece, and a medical piece in a sense, there’s some distance. And there’s vulnerability.

CG: Yes, and actually my work has always interweaved elements of representations of the body borrowed from science, art and popular culture. With Vitruvian Me, there is a sense of proximity created by the fact that the skin, the scanner’s glass and the photographic surface are all intersecting at the same point physically. The flattening of the body against the glass accentuates its physical properties, and so conveys its vulnerability. And there’s a sense of closeness. It’s interesting because the work is extremely removed from what you see. Again, I’ve never been in this pose, yet it is very convincing.

JCO: There’s no static position. It’s comprised of many static images so you get movement from the “static-ness”.

Self-portrait #6 from MRI from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits), 72 x 105 cm, Inkjet Print (2008)Self-portrait #6 from MRI from the series The Body Ineffable (Les maux non dits),
72 x 105 cm, Inkjet Print (2008)

CG: The same thing, in a way, with the images I took and joined together for Portrait of my father Paul. After he died suddenly, I was deeply moved by how the interior of his garage where he undertook various daily projects was impregnated with his presence. When photographing his space, I was sentimentally searching for him, wanting to hold in time what I knew was going to disappear forever. I felt overwhelmed, dispersed, lost and worried that I was going to miss something so I did photograph all around and everywhere and at various points of view. Afterward, I decided to present them as a composite to convey a more personal experience, more tangible, to evoke the act of looking or the re-enactment of being in the space, engaging the viewer to another level.

JCO: A hide-and-seek without looking for something?

Portrait of my Father Paul (2), 103.6 x 135.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (2), 103.6 x 135.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: Or looking for somebody that you perfectly know is not there but is so painfully present As Lilly Koltun wrote so evocatively in her text “Why do we think people are where we bury their bodies?” (in “Surgery Without Anaesthesia: Chantal Gervais’ Corpus” by Lilly Koltun. The Karsh Award 2014 Chantal Gervais).

JCO: They are where we are, in a way. Because you are there, he is there. Which is really harder to capture, I suppose, but that’s very personal and that’s your own. As a viewer, we sense that presence, the presence of absence (or hiraeth), in a different way. Your memories are clearly here, your experience, yet it evokes in me memories I have, too, of similar experiences of my father.

Portrait of my Father Paul (6), 104.1 x 73.7cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (6), 104.1 x 73.7cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: I’m pleased that the photographs encourage you to think of your own experience. The photographs depict a large quantity of things that my father accumulated over 37 years and so to convey a sense of searching and looking for him, there is one image that I think is important.

Portrait of my Father Paul (7), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (7), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

It’s a detail of photograph #7 of the series where I’m present, which allows to make the connection to my father. I just happened to wear a skirt that day. I don’t wear skirts very often. This was such a great coincidence to symbolically convey the connection between father and daughter.

Portrait of my Father Paul (7) (detail), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (7) (detail), 104 X 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

JCO: And the imperfect fragments. You don’t try to overlap them so that they fit. There’s a disjointedness that works.

CG: I’m glad you say that because I did experiment with this. At first, I did overlap the images, changing their transparencies. But it didn’t work because I was weakening the sense of the physical aspects of his space. It became about memory in a metaphoric way. I was erasing the traces left behind by my father. Consequently, I decided to create composites using overlaps without changing the opacity, and including various perspectives and point of views of the same area. This way I keep the integrity of his space to testify my father’s existence in a way.

Portrait of my Father Paul (9), 111.1 x 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (9), 111.1 x 228.9cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

JCO: But the disjointedness has another effect, it makes us work a little bit as a viewer.

CG: And that’s important to me. I am interested in creating a viewing experience, which is active and not passive.

JCO: Exactly. And it’s also reflective of going back in terms of memory. Your memories are here, other people’s memories are here through their own interpretation. And memories are disjointed like that. We remember certain things and not others, so it’s not always transparent and congruous. There are divides to it and there are missing pieces and overlaps and interpretations.

Portrait of my Father Paul (11), 108.5 x 81.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)Portrait of my Father Paul (11), 108.5 x 81.2cm, Inkjet Print (2014)

CG: I am pleased that you engage in a reflective and personal manner with the work and that the photographs’ descriptive aspects have not led you to a literal reading of the space.

JCO: Is it the same with photographing the space of the human body, your own body?

CG: Yes, even with the video work. For example, the projection Self-portrait from the series The Body Ineffable I used the same approach of depicting systematically and precisely both the surface and the interior of the body. I had the idea for this work after completing Vitruvian Me. This work pushed my reflections about the body and how we perceive and understand the naked body in our society. It also made me think about the relationship between the audience and the body represented. I think to be able to engage with what the images can tell about ourselves, and questions their impact on our understanding of the body, I needed to be both the observer and the observed.

The video is kind of funny in some ways in how I became machine-like or puppet-like, and it could also be disturbing, even troubling in a way, too. Perhaps it humanized the experience and makes people connect with the person represented. Everyone will have a different reaction to it.

JCO: It’s a scan of everything inside and outside and in between

CG: That’s right. You have a woman that is naked inside out!

I spoke with two women when I was documenting my show here at the Karsh-Masson Gallery. One of the women really liked that piece. She had just come from a drawing class and was saying that she had never seen a naked body that is not beautiful. They’re all beautiful, she said, and the second you put clothes on, you perceive the naked body differently. You then decide: Some are beautiful. Some are not.

Isn’t that an interesting thought?

—JC Olsthoorn & Chantal Gervais

 

Chantal Gervais’ photo and video works deal with representation, identity, mortality and the relationship between the body and technology. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions across Canada and abroad. Solo exhibitions include Harcourt House Gallery in Edmonton; McClure Gallery and Vidéographe in Montreal; Galerie Séquence in Chicoutimi, Quebec; Art-Image in Gatineau, Québec, and Carleton University Art Gallery and Gallery 101 in Ottawa.

She has regularly spoken on her work at institutions including the National Gallery of Canada and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, U.K. In 2104, she was the City of Ottawa’s Karsh Award recipient, and in 2002, the Canada Council for the arts’ Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography. Several Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the arts and City of Ottawa grants have supported her artistic production. She received a BFA in photography from the University of Ottawa and an MA in Art and Media Practice from the University of Westminster in London, U.K. She has been a board member at local artist-run centres including Daimon and Gallery 101 as well as teaching for over a decade at University of Ottawa and Ottawa School of Art.

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JCOlsthoorn Photo by L. Cabral

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, “as hush as us” and have appeared in literary magazines. JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is wrapping up a 30+ year career in communications and citizen engagement just in time to become a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. His first show is the gallery’s sixth annual EROS 2015, an exhibition of Erotic Art, opening in February.

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Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.

Levi

I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?

.

PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Ballard

Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.

levels-of-life

Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.

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CODA

Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/

 

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Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

Jan 102015
 

Lennon, J Robert

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. —Jeff Bursey

cover

 

See You in Paradise
J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 2014
236 page, $16.00/$18.50 Canadian
ISBN: 9781555976934

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1. Since the appearance of his first novel, the award-winning The Light of Falling Stars (1997), J. Robert Lennon has built a reputation on taking ideas and, in novels and short stories, bending them to form alternate versions of the world. What starts off as a shared comprehension quickly dies a jolly death, though that pleasure is restricted to the chamber containing the narrative; outside a consideration of the structure itself, the substitution of Lennon’s vision for the actual world dislocates his characters and, by extension, Lennon’s readers. Put bluntly: I believe the world is such-and-such, but if I take to heart what See You in Paradise says is the way things truly are, then my naive perspective is overturned with an attentive and genuine malice.

After reading this newest collection of short stories, in addition to two earlier works, Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), a set of 100 stories, and Familiar (2012), a novel, it seems to me that, unlike Wordsworth’s resigned statement that the “world is too much with us,” Lennon believes the contrary: people are not concentrating sufficiently on what the world contains, are too comfortable (or complacent, or distracted) to look at it with their own eyes, are ill-suited for it, or are immature and therefore incapable of comprehending what is going on. His disapproval is present everywhere, but it is humorously presented, a point to which I’ll return.

2.

Lennon positions the reception of this book with the first story, “Portal.” It dwells on the ramifications felt within a family of a feature discovered by the two children on the property. Jerry, the father, starts off:

It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep up an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

My point is, we’ve developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre.

Jerry and his wife, Gretchen, are having marital difficulties, and their children, Luann and Chester, are typical youngsters, complete with mood changes and late-night phone calls from unidentified friends. While it’s stated that the family’s adventures in the portal start to change each one, Jerry is either unaffected or doesn’t have the awareness to look at his own conduct. His description of their property’s features and problems (one and the same) is amusing for its absence of abiding wonder. After the first few excursions to worlds with hovercrafts, robots, and faceless people, the portal comes to resemble a clapped-out amusement park attraction. Much like the raising of the dead in a later story, “Zombie Dan,” attempts at a scientific explanation are left out or only hinted at, and the conceit works because Lennon doesn’t expend any energy making this freak of Nature probable; it just exists, like the story itself, and has the same reality.

Confidence is required to place those opening lines at the beginning of a book. This story of a worlds-travelling device, one that hums and sputters, provoking Jerry to consider it as “out of whack” and “[l]ike an old guy in denial about the onset of dementia,” is a story about, among other things, story-telling itself. Chester gets lost in Xbox, and Luann spends hours out of the home. The portal can’t compete. What is Lennon saying about his own efforts, and about the regard for writing nowadays?

It is a sign of control, and of a firm hand in fashioning this book, that while its contents were written over the span of fifteen years, it is as unified as if it had been composed within a shorter time. With that in mind, it’s worth indicating certain themes, techniques, and moods present throughout the 14 stories.

3.

Categorizing people is important for Lennon, and for the characters in his fiction. Considering the previous owners of his home, Jerry tells us that they “looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything.” Edward and Alison in “No Life” vie to adopt a particular child with an older couple, the man a judge, “an honest-to-God member of the privileged class”; in the title story a hapless man is threatened by the rich father of the woman he’s somewhat interested in, and forced to take a job he’s never considered. Not everyone can resume life as “restored-life individuals” (italics in original) in “Zombie Dan”; it’s only for the privileged few: “The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia—why should that change now?” In one of the most harrowing tales—and many can qualify as Twilight Zone-like—bearing the evocative title “A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant,” a brother and sister are “running out of money” and people in those parts know there’s “something wrong with them…” Yet no one intercedes.

Examples of people slotting others above or below them are found throughout the book, with the most extended and naked assertion of difference saved for the final story, “Farewell, Bounder,” where two characters can see from outside the people gathered for the unusual party that’s underway, and which they are about to join:

… the town’s activists can be seen affecting solemnity, their caftans and rimless spectacles and gaunt, squirrellike bodies moving through the emptied front room. Here is Lydia Speyer, who lies down in front of idling bulldozers. There is Paul Waller, architect of the local scrip, earned in local health food stores and restaurants and redeemable at same… They are all here, the editor of the anarchist newspaper, the brewer of medieval beers, the used bookstore owner, the wan naturopath.

This is both true to life—who does not know that special someone who brings a guitar to rallies and sings made-up lyrics to popular tunes?—and almost underhanded in the undercutting of the commitment of these progressives. Lydia lies down only in front of bulldozers that are idling; the anarchist editor socializes instead of setting off an incendiary device somewhere; the unhealthy looking practitioner of healthy eating likely redeems Waller’s food-snobbish currency. And what comes to mind if the adjective “used” when applied to the bookstore owner is viewed as operating in parallel function to “wan”?

Class matters a great deal (this is also seen in Pieces for the Left Hand). The rich return from the dead and, like the judge in “No Life,” pick their descendants—extending their lives in ways not open to others—while everyone else stumbles along to extinction (like the brother and sister in “A Stormy Evening”). In “The Wraith” this is located in fantastical terrain: the depressed Lurene miraculously separates into lighter and heavier selves. Her husband, Carl, must accommodate the two halves, a sheer impossibility, especially as his efforts are half-hearted. The result of his failure is horrific and throws Lurene back into desperate confusion. Margaret and David in “Total Humiliation in 1987” are separated by her ambition to do more with her talents as a chef and his contentment at raising their two daughters, Lynnae and Lyrae. Whether it’s politics or money, domesticity or regeneration, career demands or accidents of birth, the lesson is that the great divide separating the majority of people from the minority cannot be crossed. In these stories society is not breaking down; that has already happened.

What would unite the two main groups? If an answer to that question was revealed, still it would be useless, in the end, for the prime agents here are not so much flawed as inadequately formed, resembling creatures out of the cosmogony of Empedocles. See You in Paradise is replete with women without a childhood that prepares them for adult life, men who have not emerged out of late adolescence (the train-obsessed narrator of “Weber’s Head” may be a candidate for Peter Pan Syndrome) and those who, like the teacher Luther in “The Future Journal” (who wants to classify his second grade students’ reading habits along evolutionary lines), are incapable of considering the impact their ideas might have on others. Nothing will go quite right or as expected.

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. The menace present throughout the collection, built up from “Portal,” exists on the atmospheric level, and doesn’t transform the figures into objects deserving of compassion. (Think of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods [2012].) Though the opening line of “Total Humiliation in 1987”—“We rose at four in the morning—Margaret, the girls, and me—and zombied into the already-packed van to depart on our final family vacation…”—portends trouble, and a burial occurs, it isn’t a sentimental tale. Lennon’s roster of players includes failures, liars and whiners, the inept, the incurious, and those who are high maintenance but not high performance. What they are made to go through is fascinating, but if you stopped to think of them as your friends, you’d conclude that they’re dead losses.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that, for me, such a disregard for the importance of characters is a positive aspect to See You in Paradise.

4.

At the start I mentioned Lennon’s disapproval, and malice. These are motors that power most of the best stories. (When missing, as in “Ecstasy,” “Flight” and “The Future Journey,” the result is less interesting). These two features can be presented under the guise of geniality—in “Portal,” Jerry foregoes being a pioneer in favour of restoring an old house—and can also be sharply worded. The prickliness takes many forms. In “The Accursed Items,” a list of damned objects or memories, each described in a sentence that begins with upper-case letters and ends without a period, Lennon writes: “THE ORANGE TOBOGGAN whisking her to her death”. When former lovers meet due to a travel mishap in “Flight,” the woman offers the man a place to sleep at her apartment: “‘There’s a patch of cold floor with your name on it,’ she said.”

Apart from the phrasing of lines that bring out rueful laughter and leave a sting, Lennon has branded his characters in a way that opens them to ridicule. Though names contain importance for the characters—in “Hibachi,” Philip and Evangeline correct “anyone who mistakenly called them Phil or Angie”—they work here in specific ways, when characters are given one. A name will appear in more than one story, as though it’s been shoved in there for our convenience; a name can be dull (John, Dan); or in the case of Lurene, Ruperta, Lynnae, and Lyrae, names serve as markers of someone’s failed attempt at uniqueness. This dismissal of a convention highlights the inferior position identity has in relation to what is going on.

All that, in addition to the action, the shifting perspectives, the ambiguities, and the clever, entertaining, and unanticipated conceits that fill See You in Paradise, while important, would not be enough if J. Robert Lennon didn’t posses a fine command of tone. This is a rich collection that will repay rereading.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”
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One of the main features of See You in Paradise is the way Lennon pays attention to language as he makes his various points. (By points I mean, in part, that he has his fixations, like most writers.) In the excerpt there is an appeal made to Dan’s friends on this basis: “as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans.” That there is nothing special about these people—they are as “thoroughly debased” as the narrator of “Weber’s Head” says he is—becomes obvious. But the appeal to their patriotism works on multiple levels: it’s amusing, and seems a ridiculous way to enlist people; it is rhetoric that the speaker, the rich Ruth Larsen, Dan’s mother, believes can clinch the deal; and it aims to elide the distinctions that separate her from the undifferentiated friends, who would never be her neighbors. It also speaks to the higher stature of Americans when compared to people in other countries. American exceptionalism, then, is class snobbery on the nation-state level, and that fits in with many other remarks and observations in this collection. In “Zombie Dan” money’s reach extends into the grave, putting a spin on the term voodoo economics. None of Dan’s friends stand up to Larsen because they are further examples of the half-formed men and women, those without a strong inner core, who populate Lennon’s collection. Maybe they are the truly dead.

—Jeff Bursey

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Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”

They figured out how to bring people back to life—not everybody, just some people—and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sport jackets and brown leather shoes.

​Dan’s revivification was his mother’s doing. Yes, it was his father, Nils Larsen, who greased the right palms to get him bumped up in the queue, but his mother Ruth was the one who had the idea and insisted it come to pass, the one who called each and every one of us—myself, Chloe, Rick, Matt, Jane, and Paul—to enlist our emotional support, as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans. When Dan revived, she explained, he would need to rely upon the continuing attention and affection of his loved ones, and it was all of us—his old high school chums—whom he would need the most.

​Of course we agreed, how could we not? Dan’s mother brought us all together in the living room of the Larsen penthouse—a place of burnished mahogany, French portraiture, and thick pink pile carpet which none of us had ever imagined we’d see again—and told us what was about to happen. We stared, petits fours halfway to our gaping mouths, and nodded our stunned assent. A thin, bony, almost miniature woman of sixty with an enormous dyed-black hairdo like a cobra’s hood, Ruth Larsen gazed at each of us in turn, demanding our fealty with hungry gray eyes. The procedure would take several days, and then Dan would need a few weeks to recuperate—could we be counted on to sit at his bedside, keeping him company in regular shifts? Why yes, certainly we could! Were we aware just how important a part of the revivification process it was to remind the patient of his past, thus effecting the recovery of his memory? And did we know that, without immediate and constant effort, the patient’s memory might not be recovered at all? And so would we commit ourselves to assisting in this informal therapy by enveloping Dan in a constant fog of nostalgia for the entire month of March? Sure, you bet!

​Excellent, Mrs. Larsen told us, her papery hands sliding over and under each other with the faint, whisking sound of a busboy’s crumb brush.

​What remained unspoken that day, and went largely unspoken even among ourselves, in private, as we waited for Dan to be brought back to life, was that we had pretty much gotten over Dan since the funeral, and could not be said to have greatly missed him. Indeed, by the time Dan reached the age of twenty-five, the year of his death, we had basically had all of Dan we could ever have wanted. He was, in fact, no longer really our friend. The yacht he’d fallen off of belonged to some insufferable blueblood we didn’t know—that was the crowd Dan had taken to running with, the crowd he’d been born into, and all parties concerned had seemed satisfied with the arrangement. Dan’s being dead was no less acceptable to us than his having drifted out of our circle.

But Ruth Larsen didn’t know this, and so we were the ones she called upon in Dan’s time of need. Either that, or the insufferable bluebloods had refused. At any rate, we agreed to do what Mrs. Larsen demanded, and for better or worse he would be our friend once again.

—J. Robert Lennon

 

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Jan 092015
 

Photo by Egle Oddo, 2013.

‘This is a flag about unspoken voices”:
Nathalie Bikoro at the Pitt Rivers Museum

 

Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro chooses a place in Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford, England) to sew a flag. She constructs this object from pieces of Dutch Wax fabric, of various colours and designs, sewn together with needle and thread. The meaning of the Dutch Wax fabric Bikoro selects (deliberately and carefully) has already been made visible in the work of Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).  The cloth, a colonial invention, that came to be equated with Africanness, calls into question the authenticity of objects, and their historical, political and cultural entanglements. First produced in Dutch Indonesia, and then later manufactured in Britain, Dutch Wax was sold in West Africa and came to be equated with African identities (both within the African continent and in Britain). In Bikoro’s performance, the cloth also has personal importance and invokes family memories and narratives, particularly those of her grandmother:  “This kind of cloth made in the Netherlands and India were given as a gift to African countries. My grandmother used to say: ‘What gift? They are asking us to wear what they want us to look like.’ She was excluded from her village in Gabon because she burned the dress that she was given.”[1]Bikoro’s grandmother gave her the cloths used in the performance at Pitt Rivers. She speaks of how her grandmother told her to burn them: “I like the metaphorical idea of burning the archive. Burning is a form of cannibalism. You are eating something, projecting something new, digesting something that is given to you and creating something else with it, to then state the voices that are untold and unheard.”[2]

IMG_2482Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro is a French-Gabonese contemporary artist currently based in Berlin. Her interdisciplinary practice explores the possibilities of international dialogues across continents and communities. A ten-year battle with Leukaemia during her childhood in Gabon, the Netherlands, and France informs the narratives and methods that underpin her work and her interest in developing educational collaborative community projects. Her PhD work encompasses philosophy, cultural politics, the arts in Africa and networks between Europe, Brazil and the African continent (including Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and Gabon). Bikoro’s work and her performance and live art practices have appeared internationally, including most recently, in November, at the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (2014) in Toronto.

IMG_2519Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford, Bikoro makes a flag, not for the purposes of a specific country, geography or political affiliation but rather for the sake of her own memories, those of her ancestors, and those who wish to enter into a dialogue with her: “I am creating a flag to contest the idea of freedom. What gives you the freedom to say how I must look, how I should speak, what my voice is? What gives you the freedom to represent me as a flag with these colours?”[3] She places herself not in the centre of the museum but rather in an unassuming spot in one of the upper galleries where visitors might choose to engage with her or not. Bikoro’s action of sewing occurs not as spectacle but rather as though an ordinary, everyday activity. She rests the fabric with which she works on a glass cabinet filled with objects and their labels: these things are obscured as she assembles her flag from segments of cloth (some of which lie on the floor at her feet).

IMG_2569Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum is like time traveling: objects from weapons to jewellery are densely packed into cabinets of wood and glass or, in the absence of space, larger objects such as boat paddles are suspended from above. The museum was founded in 1884 to house in excess of 26,000 archaeological, ethnological and antiquarian objects which were given to the University of Oxford by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900).[4] The collection also includes objects transferred from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and the Ashmolean Museum, and was added to by its curators beginning with Henry Balfour: there are now thought to be about 50,000 objects on display and the collection, as a whole, consists of more than 300,000 objects (as well as a comparable number of field photographs, manuscripts and sound recordings).[5]

IMG_2486Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

The reverence with which museum objects are handled, conserved and displayed is obstructed as the artist re-imagines the museum cabinet as a surface upon which to sew. Her action appears as a private ritual performed within a public space. People, including myself, gather around her. As we watch her thread needle and cotton, and stitch the cloths together, deliberately disregarding precision and allowing for asymmetries and imperfections, we ask her questions which turn into conversations. There is no barrier between us and the artist as she works: we are invited into the space she produces and we stand around and talk and look.  Her performance animates the space of the museum and the objects in the glass cabinets the immobility of which render the lives which brought them into being opaque: “This comes from India. This comes from Africa. Africa is an invention. You can’t say this comes from Africa. It comes from a specific family, a specific place. These objects are also about colonial encounters and came about because of exchanges between different countries and people.”[6] Notions of invention, the fictive and the mythical are alive in the narratives embedded within the Dutch Wax fabric, and its circulation as commodity and locus of identity. The idea of invention is brought to life in the spoken exchanges with Bikoro which complicate the meanings of the objects in the cabinets, and the labels and systems which attempt to structure and contain how it is we experience them.

IMG_2515Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Bikoro’s action of sewing a flag enters into a dialogue with Pitt Rivers Museum from the perspective of her own history and subjectivity which she brings to its atmosphere, its aesthetic, and its curatorial approach. Across from her performance is an installation of film and sound. The event as a whole is titled Les Statues Meurent Aussi II a direct reference to the 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die), directed by Chris Marker,  Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet. This film places the idea of the colonial collection, and the display of historical African art, under scrutiny and its opening credits acknowledge the support of institutions and individuals which include ‘Mr. le Colonel Pitt Rivers’.[7] Bikoro’s film installation (composed of two films projected onto two separate screens) appropriates footage from Les Statues Meurent Aussi aspects of which were filmed in General Pitt-Rivers’s’ private collection held at Farnham in Dorset.  The film was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953 and subsequently banned by the Centre National de la Cinématographie from 1953 to 1963 (despite being awarded the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954).[8] It was commissioned by Présence Africaine, a literary review and publishing house founded by the Senegalese writer and editor Alioune Diop, established in 1947.[9] Many of the most significant Francophone thinkers and writers on négritude  – including Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor – are associated with Présence Africaine. James Clifford reflects on Césaire’s négritude which, situated in relation to Caribbean history, presents the possibility of an ambiguity that ‘keeps the planet’s local futures uncertain and open’.[10] Clifford asserts that: The “Caribbean history from which Césaire derives an inventive and tactical “negritude” is a history of degradation, mimicry, violence and blocked possibilities.”[11] It is also he adds “rebellious, syncretic, and creative.”[12] He concludes: “There is no master narrative that can reconcile the tragic and comic plots of global cultural history.”[13] Bikoro’s practice is cogniscent of histories and discourses of colonial violence (and her own ancestral links to these) and she works to open up dialogues, with those who encounter her work, in a manner that is neither didactic nor oppositional. Her film installation deploys the devices of avant-garde film encompassing montage and multiple (apparently incongruous) narratives staged simultaneously. She deliberately disrupts linear, causal narration and an unfaltering faith in objectivity and empirical evidence: historical events are deliberately muddled and obscured and merged with the artist’s own memories and experiences (sound includes that of her baby’s beating heart).

IMG_2503Photo: Jonathan Eccles, Pitt Rivers Museum

Despite appearing frozen in time the museum embodies, albeit on the surface largely opaque, a number of museological approaches and histories. Jeremy Coote (Curator and Joint Head of Collections) narrates:  “It is not simple, unilinear history. The museum, the way it is now, has not just developed in a single line.”[14] The glass cases were manufactured and brought in at different times from the nineteenth through to the twentieth-first century, and until the 1960s the roof was glass: ‘The museum was full of light because it was all about rationality and enlightenment. This was about the scientific approach to understanding human technology’.[15] In the 1960s the glass roof was replaced because of the damage caused to organic objects by light. Also in the ‘60s the displays were considered old-fashioned and irrelevant to anthropology (the university wanted to move the museum out to another place). In the 1980s anthropologists again began working on art and material culture, and museums and representation: ‘People began to find positive value in the way the museum was. It preserved certain aspects of museological practice. It had a certain atmosphere. Gradually we have become aware that it is in part an aesthetic that we are preserving.’ [16]

To animate the objects in the museum, and to breathe life into them, requires acts of dialogue and performance. No object is ever really frozen in time or space, no museum display of glass, or descriptive label can immobilise meaning or the narratives, contingencies of time and history, and acts of imagination people bring to things. This is the importance of Bikoro’s performance, which is a political strategy alert to dialogue, conversation and the affective and subjective significance of sites of historical and cultural memory and exchange. As viewers, we see the film, hear the sound and watch the performance only for a short time and then it is over. It exists only in our memories fashioned by what we choose to remember or forget:  “I am sewing a wound, an old wound. This is a flag about unspoken voices.”

—Yvette Greslé

nathalie bikoro performanceNathalie Bikoro, ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, live performance, November 2011, duration: 40 minutes. Curated by European Performance Art Festival, Warsaw (Poland). Documentation: courtesy of EPAF Warsaw and the artist.

 

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Yvette Greslé

Yvette Greslé is an art historian and writer. She was born in Johannesburg, grew up in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles, and now lives and works in London. She is an editor at Minor Literature[s] founded by Fernando Sdrigotti and her blog ‘writing in relation’ represents the political issues and questions that propel her work forward as a whole. Yvette’s PhD research, based in History of Art at University College London, explores traumatic memory, historical events and video art by South African women artists. She is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and has written about contemporary art for publications in the UK, Europe and South Africa.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  2. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  3. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  4. Cootes, J. ‘Speaking for themselves’, www.ahi.org.uk, Pushing Boundaries, Spring 2011, Volume 16, Number 1, 22-23.
  5. Ibid. 22-23. I have also drawn from email conversations with Salma Caller (Education Officer, Adults, Secondary Schools and Communities at Pitt Rivers Museum), 10 and 28 November and 1 December 2014.
  6. Interview (Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  7. Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, 1953) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFeuiZKHcg
  8. Les Statues Meurent Aussi http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/les-statues-meurent-aussi/
  9. Les Statues Meurent Aussi http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/les-statues-meurent-aussi/
  10. Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Massachusetts and London: England, 1988), p.15.
  11. Ibid.p.15.
  12. Ibid.p.15.
  13. Ibid. p.15.
  14. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  15. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
  16. Interview (Jeremy Coote and Yvette Greslé) Pitt Rivers Museum, 11 October 2014.
Jan 082015
 

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

 

The British writer Graham Greene allegedly wrote five hundred words a day and not one more. He met his quota by noon, leaving him free in the afternoon to tipple martinis and hustle the disaffected wives of diplomats and spooks in various exotic hotbeds of the Cold War. It was the writer’s life writ large.

We are now living in the fiction writer’s age scribbled small. There are more writers, it seems, emerging from more MFA programs only to serve fewer readers. And writers seem to have lost confidence in their task, both to have a life away from writing or having a writing life that attract readers. One guy who’s got this sorry state of affairs beat is David Shields. Over the past fifteen years, Shields has written/co-written/co-edited—authored?—eight deceptively accessible experiments in written performance art that combine autobiography, free associating erudition, and cultural scavenging. With impeccable timing, he turned his back on fiction, only to create his own genre of writing that, one suspects, has more than a touch of fiction to it.

In his compelling new book, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, Shields uses a former student, Caleb Powell, as a shadow boxer for Shields’s performance of self. The two steal away to a cabin, surrounding parks and small towns outside of Seattle for four days to muse on domestic life, American military misadventures, writing, masculinity, mortality, and making sense of the daily absurdity of existence. Once you’re past the thudding metaphor of a chess match on the first day, the two reveal themselves as highly complementary and intriguing battlers. Powell is almost a Portlandia cartoon, a gabby stay-at-home dad with a writing career stuck in second gear, various pop culture obsessions, and a hard-charging wife who was once married to a closeted homosexual. Shields, in sharp contrast, is a low-temperature nudnik who knows he’s playing a game that he’s sure to win. He’s prickly, dismissive, yet almost always on the money. Even when Shields says he’s ready for bed, you suspect that it’s more of a tactic than the truth, as if he’s able to shut down his confessional mode while Powell suffers a compulsion to keep blabbing. These are men for whom cool is a quixotic quest yet their very lack of cool is exactly what makes them such vexing and entertaining company on this anti-Gonzo road trip.

—Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale (TD): What is about the chatting buddy concept that attracted you? I have to say I’m struck just by how skittish Caleb is compared to your much more measured, albeit calculating sense of self. He seems much more beholden to his generation’s anxieties and fetishes and even sexual confusion.

David Shields (DS): I’ve always loved the idea of the book as argument—going from Socrates v Plato to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to Didi and Gogo to Car Talk. Dionysus v Apollo. Life v Art. A self and other. The soul and its doppelganger. I was very interested in having someone call me out on my aesthetic and all the choices I’ve made in my life; I wanted to see if I could defend myself to self, and to my anti-self, Caleb.

I’m not sure about generational differences; Caleb is only 13 years younger than I am. It’s more what you call “calculating”; since my book Remote was published nearly twenty years ago, I’ve been fashioning my life and myself into a stylized self.

TD: Do you think the concept is currently having “a moment” in the culture and why?

DS: I see it everywhere, e.g., the recent movie Land Ho!, but I always just assumed it was my antennae being particularly attuned to this framing device. If it is having a moment, I wonder why that might be—perhaps having to do with the virtuality of culture and the way in which we’re all talking to a screen-self?

CalebCaleb Powell

TD: There’s Steve Coogan road trip thing from Britain where he and a friend drive around to various Michelin starred restaurants and have conversations on camera. They’re pretty twee but interesting.

DS: Well, sure, we talk at length about Coogan and Brydon in the book and in the film. Other examples: Sideways, the DFW-Lipsky book [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] (which is also apparently becoming a film) so many other examples. I wonder if it’s influenced by radio. I’m weirdly addicted to sports talk radio especially when the two hosts have or pretend to have competing personalities. What is it in the culture that craves this? I think it’s American loneliness. It’s a way to get to “the other.” The whole idea of “no one goes bowling anymore.” Here’s a chance to break out of the carapace of selfdom.

TD: I heard an interview with William Shatner in which he said there are really two Shatners, the performative one (William) and the “real” one (Bill), yet any time I read a profile of him, he is clearly performing for the writer because invariably the theatre of the profile takes them into public spaces where Shatner must be Shatner. How much “real” Shields is in this book? I know at the beginning you attest to the goal of putting it all out there.

DS: I am putting it all out there, as is Caleb, but it’s undeniably a performance. First, when we talked, we were performing for each other. Then we edited the thing to within an inch of its life. And I was hyper-aware in the edit not only of the life-art debate but also of the ways in which each of us is representative of a certain way of being; as such, each of us was performing a thematized role (again, Life v Art), and we knew what role to play and keep playing and complexify. It’s both completely unbuttoned and a formalized unbuttoning.

Book cover

TD: You’ve said that the camera had no real effect on you but, looking at it now, how did the camera influence your “performance”?

DS: James Franco’s film adaptation was done two years later; we had hoped, with the film, to replicate the originating debate, but we wound up throwing out the entire argument when a major argument broke out on the set between me and James and Caleb—over what could and couldn’t be “used” from real life in the movie—and the argument was the perfect holding tank for an even “rawer” life-art debate.

TD: In a sense, James Franco is emerging as a sort of “reality hunger” avatar and you’ve clearly made a connection to him. I know you don’t often write about this, but what role does a common background as secular Jews play in your relationship?

DS: Hmm. That’s interesting. James and I are from the same part of the country—the Bay Area, in particular, the “Peninsula.” I grew up in San Mateo and James grew up 20 minutes away in Palo Alto. He’s more than twenty years younger than I am, but perhaps being secular Jews has something to do with the connection. James was my student at Warren Wilson College, and it’s my sense that we connected via our shared interest in emotional nakedness, awkwardness, revelation, self-exposure.

TD: What other avenues of your work are you exploring with James Franco? What are the targets of these collaborations?

DS: I’m working with James on two other films right now: an adaption of my book Black Planet. This is sort of Spalding Gray meets Errol Morris meets TED talk meets Doug Stanhope. I try to explore the irreducibly tragic nature of human tribalism, comparing 1994 and 2014, the Sonics and Seahawks, America then and now. The film is called Return to Black Planet: The Dream of a Unified Field Theory (of Love). I’m sort of excited about it, nervous about it. It gets into some extremely uncomfortable territory. We’ve shot this film and are editing it now. We’re also adapting The Thing About Life is That One Day You’re Dead into a film. I’ve written the film treatment with a few other people, and we’re preparing to shoot it sometime this fall or winter. It’s a movie about James and me trying to make the movie and, in so doing, we explore the very complex legacies of our fathers, the drive to create art, our fear of madness, and our being half in love with easeful Death, to quote my good friend John Keats, isn’t it? We’ve finished the film of Totally Wrong, I’ve watched it and love it, and we’re expecting it to be released sometime in 2015.

TD: Can the performance of autobiography be “too much” sharing to the point that even the most gut-wrenching details or piercing insights become banalities?

DS: Of course; 95% of “memoir” is just that; I’m not interested in memoir, though, as I say to Caleb; I’m interested in the book-length essay, especially book-length collage. There’s the difference between life and art in the contrast between, say, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians and everybody else’s grief memoir.

TD: Collages, to my mind, require a fair bit of work from the reader to bring the work together in their own mind. Is that your aim in these projects?

DS: I’ve been working in literary collage for twenty years. Literary collage reaches back to Heraclitus and up to Manguso, whose amazing new book, Ongoingness, is forthcoming soon. It’s an ancient form with particular application now, having to do with hyperdigitization, multiplicity of platforms, and warp speed of culture. Collage, as I like to say, is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled. (Nor for the readerly disabled.) It’s a demanding form for reader and writer, but then so is Christian Marclay’s The Clock.

YouTube Preview Image

TD: What do you see as the future of celebrity in an era of “reality hunger”? Or have we moved so far beyond the “star” that we now only have “quasars”, as James Monaco would put it?

DS: I like that—quasars, not stars, but what does it mean? Fifteen seconds of fame rather than fifteen minutes? You and I originally traded email when you read my book Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity in 1996, but I’m not hugely interested anymore in celebrity as a topic. I think digital culture has completely reshuffled what people think about “celebrity,” don’t you? Everybody is a star of their own selfies.

TD: I find the photo bomb more interesting than the selfie.

DS: Exactly. The photo bomb is politics by proxy.

TD: It’s a calculated imposition on the individual selfie and an indictment of the selfie as cultural practice.

DS: I suggested to Franco that he ask everyone who takes a selfie with him (which is pretty much everyone he ever encounters) to send their selfies to a dedicated site, then he could curate this site into a self-portrait in a convex mirror and also a meditation on quasars (see above).

TD: I know you’re a fan of Bill Murray and I’m wondering what you think of his ongoing public performance as a “reality hunger” fairy godfather, popping up here and there in strangers’ events. I remember him as being far more angry and less sad or crypto-Buddhist.

DS: Isn’t he endlessly cashing in, though, on his celebrity in this way? How else would he enter these events? The rage is still there; he’s furious, which is what gives the comedy its edge. Everything I know I’ve learned from comedians—from the Book of Job to Amy Schumer. I wrote a very long essay about Murray maybe a dozen years ago in which I explored how he transforms gloom into antic comedy; the latter is, of course, only an instantiation of the gloom. The best thing Murray ever did, in his own estimation, is his guest color commentary at a Cubs game. I have the videotapes if you want to watch. It’s really lovely: he’ll talk for five minutes about a hot-dog wrapper making its way through the stands.

Reality Hunger

TD: You say you’ve lost interest in fiction, but there must some kind of fiction that is able to so artfully be the “lie that tells the truth” that it is better than the truth or reality?

DS: Yep, I’m not interested in truth or reality per se. I’m interested in work that frames itself as essay. The essay has as much poetic imagination as any novel, but it’s organized as a meditation. Every book-length essay from Thucydides to Annie Ernaux is full of poetic liberty-taking. What I like is a dwelling down in consciousness—the attempt to alleviate loneliness via “self-deconstructive nonfiction,” to use a wonderful term of Alex Pappademas. I love a lot of novels, but they’re all almost exclusively consciousness-drenched works: Melville; Proust; Sterne; etc.

My argument—some of this comes via David Foster Wallace—is that we’re existentially alone on the planet; I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. And you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. Writing, at its best and most serious, isn’t narrative entertainment but is a bridge constructed across the abyss of this human loneliness. The work that I love best, that I think constructs the most exciting and durable bridge, is work that is manifestly—in its every line—about how the writer is solving or not solving the question of being alive. Samuel Johnson said that a book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it. And I’m gigantically in love with books—from Lucretius to Simon Gray—that attempt to do the latter. That’s the tradition to which I’m trying to contribute, for better or worse.

—David Shields & Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well (http://dugdale.atomicquill.com). He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (http://noh.atomicquill.com)

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Jan 072015
 

covers“slipped almost totally under the radar…” (David Rivard)

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The recent passing of Mark Strand brought many things to mind—not least his important role, along with Charles Simic, in expanding the impact of European and South American poets on American poetry through their groundbreaking 1976 anthology Another Republic.

American poetry, it’s true, had already been seriously altered by an influx of work from “abroad” in the 60’s.  The so-called “Generation of ‘27”—in particular, Bly, Levine, Merwin, Kinnell, and Wright—all of whom had come of age under the strictures of New Criticism, suddenly found a new set of formal means and opened-up subject matter when they started reading the poetry of the French and Spanish surrealists, classical Chinese writers like Tu Fu and Li Po, the German Expressionist Georg Trakl, and a young Swedish psychologist named Tomas Transtromer.  Their work as translators, and the subsequent startling changes in their own poetry, created—for better and worse—all sorts of new vectors and undercurrents, some of which coalesced around the allied schools that came to be known as “Neo-surrealism” and “Deep Image.”  Bly, in particular, was a tireless enthusiast for this new poetry, a theorizer and propagandist in his essays, and a publisher through his press and magazine, The 60’s.  Through wonderful books like Leaping Poetry, a book whose insights about neurology and anthropology are debatable, if not unhinged, at moments, he helped lead an inspired loosening up of language and perception in American poetry.

Others made less dramatic, more indirect contributions: the fingerprints of the Surrealists and other European modernists were all over the New York School, if one knew where to look, absorbed into an American idiom by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara long before the work became more generally available in this country.  How many young American poets must have gone to the cubist poetry of Pierre Reverdy simply because O’Hara had ended “A Step Away from Them” by writing “My heart is in my pocket,/it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

In Another Republic, Strand and Simic brought together a much wider range of poets in translation than had been previously available, with generous selections by seventeen poets.  More ethnically and aesthetically diverse (though, inexplicably, all men), the poets in Another Republic were largely the inheritors and adapters of High Modernism—sometimes combining modernist techniques with the more fabular and allegorical impulses found in folklore traditions; sometimes focusing literary cubism on the apparently banal and everyday, endowing ordinary people and places with strangeness and mystery; almost always deploying a self in the poem that was both mordantly comic and humanly vulnerable.

Paul Celan, Yehuda Amichai, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Drummond De Andrade, Zbigniew Herbert, Fernando Pessoa, Czeslaw Milosz, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, and the others were largely unknown to American readers at the time.  Many, if not all, had experienced exile and/or the violence of mid-century history.  They often wrote with far more nuanced consciousness of the political than Americans were used to in their poetry.  They were also highly tuned to the absurdities that historical fate has increasingly had in store for all of us.  The variety of their approaches to writing a poem was stunning.  For those in two generations of American poets who have read Another Republic, the influence has been profound I suspect.

Another Republic

That the book is no longer as well known as it should be, and that the poets included in it have mostly passed into the oblivion of the canonical, speaks volumes about contemporary American poetry.  Solipsistic, driven by social media and the marketing campaigns of publishing companies and academic trade groups like AWP, ensconced in print and digital affiliations that function like gated-communities, monetized by the promotional efforts of well-meaning institutions such as the Academy of American Poets and bien-pensant congregations like The Dodge Festival, American poetry no longer seems as open to the influence of work in translation, despite the fact that more of it is being published than ever.

Is it possible that at this point there’s so much translated poetry available that it’s actually taken for granted?  Perhaps no one is exercising the sort of editorial selectivity that Mark Strand and Charles Simic did in 1976, so the impact of great and idiosyncratic writers can no longer be felt.  Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris’s recently published Ecco Anthology of International Poetry is huge (592 pages), an admirably comprehensive survey of 20th century world poetry—but perhaps it does a disservice by implying that all the poets in its pages are of the same value?  I feel a little churlish in the face of their good work just in asking the question; but a kind of leveling out occurs with a huge book like this.  Perhaps a little more curatorial pressure would have helped direct readers to the best of translated poets?  Maybe not. It isn’t the fault of Kaminsky and Harris that a faith in “American Exceptionalism” rules writers here just as strongly as it does our political leaders.  Translated poetry seems like just another marketing niche, easy enough to avoid if one is intent on maintaining ignorance and preserving one’s assumptions.

Inattention or indifference or distraction, whatever the case, some recently published books by major figures, books bringing world-class writers into English in a comprehensive way for the first time, have been largely ignored.  Two in particular, both issued in 2013—by the long-dead German Expressionist, Gottfried Benn, and the very-much alive Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli—slipped almost totally under the radar.  Oddly enough, both were published in handsome editions by Farrar Strauss Giroux—a house whose reputation and promotional reach would, in another time, have guaranteed a thoughtful, widespread reception.  Neither seems to have found the notice and readership it deserves.

Both Benn and Cavalli offer approaches that might shake up some of the smug assumptions of the current period style.  One senses in reading them that, for Benn and Cavalli, the act of making poems, of sounding their idiosyncratic music, is exhilarating—no matter the mood of the work, or the troubled waters sailed by its makers at any particular moment. Best of all, the distinctiveness of each poet’s music has largely carried over, so that a reader can feel as if he or she is encountering a poet of complex formal mastery in English.

In very different ways, both Cavalli and Benn are poets whose intelligence is often registered in the body, immersed as they are in the physicality and oddness of sensation.  Their complex formal processing is often abstract, non-linear, deployed in elliptical narrative and scene building; but it is carried out with an improvised, full-contact immediacy of the sort implied by the painter Philip Guston when he spoke of certain artists who have a desire to achieve “this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing.”  As Guston might have put it, neither Benn nor Cavalli is interested in using language merely to “illustrate” their thinking—each seems to enter the poem without preconceptions about what it’s going to become.

*

It might be over-stating the case to say that Gottfried Benn’s reputation in this country has largely had the status of a rumor.  As Michael Hoffman, the translator and editor of Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, puts it in his astute introduction, it would probably be hard to fill a room here with people capable of having a serious conversation about Benn, despite the wide acknowledgment in Germany of his being “the greatest German poet since Rilke.”  One slender book of translations has previously appeared of Benn’s work, in print from New Directions since the late 1950’s despite suffering from its translator’s stodgy approach.  In the United States at least, Benn’s posthumous existence has been subjected to a neglect even more encompassing than what he experienced while alive.  One couldn’t even say that he’s a poet’s poet exactly.

Benn 2

If Benn is known here at all, it is for one poem in particular, that archetypal, foundational piece of early 20th century Expressionism, “Little Aster.”

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest
with a long knife
under the skin
to cut out tongue and gums,
I must have nudged it because it slipped
into the brain lying adjacent.
I packed it into the thoracic cavity
with the excelsior
when he was sewn up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!

Appearing in Benn’s first collection, a 1912 chapbook called Morgue and Other Poems, the poem can hardly surprise in the way it did a hundred years ago—for one thing, the radical approach and fresh subject matter of Expressionism has been so unconsciously diffused into the postmodernist landscape that a piece like this can almost seem a cultural cliché: the granddaddy of undergraduate punk/goth shock tableaux.  And like certain other products of the early Modernist effort to sweep away the crapola of late Victorian furniture and sentiment—say Pound’s “In A Paris Metro”—the poem feels as if it’s a bit of a one-trick pony.

The poem’s true power, one that would only amplify as Benn continued to write, is its straight-forward precision in making and arranging observed detail, as well as its economy of action, all of which seem part and parcel of a tonal restraint that saves the scene from melodrama.  The poem’s real shock lies in the calmness of the narrator—a calm that has ironic distance in it, but is not without undercurrents of empathy.  Like all of Benn’s work this early poem has a sort of double-vision.  In Hoffman’s masterful translation, Benn makes us aware in the very first line of his utterly physical sense of the human body—“hoisted onto the slab,” this corpse is as thingy as the cargo the living drayman must have hauled.  The verbs and nouns all have a matter-of-fact tangibility that avoids exaggeration, but the spare exactness of description somehow turns the physical gestures of the speaker and the plotted scene itself into a sort of ritualized activity.  The speaker’s very alertness to what he is doing implies respect of an almost primal sort for the body.

morgue

“Little Aster” has the clinical detachment of the doctor that Benn was—a clear-eyed, discomfiting, anti-Romantic sense of what a body is made of, and what happens to it once its purpose is finished—but no matter how sardonic the poem’s final exclamation is, I’ve never felt more certain than I do in Hoffman’s translation that a kind of spell of departure has been cast, a primitive, raw performance with a hint of the shamanistic about it.  Benn is both utterly cold and utterly caring, a world-class pessimist and cynic with tenderness and longing still partially intact.  No wonder Hoffman calls him “both the hardest and the softest poet who ever lived.”

In his intro, Hoffman reduces Benn’s biographical character to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek summary: “the military man, the doctor, the poet, and the ladies’ man.”  True enough to the facts.  Benn was born into a minister’s family in a small village between Berlin and Hamburg in 1886, had completed his medical training by the time his first book came out in 1912, and served in the German army during WW I (he once wrote that he’d served his duty in Brussels, as “a doctor in a whorehouse”).  On mustering out, he went into practice in dermatology and venereology.  His first wife, from whom he was separated, died in 1922, and a Danish couple subsequently adopted their daughter.  By 1935 Benn had reenlisted, driven apparently by a combination of financial need and a sense that a garrison might be the place he was most comfortable in life (“Nothing so dreamy as barracks!”).  By 1938 he had remarried, a marriage that would last until 1945, when his wife killed herself, fearful of what might happen to her once the advancing Russians arrived.  Another marriage followed WW II, at which point Benn was living in West Berlin, where he remained until his death in 1956.  The occupying Allies forbid publication of his work immediately following the war, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies; but a Swiss publisher, Arche, issued Static Poems in 1948, with a Collected Poems arriving in 1956, the year of his death at 70.  In between, in 1951, his work had won him the Georg Buchner Prize, one of the two most important literary prizes for writers in German.  Neither publication nor prizes seem to have afforded Benn anything resembling a comfortable life.

Benn2

Of Benn’s brief, troubling travels on the edges of the Nazi orbit in 1933-34, Hoffman has a number of interesting things to say, none of them in defense of Benn exactly, more in scrupulous accounting for how this “fleeting appearance of compatibility” might have come to pass.  In any case, as Hoffman points out, “mutual detestation” set in quickly.  Benn was first deleted from the medical register as a suspected Jew; then in 1938 he was banned from writing and publishing altogether, his work labeled “degenerate” for its expressionist elements.  That work—as Hoffman is at pains to point out—is so pessimistic about human life in general as to make political ideologies like National Socialism seem fraudulent by implication: to Benn “human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess, and the only stay against fatuity was art, was poetry.”

If you are unfamiliar with Benn’s work, and think that last sentence sounds hyperbolic, be assured that it is not.  Not at all.  Benn makes such notable cynics as Catullus or the Japanese Zen master Ikkyu or the misanthropic Philip Larkin sound like village good folk with relatively sunny outlooks.  In American poetry of the last fifty years, perhaps only Alan Dugan or Frederick Seidel (in their very different ways) come close to such a dark estimate of human behavior.  That Benn was inclined by psychological character toward such a view is outweighed by the fact that life gave him plenty of grim evidence to confirm his pessimism.  That he wanted to make this evidence into poetry suggests something not so much heroic as desperate and compellingly mysterious.  There’s little solace in Benn’s work, but there is plenty of an endangered (and endangering) sublime.

If the early work sometimes feels as if it’s straining for an effect, it is no less bracing for its honesty.  Immersed in body knowledge, it possesses certain formal gestures that intensify Benn’s raw physicality, gestures that he would develop and use later in his career to build complex collages of image and statement—in particular, a telegraphic style of sentence-making that emphasizes his clipped and fragmented sense of personal observation.  As a result, the voice has a terse manner that is both nervy and incisive.  The opening of “Night Café”—a poem that owes a debt to Rimbaud’s “To Music”—brings the medical man’s eye to a common social scene:

 824: Lives and Loves of Women.
The cello takes a quick drink. The flute
Belches expansively for three beats: good old dinner.
The timpani has one eye on his thriller.

Mossed teeth in pimpled face
Waves to incipient stye.

Greasy hair
Talks to open mouth with adenoids
Faith Hope Love around her neck

Young goiter has a crush on saddlenose.
He treats her to onetwothree beers.

Benn’s writing is living proof that description always reflects attitude—behind these words and images is an acerbic, knowing speaker who may be one of the most laconically fierce creatures in all of world literature.  But not just.  The ending of the poem shows that other current that ripples through Benn: a susceptibility to lyric intoxication, especially in the presence of women and flowers:

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies her, less a scent
Than a sweet pressure of the air
Against my brain.

It really is remarkable the way the metaphorical transformations and rhythmic shifts communicate the young Benn’s physical intoxication here.  (And like a lot of early Modernism, one feels what might be the syntactical influence of cinema at work, the editing and framing lessons already available in silent films.)  Then Benn does something that also turns out to be prototypical for his work: he undercuts the longing, compromising it with this final observation: “An obesity waddles after.”

*1886-1956+Schriftsteller, Arzt, DPortr„t mit ZigaretteFoto: Fritz Eschen

The snapped speech; the quick-cutting method of sketching a scene; the physicality (both raw and lyrically intoxicated); the richness of diction, precise and energizing but never decorative or fussy—all of these amplified as Benn developed, especially in the 1930’s when the work evolved a more digressive, complicating movement, ranging more widely over time and space.  He never, ever loses his physicality and quickening energy, or his inventive phrasings.  His patented mix of erotic longing, calm pastoral alertness, and hardboiled cosmopolitan outlook only intensify:

…the park,
and the flower beds
all damp and tangled—

autumnal sweetness,
tuffets of Erica
along the Autobahn,
everything is Luneburg
heather, purple and unbearing,
whins going nowhere,

introverted stuff
soon browned off—
give it a month
it’ll be as if  it’d never flowered.

(“Late”)

And this, from another poem of the 1950’s, called “No Tears”:

Roses, Christ knows how they got to be so lovely,
Green skies over the city
In the evening
In the ephemerality of the years!

The yearning I have for that time
when one mark thirty was all I had,
yes, I counted them this way and that,
I trimmed my days to fit them,
days what am I saying days: weeks on bread and plum mush
out of earthenware pots
brought from my village,
still under the rushlight of native poverty,
how raw everything felt, how tremblingly beautiful!

During the Second World War, and after, Benn increasingly found ways to let his thinking/feeling consciousness expand out of the originating scene, in poems both long and short—without conclusion or solution.  Unlike so many poets, he doesn’t seem to feel that he’s here to solve a problem, either for himself or the reader.  The later work becomes more epigrammatic in intelligence (“aversion to progress/is profundity in the wise man”) and stoically self-knowing (“my compulsion to shadows”) and, at the end, more generous and tender (“it’s only the ephemeral that is beautiful”).  Nonetheless, Benn seems only to have wanted to intensify the contradictory character that lay behind the words, not “cure” his suffering as if were a disease:

Gladioli

A bunch of glads,
certainly highly emblematic of creation,
remote from frills of working blossom with hope of fruit—
slow, durable, placid,
generous, sure of kingly dreams.

All else is natural world and intellect!
Over there the mutton herds:
strenuous ends of clover and daggy sheep—
here friendly talents,
pushing Anna to the center of attention,
explaining her, finding a solution!

The glads offer no solution:
being—falling—
you mustn’t count the days—
fulfillment
livid, tattered, or beautiful.

Most wisdom in poetry feels stagy, self-conscious, but “you mustn’t count the days” is the real thing: a simple, clarifying knowledge that feels earned among the living: the maximum advice, with the minimal exaggeration, given in the face of a terrible sense of meaninglessness, the most literal death threat anyone can imagine.  Benn doesn’t have any answer, other than doing his work.  He has only his contradictions, and they just lead to questions:

Even now in the big city night
café terrace
summer stars
from the next door table
assessments
of hotels in Frankfurt
the ladies frustrated
if their desires had mass
they would each of them weigh twenty stone

But the electricity in the air! Balmy night
a la travel brochure and
the girls step out of their pictures
improbable lovelies
legs up to here, a waterfall,
their surrender is something one doesn’t even begin
to contemplate.

Married couples by comparison disappoint,
don’t cut it, fail to clear the net,
he smokes, she twists her rings,
worth considering
the whole relationship between marriage and creativity,
stifling or galvanizing.

Questions, questions! Scribbled incitation’s
on a summer night,
there were no Gainsboroughs in my parents’ house
now everything has gone under
the whole thing, par ci, par la,
Selah, end of psalm.

(from “Par Ci, Par La”)

Towards the end, Benn seems to have found some measure of—what?  Acceptance? Equanimity?  Open-heartedness?  There doesn’t seem to be word in English for what comes across in his late poems, the contradictions undiminished, but it has an un-deluded tenderness and compassion in it.  A passage from a very late visit to a scene inhabited by characters quite similar to those in the earlier “Night Café” illustrates the change:

Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous
and unending,
but whether they were ever in love
(outwith the awful wedded bed)
burning, athirst, desert-parched
for the nectar of a far-away
mouth,
sinking, drowning
in the impossibility of human souls—

you won’t know, nor can you
ask the waiter,
who’s just ringing up
another Beck’s,
always avid for coupons
to quench a thirst of another nature,
though also deep.

(“They Are Human After All”)

Michael Hoffman’s translations in Impromptus seem by and large flawless to me.  He appears to have lived in Benn’s poems for a very long time, and to have a natural affinity for rendering the music of Benn’s German into English.  The poems have integrity, in every sense.  Hoffman also provides a selection of Benn’s prose—it is every bit a match for the poetry in alacrity, intellect, wryness, passion, honesty, and textured observation.  We should be extremely grateful for the whole package.

*

If Gottfried Benn exists for American poets as a village rumor (if he exists at all), Patrizia Cavalli might be said to be a whisper on a windy side street.  Prior to FSG issuing My Poems Won’t Change the World in 2013, a small Canadian publisher had brought out Cavalli’s single previous collection in English, a selected poems with the same title that appeared in the late 90’s.

Cavalli

You’d have to have known exactly what you were looking for in order to find that book.  Perhaps the only way you might have wondered about her then was if you had read the late Kenneth Koch’s marvelous “Talking with Patrizia,” from One Train.  That longish, obsessive, dialogue-driven poem purports to capture a late-night conversation between the two poets, a moment when Koch seeks advice from Cavalli about how to get back together with a woman who has sent him packing.

…I thought
You might be the best
Person to talk to Patrizia since you
Love women and are a woman
Yourself. You may be right Patrizia

Said.

It’s a performance full of Koch’s madcap, bittersweet romanticism, as well as the lively affection of two friends, true believers who are experienced travellers in the land of disappointed longing.  In the acknowledgments to the FSG edition, Cavalli reports that she had provided Koch with “technical advice on how to seduce” the woman.  She thanks him for his friendship and his longtime support of her work—“if the dead can be thanked.”  It’s an aside that typifies the mordant, skeptical wit that runs throughout her work.

Cavalli’s biography is far easier to summarize than Benn’s.  Born in 1949 in the small Umbrian city of Todi, she came to Rome in the late 60’s to study philosophy, started writing poems, and fell in with some American ex-pats who introduced her to the Italian novelist Elsa Morante, an early encourager of her work.  Her first book of poems appeared in 1974, also titled My Poems Won’t Change the World.  Subsequent books have appeared at regular but extended intervals, all from the Italian publisher Einaudi: The Sky (1981), The All Mine Singular I (1992), The Forever Open Theater (1999), and Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate (2006).  Cavalli appears to have made a living in Rome as a translator of plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and Wilde, as well as from her poetry and readings, both of which are highly popular in Italy.  The editor (and co-translator) of the FSG book, Gini Alhadeff, reports of Cavalli that “once upon a time she used to play poker and sell paintings on the side (or the other way around).”  You can take Alhadeff’s comment as her way of signaling Cavalli’s charismatic personal energy, evidence of which abounds on You Tube, where there are various clips of her reciting her poems, not to mention singing in performance with Italian “folk-rock” groups.

Beyond their urbanity and minds saturated by physical sensation, Cavalli and Benn share a manner of detached self-observation more typical of certain European poets than American (Louise Gluck might be its primary avatar here, and, in a more baroque, performative way, Frederick Seidel).  There’s shrewdness in this stance toward the self: its calculations allow for moments of romantic, lyric feeling without melodrama or maudlin effect.  This shrewdness is linked in both poets’ work to a contradictory quality: beneath the impulsive, improvisational lyricism that fuels the making of the poems are self-conscious intensities of will and character.

In Cavalli, in particular, there is often an attractive note of irritability beneath her impulsiveness—she can be charmingly resistant at moments, in a way that might remind a reader slightly of the early William Carlos Williams.  I mean the Williams of “Danse Russe” and “To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies,” among other poems.  This irritability—sometimes bemused, sometimes annoyed or exasperated—gives Cavalli’s voice a freshness of attitude: a witty, breezy confidence and curiosity compounded with something darker, more introverted and warily expectant, even anxious.  Almost none of Cavalli’s poems is titled, one implication of which might be to signal an impatient immediacy.  This goes hand-in-hand with her conjectural assertiveness—I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more decisively speculative or conclusively ambivalent poet.

patrizia

The short poem that begins the collection and gives it its title provides a perfect example of this utterly considered but quick-witted responsiveness:

Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

As in so many of Cavalli’s poems, one comes away refreshed by how the speaker—with a simple, almost Zen-like flip—has turned the situation inside out. The shift in tense from past to present, and the slight relining of the phrases, generate a surprising power and adamancy, a vocal inflection at odds with the overt statement: a big, complex “so what?”  The implication being that Cavalli has a lot more on her mind than changing the world.

Early and late, Cavalli’s great subject is how we live inside our expectations and desires, endless as they are, entertaining and tormenting, so determinant of our psychological character, but necessary as well for breaking out of our bounded selves.

But first we must free ourselves
from the strict stinginess that produces us,
that produces me on this chair
in the corner of a café
awaiting with the ardor of clerk
the very moment in which
the small blue flames of the eyes
across from me, eyes familiar
with risk, will, having taken aim,
lay claim to a blush
from my face. Which blush they will obtain.

(translated by Geoffrey Brock)

The combination of romance and self-irony on display here is a Cavalli trademark, one that finds expression in all of her work through perceptual inversions and reversals of perspective.   Alhadeff writes in her introduction that “innocence” is Cavalli’s main preoccupation—it may be that what she is referring to are moments when Cavalli feels free of those boundaries (the “strict stinginess”) that make the self.  It’s an ongoing struggle in her work, an irresolution signaled by how frequently—as here—the poems seem to begin in medias res.  There’s a drama in the swerving of her syntax as it flows through the elongated first sentence, a drama that’s underlined when she cuts back against the fluidity of the first sentence with the much shorter, punchier second one.  It’s one of Cavalli’s prototypical moments of speculative imagination, built out of guesses and notions, but strangely adamant despite being suppositional.  Even the “we” form of address adds to the vibe here, adding a projective ambivalence—it seems both a more general reference to the reader and a way for the speaker to talk to and about herself.

For a poet as physically and psychologically intimate as Cavalli often is, she rarely seems autobiographical or confessional.  She is, for example, quite matter-of-fact in the poems about being a lesbian, but at the same it could hardly be said to be the foregrounded subject.  There is something compellingly oblique in the elliptical way this poem develops from the scene it renders, with so much information and context left out:

Eating a Macintosh apple
she showed me her crumpled lips.
And afterwards she didn’t know what to do
she couldn’t even discard
the small mangled thing that more and more
turned yellow in her hand.

And daylight’s the time to get drunk
when the body still waits for surprises
from light and from rhythm,
when it still has the energy
to invent a disaster.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

The first stanza is quietly astonishing.  With its vibrant, precise handling of physical detail, it’s almost Chekhovian in the way it renders both the character’s physical presence and the speaker’s psychology.  The second stanza works just as indirectly, its implications created via a commentary that seems to be located in the present moment of the speaker’s mind, not in the narrative moment of the past.  It combines a playful wit with the darker, more implicating knowledge that arrives from experience.  The same, thrilling sense of nuance exists in all of Cavalli’s work.

Patrizia-Cavalli

Cavalli is most interested, as she writes in one poem, in “a dallying in the possible,/suspended between too/little and too much, but/always out of place.”  The fluidity of her poems is almost the opposite of Gottfried Benn’s more angular, abrupt, and hacked out movements through juxtaposition, but both are masters of changeability, driven by impulsiveness and irritability.  Admittedly, Cavalli often comes off as more spirited than Benn.  Hard to imagine very many poets who would begin a poem, a complaint about the singularity of identity, like this: “Chair, stop being such a chair!/And books, don’t you be books like that!”  But there is also in Cavalli’s work a bracing self-honesty and a fearlessness about putting on display some of the less attractive parts of speaker’s ego—it’s rather wonderful how matter-of-fact she is about this too, without an ounce of phony piety or regret, managing to be charming at the same time she is brutally direct about her own carelessness and contempt at such moments, before giving way to a vulnerability all the more convincing because not overcooked or dramatized.

I walked full of myself and very strong
crossing the bridge disdainfully
tough diamond
sculpting the looks
taught tight black cruel
why should I care, I told myself, and you,
don’t you dare even touch me!

Behind two crazy old women I slowed down
and overtaking one discovered myself
between a woman weighed down by talking
and another silently walking.
Then with untouched fury I went forward
past those lost lurching impediments.
Suddenly a girl appeared
at the streetlight across from me—a beggar.
One in front of me, the others behind,
the light wasn’t green so I looked at them.
I complicated my sight.  I was in the distance,
but weakness made my legs go white.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

               Something like a phenomenological reduction, a “bracketing,” takes place in moments like these—a witnessing of consciousness, with a suspension of judgment.  Fortunately, Cavalli’s wit, often a byproduct of her obsession with romantic love, makes her work something other than a phenomenologist’s dry digest.  As she writes of desire at the end of one poem, “it’s the remedy that makes the illness.”  For Cavalli, this paradox is rooted in the body at some cellular level:

… But in me physiology
still reigns intact, and forces me to dream:
the cure: an offer of endorphins
from you who are my pusher.
… Why should one want you
for a remedy? Why if your lips
part when, lying down, you opt
for the good and in double vowels say
I love you, no longer proudly chaste but
all absorbed in drinking up my fervor,
why does my blood decide to flow then
harmonious and smooth along the veins
carrying honey to my orphan head.

(from “The sky is blue again today,” translated by Gini Alhadeff)

As with so many Cavalli poems it’s hard to say if this scene is happening in reality or is being imagined by the speaker.  The “real world” and the imagination tend to work on each other as reagents in her poems.  The subsequent chemical reaction produces a lot of torque in either direction, an energy that is sometimes densely figurative, though oddly fluid, mercurial in temperament—her syntax surging in the direction of whatever surprised space of insight or feeling opens up.

Cavalli’s marvelous syntactical energy, with its steep changes in perceptual scale and altered perspectives and its sudden bursts of metaphoric radiation, are largely rendered successfully into an American idiom by the extended group of her translators, an estimable bunch that includes Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren, Kenneth Koch, Jorie Graham, Judith Baumel, J.D. McClatchy, and Jonathan Galassi, besides Alhadeff, Brock and Shapiro.  Occasionally, there are missteps and infelicities in this effort, and one wonders if these might have been avoided under the consistent work of one hand.  These missteps seem to occur when the translators try to stick slavishly to the original Italian.  “I those isotopes don’t want to drink/my thyroid I do not want to lose” is just awkward sounding in American English, regardless of how close it comes to the syntax of the Italian idiom.   Luckily, this kind of thing is rare in My Poems Won’t Change the World, and shouldn’t stand in the way of anyone reading Cavalli’s fresh, nuanced, energizing work—like Benn’s, her voice implicitly challenges the complacencies of American poets.  It has been almost thirty years since the last poet in translation to have a widespread effect on American poets: the Slovene Tomaz Salamun.  Given a chance, the work of Gottfried Benn and Patrizia Cavalli might have just as strong an influence, at a moment when we could surely use it.

—David Rivard

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Rivard 2012 CR 2

David Rivard’s new book, Standoff, will appear from Graywolf in early 2016.  He is the author of five other books of poetry: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.  Rivard’s poems and essays appear regularly in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry London, Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and other magazines and anthologies. Among his awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review and the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  Rivard is currently the director of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire.

Jan 062015
 

Rikki Ducornet photo

Subversive at heart and acutely perceptive, The Deep Zoo celebrates the knowledge that “Nature loves order, the beautiful, and the anomalous.” It plies us to savor the spiritual and the scatological, and not to wither in moral certitude.  —Jason DeYoung

 Layout 1

The Deep Zoo
Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press, 2015
119 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 978-1566893763

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The Deep Zoo is a seed! From this seed come our initial impulses and multiplicities. Our Deep Zoo is the place from which we dream. It is this place from which you came, the place from which you interpret the world, the place from which you create. As Gaston Bachelard, Rikki Ducornet’s favored philosopher, says, “daydreams illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working from their mutual deepening.” The Deep Zoo galvanizes us. It is potency.

The author of nine novels, three short story collections, five works of poetry, and the winner of countless awards, Rikki Ducornet has long been a star shining brightly over contemporary literature. Her writing, however, often runs counters to its trends. Refusing to be part of established realism—which she skewers for its “inescapable redundancies”—she looks for something more inward, an art that fulfills the promise and richness of the imagination. Much like Robert Coover (whom she notes as influential) Ducornet’s preoccupations are mythology and metamorphosis, and it is this richness and delight in play (an art in-and-of itself) that attracts me to her work.  (Rikki Ducornet is also an accomplished painter to boot and shows internationally.)

The daughter of a Bard College professor, with extensive travels throughout the world, including Algeria, Japan, France, and Palestine, she is steeped in worldly texts and to call her an American writer seems nearly inaccurate. The depth of her knowledge and comfort with diverse subject matter is daunting, and in The Deep Zoo alone she deals with Egyptian mythology, Werner Herzog, United States foreign policy, Marquis de Sade, and Islam among others. The opening words of The Deep Zoo might well-convey the wonder and direction of this slim volume:

In the tradition of Islam, the first word that was revealed to Mohammed was Igrá (Read!) The world is a translation of the divine, and its manifestation. To write a text is to propose a reading of the world and to reveal its potencies. Writing is reading and reading a way back to the initial impulse. Both are acts of revelation.

Comprised of fifteen essays, most of which are no more than six or seven pages long, the entire text of The Deep Zoo runs only 119 pages—work cited and acknowledgements included. But while its page count is trim its capacity for insights and range of thought between its cover is sprawling.

The collection leads with its title essay, limning Ducornet’s philosophical point-of-view toward art and literature. “The Deep Zoo” acts as a kind of foundational text, a lens to view her work and the other essays through. She writes that the Deep Zoo is a way of seeing, “the recognition of a pattern that informs the mind.” From this arena of unlimited encounters come the artist’s vision, the writer’s text. Ducornet believes in the power of language to clarify, to articulate the ineffable—its most ancient task. A writer’s duty is to “access memory, reverie, and the unconscious—its powers, beauties, terrors, and perhaps above all, its rule-breaking intuitions, and to celebrate … the mind’s longing to become lighter, free of the weight of received ideas and gravity-bound redundancies.” Often her rapturous prose leads to some heady moments.

Although the essay trades in concepts that might seem somewhat abstract, the following essays reveal what Ducornet means by Deep Zoo through examples. She explores the “mixto” paintings of Linda Okazaki and the restless sculpture of Margie McDonald. She finds ineluctable life in the flickering imagery of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and delights in the gnostic vision of David Lynch. With her keen eye for the amalgamated and strange, she takes great care to highlight works awash in estrangement. In each piece of art work she analyzes, she looks for the emblematic seed, the forces which “fall into sympathy with one another,” which engenders the work, often finding them in “intangible things,” such as in Omensetter’s Luck, or in the singular “banality” of death in de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.


last_run_1983_smallerLinda Okazaki, Last Run

Many of the essays in The Deep Zoo recount stories of Ducornet youth, where ones Deep Zoo originates. She traces her own Deep Zoo back to a dead fox she found in the woods when she was a girl; a swarm of yellow bees around its belly. She calls this “a species of animated calligraphy”; it transformed what otherwise might have seemed horrible into a thing of beauty. In other essays, she describes more practical matters to her art. In “Water and Dreams,” Ducornet gives her clearest view into the workings of her mind and writing. Originally written for Rule of Thumb (ed. by Michael Martone), it is an analysis of her novel The Fountains of Neptune. Here Ducornet dismantles the work to spotlight the rhythms and currents running through it: a demonstration of the mechanics of the Deep Zoo. She writes that The Fountains of Neptune “is punctuated by the water’s meteoric forms… consciously associated in order to suggest the many moods of the sea.” Before writing it, she says she made lists of water and sea images, but during the process of writing, she allowed the novel’s “intention [to] evolve from within,” so “the entire process had a weather of its own.”

No, Ducornet’s advice isn’t as brusquely pragmatic as ‘write what you know’—I doubt she’d send you chasing your own tail like that. Instead, her advice is far more freeing. Subversive at heart and acutely perceptive, The Deep Zoo celebrates the knowledge that “Nature loves order, the beautiful, and the anomalous.” It plies us to savor the spiritual and the scatological, and not to wither in moral certitude. Indeed, it accomplishes what the best books I’ve read always do. It opens its reader to new concepts and stirs new ways of thinking. As Ducornet has the Marquis de Sade say in her novel The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition: “What is reading if it is not dreaming? The best books cause us to dream; the rest are not worth reading.”

bainbridge2Margie McDonald, Sea ‘scape

Taken with and obsessed by the paradoxical and the mysterious, Ducornet’s honors the mutable heart of life, refuses to label the body as “fallen” or “vile,” and clearly worships the “divine.” Yet her outlook is clear-eyed and scientific, too. She won’t abide magical thinking or a good wallow in obscurity. At once a political book The Deep Zoo is also playful, as the essays do not follow any preordained structure and seem often to move with the currents of their author’s mind. One of the intriguing features of Ducornet’s essays is that they often end with smart quotations from writers she admires. But in fact, she has written a very quotable book herself, and I want to conclude here by sharing some of Ducornet’s own wise words:

It is the hidden significance of things that both explains and propels us forward with an eager intelligence. The paradox of hidden knowledge is that it recognizes—in ways that are wordless and intimate—an embrace as old as time, older than language. And yet it is also the force that leads to the impulse of word-making.

§

If naming and listing leads to a certain disarticulation of the world, it also articulates the experience of the ineffable; it allows us to consider and articulate causes and effects and even to cherish the anomalous, because when known patterns are disrupted, we are forced to consider (and to reconsider) the meanings of things.

§

I think of a novel as an unfolding landscape, an entire country waiting to be deciphered.

§

The creative impulse, Eros breathing and dreaming within us, is radical to the core.

§

The human imagination poses searching riddles, and the moment it does, poetry and science, philosophy and cosmology are born.

§

Hating and fearing the body, we turn away from knowledge of the other

§

Thankfully, art pays no attention and continues to subvert pieties and expectations, to rile fuddy-duddies and ride a brighter air.

§

A world worth wanting cherishes the risks of wildness.

—Jason DeYoung

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jason

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Jan 052015
 

ian-duhig

As writers, I often think we treat language as something to be dominated and controlled rather than something to be lived with and lived through. In this way, we become detached from language, indeed become fearful of it. Not so with Ian Duhig. Duhig’s poetry while steeped in form trusts the sound of language, its musicality, to lead the way as he relentlessly explores the complex connections between a seemingly diverse range of subjects. Since our knowledge of the world, however, comes not through our comprehension of its elements but rather the relationship between these elements, Duhig’s poetic gaze is focused exactly where it needs to be. The insight provided emerges from a writer who dwells within his words and is fearlessly willing to follow where they might take him.

Duhig was born in London to Irish parents and he says, “’London-Irish’ is definitely how we thought of ourselves growing up.” ‘Grand Union Bridge’ (based on a film poem with Alastair Cook), he tells me, explains his relationship with Ireland as a child of immigrants. ‘?’ he says, “demonstrates the sort of skewed understanding of great events being at one remove from them as a second generation Irish youth might have, while ‘A Double Bolide’ deals with a real character I discovered by accident recently, who both the Irish and English would like to keep out of history entirely as an embarrassment to both, to the one a traitor, to the other a paid informant.”

It may be fanciful to imagine that this hyphenated identity led to his formal interest in connectivity within his poetry but, be that as it may, fanciful is good enough for me.

—Gerard Beirne

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I was the eighth child in my family and the first born in England where they’d moved to so my father could find work – he’d served in the Irish army but there was nothing for him in 50s Tipperary when he left. My Mother knew a huge amount of Irish poetry by heart, which was how they learned it at school in her youth. I grew up listening to that in a London-Irish community where poetry was still valued and however often we visited “home” (as Ireland was always called) the place for me was made out of words more than earth. I explored the world of Irish poetry more than the country. When I did live there it was in Belfast, where I ran a hostel for young offenders, but I came into contact with the work of an astonishingly-accomplished generation of Northern Irish poets – Heaney of course, but also Longley, Mahon and the amazing Muldoon. I published my first poetry in The Honest Ulsterman and then stumbled off on my own journey. There’s that old joke about the Irish boomerang – it doesn’t come back it only sings about coming back – and there is a sense of estrangement from home which is central to the Irish tradition and I’ve always felt at home with estrangement.

—Ian Duhig

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Grand Union Bridge

I’d take this bridge across Paddington Cut
where PC Dixon was shot in The Blue Lamp
when I’d go to the cinema robbed by his killer,
the teenager Riley, with his pal Spud Murphy,
betraying Irish lines from this canal’s cutters
up to the likes of my family, over to find work.

Is it called Paddington because of the Paddys?
I’d get asked at school. Back after a lifetime,
from the Grand Union’s winter skin of black ice
I make my song this coat, the old Cut it’s cloth,
to slip into the otherworld of the eternally young
who would only age if they touched our land.

I remember that young Irish suicide landed here,
her own gas inflating the mae west of her flesh,
turned over again, an iceberg of tears, melting,
told the fairy story, promised a gold ring, falling
with child, into this wedding dress of water silk.
O commemorate me where there is water…

I remember police writing in their notebooks.
If you want to know the time, ask one of them.
He knows it can be suspended like a sentence,
although back then the sentence for a Riley
would be for him to dance the Paddington Jig,
in the measure called the Home Office Drop.

But PC Dixon would rise again from the dead,
go on to star in a much-loved television show
that was as black and white as its writers’ plots,
a show running softly for over twenty-one years,
the length of a whole youth back in those days,
birth to the wedding cake with black icing. Cut.

.

?

Of all my questions still unanswered

regarding the heroical-pathetic Easter Rising,

such as whether England might have kept faith

when World War I was all said and done

or which Castle cretin sent in the Lancers

against well-trained urban guerillas,

whether Constance Markiewicz really shot

Police Constable Michael Lahiff,

whether Ireland would have been better served

if James Connolly had stayed in bed,

if Captain Bowen-Colthurst was mad

before he was sent to Ireland

and, if so, why nobody noticed it

or at least some behavioural giveaways

or if madness was considered acceptable deportment

for officers of His Majesty’s forces

or why anybody should have been surprised

that starving Dubliners would loot the shops,

my one, persisting, small, ignoble nag

dismissed impatiently by the committed over years

is why exactly was the General Post Office

still open on the Bank Holiday?

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A Double Bolide

Scientific dating tests connect the Hambleton pallasite
from Kilburn’s White Horse with the 1783 Great Meteor,
a brilliant double bolide heard then exploding over York.
In another report of the event in the London Magazine,

an officer on a British warship moored north of Ireland
related that a little time after he first noticed the meteor,
“in the north-east quarter, he saw it moving back again,
the contrary way to which it came” in Sternean fashion.

Perhaps it presaged that year’s Irish stage premiere:
‘Tristram Shandy: A Sentimental Bagatelle in Two Acts’.
This adaptation, playing up patriotic aspects of the text,
was by Leonard McNally, whose book on the law fixed

our criminal trial standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”
indebting future civil libertarians to this Dublin barrister,
a man who came to play many parts during his own life,
with this starring role only coming to light after his death:

McNally was a founding member of the United Irishmen,
informing on them for pay and, when acting as counsel
for the Rising’s leaders, he collaborated with the Crown
to guarantee their convictions beyond reasonable doubt.

McNally was also the lyricist of that sentimental ballad
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill which invented the cliché
a rose without a thorn and was a favourite of George III’s
since its first airing in the year of the French Revolution.

O the pikes must be together by the risin’ of the moon
declares one sentimental ballad about the Risin’ of ‘98,
reminding me that Sterne coined the word ‘sentimental’,
how his name meant star in the Hanoverians’ language.

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Games

Weber could not tell a Punjabi from a Kilkenny man.
-Christy Campbell, ‘The Maharajah’s Box’

The former prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Whitby
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Sikh ‘Chess King’ in “the Great Game”,
slipped into Russia as Patrick Casey, the Republican dynamitard.

He bore proposals for stationing Irish volunteers on their border
to guard the building of a railway for the Czar’s invasion forces,
effecting his aim of the liberation of the Indian sub-continent.

The King maintained clandestine links with Russian intelligence
(noted the Department for the Supression of Thugee and Dacoity)
through the Aryan League of Honour, rogue Calcutta Theosophists,

their agent in the British Isles being Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’,
who misinformed him on Vedantic philosophy, so Yeats confused
Brahman, the Supreme Being, with Brahmin, Chatterjee’s caste.

Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’ “quotes” his guru: “I have been a king,
I have been a slave”, although the next verse goes on to state
Mohini Chatterjee/Spoke these, or words like these…” How like?

Poets tell lies and cause confusion too. Look at Plato’s ‘Republic’.
Even ‘Campbell’, surname of the supplier of this poem’s epigraph,
means ‘Crooked mouth’ in Gaelic. Check that with a MacDonald.

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‘Pontypool’

Poetry wants to be a contagion — Jorie Graham

At the fleapit in town
I watch ‘Pontypool’,
“a semantic schlock
zombie apocalypse.”

Set on a radio station,
news that stays news
is of flesh-eating mobs
who can’t speak French

as airborne plague rides
honeyed English words,
a xenotext in the matrix
of Canadian intercourse.

Like some new love poet,
our hero, the shock jock
broadcasts to survivors
how he spread the virus,

how meaning is Plague
to be purged from words,
we mustn’t make sense
to return to our senses,

how life means death
in a language of sin,
love’s a fatal disease
and to kill means kiss

then kisses the woman
his own words infected
who asked to not to die
a Donne Newfoundland,

but live where zombies
are all Hungry Horaces,
searching for the poet
in her disjecta membra.

—Ian Duhig

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Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has worked on productions of a wide range of music from the medieval to the avant-garde and this year he published Digressions (Smokestack), the book of a project with the artist Philippa Troutman based around Laurence Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in Yorkshire. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

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Jan 042015
 

Fernando  Sdrigotti

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The sign said ‘Rome’ and pointed to the left but we pressed right ahead. It was an average circular road with scattered flat houses, advertisement boards, cars rushing in this or that direction, smog, vast expanses of industrial space, empty soft drink cans and rubbish lying on the hard shoulder. Manu was driving, I was sitting next to him, and Mika was at the back, filming everything with a camcorder.

“Why didn’t you turn left?” I asked.

“Sorry?”

“There was a sign for Rome… I thought we were going to Rome…”

“Easy, bro! Relax!”

Relax… Everybody says that all roads lead to Rome but apparently this is a myth – at least in its periphery. And to make matters worse all circular roads look the same. We could have been driving near Buenos Aires, São Paulo, London, Paris, Kathmandu, Leeds, Johannesburg, Mexico DF, San Francisco, Ontario, Reykjavik, anywhere or almost anywhere. Manu took a right turn and we went over a level crossing. The car slowed down and this guy who was standing by the barrier looked into my eyes – why, I don’t know. Soon we took a narrow street uphill. Manu drove fast and the cars driving towards us drove fast too. Once or twice in the space of a hundred metres we narrowly avoided a crash, but everything seemed calculated, precise – there was a prearranged agreement. Mika was quiet, her mind focused on her camera and the camera was focused on me. Or maybe she was just filming the passing cars – I didn’t turn around to find out.

“We’re not going to Rome,” Manu said.

“Cool,” I said. He was waiting for me to ask where we were going.

More narrow roads, more steep roads, the smell of pine trees. Manu would occasionally point to this or that place. He wouldn’t give any explanation, just point to this or that place and tell me to look. Look there, a typical Italian house. Look there, a church. A path getting lost somewhere. A pig. A mountain. Greenish fields. Vineyards. A convent. A dog. More vineyards, another vineyard, another convent. That’s not a pig, it’s a Great Dane. Twenty minutes later we reached a place called Rocca di Papa. Manu parked the car by a little square.

“Fancy a walk?”

“Sure,” I said.

It must have been three o’clock in the afternoon, the streets were empty and the sun was already weak. We left the car and crossed to the other side, where there was a viewpoint on top of a steep cliff. Manu leaned against the railing and lit up a cigarette; he passed me the pack and I lit up too. Mika was pointing the camcorder at me and I looked down below and saw a dog scavenging food from a bin liner bag. It was full of rubbish down there, on what looked like someone’s back garden. How irritating must it be, to have everyone in town dumping their shit into your backyard. I turned around to look at Mika and instead of seeing Mika I saw a camera lens. She gestured from behind the lens – I passed the cigarettes her way; Manu elbowed me.

“Look,” he said. “Over there, that’s where Rome is.” I looked towards the horizon: a palette of yellows and light greens and grey clouds coming from what looked like small garden bonfires.

“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I said.

“Can you repeat that again? I forgot to press REC!” Mika said. She nodded and smiled.

“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I repeated. She gave me the thumbs up.

“Behind the smoke is Rome,” Manu said.

Mika had been with the camera in my face since I had arrived the day before. Cameras feel like guns sometimes and it’s impossible to get used to them and everybody hates a closeup. But I didn’t complain, it’s the direction things are going right now, no point in fighting that. We are constantly observed, photographed, filmed – Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame taken to its logical conclusion: we’ll all have our fifteen minutes of registered irrelevance, on a daily basis. When Mika finished her cigarette she tossed it down the rock face and filmed it; I looked at the cigarette all the way to the bottom and so did Manu. The cigarette fell on the rubbish but missed the dog. She laughed, a beautiful laugh; she seemed happy and she had this very intense perfume, totally coherent with her laughter.

Soon we started walking again, sloping upward a narrow street that seemed to get narrower with every step. The sun, barely visible, dropped between tall houses, breaking through clothes hanging out to dry from side to side. My eyes hurt from the sun even though it was almost gone. The scene was too picturesque to be taken seriously, too typically Italian, in a way I couldn’t really explain although I’m half Italian, or so says my passport.

“Tomorrow we can go to Rome… If you want,” he said. I didn’t reply but I thought that I would just take the train to Rome and fuck him and his car – he was in control of the situation as long as he could drive me around. I was going to go to Rome on my own; or maybe just stay in bed all day. Or maybe just take the plane back to London and spend Christmas on my own. Or not, I didn’t know. Mika who was lagging a few metres behind, turned back to the little square we had just left, filming, of course; Manu caught me looking at her.

“I bought the camera for her birthday,” he said. “She wants to do films.”

“Nice camera.”

“It would be good if you talked to her about it… Give her a few tips… You know the drill.”

“Not really…”

“I thought you worked with films…”

“I do. But I don’t do films.”

“I thought you taught film.”

“Yes… Sort of.”

“So?”

“I teach film history, and theory. But I don’t do films – I could never do a film.”

“Still. Talk to her about films when you have a chance; give her a list of films to see, a book to read, something. She’s a nice girl; a bit slow, but good with visual things. She’s obsessed with that fucking camera. She says she wants to do a documentary; but she doesn’t have a clue…”

“That’s commendable,” I said. “I mean, documentaries are great.”

“Yeah, whatever; it keeps her busy. Talk to her… I hate documentaries, bro.”

“Manu, can I have your shades, please?”

“No way!” he said. “It’s not even sunny…”

“I didn’t sleep last night; I’ve got this terrible hangover. Lend me the shades, will you?”

He passed me a pair of aviators; I put them on. The sky was nicer staring behind them; the sky is always nicer from behind a pair of shades. We continued walking and soon we reached what looked like the town centre. The streets were empty and all the shops were closed – it was dead quiet.

“Take me to a bar, Manu. This is depressing,” I said.

“Have you seen any bars?”

“There MUST be a bar…”

“Don’t bet on it.”

He was right, maybe there wasn’t a bar. The only visible thing was the end of the hill and a group of teenage girls coming our way. Manu stared at them as they walked past. He turned around and saw that Mika was quite far, filming something high above, probably the clouds.

“They wear too much make up but I’d fuck them anyway.”

“They are too young…”

“They are never too young. They are either legal or illegal.” I didn’t reply.

We reached the top of the hill – there was a church. All town was standing there, on the sidewalk, in the middle of the square. Cars parked everywhere. Old and young, kids running around. A funeral, a wedding, a baptism, something, a reason to put make-up on, to wear your good clothes, to turn up in a shiny car. We walked past a group of young men – I found it striking that several of them had plucked eyebrows.

Salve,” said Manu . “Cè un bar qui intorno?”.

He spoke with them for a while, then said ‘grazie a couple of times and we kept walking.

“There’s a café up there,” he said. Mika caught up with us.

“I shouldn’t be filming you from behind,” she told Manu. “You’re going bald.” Manu didn’t answer. She stopped filming him and directed the camera towards me. I threw my cigarette on the floor and tried to crush it with my left foot but missed it, stumbled, and kept walking to break a fall.

“You missed the cigarette butt. Why?” asked Mika.

“What do you mean ‘why’?”

“Yes… Did you miss it on purpose?”

“Not really… I should have tried with my right foot,” I said.

“Do you want to do another take?” she asked.

“Sure.” We went back some metres and she filmed me trampling on the butt. Manu watched from the distance. I found the second take easier than the first one.

“Cut,” said Mika and we kept walking.

Soon we reached a little square with a fountain, a telephone box, a café, and a couple of tables by the sidewalk. Manu walked into the café; Mika and I sat at one of the little tables. It crossed my mind that Manu hadn’t asked what we wanted to have. He would probably bring a coffee when all I wanted was a large glass of red wine.

“He didn’t ask…” I said.

“He never asks,” said Mika from behind the camera. She was filming the table arrangement, some floral tacky thing. I looked around – there was a fat idiot kid playing with the telephone box, shoving a piece of wire manically into the coin slot. I became hypnotised with him, jerking the wire, completely taken over by his piece of wire and the phone box; on and on and on, making love to it. God knows what he was trying to achieve or if he could even think of achieving anything. He was one with that wire and the phone box. I envied him.

“Film that retard,” I said to Mika and she pointed the camera towards him and eyed me from behind the lens – she didn’t say anything but I felt her disapproval. “Yes, I shouldn’t use that word,” I said and winked at her. She smiled back and then kept filming the kid.

“Fuck!” she said.

“What?”

“I’ve run out of batteries!” She laughed very loud; I laughed too.

“Just look at him instead. Then film yourself talking about him, at home; about not being able to capture what you see, something like that,” I said. “It would work well – it’s self-reflexive; people like self-reflexive shit.”

“What do you mean by ‘self-reflexive’?” she asked.

“As in a film about making a film,” I said.

“That’s brilliant…” she said and lit up a new cigarette. She stayed quiet, watching the kid. “You know a lot about film,” she added a bit later.

“Yes,” I said.

“Give me a tip…”

“Oh, that’s hard.”

“Just one tip,” she said.

“Hmmm… You mean another one!”

“Come on!”

“It’s all in the details.”

“Interesting… How?”

“Yes… In the details, like that kid and the phone booth. If this was a film about you and me, let’s say about an affair between you and me, I would pay more attention to him than to you and me.”

“What does he have to do with you and me?”

“Exactly!”

She stayed quiet.

“I’ll think about it,” she said at last, and smiled, just as Manu came back and placed a tray with three espressos on our table.

We stayed a bit longer, laughing at the kid and his phone box, Manu and I chatting about Christmas, the family back home, about never going back. Mika stayed quiet throughout, smiling at me every tenderly now and then. When we left, the kid was still there, shoving his piece of wire into the phone box in the dark.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

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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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Jan 032015
 

michel-de-montaigne-006

 

Each summer and into the early fall, my wife, the painter Kathryn Jankus Day, and I take up residence at L’Étang, a 16th-century farmhouse on the estate of Michel de Montaigne just outside the village of St. Michel de Montaigne. The farmhouse sits in a valley near a pond below the Montaigne castle—a huge Disney-like 19th-century Loire valley imitation built after a maid set fire to the original castle in order to steal some jewelry. Or so the local story goes. Montaigne would be skeptical.

Montaigne’s tower (where he wrote his essays) did not burn, and to this day you can take a narrow, circular stone stairway up to his round study where there sits a full-sized cloth mannequin of Montaigne himself. He is arranged as if reading the facsimile of the Bordeaux edition of his essays on the table in front of him.

Above this faux Montaigne are carved into the ceiling beams his beloved quotations from the ancients: I don’t understand, I am in doubt, (both from Sextus Empiricus) among more than 50 others. The judgments of the Lord are a vast abyss (Psalm 35); There is much to be said on all matters, both for and against (Homer, The Iliad).

montaignes-tower-13

It will bring you luck (again, according to local lore) if, during your visit to Montaigne’s tower, you see on the stairs—or in the study itself—a black and white cat. The cat’s name is Balzac. He was once our cat, a lost-and-found kitty we rescued from a poplar woods near St. Michel de Montaigne, a woods we have since named Bois de Balzac. My wife and I not only have our patois, we are the ones who started the story about spotting Balzac in Montaigne’s tower bringing good luck. We believe in local lore.

Montaigne’s famous inquiry is persistent: What do we know? As is its modern corollary: How do we know? The first question was Montaigne’s motto: Que sais-je? The second concerns our age of “expanding information,” superhighways of information that race in an infinite number of lanes around the earth on cosmic beltways, complete with cloverleafs and exits—Paris, Rome, Athens, Bombay, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, St. Michel de Montaigne, Bly, Kansas—all going faster by far than “break-neck speed,” a phrase my mother would use to describe cars that passed our two-door Champion Studebaker as my father drove the R&P speed limit (Reasonable and Proper) on the roads of rural Kansas. Where are they going at “break-neck speed?” my mother would wonder. What madness is it? my father would reply.

Where are we all going at our 21st-century cosmic pace?—a pace that is not only to be contrasted with the R&P limits of 1950s Kansas roads, but with the walk-along rate of the Dordogne River that flows in the valley below Montaigne’s tower: past the village of Lamothe, Montravel, then west to Castillon, Branne, Libourne and Fronsac—after which it joins the Gironde near Bourg. Then to sea. Where is the strong brown god of the river going? At what speed? Are we flowing with it? What do we know?

montaigne_towerMontaigne’s Tower

Does it mean something to how we know that it would have taken Montaigne four days on horseback to follow the Dordogne to Bourg and back in order to learn—and return with—the news that the grape harvest along the Côte de Bourg was just as bad as it had been for the Côte de Castillon? Does it make a difference to what we know that my father had to drive to see my uncle (who had no phone) to tell him of a death in the family? And to return with my uncle who wanted to stay with us that night because, as my mother said, he was feeling “mortal,”—and that that was the first time I had heard that word and was afraid to ask its meaning. Is there a ratio of speed to knowledge? Of information to knowledge? Of information to ignorance? Which of these ratios are literal? Which are inverse, ironic? What do we ever know? Seeing Balzac brings you good luck. If you say so.

I like Montaigne’s way of thinking. In college I came to study him—as perhaps we all did—as the père of the essay. He was a master of “form.” There were forms of literature in those days: novels, poems, short stories, essays. We were taught that the French word essai meant “to try,” “to attempt.” I don’t remember any of us asking what we were to “attempt” when we took to writing our own essays; but over the years, it has occurred to me that in main we are to try to think. Not so much to “reason”—as if an essay were a pudgy syllogism—but to think in a contemplative way, a tentative way. An essay as a walk along a road taken in search of a discovered thought provoked by a singular image: the black bird in the cedar limbs just as it is beginning to snow—and is going to snow.

In this way we let our words discover our reason. Is it a way of knowing? Maybe. Is it a way of knowing everything? Maybe. It is a way of knowing yourself, then, to wit Montaigne: “There is nothing so contrary to my style as continuous narrative.” Walks with stops as digressions. Not a four-day, but a six-day trip to Bourg and back if on the way you ride your horse up the steep hill to St. Emillon and consider what there is to see. The Dordogne in the valley below. Someone on horseback riding toward Bourg. An essay on the move. The essay as a form of life. A way of knowing as a way of life.

—Robert Day

g
Robert Day

Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love premiered here on Numéro Cinq in its entirety as a serial novel and will be published in fall 2014 by Mammoth Publications. Prior to that, his most recent book was Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Jan 022015
 

Author photo by Christine McNair

 

Life is too short for a long story.
—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (15 May 1689 – 21 August 1762)

Writing is a passion in the language that will never fit into the world, into lived experience, words. Afterward: birth.
—Chus Pato, trans. Erín Moure, Secession

 

1.

Fiction takes forever. One slow word against another.

Tales are told of writers who spend a day to add a single word, as the subsequent day might just be spent removing it. Yes, this happens. Others write in concentrated bursts, and very little after; at least, until the next burst.

The most important writing lesson: patience. The second: learning to recognize what works best for what it is you think you want to do. How to do the writing you do, and do it best. I think my own work a combination of the day spent adding and removing, and the productive, compressed burst. The slow, repeated carve.

But then: the rare compression so dense it explodes for days, or even weeks, leaving a wake of drafts and finished works. A writing big bang.

I’ve a single short story I’ve been poking at for more than two years, less than one hundred words in length. I haven’t yet figured out the hinge on which to hold two semi-connected thoughts. The one phrase that makes it perfect.

Aiming for sentences you could bounce a quarter off. Tight.

This is about precision.

/

2.

First drafts come in fits, and starts. In rushes. Longhand scraps grafted to the flesh of earlier drafts. Stitch and scratch and scrape. One word, and another. Move or remove sentences, whole paragraphs. Let it sit and sink in the head awhile.

Each story akin to an image that shifts, and moves about, before coming into focus. Ah, yes. This. However long this takes.

Afternoons in pubs or coffeeshops away from laptop, during those periods my mother-in-law enables childcare. What my days have shifted into, and my next few years. During bursts of baby-sleep I rush to office desk and tinker. Move another set of words, aside. Attempt to figure out what else the story requires.

/

3.

As scientists tell us: life is, in fact, imaginary. Not what occurs, but our responses, perceived and stewed inside a chemical meat. We might mention narrative. This, too, is invented.

It’s a complicated weave. Stories patched together via stitches of imagination, overheard or half-remembered phrases, images and instigations, queries, stolen half-memories, family secrets, all of which evolve into a single work that makes sense on its own terms. Somehow. Through craft and care and steady work.

Description should not exist for its own sake. Nor should anything else.

I’ve a character with a dead mother; I recall the emotion, ascribe the same to her, but in entirely different circumstances. Everything I write is true, but might never have happened, and not necessarily in that order.

/

4.

Kill your darlings, they say. I’m not convinced. You don’t excise the extraordinary to smooth or soothe the mundane. It should force the text as a whole to be stronger. Kill, instead, the weak. A strong roof will collapse beneath poor walls and foundation. A strong roof on the wrong house will seem out of place.

Akin to extracting grey hairs as they surface. You can’t help but end with nothing.

/

5.

The Nihilist Spasm Band: “I Have Nothing to Say / But I can say it very well.”

Writing not to tell what it is already known, but instead, to problem-solve. To troubleshoot. We create problems for the sake of unraveling, to figure out. Explore. Not the idea of nothing to say.

George Bowering once wrote: Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Otherwise, you might never learn.

This is something you might already know.

/

6.

Fiction is something built, constructed out of parts, not out of thin air. Between empathy and experience, we speculate, articulate and guess. What would happen if? What would that character do, or not do? And what might happen then? Who are you, really? We slip our own thoughts and curiosities within. We slip in other things we’ve heard, or only read about. Invent, at times.

Who was it, said of writing: we battle laziness and lies, in our search for the truth.

Not that such a thing exists: truth, at least in terms of absolute. Even objectivity is subject to bias. IQ tests taken by smarter apes, who answer that the safest place during a lightning storm is in the branches of a tree. We would be wrong, but they are not. Discuss.

Sketch out, and if by chance, impart. Sometimes a clarification, a shift in perception, an alternate point-of-view. Other times, a warning. If you’re lucky, the occasional wisdom.

This whole piece, an invention. Perhaps none of this has happened.

—rob mclennan

 

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

 

 

Jan 012015
 

PicsArt_1413674718519Roger Weingarten

.

To the Day [Prague 7/13/08; Burlington 3/13]

the panhandler on her knees, forearms
and forehead pressing the tourist
littered street, cups her hands.

To the day I closed
in on the clean
shaven red-cheeked man who lifts

the vagrant to her feet and cups
her face in manicured fingers, chanting
to her in a tongue I’ll never

get the real
gist of, his
smile—like the cuckolded

Joseph cradling his infant
stepson—aglow. Months
ago, to the day, when the deep-set

hazel eyes of this
Lazarus open to what
seems to be someone else’s

heart executing
a tango with itself on two
monitors, I ask the hovering

jowls filling the green
mask, when can I have
sex. Wrong

question, my little Isaac,
it smirked. Your heart’s
undamaged and you can screw

the world into the next
century only
when I say so. To the day

when I ask the Joseph smile if he
speaks English, and he nods. Then ask
this woman if it’s easier

to die if you
are already dead. Who, he asks,
going pale, the hell are you,

then lifts the tattered
beggar into his arms
and walks away.

 

Self-Portrait in the Convex Bumper of a Ford Woody

Hunched woman
in a babushka waddling

up the subway
stairs shlepping her

life in the two
bags under her eyes,

spits, but he’s
a jew to the un

dead voice in her head. Good
shabbos, old

mother, I offer, and touch
a fingertip to my black

skullcap, and take a shot
at a smile. Please, Little

Mike, she coaxes, carry these
bags to the street, and if you’re

nice, I’ll give you a nickel. My childhood
name slashed

across her face and the pale
blue numbers of hers

tattooed to her wrist pull
the breath out of my lungs and me

back to a self
portrait in the convex

bumper of a Ford
woody easing

its way out of the gates
of a neighborhood restricted

to Jews. Tow
headed boys toss in the back

seat, while a woman
wearing a hat and net veil

over her eyes mouths
kike through the passenger

window. My eight-year old
jaw dropped while what remained
of my childhood straddled
my bike.

 

Dear Reader, Dear Father, the Last

time we spoke you were peeved
I told you my brother backed

his Harley over your plot, dis
mounting to water the fake

bouquet. Please forgive that
artifact. This

time, I wake next to my half
gentile wife mysterious in pink

ear plugs and eye mask
to behold—sticking out

of my most blocked
aperture—your chemo-blotched

skull wondering
why you didn’t have the moil

throw me away and keep
the foreskin. Father, aren’t you

supposed to be rolling
over in your gated high

rise ultra reform air conditioned
catafalque somewhere along the eastern

seaboard? Roger, after
your mother’s ill will flew in to recite

your masterpiece—“Old Fart Leaves
Millions to the Hezbollah”—the congregation

voted to disinter. I hadn’t heard, Pops, but after
Uncle Manny of Lost Causes blurted to the millennial

Passover table that Stalin
pronounced Mayakovsky’s death a suicide,

he whispered into his napkin tucked
into his collar that you were jealous

when you said you never
fathomed a word I wrote. Zun, your brother still

owes me a finfer and eight cents,
your sister hasn’t spoken

to me since I cut her
out of my life, and the gravy

over it all is your ex-
stepmother’s shtupping

a one-legged republican semi-
retired cosmetic surgeon, so I

have no one and nothing to haunt
from this grave but you and this blood

feud of a poem. My period’s
weeks late, Mystery Wife

mutters to my dream
counterpart. What are you, sweet

husband, going
to do about it?

 

See Below

See beneath the Poughkeepsie
Picasso pasadoble

premonition projected
on the domed
planetarium night. See behind eyelids

cupping red-eyed
grief churning weeds into drifting

toward a great
northern loon and her bobbing
chick about to plunge

through a daydreamed
hand that lifts me into a whispered

you need to wake now and leave
through the emergency. Plumb white
capped haze that

surrounds the capsized—you
put your left foot in, you put

your right foot out—canoe, under
which Little Brother’s
knuckles—clutching metal

thwarts cursing our father who aren’t
in heaven—slap the dome, upside

down and bobbing
on a wake, a wake
replete with schnapps and honey

cake crumbs scattered
across linen, absent

the hokey pokey first and tipsy
second born. Low-rise
low brow post

modern plumber/anti
Rilkean prankster, don’t I,

like Pablo’s Minotaur
with Javelin and a Woman
Hostage, just

love my life? Never
wake. Never. Hallelujah.

 

For the Smoker

You know who you are and how
sorry I was to read in The Times that

even tertiary smoke, in wall
paper, carpet or oozing

out of pores under
your thinning mop had

proven toxic. After a toad
in the hole and grits slathered in hot sauce

pick-me-up, you tell me your two
packs a day is strapped

to a brown study wrapped
in an exploding star. Because

your ex wrote in lipstick, Dear
Ashtray Breath, no one ever offered

to bronze my pussy on your vanity
mirror you tried to erase with a gold

fingertip, I tried to console. I’m not
complaining, compadre—I can twig to hanging

out in twenty below stomping
my feet with a clot of future

lung cancer patients trailing
oxygen tanks, whistling That

Reincarnated Buzzard Blown
off a Shit Wagon by the Smell

of Your Breath Blues.
I’ll never forget

leaning my chair back into a hot
radiator in the urology ward next to my

post-op crony—who just had a conga line
of venereal polyps removed from his

busy day—watching ephysema
help the old guy across the aisle breathe,

like a chainsaw cutting stone, his last
as the steaming metal branded

the back of his liver
spotted hand. My granddad punched

cows in Wyoming his seventeenth
year on this planet, the first

Jewboy cowboy according
to his sister, who told me over a box of old

snapshots he’d have lived
forever if he didn’t vote for Nixon or roll

his own from makings he grew behind
a stone tool shed. She dug

pre-Socratic Greek poets, pink
meringues, devoted her

life to cancer research, and slipped
away in her sleep at a hundred

and seven while we were snowshoeing
a mountain trail we had, at our

age, according to Who
Gives A Flying Fuck, no business on. Your one

habit, you say with a smirk, crushing
a butt underfoot, in your most

monastic voice, before we bend
over a frozen mound of bear scat.

 

Light Year of Mr. and Mrs. Hammered Horseshit

Bubonic insomnia surrounds the darkest
part of their shadow falling

out of both sides of a pillow
top model of the solar
system in which planetary

phases and feline
satellites move at relative
velocities around Herr
und Frau Gehämmert Pferdeäpfel’s
mechanical bed. Like stressed

desserts, they pull the Hidden
Star heirloom quilt fondant-taut
over a nebula of flannel
sheets soft as Depression
Cake then step
into a constellation of cat
puke in the hall. Frau looks

down at meteoroids shooting
across her night
blue toenails. Herr looks up
through charged
particles in the magnetic
field between them, and says—just
as asteroid Belle Starr
the Cat brushes his ankle—I’m pretty
sure you think I’m just a sleepless
sentimental slob in close
orbit around the celestial

aureoles of your soul, but I can’t
breathe without your moon
square Venus. Quasi
stellar in her threadbare
bathrobe that radiates
a redshift, she slows,
stops, and moves in the opposite
direction. It’s OK, she says, reciting
primes and reaching
for the planemo of his
left hand, pulling it
back into perigee with her belly
climbing their ultra-galactic
bed chamber orrery, from which,
with the Littlest
Dipper of his right foot,
he clicks the door.

—Roger Weingarten

.

Roger Weingarten, author of ten collections of poetry, and co-editor of eight poetry and prose anthologies, has lectured, taught and read at writers’ conferences, poetry festivals, and universities nationally and internationally. He founded and taught in the MFA in Writing and the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Louisville Review Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Literature. Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent: co-edited with Andrey Gritsman, Interpoezia Press, was published in 2008, Premature Elegy by Firelight by Longleaf Press in 2007, and Open Book: Essays from the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, co-edited with Kate Fetherston by Cambridge Scholars’ Press in 2007. The poems published here are from his new collection, The Four Gentlemen and Their Footman, due out with Longleaf Press in 2015.

Dec 312014
 

turchi-peter-2014

“…every well constructed piece of fiction has elements of a puzzle, and every piece of fiction that means to provoke readers to a state of wonder or contemplation has at least some element of mystery. “

— Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic —

amuseamaze-cover-final-for-pgw-2-19-14-lowres

A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic
Peter Turchi
Trinity University Press, 2014
244 pages, $29.95
ISBN 9781595341938

/

Ten days before Christmas 2014, Powell’s Books in Portland posted its online list of Best Books of 2014, prefacing the post with these words: “Here are the new releases across six categories that left us inspired, bewildered, and a little bit wiser.” Books that leave us inspired and a little bit wiser – these are the conventional guidelines for choosing favorites. Who doesn’t want that from a good book? But then there’s that other word: “bewildered.” That word makes us pause. Really? Do we want to be bewildered by the stories and poems we read?

Peter Turchi answers that question with a resounding yes in his intriguing (and, yes, bewildering and inspiring) new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic. To leave readers slightly bewildered, to leave them with some questions answered but also with the understanding that other questions are unanswerable, to challenge readers to be satisfied with uncertainty – that’s exactly what Turchi encourages in this book.

Though equally interesting for the general reader, A Muse and a Maze (the title itself is a bit of a game) is directed mainly at writers. The writer Robert Boswell in an interview for Fiction Writers’ Review says, “It’s not a craft book but a rumination on the impulse to write and how that impulse may be related to other human desires.”

So A Muse and a Maze is not a textbook, nor is it a manual. It is not divided into the usual craft-book chapters addressing point of view, voice, syntax, setting, characterization, plot (Turchi’s analysis of work by Chekhov suggests we think hard about whether stories are really just about events), and structure, though the book addresses all of those and then some over the course of its six offbeat sections (plus introductory notes entitled “The Contemplation of Recurring Patterns”):

1. Directions for Attaining Knowledge of All Dark Things
2. How, from Such Wreckage, We Evolve the Eventual Effect
3. Seven Clever Pieces
4. The Treasure Hunter’s Dilemma
5. The Line, the Pyramid, and the Labyrinth
6. The Pleasures of Difficulty

What Turchi has done in this book is examine a fiction writer’s attitude toward his material, with writers compared initially to puzzle-makers (in the style of Will Shortz, crossword puzzle designer for the New York Times, and Howard Garns, the inventor of what we now know as Sudoku) and magicians (a la Harry Houdini.) Seen from this perspective, the writer’s job is to make conscious choices about the puzzle or the illusion he or she is creating, in order to produce a certain “effect.” To be able to do that, Turchi explains, is to control not necessarily what the audience sees, but what the audience thinks it sees (and, he adds later, what the audience wants to think it sees.) Writing, like magic, is about “the creation of a credible illusion” – with the key aspect being credibility (with credibility often established by a careful writer’s observation and recognition of recurring patterns.)

Interestingly, the word “illusion” is used more often by magicians than the word “trick,” which suggest gimmickry at the heart of their work. Turchi explains that Harry Houdini, who used gimmickry (mirrors in a box) for his famous Disappearing Elephant illusion, cut the elephant out of his act when he realized the audience reaction to its disappearance was lukewarm. His admirers were much more captivated by his fabricated identity — Houdini, the exotic, bare-chested escape artist who defied death.

With most puzzles the goal is limited to finding a solution. Not so with fiction:

The composer of a puzzle means to present a challenge, but also intends for his audience to solve it. A magician presents an illusion with the understanding that, while it can be “solved,” or explained, his purpose is to disguise that solution so we can experience something that, however briefly, transcends rational understanding. It’s tempting to say that a writer, then, is a kind of magician.

Turchi encourages us to resist that temptation. He does a fine job of delineating what genre writers offers us – they are the performers, the magicians, offering us entertainment and a solution to the puzzle; in his description of this type of writing, he doesn’t adopt an attitude of superiority; as a puzzle-lover himself, Turchi appreciates a good detective novel, but he persuades us that the destination of the typical mystery is that solution to the whodunit. There is a crime, clues are dispensed prescriptively along the way. The click of the puzzle-box closing – that’s what is required by readers of genre fiction. In other words, Professor Plum killed Ms. Scarlet in the Conservatory with the candlestick. End of game.

Literary fiction (or mysteries that move a more literary direction) is similar to puzzle-building (the “strategic arrangement” of pieces of the narrative) with this important difference:

…while composing a piece of fiction is like assembling a puzzle, the finished work is not presented by the writer as a puzzle for the reader to solve. There may be puzzles within the story, elements of plot or character or imagery or meaning that require the reader’s active participation, but the story as a whole is not a problem with a solution. Like Ariadne’s thread allowing Theseus to journey into –and out of – the mythical labyrinth, a story means to lead the reader somewhere. But the destination isn’t a monster, or a pot of gold, or a bit of wisdom. Instead, the destination is something – or several things – to contemplate. The best stories and novels lead the reader not to an explanation, but to a place of wonder.

Puzzles, then, can be elegant combinations of functionality, clarity, economy and cleverness, but they are closed systems; stories (at least the kind that linger) are open.

In a recent interview Turchi said, “… one of my goals was to explore the seemingly perverse pleasure to be had from constraints, or form. The joke of Calvinball in the Calvin and Hobbes comic was that a game with no rules is exhausting.” Both puzzles and poetry can be subjected to formal constraints – the formal requirements of a villanelle, for example, can be compared to the rules of Sudoku, and Turchi obliges us with a list of said constraints for both; he is among the endangered species of people who believe constraints help, rather than hobble, beginning writers, giving them “a container to work in and against.” Leonardo da Vinci, too, was a fan of rules: “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” Of course, the trick (or is it an illusion?) is to make the constraints invisible to the audience.

The book offers up discussions, too, of the fluidity of language, the multiplicity of selves, the concept of “flow state,” the idea of artistic obsession (softening the sound of that sometimes by calling it “devoted attention”) and the cultivation by writers of curiosity and observational skills; there is a stimulating section about “difficulty” in fiction, and the idea of narrative non-linearity. Turchi suggests a new openness in today’s world to experiments with structure and sees that experimentation running parallel to an increased interest in game-playing technologies. He encourages openness to the way narrative structures can be turned upside down and inside out, backwards, forwards, in fragments, in meta-textual ways, defying convention, and he has plenty of examples to support that approach – not bad for a man who also appreciates what formal constraints can teach us. Turchi is always careful to moderate his enthusiasms with a few warnings; for example, he enjoys “mystery” in the sense of a reader being left contemplating unanswerable questions and/or the darker side of our characters, but he warns us that stories should not “collapse under the weight of uncertainty.” Few stories succeed without some kind of plot line; as Turchi says “…without that horse and the snowy evening we’d care less about why Robert Frost was in a funk.”

The author takes a focused look at several writers – Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens (like Houdini, a fabricated identity), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov – and glimpses at a dizzying number of other artists, including visual artists (Anish Kappor, Charles Ritchie, Norman Rockwell, Van Gogh) and verbal artists (Jerry Seinfeld); Lewis Carroll (master mathematician, puzzle-maker and writer) gets a look, as do Michael Ondaatje, James Salter, Raymond Chandler, David Shields, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike, among others (such as the Wizard of Oz.)  One of my favorite quotations among many highlighted in the book is delivered by Tim O’Brien:

Characterization is achieved…through a process that opens up and releases mysteries of the human spirit. The object is not to “solve” a character – to expose some hidden secret – but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself.

I thought often, as I read this book, of Warren Motte, whose book Mirror Gazing I reviewed in Numéro Cinq’s June 2014 issue. Turchi’s  discussion of the multiplicity of selves within each character we create made me think about the act of looking into mirrors, and how we then ask ourselves, “Who am I? How have I become who I am?” As readers or movie-watchers, what we want to see and think about are the “stress fractures in the surface of a character.” Using tangrams (there is one to cut out on the last page of the book) Turchi talks about how shapes/characters are assembled via the rearrangement of “seven clever pieces.” With Walt Whitman’s famous line (“I contain multitudes”) resounding in our ears, the answer to “Who am I?” seems to depend on who is doing the arranging. There is “no single logical sequence….only possibilities to ponder, ”says Turchi.

The author suggests his new book as a companion, not a sequel, to his equally interesting book about the process of writing, Maps of the Imagination. “Both books are, at least in part, about ways in which a piece of writing is designed. They both mean to invite writers to think differently about what we do.” He’s eager to have us remember that there is playfulness, in addition to effort, in art, and he bemoans the fact that a sense of delight in the creation of art often gets overlooked in conversations about craft. The author’s own sense of humor comes shining through – this is not dusty, academic writing. Nor does it limit itself strictly to writing advice. The author allows himself to comment on the culture at large:

The patience and willingness to embrace complexity seems particularly important these days, when much of the rhetoric of business and politics is devoted to reducing and simplifying people and problems. Easy understanding comes at a high price. One of the things fiction and poetry can do is to remind us of the value of refusing to rush to judgment, the need not just to recognize, but to accept, complexity and mystery.

In the interview at Fiction Writers Review, Turchi says, “…in talking about the virtues of obsession I’m really talking about the virtues of sustained concentration, of patience.”

Reader beware: Numerous brain-teasing puzzles are inserted into both text and margins of this book, making it difficult to turn the page before trying to find solutions. Either grab your pencil and write directly into the book as you look for the answers, or – if you’re less obsessive about puzzle-solving – move on and stick to the task at hand: reading Turchi’s text. The puzzles really do exert a pull, though, even if they reminded me occasionally of the logic puzzles I failed to solve in my Graduate Record Exams – the ones that begin “John, Daniel, Mary, Jeanette and Olivia all have flags of different colors…”  You know the type. They make my head hurt. Pages 28 and 29 involve an acrostic designed especially for the book by puzzle-man Michael Ashley – if you can solve it, you can enter your answer online and try to win a jigsaw puzzle of the cover of the book.

The cover, by the way, extends the discussion of the multiplicity of selves by portraying two young men in the same face – turn the cover upside down and you see someone with black hair, wide red lips and a golden collar; right-side-up the collar becomes a turban, and the man has a mustache and black beard. It’s amusing. And amazing. And bewildering. And fun.

— Julie Larios

Flipped A Muse and a Maze

/
May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

 

 

Dec 312014
 

helberg pic

In the slider at the Top of the Page this month — the work of a relative newcomer to the masthead, Natalie Helberg, who wrote her first piece for NC for the November, 2013, issue. I didn’t know her. She came to us through a recommendation from Eric Foley. And never has a tip like that worked so well. Natalie is smart and erudite, well read in critical theory, with a taste for the experimental and the avant garde. She writes like a dream, clear and complex, with a touch of the mimic in her approach (you can see her trying out the techniques of the authors she is writing about). She’s contributed a wonderful series of reviews, interviews and review essays. A perfect fit, in other words.

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is currently pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto.