Nov 052016
 

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Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

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Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

I.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book ReviewBooks in CanadaThe Review of Contemporary FictionThe Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.
Nov 042016
 

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In this passage the unnamed narrator is staying in Connemara in Galway County, Ireland. He rides a bicycle down to the seashore and reflects on death and the journey of Famine refugees across the ocean. His attention then turns to an outing in the same region with Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who acts as his occasional driver and tour guide. Gjini talks of his own experiences as a refugee. —Joseph Schreiber

Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Like a mirage at the end of the road, without reflection or gleam, dark and grey, a geometric plane shadowed in pencil on a yellowed sheet of drawing paper – that’s what the sea looked like – shallow, motionless, monastery beer spilled into eternity on to a black stone floor, but mainly trapped in a wide, ever wider, nearly limitless landscape; the nearer I was to the shore, the greater, the more impressive was the bay, in the middle of which stood a black lighthouse on sharp rocks, no bigger than a wizard’s ring, hovering on the motionless surface, while the master’s pale hand, still wearing it proudly, had long ago sunk beneath the sea. Without braking, I went down off the asphalt road on to a wide, neatly mowed grassy area in front of the boathouse and rode up to the sea. I leaned the bicycle against a low breakwater that was protecting the lawn from the high tide and slowly made my way over the grey sand, between the slippery rocks, the black pebbles and the rotting seaweed, into the oneness, the residue and abandonment, the world that remained when that sunken, dead arm last unclenched its hand and released the silt on which I now stepped, I thought as the smell washed over me, as if I was standing in an old, abandoned, invisible maritime cemetery, eerily beautiful none the less, like the romantic landscapes of the Old Masters. Death comes here to rest, the thought ran through me, after guiding the wandering, lost souls every day on their final journey, taking them far across the sea, to invisible islands chiselled from soft white light and overgrown with tall, dark silences, like a lyric nocturne in the middle of the sea; and after traversing the width and breadth of Europe, this is where she lays down her cold, sharp work tool, on this remote and hidden shore, and maybe for the first time in her eternal deathly life she lets slip from her shoulders the foggy shroud that shields her dark and hollow radiance, which pulses like a lighthouse from another world. Now I was hearing death with every cautious step I took in the black sand, sensing it in the swell, the gleam of the motionless waters, in every story, every marker along the road; I saw it on the threshold of every lonely deserted house standing open to the sky, roofless, without window or door, without a crucifix or the Book, which the fugitives

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had taken with them, in good faith perhaps or in mortal terror, on their uncertain voyage across the sea that lay in front of me, and which, if not for ever lost or at the bottom of the sea, are now holy relics safely stored again in a drawer, in a new home across the Atlantic, as a memory of forebears, of a lineage with a forgotten name, and with a consciousness of ancestry, the dark trace of identity that still rings in the soul like a terrible wind in a dream; standing by the shore, I heard it, I saw it everywhere then – death, resting here. The scene, a stirring ritual of farewell, which apart from love is the single most deeply binding gesture that lies in a person’s heart (as the poet Boris A. Novak described it), was repeated, was literally doubled, as if I was hearing the echo of my inner voice, the first time I stood in front of the painting An Island Funeral, then on display at the Galway City Museum, which I visited one afternoon after my return to the city – but first I went with Gjini to the place he had told me about on the drive to Clifden, when we had first met.

A long, narrow road through a gorge, next to the dark, still shores of lakes encircled by mountain peaks, which I couldn’t distinguish from the great veiled white clouds, grey on the edges, that were gathering and rolling through the damp green vapours of the morning air and without accent or nuance in their description settling on

img_2229the muted orange wasteland, the damp and stifling, heavy, crumbling earth, which was hardly breathing, was gasping like tired, smoke-filled lungs, all this dripping damp and piles of mouldering, scorched grass lying on the earth were like a moist fuel, a black fire, burning earth – peat they call it here – which once warmed the walls of houses now a century deserted, which are scattered like lonely lost lambs across the entire country, bleating their harsh and gloomy, mysterious and mournful, but also beautiful and inaccessible, even cruel, Irish poem for human destiny, in an elusive tonality between the pathos of Gothic narrative and elemental folk balladry, or, maybe better, in the style of the romantic landscape painting that I was only now discovering here. That’s how I remember my first trip with the study group to this gloomy, hidden landscape, godforsaken you might say, which is how it seemed to me at the time. I remember that we stopped a few times on the way for no good reason, which from my student experience in my old homeland I found almost unthinkable; I mean that students would simply go trotting off when they had obligations or, worse, would forge friendships, be both drinking partners and academic colleagues, with the professors, Gjini said; so, as I said, whenever the sun came out for a moment and lit up the black surface of the lakes and the murmur of the mountain streams, we would run off far from the cars, away from the road, deep into the peatlands, hiding from the wind and the damp morning fog, which rolled down from the bare reddish peaks that wouldn’t be green for a while still, since winter had not yet breathed its last, and we would lie down between the tall, evenly cut, carefully stacked piles of black, decomposing earth, the peat, which was drying in the meagre sun. There, sheltered by earth, as if we were just now being born, we smoked cigarettes and drained bottles of black beer, and then moved on, a ragtag band of scholars, a brotherhood of professors and students. Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skilfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in the new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me (my first degree I had received long before in Tirana, in political science and journalism) – that’s when I realized we were in some way alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this. I still grab every available moment I can to get in the car and escape here, to this magical, deserted, dark and inhospitable landscape, and for at least an hour or so I put on the mud boots I keep in the car and go for a walk over the damp ground, even when rain is pouring down on me or fog is hiding me; under its protection, in its sheer, shimmering whiteness, as if I was floating high above the waters, in the rediscovered memory of the landscape of my childhood, when I was similarly always getting lost in hollows and pastures, where no foreign word could reach me – my only world, our only world, was built solely of names, with no questions asked about meaning or significance – there, under the protection of silence and always the same faces, which accompanied me from my birth to my emigration and will in a sense be with me until I die, which I feel more and more each year, there I remembered and named things with a mere glance, I lived in an endless, silent and humble presence, there was nothing I missed or needed, and my whole reality, even the imagination in which I lived my childhood freedom, is still somewhere deep inside me, and from it, from this eternal source, I learn again every day unknown words, search for the deeper, the deceitful meaning of my second life, my immigrant life, Gjini said and was silent for a moment, as if he’d forgotten his point, or maybe we had missed a turn again, I thought. I didn’t see any sign or road marker, I said tentatively, and, in the awkwardness of the moment and just enough to let me wade through the silence, I started assiduously wiping the misted windscreen with my sleeve. When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving. That’s why I come here, he said and looked off into the distance, to relearn the only language left from my childhood, the language of silence, of looking. I walk in silence and observe the landscape, the earth, I lose myself in the fog and soon I can’t make out anything any more; I don’t know who I am or even where I come from, I don’t even remember what language I’m thinking in, what language I name the world in. Then I write a poem. Totally wet, totally sweaty or totally cold, I drag myself back to the car and take a notebook out of the glove compartment,one that Jane gave me, and for a few minutes or until it gets dark, which is when, no matter what, I go home for supper since my family always expects me on the dot, so before I go home, I write. And I always try to translate every word, from one language to the other, so the poem from which I am made doesn’t burn up like earth, like black fire, peat, as they say here. At home, of course, we all speak Albanian around the table, not just my wife and older boy, but even our little girl, who was born here. Enough so she doesn’t forget where we come from, Gjini said and, taking a long bend in the road, he silently and with unusual concentration slowed the car, as if he was getting ready to make an important announcement; I could feel the tension and weight of his silence; then came a rumbling sound and a moment later the grey and weary road was flooded, the surface heaving with water; the storm, which came down into the gorge like an avalanche from the surrounding peaks, poured on to the road and the car was carried as if in the middle of a turbulent ocean. All I could see through the misted windscreen, which I was now wiping frantically with my sweater sleeve, were long translucent ribbons of water pouring down faster and faster, harder and harder from the low clouds, like a densely woven curtain; despite the gusting wind, which was constantly shifting the direction of the waves on the road, the heavy drops were falling to the earth in perfectly parallel lines, as in some ideal garden of pure Euclidean forms, and the very next moment, even before we had completed the bend in the road, even before I had made another desperate sweep of my arm to open a tiny slit for my eye, which searched for a view of the sky, as if seeking an answer or making a request – that’s when Gjini, with a curse on his lips and a curse in the corner of his eye, slammed on the brakes. There was pounding and popping, like stones hailing down on us, and when the roar of the rushing waters beneath the wheels had subsided a little, all we could do was gather our strength. Gjini, without a word of warning or any indication, hastily shoved open the door and I saw not a river but a turbulent sea racing past, and then this man, my guide, the only creature I knew in

img_2360the middle of this deluge, stepped knee-high into the raging waters, in his shirtsleeves, with just a linen hat on his head, and vanished in the diagonal rain. His blurry shadow, which I tried to catch through the mist on the foggy windscreen, evaporated like a soul cut from its body, even before I could wipe the glass with my hand.

—Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau

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dusan-sarotar

Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012).

grau

Rawley Grau holds a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of Toronto. His translations from Slovene include a book of essays by Aleš Debeljak (The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, 2004), a collection of short stories by Boris Pintar (Family Parables, 2009), and a novel by Vlado Žabot (The Succubus, 2010).

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Nov 042016
 

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The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. —Joseph Schreiber

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Panorama
Dušan Šarotar
Translated by Rawley Grau
Peter Owen World Series,  2016
208 pages, £9.99

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Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

So, maybe we could start with a short piece of film. This novel is narrated by an unnamed man who resembles Šarotar—a Slovene writer, of approximately the same age, who travels to various locales, either to work on a manuscript or give a reading. Here then, is a glimpse of the author himself. The setting is the Ljubljana Railway Station. A light snow is falling, and the trains come and go. This video is part of an online documentary project entitled Gathered: The Secret Side of Things We Share in which a number of prominent Slovenian writers, artists, philosophers and other academics were invited to offer their reflections—to muse out loud—about the state of modern society and the impact of technology on our relationships with nature and each other. It dates from 2013, the year before Panorama was originally published and presents, perhaps, a broad context for some of ideas he was exploring at the time.

Šarotar admits that when he sits at the railway station (an activity that will ground several important encounters in the latter part of his novel) he always thinks about time and space: “We are basically determined by time,” he says, “and by the fact that we are mortal, that we come from silence and we are returning to silence.” He goes on to consider that although we have very efficient modern means of transporting people, information and money; the most basic and fragile things, those that capture the essence of our humanity, are always the most difficult to transport through space:

A change in human society always followed a radical change in transport. At first, humans were conquering the steppes, then came the next generation braving the oceans and now we live in a time when mankind has conquered the entire globe and reached the limit. There are no ships, trains or aeroplanes that can take us beyond. We have reached what I call the limit of the universe. Today’s man is ready to head for the universe. It’s an imaginary limit of space and time. Poets, however, would say that the universe is a space within us. So I think it is no longer a question about communication or logistics, it is more about correspondences between the visible and invisible, between what’s the deepest inside us and everything that is furthest outside.

Panorama opens in Galway. The narrator has come to this Irish county, set at the very edge of Europe, to find a quiet place to work on an unfinished manuscript. Upon his arrival, he meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who will serve as his occasional driver and tour guide during his stay. Much of his time will be spent exploring the windswept mountainous landscapes and rugged coastline of the Connemara region. Here, and back in Galway City, he is haunted by thoughts of the thousands of starving refugees who set sail from these shores to face a dangerous and uncertain journey across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Famine. The crumbling abandoned houses and the solemn monuments stand as silent testament to these desperate souls. Migrants and refugees will be a recurring motif throughout the book, as will the related connections between landscape, memory, language, and loss.

As Gjini, who is also a writer, accompanies the narrator on sight-seeing adventures—hikes though the hills, a rough trip out to an outlying island by hydrofoil, a visit Kylemore Abbey—he shares his experiences as a newcomer, arriving eleven years earlier without a word of English, his wife left waiting behind until he can find his footing. Woven into his story, is an account of his friendship with Jane, a woman who had come from North America, to make sense of her own roots and identity. Her father was born in Connemara area. After the Second World War, some good-hearted nuns had put him on a ship bound for Canada, along with other war orphans and immigrants. Her research and journeys had taken her, he said, to Belgium and France and on into Central Europe as far as Sarajevo. As two outsiders, with a connection, however loose, to an area of the world close to the home he was missing, he was happy to have her company and offer his services as a driver. Gjini, and through him Jane’s story, become part of a key thread that will be picked up again, as the narrative progresses.

Shortly after his Irish visit, the narrator travels by train from his home in Slovenia to Brussels. This time, the main purpose of his visit is to give a reading in Ghent. The landscapes that attract his eye here, are urban—gothic structures played against inner-city decay and ruin. While in Belgium he will meet or re-connect with colleagues who have some tie with the states of the former Yugoslavia; individuals who articulate, in their own ways, the complex interrelationship between language and identity, and how it becomes distorted through time. And he will meet up again with Gjini who now, in his role as a freelance journalist, is intent on tracing yet another line of Irish-related migration, that of the Benedictine nuns who abandoned their destroyed convent in Ypres and made their way to Connemara after the First World War. Finally, chronologically speaking at least, the peace the narrator has been seeking for his work on his manuscript is found in Sarajevo where he stays with some friends.

On a superficial level, given this rather rough outline, Panorama might sound like a travel diary. The grainy black-and-white photographs that illustrate the text reinforce this impression. However, the narrator’s travels do not delineate the narrative, as much as they offer a framework against which the voices of his characters can be woven into a larger multi-layered meditation. He allows those he meets and spends time with a space to articulate the tensions they feel between their inner experiences and their relationships to the borders they have crossed in the course of their lives—whether those are lines marking identity, nationality, or even the policed barriers of a city under siege. The disorientation caused by the loss of one’s language, or the lack of contact with others who share one’s native tongue, is a persistent theme. Gjini describes it well on one of their early outings:

When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving.

While in Brussels, he reconnects with Caroline, a fellow writer whom he had met on his first trip to Belgium a few months earlier. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t have my own landscape, I search for and invent the spaces of my language,” explaining that although she was born in Belgium she lost her mother tongue growing up in Spain before she went on to study Romance languages and work in Paris and Nigeria.

…I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond; consider, she had said, people who are immigrants, refugees, the various diasporas, and so I ask myself what is still left to the writer’s experience.

The act of writing, the nature of tangible memory, and the complex relationship between language and landscape are the questions that ground this richly textured novel. Šarotar’s long, winding sentences evoke the meandering flow of reminisces while his narrative effectively compresses time—the encounters the narrator describes are not locked in the moment, they are broken and retrieved, guided by his remembrances of previous meetings, the memories recounted by these friends and colleagues, or even the tale of a complete stranger who buttonholes him after a reading in Ghent, to share—or perhaps confess—a family secret. The absence of chronological consistency creates an ebb and flow of recollections—some directly experienced, some reported and some imagined. In the beginning, the absence of quotation marks within paragraphs that extend for pages on end, can make it difficult to tell exactly who is speaking. Yet, with surrender to the movement between speakers and accounts, the reader will find the confusion falls away as the narrative repeatedly returns to pick up earlier threads and move forward.

The influence of W. G. Sebald is unmistakable, witnessed in the unnamed narrator with a curious similarity to the author, the long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, and by the employment of imbedded photographs. Šarotar has read and been inspired by Sebald’s work. Toward the end of Panorama, he even offers a direct allusion to Austerlitz as the narrator waits to meet a friend at the iconic Antwerp Station. However, Šarotar’s style is not strictly imitative. If Sebald acquired some of his narrative energies from Thomas Bernhard (seen, for example, in the repetitive occurrences of “Austerlitz said” in the secondhand accounts that form the basis that eponymous novel), Šarotar’s work maintains an even stronger Bernhardian sensibility at times, especially in the nesting of Jane’s story within Gjini’s accounts:

… a few times I remember when, after we’d been driving around all day in the car or just walking in the countryside, usually by the sea – she loved the bluffs, the high cliffs with the waves crashing far below; yes, that’s something you still have to see, he said, I’ll definitely try and organize it – yes, so, late at night, when we got back and had already said our goodbyes, he said, Jane would say, I’m going for a swim. I was surprised, of course, and tried to talk her out of it – not now, Jane, it’s late, it’s raining and the waves are rough, I’d tell her, and it’s night, there’s nothing you can see now, Gjini said; the lighthouse, Mutton Light, is shining there in the distance, Jane said; I can see its beam in the darkness, so you go on now, I’m going to have a swim; I’ll meet you here in the morning – good night, Gjini, Jane said; good night, Jane, Gjini said.

As well, with respect to the use of photographs, Šarotar, himself a photographer, is—or at least appears to be—using his images more intentionally. Sebald was a great collector of flea market finds around which he crafted his narratives. The portraits included in this text seem to stand in for characters who may or may not actually exist, but another significant influence on Šarotar’s photography is the work of German photographer and painter, Gerhard Richter. In fact, it is Richter’s retrospective show, “Panorama,” that gives this novel its name. The dramatic stormy cloudscapes that feature in so many photos are especially reminiscent of Richter’s well-known images of clouds.

cloudGerhard Richter, “Cloud Study”

In tone, Šarotar’s prose maintains a distinctly rhythmic poetic feel, captured beautifully in the translation by Rawley Grau. His narrator, a writer, imagines himself in line with the traditions of other Balkan literary heroes, especially Slovenian poet and songwriter, Gregor Strniša, and Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić. The latter’s poignant short story “Letter from 1920” figures toward the end of this novel, as yet another echo of the endless trend of leaving one’s homeland when a viable future can no longer be imagined. This piece is one of a number of Andrić’s stories that could be said to be of questionable autobiographical authenticity, as if truth and imagination are somehow incompatible. Panorama raises the same questions about where the line between fiction and nonfiction lies. But why is that an issue at all?

For Šarotar, it comes down to the way that literature is understood in Central Europe. If asked to draw a distinction between literature and journalism, he says that, for him, literature deals with the soul, that is, it begins with memory; journalism, by contrast, starts with “facts.” He claims to be writing from memories—writing about what it was, not how it was.[1] To enhance that sense of memory, small intentionally misremembered facts are left uncorrected in the text. As a more specific example, he offers an interview with Amos Oz from the Paris Review. When asked about the very serious way Hebrew writers seem to be taken in Israel, in contrast to the way they are seen in the west, Oz responds:

We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. Whether any of the characters, even the narrator, bear more than superficial resemblance to “real” people does not matter. This is a work that gets at the heart of important truths that couldn’t, at this moment, be more relevant. As the human flood pouring into Europe reaches crisis proportions it is more important than ever to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The forces driving the desperate movement of men, women and children—conflict, violence and poverty—have similarly forced individuals, families, and communities to cross waters and borders for millennia. This meditation on memory, time, identity, language and loss circles continually back to the price that migrants and refugees pay and the wounds that never completely heal.

—Joseph Schreiber

 

N5

jschreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. D. Šarotar, (personal communication, Sept. 28, 2016)
Nov 032016
 

jody-and-nicky

x
Trakl’s Daughter

Her hands are cramped in the rain
and the air outside is grey as ruined skin.
Her village is eaten by shame.
Four horses stand waiting
in the wet. As they climb the hilltop
they have a readiness
clenched in their shoulders.
She cannot see them very well,
nor smell the breath from their nostrils
as they loom, ready and huge.
Her hands twist through cold water; tonight
they’ll sleep upside-down against her throat.

I share my father’s birthday —
you can call me Gretl, Elena, Amina, Jane;
There’s nothing mysterious about me.
I could sit down next to you on the train
or hand you the foaming cup across a counter.

Conceived at the edge of a cliff, born
into propriety, I was the wrong fish
in tiny denim overalls playing
with that red, wind-up bird which had flown to me
right out of my father.

For Papa?   Blue apples and lanterns
to blackmail him out of the fog.
The stained slope has darkened, boot-prints and blood.
Is she ready to walk up another ragged hillside?
Dawn drips honey on the horizon
but the way she travels remains in shadow
and the blue apples barely shine.

I trusted you!
But all you gave me was incessant moonlight —
its syringes, glint,
and a bowl of broth
that had already been bitten through.

nc

Talking to Myself on New Year’s Eve

Let me speak for the horse torn by crows
one horse, no rider. Left foreleg
raised up into those crows which have rushed
at his hide, his mane, his flesh
to eye socket and bone.

Let me tell of the small girl, thumb
in mouth, stepping down the street
as she looks side to side and over her shoulder
hair fringed by blood.

Let me sigh for what lived in the forest
and now is ash.

Let me write for the crash of water into the sheepfold,
for the saturation
where nothing will grow and,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxelsewhere,
for those drying winds:
the suffocating crust where nothing
sprouts, or rises even an inch
into the shaken air.

Let me find what calls me to sit for a moment,
sift out my tightened, held breath;
let me write so no one’s shadow
crosses the page without soon
moving freely away –

nc

More Beautiful

Nothing made the evening more beautiful than memory, not that the memory itself had to be lovely or even pleasant, just that the glow of recognition slid warmly down her throat and settled between the ribs. Outside her window the constant gentleman watched. He was never visible but she could feel the flick of his eyes across her shoulders light as silk and it was a comfort to her.

The gentleman in his long wool coat and fedora kept away from the corner streetlamp. Watching the quiet woman sit with her book was calming as though he’d swallowed a joy so deep it could never leave him.

Some evenings the trees were full of leaves, thick and absorbent. Others, the air was chilled, shiftless – the leaves a bitter brown or even fallen and blown away into the cold season. But the street itself always smelled sweet; it was that sweetness which shaped memory out of its drift of smoke.

The woman knows that sometimes memory is brutal and while the gentleman can never rescue her she will, the next morning, stretch out of her bedclothes—imperfect and alive.

nc

Baby

Baby has sweet toes & the boughs
Of the willow drape
gritty with shade. Mum & Dad
swing their knives
through kitchen air while Sister
plucks at Baby’s nose, tickles
her feet. Mum presses at the nick
on her upper arm; Dad’s
flung his knife away. His boot-steps
vanish down the street.
Baby giggles, then wrinkles up her face.
Sister wants to fall asleep
or swim with friends in the boy-flecked lake.
Mum wipes off the kitchen counter,
lifts down bread, jellied meat, mustard
& cheese. She doesn’t want
to call her daughters in, doesn’t
want, but has to.

nc

Only Child

I had a dove and she was fiction.
As I lay on summer grass
looking up through leaves,
she flew right down to me.

I kept my dove beneath my shirt.
At night she roosted on the bedpost
at the edge of dark pools
only I could slip my body into.

I wasn’t the kind of child
who carried death
like an opened book before her.
I tried to keep small, unnoticed.

I had a dove and she told me
stories; her voice,
low and rounded, comforted the air.
In winter we shared a rocking chair

by the icy like window. I held
her small heartbeat against my cheek.
My dove, who said she never lied,
taught me how to.

nc

The Scent of Phlox

travels with her
ahead  .    a dark twist of clouds
and stones spinning up off the highway

her windshield cracks

yesterday    on the window ledge   a dragonfly
caught in a spider web

she touched it with one finger
a moment’s last breath

the purple   phlox
lives in the corner of her eye

her windshield shatters

the road is slick and churning
as she peers straight ahead

two hands tight on the wheel
she remembers when she was five

how tall the bright short-lived sunflowers
between house and barn –

a first telling
of light from the earth

—Pamela Stewart

x
Pamela Stewart (known as Jody) is a true “boomer” and New England born and bred. She took up writing in grade school because she couldn’t draw. She received a BA from Goddard’s ADP Program and an MFA (sort of) from University of Iowa. She’s taught creative writing at several universities including ASU, University of Arizona, UC Irvine, and University of Houston. In 1982 she received a Guggenheim and traveled to Cornwall in the UK, where she returned to live for seven years. Jody came back to western Massachusetts in 1990, and in 1994 she and her then-husband moved to a farm at the edge of Hawley. Over the years she’s published in a number of magazines, received three Pushcart publications, and is the author of six full-length books of poems: The St. Vlas Elegies (L’Epervier press, 1977), Cascades (L’Epervier Press, 1979), Nightblind (Ion Books, 1985), Infrequent Mysteries (Alice James Books, 1991), The Red Window (University of Georgia Press, 1997), and Ghost Farm (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2010.) A chapbook, Just Visiting, was published by Grey Suit Editions, London, in 2014. (All of this quite surprised her mother.) Jody continues to live on the farm with seven dogs, a number of elderly sheep, a rescued race horse, a couple of goats, and some old pigs and birds. At some point she intends to tackle a “new and selected” if the dogs let her, but first she’ll arrange and write a forward to some delightful letters sent between the late poet Lee McCarthy and Guy Davenport. She has a lot to be grateful for.

x
x

Nov 022016
 

Brian Leung, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)

.

She listened to me, that much I know, because when they found her she was wearing house slippers and a blue cotton night gown.  I’d told her to lock the door and go to bed. Yes, she’d listened to me and then forgot halfway through. Her body lay in a heap of weeds near an onramp to the Hollywood Freeway, wild anise a lacy shroud hovering above her small torso. The boy who discovered her thought she was homeless and asleep. I found out about it on the morning news in a live shot, only I had no idea who they were talking about. I had no idea that her son would call me that afternoon with a desperate apology, nor that minutes later I’d ring home for the first time in nine years, that I’d be hung up on and that I’d understand, at last, what she had meant about making family.

Along with a house key and seventeen cents, in her purse the police found my phone number. I know exactly the scrap, the torn corner of a manila folder from weeks earlier, quickly chosen because I wanted her to have something that wouldn’t immediately crumple. Above my number I simply wrote “Brian, Grocery” to distinguish myself from others with the same name whom she might know. I was a checker at a supermarket. When the police called, they ignored the comma and asked to speak with Brian Grocery.

Niola was 82. Sometime during the night she’d left her apartment and walked the length of Melrose Avenue, past shuttered iglesias and late night bodegas, a strip she must have traveled a thousand thousand times in her red and white Oldsmobile 98. A gift from her man in the 1950s when she was a cocktail waitress at the Down Beat. It wasn’t easy then to be Black in Los Angeles, she told me, but it was better than Little Rock.

At first I thought it was a wonder that nobody stopped this confused old woman wearing a nightgown out on the street, but then, it’s L.A. and such a sight wouldn’t necessarily call attention to itself. Or perhaps someone had reached out, in English or Spanish—she could speak both—and she’d called up the veil of lucidity that had fooled even me for a while. “Sólo ando por aqui,” she would have said lightly, or, depending on her audience, “Oh, I’m just headed right over here.” I’d heard the latter many times in the previous weeks.

Based on her injuries, the police surmised that Niola had been sideswiped by a car, but it was the blunt force of her head hitting the ground that killed her. The boy found her wigless, but of course, he wouldn’t have observed that detail. In the few years I’d known her, even in her latter, confused state, I’d only ever once caught the slightest glimpse of the gray hair beneath her wavy black wig. It had gone askew when she fainted in my checkout lane.  Head in my lap, she looked up when I adjusted it into place.  She was a bit dazed, but managed a sly wink.  “Have you called your mama yet?”

I half-smiled, hand supporting the back of her head. She was with it enough to take advantage of the situation, or at least call up her most persistent question. Her wet brown eyes stared up at me, waiting.  The answer was that I had not. My mother had married a man who hated “faggots” and “Arabs.” “A-rabs” as he pronounced it. Mom called it a tick. But I couldn’t bring Lutfi to the house anymore. Lutfi. I hadn’t spoken to him in years either. Niola knew this. Or she had.

§

When the police called, they asked about my connection to “an elderly African-American woman.”  They didn’t use her name because she wasn’t carrying I.D.  They didn’t tell me that she was dead, only that they were trying to locate someone who could identify her.  I told them who she was and gave them my information and told them who I was and what had happened the night before. Maybe it wasn’t in that order. I could barely think because it had finally happened, Niola had gone off and gotten lost and now she was sitting in some police station frightened and confused. Breathless, I gave the police her son’s Oakland phone number. It was the second time I’d done that. Fucking Hebron. Fucking me. I slid to the floor, because for months I’d heard Niola but apparently only half-listened.

§

An hour before the police called I was at Niola’s apartment.  I’d taken her car keys from her the night before. The 98 was in the store’s parking lot. After my shift I drove it over and parked it in her spot. She’d lived in the same apartment for over thirty years, part of a beige, mid-century modern cinderblock complex called The Zephyr that had gotten a little rough around the edges.  Maybe I was being overly optimistic, but I was relieved when she didn’t answer my knock. Her son had listened to me. He’d come and gotten her. To be certain, I tried the security screen, and finding it locked, reached inside the pass-through and tried the inner door, which opened. I called to Niola but nothing. All the curtains were pulled and the lights were off. The stacks of hardcover books rising from the floor all over the living room were just as they were the night before, a diorama of skyscrapers in silhouette.  Niola’s son would have to come back to empty the apartment. I tossed the car keys with their brass saxophone fob toward the coffee table and missed. A clink, and then silence.  Niola had vanished from my life, a fact that left me deeply saddened but relieved.  She’d be safe with her son in Oakland.  I’d made that happen. At least some families could be reunited.

Before I walked back to the store to get my own car, I paused in front of The Zephyr to take one last look.  A pair of tall, thin palm trees divided the view into four rectangles and towered well above the roof of the building. They stood entirely still, their shiny green bloom of fronds catching not even a zephyr. It was an establishing shot in reverse. I’d moved to L.A. to break into screenwriting. But I had no stories. Maybe it was time to write about Niola even though in a screenwriting workshop I’d been warned against that kind of work. Stay in your own lane.

§

Just the night before the police physically carried Niola into her apartment and it was violent. I had no choice but to make that happen. I’d been a good way through my shift, scanning the groceries of Snake Guy, the uninspired nickname given to one of our regulars, a White, tattooed dude who shopped with a small yellow python draped over his neck. My manager tapped me on the shoulder and whispered. “Your old lady is here.”  He meant this literally.  “Righteous,” he said, which was his exasperation go-to. Off the clock he was much worse.

Niola was standing a few feet away, clutching her brass handled purse, looking shaky and teary-eyed.  It was too warm for the wool coat she was wearing, but she had it cinched around her waist as if it were about to snow, and her house slippers weren’t matched. “Man, they’re trying to kill me.”  That’s what she called me, “Man.” If I didn’t understand, I might have leapt from the checkstand. Instead, I asked for my last break and had my manager bring a chair and set it behind me.

“Let me finish with these nice people,” I told her as she sat; “then we’ll see what’s what.”  I turned, then came back to her and without asking, withdrew the car keys in her purse.

“Man?” she asked, unsure and trembling.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said, removing the tiny saxophone from her keychain. “Watch this for me?”

On my break I put a pre-made turkey sandwich in Niola’s left hand, my only option, and gave her a chocolate milk. In her early twenties her right arm was amputated just below the elbow, but she was pretty nimble about using the remaining, shiny nub which she moved not unlike the overbite of a sock puppet.  With her coat off I saw that she’d left the apartment quickly because she was wearing only a thin pink nightgown. She’d lost weight recently, and there wasn’t much to lose in the first place.  I guessed she wasn’t remembering to eat.  “What’s this about someone trying to kill you?” I asked.

She looked down at her chocolate milk, and then at me, almost as if she was hoping I would answer the question for her. “The people,” she said. “And they stole my car.” I doubted the last part, because I had her keys in my pocket. She held out the tiny saxophone in her hand as proof.

“We’ll find it,” I said. “Let me send you home in a taxi, and I’ll check on you after my shift. Does that sound okay?” And that’s what we did. I called a cab, gave the driver the address, and stepped back into a checkstand. Ten minutes later the cab driver came through the doors and rushed my manager.  “She crazy,” he screamed, hands flailing in the air and accented by thick gold pinky rings.  “She won’t leave the car. She has no money. Who pays?” My manager looked at me and shook his head.

“She’s been a customer at this store longer than I’ve been alive,” I said, as I passed him and went outside. Niola was cowering in the back of the running car.

“Get out,” the cab driver yelled behind me. “Get her out.”  But then something sudden and strange. “Wait,” he said, exhaling slowly. “I see this. I’m sorry.” He gently pushed me aside with his thick, hairy arm and opened the door. “Mother,” he said as he extended his hand. There was something about the way he spoke the word with respect and sincerity that caught me off guard. I heard myself, fifteen-years-old, sitting with my own mother in the hospital when she confirmed the Do Not Resuscitate order for my grandfather. I had sounded like this once.

“Mother,” the cab driver said again. “Mother, you’re here. Let’s go inside.”

She leaned forward and took his hand, whispering. “We’re here?”

“Man,” she said, seeing me as she gently stepped from the car, “I think Barbara has the hot plate. They’re trying to kill me.”

I knew nothing of a hotplate nor a Barbara. “Okay,” I said. “You’re with me now.”

“Someone can pay fourteen?” the cab driver asked.

It was nothing to take Niola’s purse from her hands, but useless. “Right,” I said, already knowing there was no money inside.  I gave him what I had from my own wallet, which he didn’t bother to count.

“Does she have children?” the cab driver asked just before his head sunk below the roof of his car on the driver’s side. “If no. She needs you.”

“The store is dead,” I told my manager. “Let me take her home.”

Really just an assistant manager, he rubbed his moustache, confused as to what to do. “Righteous,” he said. “There’s liability here.”

“Then what? She moves in?”  We were talking as if Niola weren’t standing right next to us. In a way, she wasn’t.

“I’ll have the police drive her home.”

“Yes,” Niola said unexpectedly. “It’s late. I would like to go home. Momma will have my hide.”

Just before the squad car arrived I thought about calling Hebron, but there was no time, and I doubted it would do any good. Niola didn’t seem to take special notice of the two police officers escorting her to their car. They may as well have been adult children walking their mother down the aisle at church.  Instead of organ music, Los Angeles played the thrush of its street traffic. When the police began to close the door to the back seat, Niola put her hand out. “Man? Aren’t you coming?”

“I’ll clock you out,” my manager said, exasperated. “Righteous.”

Niola’s place was five blocks away, and for the first couple, she was fine, purse in her lap, placid expression, as if we were returning from a pleasant evening at a concert; as if the police radio offering its low grind of random information was a Charles Mingus piece. But when we turned onto Niola’s street, she stiffened with recognition, then frantically looked around. “Where are they taking us?”

“Just giving you a ride home, Miss Niola,” one of the police said. “Nothing to worry over.”

“I can’t go there. The people will kill me. They took Herman.” She was nearly hyperventilating and grabbed my arm. “Man, tell them.”

I played along. “What good would it do to shock her now with Herman’s long ago death? “That’s why we have the police with us.”

“No. No. They’ll kill me.”

The policeman driving the car looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Who’s trying to kill you Miss Niola?” His baritone was calm.

“The people there.”

As we pulled in front of her apartment building, Niola clutched my arm and pleaded with her eyes. “You’re not. . . ” she whispered, “Man, you’re not going to let them take me, right?”

The look on her face was devastating, maybe even more so because I no longer had any idea what was happening on the other side of her shiny brown eyes.  I only knew she was terrified and I was about to lie to her.  “They’re going to protect you from the people,” I said, even though I was certain the threats populating her mind were beyond the reach of anything the police could do.

The officer in the passenger seat stepped out of the car and walked to the complex, the dark blue strip of her disappearing around the corner. “How long have you lived here Miss Niola?” the remaining officer asked. “It’s a real nice place.”  I knew that’s not what he was thinking, maybe it used to be nice, but he was trying to calm her down.

Niola was shaking, but she answered. “Herman gave it to me. . . ”  She didn’t so much as pause as come to a red light.  “Man,” she asked without looking at me, “just when was that?”

“The ’60s, I think.”

“That’s right,” she said as if she was pleased with herself.  She looked out the window at the dark building studded with rectangles of light.  The officer was already returning.  Since that night I’ve thought often about how when I was a kid we raised rabbits for meat. The shriek of a terrified rabbit is one of the most horrific sounds a person will ever hear, and that’s about what Niola let out when the female officer opened the door and asked Niola to step out. She clutched at me and flung one slippered foot out of the car to fend off the officer who was firmly insisting on Niola’s exit.  Now both of Niola’s legs where flailing in defense and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.  The second officer got on the radio and asked for backup.  In minutes three officers were carrying a writhing, screaming Niola to her apartment. I was frozen next to the squad cars where they’d told me to remain, red and blue lights angrily flashing against the apartment complex and the spectered faces peering out from the windows. I was standing, holding Niola’s purse, helpless. Please don’t let her wig come off, I thought, but wishing for her dignity felt like the merest of gifts.

In less than a minute the captain, a worked-out Asian man that reminded me a bit of my late father, jogged back to the car. “We need the keys and we need you,” he said. “You’re Man, right?”  I nodded and ran with him to where Niola was crouched and cornered next to her apartment door, the porch light glaring down on her as if she was about to be interrogated.  I saw her through the wall of three officers. Her eyes were glassy and defeated, the nub of her right arm slowly twitching like the tip of cat’s tail. It was an awful tableau and I wondered just then where Niola was, in Los Angeles or Little Rock where her father was killed. Was she afraid of losing another arm, afraid of losing him a second time? Pajamed tenants, a family of six, filled the adjacent steps, the father, dyed brown comb over askew, yelling in English and a language I didn’t know.  “She’s crazy. Take her to the crazy people hospital.” The wife put her hand on his back and said something to which he replied angrily, sending her and their children back up the stairs.  He turned and threw his hand out as if to be through with us. “She says everyone trying to kill her.”

By then the captain had opened Niola’s apartment with the keys I’d handed over. “Think you can coax her in?” he asked me.

“Niola,” I said quietly.  “Come inside?”

“Man, is that you?” She squinted through the light and beyond the stiff bodies in front of her. She’d come back.

Inside, the female officer and I escorted Niola to her small kitchen table, its white Formica top decorated with a red heart at each corner. She’d earned it with Green Stamps. The captain stood at the front door while another officer checked the apartment. “She’s living like this?” the captain asked. The front room was not as I’d last seen it. All her books were off the shelf and stacked on the floor with barely any room to move in between, a maze leading in one direction to the kitchen and the other to the hallway. I thought to get Niola some water and something to eat.  The refrigerator contained only expired bologna, crusted condiment jars, and a teacup holding half a lemon. I called to the captain.  “Yes,” I said when he was at my side. I pointed to the open refrigerator. “She’s living like this.” I pulled a phone number out of my wallet and handed it to him. “It’s Oakland. Please call her son.”

Finally, I thought, as I watched the captain dial Niola’s green rotary.  After a couple rings, a man’s voice answered. It was coming together.  The captain explained who he was and the situation.  “You need to get your mother,” he said.  He listened for a moment and then interrupted. “Sir, two weeks isn’t going to do it. She’ll be dead before that.”

Minutes later I was standing outside of Niola’s apartment, a half dozen police behind me. They wouldn’t let me stay. I wasn’t a relative. I locked on her glassy eyes. She was veiled behind the mesh of her security screen looking tiny and scared. “I’ll check on you in the morning,” I said. “Go to bed and lock the door.”

“Okay,” she said with a suspicious glare, slowly closing the door against people who were trying to kill her.

§

A few weeks before the night I had Niola escorted home by the police I was on break and made two phone calls from the store with permission from my manager. I’d gotten the first number from Niola. The call was to her sister in Atlanta. I briefly explained Niola’s descent.  “And it’s getting worse,” I said, “trying not to sugar coat the situation.”

“Well, honey, it’s sweet of you to call, and five years ago I mighta been of a body to get out there. But I’m eighty-four and my gears is about rusted.” Her voice was spunky, but graveled.

“Do you know how to get hold of her son?”

“Hebron? That son-of-a-bitch?” I heard her turn away from the phone and muffle the receiver as she said something to whomever was in the room. “Sorry, Honey,” she said, returning. “I asked my husband to hunt up my address book.  Far as I know Hebron is still up in Oakland. And good luck getting him to lift a finger for Niola. He and I are not so close.”

“I’m getting that,” I said. “But maybe it’d be better if you called him?”

“Truth is, Niola and I haven’t had much to do with each other unless someone in the family dies and that well is about dry except for us.” She thanked her husband and excused herself to find Hebron’s information.  “If it ain’t changed, of course,” she cautioned as she slowly called out the digits.  I thanked her but she wasn’t ready to hang up. “She ever mention Herman? He was a fella she used to run around with.  I come out to California and took up with him for a bit, and well, now you see. You can’t dip the coffee spoon in the sugar bowl and not expect a taint.”

“Herman,” I say. “Niola thinks he’s still around.”

“Well, that’s real sad.  I thought he was a no account, messing around on my sister all the time, but then, well, I was one of ‘em, that smooth son-of-a-bitch.”

“I should go.”

“I expect,” she said. “Sorry to tug on your ear so long, but let me give you one stitch of advice on getting Hebron to tend to his mother.  Tell him Niola’s on her way out and he might wanna come see that her affairs is in order. If I know that boy, he’ll be down quicker’n spit off a railroad trestle. That building of hers will set him up real nice. If he don’t give two shits about her, he’ll sure care about the money.”

In two minutes I was on the phone with Hebron, though I held off on playing the inheritance card. He was all “mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm” until I got to the part asking him to come down from Oakland. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

I was a little startled by the question. “Peace of mind, I guess.”
“Right.  And you say you’ve known Mother how long? She hasn’t once mentioned you.”

“Since I started working at the store. A few years I guess. We’ve had lunch.”

“Well I appreciate your concern but she gets a little confused is all. I spoke to her last week and she was fine. And anyway, I’m due down at the end of the month. I got a business to run. So if that’s all. . . ”

“The apartment building,” I blurted.

“What about it?”

“Your aunt said that you. . .um. . .might want to make sure Niola’s affairs are in order.”

He didn’t wait even a half a second. “Fucking Aunt Francis? She’s still kicking? Listen you little fucker, I don’t know what kind of shit you’re trying to pull here. . . What’s the name of where you work?”

“Just please come get your mother,” I said. And then I hung up. In front of me, on my manager’s desk was his calendar. The next day would be my mother’s sixtieth birthday. Fuck her for living another year, I thought.

§

Earlier on the day I called Niola’s sister and Hebron, Niola arrived at the store in a bright blue dress suit and matching pillbox hat and clutch.  I’d seen the outfit under plastic in her closet, a remnant from her “fancy days,” as she called them.  That day she was clear-eyed and walking tall as she approached me in my checkstand.  “Excuse me,” she said to the woman whose groceries I was scanning, “I have to transact a quick lick.”  It had been months since I’d heard Niola’s voice so strong and direct.  She didn’t wait for a response, and I continued scanning as she spoke. “Man, I have a lunch date. That’s why I’m wearing the blue.”

I didn’t understand how it had happened but another world had gotten into Niola.  I turned and caught the gleam of five large mother of pearl buttons up the front of her jacket “You look beautiful,” I said, and then to my customer “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” The woman understood what I needed, and agreed enthusiastically. “Niola,” I said as I pulled the last of the woman’s items across the scanner, “a lunch date? I’m jealous.” A bagger arrived but Niola hardly budged to let him do his job.

“It’s only Herman,” she said. I immediately halted because Herman died in the early ’70s. “But the strangest thing,” Niola continued, “I can’t place where I’m supposed to meet him.  Man, where am I supposed to meet him?”

I raised a polite finger to Niola and finished the checkout. “Have a lovely lunch,” the woman said, pushing her cart past. Beyond both of them the shift manager was staring at me shaking her head. “Didn’t Herman postpone?” I pretended. “I thought you said he postponed.”

“I don’t think so. I wrote it down but I don’t know where.”

Only one of us knew this wasn’t true, or if it was, it was a thirty-year-old truth. I had to do something.  “Let me see your purse,” I said.  Without a second thought she handed it to me and I fished around for the small brown address book I knew she carried.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Niola had no cash and no credit cards, but she had the book.  No Hebron, but I jotted down the number of her sister, Francis, and checked to see if my number was in there. It was, but just in case, before I returned the purse, I tore the corner off a manila folder and wrote “Brian, Grocery” above my phone number. “Okay,” I said, hoping she’d go along, “really, I just remembered, you told me Herman couldn’t make lunch Friday.”

“I told you that?” she said as if Herman hadn’t been dead all these years. “Okay then, I wore the blue for nothing.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

“Probably got one of them others on his arm instead. You men. . . ”  She looked at me tight eyed. “What’s the name of your girl again?”

I took me a second because it’d been a while since my fictional girlfriend came up. She remembered one thing, but not the other. “Charlene,” I said, though I supposed I could have offered any name.

Niola nodded, though she didn’t look satisfied. “I best get the blue back in the closet.”

§

I think about it now and realize that the first sign something was wrong came maybe eight months earlier. I was about to clock back in from lunch and saw Niola at one of the checkstands just as the clerk, a new guy, was finishing her order. They were speaking in Spanish. “Where you headed?” I asked from behind her.

“Man!” she called out in a big, brassy voice as she turned, tan purse hanging at the elbow of her handless arm. She’d gotten a new wig, a wavy auburn that set off her large, happy eyes. “Headed just over there, you know, and I’ve got news.”  She turned to the clerk and asked in Spanish how much she owed. Then she opened her purse and stared into it for a few seconds. “Now what was I looking for?” The clerk repeated the amount but it clearly didn’t register with Niola as she stared again into her purse.  “Man,” she giggled, “I’m just not one for figures today. Be a peach and pluck out what I owe?”

At the moment I didn’t understand what was happening. I just thought, well, she’s close to eighty-three, and she was so adorable about it, so I took her purse from her and complied.  “What’s your news?” I asked as the clerk handed her the receipt and we walked behind her cart to the time clock.

“Spoke to Hebron this morning and told him he could stay in one of my apartments for free.”

“Wow,” I said. They hadn’t spoken for months. “What brought that on?”

“He called asking for money because maybe he has to close the business, so we figured out how much it would cost to get him down here.”  She was beaming. The one regret about her life I’d ever heard her express was that despite all her efforts, her son had drifted away. “Just did Western Union before my shopping.” Suddenly she was teary eyed with happiness.

“That calls for a hug,” I said, opening my arms. “I know you miss him.”

She stood on her toes and squeezed me tightly. “You’ll have dinner with us when he gets here, right, Man?”

“Of course,” I said, letting go after a few seconds.  “We’ll celebrate.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned you to him.”

§

Niola was independent, but there was a courtesy she insisted on, that I open the car door for her when I picked her up for lunch and when I dropped her off.  It was after one of these lunches as I opened the passenger door in front of The Zephyr, that she paused and looked up at me before stepping out of the car. Large brown sunglasses concealed her eyes, and the bright daylight gleamed on freshly applied red lipstick. “Man,” she said, swiveling her legs out of the car and offering me her hand. “I believe I’m going to have a martini. It’s been awhile.”

I laughed, not thinking she was serious, but she squeezed my hand to let me know she was.  “A little early in the day for a cocktail, don’t you think?” I said, closing the door behind her.

She turned, raised her chin at me, and placed her hands over the large brass buckle that cinched in her brown jumpsuit.  “Only,” she lilted, “if I was drinking alone.”

“Niola, you’re flirting with me.” The idea of it was preposterous, but I was touched by the effort.

“An old woman like me? Flirting?” she asked with a smile. “It’s just that today is my birthday.”

What was I going to say to that?  It would be the first, but not the only time I was in her apartment before that night the police carried her across the lawn of The Zephyr. In a minute I was sitting on her plastic covered couch listening to her mix our drinks in the kitchen.  The apartment had been lived in.  It wasn’t dirty so much as densely packed, every wall lined with dark-spined books, the coffee table stacked with them too.  The floor was covered by uneven layers of carpet square samples, giving the surface the look of a choppy, multi-colored ocean.  “You never told me you were a reader,” I called out.

“After Herman passed,” she said, rounding the corner and carrying a tray on which stood two full-to-the-brim martini glasses each one with a toothpicked olive.  She’d taken off her shoes, her child-sized toes tipped with peach colored polish. “You’ll have to help me with this part,” she said, leaning toward the coffee table, which I didn’t understand at first because it was easy to forget she was missing the lower part of her arm.

“Oh,” I said, catching on.

She sat down next to me and took her martini from my hand.  “Haven’t had one of these in maybe twenty years,” she said.

I held my glass up to her. “Here’s to your birthday.” Maybe it was best to drink up and go.

Her sip left a thin lipstick print on the edge of the glass. “I’ve had a lot of birthdays,” she said, laughing, and butting my shoulder with her short arm, “but the truth is today isn’t one of them.”

“Shame on you,” I said. It was this playful quality that made her so fun to be around.

She pointed with her martini to the top of one of the shelves where a large black and white photo was propped against a line of books. I couldn’t make out all the details, but I recognized the woman in the crisp white dress clearly in mid song. “That’s me back in the day,” Niola said.  “Pretty thing, wasn’t I?”

“Beautiful,” I said, “but you never told me you were a singer. Is that what you wanted to do?”

“Hell no. Only thing I wanted to do was work for the phone company.” She shook her head as if I’d asked the world’s stupidest question. “I had aspirations. Not every Black woman with a voice wants to sing professional. Now fetch it down here and I’ll tell you a little story.” With the photo in her lap she lay a finger next to the younger version of herself. “Makes me look three shades darker, but that’s how pictures come out back then.”  In the photo she was standing on a small platform, front lit, a white hand and the fingerboard of an upright base just in frame on the right, and a few on lookers below and in front of her. She told me that she’d been working at the club serving drinks a few months while she was trying to get in with the phone company.  One night, a regular at the club asked if she could sing and she made the mistake of saying she could, a little. Before she knew it she was upfront under one hot spotlight.

“What’d you sing?” I asked.

She was already a third of the way through her martini. “I didn’t take myself too seriously, even back then, so I started up with “These Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t really the kind of music they played, but I thought it would be funny. You know that one? Otis Redding?”

“Of course,” I nodded, mainly because I was feeling distinctly less cool than the woman sitting next to me.

“Now, this is a cappella, and at first everyone did kind of laugh because, well listen.”  She sang the first few lines, These arms of mine, they are lonely / Lonely and feeling blue. / These arms of mine, they are yearning, / Yearning from wanting you. “There I am with arms out wide open, missing part of the one, but then a couple of the boys caught on and gave me a little backing and we sounded good. Even got a standing ovation.”  She stood up and pointed with her glass. “Back there is Ornette and he’s whistling, and up front, right up front. . . This is the part I left out, Mr. Sinatra is smiling and clapping and those blue eyes are just fixed on me like I was the only person in the room. Ornette and Mr. Sinatra on the same night.”

I looked again at the photo, and though he’s not quite in profile, it’s him.  “This is amazing. How come you never told me any of this?”

Niola sat down and set her martini on a copy of Ficciones. “It was just the one song.”

“But Sinatra,” I said. “That didn’t make you want to give singing a shot?”

“Ornette,” she gently corrected, indicating the pecking order. “And singing? All that smoke and uncertainty? No thank you. I had my sights on working full time at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Did it too. Started at Thornwall 6. That’s where I learned talking proper was like flipping a light switch.” Leaning forward, she gestured toward the wall. “There’s the plaque from when they retired me.”  Niola plucked the olive from her drink, popping it in her mouth as she pointed to a man in the Ornette/Sinatra photo. “But one thing come of it. Herman was there that night. That’s when we met, and boy did we meet, if you know what I mean.”

In the photo, Herman was seated in the background, facing the camera.  It wasn’t a crisp image, but it was clear enough.  He was older than Niola, it looked to me, late thirties, early forties. White, hair tight to his head, he wore a gray suit with a dark tie, and his eyes were perfectly centered in black rimmed glasses. “Handsome,” I said.

“Handsome?” Niola laughed. “No. The man was right as pancakes and just as syrupy, but he wasn’t handsome.”  She looked at the photo.  “Now, he was a straight-shooter from start to finish, and not just with me.”   She waved her martini around in a gesture that was bigger than the room. “Not to say he didn’t have ideas that sometimes maybe weren’t on the up and up, if you know what I mean. He told me every time he cheated on me.” She offered cheers with her eyes and brought the glass to her lips.  “His first kids was besides themselves when it turned out I owned The Zephyr clean and clear. Some sort of tax thing I didn’t understand, but when he died, it was mine.”

“So, Hebron has siblings.”

She bottomed her martini and went to fix another. “If you can keep a secret,” she called from the kitchen.  “Hebron’s my sister’s boy with Herman. Them two were at it a bit. Of course I didn’t know. Then Francis goes off to Atlanta and has a baby she didn’t want, and a year later Herman goes back east and brings home Hebron.”

I waited for the ice to stop shaking. “You’re kidding. You adopted him?”

Niola leaned out so I could see her face. “Got to open another jar of olives.”

“Which means to me it hasn’t been twenty years since you had a martini.”

“In housefly years.” She disappeared and I heard the pop of the jar. This time she returned with a pitcher and the olives. “Let’s not with this up and down,” she said, refreshing my drink, and hers.  “I didn’t adopt Hebron outright. But I raised him and called him son. Still do.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at a drink made cloudy by a bleu cheese stuffed olive, “so he knows.

“Well, Francis got a Jimminy Cricket on her shoulder after she watched some damn show on T.V.”

“Didn’t go over?”

“Not since. I’m his momma but not his mother and that makes a difference to some folks.” She shifted a carpet square with her foot. “Makes it all the harder that’s what he calls me, Mother.” She leaned in close, martini glass under her chin. “But let’s talk about us. When are we going to get this going?”

I saw it in her bright eyes and happy smile. She didn’t have to define “this.” Then I turned into a slack-jawed idiot. Just that morning I’d left the bed of one of my regular customers from work, an attorney whose boyfriend was also someone I’d slept with. Best looking gay couple I’d ever seen and I needed their stamp of approval. . . separately and secretly. That was my thing. Gratification without attachment. Play.

“Is that your man, Niola?” I asked, pointing to a photo on the wall.

She looked confused. “Baby, that’s Herman. And I thought you was my man.”

I knew who it was, but I feigned. “Well, it’s in color. I didn’t recognize him from your singing picture. And, I’m sorry, but I have a girl.”  Somehow I thought it would spare this older woman to think she’d been hitting on a guy taken by a girl rather than another guy.”

Niola, suspicious, leaned back and one-eyed me. “What’s her name?”

“Charlene.” Where that came from so quickly I’ve no idea.

“Well, don’t that beat all.” She set her drink down and scratched at her wig with her nubbed arm, one-eyeing me again, this time even more intently.  “Say her name one more time.”

“Charlene.”

“Oh hell,” Niola said, slapping her knee and taking a drink. “I’m a fool. Sssharline. You’re a queer boy.”

I stood, surprised to find myself shaking. “Niola, I should go.”

“Man,” she called me for the first time, “you sit right down.  I’m not done with you.” I complied. “Am I right?”

I nodded, and then I started crying, uncontrollably. I sob-spoke the story of my mother and her husband, and about losing Lutfi, about pretending I could be a screenwriter, all the while feeling like the only person I had in my life was this eighty-plus-year-old-woman who was a customer where I worked.  I don’t know everything I said. I mainly remember only the sound of my voice and the images, like a movie collage, of parts of my life rushing through my mind.

Niola patted my back when I was finished, played out.  “Where went you?” she asked softly.  I looked at her but had no answer. “That’s what Momma used to ask when our minds went traveling.”  She handed me my martini and winked.  “When I woke up this morning I thought I was getting a man today, but it looks like I got a child.  But don’t you worry. I’ll grow you up.”

“I’m sorry for all that. I was just thinking back to when things were easier.”

“Yeah,” Niola said, topping off her martini, “I think about them days too. But the only world we got to live in is now. You and me having martinis on Tuesday at 2 o’clock. That’s us living.”

I raised my glass. “Here’s to us. . . and Charlene.” Niola tinked her martini against mine and sipped, her partial arm resting on the back of the couch. At that moment I realized I’d got it wrong. I always thought of her as missing part of a limb. She was missing nothing. But, even epiphanies can lead one down the wrong road.

“Listen to Niola,” she said. “That far off will creep up on you now and then, but you may as well be dead if you try to live there. You got to have folks around. Call your momma. You need her and she’s going to need you in not too many years. If that don’t work out, you better start collecting some love. That’s what I do. Hebron and I aren’t close, but I got the comfort he’ll be there for me when I start living far off. And if he isn’t, guess I got you. I make family.”

“You do,” I said.

“Worst thing is to end up with nobody to look out for you.”

Like every toddler, I stumbled. “Hey,” I said, “maybe you’re my screenplay. Maybe I should write about you.”

“Man,” she said with an incredulous look, “This isn’t the movies. This is real life. You’re a Chinese-something gay boy and I’m an eighty-two-year-old lady. You don’t know me.” Her tone was stern and caught me off guard.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought. . . ”

She touched my shoulder with the nub of her arm, softened. “No, no. Man, you go right on ahead. I insist. We’re making family here. Type up my story. Everyone should do that, write other people’s stories. You won’t ever get it right, but you might learn something about yourself.”

—Brian Leung

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Brian Leung, author of World Famous Love Acts, Lost Men, and Take Me Home, is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary Oustanding Mid-Career Prize. Other honors include the Asian-American Literary Award, Willa Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, online venues, and anthologies. “Shuhua’s Suite” originally appeared in Blythe House Quarterly. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. He lives with his husband in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is the Director of Creative Writing at Purdue University. http://www.readbrianleung.net/

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Nov 012016
 

 

You must read Walter Johnson on slavery, capitalism & American history. Here’s a new essay in Boston Review teased below by way of introduction. But read his books River of Dark Dreams and Soul by Soul. Change your life.

dg

 

Indeed, the history of capitalism makes no sense separate from the history of the slave trade and its aftermath. There was no such thing as capitalism without slavery: the history of Manchester never happened without the history of Mississippi. In Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams gives a detailed account of the supersession of British colonial interests by manufacturing ones and the replacement of cotton with sugar as the foundation of capitalist development. Williams argues that Great Britain freed its slaves, but did not free itself from slavery. British capitalists simply outsourced the production of the raw material upon which they principally depended to the United States. 

Source: To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice | Boston Review

Nov 012016
 

torino2-018-beterAn Apology for Meaning, Artist’s Book, Genese  Grill

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. —Goethe, Italian Journey

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.  —Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

 

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite. At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.

isis-and-osirisPage from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures. And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them. And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real. Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten. And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.

I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

As Goethe noted in his famous Italian Journey, an experience of difference both enunciates one’s individuated self and dissolves it. Visiting another world, you imagine that you might have been, could have been, still might be, sort of someone else, leading a different life in a different country, in a different language, with a different family, lover, children, vocation. Your certainties, the things you took for granted, are called into question. You would be more comfortable not examining them, not questioning: why do you and your fellows do what you do? Are these differences a result of customs, habits, social constructions, error, accident, nature? Are they the result of our upbringing, something atavistic in our blood, or determined by the atmosphere, the landscape, or the history that surrounds us? The external differences—are they petty? Do they alter from the outside who we are inside? Or are they representative of who we are, from the inside out? Ask a novelist or a method actor how much each gesture, each phrase, each seemingly minor choice reveals about identity. The way we eat, how much beauty we need, or how much labor, leisure, love, rigor, sleep, poetry, space, air, skyline, horizon, practicality, recklessness.

And now I am experiencing the differences, the strangeness here in Torino, among people for whom all of this is natural, normal. I enjoy this sense of difference, to a point, as most of us do. We seek it out, we are sometimes sick to death of our own lives and want to gaze at, play at others’ lives; but only for a spell. It can be tiring; one feels alien; sometimes wants to cry out of frustration because everything is so confusing and the simplest things seem impossible; and the people look at you like you are an idiot and you are in a way. You are an adult who does not know things that a child knows.

I get lost often. Sometimes a piazza will have four different entryways with a statue in the middle. Who can remember which way one entered or egressed from? Since I am not usually in a hurry, I wonder why this should matter to me. Maybe because we want always to seem like we know where we are going and as if we already have everything we want. And this has something to do with desire and the desire for love, which is sometimes shameful. As a stranger one wants something. Is looking for something. Has left home to find something that one does not already have. Desire is the need to become one with what is foreign, to take it into oneself and to be embraced by it as well. As Ann Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, we long to be one with the other, but when we have assimilated what was once strange, it is no longer the other and no longer serves its purpose. Knowledge comes only at the cost of desire fulfilled; we can only seek out more and more things, people, places, books, mysteries we do not yet know, have not yet seen or solved or read so that we may experience that supreme thrill of coming to know again and again. We crave difference, but we also cannot keep from looking for likenesses. We seek both everywhere. And the new experiences we have are continually threaded back into what we already know.

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

In the Egizio Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had the same instinct for symmetry as ours; for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame; for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space; for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonates with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more thorough comprehension of these artifacts, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total homogeneity.

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. A good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another, struggling to approximate a shared vision (as in the erotic desire to become one with the unknown). Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and also to conceal our meanings from each other. It is a dance. Sometimes clumsy, but sometimes surprisingly beautiful. The differences between language, as Steiner suggests, may be a result of a human need to differentiate one group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses; and to delineate differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, there are those who insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond external, physical differences). On the other hand, these same people tend to insist that it is impossible to understand the other; that there are no universals; that there is no shared sense of value; and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other at all, since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be more deceptive than descriptive. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the importance of the physical world; on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it; between the human brain and its sensory apparatus; and, finally, between one human brain and another. In reality, things and people are self-similar and they deviate from sameness; but even the deviations do not prohibit some approximation of understanding.

Those who deny difference and simultaneously insist on incommensurability are trying to do two contradictory things at once: 1. to strip away differences that might cause conflict or justify hierarchies or discriminations, resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity, and, 2. still paradoxically denying that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, difference) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no more resentment or hate against the “other”—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness. On the one hand, we are ignoring the inevitable consequences of our neutralizations, neglecting to weigh how much difference makes life rich and strange and fascinating. And, on the other hand, by critiquing conceptualization, deconstructing symbolic archetypes, and undermining the significance of language, we are denying the natural affirmative instinct for finding likenesses and correspondences.

On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not “really” present may be called “pareidolia,” most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods, endeavoring to prove through argument and scientific study that the piece of fabric housed in a crypt in Torino once was wrapped around no one other than Jesus Christ. The Shroud Museum has rooms filled with “evidence” of why we should believe the shroud belonged to Him: there are blood stains from where the crown of thorns would have been; stains in the shape of wounds suffered when he was tortured, an exemplar of the instrument with which he would have been scourged. The fact that there is just one wound mark where his feet would have been is explained by arguing that both feet were punctured, one atop the other, with but one nail. There is no mention in the museum of the carbon dating done on the fabric, which dated it to a time much later than Jesus’s supposed death; but there is an example of the loom upon which the cloth might have been woven and an example of a crown of thorns, which is arched like a dome and not open like a wreath. Image after image is presented to convince the skeptic that the shroud belonged to Jesus. At first it is hard to even see the shapes that would suggest any face or any body, but, as if one were gazing at one of those magical illusion pictures, if one looks long enough, the desired shapes begin to come into focus—and fade just as quickly into indistinguishable marks again. Desired shapes: the shapes one wants to see.

torino4-019Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

Fresh lovers often insist that they are “exactly alike,” noting that they both amazingly like chocolate or were born on a Friday as signs that they are made for each other. And even someone as wise and experienced as myself may choose to be deluded into reading into signs that may not be there at all, thinking that the intern at the artists’ residency is making eyes at me, when really he probably just looks at everyone like that. He had told me tales of rituals in his home town where someone would dress up as Dionysus in animal skins and horns, a bag of blood hidden under the pelts, and someone else would chase after him and “kill” him, spilling blood all over the streets. But what did that mean?

Of course, all of our seeing is a process of selecting out that to some extent overlooks the fact that reality is a mass of non-delineated color and light, a mass of shifting molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and entities. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who belongs with whom are comprehensive contextualizations or merely constructed biases, wishful thinking, or limitations. We can say the same thing about words and the concepts that they form—that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality, that they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names—qualities that might render these things more fitting to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept a form of psychosis, hallucination, wishful thinking, pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say, of bird or insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the desired arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to conclude that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it? Of course, this is essentially the scientific method, but we use it indiscriminately every day, without the necessary “controls” to make our experiments scientifically viable. And science itself is subject to the same kind of criticism: even if its trials are well-documented and avail themselves of responsible criteria for investigation, the scientists have, as we well know, already decided to ask some questions over others, thereby determining what kinds of answers might be found.

But here is the crux: we do all this because we want, we need to draw meaning. And we draw meaning most readily from things that repeat or seem to repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exceptional random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that (at least on a molecular level) everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation. Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize (or is it imagine) shapes, distances, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces responded to expressions, inducing them to smile, and make eye contact, so that they were cared for, and thus survived. This is rather suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning-making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would simply not survive as either individuals or cultures. Autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival. And many say that we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it may sometimes be inaccurate, although it may sometimes look like psychosis or pareidolia, it is far better to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (always acknowledging that they can change and rearrange) than to exist always in an undifferentiated sea of colors, sounds, and non-shapes, unable to communicate.

But after visiting the Shroud Museum in Torino (the actual cloth is carefully hidden inside its box, only to be taken out on rare jubilee days), I do not believe that the shroud of Turin belonged to Jesus. The form of the body suggested by it is simply not sinuous and beautiful enough to satisfy our mythic desire for him. The image that the experts draw from the bloodstains is of a bulky square-shouldered man, not at all the sweet beloved of the visionary mystics as depicted in paintings over centuries. Just as the scientists who discovered the shape of the DNA molecule knew that they had finally found it because the double helix was the most beautiful configuration, so we can see that the shroud did not belong to the son of God because of the gracelessness of its traces.

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

There has to be a difference. Difference is thrilling, is frisson, is friction. If there were no difference, no distinction, no discrimination, no delineation, we would see nothing. Everything would be one blended morass, one moving, shifting mélange of everythingness. No shadows, no lights, no textures, no patterns or deviations. So we like to go away, discover new things, challenge ourselves, compare and contrast the familiar against the strange in order to understand, again, our expanded selves. And yet we find ourselves in a constant emotional oscillation, a cycle swinging between comfort, tedium, restlessness, curiosity, desire, risk-taking, danger, exposure, discomfort, exhaustion, home-sickness, comfort, tedium…ad infinitum.

Thus we come to the necessity of maintaining some borders at a basic level, personally, and then globally. We need secrets, mysteries in order to remain where we are, among our fellows in our homes, in our romantic relationships; or else it is as if we were running rampant around the neighborhood, around the world, continually searching for newness, making so many things the same as we unite with them, making everything homogeneous and known all too quickly. A promiscuous lover is someone who has not learned how to mine the depths of himself and his beloved; is quickly bored; doesn’t have enough inner resources to discern the depths hidden in his lover; thus he moves on quickly in order to stimulate his poor imagination. Curiosity, desire, conquest of new ideas and intellectual territory, all have their value: but they should not be gluttonous. If we are to feast, let us leave time for regeneration of resources; let us make sure we properly savor what we are sacrificing and devouring. The communion of the self with the other cannot be celebrated so swiftly that all differences are leveled out, sanded away, consumed by the Moloch of desire for newness. This touches on the problem and pleasure of materiality. The basic limitation of resources; that they are not infinite. You can melt down idols to make new ones, but then the old idols no longer exist. How can we contrive to keep the old ones and erect new ones, too? Of love we can barely speak in this regard: the old lovers are replaced by new ones, yet they remain, one hopes, still within us, and we within them, in traces, some very potent, as we continue to consume and appropriate and expand, becoming new ourselves and shedding strangeness as we go, exploring our anti-selves, the characteristics we harbor that are anathema to our primary identities and the identities of our native lands and cultures.

After writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and serving many years as advisor to the Duke of Weimar, Carl August, Goethe “stole” away at three in the morning, from his friends, his duties, and his romantic (but non-sensuous) relationship with Charlotte von Stein, to sojourn in Italy for two years. There he found himself in contrast to the differences he experienced, searched out the ancient remains of classical Rome, learned about architecture at the foot of buildings designed by Palladio, learned to see by looking at Italian paintings, developed his concept of the universal Ur-Pflanze from which all plants metamorphose (Alles ist Blatt), and enjoyed, above all, the weather and the fruit. His wonderful account of his adventures includes detailed descriptions of the geology, flora, and fauna of the countries he passed through), along with evaluations of artifacts, architecture, painting, and peoples (he burdened down his pack with rock specimens as well as heavy books). Referring to the Greek god, who could not be conquered in wrestling matches as long as he remained in contact with his mother, Gaia, Goethe writes, “I see myself as Antaeus, who always feels newly strengthened, the more forcefully he is brough into contact with his mother, the earth”.

The Germans have always harbored a romantic longing for the physicality of Italy, “the land where the lemons bloom,” as Goethe writes, as mythic antithesis of everything Germanic (stoical, cold, disciplined, abstract). Nietzsche sojourned to Torino, a Dionysus on the River Po, in conscious ex-patriot spirit. What meanings did he find there, that philosopher with a hammer who famously denied the existence of “Das Ding an sich,” and called on us to bravely consider the abysmal probability that there is no meaning or purpose to life whatsoever? He certainly meant that there was no predetermined meaning or God-given purpose, no purpose ordained by a God. But he did not mean to repudiate the ways in which the world can be meaningful (affirmed, celebrated, enjoyed). For his rejection of the “thing in itself” was decidedly not a transcendental call to celebrate merely the disembodied life of the alienated mind out of touch with the physical world (a thing in itself, surely, despite Berkeley’s skepticism, and despite the inability to know it absolutely or objectively beyond phenomena). Here in Torino, this city so beloved by Nietzsche, while I am struggling with the question of meaning, I feel compelled to come to terms with him on this question. We are in agreement on the central importance of the material sensuous goodness of the world and on a deep suspicion of any ideologies which aim to affirm something in contradiction to the facts of this real.

goethe_stieler_1828Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.  (Public domain)

Ecce Homo, which he wrote while in this city, begins with a serious discussion of the vital importance of digestion, weather, and music, all experienced by Nietzsche (and clearly by Goethe as well) as fundamental physical requirements for living the right life. The theological-metaphysical questions are deemed unimportant at best, treacherous deviations at worst.   Thoreau, whose first chapter in Walden is called “Economy,” planted beanstalks as the most efficacious conduits to a realm where one might best consider “higher laws”. It makes one wonder what would have happened to Thoreau had he visited Italy (he traveled a great deal, he noted, in Concord). Would he have abandoned his dietary restrictions against drinking coffee? Might he have succumbed to the animal spirits and fallen in love? Margaret Fuller, who translated that comprehensive man of spirit and sense, Goethe, complained about the disembodied tendency of her friend Emerson (and Thoreau was even less sensual than his mentor), did travel to Italy and fall in love, gave birth to a probably illegitimate child, and participated in the Italian revolution. If she had not tragically drowned on her return home, she might have infected all of Concord with a new European sensuality! Just imagine. Nietzsche, who admired Emerson greatly, who was just about as abstemious and celibate as Thoreau, still knew how to reason from the hands to the head, as the bard of Concord counseled—and from the stomach too, though, it would have to be a strong one.

Love of Fate meant for Nietzsche a love of life exactly as it is, which seems to suggest a belief in a thing in itself after all…the world in itself, as it is—mediated by our senses, our tastes, our interests, our desires, yes, but not subject to utter transformation of its basic realities: mortality, gravity, pain, beauty, brilliance, energy, stupidity, music, pleasure, illness, cold, sunshine. Darwin explained all of this in his own way. We don’t live in a friendly universe. The world cares not a fig for our personal happiness, though our genes may well fight mightily for their own generation. And the connection to Spinoza, greatly admired by Nietzsche, may be helpful: the world was not made for us humans, and thus should not be judged according to how well it does or does not serve our aims and desires. The world is good in itself. Is god, is divine in itself, whether we are experiencing petty miseries or committing atrocities. The world is beautiful, even without the concept of beauty invented by humans. We are to look at the world from the “perspective of eternity,” which is not a transcendental perspective, but, rather, one which provides an angle beyond our own particular immediate interests. Objectivity? Well, not quite. With Nietzsche we can speak of a perspective from the mountain top, as far away from the flatland as possible, but with a knowledge of the subjective world of taste and senses. Nietzsche writes, in The Twilight of the Idols, “One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the problem of the value of life.” For, if our reflections seem all-too mercurial, shifting, and arbitrary from the perspective of eternity, closer up they are instinctive and healthy tastes, responses to and engagement with the world.

As subjects, creative subjects, we make of this world as it is what we can. We cannot help but make meanings about it. But let these meanings be in metaphoric harmony with the real facts of nature. Let us make and preserve myths which help us to understand, to celebrate and to weep over the true facts of human existence, and its true pleasures and pains. Gilgamesh is struggling with the death of his friend. He searches for a way to be immortal, to conquer death. But when he thinks he has found it, a snake eats the magic herb he has foolishly left on the shore while he swims. Thus, although humans must be mortal, a snake can continually shed its skin. A true myth. The kind of fiction that Nietzsche railed against was of another kind: a false fiction, one that repressed the reality of death, repressed natural instinct and pleasure, repressed sexuality and the will to power, repressed beauty and energies and great health and desire in the interest of a transcendental Idealism offering an afterlife, and some sense of pious righteousness in exchange for all that made life meaningful. The myth of Christianity he would battle with the myth of the beautiful drunken god: Dionysus versus the Crucified One. Thus, he aimed, not to do away with all myths (that, in fact, was Socrates’s great sin, according to Nietzsche), but to celebrate the myths that are in accord with the true facts of life. Steiner quotes a cryptic passage from Nietzsche’s notebooks: “God Affirms; Job Affirms.” And glosses that Nietzsche was referring to his idea of the aesthetic justification of the world. The world of wonder and beauty. Look at what I made, says God to Job. I made the Leviathan. I am an artist. Don’t talk to me about your petty troubles.

And here in Torino, Nietzsche, enjoying a rare respite from his chronic pain, in withdrawal from Wagner, the Wagnerites, the Germans and their obtuse Idealism and Morality, enjoyed the sunshine and the air and the food and the gelato (but not the wine); enjoyed the graciousness of the people; and the lightness of Carmen (Torino was “tutti Carmenizzatto”). The world that Nietzsche celebrated was not so much a world of the future, a world of future higher men, but a revival of Renaissance and Pagan values. Not at all the postmodern insipid relativity of values with its snide rejection of beauty, nobility, genius, aristocratic individualism.

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

Meaning has been attacked from two sides: on the one hand by the commercialization and commodification of life, by the simulacrum covering up an abyss of shallowness and the emptiness that is left over after the orgy of sensationalism, as humans become more and more bereft of any real connection to nature, human relationships, history, culture, beauty, pleasure, divinity, sacredness. On the other hand, it has been attacked by the cold lizards of theory, who feel nothing themselves but only touch us with their clammy hands so that we too feel a chill and cannot sense the heat in what naturally should move us. These theorists even dare to claim Nietzsche as their own. Because he questioned the idea of a transcendent meaning, aiming with his iconoclastic hammer at the ideology that denied the real meanings of the world, they use his words as an attack on meaning altogether. Because he called for a transvaluation of values, they use his words as an attack on values altogether, missing his joyous celebration of the values of nobility, of the Renaissance, of ancient Greece, of great art and great men, of genius and beauty and rapture. Indeed, he had a hammer (though sometimes it was a tuning hammer for a piano, not a bludgeon), and there was smashing to be done. He was a great destroyer, who called himself “Dynamite.” But he destroyed only as a preliminary to creation. The epigones took up his hammer and began smashing even the idols Nietzsche himself had venerated. They smashed veneration altogether. And in their adolescent giddiness, in the din of their mob fury against what was once great, in their ressentiment, they did not hear the most important part of his message: the axes must be turned into chisels, to carve new idols, new values, new words, new forms, new metaphors, ones that honor what is vivid and beautiful in life, ones that affirm the instincts and the senses.

In a museum in Torino I saw a painting of Santa Lucia, her bloody eyes on a plate. She was a good pious girl, promised in marriage to a pagan, whose mother was ill. She was called by an angel to devote herself to Christ instead of the Pagan fiancé, and in exchange, her mother would be cured. She willingly did so, refusing to bow down to the Emperor, and giving her dowry to the Church instead of her future husband. For this, some say, her eyes were gouged out. Or else she cut them out herself so as not to be attractive to her husband-to-be. She is lovely and fierce in the paintings, and probably the man they had chosen for her was a brute and not to her taste; and her devotion to Christ healed her mother; but can we not think of a better story for her? Is this really a model worthy of imitatio? So many of these maiden saints, who refused arranged marriages and gave themselves to the disembodied fantasy of the beautiful, scantily-clad Christ instead, were exercising the only power they had, and for this they are admirable. They found, by these religious subterfuges, one way of protecting themselves from drunken brutish masters in the form of husbands, pimps, and fathers. But their virginity was no great prize. Can we not imagine stories for them with better endings? Lovers to their tastes, freedom to choose, to adventure beyond the convent or house-wifely walls? Instead of continuing to venerate the lives of these pious girls, we would do well to imagine new vitae for them, lives lived in rebellion, not against Pagan Emperors and sexuality, but against the control of their bodies and souls by male authority figures, lives lived in full flowering of their sexuality and pleasure-loving instincts, in celebration of female desire. We must make new saints, and also revive old models worthy of veneration from the archives of history, woman and girls who knew light and dark, pleasure and pain, flesh, the devil, and the divine sweetness of the embrace of a beautiful, living beloved body. Poor Santa Lucia. We pity her and regret the loss of her beautiful eyes. And then, in her honor, we go looking for traces of other myths or at least a few fallen figs from some controversial historic feasts, to savor from the safe distance of a relatively tame and unromantic time.

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

I am on my way to Gardone Riviera, on a pilgrimage to visit Il Vittoriale, the monumental house, shrine, and garden of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italian novelist, poet, patriot, lover, and aesthete. When I mention him to people here they sometimes seem uncomfortable; because he was wild enough to disregard the Treaty of Versailles and take over the island of Fiume to turn it into an artistic utopia; because of his relationship with Mussolini; because he represents or seems to represent many things that are nowadays in bad odor. To get there I have to take a train to Milan and one to Brescia and then a long bus ride.

It is a misty, cool, warm morning in February, and confusions proliferate: about trains, ticket machines, banks, language, customs. They seem to do everything differently here, but for them that is how it is done. Then I realize that even in my own milieu I am strange. That I am strange, wherever I go. An artist is outside of society, but also very inside it. Inside of life. Observing, but also feeling through and for everyone and everything. After writing that down I wonder if it is arrogant, as if I were suggesting that regular people don’t feel, are not conscious. No, it is not that, but rather that their attention is mostly elsewhere, and ours is so often concentrated on reflection, on the symbolization of everything. Watching gestures and configurations, listening to emphases and choices of words, noticing formal variations and repetitions. As Suzanne Langer notes, to use symbols (rather than just signs) is to talk about the world, not just to denote it, not just to deliver information, but to consider how things are, and even why. And as artists, our lives are consumed by symbols and symbolic interpretations. The entire phenomenal world is to us a sort of symbol-picture of something else. No, not of another world, as Plato would have it; not a bad copy of some perfect original, but actually a symbol-complex of itself.

The phenomenal nature of the physical world means to us. But we don’t make of it what isn’t there, but see in it all that there is to be seen in it. Well, not everything at once—that would be too much, that would be a jumble. But we see many things, one after the other, from different perspectives, in correspondence; we have many ways of seeing meaning in what is. We are curious about how things are made; where they came from; how they were invented; what human need they answered; what history they contain; what natural materials; what natural miracles are evident in their existence; what they tell us about human and animal life, past and present, about desires, fears, curiosities, mistakes, kindnesses and cruelties, despairs and foolish hopes. Thoreau, allegedly an arch anti-materialist, collected and used objects to trace history… as artifacts of material culture, looking, always, for the law and the deviation. Goethe, a naturalist and collector of botanical, geological, and artistic specimens, traced the variety of the plant world back to one original Ur-Pflanze, and then envisioned the entire world of objects and behavior as an allegory for this constant development, this constant Becoming (Werden), from out of the essence of Being (Sein).

All artists mine objects, physical acts, stories, events, speech utterances, places, buildings, man-made and natural, for their significance, for traces of how and what we have dreamt of and done battle for; for their own qualities and also for the way in which they are allegories for other things, feelings, events, experiences; for the way they seem to echo and repeat. When we see repeating patterns we naturally sometimes think we have learned something about life, some tendencies or natural laws…and, despite the doubts shed upon such instinctive correspondence nowadays, often it is true. But it would be foolish to take only one or two experiences and construct a final story about life. The largest, broadest vision would be necessary to oversee all the conflicting narratives before coming to any conclusions. Life is brutal, life is tender. Humans are brave, are craven; are polygamous, monogamous; people of habit, craving change; we like to deviate and to stay close. So, whenever we try to maintain just one thing we discover another side or possibility, but not to the extent that everything cancels everything else out. We may still come to provisional conclusions about the nature of the world, society, our lives, about what works and what does not; in fact we must. But let these not be rigid or polarized, let us not base hasty conclusions solely on either the sum of the good or the sum of the bad experiences. A little hope is healthy, as is a touch of denial, since sometimes things turn out better than one expects, even in the worst of circumstances. As much horror as there is, there is also always good. Neither can be cancelled out by the other. We must see it all. Read it all into what we find before us. Find a way to embrace it all. Amor fati—Love of fate.

I arrived at Gardone Riviera too late in the afternoon for a tour of the house, so began my visit to D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale degli Italiani with a sunset stroll around the “most beautiful garden in Italy”. From my Neo-Classical hotel, with its palm trees, classical columns, and reproductions of Roman sculptures, I walked up the steep winding paths and stairways to the grounds, past little houses perched amid orange trees and covered in vines, until I found the gate and entered D’Annunzio’s strange dream: grottos with idols; walkways beneath portentous archways; a sudden St. Francis of Assisi; a fountain encircled with gorgon heads; a lofty monument to the heroes of Fiume; a giant boat docked on land; columns topped with statuesque nudes. A sign before a sun-dappled little garden made up of rocks, small columns and upright missiles, informs the visitor that this is the most sacred spot of all. The “little lake for dancing” is at the bottom of a steep ravine, reached only by winding down hundreds of small stone steps. The large amphitheater is encircled from behind by tall cedars and the snow-capped Alps, and its stage has a gleaming Lake Garda as its backdrop. I imagined Isadora Duncan, one of D’Annunzio’s many lovers, walking there—as if on the water—in consummate Classical grace.

torino2-015Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

That night I wandered around the out-of-season resort town, looking for somewhere to dine, lighting upon Caffe D’Annunzio itself, one of the only places opened, where three or four locals were crowded around a counter drinking wine. I nursed a negroni on the closed-down patio while wondering what Il Vittoriale means. Why, I wondered, should it make us uncomfortable? D’Annunzio had a sense of the heroic about him that is out of fashion today. A sense of superiority and sacredness, a will to power, a contempt for lowliness, sickliness, vulgarity, cowardice. People may mock D’ Annunzio’s mythologizing, moralistically decrying his frequent bad behavior, I think—or perhaps this is the gin and the absence of a restaurant—, but at least his impulses were signs of life, of appetite. D’Annunzio might well be censured or ridiculed for his celebration of militarism and his association with Mussolini , for his many lovers (whom he adored, but also treated atrociously), for his many dogs and his race cars, for the consciously elaborated mythology of himself as a demi-God, for a combination of wounded pride and delusions of grandeur—except that he was a great writer, and his grand lifestyle enriches our collective imagination.

 

nunes_vais_mario_1856-1932_-_gabriele_dannunzio_sdraiato_mentre_leggeGabriele D’Annunzio Reading by Mario Nunes Vais (1856-1932)

Compared to the lukewarm morality of today, our smug conformity and communal piety, D’ Annunzio’s mythic theatricality exercises a certain attraction. Considering all of this, I found myself laughing out loud at the mad, mad world, strolling on the closed-down boardwalk. I was dwarfed by a 19th century edifice, crowned with a bright yellow Renaissance-style tower with the words GRAND HOTEL emblazoned in golden-tinted mosaic. It was a huge sprawling place where Churchill and Mussolini, and many other mortally-flawed heroes and villains stayed. Like most everything else here, the historic hotel was boarded up until May, and the boardwalk was surreal, empty, but for a lone palm tree swaying on the promenade. In my drunkenness, with the help of a kind stranger, I managed to work the cigarette machine I found on the way back to my hotel, and smoked a rare cigarette—which, in its rareness, got me even higher—and wondered about the difference between aesthetic individualism and fascism. The cigarette, in its naughtiness, helping me to flirt with the decadent charms of immorality.

Aesthetic individualism is associated with culture, beauty, delicate sensibilities, the collection and preservation of fragile artifacts, and an internationalism that revels in the multiplicity of the creative imagination; fascism is nationalistic, collectivist, brutally destructive, anti-intellectual, a danger not only to human beings and their ethical freedom, but also to the beloved precious buildings, artistic and historical artifacts so admired by the aesthetic individualist. So why would they ever, why do they sometimes keep common cause? In the case of D’Annunzio, we have a man of letters whose only real political affiliation was with the Party of Beauty, but who in fact did collaborate with a man who would subsequently become a fascist dictator. But even before Mussolini came to be Il Duce and to be called by D’Annunzio “an evil clown,” their relationship was strained. They came together at the start of World War I, over a shared vision of a new Roman Empire, a romantic ideal that called for the re-annexation of Trieste, Fiume, and other territories that had once belonged to Italy and which, they both agreed, should once again be theirs. D’Annunzio roused his countrymen to enter the War and to defend the French culture under siege, with speeches and street theater, and fought on the front lines. But after the Treaty of Versailles failed to reward the Italians for their sacrifices in the war, he took history into his own hands, and, with a ragtag militia, easily took Fiume back for the Italians, to the cheers of the mostly Italian populace, and tried to found an artistic utopia with a democratic constitution there. Mussolini kept himself scarce and watched from afar as the dream foundered over the course of a little more than a year, only later to seize Fiume from the Austrians himself, this time, much to D’Annunzio’s displeasure, to make it part of a fascist state. The fascists were frequently embarrassed by D’Annunzio’s eccentric sybaritic antics, his poetry and his displays of what they considered “feminine” voluptuousness; his nude sunbathing and worship of art. His association with workers’ collectives agitating for unions and civil rights also complicated matters. When D’Annunzio was not being swayed by the democratic socialists, or being lured into shady dealings by the fascists, he was doing whatever he fancied, collaborating with composers on operas, writing plays for his lovers, writing sumptuous novels and books of poems about his lovers, spending money he did not have on beautiful books and objet d’art, and making love. He felt that Mussolini had abandoned him at Fiume and that he did not give him the credit he deserved for bringing Italy into World War I; but Mussolini the dictator saw to it that a national edition of D’Annunzio’s complete works was published and that the extensive quixotic renovations of Il Vittoriale be funded in part by the Italian government. D’ Annunzio, in turn, dedicated his house and grounds to the Italian people as a monument to the soldiers who dared to take Fiume with him. It was also a retreat. Although he had dabbled sensationally in politics and war, he was, by nature, an aesthete who enjoyed comfort and sensuality. Luxury, he wrote, was as essential to him as breathing. He liked to sit at the feet of lovely women, and shower them with flowers, leaf through ancient leather-bound books and recite poetry in the dark. Over the course of a five year period, he once wrote over 1000 letters to one woman alone. They don’t make men like D’Annunzio anymore. In the mostly empty dining room of my hotel, there were none to be seen, so I gave myself to a large piece of black forest cake with whipped cream, and the conversation of the owner and his friends, who tried to get me to drink more and more champagne and spoke to me in a mixture of broken English and mostly incomprehensible Italian. Somehow I stumbled upstairs alone, somewhat nauseous, and had a nightmare about D’Annunzio. Or was it a dream?

The following day I made it into the sanctum sanctorum, D’Annunzio’s house. In the entryway to what he called “the Priory” stands a column to divide the guests into welcome and unwelcome. The many creditors would have to wait on the right, the women, mostly artists and poets and actresses, would be ushered in on the left to a room filled with incense burners and a helicopter blade hanging from the ceiling. The lucky ones would be brought to the music room, cocooned in dark tapestries. D’Annunzio had lost an eye in the war and was sensitive to light. Besides, music requires concentration of the mind. The floors are covered in carpets and pillows, for lounging or making love; busts of Michelangelo and Dante, his ‘brothers’, stand like witnesses. Books and music folios line the walls, surrounding life masks, sculptures, lamps of blown glass fruit, leaded windows, an organ, lyres, lutes, bells. The predominant tones are red, gold, and black. From the music room we proceed to a writing room, with a large desk, where D’Annunzio died, and a medicine cabinet filled with drugs. Over the doorway from the writing room to the bedroom, we read: genio et voluptati —genius and voluptuousness. The bedroom is called The Room of Leda and overflows with chinoiserie and silken fabrics and cushions. But genius is not all pleasure and happiness. Consider the Leper Room, for meditation on the death of his mother and Eleanore Duse, which features a bed in the shape of both a cradle and a coffin, “the bed of two ages”. Two leopard skins are draped over the steps leading down from the bed. A painting of Saint Francis embracing the leper hangs near the bed. We are to understand that D’Annunzio considers himself a leper in the eyes of society, in exile here after his failed attempt to raise life to its rightful gloriousness despite the philistine, luke-warm good behavior of his fellows. In his Italian Journey, written back when words like lofty, harmonize, exalt, true, and noble could be read without embarrassment, Goethe commented on the poor reception granted to a number of Palladio buildings:

How poorly these choice monuments to a lofty spirit harmonize with the life of the rest of mankind…it occurs to me that this after all is the way of the world. For one gets little thanks from people when one tries to exalt their inner urges, to give them a lofty concept of themselves, to make them feel the magnificence of a true, noble existence.

Alas, Goethe saw the tendency of things, already at the end of the 18th century. Though I wonder what he would have thought of D’Annunzio’s taste. The Relics room is a syncretic temple to all religions, mixing sacred objects with profane military paraphernalia. There are elephants, bronze Buddhas, medieval crosses, rows and rows of Catholic statuary, and a Fiume flag on the ceiling. Over the doorway is written: “Five Fingers, Five Sins”. Out of the original seven, D’Annunzio had excluded lust and greed. These two were not deadly sins, but virtues in his creed. A broken steering wheel on the altar, which once had belonged to an English racecar driver friend, symbolizes the religion of risk. His workshop, the only room in the house to let in natural light, can only be entered by prostrating oneself beneath a low ceiling and taking a few small steps. The writer had to humble himself before his muse, his great love, the actress, Eleanore Duse, whose bust sits upon his desk, covered with a silk scarf so her beauty would not distract him from his work. La Duse, as she was called, earned the full adulation that Il Duce was denied.

torino4-037Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill

D’Annunzio called his house “the book of stones,” and like all good books it is filled with symbols. Everything means something. And the many mottos written on ceilings and round the rims of rooms and over doorways help us should we falter in our interpretation. And yet, I probably will be trying to understand it all for a long time to come. Certainly, although it would be simpler to outright reject grandeur and beauty, because of its sometimes questionable provenance, I cannot moralistically deny myself the intellectual and sensual pleasure it brings. And yet, the provenance and history of objects is significant and fraught with tangled skeins of so much seeming good with so much seeming bad. I will continue to be curious about all the life and the history that can be gleaned from material remains—portals to other worlds and times—and to embrace the wild contradictory nature of humanity with an amor fati—love of fate—communing, even if need be, in occasional discomfort, with all kinds of ghosts, neither assuaging nor simplistically censoring the transgressions of these haunted spirits.

What would D’Annunzio have thought, however, had he known that the souvenir shop outside the grounds would feature not only snow globes with little miniature Il Vittoriales and coffee mugs emblazoned with his face, but also a section devoted to his special friend and nemesis, Mussolini, offering brass knuckles and ominous riding crops for sale? Would he have approved? I would like to think he would he have considered it an impudent intrusion, actuated by purely capitalist vulgarity, a treacherous re-writing of his more nuanced story, rather like the posthumous revision of Nietzsche’s biography by his Wagnerite sister. (Elisabeth-Forster Nietzsche, as is well known, attempted to posthumously present her brother as a proto-Nazi, he, who in reality despised the Germans and who called in his last days for the death of all anti-Semites. The Mussolini display made me feel queasy, so I quickly exited the little shop and walked down the hill to beautiful Lake Garda, which Goethe, on his visit, had called “magnificent,” trying to separate the marvelous and admirable Italian writer from his unsavory companion. I caught the afternoon bus out of town, and made it back to Torino by late the same evening.

I spent my last week wandering around gazing at everything, saying goodbye with my eyes, entering dark churches on rainy afternoons and returning to museums I had already visited. I abandoned my foolish infatuation with the intern from Sardinia. It had been a case of pareidolia after all, or a matter of witchcraft. I visited Brunilde one more time, who had been angry at me after the last lunch for refusing dessert, a strawberry delicacy which the blackboard claimed was “the cake of love.” Probably she had cursed me, and my refusal to eat the cake was the cause of my romantic failure. This time I was all alone with her in the little restaurant. We talked despite my faulty Italian and her non-existent English, and she even gave me the name of another restaurant, scribbling it on a little piece of paper, which I did not lose and used the following day. I knew better now: I would do whatever she said and eat whatever she suggested. Lunch was orecchietti with spinach pesto and a mouth-watering cutlet swamped in delicious artichoke sauce, a glass of red wine, sparkling water, and for dessert a divinely magical zabaione with roasted almonds, an espresso, the traditional shot glass of absinthe-soaked grapes, and something extra this time, to mark my initiation: a little jar of sugar cubes soaked in liquor and spices, which I did not know really how to eat or drink. She became frustrated with me and took it away, “Only the sugar, only the sugar;” but she had accepted me, just the same, this woman whose gruffness was a legend, but whose favor I had longed for. I was sure she was a witch, and that she could help me or hurt me. After the espresso, I paid the bill, but was short some 60 cents. She waved me away; it was a mere trifle between such good friends. I wished her a beautiful life, una vita bella, and Brunilde the fierce blew me a kiss! I was blessed.

torino4-030Page from An Apology for Meaning, Artists’ book by Genese Grill.

On the way to the airport, the Alps, covered in snow, were visible behind the utilitarian architecture at the edge of the city. All along the street, shutters opened and green curtains were extended from inside to out and draped over the little balconies. From a tall building, a white sheet, like a small cloud, was shaken out in the fresh morning air in the wind and sun. Church spires rose up, shopkeepers brought out boxes of fruit for display, and old men in gray caps trundled along the sidewalk, newspapers tucked in the pockets of their old tweed jackets, ready to be unfurled along with the far-off world at the nearest caffè. The time had come to leave, and the following were my last words with which I armed myself for a return to the American landscape of ironic nihilism, that nihilism born in part of a fear of the complexity inherent in material objects and in the often painful distance between dreams and reality which they reveal:

Whosoever today does not respond, does not resonate to the stirrings of beauty and the energetic life force of the world as it is, who is not filled with wonder at its teeming multifarious richness, who mocks those in the past who have made objects and symphonies and wrote poems to celebrate the intricate, elaborate, strange, cruel, and tender rhythms of life, must be dead of spirit. In the Palazzo Madama museum, after bathing in sunlight streaming into a room of baroque golden splendor from a grand window, I entered the tiny tower housing a collection of small treasures, and any lingering doubts about meaning were immediately purged from me. I knew that the doubters were blind, deaf, and dumb. These intricate treasures were immediate palpable evidence of the perennial human need to celebrate the real delights and dangers of nature and civilization. Carved ivories, etched gems, blown glass, cast bronze. Fancy— made out of the real substance of the physical world, its colors and textures and qualities. I was thus armed to do battle against the skeptical intellectuals and their social construction blasphemy. I knew: Whosoever does not love Nature and the artifacts of humankind’s love of matter (colors, curves, sounds, textures, words, flavors, rhythms, light, light, light!) may as well be dead. Such a one is bereft of heat, of senses, of love, of lust, is a lizard of theoretical idiocy; just as much a repressor of the instincts and the body and nature as any inquisition or poison-spider priest. Philistine sophisticates, parading as the new intellectuals and new anti-artists, may you chortle on the dust of your own dreary scoffing. We others, we naïve ones, have been filled with wonder by the beauty of the world.

—Genese Grill

.grill-genese-grill-with-artists-books-cropped

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.

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Nov 012016
 

ariane2Ariane Miyasaki in her studio

Top of the Page this month we have a selection of musical items, essays, interviews, all accompanied by gorgeous music, pop to opera, poetry set to music, and contemporary classics. I’ve long wanted a real Music section with its own table of contents. But it’s only since the arrival here of Carolyn Ogburn, musician and writer, that I have felt confident enough in the continuity of things musical. Yet over time we have accumulated some fascinating stuff. Marilyn McCabe’s beautiful singing (and her translation) of Leconte de Lisle’s “Les Roses d’Ispahan,” Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius’s group Heard and her amazing jazz piano (we’re starting an NC Podcast series and Elizabeth’s music will be featured), Diane Moser’s original jazz compositions, Carolyn Ogburn’s interviews with composers Eric Moe and Nathan Currier, Ian Bell’s charming essay on composing “Signor Farini,” Julie Trimingham’s interview with opera singer Fides Krucker, Patrick J. Keane’s introduction to the amazing voice of Maura Kennedy, the haunting sonic orchestrations of Ariane Miyasaki, and my own sons, Jacob and Jonah, and their bumptious, joyful “French Song.” There is more music on the site. So nice to be able to say that. Check out the contents page via the navigation bar.

Oct 242016
 

torino4-037

Another brilliant issue. I’ve said it before. I don’t know where they come from. It’s always been my intention to assemble a small community of intelligent people for whom art and writing are as important as breath, people who love beauty and a well-turned sentence, people who want to create meaning against the empty culture all around, where bluster and bravado and the constant measuring of penis sizes (deals, bank accounts, brands, commercial fads, media blather — have I mentioned before how much I loathe the word microfiber?). Making meaning, achieving grace, and valuing silence are from before the Flood, ancient and subversive activities. The magazine is a little space for that.

Genese Grill is Numéro Cinq’s answer to the Vale of Trump, a politically engaged, passionate artist-writer who makes everything she touches beautiful. We have an essay from her this time, an essay called “Making Meaning: Italian Journeys” that takes off from a recent sojourn in Torino, where, as she is quick to point out, Nietzsche went mad. We also have images from an artist’s book she made — “An Apology for Meaning” — that isn’t an apology in the current degraded sense but rather a celebration of meaning in a gorgeously ramified foldout of painted images and words, also from the Torino venture.

Read the essay, meditate upon the images, and think about why the magazine is here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGenese Grill

There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert, if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks with huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. —Genese Grill

Brian Leung, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program.(Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)Brian Leung (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)

But there’s more of course. I love this short story by Brian Leung about the improbable friendship between  “a Chinese-something gay boy” and an eighty-two-year-old African-American woman named Niola, and her decline and death. It’s a story about making family, about responsibility to others, and about dying. Immensely sad and touching at the same time.

When the police called, they asked about my connection to “an elderly African-American woman.”  They didn’t use her name because she wasn’t carrying I.D.  They didn’t tell me that she was dead, only that they were trying to locate someone who could identify her.  I told them who she was and gave them my information and told them who I was and what had happened the night before. Maybe it wasn’t in that order. I could barely think because it had finally happened, Niola had gone off and gotten lost and now she was sitting in some police station frightened and confused. Breathless, I gave the police her son’s Oakland phone number. It was the second time I’d done that. Fucking Hebron. Fucking me. I slid to the floor, because for months I’d heard Niola but apparently only half-listened. —Brian Leung from “Where Went Niola?”

laura-thompsonLaura Thompson

And Laura Michele Diener does an exquisite job with her review essay on Laura Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, a book about six remarkable, scandalous, prolific sisters (intimates of Hitler and Evelyn Waugh) who were for a while at the epicentre of 20th-century literary life. 

the-six

Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” —Laura Michele Diener on The Six

img_0924Wave 16-1, 12x13x7″, stoneware and paint: Anne Hirondelle

Ceramic artist Anne Hirondelle is a discovery, guided our way by Rikki Ducornet (who also introduced us to Dave Kennedy in the last issue). Wonderful, swirling, shapes; liquid torrents frozen momentarily.

anne-hirondelle2Anne Hirondelle

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival

From Ireland, yes, always something new from Ireland, we have a hyperbolic, scabrous, strange, blunt, insistent, slyly comic story from Dave Lordan. Reminds of John Banville. You can hear the Irish in the voice of the narrator.

I am racked day and night by pangs of regret that I did not wait until The  County Manager had announced to me his reason for calling to my door so interruptedly in the middle of the night, before sticking him through the neck with my dagger – overwhelming surprise at the end of his life, that bloody exclamation mark I climaxed his story with. I must allow for the possibility that there was no reason atall why he called, and therefore that he died, and I killed, for no reason atall.

—from “The County Manager,” Dave Lordan

jody-and-nickyPamela Stewart

Already from our new poetry editor Susan Aizenberg: Fierce, lovely poems by Pamela Stewart.

Conceived at the edge of a cliff, born
into propriety, I was the wrong fish
in tiny denim overalls playing
with that red, wind-up bird which had flown to me
right out of my father.

 NCNCNC—from “Trakl’s Daughter,” Pamela Stewart

 

author-photoAgustín Cadena via Union Hidalgo

We also have a short story from Mexico, Agustín Cadena’s “Maracuyá,” translated by Patricia Dubrava, a deft tale of intrigue, mystery, and sexual fluidity.

“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”

It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.

—from “Maracuyá,” Agustín Cadena

mary-brindleyMary Brindley

Also we have an essay by our own Mary Brindley on her biographical quest into the secrets of a mid-20th century Belgian opera singer, José de Trévi, who stumbled into her life in the form of a stack of faded handwritten letters in a Paris flea market. Little did Mary know how difficult her quest would become.

At first, it was all fun and games—deciphering his handwriting, translating his letters from French to English, digging into archives to read reviews of his performances. I fancied myself a kind of private detective, and everything de Trévi wrote about the opera, the people he spent time with, the way he spent his days, even his tone and the expressions he used, were clues into who he was. But de Trévi’s life still remained largely a mystery. I could find nothing about who Elsa was, why de Trévi left the opera, or even how he died. I followed every lead and hit hundreds of dead ends and gave up on the project altogether more than once. And then, after a time, I’d feel the nag of unanswered questions, and I’d return to the books, the operas, the letters, and let de Trévi lure me back into the lonely hole of biographical research.

—Mary Brindley

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

close up no glasses July 2015Mark Cox

Mark Cox graces this issue with a clutch of prose poems, touching, complex, edgy texts (micro stories) on childhood and death. Bleak in a sense, but beautiful. Lovely writing.

Their skeletons are still below the spillway. There is even some ravaged hide left, if one would call it that. Tough way to go, the boy thinks. The two goats even seem to be facing each other, just as they must have on the dam itself, barring each other’s passage along the narrow walkway. Not quite halfway across is where it seems to have happened, they met here and could go no further. The boy kicks a stone down and feels it in his stomach as it drops and strikes the earth. It hasn’t rained much this summer, the crops are withering, the county lake is low. The spillway is as dry as–well, as dry as these bones, now uncovered and bleaching in the high sun. Goats are gifted climbers; even plain old billies are nimble by nature. It would have been easy enough to pass. Or for one or both to turn and walk the other way. Headstrong, his mother calls it. She says it with a mixture of disdain and resignation, and just a touch of pride.

—from “Headstrong,” Mark Cox

nell-zinkNell Zink

Carolyn Ogburn took a break this month from interviewing composers to write an insightful review of Nell Zink’s newest novel Nicotine.

In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.

—Carolyn Ogburn

 

nicotine

Jeremy BrungerJeremy Brunger

And Jeremy Brunger returns after a hiatus. He recently started an MA degree at the University of Chicago, and this essay is a meditation on his arrival in a new city, its contradictions of class and race, and his place therein.

That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.

—Jeremy Brunger

dusan-sarotarDušan Šarotar

Joe Schreiber does his usual masterful and magisterial turn reviewing the novel Panorama by the Slovenian author Dušan Šarotar.

Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

—Joseph Schreiber on Panorama

panorama-cover

 

fullsizerenderJim Gauer

Jeff Bursey reviews Jim Gauer’s explosive novel Explosives, and we have an excerpt.

…we’re going to have to order another bottle of the Araujo, a wine that combines extraordinary power and richness with remarkable complexity and considerable finesse, a saturated purple/black color in the glass, followed by aromas of sweet vanilla and crème de cassis, intermixed with riveting scents of black currents and exotic spices, with overtones of minerals, coffee, and buttered toast, a subtle yet powerful giant of a wine, a wine that should age effortlessly for 30 or more years, though in this case we’re drinking it at the tender age of four, and while it is, undoubtedly, an alcoholic beverage, it’s so fucking tannic that you can’t feel your teeth, which seem to be cracking under the wine’s brute ferocity. Parker’s rating? Precisely a 98.

—from Explosives, Jim Gauer

novel-explosives

And there is more. Always.

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Oct 132016
 

stridentopolis-by-ramon-alva-de-la-canal
Stridentopolis, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

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IN ROBERTO BOLAÑO’S The Savage Detectives, the characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima head north from Mexico City to Sonora in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a forgotten poet from the 1920s. Loosely associated with the post-revolutionary avant-garde movement known as Stridentism, Tinajero had since become a cult figure for the Visceral Realist group led by the book’s young heroes, who are eager to track down any information they can find on her. Anyone who’s read The Savage Detectives, however, knows that their quest is a distraction—one of the characters even says he believes Belano and Lima invented Cesárea Tinajero to justify their trip to Sonora. It’s perhaps fitting, however, that the Stridentists are largely known for their role as a MacGuffin in a novel written some 70 years after the movement’s demise—in real life, as in the world of the novel, they’re primarily conspicuous by their absence.

Though we’re approaching the centennial of the Stridentist movement, there are few signs that they ever existed. Only a fraction of their texts are available from Mexico City’s main public library, and while Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire has gone on hosting poetry readings and art exhibitions to this day, its counterpart in Mexico City—Café Europa, once located in Mexico City’s gentrifying Roma Norte neighborhood—is now a hipster bakery. Mexico’s cultural historians have either ignored the Stridentists—Octavio Paz didn’t think to even mention the movement in the chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude on the post-revolutionary intelligentsia—or they’re brought up simply to be dismissed as a cheap knockoff of the Futurists.

In their heyday, however, the Stridentists were admired across the Americas: their work was praised by a young Jorge Luis Borges and John Dos Passos translated Manuel Maples Arce’s poem Urbe into English in 1929, while the future Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias led the (potentially fictitious) Guatemalan chapter of the movement. They also had a considerable impact at home, with one contemporary work of criticism comparing Urbe and Arqueles Vela’s short story La Señorita Etc. with Diego Rivera’s murals at Texcoco’s Chapingo Autonomous University, arguing that these three works marked a revolution in Mexican aesthetics—but while the work of Diego Rivera is rightly lionized today, Maples Arce and Vela have largely been forgotten. It’s no wonder that the Stridentists obsessed Roberto Bolaño—researching them, even in the Internet age, is an equally frustrating and rewarding experience, involving a great deal of time in the National Library’s Rare Book Room.

So who were they?

First we should set the scene. By the end of 1921, the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution had definitively ended. Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated; Pancho Villa, though retired and living on a ranch with his last remaining followers, would soon suffer the same fate. The first two revolutionary presidents, Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza, had also been killed, the first during a counterrevolutionary coup d’état and the second by a rival group of revolutionaries. Power passed into the hands of a one-armed revolutionary general named Álvaro Obregón, under whose rule Mexico would begin to recover from the ten years of civil war that had left one million dead.

In the view of a young poet named Manuel Maples Arce, however, there was something hollow about this brave new age. “No spiritual agitation accompanied these outward convulsions,” he would later write. “In Russia, the Suprematist poets and painters painfully affirmed the restlessness of the Bolshevik moment. The November Group did the same thing in Germany. But Mexico’s intellectuals remained apathetic. Abroad, they continued to judge us for our endless exportation of literary trifles, sentimental junk and execrable odes sold at laughable prices to publications destined solely for the archives. But the post-revolutionary restlessness, with its proletarian eruptions and tumultuous protests, stimulated our inner agitation. We too could revolt. We too could rebel.”

stridentist-manifesto

A strange manifesto then appeared on the streets of Mexico City, posted between advertisements for plays and bullfights. Opening with a declaration of war on Mexico’s national heroes (Death to Father Hidalgo!) and the Catholic religion (Down with the Archangel Raphael, Down with Lazarus!) and freely quoting F.T. Marinetti (“An automobile in movement is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), Maples Arce’s manifesto rejected the Symbolist-influenced poetry then popular in Latin America in favor of an art that would embrace the new: “It’s necessary to exalt, in all the strident tones of our propagandistic pipe organ, the contemporary beauty of machines…the industrial system of great throbbing cities, the blue shirts of explosive workers in this electrifying and poignant time: all the beauty of this century.” Despite the undeniably strong influence of Futurism, Maples Arce distanced himself from that movement’s forward-looking focus: “Nothing of retrospection. Nothing of futurism. The entire world, at rest, marvelously illuminated in the stupendous climax of the present minute…always the same and always being renewed. We shall have presentism.” The manifesto concluded with an index of European and Latin American avant-garde figures from a wide variety of schools; here Jorge Luis Borges appeared alongside Jean Cocteau and Diego Rivera alongside Max Ernst. Other names are more obscure. Like the infamous list of experimental musicians included with Nurse with Wound’s debut album, the manifesto utilized the catalog of influences as a statement of purpose.

Using the manifesto and his first book of poems, Interior Scaffold—which Borges praised “for its torrent of images and the mastery of its form”—as a calling card, Maples Arce attracted a small circle of writers that shared his desire to revolutionize Mexican literature. The first to declare his allegiance to Stridentism was Arqueles Vela, a columnist for the Mexico City weekly El Universal Ilustrado, who was soon followed by the Puebla-based poets Germán List Arzubide and Salvador Gallardo—as well as by Kyn Taniya, the son of Mexico’s ambassador to France, who had already established himself as a poet in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Apollonaire and Romain Rolland. They would be joined by a group of visual artists that included Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Fermín Revueltas, Germán Cueto, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. Together they launched a short-lived magazine, called Irradiador, which published their work alongside that of their counterparts in Spain’s Ultraist movement.

exterior-scaffolding-by-fermin-revueltas
Exterior Scaffolding, by Fermín Revueltas

Much of their early work was given over to a celebration of the new marvels of the 20th Century (airplanes, radio, jazz, urbanism), capturing Mexico’s post-revolutionary optimism despite themselves. When the country’s first radio station was launched in May 1923, the inaugural broadcast featured the reading of a poem by Maples Arce that celebrated the new technology. Their critics lambasted their embrace of modernity as being derivative of Futurism, but this weakness was in many ways also a strength: while European avant-garde figures such as Marinetti and André Breton spent much of their time exploring the respective meanings of Futurism and Surrealism, leaving behind a large store of theoretical writings, the Stridentists simply wrote. With their disdain for theory and dogma, the Stridentists were able to avoid the cardinal sin of high modernism: difficulty. It’s hard to get through Ezra Pound, for example, without outside guidance, but the work of the Stridentists is much more immediate—Arqueles Vela wrote that Stridentism was a “sincere poetry, one that doesn’t organize emotions, which are always disorganized.” As they sought to capture the new sensations of their time without submitting them to an intellectual scheme that would require extensive interpretation on the part of the reader, their work was often playful and highly accessible, as can be seen in the following poem by Kyn Taniya:[1]

THE LAST BREATHS OF PIGS SLAUGHTERED IN CHICAGO ILLINOIS THE SOUND OF THE NIAGARA ON THE CANADIAN BORDER KREISLER RIZLER D’ANNUNZIO FRANCE ETC. AND THE JAZZ BANDS OF VIRGINIA AND TENNESSEE THE ERUPTION OF POPOCATEPETL OVER THE VALLEY OF AMECAMECA LIKE THE ENGLISH BATTLESHIPS SAILING INTO THE DARDANELLES THE NOCTURNAL GROANS OF THE SPHINX LLOYD GEORGE WILSON AND LENIN THE BELLOWING OF THE PLEISIOSAUR DIPLODOCUS THAT BATHES EACH AFTERNOON IN THE PESTILENT MARSHES OF PATAGONIA GANDHI’S PLEAS IN BAGHDAD THE CACOPHONY OF THE BATTLEFIELD OR THE BRIGHT SANDS OF SEVILLE TIRED OF THE BLOOD AND GUTS OF BEASTS AND MEN BABE RUTH JACK DEMPSEY AND THE CRIES OF THE BRAVE SOCCER PLAYERS WHO KICK EACH OTHER TO DEATH FOR THE BALL

All this for no more than a dollar that’s
right just one hundred cents gets you
electric ears to catch the sounds that sway
in the kilometric hammock of radio waves

………………………………………… EO EEEOOO EO…

The Stridentists spent their days at Mexico City’s Café Europa, which was so desolate that they dubbed it El Café de Nadie—Nobody’s Café. “Nobody cares for it or administers it,” Vela said. “No waiters bother the customers, nor does anybody serve them anything… We are the café’s only customers, the only ones who don’t pervert its spirit.” Vela mythologized the café in his short story El Café de Nadie, which centers on two men—evocations of Maples Arce and Vela himself—who haunt the back tables, watching as a woman named Mabelina takes on a series of different personalities to please her rotating cast of lovers. By the end, she’s left writing her name on the café’s tables to remind herself of her identity. Here the engagement with modernity is much more ambiguous than with the Futurists, to whom they were so often compared: if the anonymity of urban life is liberating, allowing us to reinvent ourselves as we please, the danger is that this very anonymity will remake us in its image.

el-cafe-de-nadie-ramon-alva-de-la-canal
El Cafe de Nadie, by Ramón Alva de la Canal

The Stridentists would take full advantage of the café’s solitude. There they held poetry readings and concerts of “Stridentist music” by Silvestre Revueltas, exhibiting masks by Germán Cueto, photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, and paintings and engravings by Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez, all hung between advertisements for Moctezuma beer and Buen Tono cigarettes.

It was at one of these exhibitions that Maples Arce debuted Urbe, one of the key texts of Stridentism and the poem that marked the movement’s political turn. The inspiration for Urbe came one May Day, when Maples Arce had to return home on foot as the city’s trolleys had been paralyzed by the day’s strike. As he walked through the city’s streets, he mingled with the proletarian demonstrators and reflected on Mexico’s still shaky political situation: “The dissent of the unions, the political agitations and the threats of civil war loomed over us,” he would later write. “In the Chamber of Deputies, speeches were suddenly interrupted by the thunder of pistols. Those who stood in the way of progress encouraged groups of politicians and military officers to try and seize power while the workers demonstrated their state of alert. I observed these spectacles, reflecting on the circumstances and responsibilities of those men who could influence the nation’s destiny. Under these stimulating influences, when I got home I started writing a canto that trembled with hope and desperation. I saw the clear need to give the revolution an aesthetic agenda, and in Urbe I joined my intimate emotions with the clamor of the people.” It’s easy to see what attracted Dos Passos to this poem and led him to befriend its author during his 1927 trip to Mexico. Like Manhattan Transfer, published the same year, Urbe is both a celebration of urban modernity and a longing to redeem its sins through leftist politics:

Here is my poem,
brutal
and multiple,
to the New City.

……………………….Oh city all tense
……………………….with cables and labor,
……………………….the sound
……………………….of motors and wings.
……………………….The simultaneous explosion
……………………….of new theories,
……………………….further off.
On the higher plane
……………………….of Whitman and of Turner
……………………….and, a little nearer by,
……………………….of Maples Arce.

The lungs of Russia
are blowing towards us
the wind of social revolution.
The literary pantysniffers
won’t understand
this new beauty
born in the century’s sweat,
……………………….and the ripe moons
……………………….that fell, rotting
……………………….are the stench
…………………….that rises
……………………….from the intellectual sewers.

If Urbe was the first sign that the Stridentists had become tired of shocking the bourgeoisie and longed to overthrow them instead, they would get their opportunity in 1925, when General Heriberto Jara became governor of Veracruz. Jara, a former anarchist, had joined the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution but maintained his ties to the labor movement. As governor, he promoted the growth of unions, expanded and modernized the state’s infrastructure, and fought the power of the British and American oil companies that treated Mexico’s oil-rich Gulf Coast as their personal property.

Shortly after Jara’s inauguration, Maples Arce, armed with a letter of introduction, traveled to Xalapa and convinced Jara to make him his right-hand man. List Arzubide soon joined him, as did Ramón Alva de la Canal and Leopoldo Méndez. There they edited a new magazine—Horizonte—which, in the place of the avant-garde texts and theoretical articles of Irradiador, ran translations of Tolstoy, H.G. Wells and Rudolf Rocker beside articles on the initiatives of Jara’s government and the political issues of the day. Their new publishing company, Ediciones Horizonte, printed cheap editions of the classics alongside their latest poems, as well as the first mass-market edition of The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the revolution. During this time, List Arzubide wrote Zapata: Exaltation, the first book celebrating the now-legendary insurgent leader, who was then seen as little more than a glorified bandit. The Stridentists also involved themselves in the founding of the state university and Xalapa’s proto-brutalist athletic stadium. Thanks to the patronage of Governor Jara, they were able to go beyond eulogizing modernity through poetry to working directly to modernize Mexico: they would turn a sleepy provincial capital into Stridentopolis. “Stridentopolis consummated the truth of Stridentism,” wrote List Arzubide. “An absurd city, disconnected from everyday reality, it corrected the straight lines of monotony by developing the landscape.”

horizonte-cover

This utopian project was not to endure, however. In 1927, Mexico’s post-revolutionary government was facing its worst crisis in ten years. It was fighting on several different fronts—against foreign oil companies, against large landowners and against the Catholic Church, which had been chafing under the restrictions of the 1917 Constitution (article 130 of which placed restrictions on its political rights). Though this last conflict had been festering ever since the constitution was promulgated, the situation worsened in June 1926 when President Plutarco Elías Calles demanded the full application of Article 130. In response, Mexico’s Catholics launched a guerrilla uprising on January 1st, 1927. President Calles needed the support of the United States government in order to win the war, and so Jara—who had been seizing the assets of British and American oil companies that owed taxes—had to be forced from power.

Jara’s fall triggered the disintegration of the Stridentists as a group. The movement’s internal cohesion had already been strained by the move to Xalapa, as not everyone heeded Maples Arce’s call—Arqueles Vela had instead gone to Spain as a correspondent for El Universal Ilustrado, while Kyn Taniya was made Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, where he and Miguel Ángel Asturias proclaimed the formation of the Guatemalan chapter of the Stridentist movement, of which no other trace seems to have survived. Salvador Gallardo, in the words of List Arzubide, simply “went out into the provinces and the provinces swallowed him up.” Both Maples Arce and List Arzubide, meanwhile, were encouraged by their experiences working with Heriberto Jara to focus on politics full-time. Maples Arce grew disgusted with Mexico’s political climate after only one term as a federal deputy, however, and left for a short period of self-imposed exile in Paris before reconciling himself with the post-revolutionary state in the mid-1930s. List Arzubide would remain an outsider. He joined the Communist Party and on one occasion narrowly escaped deportation to the infamous Islas Marías prison colony alongside Fermín Revueltas’ younger brother José, who would later write a celebrated novel about his imprisonment. On another, Sandino—then in Mexico to collect money and weapons for his insurgent army—gave him an American flag that his men had captured from the U.S. Marines and emblazoned with the words “This flag was captured from the imperialist Yankee forces. Fatherland or Death. Cesar Augusto Sandino.” When the U.S. Embassy heard that the flag was in Mexico, they demanded that it be returned to them. List Arzubide then smuggled the flag out of the country, traveling first to New York, where he hung it from the balcony of a friend’s apartment, before taking it to the World Anti-Imperialist Congress in Frankfurt.

xalapa-athletic-stadiumXalapa athletic stadium

In the year following Jara’s downfall, Álvaro Obregón was assassinated by a Catholic extremist and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents began Mexico’s slow drift towards a sui generis totalitarianism. This coincided with a period of silence on the part of nearly all the movement’s writers, a period that gave their rivals the opportunity to write them out of Mexico’s literary history. Yet this fate is what allows us to come to their work fresh today—the fact that the movement fell apart when a popular revolutionary was constitutionally but undemocratically removed from power even gives them a certain aura of martyrdom. If it’s now impossible to think of Marinetti without recalling his association with Mussolini, and if Mayakovsky died a “second death”—as Pasternak put it—when he was eulogized by Stalin and taught to Russian schoolchildren, Maples Arce and his comrades still remain untainted. This was undoubtedly partly what attracted Bolaño to the movement, especially at a time when the old rivals of the Stridentists were cheering on the bloody repression of the 1968 student movement, an event that forms the political background to The Savage Detectives.

In a sense, the Stridentists’ ephemerality is a testament to their success: neither looking forward nor back, they sought to capture a given moment in time, and they succeeded. In the first Stridentist manifesto, Maples Arce quoted Walter Conrad Arensberg’s assertion that a true poem shouldn’t live for more than six hours; Stridentism lasted for six years and then disappeared. “As good revolutionaries, we knew that every revolution that isn’t crushed at the right time will become reactionary when it crystalizes and is forced to uphold what it had fought in the immediate past,” List Arzubide reflected after the movement’s end. “We were the only revolutionaries who were willing to sacrifice our struggle for lack of heirs. And now that the movement has been liquidated, we hand our work over to the historians because from here on out we hope to avoid the discussions of the academics from the year 2941 who will measure, weigh, clean and polish what was born precisely, lived completely and died without an echo.” There is no better epitaph.

— Joshua Neuhouser

SUGGESTED READING LIST:

Panchito Chapopote by Xavier Icaza
El Movimiento Estridentista by Germán List Arzubide
Poemas Estridentistas by Germán List Arzubide
Las Semillas del Tiempo by Manuel Maples Arce
El Café de Nadie by Arqueles Vela

Secondary works:

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers
Elevación y Caída del Estridentismo by Evodio Escalante

Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution by Rubén Gallo
El Ruido de las Nueces: List Arzubide y el Estridentismo Mexicano by Francisco Javier Mora
El Estridentismo o Una Literatura de Estrategia by Luis Mario Schneider

[1] All poems translated by Grant Cogswell

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neuhouser

Born in Indiana and raised in Seattle, Joshua Neuhouser has lived in Mexico City since 2010, where he works as a freelance translator. His projects have included Rebellion in Patagonia by Osvaldo Bayer (co-translation with Paul Sharkey, AK Press 2016) and The Iguala 43: The Truth and Challenge of Mexico’s Disappeared Students by Sergio González Rodríguez (Semiotexte, forthcoming). He is currently at work compiling an anthology of the Stridentist writers.

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Oct 122016
 

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THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.

You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.

Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.

I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.

I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”

Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.

You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.

“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.

I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.

Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.

So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.

“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.

The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?

To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.

I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.

The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.

Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.

— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

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Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.

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Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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Oct 112016
 

Okla Elliott

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Satan, Bring Me My Guitar (Or: Use the Condom—
You’ll Be Happy You Did Later)

Three times I wished to find an end

Twice you called and said it was the end.

What’s the use of all this trying this wanting-more
your denials your holding-together?
What use the machinations the theatre the holy pornography?

Mister, there are mystical stains everywhere
I go
these days; I don’t want
or at least
don’t want to want
or at least
don’t want to admit I want or want to want—

Oh, to hell with such
roundabout poetics.

My blood is 7 degrees Celsius.
I am not alone.
There are others,
brothers of near-freezing blood; it’s that near
that keeps us close, that forms us.

What makes this room
suddenly Dantean in demeanor?

The pastel skulls are too much,
recurring details of a Día de los Muertos
acid trip gone horrifyingly wrong.

I want to compose a song.
Here is the refrain:
Our Father, I would like to complain
of senseless erections.
I have been meaning to say so
for years, but it only occurred to me now
because I have your attention.

Okay…that song would suck, I admit,
but that doesn’t make me not want to
(or want not to) compose it. So:
Satan, bring me my guitar!

But you don’t want me to compose
a song for you.

What do you want?

You always talked about commitment
at any cost,
so I will prove I am committed.

I wrote the title of this poem
before I was done
and now I will commit
to that parenthetical condom,
which I included just to amuse myself
and my friend David Bowen
with whom I was IMing when I was
drafting this poem.

So, here goes:

You visit me

And I tell myself,
Use the condom; you’ll be happy you did later.

There should be a barrier here
something to block the past
from entering the present unhindered.

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Let’s Not Imagine

1.

Let’s say night never arrives again.
Would the moon disappear in a sun-flash?

And what if all the flowers in all the poems—
flowers I’ve often never seen or heard of, except in poems,
what if these flowers were petrified?
What would we make of these colorful stones
planted throughout world literature?

2.

I read about a torture method
used by rebels in South Africa. Necklacing.
You place a car-tire around your victim’s neck,
then you pour gasoline in the tire, and—
Well, you know what comes next.

The victim’s face disappears in a sun-flash
and all flowers should blossom stone forever.

Let’s not imagine the kind of corpse necklacing leaves.
Those eyes will not see the stars of night.
Some survived. Would you want to meet a survivor?

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Antinomies and Intensities

1.

Askew, askew, I float. The darkling waters
turn my helpless boat round.
The rippling dots of starlight—dead stars, dead.

The rippling of starlight on the water
and overhead. Silently, I merge the world
with my mind. Silently, it becomes one world.

I wobble myself upright and balance.
The body’s warm intensities, its needs,
its abilities. All of this, turning slowly

on the night’s river.

2.

I watch the weather gather
yellow doom into its belly.

The water will wash runnels through the sand.
It will wash away the self-monuments of man.

Say your prayers. The sky won’t listen.
Say them anyway.
The sound of human voice in the storm,
this might be of more value than we can guess.

3.

There is a vowel in the wind. A voiceless vowel.
There is joy in the void. A hopeless joy.

I will ride the waters over the cliff
into the abyss.

I will embrace this apocalypse—

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Ruinwind Sonnet

A hot wind has blown across land and ocean
bringing a desert howl, a desert death, with it.
The wind has changed the angle of your hair,
changed the angles of our hearts.
I sniff the air and smell death. I sense the depleted
souls of uranium shells.
Among so many battlegrounds and burial grounds,
how do I dare to be happy?
Your honest high-pitched laughter
carves the air, counter to the grain of the distant wind
that has burned my day to a ruin.
But that is just a metaphor in my life,
a neat poetic phrase.
Others, their lives are literally burned.

—Okla Elliott

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Okla Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University. His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming).

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Oct 102016
 

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It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.

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Pruitt-Igoe

Most of us know its story, or at least most of us have seen the pictures that left afterimages in our imagination of disaster. At least Pruitt-Igoe brought issues of public housing to the fore. Originally planned as a segregated complex in downtown St. Louis, Pruitt Homes for blacks and Igoe Apartments for whites, the project comprised 33 11-story buildings holding some 2800 apartments on a 57 acre site. It was cause for hope when tenants started moving in, 1954, this at the time of the optimism of the post-World War II boom. The design, with interior pillars supporting an exterior skin of brick and windows, a facade free of ornament and reference, followed principles of Modernism and initially received critical acclaim. To encourage community and give the residents open space Yamasaki placed corridors on the floors, a nod to Le Corbusier’s “interior streets” in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. On a larger scale Pruitt-Igoe echoed Le Corbusier’s utopian desires, as outlined in his book The City of To-morrow and Its Planning and demonstrated in his various designs for an ideal city, where his essential solution to urban crowding was density—high-rise offices and apartments set in a rational grid to allow light, space, natural landscaping, and, supposedly, freedom.

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Yamasaki’s design is derivative, perhaps, but there has been far worse for public housing, and private for that matter. The major criticism of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects has been density. Studies have been made examining the deleterious psychological effects of crowding people in small spaces, especially the higher up a building goes. But as in Le Corbusier’s post-World War I Europe, the need for low-income housing in St. Louis was large and pressing, as it is now in urban areas around the world, and solutions have to be large scale and entail simplification and sacrifice. In many urban areas today, given steep real estate costs and increasing population, the only alternative is to go up. As it was, Yamasaki intended a less dense complex with a mix of high- and low-rise buildings, but rigid federal standards mandated the taller buildings, and other cost-cutting compromises were made that reduced space within the apartments and without. Building contractors inflated their bids, straining the budget further. Still, it did have playgrounds and open space, and facilities for communal needs. The buildings were solid and had heating and plumbing, often lacking in the slums. In so many ways Pruitt-Igoe was superior to the housing tenants had before.

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Occupancy began high but plummeted. Attempts to integrate Igoe, after a Supreme Court desegregation ruling, failed. Whites left. The buildings suffered rapid deterioration and became a focal point of gangs, drugs, and vandalism, of neglect, assault, and fear. The corridors turned into a no-man’s-land, avoided and defiled. Hope turned to a pathology so broad and impacted that the only solution authorities could see was to destroy them. Their answer to violence was more violence. Demolition started in 1972 and continued until 1976, when razing of the entire complex was complete.

A quick review of the causes of its demise will not do them justice. They are complex and interrelated, pervasive and ugly. Nor will numbers tell the story persuasively. Rather the conditions have to be experienced, suffered and endured, to understand their magnitude and insidious effects. Still, Chad Freidrichs’s recent film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, now on DVD, built on extensive research from city planners, urban historians, and sociologists, provides a depth of understanding lacking when the project was first conceived.

Start at ground level, before construction began, with attitude and motive. Government funded construction for public housing has never been strongly supported in this country, as was the case in St. Louis in the ’50s. Business interests, however, prevailed, but their desire was to clean up the eyesore of the downtown slums to make commercial and residential developments attractive for the thriving St. Louis metropolis they anticipated, which they wanted to give a modern face. There were other motives, not publicly voiced, that emerged later.

Many facilities were not adequate in the first place, their problems exacerbated by lack of funding for maintenance. Elevators broke down, incinerators overloaded and trash gathered, water pipes broke in winter. Security and other services also got cut. The buildings declined in rapid, downward spiral. Many residents were poor blacks who fled the agricultural South in hope of better opportunities. The assumption that tenants could pay for maintenance was not realistic. It became completely untenable when their incomes fell because the urban boom, the modern, new St. Louis, did not come. Instead the city’s population shrank with the flight of tax-paying residents to the surrounding suburbs, taking with them the commercial and industrial base and jobs from the city’s core.

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Pruitt-Igoe did have mixed income at the start. Soon, however, the residents were overwhelmingly poor, many paying as much as three-fourths of their income on rent, and they were densely packed together. Tenants of high-rises on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, however, manage well enough. Density most affects low-income families. Their circumstances wear at their resolve and they lack the means to change them. Concentration increases pressure on the fault lines. The family is the first circle of the structure of community and the first line of defense in crisis. Welfare laws undermined families by mandating fathers of recipients not be in the home. By 1965 two-thirds of the residents were minors, most in single-parent homes, attenuating the social fabric even further. Residents were constantly surveilled, and other restrictions made them feel isolated from the world and neglected.

The overwhelming factor was race, bound to poverty in intractable and destructive concentration. Segregationist sentiment remained strong, publicly and privately, and blacks, by various tactics and covenants, were barred from the suburbs and the jobs there, and from the jobs that remained near where they lived in urban St. Louis. For so many blacks a project like Pruitt-Igoe was the only option, or the option the welfare authorities pushed on the poor. Public housing became the instrument not to solve social and economic problems but to isolate and contain them, and allow them to fester and erupt. Really, Pruitt-Igoe was a monument to its society’s prejudices, blindness, and failures, and their combined results are what the pictures of demolition we all know so well most represent.

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Now, 40 years later

How much has changed? Paul Jargowsky, in “Architecture of Segregation,” reports that concentration of poverty in barrios and slums has returned and again is linked to race, again is the result of policies and attitudes similar to those of the ’50s. It is almost twice what it was in 2000 and falls heaviest on minorities, black and Hispanic poor. We have seen its effects in the police shootings and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, and Baltimore, as well in reprisals—police slayings in Baton Rouge and Dallas. What we don’t see is what lies beneath the surface of those isolated events, yet all indications are disturbing. Mood is difficult to detect, but we’ve gone from a world that in the ’60s found the need to proclaim Black Is Beautiful to one that tells us Black Lives Matter.

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Next up the economic scale, most of the rest of us. What the chart on the left shows is that income for 80% of us has flatlined while it has soared for the top 1%. More of us are now living with compromises, stagnant pay and diminished benefits in low-level jobs with limited chances for advancement or in contract work that pays even less and is less secure. Or we work longer hours in jobs that do not match our talents, and even hold down two. Or we try to make it on our own with small businesses in an economy that is stretched.

Money is power, and what the chart on right represents is our influence, our ability to make changes for ourselves and in the world at large. It also determines the construction we see in our world as well as gives voice to how we are supposed to see it. Architectural commissions, like money, like land, are limited resources, and the top 1% hold the greatest sway as they hire top architects to build their luxury townhouses or suburban spreads and the most prominent buildings in our urban environment, offices for the corporations they control and institutions where they have influence. These are the buildings that get the most attention in architectural reviews.

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Meanwhile housing, our major living expense, continues to rise steeply. Public-built homes for those of us at the bottom is a moot point as low-income housing is handled through subsidies to private concerns by a ratio of four t0 one, its quality and character determined by lowest common denominator design, its price by whatever the market can make its residents bear. For those of us steps above, an increasing number cannot afford to buy a home but have to rent, and the cost of rentals has kept pace. In its recent report “Out of Reach” the National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that there isn’t a single state in the nation where workers paid minimum federal wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of their income. On average they need two and a half times that pay. The burden is much, much worse in many areas. The report breaks the numbers down, state by state.

Even as you climb the income ladder, many of us are making still more compromises with homes well below the standards we once had cause to expect. We are moving further away from the cities, from our jobs, and from each other in exurban sprawl, or into infill housing or shared housing or smaller, crowded apartments in the city, homes whose quality and style run from dismal to variations of bland.

What can’t be graphed is the decline in the quality of our lives or the effects the disparity may have years from now, or soon. In the tension of the current environment it is difficult to know whether one is being realistic or alarmist, but it’s hard not to wonder if the Pruitt-Igoe pictures aren’t prophetic in another way.

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Geometry

“[A] town is pure geometry,” Le Corbusier tells us in City of To-morrow. “When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.” He takes our breath with the clarity, consistency, and comprehensiveness of his vision. And chokes us. Jane Jacobs, who lived in the city and studied its people, found that his open spaces led to isolation and bred crime. It is hard not to believe that the simplicity of his design didn’t mask some psychological drive, hidden. Despite genuine sympathy and the best intentions of planners from Fourier’s Phalanstère in the early 19th century, a response to the crowding and squalor brought by the Industrial Revolution and an influence on Le Corbusier, on into designs of the 20th, so many architectural solutions for mass housing have been marked by isolation, containment, and coherence through abstract regularity in a hierarchy of some sort. And by grimness. They want to clean things up and put them in order, not give them life. The working poor were seen en masse as an abstract problem to solve, not individuals looking for variety and fulfillment. Later reactions to Le Corbusier’s monolithic plan were just that—reactions motivated by reverse sentimentality and abstract theory out of touch. Recent urban designers have shown more knowledge and sensitivity, but one has to wonder how much time planners, past and present, spent learning about the people they were trying to help.

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Le Corbusier should not be singled out for criticism, however, and in many ways he responded to the spirit of his times. The world had become abstract itself, absorbed in process, notably industrialization and technology, which architects embraced, and distant from the beliefs and customs that once gave our lives texture and character. The major abstraction the world has to contend with now is the move to the free market, which is anything but free. Whole systems of values have been replaced with fascination in whatever we can be induced to buy, a theme we play out in endless variation. Government managed economy and public welfare policies of the last century have lost substantial ground. Government designed by political thinkers is dead. The greatest irony of “free enterprise” is that it has led to consolidation and growth of large corporations now worldwide, shrinking our influence and status in this process. Business leaders created monoliths on their own, without the help of architects.

Free enterprise does have efficiencies and provides incentive, but as a system of belief and behavior it offers, by definition, nothing substantial, yet its adherents invest it with a veneration that approaches religious fervor. They have also given it a wild ride. Housing was once the bedrock of the economy and a means of individual stability and expression. In the first decade of this century we had a spree, when mortgages lost their moorings and became instead a source for massive, exotic speculation. Complicated financial instruments were created on top of a huge pool of subprime—dubious—loans that no one understood, not even those who bartered them, resulting in a crash that took the economy with it. It was all exhilarating, really, if you can step back a moment and take it in, a non-euclidean triumph. Perhaps a stretch, but the temptation is to say that our more exotic, risky, even perilous architectural designs of the last decades match this spirit, this abandon.

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Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

So much other architecture now, clean and white, open and transparent, appeals to us with its purity and abstraction. Some of it is classically well-proportioned, some is fanciful, some is funky, some technologically marvelous. But so much of it works within theoretical inbreeding and a narrow set of esthetic assumptions it does not question, assumptions and ideas that give us an ever-diminishing sense of self. Some propels us forward towards a fantastic, abstract future that shows no recognition of the past and has little bearing on our present lives. How well these buildings will stand up to the test of time, how well they will weather the abuse of climate and social and environmental erosion, whether they can maintain their pristine appearance and if so at what cost—all these questions remain open.

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Billy Towns

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The most moving and convincing statements in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth come from interviews with a handful of former residents themselves, who were strongly attached to their lives at the complex. At the beginning they experienced joys and a community there that have been overlooked. They speak with clarity and conviction, and reveal the depth of their humanity. They also are not blind, as they understand the motions within and without that strained their lives and led to conflict. One watched his brother die of wounds from a fight as his mother tried to put him back together. But they have endured and come out whole. They represent possibilities missed and lay the groundwork for future construction.

Of special interest is a bonus feature on the DVD, More Than One Thing. It’s a 16mm black-and-white film made by Steve Carver while a graduate student at Washington University that juxtaposes scenes in the life of Billy Towns, a high school student whose father died early and who grew up at Pruitt-Igoe, ever present as backdrop. The ghettoes, he calls it, exposing the stigma attached to such housing, though he goes on to say the projects aren’t that bad. He always tries to make the best of what he has.

Billy is ambitious and wants to make it in life. Most he wants to be somebody and gain respect. The way to do that, he says, is be good at more than one thing, thus the title. He plays two sports, basketball and football, and has dreams, unrealistic, of playing pro. Apparently he can hold his own in the pool room and also plays trombone. At the beginning we hear, in ironic statement, his faltering yet spirited rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” But he is observant and thinks. He is realistic about himself, his world, and his chances.“I don’t think I look that good,” he tells us, “and I don’t think I look that bad.” He knows he will need ability and have to make opportunities himself. He respects the value of education and wants to go to college.

He also understands the ways of the world, and the film shows how they have molded him, unconsciously, imperfectly, and potentially tragically. Against his ambition and efforts, boredom, which he fights. He says there’s nothing to do in the projects, a recurring theme, so he goes uptown, where he sees white stares. If he has to be good at more than one thing, it’s because he knows he will have limited opportunities because he is black. He also knows what is most needed in our world: “Without money what else can you do?”

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His greatest tension and temptation is violence, to which he may have succumbed. Gang pressure is implied and likely is overwhelming. Fighting is stupid, he says, and he sees the insanity and desperation of blacks killing blacks. But violence of some sort simmers beneath the surface of the whole environment. It is the counterpart to frustration. Like the residents in Myth, Billy feels the urge to lash out somewhere, anywhere, at someone, at something, even if it’s just to break a bulb or smash a windshield. The only other alternative is to be passive and just let things go. Billy’s solution is to stay away from connections. Friends get you in trouble, he says, and he has few. It’s not good to trust too many people because he believes closeness can hurt you, as it probably has. He also mistrusts romantic attachment, more than might be expected at his age. His resolve comes at a price—isolation.

Yet he remains upbeat and keeps looking for options and keeps moving on. At the end of the film, hat in hand and thrust forward, he joins a few friends in a loose, bluesy dance on the sidewalk, utterly engaging, all of them in sync.

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Not only should we build housing for people like Billy Towns and the Myth tenants, construction that knows and respects them and gives them space to be themselves and grow, we can also learn from them. In spite of everything, we see Billy’s irrepressible spirit, his desire to reach and move forward and not be defeated. We can learn what it means to be alive and how to stay alive, a lesson that might sustain us all.

And we should construct housing like this film. More Than One Thing is a tremendously successful piece of architecture. It builds for Billy what Pruitt-Igoe couldn’t, a container that gives him recognition and life. Carver finds spirit and complexity where others only see abstract problems, people as abstract types, and pathology. His style is original yet universally compelling, not lapsing into rigid symmetries, sentimentality, or the constraints of esthetic theory and political ideas. Every shot is well composed, with texture, contrast of shadow and light, and compelling spatial variety.

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The film understands context, the world it which it stands, and transforms its facts, its currents, into vital expression.

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Carver can also find the poetry of flight in the barest place.

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Most, the film has rhythm, in the pacing of its shots and a jazz score that links it frame to frame, that lifts the spirits and keeps it, Billy, and all of us moving. Just as important, it is built on a solid base, humanity, empathy, and broad social understanding.

Firmatis, utilitas, and venustas, durability, utility, and beauty, the principles of architecture Vitruvius outlined centuries ago—More Than One Thing succeeds on all counts. It is well made and solid, and should last a long time. It is useful in the ultimate utility, the means to have a life. There are many types of beauty, and many theories of beauty, but all derive from the same source, the human spirit. Carver has found his own that transcends the trendy or merely pretty. It is a gorgeous film. Relevant to the subject, he accomplished all this on a low budget, with limited technical means.

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Non-manifesto

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Manifestos serve a purpose. They make quick, abrupt statement, clear the air, and get attention. Seldom do their authors test their assumptions, however, or even examine them, but there is some value here as they don’t get diluted in qualification. This manifesto is no different, except it has nothing theoretical to state nor anything specific to propose. It only has one maxim: there are no good ideas. Its only corollary, which necessarily follows, is that there are no good designs.

That does not mean there aren’t bad ideas or designs. There have been too many that were too gross or malignant, and we have suffered too much from their effects. Nor that we shouldn’t come up with new theories and test them or try new designs. On the contrary, we must. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” Keynes warned us at the time of the Great Depression, and we see the result in our free market chaos now. The same applies to politicians and architects. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he added, anticipating the totalitarian horrors to come.

Explaining why the manifesto is true, and how many different ways it is true, however, would take volumes, and that is the point. To do it would require thorough study of all the partial successes and wholesale failures from the past, of all the theories upon which they were built almost all of which had short half-lives. But those are all we have to work on. The view that we have discovered something new and final, or are going in that direction, that we can make a break and leave the past behind, that we have changed in some fundamental way, that we are moving towards some future progress—is an illusion and a trap we have fallen into too many times. The thought that we can build the perfect society or perfect building is already an act of crippling surgery. Any idea, any design, necessarily, inevitably, will come up short. There is too much much to comprehend, too much beyond our control, too much we can’t predict. Forcing a concept and projecting it globally compounds the deficiencies by accelerating orders of magnitude.

Really, the non-manifesto is liberating. It allows openness and flexibility and provides a check to our impulse to contain, control, and extend. We will always end up with compromises, and understanding that will help us come up with plans that are workable and satisfying. It also encourages us to be tentative and keep close to the world around us and to what most matters.

We have known all along what we most need to know about ourselves. We will always have to observe and explain and try out new ideas, and we will always have to make adjustments. But the things that most define us are the things that most resist definition. At our core, the irreducible fact of our existence. We stray from it at our peril.

“Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms. Living. Changing. Now.” Mies van der Rohe, “Working Theses,” a century ago. The industrial and technological momentum he found attractive and wanted to transform now strains us and drains our will. Anything we build now will have to be durable and protect us. It better be ready to take some hits. But hopefully we will come up with something that is resilient and gives us life.

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Credits

More Than One Thing has recently been restored as part of a National Film Preservation Grant. It is at the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis and will be aired this November at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Special thanks to Steve Carver for his permission to reproduce the stills from his film.

Permission for the photograph of slum housing in St. Louis, near the Pruitt-Igoe site, from The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photograph of Le Corbusier’s proposal for a city from ArchDaily.

Pictures of the aerial shot of Pruitt-Igoe, implosion sequence, vandalized corridor, and Phalanstère from Wikipedia Commons.

Income graphs from “It’s the Inequality, Stupid,” Mother Jones.

Housing graph from J. P. Parsons Real Estate Charts. Note the recovery from the last housing bubble and his prediction of another.

Photo of Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health from “Gehry in Vegas,” BoomerReviews.Com.

The Obama administration has just released the Housing Development Toolkit to tackle issues of housing inequality. Introduction:

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers–including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes–has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:

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Richard Florida breaks down public housing expenditures in “The U.S. Spends Far More on Homeowner Subsidies Than It Does on Affordable Housing,” The Atlantic Citylab. Excerpt:

The U.S. shells out roughly $46 billion a year on affordable housing—$40 billion on means-tested programs and another $6 billion in tax expenditures through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which supports affordable housing investments for low-income Americans. Compare that to $195 billion in subsidies that flow largely to wealthy and middle class homeowners via tax deductions for mortgage interest.

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.
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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Oct 092016
 

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Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson

the-angel-of-history

The Angel of History
Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.00

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What if you were Satan’s chief delight? How chilling, how disturbing, how psychosis-inducing would it be to discover Satan—yes, the actual devil, Mephistopheles, the Morning Star, Lucifer—said that you rejuvenated his jaded heart? Who would want to know that? In The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine’s newest novel, we learn the answer to this question, for Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, is Satan’s delight, and the fallen angel makes it his mission to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past.

The Angel of History is Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book and fifth novel. Born in Amman, Jordan, he spent his youth in Kuwait and Lebanon. After moving to the United States, he first pursued an engineering career, but gave that up for painting, and then writing. In 1998 he published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Koolaids, a blistering indictment of war and a harrowing examination of the ravages of AIDS. His other novels include the experimental I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001), The Hakawati (2008), which draws on the tradition of Arabian fables, and the bibliophile’s delight, the sublime An Unnecessary Woman (2014), which won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now fifty-six, Alameddine spends his time between San Francisco and Beirut. Once again exploring the subjects of AIDS and war in the Middle East, with The Angel of History, Alameddine gives us provocative storytelling at its finest, a fabulist tale that explores how we grieve and how we succeed and fail in confronting our most painful memories.

Jacob’s Elegy

Ya‘qub, the protagonist and narrator of two-thirds of The Angel of History, arrives one rainy night at a crisis psychiatric clinic in San Francisco determined to be admitted. The fifty-something Ya‘qub has used the Americanized ‘Jacob’ since moving to San Francisco in the 1980s as a young man. Jacob explains to the triage nurse that he has been suffering from hallucinations again and is depressed. His employer had suggested he seek counseling, but it wasn’t until Jacob saw a report of another U.S. drone-strike on a Yemeni village, this time his mother’s hometown, perhaps the one where he was born, that he finally broke down. He needs an emotional holiday, and his ideal version would be three days in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Hospital with a nice Haldol-Ativan cocktail served with a chaser of Lexapro—after all, drugs had helped before—something to quiet the voices, something to deaden the pain, something to turn out the light of memory.

The majority of the 300-page novel is arranged in three titled sections—“Satan’s Interviews,” “Jacob’s Journals,” and “At the Clinic”—each of which is divided into twelve chapters, many with titled subchapters. Alternating in sequence, the three major sections present three parallel plots from multiple points of view providing a nonlinear reconstruction of Jacob’s history.

A poet who earns a living as a word processor for a law firm, Jacob lives alone in his San Francisco apartment except for his large black cat, Behemoth, whom he named specifically after the infernal feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—another novel featuring a well-tailored Satan. Jacob suffers survivor’s guilt. All of his friends, including his beloved partner Doc, died from AIDS-related diseases twenty years ago during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Overcome with anguish for his lost friends, Jacob hasn’t been able to write poetry for some time, but his old muse, his “angel of remembrance,” Satan, has returned.

The primary plot of the novel, set in the notional present and narrated by Jacob in the “At the Clinic” chapters, covers his breakdown the night he seeks admission to the hospital. Jacob’s narration is often in a stream of consciousness style, mimicking thought, as in this example where he explains the reappearance of Satan in his life:

It has been getting worse, Doc, I don’t seem to be able to cut him off, I am all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness, it wasn’t always this bad, I went along for years doing rather well, didn’t hear his voice, but then one day he reappeared, and he’s been getting more demanding, more irksome, hissing, hissing, and I get headaches, I fear the return of the great migraine storms, I need a break, Doc, I need a break.

Devastated when his friends died, Jacob spent time as an inpatient in the same hospital to which he is once again applying. He had thought he was stable, he had thought he had escaped the trauma of history: of losing his friends and his mother and the memories of his childhood. As he writes in his journal, always addressing Doc:

While my mind processed the chaos that passes for thought in the early morning, I had cracked five eggs by the time I realized I was about to make you an omelet as well. Decades may have passed and sometimes it feels like only yesterday that we had our breakfast together. . . . I’d had a life since you left . . . I did yoga . . . I went to art openings . . . I watched bad television shows . . . I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.

Moments such as these reveal Jacob’s deep grief and give the impression of a hollowed out life. Jacob’s tender admission evokes the tone of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, another novel that addresses living day-to-day with heartache for a lost partner.

“Jacob’s Journal” is part requiem, part confession, and it is also where we learn what Jacob remembers about his mother, a teenage Yemeni maid who became pregnant by the equally young son of her wealthy employers in Beirut. Kicked out, she becomes a homeless wanderer through squalid desert villages where she is forced into prostitution. Mother and child finally settle in a Cairo whorehouse for the most stable and in many ways happiest time of Jacob’s childhood. But these memories have been repressed, or lost, or ignored for too long. Jacob writes about his childhood:

You, Doc, wait, I need someone to hear this, listen to me. . . . I don’t know why I tell you all this about me, I need to, I guess, but with this need to tell comes the concomitant desire to forget everything . . .

An assiduous Satan has been working against Jacob’s “desire to forget,” and Jacob’s journal and ensuing breakdown have been the result. In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Jacob tells a bartender, “I am your angel of history”; namely, a being who sees the past as a single, unalterable catastrophe.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

Angels and Ministers of Grace

The most significant subplot of The Angel of History unfolds in “Satan’s Interviews” and involves Satan’s attempt to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past. One of the most entertaining, often hilarious, and clever parts of the novel, “Satan’s Interviews” features third-person omniscient narration, usually limited to Satan’s locus of perception.

Being supernatural, Satan simultaneously coaxes Jacob to leave the clinic and hosts interviews with his son, Death, and a group of Catholic saints at Jacob’s apartment. The devil has a long tradition in literature, with some of the most memorable and most human versions found in Milton, Goethe, and Bulgakov. Alameddine’s Satan is eerily human with a voice as beguiling as one might expect from the personification of temptation. Jacob does a fine job describing Alameddine’s Satan (in a sly metafictional stroke) when he writes in his journal how Doc “endowed the devil with wickedness and perseverance, you made him fun, witty, intelligent, frisky, lively, ironic, and above all, petty, all too human, like us.” But for Jacob Satan is Iblis, Islam’s whispering jinn, a sulking, lonely creature with nothing better to do than torment him.

Satan is a fully realized character, complete with his own conflicts and a clear desire: he wants Jacob back. During Jacob’s first hospitalization he was drugged to near catatonia, and after leaving the hospital he spent many years on antidepressants and a variety of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. Satan doesn’t want his favorite whipping boy tumbling down that rabbit hole again.

In the first of “Satan’s Interviews” Death—whimsical, mocking, irreverent—asks his father why he is intervening in Jacob’s life now; Satan replies: “Because he has been sleepwalking through life since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories.” However, it could be worse, Satan concludes, horror of horrors, Jacob “could write a novel.” Satan’s motivation, ostensibly for the benefit of Jacob’s art, is, not surprisingly, purely selfish: Jacob “rejuvenates my jaded heart” Satan confesses to Saint Blaise. Furthermore, Satan tells Jacob that it was him, not the saints, who saved Jacob from AIDS:

funny you should credit the silly saints with healing you, and not me, Death came for you and I intervened . . . I sat him down, told him your soul was mine, a long time ago I claimed you, you child of pestilence, you squashable worm . . .

And this is part of Satan’s interest in Jacob, namely Jacob’s squashability—most clearly reflected in his sexual history. Jacob’s experience with sex begins violently when a customer of the Cairo whorehouse demands that the ten-year-old paint henna on his penis. In his Lebanese boarding school Jacob is beaten and repeatedly humiliated by bullies. As an adult in San Francisco, jealous of Doc picking up another man, Jacob visits an S&M club where he is whipped—and it will not be his last indulgence in masochism.

Death asks Satan if he is going to interview “the others”—meaning the saints that Jacob prayed to as a child and as an adult until AIDS took everyone from him. In a Catholic tradition dating to the Black Plague, there are a group of fourteen saints—known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers—who are prayed to for specific maladies. Satan doesn’t interview all fourteen, but he does call upon them, remarkably, for assistance. It seems that Satan has done his job all too well in helping Jacob remember and now he needs help in keeping Jacob sane and off memory-impairing medication. Death, whose job is to offer the cup of forgetting, the waters of Lethe, expects Jacob will choose him, and so the dance between remembrance and oblivion begins.

In his depiction of the saints, Alameddine shows us compassionate but weary caregivers, for eternity is long and people exasperating. The interviews also offer humorous, welcomed breaks from Jacob’s somber memories. For example, Satan is unnerved by Saint Denis holding his decapitated head in his lap and insists he return it atop his neck, and Saint Margaret mocks Satan by holding a balloon of a baby dragon, for according to legend, Satan, in the form of a dragon, swallowed her but then choked on her cross. It is Saint Margaret who asks Satan to bring Jacob back to poetry: “A poet is tormented by the horrors of this world, as well as its beauty, but he can be refreshed, reborn even; he can take to the sky once more.” Saint Catherine sympathizes with Jacob’s past choices, she feels he only “did what he had to do during the time of sunder, he girded himself against the dirge,” but in the present she agrees with Satan’s assessment: “We must wake him and hazard the consequence. We must offer the apple.”

14-helpersTilman Riemenschneider workshop, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, c. 1520

War All the Time

In addition to the three major divisions of the novel, there are three sections labeled “Jacob’s Stories,” each containing a single short story independent of (but harmonizing with) the novel’s plot. The elegiac tone of Jacob’s journal changes to bitter resentment when he thinks of the humiliating final stages of his friends’ suffering, and his anger, inflamed by the interminable carnage he witnesses in the land of his birth, is vented in his stories.

Alameddine displays a formidable gift for satire in “Drone” and “A Cage in the Penthouse.” The latter, reminiscent of George Saunders’s equally acerbic “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” features a wealthy couple who keep a caged Arab as a pet in their Manhattan penthouse. In “Drone” we see U.S. drone strikes through the point of view of a sentient, self-righteous attack drone named Ezekiel.

 Through Jacob’s thoughts and his stories, Alameddine reminds us how easily wars are forgotten. Indeed, one of the epigraphs is from Milan Kundera (a writer who has had much to say about war and memory): “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” War tears through the countries of the Middle East daily, and for Alameddine—who grew up in Lebanon and spends much of his time there—this subject runs through his fiction like a scar.

Finding Time Again

The Angel of History shares more than a few characteristics with that paragon of memory novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Jacob’s past is what Satan and the saints are there to help him find and keep. Alameddine’s talent for nonlinear narrative—evident in Koolaids where the Lebanese civil war is starkly juxtaposed with the AIDS epidemic—shines brightest in The Angel of History with its exquisitely interlaced chronology, multiple plots, and points of view.

“Jacob’s Journals” presents a conventional memoir: Jacob thinking about his past. “At the Clinic” is more complex; here Jacob is thinking about his present, past, and future, but the narration feels like an extension of his journal, as if the events of his night at the clinic are added to his journal in the future. Satan’s interviews take place concurrently with Jacob’s night at the clinic but tell the story of Jacob’s mother and his childhood through the saints’ recollections. Satan’s imperative to the Fourteen Holy Helpers is clear: “What I hear he remembers . . . Remind him of himself.” Each interviewee recalls different parts of Jacob’s history which Satan then channels to Jacob. The ingenious conceit of the interview chapters is that, given the supernatural nature of the interlocutors, time is irrelevant and all the interviews can be simultaneous in an eternal moment. Furthermore, in these chapters Alameddine uses third-person, taking advantage of a wider range of point of view. These shifting times and points of view reveal Jacob’s memories in manner much like the actual process of remembering, a process during which we often take two steps back for every step forward.

Alameddine leaves little doubt about his admiration for Proust’s fiction in An Unnecessary Woman. Here as well, Proust informs Alameddine’s novel, from the simple homage—naming Jacob’s roommate Odette—to more direct references. For example, Jacob has moments of involuntary memory, such as in a grocery store where “the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory. Proust had his mnemonic madeleine, but bleach was all ours, Doc, all ours.” Note, Alameddine doesn’t miss an opportunity to layer his images, here alluding to Mephistopheles. But to emphasize such references, as fun as they are, would be to neglect the genuine beauty of how Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.

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In An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya pleads with writers to “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Rabih Alameddine is not a fan of epiphanic endings, and you won’t find one here. The Angel of History asks questions and raising issues for which there are no simple answers. Is ignorance bliss? Can we deny our past? Should we try? The Angel of History tasks us with the necessity of facing our memories, even the most painful ones, for to neglect them is to surrender to Death, to drink from the river Lethe, to become complacent drones (pun intended). Alameddine’s book is a statement on memory, on surviving loss, on war and disease and how we cope with them, and finally on art; and that poetry, or any art, cannot exist in a memoryless (and thus painless) vacuum.

On his walk home from the clinic through the nighttime streets of San Francisco, Jacob stops to write impromptu poems and statements on storefronts he remembers from happier times; on a No Parking sign he writes:

You all dead
I still walk
Therefore I am
I know it is so
For I long
I long for solace
How does one find such
Among so many ashes?

Jacob’s question cannot be resolved in a single moment of enlightenment, and like him, we too must confront our losses, for there is no solution to grief other than learning how to live with a shadow of hell.

—Frank Richarson

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Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Oct 082016
 

Camilo C

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Camilo Carrara (1968) is a musician based in Sao Paulo, Brazil whose work refuses to be categorized. His recordings range from classical to popular and jazz, and anywhere in between. Though he’s often described – accurately – as a guitarist, he plays, arranges and composes for many instruments, including 12-string guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, and other strummed instruments. He is also a teacher and a Sound Branding Consultant. He has done more than sixty solo and ensemble recordings, and his performance career spans three continents. He’s played concerts in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and throughout Brazil. He teaches guitar at the annual National Music Festival in Maryland, and has been the guest artist and soloist with orchestras throughout Brazil and worldwide.

Carrara also works as a producer, particularly in his long-time work with the HSBC Christmas Concert, one of the largest holiday events in Brazil. Since 2011, he has been the arranger and producer of this concert. At the heart of this event is a children’s choir, 160 children who are the victims of violence or who are orphaned. Carrara has a degree in classical guitar from the University of São Paulo, and is finishing a Masters Degree in Strategic Marketing Management at the São Paulo University School of Economics and Management. He teaches at Faculty Cantareira in São Paulo, and at the Music in the Mountains Festival, in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais.

One of the most interesting things about this conversation for me was Carrara’s commitment to creating music that communicates to a broad listenership, and the limitations of a single identity.  This is based in part on his background growing up in Brazil where his father was imprisoned and tortured as a result of his political convictions. Carrara spent nine months of 1989 traveling and busking throughout Europe, and was present in Berlin when the wall between East and West Germany was torn down. His career seems to suggest that the walls between traditionally separate musical traditions may not be as permanent as they may seem.

Camilo Cararra By Tiago Sormani 2

Carolyn Ogburn: As I learned more about you for this interview, I was struck by how many interests you have. It seems to me that in general people – professionals of the music field or any other manner of profession – are required to be specialists these days. But your career has blended popular and classical performance (on guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments) as well as teaching, composing and producing, and you’re studying for a graduate degree in marketing. How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”

Camilo Carrara: Carolyn, how interesting you start our conversation with this question. In fact, after studying strategic marketing management for over 2 years, this is an issue for me. After all, it is part of the strategic marketing technique to define well what is the focus of your business and what products you sell. For anyone who is an artist and only moves in the world of arts, sometimes talk about product and market gets to be a heresy. But it doesn’t need to be so.

In fact, I consider myself all that you listed above and depending on the situation, on the context, I respond differently. Sometimes I say that I am a musician. Sometimes I stand as a solo guitarist. But I am also a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, cavaquinho  — typical Brazilian instrument used in choro and samba), composer, arranger, improviser, teacher, and music producer. I also work as a music expert on causes court involving copyright and as Sound Branding consultant – the discipline that creates and manages the sonic identity of the brands.

I usually feel good doing many things, despite knowing that this can be risky, professionally speaking. Doing many things have a price and returning to the issue of strategic marketing, I know that my challenge is to communicate all these multiple skills to the public without it look like I’m an imposter (exaggerating a bit), or it seems that I do not know how to do anything well done. The issue of communication is one of my biggest challenges today.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had a very consistent musical training and at the same time I know many of my limitations. All I do is the result of hard study and work and it is very gratifying to be recognized by my peers and also by the general public. In fact, I think it was because of this sort of “more general profile” that I was invited to participate in the National Music Festival in Maryland, in the last five years.

What should be a very short and quick response …

CO: (laughing) I think many artists can relate to your answer…we do many things, I think. Though not always with as much expertise! Do you think there is a push these days to be more diversified as a musician? And – since you’ve been at this for a while, have you noticed any changes in that since your early years as a musician?

CC: I found it curious that to reflect on what it means to be a diverse musician, it reminded me of a great Brazilian literature professor, Alfredo Bosi, with whom I had classes at the university, at the time I was a linguistic student. He spoke a few times about the phenomenon of “repetition” and “novelty.” And this is very interesting and beautiful. According to him, the repetition causes the sensation of comfort as the novelty causes alert feeling. That is, learning to dose these two phenomena is a matter of life. We need both to live. Thinking specifically within the framework of creation, in the framework of the creative world, this is a central issue for composers, writers, painters, etc. But it is also a very useful way to think about demand and understand how the market works: almost everything we do is in order to fulfill the wishes and needs.

I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.

Curuminho
by Camilo Carrara
Composition for dance performance.
Inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”
CO: You produce the annual NSBC Christmas Chorale, one of the largest Christmas events in Brazil involving literally thousands of people. How did this get started?

CC: This event attracts thousands of people every year and was created 25 years ago. It is especially beautiful because the center of attention is a children’s choir. These are children who receive special attention or because they were abandoned or victims of some type of violence. It is a work done with great care throughout the year. Musically speaking the concept is orchestral. It was developed by the conductor of the choir Dulce Primo. She is an amazing person and brought a lot of sophistication for a considered popular presentation. The interesting thing is that she managed to mix very well the influences of classical music with what is richer in Brazilian popular music. It is the meeting of polyphony and the richness of Brazilian rhythms.

My role in this event is to be arranger and producer. It’s a big challenge. I write the orchestral arrangements, record instruments and edit the audio. I take care of all the steps to (record and create) a CD. Several months of preparation to (be heard by) an average of twenty thousand people a day. They estimate that four hundred thousand people attend the show every year. I also study this event from the point of view of the impact of marketing. The concert is sponsored by a major bank and can be considered one of the largest brand content event in the world. It is an amazing way for brands to create emotional connections with their customers and the general public.

Camilo Cararra, by Pappalardo

CO: Many of us outside Brazil have been watching your country with great interest as we read news stories of political and economic turmoil. (Outside the Olympics, of course!) I read with interest an article from the Guardian that you’d shared titled “The End of Capitalism.” Artists, of course, have a unique responsibility – that is, quite literally, the “ability to respond” – to social upheaval like that we are experiencing today. I guess my question is, how do you see the role of the musician in times of social unrest?

CC: I think that when artists manifest themselves politically they have the advantage of hearing. These are people who have more access to the public and it can make a difference in practical terms. The common people, especially in poor countries, are heavily influenced by artists. It is an important question of responsibility and should be considered.

The other big issue is related to the quality of political positioning. Not every artist thinks critically about politics. It should be, but is not. It is very common to see artists talking a lot of nonsense. Of course, there are the “privileged heads,” the artists who are very well prepared intellectually and politically. These figures can make an important difference in the course of history. If I’m not mistaken, this article you refer to “The End of Capitalism” came against what I was studying at the time. (It) deals with the shared economy, a subject that interests me especially. I do not think we are seeing the end of capitalism, but a transformation. It is no longer possible that in the twenty-first century, (there) still exists misery. This has to end quickly.

CO: Speaking of social unrest…Whenever I read your bio, the year of 1989 which you spent traveling the world is almost always mentioned. This must have been a very important year for you, and it certainly was important globally, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the cold war drew to an end. Do you want to talk some about how this year affected your growth as a musician?

CC: It was a very special year in my life and coincided with some very important events historically. In 1989 I was an itinerant musician, traveling for nine months throughout Europe. I had the luck and privilege of celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris and witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was also in Budapest, near the Romanian Revolution, when the people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I could feel the energy of transformation, but without the historical dimension that I have today. I was 21 and had been raised in a left-wing political environment. My father is a communist and was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship. I went to Berlin thinking to know the Eastern part. I was very curious to see firsthand how it worked a communist country. And I got to spend a whole day in the eastern part. Of course, it was very little time to form an opinion. But I remember that I felt the contrasting atmosphere, the simplicity of the people. Culturally, in just one day I could go to an amazing concert at the Berlin Staatskapelle and also bought an incredible amount of sheet music, something unimaginable in Brazil at that time. It was very striking and exciting.

A few days later I was surprised by my German friends who came home elated with the news of the fall of the wall. We went to the street and spent many hours in the crowd. A pity I could not speak German. I felt I was losing the details. But some things impressed me a lot to see. I remember it was very shocking to see long lines of East Germans enter the big brand stores such as BMW, Mercedes, or even sexy shops. It was very impressive. At that time West Berlin was stunning and shiny. The city shone. I had the feeling of seeing those pure people being contaminated by lust. It was really crazy!

CO: Do you find any resonance between 1989 and the present moment?

CC: Thinking about it, that kind of transformation started with the change of the socialist paradigm may even be associated with this new model of capitalism in which rethinks the limits of profit, especially in terms of sustainability. We can not admit the misery nor admit the destruction of natural resources. Nowadays any revolution is possible because of technology. The connectivity already enables it. Ultimately we are talking about a social pact on important issues for everyone. No wonder that the great fortunes of the world are collaborating (regarding) key issues such as hunger and education. See Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, richest man in the country, is revolutionizing education in the country. These are just a few examples.

CO: When many Americans think of Brazilian classical music, we might be limited to a few well-known figures, such as Villa-Lobos, or Laurindo Almeida. Who are we missing?

CC: We have an interesting musical history as the formation of a Brazilian musical identity, which could be defined as the synthesis between European, African and indigenous cultures. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), is undoubtedly the great Brazilian composer of all time. (He) can be considered the inventor of a Brazilian sound. If the country has a unique sound, Villa-Lobos was responsible for it. The amazing thing is how his work is so little known, even here.

It is unfair to leave to point other very important composers, but I think for a first survey of Brazilian composers, I would highlight, in chronological order, composers with symphonic approach:

Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)

Henrique Oswald (1852-1931)

Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920)

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)

Radamés Gnatalli (1906-1988)

Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

César Guerra Peixe (1914-1993)

Hans Joachim Koellreutter (1915-2005)

Gilberto Mendes (1922-2016)

Willy Correia de Oliveira (1938)

Marlos Nobre (1939)

(And in) popular music:

Chiquinha Gozaga (1847-1935)

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)

Pixinguinha (1897-1973)

Tom Jobim (1927-1994)

Laurindo Almeida, who made his career in the US, (was) part of our team of guitarists/composers who transited between choro and samba (bossa nova). Just name a few: João Pernambuco (1883-1947), Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), Garoto (1915-1945), Bola Sete (1923-1987), Baden Powell (1937-2000), Guinga (1950).

Which of course makes me want to ask – who were your primary influences, as a young musician?

At first, I was very influenced by my father’s musical universe. In spite of being a communist, (he) was a creative director in advertising and a poet. At home, we listened (to) jazz, classical music and Brazilian popular music (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Jacob’s Mandolin, Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth).

I started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and through college, I was very influenced by my main teachers of the instrument: Celia Trettel, Paulo Porto Alegre, and Edelton Gloeden. From a young age, I wanted to be a concert guitarist. My musical roots (were) very focused on interpretation, in the study of interpretation. In the search for refinement of sound, the articulation of voices (polyphony), understanding of the musical text: phrases, musical form, etc. I knew well the most significant repertoire for the instrument. I played and listened to many composers who are better known within the guitar universe. Just to name a few: Alonso Mudarra, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Leo Brouwer.

In addition to composers, I was greatly influenced by the great interpreters. At that time, I remember my idols were Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, Assad Brothers and Brothers Abreu, for example. I heard very (many other) instrumentalists, like Glenn Gould, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich. I could say that these were my musical roots.

— Camilo Carrara and Carolyn Ogburn

 

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Carolyn Ogburn

 

 

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

Oct 072016
 

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Tanga, May 28

‘Can’t you see what he’s trying to get you to pay for?’

I’ve just mentioned Jamhuri, who has told me about his child. She’s very sick. Gloria is driving me to the Amboni Caves north of town. She takes the road past the Hindu crematorium—a pretty, white colonial-style building surrounded by frangipani trees. It’s right next to the town’s fuel depot, and I wonder if this is a cause for concern.

‘The child has epilepsy,’ she says. ‘He wanted me to take her to a witch doctor. I won’t pay for that crap. So now he’s asking you.’

‘A witch doctor?’ I attempt a look of minor incredulity.

‘You can’t sling a cat in Tanga without hitting one,’ Gloria says. ‘But of course Jamhuri only wants the big gun. A certain Mr Sese.’

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

‘Oh, it’s not so much about the witch doctor, doll. It’s about the believer.’

I frown as if I don’t understand. But I’m thinking about Dorothea. ‘There is a place where many strange things happen. There are ghosts and spirits.’ I see her clearly in my mind, her grief and her terror of the box: ‘Take it away from here, take it far away from here.’

Gloria interprets my expression as disbelief, and rises to the challenge. ‘Last month, I took Jamhuri’s little girl to a specialist in Dar. He prescribed phenobarbital and reckoned she’d probably grow out of it in her teens. But you know how these people are—well, you don’t, do you? Jamhuri was expecting she’d get an injection or an operation and be completely healed, just like that. I don’t think he even tried the pills. That’s why he wants to go to Mr Sese. He thinks she’s possessed by shetani. He wants you to pay for his daughter to see Mr Sese.’

‘Shetani?’

‘Ghosts. Spirits. They’re everywhere. Apparently.’

‘And Mr Sese is—’

‘The pre-eminent witch doctor.’ She leans toward me in a stage whisper.

‘Headvises the president.’

Gloria brakes at an intersection, takes this opportunity to turn and regard me with her curious owl stare. She’s trying very hard to locate the rat she senses scurrying through my words.

A loud honking erupts behind her. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going in such a hurry?’ she yells out the window, but shifts into first and pulls forward. ‘Don’t get me wrong. These guys like Sese are very powerful. When I first got here, I had a girl who came to cook and clean. She was a little thing. After a couple of months, I noticed she was turning gray. No kidding, her skin was turning gray. Like wet cement. I finally got her to talk to me. She said she was dying. I didn’t doubt that to look at her. I took her to the doctor. Full panel of blood work. A small fortune. No AIDS, no cancer, no TB, everything fine. The doctor told me she was indeed dying—from a powerful curse. I said, “You can’t be serious, you’re a doctor.” He said, “Of the body, not the spirit.”

‘He told me there are certain curses so powerful that the person who casts them must also die. The only way you can kill your enemy is to kill yourself. For instance, there’s this cooking pot curse. You sneak into your enemy’s kitchen and steal his cooking pot. You shout a curse into it, wishing their death. Then you smash the pot and bury the shards in the bush. If your enemy manages to find all the pieces and put the pot back together, then he will be saved. If not, well, kufa kabisa—he’s dead. But—’ she sticks a stubby finger in the air to make her point. ‘But, you die too. That’s the deal you make with the shetani. A twofer.’

‘Twofer?’

‘Sure. Two fer the price of one. And, you know, that little gray girl, I found her one morning in her room, curled up like a dead moth you’d find in the window. I suppose she’d died in her sleep, there was nothing to be done, she’d got it into her head that she was going to die, she’d willed herself to die. And so she died. I don’t know why she thought she deserved it. But that’s a powerful thing: to do with a thought what most of us can only do with a gun.’

I glance at Gloria’s profile. She is all soft. A small, putty nose, skin loose and soft as dough, her great soft body pillowing in her soft, drapey clothes. I notice for the first time that her pale blonde hair is actually dyed. Her roots reveal a mousey gray. Did Mary dye her hair—or does this belong to Gloria alone?

After a moment I ask her, ‘What do you believe, Gloria?’

She hoots a laugh. ‘Moolah, doll. I believe in Almighty Moolah.’

We pass the old Amboni Sisal estate, just bush now perforated by the occasional row of sisal. How precisely the sisal was planted, the immaculately measured rows. What were the colonial farmers thinking? That they could take this unscrupulous bush and make it neat as a formal garden? This Africa where people smash cooking pots and die of curses.

At some point, Gloria makes a left turn onto an unmarked dirt track. Only when we’ve driven several hundred yards do I see a small sign announcing: Department of Antiquities—Amboni Caves. Gloria makes several more turns—none of which are signposted—past a school, through the middle of a small village and a flock of chickens, cutting a hard right in what looks like someone’s front yard, and then down a steep, rocky hill. The bottom of the car crunches over rocks and jars against rills of erosion. Gloria doesn’t seem concerned. The car rattles and squeals.

We enter a thick screen of fig trees and cross a dry riverbed. The shadows are deep and cool and grateful, and soon we arrive at the caves. An old man in a Muslim kofia gets up from his chair under the trees. He stands very erect, like a soldier.

Gloria turns off the car. ‘Watch how he doesn’t give us a receipt. Not that I blame him, given what he must get paid.’

She greets the old man with great politeness, which he returns. They speak at some length in complicated Swahili.

He takes the money and disappears into a small, dark hut. He emerges carrying a flashlight and no receipts. ‘Swahili or English?’ he asks, looking at Gloria.

‘Oh, I’m not going in. I’ve been before.’

‘But you’ve paid, madam,’ the guide says in perfect English.

‘I’m waiting for a call. You go on.’ She opens her handbag and scrambles for her phone ringing inside. ‘The Ministry of Health. Let’s see how much they want.’ Then she sneers, ‘Uchawi, my ass.’

The guide leads me up a set of steps carved from the rock. ‘This is limestone,’ he says. ‘Long ago, it was beneath the sea. And the sea created these caves. But now the sea is very far away. Yes, the world changes.’

The entrance has been domesticated. Beneath the tall archway of stone and the canopy of wild vines, the sandy floor has been swept and plastic patio furniture placed on a natural terrace. There are potted plants and, on the table, half a clamshell for an ashtray.

From here I can see Gloria. She is standing with her back to us, gesticulating, as if she’s angry or perhaps just adamant.

‘Let us begin the tour, madam,’ the guide insists. And so we enter the caves.

He talks about the bats, which cluster like dark grapes on the cave roof above. When he shines his flashlight they twitter and fidget. I don’t have to worry about them, he assures me, they never attack. The danger is not from the bats but from the cave itself.

A couple and their dog were exploring the cave, he says, sweeping the flashlight to the right, illuminating a small chamber. ‘The dog fell down this hole.’ The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

We walk on. I think about the story, how it doesn’t make sense. If the couple were never seen again, how does anyone know they went looking for their dog down this particular hole? But I have no doubt that people have gone missing here, in this maze of dead ends and sightless corridors, unseen holes. There is no natural light. We are within the earth, like rabbits. The guide says the tunnel system goes so deep and is so extensive that cave experts have not been able to chart it. However, some believe it goes all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro—five hundred miles west.

He shows me another low and unexceptional cave where three Mau Mau fighters hid during the war for independence in Kenya. And here, around the corner, the rock has formed a chair. He is not satisfied until I sit in the chair and say, ‘Why, yes, it is exactly like a chair!’

We climb up a ramp of earth, squeeze between a crack. ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’ he asks. ‘I am going to make it very dark.’ He turns off the flashlight.

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

I think about Strebel’s daughter telling him she thought she was dead.

The guide turns on the flashlight.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just a few more minutes.’

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

My body blends with the darkness. The barrier of skin dissolves. I diffuse into the air, into the exhalation of my breath. I am the tiniest particles, un-being.

He sighs, turns the light back on. ‘Now I show you the image of Jesus.’ When I hesitate—for I feel the loss of that moment—he registers his annoyance, ‘You must come, please. The tour is for a limited time.’ We walk down another tunnel and he illuminates a smudge of mildew that vaguely resembles a face.

‘Yes, it looks exactly like the face of Jesus.’ My voice surprises me, as if it is coming back to me, an echo, from very far away. ‘Exactly like the face of Jesus.’

I have no idea that we have turned toward the mouth of the cave, only that I can feel my pupils begin to shrink. Daylight filters in, low down along the ground. We surface slowly into light.

Just before the entrance, I notice a small side chamber crammed with plates of fruit, sticks of incense, bottles labeled as rose water.

‘What is this?’

The guide hurries on, waving his hand impatiently, ‘Just local people. Pagans.’
‘But what is it for?’

‘I am a Muslim! This is for primitive people.’

‘Can I look?’

He sighs. He is a repertoire of sighs. This one expresses long-suffering acquiescence.

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

‘For good health, for money. Some women ask for help to get a child. For many different things.’

I kneel down. ‘Has this been here for a long time?’

‘Yes. Many, many years. As a boy I remember it.’

In my place, exactly here, the desperate have knelt with their hopes and desires. Women have begged to conceive. Mothers have prayed for their children to be well again. Men have asked for opportunity, for rain, for a new fishing boat, for good luck at sea.

How foolish to believe life could change with the lighting of incense, the purchase of rose water, the offering of eggs. And yet, when you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there? When the tangible world has failed you, why not indulge in the possibility that a corner of the universe might stir, send a shiver of atoms through space, that you might be delivered after all.

The guide shifts his weight. Any moment now he will sigh. I am about to obey, to stand.

But something among the bottles catches my eye: a small jar containing a piece of flowered cloth. I reach in and take the jar.

‘No, no!’ The guide steps forward, alarmed. ‘You must not touch the offerings!’

I’m not really listening. I take out the cloth. It is red cotton flannel with yellow and white flowers.

I look up at the guide, showing him the jar, ‘Do you know who put this here?’

‘Madam, please, I do not know. How can I know? Local people coming here do not report to me. They are free, this is their place. You must not touch these things.’

‘But if a white man came here you would know. Everyone would know.’

‘These are not your things. They are not for you to touch or meddle. You must be respectful.’

I replace the jar, stand and wipe the sand from my knees. I try to sound sensible. ‘Is it a curse?’ I want to see the truth in his eyes, I want to have some instinct. But he is hidden, he is vanishing back down a path into the bush.

‘I know that cloth. I recognize it. I want to know who put it here.’

‘The cave, madam, it has had an effect.’

‘I have money. I can pay you. More than he did.’

He moves nervously, definitively toward the entrance, ‘Your friend is waiting for you, madam.’

Back at the car, Gloria seems preoccupied and barely greets me. She turns the ignition. With a little cough—rather like the old guide’s—the engine starts.

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

She grips the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, so her whole body expands and subsides. ‘Have you got a thousand bucks?’

—Melanie Finn

N5
mel-headshot

Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Oct 072016
 

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It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson

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The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

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Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Oct 062016
 

German Sierra

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sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

— Virgil, Aeneid, 1.461

1.

Nothing is colossal.

The air is almost water, the trees rachitic, the sea sweats dead dark clouds of filth and salt,

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard, leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost.

mountains are collapsed hills, beasts are torpid and blind, towns are tiny clusters of ruins, kings were thin and weak, people die young, rocks are eroded pieces of furniture inhabited by frogs, heat is cold, the land is wet, love is lukewarm, gold is a lethargic rust over the earth’s crust, the green is diamond and it laughs at you like a mossy hell of water and weed. No gods could have been brought to life there—they had to be seized from the future.

Creepy crypto-CRISPR. Fuck genomic darkness.

The rain is plain plan B.

Death rides the dirty waves; death rides dust, exactly like a moth.

 A saint, a bearded flea-bitten hermit shrouded in burlap and fed by the generosity of a chestnut forest was living on top of a wormholed bubonic hill in a wooden hut asphyxiated by ivy branches, hiding in there from the slimy touch of the rotten photonic wave-stream (distilled through the cloudwall into a filthy dark smearing fluid) that ran through the air to splash over the burnt-and-drilled crust of the earth. A ghost town would eventually emerge from that watery land, colloidal dust in a dizzy river—a space then occupied by the greenish-grey woods and the unbelievable mess of emerald-green moss, tarnished leaves, vinyl lichens, camo toads, and ampersanding golden fern blossoms.

So dendrites volupt. Like it matters, wrote Amaranth Borsuk.

Now, undead people go phantoming around over the cobblestone shattered-mirror pavement—but back then it was the wild, under the same lead-dead sky.

Real life is like the outcome of a zombie apocalypse—but you’re expected to restrain yourself from slashing the zombies.

All zombies are undead equally.

A collapsant sky, a vertical horizon of crystalline Damocles’s swords.

A swarming soil and soul.

Splashing sounds, splashing souls.

A murderous sea, infested with seaweed-smeared, mud-vomiting necrotic-skinned creatures.

Once upon a time, swirl-crowned monsters emerged from the depths, swam to the shores, crawled up creek streams leaving threatening footprints in the sand, feeding themselves with exhausted salmons and lampreys. They crept over the hills waving menacing tentacles, surrounding the man-of-god with extra-terrestrial arrogance. Until he found himself encircled in a ring of unsurpassable evil beauty.

He lifted his baculus and turned the monsters into boulders…killing all beauty around, immortalizing evil.

This sounds more proper of a sorcerer than a saint, she replied.

Later on, the saint’s followers carved the sea-monsters’ stone corpses into churches, their tentacles into sinuous arcades that branched in spiral alleys leading nowhere. Nowhere was everywhere—the pavement blobbing and cracking like fried fish skin, and the dark deformed houses growing clustered and superimposed like bad teeth, hovering over automatic people.

But this is not how the story goes!—although the actual one is also a fairy tale, nothing more credible in any of its multiple details.

Both are professionally concerned with the past.

She’s an archaeologist: She unearths eerie things, such as the big tin bird with golden eyes hypothetically intended for astronomic calculations that, since exhibited in the almost-empty local museum, has encouraged a kind of weird cult: people killing birds—crows, lost seagulls, jays, sparrows—and hanging their corpses from street lamps.

He’s a historian, he works with texts instead of mud, he knows the past is just a lie that’s been around for enough time to be used as foundation for future falsity.

Recently, she’s been unearthing certain stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there and hiding it at home: a fairly well-conserved but unidentifiable iPhone 20, a real-size Barbie doll, and a sophisticated-looking metallic prosthetic hand. All of them prevenient from the underneath of a never-before-excavated Romanesque chapel. All of them, most probably, originated in what is commonly called the future.

She wonders if there is a market for relics of the future.

She cares about money, because money, in pure capitalist logic, means the possibility of change.

Who would want to keep objects from the past? But then, who would like to pay for vestiges from the future?

In pure capitalist logic there’s not an outside of pure capitalist logic, so money is time.

A few days later, she and her colleagues meet to discuss what to do with the found futureware. On one hand, it’s obviously new—nobody ever saw an iPhone 20 before and, although they won’t publicly discuss its appearance to avoid conflict with Apple’s confidentiality policies, they coincide in acknowledging that it doesn’t look like anything they would easily identify as an iPhone. On the other, it’s evident that the objects are old—dirty, rusty, worn out, with some broken or missing pieces. Does a market for old future things exist? The most plausible explanation would be that they’re fake—it wouldn’t be the first time future objects are forged by some artist and exhibited in museums—, but whoever might have done it must have been really cautious about fabricating their placement: the stone blocks didn’t seem to have been removed in centuries, and the relics were buried under seven feet of mud and medieval debris.

The saint’s followers came also from the shore, sleepwalking like oxygen-drunk overdeveloped fish insisting on evolving into batrachia. They arrived from small fishermen’s port villages, carrying the sulphurous smell of rotting seaweed with themselves. They were squid-eaters.

Later on, they developed a taste for a wider diversity of cephalopods and crustacea.

From time to time, those who had built the town stacked up new stones over the monsters’ relics to prevent their awakening. Every winter, the mountains chanted and cried hypnotic black tears of granite. The squid-eaters’ offspring secured the monsters’ backs with buttresses, nailed their heads to the ground with hefty needle-towers. However, they never felt safe inside the creatures’ golden bellies, so they finally turned to the Bishops for help.

Bishops, the true lords of the land, drank blood and raped men and women with no regret. They gave instructions to paint the churches’ intestines with children’s gore. The walls absorbed the blood to the last drop and the old stones showed again their grey, grainy, shimmering surface. Bishops were terrified their sins would reanimate the primeval beasts, so they willingly paid in gold coins for the heaviest and hardest stones to be carried and carved and piled up on top of the ancient, ruinous chapels. Chapels grew into churches, churches into cathedrals—people died young and returned as rocks. How did they invent killer languages? From time to time, stone people uproot themselves from the walls, carrying singing swords, hideous musical instruments, and fearsome religious symbols. Flesh people tried to stop them from bubbling out by painting them over, but sponge-stone people kept drinking all the paint and all the blood they were able to smear over the walls.

All that was forgotten.

We live in an empire of mud and weather, wrote Janice Lee.

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2.

The slashed eye of the monocular chapel stares at him from the other side of the grimy window glass. The city is still, deeply rooted in the centre of the earth. It’s the kind of city you run from, not the kind of city you run across. He is the one who remembers the untold story, the one who listens to the grey silence screamed by the crushed beasts. While sipping his coffee, he fantasizes about becoming a necromancer and bringing monsters back from death. He dreams of godzillating the town: crushing cars and skulls and trees and houses. Dust to rust. The sky is a greasy low ceiling, made of goo, just an indistinguishable extension of the warped and dull and miserable land. He misses the feeling of her weight on his chest—her weight, maybe the liquid pressure of her skin on his skin, maybe her warm sweet-and-salty sweat as a membrane of sea water flowing like a tiny flat tide between his and her body. His illusion is now just to lay still beneath her heavy flesh until his joints and muscles begin to hurt. Just the pressure and the pain, and nothing else. There’s nothing like being enlegged by her mediterranean cities of white marble.

Nothing else matters, says the song.

When the enemies left the still city, they buried radioactive debris under the pavement to slowly burn the feet of its inhabitants.

When he was young, he was a pulsating black hole. A computer moon buried in dewy jelly. A naught surrounded by a universe wanting—perhaps pretending—to collapse onto him. His body was constructed with nanosize bits from that same selection of the cosmos that was destroying him—the outside. Booze, new drugs, old books, boys and girls he was fucking…All the elements, the bits; all the universe’s demons rashing and competing against each other to occupy the void. They eventually abandoned his inner space while he was growing up—exorcised from his hollow flesh with every ejaculation, with every vomit, with every nosebleed—leaving, nonetheless, some traceable imprints of their presence in the void until the void started to collapse over itself.

Now, after a long battle, he believes to finally own his anti-body, and ongoing destruction comes autoimmunely from the inside, from the inner mirror side of naught. Every time a demon managed to leave the void, the void emitted light. Then, for a second, he became visible, viable, a true phenomenon, superimposed to reality like a Pokémon.

Dust against the machine—it’s chalk, it’s sand, it’s ice.

Ashes from a lost life—stardust is, in fact, a gas, swirling, a lost gaseous world that was a father’s world. It’s a death-city where people wear stone—he’s cold, but tombstones are his clothes—due to their failure in having thrown some sand on the brain. It’s b-rain, it’s blood.

There are sand and ashes in the machine.

In the machine, every word is made of pixel dust and blown away by the swirling gas coming from disintegrated stars, never ever cracking the mistaken mystery of the world, the crashing world he wrongly chose to be himself, just to be chalk and dust in the machine.

He’s seen the greatest minds of his generation bored to death, asphyxiated by ridiculous institutions, wandering the social media labyrinthoids in search of a quantum of meaning, masturbating to the screen’s visual white noise of polished pixel dust, crystals of b-rain to keep him running as fast as possible over the cracked screens of life.

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3.

They met for the first time during one of those unusual visibility events: I can only see you when you’re orgasming, she whispered. He jerked off for her visual pleasure. She wasn’t visible most of the time either, which was fine for him. More often they weren’t able to see each other, they just felt some gravitational-attraction pulses directed towards a particular location of the invisible-out-there. Touching was like the clashing of two clouds: confusing, humid, gaseous and electric. He licked her with perfect parsimony to make her almost visible—a fluctuating white-noise shadow like a Hollywood ghost. Like an intermittent reflection on a dewy mirror under a throbbing neon light. They buzzed and glitched the observer’s perception systems while somehow haunting the house. When they fucked, a vibrating protoplasm acquired form on the bed, on the couch, a misty blanket floating a couple of inches over the living room’s wooden floor. They were faithful to multiple and different savage dimensions. Possessed by a succession of objects in order to acquire temporal corporeality. Invisible to each other, most of the time, but each one longing to become visible to the other. They were beautiful when perceivable and then they were gone.

They grew hard, thick, solid, filled with the world’s debris. Their waste-stuffed bodies were eating them from their hollow intestines. As time went by, they became more easily perceivable. They tried to get rid of the debris by acupuncturing each other in rooms full of candlelight and essential oils, but it didn’t work. They remained visible for longer times and it was boring, and only pain could made them disappear again after a while, so they hurt each other with fire and lashes. But as soon as pain melted into pleasure they became solid and opaque again, so they sat separately, crying transparent tears of transparent xanthan gum.

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4.

He never sleeps well at night. He looks so pale! If he could be true to himself, he’d vanish, he’d collapse into information…fornever. Uncoloured like a broken zero, like the theoretical in-between of quantum states. In-between morphospaces.

Insects become translucent-white during metamorphosis—don’t they? She doesn’t want to lose him—even though neither of them know very well what they mean to each other.

Presence: it should be enough.

Absence kills the brain.

Has this skin been ever burned by the sun? Long ago, perhaps. It was another dimension, not just a former life. Extinct life forms. Monumental fossils. A lost realm of old cheap paperback editions, itching vegetal blade cuts and cigarette burns, boys and girls waving towards the drunken boats from the abrupt dark-grey rocky shore, diving in the cold and salty waters. Orbited in the water by evanescent sea snakes and phosphorescent plankton. Swimming by night among the Tesla lightnings of dinoflagellates.

He never quit smoking or masturbating, keeping himself connected to the mental dinosaurs from that lost teenage world. She is younger, she must have been a toddler back then. Before mobile devices, not even a reliable phone number during summer vacations; just the books, the grains of sand between the pages, just the water, just the misty freezing reverberation of sunset, the hour of eclosion, the night dropping its veil of light, the cloudwall like a cotton pad over the bleeding neck of a beheaded god, just the pleasure of licking salty goosebumps on a girl’s leg. Just the aura of the burnt golden sea around the naked bodies. She’s a tree, he’s an epiphyte. Do they live in a venetian internet? When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem at all? It seemed to be fine when they were regularly fucking, and it seems to be fine now after they stopped almost a year ago. She thinks he never really believed it would be possible to be living together, that he would go crazy and would start screwing around and finally leave. He dreams of gardens.

Town people dream of gardens to bury their pet’s bones, eventually their children’s.

He doesn’t understand the urge to own land. Land is just dirt. And grass, and worms, and bugs, and plants, and trees….He doesn’t understand how those things could ever be owned. Land that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for money and seized again and inherited and given as dowry and sold again.

Legacy.

Every funeral is a cannibal act. A reading of minds. A nanodust-bleeding crack line on the silky screen of time. Never mind if (they) devour the corpse or the corpse renounces to the kind gesture of devouring them. The (he) the (object) hopelessly waiting for a watt-less fuck under the dim glow of low-intensity light bulbs and air-pixelating TV white noise, light hissing on the mirror’s surface, a moth, mechanically, repeatedly trying to collapse into the other side of itself. The air is old black-and-white TV hiding from light. Clean clothes lay on a chair. She dreams of cities—of a warm comfortable house in a megalopolis covered by snow. She dreams of being other, of being somewhere else.

Woundaries.

He spent most of his young age lost somewhere in the future.

In some (fortunate) places the past is just a fine powder that might be dusted by the winds of future, where dry bones may be easily crushed just by walking on them. In the still city, however, the past is a heavy and soaked tombstone: He learned from her that truth doesn’t matter when you approach the past, the only thing that matters is weight. Maybe this is the reason why he misses her weight.

The most obvious, albeit improbable explanation of the objects’ presence was time travel. This was initially discarded as irrational, especially because she wanted to avoid making public that they might be the victims of a hoax. Her colleagues, however, were very inclined to call the press immediately—they were picturing the headlines: ‘first evidence of time travel discovered by…’, but she was much more conscious of her reputation. Reputation is a currency for the non-rich. People who are very conscious of their reputation often consider a black market.

When they first started thinking about time travel, they did it in the popular, fictional way: people coming from a future civilization, carrying with them some objects that might have been left behind. This could explain the iPhone and the prosthetic hand, but who would travel to the past with an oversized toy doll? A family from the future on vacations in the middle ages? One of her colleagues proposed an alternative explanation: why should we always think about people travelling in time? Why should the objects be leftovers instead of protagonists? Time travel might pose many risks to living beings, but it could be much easier for inanimate matter. This was equally unlikely, but it somehow seemed a more rational approach. Maybe the result of an experiment designed to send things across time? But if any future civilization will find the way to send stuff back to the past, why has nobody found evidences of future objects before? She imagined a future engineer working on a way to get rid of disposable junk: let’s just flood our stupid ancestors with our trash! Of course, there are all those temporal paradoxes and causal loops that might have stopped him, which could be the reason why he made just one experiment, or very few ones, and, despite the technological possibility, he finally decided to abort the project.

When did sex become a problem? Is it a problem?

From the first time she warned him that she would never cope, that nothing would be granted, that he would have to seize her every time.

Forcefully.

Uncomfortably.

Bodies are a lot more that candy genitalia. Bodies are tiny time-points in an ever-changing morphospace. Sex is the digital version of a much more complex body-to-body-to-non-body communication network. Sex could be just stored in a hard disk, or somewhere in the cloud, leaving it there until new software has been implemented.

Software, however, has never been updated.

She doesn’t understand the desire to own a body. Bodies are dirt, hair, bugs, blood, thoughts… She doesn’t understand how these things could ever be self—not to say shared. Her flesh—that has been conquered and shed with blood and exchanged for comfort and chocolate and peace and dreams.

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5.

He can’t recall recalling his first time. Not to recall recalling is supposed to be weird. This kind of stuff is expected to draw emotions and to be emojified somewhere into the body of the self—preferably close to its outer surface like scabies or tattoo ink. He does remember, from past dust, abstract-expressionist mats of wet hair and blood stains and wet wool pullovers and tiny shining corneas. Some of them might have belonged to the hypothetical first one—he might even be right if randomly bricolaging a candidate. Riddle as past. Deciphering previous propensity codes that shape the present network of brain cells.

He does recall some encounters with a woman in particular —what he cannot remember is her placement in a specifically databased chronological order, if any of the encounters he is capable of picturing happened as part of a logical sequence of events or if he has precisely forgotten the first one because others were more intense or fun. He doesn’t see the reason why sexual inception should be of particular interest. Love is not an action but an environment, a particular arrangement of reasons growing from a particular arrangement of things. Love is neither action nor pathos—it is, in fact, a variant of boredom, a conscious refusal to be entertained. He can’t either remember the first novel he read, or the first time he got drunk. He can’t usually remember the order of things—but are things ordered anyway?—, what happened before and what came later. Why is (sequential) order important? He feels/thinks about his life as a turbulent flow rather than a succession of events. A cycle, like the blood circulating across the body, continuously looping nowhere. For most people, sex encounters are like transfusions, but for him they’re bleeding, a way to melt into something more eager to drip. Fluids go effortlessly everywhere, slaves to gravity, never caring about when they were before or where they will be later. Solve et coagula.

Then, the most important thing to investigate would be when (in the future) the objects were time-transferred to when (in the past). Have they’ve been there for centuries, for millennia, before one filthy beast was transformed into a chapel? Buried under the dark soil of the woods? Or did they appear one thousand years ago? Or maybe last month, or last week…? Is time-transferring one-directional—for instance, always to the past—or multi-directional, and in that case, does it require matter exchange? Could the (future) objects substitute for (past) stuff, such as someone in the future sending back the objects and receiving some pounds of mud in exchange, so the objects could be delivered anywhere assuming (Eureka!) they would dis-time exactly the same volume of matter?

She, however, guesses it all depends on the person who forgets or remembers. Liquid people’s memory spills everywhere, turning itself into environment, and their remembrances are a knock on the door of an empty cabin.

He always liked old, recycled, used clothes, long before vintage was a fad. Specially black clothes. He remembers when almost everybody was wearing black, with that eclectic style mix that characterized the version of afterpunk that managed to arrive to his country. Hiding from everybody, they arrived to the seashore, where sea monsters once emerged, from where they slithered to the hermit’s hut. It was wintertime and there was only wind. Wind blowing up foam, not a horizon ahead but a fog wall. When future is not imagined, memories are not recorded. What keeps the REC button pressed is the belief that there will be a future from which the present will be remembered. Sand and clouds and water and wind were the same thing. A cinnamon-colored dog was looking from a corner, but he was not looking at them.

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6.

He had been dancing at the disco. He was barely visible. He was recovering his breath leaning on a pillar when an unknown girl just jumped on him. He didn’t see her approaching him, and he was unable to see her face during a long, asphyxiating kiss under her long soaked hair. Like he had been wrapped in a wet blanket. Hooded like a man sentenced to death while his mouth was being drilled by a muscled mollusk. It was raining hard when they went out to smoke a joint. He hates the rain, but he remembers she was turned on by rain because it reminded her of Rimbaud. She also wore black, or very dark blue, and she never put any underwear on. Now he thinks of her as one of those dripping-wet glitched Japanese ghosts emerging in the form of white noise from the TV or the bathtub. Student apartments were often cold, humid, uncomfortable and utterly disordered. Mold stains on ceilings switched shape and color as if every house grew its own clouds, its own ameboid god. He remembers being threatened by monsters. Students burned sweet brandy and drank it to fight the winter cold. They shared stolen drinks in the disco. Moss grew on old stone houses’ facades. Rhododendrons on balconies. Moss, mold, stone and paint talked to each other in their own language of mutually assured destruction.

But then, what if time travel is a rare spontaneous phenomenon occurring without human intervention? What if chronotaxia is a physical property of some particular objects, or some particular locations, or some particular times? What if it hasn’t been detected before because who would care if some non-human-related inorganic stuff such as a stone, a few gallons of water or some cubic feet of nitrogen had ever arrived from another time?

Never mind to wait.

She had been living abroad and mothered a child.

All was unexpected.

One of these occasions you jump into the void to realize the other person was just expecting you to follow your desire. Maybe she wasn’t wanting him, just wanting to be wanted. There was weed and rice and coffee and a few poetry books at her place, and many vinyl records and posters on the walls and dried blood drops in the bathroom. No memory, no pictures, no representation of pleasure. Joy always happens on the B side of remembrance.

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7.

They had chosen the past for very different reasons. For him, the past was a game—an approach that, depending on her mood, amused or infuriated her. For him, everything was a child’s play, and the only unavoidable requirement to keep playing, as any toddler knows, is a subjectively safe environment. He was unable to take anything seriously except, perhaps, the particular disposition of some random spatial arrangements that helped him to establish that subjectively safe environment. The critical mess. His past was loaded with future. He didn’t see disorder, and that was another reason why he couldn’t remember anything from his past—or from their shared past—in an orderly way. Only professional players and some committed amateurs, remember the details of previous play. How he managed to keep his job as a teacher was a complete mystery to her until she realized that he had that extraordinary memory for books. Books were part of his daydreams but, unlike other daydreams that were continuously appearing and disappearing, allowing him to happily contradict himself in a question of seconds, what he obtained from books was a specifically structured world, so that, although considered as another portion of his imagination, although never taking the historical records as facts but as thoroughly malleable fiction, he was able to present books in an entertaining way—something he rarely did with personal experiences. Maybe the gap opened itself between different concepts of experience. For her, experience was a serious thing, something to be cherished and cared for and curated: there were essentially good experiences and essentially bad experiences. Experiences became her—you are what you eat, you are what happens to you, you are what you unearth. But for him, experiences were also toys, people were also toys, pain and happiness and despair and death were also toys, so they could be whimsically loaded with diverse emotional and symbolic charges at will. His way to stand life was to transform anything into a delirious game, including himself, including her. She wouldn’t understand how he could be so responsible and so irresponsible at the same time. He wouldn’t understand how she could be so engaged, so serious, with such trivialities. What was for her an obstacle to overcome, was another piece on the tableboard for him. If he was able to see the world with that sharpness he would certainly be terrified. So she knew she couldn’t ask him about the future objects because he would understand their presence as something natural, like if a green alien or a flaming demon just appeared in the middle of the room. It’s not that he would refuse to find a rational explanation, but that searching for a rational explanation wouldn’t be the first thing to do. It probably wouldn’t be the second thing to do. For him, the future was mixed with the past, so the objects’ chronophoresis was not shattering his world in any way. He would just keep lying down in his voluptuous ennui, as trying to rule the world with a telekinetic superpower. And he would say something like the objects are a clear evidence of the existence of a post-techno-capitalist leisure middle class developed from the unemployed masses for whom some abstract machine will be covering their basic necessities, so property will be meaningless and they will focus on communication (the iPhone), entertainment (the doll), and enhancement (the hand). At the end, he would sound as a regular historian, producing narratives to preserve the present by protecting the past from future’s influence. And she would think fuck you, you always have to tell the last word.

She walks away from the couch, stamping sweaty footprints on the floorboard and leaving a tingling vibration in the wood that spreads like a scent through the cold air. Time is a crystalline construction seen through occult windows of life. Left to the past, sex becomes an obsolete skeuomorph. Be jewelled by numbers! he mutters—echoing the sequence of her perambulation until the room absorbs all the fluttering sounds and she vanishes like the photograph of an argentine greyscale ghost. Is a dead star still a star? Is a shining star hydrogen plasma, or is it the light travelling across spacetime? She turns back to him. He’s reading, or pretending to read. All the objects she had previously unearthed were pieces in a puzzle, things that could become tiny details in networks or narratives. Lantern fishes lost in the abyssal depths but sparkling anyway. Inserting their existence somewhere—a museum, a journal, a hidden corner of the mechanoic city—produced a vaguely disturbing meaning beyond their own presence in the here and now. Even unusual gadgets such as the tin bird were perfectly fitting into an accepted model of the past. The products of her last excavation, however, couldn’t be interjected in any preexistent context, they were existing by themselves, as an indirect proof of something that might have happened—that something will have happened. Yesterday, she washed them carefully in the bathtub and placed them in her studio room over a blanket. As an evidence of the present existence of a future, at least a near one. Humans weren’t going to be extinct tomorrow. Or maybe humans will vanish and intelligent machines will start disposing human trash in the past bin. She understood that she wouldn’t be able to obtain any proper knowledge from the objects. She understands that she will never be able to live in the still city but she will never cross the cloudwall. The past is broken, he says, we can’t hold on to it. Let’s fill the cavernous diseased holes of memory with sink water and molten silicon. Fake or not, to her, the objects must be art. Put a frame around them. Real or not, their shared endurance would be love. He wouldn’t dare to touch her. I can’t see you, make yourself visible to me, please, she says. She’s packing the objects carefully. She’s sending them beyond the cloudwall, to a laboratory in America. Let’s see what they can find.

I open shafts, I expose categories, minerals. I slit face-mouths, open wounds that heal on the other side of time, wrote Aase Berg.

—Germán Sierra

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Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido (Debate, 1996), La Felicidad no da el Dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos Secundarios (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, Spain, 2013)—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje (Mondadori, 2004).

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Oct 052016
 

Deirdre thumbnail

Deirdre Baker, who not so long ago joined us as a production editor, liked the work so much and proved so helpful (she is much more organized than I am) will now ascend Olympus and sit upon the throne of Production Manager. She will take over overseeing pieces through production, copyediting, and format consistency. She is also going to rationalize and update out style sheets. She will relieve me a certain amount of day-to-day office work. I will be able to sit on the deck, overlooking the mountains and the defunct swimming pool, drinking margaritas by the pitcher, throwing tennis balls from my deck chair for the dogs. This is, of course, what an editor’s job should be like. Many of you will now deal with Deirdre after you send your work in. She is very nice, much less apt to raise her voice and TYPE IN CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! than I am. She will be ever so much more polite when she hounds you for missing bios or new photos. The changeover will be gradual, but it has already begun. And, of course, several of you already know her.

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Deirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

Oct 052016
 

Catherine WalshCatherine Walsh

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These poems will appear in Catherine Walsh’s forthcoming book Barbaric Tales.

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barbaric tales
looking desire in the eye
xxxxeyeing desire eyeing desire
xxxxxxxxxin the eye
xxxxxxxxxxxof fine
xxxxeyes  ide ides ore
xxxxxis a dor re
xxxxxxxxxxis i dor us
xxxxxis a dora ea
xxxxhis a
xxxxhe’s a
xxxxxxxxeyes a  ‘S
xxbarbaric tales
skeptics looking through
articulate
xxxxmorass
xxtravesty    tangling as
xstruggling  these notions nations
exist their bigness small their
smallness a still silent in
the breadth of flight beyond
xxunderneath through this and
all or any refined concentrate glows and grows
light cellular compactations as particles
waves in crevices on cracks under motorways

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§

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in spans of striding bridges this energy
existing feeds repeats resumes beneath our
gaze out of above temporary horizon
lines fluctuating in time  patterned  ribboned
ululations wares of opaque air we are
there pleasure in this clearly hidden
lugar sound centrifuge of
spatiality humming hub  con  in
re  di  verse (transistor-amplified
vibrations set on top standard 60s’
freestanding cabinet as further amplifier)
(the notice of things)
(accumulated)
echelons  The weeping!  The laughing!
eclectic joys of which might
strum peace navigate superficies
of order resonate magnificently
till all known farthest tangents lay slightly
disordered  bare  approachable
to fend in the world
other becomes  plaisír
as it is voices clarions nascent surge

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and where you cannot look
to the sea you look to the
mountain  flutter in the
montbresia passing by the
third day of mauve hydrangea
vased in black enamel
outside a council door repeat
a step the kerb depletes a necessary
force whistles or that bikes past she
with arms akimbo those white
in-ears wired up  flourishes unaware
in the patternled stream

x

x

this courage to go
beyond  let it be the measure
that we let this be the
measure that we let
be measure this that we
let this be the measure
that we let
binding explosive
sequestered interpretabilities
your fear the door closes as
its noise summons movement
change air light  hefted
currents blighted
with human skin
mould  lacerations
of joy  poignant murmurs
of the hinge  release
insensate reluctance

refusal’s life
this is your dear moment in
capacity motion towards its
beckoning strimming wide

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x

x

swathes aloud  bee
glade dell hollowed by
wind stroking the palms
of justice  bedrock
glacial implicatory
owl coiffed true
more janus will
ensue  the tale of
the tall ships resuming
telling in order to
be some inspired version
yarn  enigma  how can this
be aimed true our very breaths a shift?

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§

x

where viewing the stuck in
the possible stealth of evening
overtaking each
endeavour stale
want of more
being heard or being a spectacle
it’s all my eye lost ironic arcs
in trite thrall this
was voice voicing
this ah this was being
heard all my eye or not
replete phenomenological
repressivistic maelstrom of
what  termed
as if complete desire  was
unerringly boxed set stilted
agendas sifted validity
recomposition detritus

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§

x

roman wall in the evening
gloom Ibero-Grec reinforcement
arches dug in
natural alignment
hill side  which
escarped and cutaway
tails the formality  black
tarmac concrete road
curves shoulders lower
slopes from where I
could breathe just
remember it when
bludgeoning
hate in fear those
eager counting
injury grief as right
indignant lack
indigency
unappeased anger

pained forlorn its

dishonesty which cannot

cherish

x

§

x

I am interested in your precepts
does not mean I have to either
agree or disagree with them

perfect development
all it could be  unless
it were imperfect

is it worth it?
not just that so many
concerns hang round that
hackneyed phrase
for centuries
it’s that inestimable
evaluation in the face
of realities
actualities
precedents
norms

the normative influence at
the conjunction of any
such confluences
taken conjunctively with the
actuality of the precedents
set in relation to
past or known realities

x

§

x

xthis is it
xxis it worth it?
xxthe past
xximperfect
xxfuture
xxperfect
xxpresent
xxcontinuous
xxpast
xxsimple
xxfuture
xxcontinuous
xxconditional
xxto present
xxsimple
xxpast
xx∴ perfect
xx

xI could go on endlessly
xxexcept it would probably
xxbore you needlessly

yes  I’m sure you would
find it boring were
I to keep on trying
to extemporise on the
same point

least you forget it would
prove useful to maintain
the ability to distinguish
such structures if you
were to come across
them in your reading

x

§

x

times
of mind
adjusta-clocks
expanda-frames
allowing abstractions
reside  unmolested
uncontested  at-the-ready
in our heads

on the T-Rex footprint scale
it doesn’t seem like
much of an imprint
granular sand particles
defunct mineral
dehydrated life
embrasured on strand
opinions vary  while
the composite components
structuring bone mass
don’t much

sea come  go
pull away there

carried fro’
any  where push

in here  mast up
cell  carried to

some fruit pull
away

it surprised her  what had been
written  dehiscence of
time  pah  like that
they said this would be a good
title  some said something
else  arbitrary nature
of the ordinary  turn it
over  pah  nothing you
see surprised her  in this
way each day  could be
seen to  fragment

x

x

x

x

(itself)  miscellaneous
phonic locutions and a
monologic episode  your
play  she said  is if
I may say so she
said  episodic
wow  imagine
time past  before my eyes
ears  before my ears
blood beat  we are
carried  so many
wrapt environs  immaculate
xpresence of doubt
xxthen we are
here  where rivers run
time holds in stone
xsoil    sand
xxkept transient
fitful  glancing

—Catherine Walsh

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Catherine Walsh was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964, has spent some time living and working abroad, and currently lives in Limerick. She co-edits hardPressed Poetry with Billy Mills. Her books include: Macula (Red Wheelbarrow Press, Dublin: 1986); The Ca Pater Pillar Thing and More Besides (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1986); Making Tents (hardPressed Poetry, Dublin, 1987); Short Stories (North & South, Twickenham and Wakefield, 1989); Pitch (Pig Press, Durham, 1994); Idir Eatortha & Making Tents (Invisible Books, London, 1996); City West (Shearsman, Exeter, 2005); Optic Verve A Commentary (Shearsman, Exeter, 2009) and Astonished Birds; Carla, Jane, Bob and James (hardPressed Poetry, Limerick 2012).

Her work is included in a number of anthologies, including the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2001) and No Soy Tu Musa (Ediciones Torremozas, Madrid, 2008), a bilingual Spanish/English anthology of Irish women poets. A section from Barbaric Tales appears in the spring/summer 2016 edition of the Irish University Review.

She was Holloway Lecturer on the Practice of Poetry at the University of California, Berkeley for 2012/13 and was a research fellow with the Digital Humanities cluster at An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University during 2014/2015. Her books Barbaric Tales and The beautiful Untogether are forthcoming.

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