Sep 052016
 

SydneyLea

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Gooka-mol

To watch that band of vultures
coast along their thermal this morning
is to marvel at elegance and composure–
no need to repress old platitudes
about the birds as tokens
of my doom. I don’t even take up the notion,

or rather, if I did,
I’d imagine the doom of some woodland critter.
No, why not be honest? My mind’s on Pete
our dog. Last week, the vet saw a bulge
she didn’t like on his chest.
Tomorrow she’ll cut it out. At a loss,

I think of the vultures’ circling.
I think of etymology,
how some people call those birds revolting,
which literally means they turn us away,
but vulture itself in fact
derives from the verb for turn in Latin.

I’m thinking, you see, of whatever
has nothing to do with a horrible illness.
Schrecklich, I name it, recalling my grandmother’s
Pennsylvania Dutch locutions,
which I likely can’t even spell.
She’d often cry something like Gooka-mol,

which signified Let me see.
Cancer’s taken far too many
creatures who’ve shared their lives with me.
The dog has set my mind on this course,
and I cry it myself, Gooka-mol!
Now the string of birds slips over a knoll.

Where have they gone? I can’t say.
From the height that the birds command, I might
look down on someone behaving this way
and simply conclude, The man is crazy.
It’s only a dog, after all,
and the world’s still wide and rich and lovely.

Granted. It is. Sometimes. Gooka-mol.

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Solace, Stone
nnnnn–1981

I had lately known a real sorrow:
my young brother– gone. So I set out alone.
Deep in Breaux’s Gore, where I’d never been
until that morning, a headstone leaned.

It was quiet. Never such quiet.
Who can recall that marker but me?
Who is there even to know about it?
Doubtless someone. Hunters must see

the canted slab now and then,
there since 1841.
It only bore one name: John Goodridge,
maybe wife- and childless. Water and sun

had worn its shoulders round.
Home late afternoon, near evening,
I moved from woodpile to shed and back,
less as if I were working than dreaming.

Scents rose in that autumn dusk,
then settled. Odors of duff and rain.
I settled too, in the wheelbarrow’s bed,
like a chunk of oak or mud or a stone

that might passively ride along.
Forty years since I bore witness
to that marker, all the world gone mute.
I’d never known so entire a silence.

I wouldn’t forget it. Never.
I would never not hear that stillness again.
Our little family was set for winter.
We’d soon be soothed by the iron stove’s hum.

I turned from our surfeit of firewood,
And felt at once that a gentle something–
from above the trees overhanging the woodshed
and down through all leaf, all vapor– was falling

into my bone and flesh.
I thought back on the morning, so laden with silence,
as if I could move beyond joy or sadness,
stone-quiet myself, and that could mean solace.

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A Grandson Sleeps on My Chest

The thread of drool from his lip to my shirt
shows lovely, prismatic, refracting the beams
of this fine warm April sun as I loll on a couch.
Those colors won’t blend with the song
from the Classic Country station I just tuned in.

Hank Williams is lonely, and it damn near kills him.
There’s a dog asleep too, in a circle of light
on the rug, near a pair of rattles, a teething ring,
and a bear that his great grandmother
fabricated years back for this sweet little sleeping child’s father.

Oh I could get going on how that father,
our son, has become such a huge good man
when only yesterday, as the cliché has it,
I held him just this way.
Oh I could get going all right about the absence

of the big-hearted woman who made the bear,
which has twice the bulk of this boy in my arms.
I could fret for the thousandth time that maybe I’ve failed
as man or parent or husband,
but no, I won’t be going that way, or those.

Hank’s midnight train is whining low
While here I hear only a lyrical breathing
and the odd and oddly tuneful infant gurgle.
The scent of the grandson’s crown
wafts up. That’s when all preachments waft up too,

all vanities, worries, to die their sudden deaths.

ruthie_grandpa_lego Poet & granddaughter Ruthie

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Sep 042016
 

Naked1

toussaint

Throughout the first three novels in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy, the unnamed narrator and his love interest Marie have been on the verge of break-up and broken up. Yet, in some ways, they’ve never really been apart. In this passage from the fourth and final novel Naked, after returning from a trip where the couple rekindled their love, the narrator sits alone in his apartment thinking of Marie, waiting for a sign that she’s thinking of him too.

Naked was originally published in 2013, and is translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.

— Jason Lucarelli

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IDIDN’T DARE admit it to myself outright, but what I was waiting for now at the window was—already—a phone call from Marie. I even hoped to get her call before stepping away from the window, before I had time to do anything in the apartment, go through my mail or unpack my bags, so that when I picked up I could say, the amused modesty in my voice perhaps tinged with a zest of triumph, “Already?” and the endless half-hour I spent in front of the window waiting in vain for Marie’s call was like an abridged version of the two expectant months I was about to spend waiting for any sign from her at all. In the first few moments, fervor and impatience still held sway, feelings of love the days spent together on Elba had rekindled, the intact desire to hear her voice on the phone—perhaps intimidated, tender, light-hearted, suggesting we see each other that very night—and then, as the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon even the whole month of September went by without so much as a word from Marie, my initial impatience gradually gave way to fatalism and resignation. My feelings toward Marie went progressively from the impatient affection of those first few moments to a kind of annoyance I was still trying to get under control. After a while, I no longer held anything back and gave free rein to my resentment. Marie’s final act of fickleness, inviting me to spend two weeks with her on Elba just to ignore me and not make so much as a peep afterward, was but the ultimate demonstration of her radical nonchalance.

But now a new element, perhaps, since our return from Elba, was that Marie managed the feat of annoying me even when she wasn’t around. For up till now, whenever Marie hadn’t been around, I’d missed her immediately, nothing whetted my love for her more than distance—what to say, then, about her absence? This new annoyance, this more deeply ingrained irritation, taking shape right there at the window as I waited for her call, was perhaps the sign that I was readying myself for our separation and imperceptibly beginning to resign myself to it—except that, and here the nuance is vital, it might very well be the case that if Marie annoyed me so much when she wasn’t around, it was perhaps quite simply because she wasn’t around. There was also an odd, abiding element in my love for Marie, which was that as soon as anyone, even me, took it in mind to criticize her, and quite justifiably, with the best intentions in the world, I couldn’t keep myself from dashing to her rescue straightaway, as in certain couples where the one defending his or her partner tooth and nail is in the best position to know the extent of that partner’s shortcomings. In fact, I needed no outside detractors to come up with all the ill that could be said of Marie, I quite sufficed. I knew very well that Marie was exasperating. I knew perfectly well indeed, along with her detractors, who didn’t even know the quarter of it, that she was superficial, fickle, frivolous, and careless (and that she never shut drawers), but no sooner did I alight on this litany of deprecating qualifiers than I saw the other side to these complaints, their secret underside, concealed from view, like the precious hidden lining of too-flashy finery. For though glittering sequins sometimes kept one from seeing Marie clearly at first, to reduce her to the frothy society gossip abubble in her wake would be to underestimate her. A more substantial wave, timeless, ineluctable, carried her through life. What characterized Marie above all else was her way of being in tune with the world, those moments when she felt flooded by a feeling of pure joy: then tears would start rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, as if she were melting with rapture. I don’t know if Marie was aware she contained, deep within, this unusual kind of exaltation, but everything in her bearing bore witness to her capacity for intimate harmony with the world. For just as there exists such a thing as oceanic feeling, so we may speak, where Marie is concerned, of oceanic affinities. Marie had a gift, that singular ability, that miraculous faculty, for being at one with the world in the moment, of knowing harmony between herself and the universe, in an utter dissolving of her own consciousness. Everything else about her personality—Marie the businesswoman and Marie the CEO, who signed contracts and closed real estate deals in Paris and China, who knew the dollar’s daily exchange rate and followed the latest market fluctuations, Marie the fashion designer who worked with dozens of assistants and collaborators the world over, Marie the woman of her time, active, overworked, and urbane, who lived in luxury hotels and dashed through airports in cream-colored trench coats, belt trailing on the floor, pushing two or three carts over owing with luggage, suitcases, clutches, portfolios, poster tubes, not to mention—dear God, I can picture it still—parakeet cages (fortunately empty, for she rarely transported living animals, apart from a thoroughbred—a trifle—as it happens, on her last trip back from Tokyo)—also characterized her, but only superficially, including her without defining her, encircling her without grasping her, nothing in the end but mist and spray beside the fundamental affinity that alone characterized her completely, the oceanic affinity. Intuitively, Marie always knew how to be in spontaneous tune with natural elements: with the sea, into which she melted with delight, naked in the salt water surrounding her body, with the earth, whose touch she loved, primitive and crude, dry or slightly slimy in her palms. Marie instinctively attained a cosmic dimension of existence, even if she sometimes seemed to spurn its social dimension entirely, and treated her every acquaintance with the same natural simplicity, ignoring age and formalities, seniority and etiquette, showing each the same considerate kindness, the same graces of sensitivity and benevolence, the charms of her smile and her figure, whether it was an ambassador having her over to dinner at his residence during a show, the cleaning lady she’d befriended, or the latest intern at the fashion house Let’s Go Daddy-O, seeing only the human being in each of them without a care in the world for rank, as if, beneath all the finery of the adult she’d become and her standing as a world-renowned artist, it was the child in her that had survived, with that child’s bottomless well of innocent generosity. There was something in her like a radical abstraction, an abrasion, a stripping-away of the social reality of things, such that she always seemed to be wandering around naked on the surface of the world, the “seemed” even being redundant with her, so often did she actually walk around naked in real life, at home or in the yard of the house on Elba, to the astonishment of creatures that watched her rapturously, a butterfly coming upon its alter ego in nature or the tiny, exhilarated fish quivering behind her in the sea, when I myself wasn’t the privileged witness to her innocent fancy for walking around nude at the drop of a hat, which was almost like her signature, her soul number, the proof of her integral harmony with the world, with what has been most permanent and essential about it for hundreds of thousands of years.

As we had just come back from Elba, these were the sunlit images of Marie that now came to mind as I stood before the window: Marie half naked under an old blue shirt of her father’s in the yard on Elba. I stared at the gray, rainy Paris street before me, and it was Marie who raced irresistibly through my mind without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I don’t know if Marie knew just how alive she was in my thoughts at that moment, as if, beside the real Marie who must have reached her apartment on Rue de La Vrillière by now, where the taxi had dropped her off, was another Marie, free, autonomous, separate from herself, existing only in my mind, where I let her come to life and move about my thoughts as she went swimming naked in my memories or took shape in the yard of her father’s house. I saw her again, then, in the little yard on Elba, that double, my personal Marie, wearing a basic swimsuit she’d pulled down and rolled around her waist because it was too hot (or even with no swimsuit at all, I kid you not). Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered, watching the meager trickle from the hose intently, with a kind of meditative steadiness that seemed to wholly absorb her. I skimmed her shoulder as I joined her in the yard and told her in passing that for lack of a swimsuit, she could maybe put on a hat—people do that when they’re naked, you know (and she shrugged, didn’t dignify that with a reply). Marie, who always managed to surprise me, throw me for a loop, unpredictable Marie who, a few weeks earlier on Elba, had filched an apricot from the display at a fruit stand in Portoferraio’s old town, and kept the pit in her mouth for a long time, sucking on it dreamily in the sun, before suddenly pinning me to the wall in a shady alley near the port to press her lips abruptly against mine and dispose of the pit in my mouth.

And then I realized that I was chewing over these same happy visions time and again, the same summer images of Marie kept coming back to me, as if filtered by my mind, purified of any unpleasant elements and made more endearing still as they began to grow distant in time with my return. But since, I told myself, any true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

I don’t know how much time had passed since I got back, but day was beginning to wane in Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and I still hadn’t budged from the window. The street had gotten a bit livelier, a few signs were now lighted near the Bourse. One of the houses across from me was being renovated. On the fourth floor, an apartment had been laid utterly bare, the façade gone, leaving the entrails of the building exposed, as if after a hurricane or an earthquake. Under the arc lights, a few workers in helmets passed to and fro over plastic tarps covering the floorboards of what must once have been the living room. The scene had something, if not hallucinatory, then at least not very Parisian about it (or I’m no Parisian), and seemed instead to be taking place in a major Asian metropolis, by neon light and the glare of welding torches. I contemplated the building under construction across from me, and thought back to the trip Marie and I had made to Japan at the beginning of the year. That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up, that was where we’d made love for the last time, in the room of a luxury hotel in Shinjuku. We’d left for Japan together, and come home separately two weeks later, each to our own lives, no longer speaking, no longer bothering to stay in touch. When I got back to Paris, I finalized our breakup, in a way, by moving to Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and we had barely seen each other at all till late summer, when she’d suggested I join her on Elba. But what Marie didn’t know—and still doesn’t—is that I, too, was there the night her show opened at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa.

— Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

Excerpt from Naked appears by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.

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Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie, which is available from Dalkey Archive Press. His writing has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and even Charlie Chaplin.

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SONY DSC

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference and received a residency from the Ban International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Urgency and Patience was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.

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Sep 042016
 

toussaint

The most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. — Jason Lucarelli

Naked1
Naked
Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
124 pages, $15.00

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.Some couples are always breaking up and getting back together. Their love says no, says yes, sometimes in the same breath. Every apparent end is punctuated by a flash of renewal.

Take the unnamed narrator and Marie in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy—Making Love, Running Away, The Truth About Marie, and Naked—who spend all four novels (mostly) breaking up. “But breaking up, I was beginning to realize, was more a state of being than an action, more a period of mourning than a death agony,” says the narrator in Making Love. While each novel in the tetralogy follows Making Love, events do not always follow in chronological order.

In Making Love, Marie invites the narrator to accompany her during one of her exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, and they spend most of the trip “separating for good.” Running Away occurs the summer before the breakup when the narrator travels to China on an errand for Marie, and later joins her on the island of Elba for her father’s funeral. The Truth About Marie, occurring the spring-summer after Making Love, concerns events surrounding Marie’s other lover Jean-Christophe de G. (Marie accompanying Jean-Christophe the day after her exhibition as he transports a racehorse, Marie watching Jean-Christophe have a heart attack in her apartment), and a few summer days on Elba where Marie and the narrator grow closer over crisis (a great fire burns over a section of the island). All of this is just what happens, the succession of incidents, plot stuff.

But the most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. Describing Toussaint’s fiction, Tom McCarthy writes, “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.”

Jean-Philippe Toussaint—Belgian-born writer, filmmaker, and photographer—is the author of nine novels, originally published in French by Les Éditions de Minuit, and published in English by E.P. Dutton, The New Press, and Dalkey Archive Press. He is the winner of the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth About Marie). Early critics were quick to classify his work as part of the ‘nouveau Nouveau Roman.’ Toussaint prefers the term “infinitesimal,” which, he says, “evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small…the two extremes that should always be found in my books.” He refers to Samuel Beckett as “the most important reading experience of my life” and “my only model.” While Toussaint’s earlier works contained loopy but concise narratives, detached yet analytic narrators, and plot opportunities offered but rarely exploited, his newer works give a little more, and build upon these earlier facets in exquisite and scrupulous detail. His authorial concerns for “energy,” “rhythm,” “dynamics,” and “the standards of the form” are on peak display in Naked, the conclusion to his magnum opus, translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

From the beginning of Naked onward, Toussaint reaches back into the narrative, to previous novels, to reference events, and revisits them with variation in a cyclical, dizzying effect. Take for instance the beginning of Naked’s first half, as the narrator and Marie return to Paris after making love on their last night on Elba. Before separating, they share an extended exchange in the taxi. They hesitate to part. The narrator says, “…I was unable to tell Marie how I felt about her—but had I ever been able to?” It’s a sentence that recalls one from Making Love: “…I had not made the slightest declaration of love to her—but have I ever made her any declaration of love?” On the level of plot, the narrator’s passiveness is one of his primary traits. In some ways, it’s to blame for him staying on the wrong side of the breakup for so long. On the level of form, the two phrases showcase Toussaint’s signature parallel structuring of incidents.

The narrator spends the next two months waiting for Marie’s call. At his window, looking out at Paris, his mind goes back to the time they spent in Japan: “That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up…” Eventually he reveals that he was present during the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa and not, as Marie might have suspected, on his way back to Paris:

It was only now, more than seven months later in Paris…that I had gained the necessary distance to apprehend all the elements of the scene then underway…So where was I? Where—if not in the limbo of my own consciousness, freed from the contingencies of space and time, still and forever invoking the figure of Marie?

The narrator, “in memories or the resurrected past,” makes his way across the museum grounds as he did in Making Love, but this time on opening night as opposed to the night prior. As he tries to gain entry to the museum, a guard takes special notice of him (the same guard who caught him at the conclusion of Making Love looking for Marie), and the narrator climbs the roof to escape confrontation. On the roof, he peers through a porthole looking for Marie amongst the attendees. Searching the crowd, he sees a guest look up at the ceiling, and leans back to avoid being seen. At this point he realizes that this was the evening Marie met Jean-Christophe de G. and that he had likely been an “eyewitness to their encounter.”

In a perspective shift typical of the tetralogy—Toussaint turning first person perspective into a kind of speculative third person—the narrator describes how Jean-Christophe de G. found himself at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, how he decided to leave with Marie on his arm (a woman he had never met before), how he mistook another woman named Marie for fashion-designer Marie, and how he gazed up at the porthole to spot the narrator’s figure in the dark. Jean-Christophe, bewildered at having chosen the wrong Marie, considers:

an excuse to ditch everyone and slip out of the museum or even, if possible, to vanish from this story altogether, return to nothingness, from which it seemed he’d been plucked for a brief moment to beget, at his own expense, an evanescent ribbon of life, airborne, twirling, futile, and fleeting.

The narrator abandons Jean-Christophe and recalls the moment he finally spotted Marie through the porthole. He watches her: “I love you, Marie, I told her, but no sound came from my mouth, I couldn’t even hear myself say it, maybe I hadn’t even opened my mouth, maybe I’d only thought it…” He reveals his true feelings to no one but himself.

The flashback ends and the second half of Naked picks up back in Paris, when the narrator receives Marie’s phone call two months after returning from Elba. She says she has something to tell him and they should meet. The narrator recalls that every time Marie called him “out of the blue” was to inform him of a death: her father’s (in Running Away) and Jean-Christophe de G.’s (in The Truth About Marie). The narrator meets Marie at a cafe (he finds her looking “different”) and she informs him that Maurizio, the caretaker of her father’s house in Elba, has died (“when all was said and done, she only called me up in the event of a death,” he says), and that it would be good if they attended his funeral together. The narrator agrees, but holds on to the premonition that Marie held back what she really wanted to tell him.

Traveling to Elba by ferry, approaching shore, the narrator and Marie are greeted by the familiar sight of smoke: “It was so striking that it seemed to me the same fire as last summer, even if that was no doubt impossible, the same forest fire now finally winding down but still burning, and pursuing us, awaiting our return.” Always in the mind of the narrator the present parallels the past, every event mirrors another.

The narrator and Marie are greeted by Maurizio’s son, Giuseppe, who has been keeping watch over Marie’s father’s house. He tells them about the source of the smoke on the island, the burning chocolate factory. Instead of going directly to the house, they stop at the factory and the narrator observes Giuseppe (“…he seemed instead to know the place like the back of his hand…”). During the drive back to the house, Giuseppe explains everything he knows about the fire, “unable to hide a dark, grim satisfaction, the morbid pleasure that comes from announcing bad news when circumstances allow it.” An element of vague danger brought on by the arrival of Giuseppe’s character hovers over the second half of the novel, which chronicles the couple’s stay on Elba, Maurizio’s funeral and Marie’s withheld secret. But Toussaint is not one to tie up loose ends. A few plot options are left unresolved.

Naked is filled with constant ruminations on lost love, memory, absence, fantasy, loyalty, art. Sticking solely to its structure is to downplay its music, pacing, comedy, drama; its ability to captivate, to surprise. Take the prologue where the narrator, before addressing his relationship with Marie, depicts Marie the artist by describing her most ambitious dress design, a dress made entirely of honey:

Developing a theoretical reflection on the very idea of haute couture, she had returned to the original meaning of the word couture as the sewing of cloth using different techniques, stitching, tacking, hooking, binding, which allow fabrics to be combined on models’ bodies, twinned to the skin, and joined together, to present this year in Tokyo a haute-couture dress without a single stitch.

Later, he mixes his musings on “artistic creation” with those of love:

[A]ny true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

It’s fair to say that in order to feel fully immersed in Naked is to have in mind the other books in the tetralogy. (Read at least Making Love and The Truth About Marie before proceeding.) The narrative in Naked constantly reinforces the “superimposition of simultaneous presents,” a concept spanning the entire tetralogy (see the opening of The Truth About Marie when both the narrator and Marie are “making love in Paris in two apartments” at the same time). In Naked, no passage balances this duality better than the final paragraph where Marie pulls the narrator into the guest room of her father’s house, the same room where they made love last summer (“The place was the same, the people the same, our feelings the same, only the season had changed”). They kiss and hold each other “tightly, madly,” and, in the final line, Marie says, “Then you love me?” It’s a phrase that points back to Making Love, to when Marie first accused the narrator of not loving her. The phrase creates the feeling the passage describes: being in two places at once. Now, in the present, the narrator is challenged with providing an actual answer—instead of whispering it on a rooftop—to the question Marie first posed seven months ago. But readers are left answerless, and one almost sees the entire breakup replaying, beginning all over again.

— Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

N5
N5

Sep 032016
 

Denise Evans Durkin

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Apocrypha
…….(for Jean Valentine)

It seems the time of Angels has passed.

I cannot hear them anymore.

Not like I used to.

Listening – that’s what brought me here –
to the middle of this field untended
near a stand of sturdy evergreens – listening
amongst cattails swaying to a southerly breeze.

Blanket, lantern – this is the farthest
I have walked from the house –

into my life.  To hear them again.

To be given direction, like these birds
tuning up in the field.

Early and late; almost daybreak –
this is the hour to be most present, climb
higher, cresting a ridge in the middle of these acres

Now amongst the reeds, the birds
take to the sky, into the light,
all one fluid motion, certainty and faith –

Tell me which way.

Climbing down, back to the flat land
sky opening out – tell me

which way –

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Restless
…….“My poetry is … a way of solving for the unknowns.” – Robert Hayden

Do you hear it? Slight sigh back of
the wind. Kohl sky opens
into this eternal deep –
comes long after midnight. Stars gather –
lean into my silence.

Walking in the hush, talking to the Lord.

Look at the papers on my desk huddled
under their blanket of dust. Almost
hear the words disappear – blown into
the dry well of what will be forgotten –

Very soon they will be swept away.

Every already known is
a little stand of pine just past
the house –

Aging we birth into this new world –
out in the far field
what matters shines.

This knowing –
like winter-cold tap water –
too soon now it all comes clear –

.

Winter: Sermon Over the Lake House

I am this wide opaque sky & this ice;
you will respect me.

You will be slow & careful;
you will feel the earth and be grateful.

I am everywhere beside you –
I will lay down night when I like &
you will come into my arms & give me love.

You will cleave my short, dark days to you; pray
they catch you when you fall.

You will feel my cold breath,
recognize all you did not see; shiny black ice –
slick branches bent low & those talking-almighty crows
strutting around the dogwood in my embrace –
telling you to just let go & feel it

Feel it: pearly moonlight casting long silver shadows –
the snow-lit path full of diamonds on its way up
to that lonesome bright star hanging
over this house, eaves bent to breaking
under ice floes – their heft eating
the old wood away.

Beneath this night’s ebony scrim
everything is everything & everything is
equally alright. Breathe again
& remember me halfway out of this darkness –
halfway – when you gather pussywillows
& bend them into crosses
before you & I are done.

.

Meditation
……..(after Pablo Neruda)

Cut by thorns of desire
scarred by your love
I have come again to this alone place.

Bare walls, near dark –
safe as stone.

Tea clear as sadness,
love pure as salt

Wind waking the green song
of the chimes.

I go down to the secret river;
I undress the wound.

Baptize me in darkness
Mother of this lonely place.

Do not come too near;
let me bleed and be alone.

I am filled with sacred water;
I am healed –
I grow and fill these bare rooms.

I flow down the avenues
silent as my love –

.

Chloe does not rest

because you speak her name all day long and
she is called here once again –
bound by a crumbling wall and
the mist of that name you keep breathing –
barely there – and there

She is again taking shape
gathering visible form

I think she’d rather rest

Fold her soft wings
sleep on her side –

I think she’d rather
vanish in the rain again

And stay that way –

—Denise Evans Durkin

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Denise Evans Durkin is a poet living in Putnam County, New York. She is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in Numéro Cinq.

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Sep 022016
 

With Uncle Henry's boys at The Knoll c.1950With Uncle Henry’s boys at The Knoll, c.1950

x

‘Wind it up again,’ I say to my big sister, and she rapidly turns the silver handle of Auntie Essie’s wind-up gramophone. It’s set in the top of a beautiful wooden cabinet. The doors beneath swing back to reveal shelves of records, glossy black seventy-eights in their thin brown paper sleeves, each with its round cut-out peephole through which I can see the record label and the little dog listening to his master’s voice.

The black lacquered cabinet is almost taller than I am. When I push up the lid it clicks open. I can just see the turntable, covered with green baize, and the twisting silver arm with its round head, and the glittering needles higgledy-piggledy in the container like an egg cup, set in beside the on/off lever. ‘Now change that needle often,’ Auntie Essie says, ‘or you’ll ruin those records.’ She’s not happy that we’re playing with the gramophone in the big lounge room with its elegant arm chairs and those large round Jap-silk cushions of scarlet and midnight blue. I expect she wasn’t allowed in there when she was growing up. But my Uncle Henry said, ‘Of course they can play in there. It isn’t a morgue!’

The deep groaning voice emerging from the cabinet gradually rises in pitch as my sister turns the handle until it’s Nellie Melba singing ‘One Fine Day’ in a shrill reedy voice. But soon she slows again to a drunken drawl. My sister cranks it up once more and Nellie soars to greater heights. But sometimes it isn’t Nellie; it’s that man called Gigli or the other one called Caruso. They sing sad songs from far away, amongst all that crackling. The labels say things like ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘Turandot’ but that’s some foreign language.

There are heaps more records. My mother says they’re mostly popular songs and dance music from the 1920s and 30s when Auntie Essie and all her brothers were growing up. There’s one dance called ‘Black Bottom’. I think that sounds a bit rude. And there are Charlestons, which I love, and Foxtrots and Two Steps, whatever they are. My favourite record, apart from ‘One Fine Day’, is a song I like to sing:

‘My dog loves your dog,
And your dog loves my dog.
Both our doggies love each other
Why can’t we?’

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Ethel

Auntie Essie lives with Grandfather at The Knoll. It stands on top of the hill overlooking the lake at 99 The Esplanade, Speers Point. We have to go there for holidays. The gloomy house is where my father grew up with Essie and his four brothers: my Uncle Art, Uncle Henry, Uncle Aub and Uncle Griff. They call Essie ‘Sis’ but her real name’s Ethel.

The Knoll 480pxThe Knoll

Thomas family and Vauxhall Tourer c1951Essie on the right beside my father and me. My sister seated by Grandfather, Uncle Aub and the Vauxhall Tourer, c.1951

Auntie Essie sits in the back room on the hard brown armchair by the wireless, listening to the serials. She turns the volume up high because she’s a bit deaf although she’s the same age as my mother and that’s not old. Her favourite serial’s called ‘When a Girl Marries’. At other times she sits reading love stories about doctors and nurses from the English Woman’s Weekly, and she’s always smoking those Capstan cigarettes. My mother doesn’t smoke or hardly ever (only when her friend Daisy comes to stay) and she doesn’t read love stories in magazines. She reads books.

Essie’s fingers are stained yellow and so are her big front teeth. My mother says it’s from the nicotine. She has permed yellow hair but I don’t think that’s the nicotine. She wears sensible lace-up shoes because she’s a nurse and sensible clothes and hats when she goes out.

It’s always dark and musty at The Knoll and there’s the smell of dank seaweed from the lake, moth balls from the cupboards and that cigarette smoke, mixed with perfumes: lantana growing wild up the gully, and frangipani blossoms floating in the black lacquered bowl on the traymobile in the dining room.

Essie doesn’t swim in the lake although it’s just down the bottom of the steep driveway. I’ve never seen her in a swimming costume—but we often go down to the lake with our mother and sometimes with our father when he doesn’t have to be back home, doing the mine inspections. Mother looks glamorous in her home-made floral swimming costume and her wide black hat. We have to wade out through that slimy black sea grass. It’s like thousands of black spiders under water waving their legs.

Beside the lake with my father c1953At the lake with my father, c.1953

My mother thinks it’s a nightmare having to stay at The Knoll for a fortnight. ‘Now mind your Ps and Qs,’ she says to us because Auntie Essie’s a stickler for manners, so we always have to be minding them, especially at the dinner table. You have to know how to use the butter knife and where to put the salt when you’ve fished it out of the little cut-glass salt cellar with the tiny silver salt spoon. You’re not to sprinkle it over the food like Uncle Aub does. He taps the little spoon with his fork and the salt goes everywhere. My mother says this makes Auntie Essie go apoplectic.

On Mondays Essie cooks liver and bacon, Tuesdays it’s tripe in white sauce, Wednesdays it’s sausages and gravy, Thursdays steak and onions—and it’s always a roast on Sundays. She keeps the chocolate biscuits in a big old Bushell’s Coffee jar locked in the kitchen cupboard, and the starched tablecloths and serviettes and the silver serviette rings and the cruet set locked in the sideboard, and the sheets and towels locked in the press outside the bathroom, and her clothes locked in the black lacquered wardrobe in her bedroom. She has all the keys on a large wire ring in her apron pocket. They jangle when she pulls them out.

I know her wardrobe’s full of long satin and shot-silk evening dresses and old silver and gold evening shoes and a fox-fur like my mother’s only the fox still has its head and it has glass eyes. I don’t think Auntie Essie goes to balls any more but she’s quite slim when she’s wearing her corset. My mother says it’s just a pity Essie’s been left on the shelf, looking after Grandfather, but she’s a very good aunt because she remembers birthdays and Christmas. Every year she sends me another pair of frilly shortie pyjamas in flamingo-pink nylon.

.

Mrs Whitter

Mrs Whitter is the cleaner. She’s been cleaning The Knoll since Auntie Essie was a girl. She always did the washing, and ran the Ewbank Carpet Sweeper over the hall runners and the Oriental carpets in the lounge room, the bedrooms and the dining room, and mopped the black lacquered wooden floors where they showed, and polished the silver with Silvo and the murky brown linoleum in the kitchen with Johnson’s Wax, on her hands and knees. Then she cooked the batch of bread before she went home.

She can’t get down on her hands and knees now because she’s old and fat with wispy white hair and a bristling wart on her chin and bunions sticking out of her feet. That’s why she slops round with the broom and the mop, and runs the old carpet sweeper over the threadbare hall runners in her carpet slippers. She doesn’t make the bread any more because the baker boy calls in his white apron. He walks all the way up the steep driveway with the bread in a wicker basket while the baker’s van waits down by the lake. Her grown-up daughter comes to help sometimes. She’s Mrs someone else and I don’t like her very much—but I like Mrs Whitter.

‘Come on love,’ Mrs Whitter says to me after she’s added more wood to the fire under the bricked-in copper and the water starts to boil, ‘You can help me sort these clothes.’ So I sort the whites from the coloureds, and she grates the Sunlight soap and plunges the sheets into the boiling froth and shoves them down with the copper stick. Then the laundry’s full of steam.

I help her with the wringer after she’s finished rinsing. The wringer’s what my mother calls a ‘mod con’—much smaller than the old mangle and it clips onto the edge of the concrete laundry tubs. After Mrs Whitter feeds the clothes between the rubber rollers, I ease them out the other side and drop them in the wicker clothes basket. She turns the handle and it’s hard work. ‘Not ’arf as ’ard as that mangle,’ she says.

I know about that mangle with its big wooden rollers and rusting iron frame. It’s sitting in the garage down the bottom of the drive beside the old wooden boat called ‘The Mary Jane’ that nobody takes out on the lake any more. When my Uncle Henry was a small boy he was watching his big brother (my Uncle Art) having fun with the mangle. ‘Put your finger in there,’ Art says, pointing to a small gap between the cogs. Little Henry pokes his finger in the hole; Art turns the handle and the end of Henry’s finger is chopped right off. And that’s why my Uncle Henry has only half an index finger on his right hand. They nearly turned him down when he went to join the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, because of that finger.

.

Grandfather

‘You on the air, Pop? The batteries flat?’ my father says. Grandfather doesn’t hear. He sits wheezing, glasses near the tip of his nose, tartan scarf tucked in, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. He fiddles with the gadget in his breast pocket, the plastic-coated wire twisting its way to his ear. He fumbles with the knob then leans forward expectantly, hand cupped behind the other ear. It’s hard making conversation. You have to yell. ‘Speak up!’ he says.

We’re used to yelling in our family. Quite a few people are hard of hearing including Auntie Essie and Great-Aunt Thursa. But my grandfather is the only one whose eardrums were shattered in that coal mine explosion in the Hunter Valley just after the Great War. He lost several fingers as well.

The closed-in end of The Knoll’s veranda by the magnolia tree is his office. He spends much of the day pouring over his maps, fine-nibbed mapping pen in hand, meticulously incising contour lines in Indian ink, filling spaces with vivid colours from small glass ink bottles. He carefully removes the cork and dips his brush in the ink, steadying the bottle with his thumb and the two remaining fingers of his other hand. The finished oversized geological maps are stored in the red cedar cabinet. ‘Can I see?’ I say again and he slides out a tray to reveal another wondrous work. ‘Just look,’ he says, ‘don’t touch!’—and my small fingers itch.

A glass specimen case covers the top of the cabinet. I’m not tall enough to see, so I drag over the delicately carved chair and stand on the sprung seat. I lean my forehead against the glass to gaze at the treasures: black and sparkling anthracite, rust-coloured ironstone, shale embedded with leaves or shells, gold-flecked quartz, glittering marcasite, round basalt river stone—and then there are the uncut gems. The labels, which I can’t yet read, are in Indian ink, the intricate work of a mapping pen.

The author c.1947Me, c.1947

From an overhanging branch of the giant magnolia (where the bandicoot and I met in the dark) hangs my grandfather’s old-fashioned swimming costume of grey-and-black-striped wool. It hangs by the shoulder straps to dry. In summer, despite the asthmatic breathing, he walks, shoulders back, down the hill to swim in the lake. He eases himself in from the end of the jetty beyond the black sea grass, strikes out overarm then changes to an easy sidestroke. Later, I see the swimming costume, once more dangling by its shoulder straps from the branch to dry.

We always hear him coming when he drives to our house, just up the hill from the mine. Old Bess, his ancient utility truck, sounds like a tractor. I can see the dust and blue smoke as she grinds her way up the hill on the rutted gravel track. She was bought to replace the old Hupmobile which, as my father said, guzzled up too much fuel, and petrol was still rationed. He’d been lucky to pick up another car; secondhand ones were scarce after the war and new ones unavailable.

Bess has to be cranked to get her going. First my father strains at the crank handle, then Uncle Aub or Uncle Art, but each time the engine dies and she has to be cranked up again. Grandfather sits in the car dressed in his old suit and hat, hopefully pumping the accelerator. Blue smoke emerges, not only from the rusty exhaust pipe but also from under the bonnet. When she finally roars into life, he bashes the dented door shut, grinds the gearstick into place and sets off with a shout and a wave, scattering chooks as he goes.

‘He’s a menace on the road!’ my father says. Grandfather drives slowly and carefully but, not having the gadget turned on, he doesn’t hear cars tooting impatiently from behind on the narrow roads, so he doesn’t move over to let them pass. This results in long queues like funeral processions.

§

Years later, as he painstakingly drove his Morris Minor towards home, my grandfather was rammed from behind by a semi-trailer—at least that’s what they concluded at the official inquiry. His car left the road, turning over as it headed down an embankment. The semitrailer didn’t stop and the driver was never apprehended. My grandfather spent his last years an invalid at The Knoll (that grand old house above the lake) with Ethel, my Auntie Essie—his maps now untouched in the cabinet, the pens in their case.

When I received news of his death in the early 1970s, I thought of him, long ago, sitting at his desk, glasses near the tip of his nose, smelling of Vicks VapoRub. I’m sitting beside him on a high stool: a small child drawing fairies with a mapping pen—meticulously colouring their wings with the fine brush I’ve dipped in jewel-coloured ink.

Elizabeth Thomas in the late 1980sMe in the late 1980s, not long before The Knoll was sold

—Elizabeth Thomas

x
Elizabeth Thomasx

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian writer, born before the end of World War II. She graduated from London University in 1970. Her first book, Vanished Land, was published in 2014 after she retired from the field of music and music education. Currently she contributes to Numéro Cinq and is working on short stories and a memoir.

x

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Sep 012016
 

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024

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1

Charles was in the yurt and would not come out. He had crept in at night when everyone thought he was sleeping. Despite the crooked smile and useless right arm he could still surprise them. At supper the next evening all eyes were on the empty chair. Jill, who was standing at the window, said,  “He’s still in there,” and everyone felt glum. Beth carried a plate of food out to the yurt. She knocked on the door. “Go away,” said a voice. Returning to the house, Beth reported that Charles sounded subdued. In later testimony she changed that to “muffled.” She left the plate on the ground by the door and next morning it was empty. They wondered what he was thinking about in there. They imagined him seated in the dark gnawing on a chop bone.

2

Every night one of them went out to the yurt and left a plate of food on the ground, and every morning when they looked out the food was gone. One morning at breakfast Beth came in from the yard carrying the plate, empty as usual, and Warren said “Raccoons,” and everyone’s heart sank. The next night Steve went out and put his ear against the side of the yurt. “He’s chewing,” he whispered. He tapped on the wall of the yurt and the chewing stopped. “He’s eating, that’s a good sign,” Lily said, and they all brightened, until Monica reminded them that she had eaten like a horse right up to the day she swallowed a whole bottle of pills after supper and they had had to pump her stomach out.

3

“He went in there to send us a message,” Rachel said, and they all agreed, though no one could think what the message was. Warren, who was interested in Zen, said, “Maybe it’s the message of no message,” and everyone nodded. They couldn’t imagine what Charles was thinking, and that took them aback. In fact they had never known what he was thinking, even on his best days, but they only realized this after he went into the yurt because that was such a surprising thing to do. Charles, everyone agreed, was a closed book. “Enigmatic,“ Beth added, trying to be helpful. “He played his cards close to his chest,” Marek put in, and they all glared, because that was the wrong tone.

4

Charles had seemed such a reliable, predictable person. He had never done anything surprising before except for having a stroke, though Rachel said that this didn’t count since he had been even more surprised than they were, and Lily said that it shouldn’t have surprised anybody who saw how he ate. They had missed the warning signs, and now they blamed themselves. They all agreed that they ought to have known something was wrong when he dropped the flag ceremony. Beth recalled seeing him alone in the yard listlessly throwing rocks at the chickens.  Ronald remembered the morning he had found him in the hammock reading The  Brothers Karamazov. Everyone agreed that this was not like the Charles they knew.

5

The flag ceremony had been such a comfort to him after the stroke. Everything he did was predictable until he went into the yurt. The ceremony had come off every day like clockwork, Charles out in the yard at sunrise with the bugle. Though nobody else was fond of the flag, which they all agreed stood for things they could not approve of, they admired the way he had worked the rope with just his left arm and his teeth. Standing at the base of the pole he had watched the flag unfurling in the morning sun. “There she blows,” he would say every time in the most chipper way imaginable. They were supposed to stand at attention, but they just glared and slouched or refused even to come out of the house. It was the flag ceremony that had turned them against Charles.

6

With Charles in the yurt life was easier for them all. It was a relief not have him popping up when you wanted to be alone, making irrelevant comments while you were trying to think, insisting on games after supper, and saying “Roger that” when you asked him to take the trash out. It was only now that they realized how tired they were of his war stories. Weeks went by, and they didn’t talk about Charles as much as before. Sometimes when they were having lunch at the big table under the oak, someone might, in the midst of the revelry, glance over at the yurt, and that would remind everybody that he was crouching in the darkness there, and the conversation would flag while they adjusted. The idea that he was listening to their laughter frightened them a little. They slept with windows and doors locked, not to be surprised again. He was still in there when the police came. They pointed their guns at the yurt and Charles crawled out. His hair was full of dirt and leaves, and he wore an expression none of them could read.

—Sam Savage

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Sam Savage is the author of the novels The Criminal Life of Effie O. (2005), Firmin (2006), The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011), The Way of the Dog (2013), and It Will End with Us (2014). He’s no stranger to Numéro Cinq: in May 2015 an in-depth and fascinating interview with him appeared here. In March and then April of 2016 we published his short story “The Awakening” and Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015), respectively.

Savage’s short story “Cigarettes,” originally published in The Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), was an O. Henry prize winner in 2016. It is published this month [here I mean September] by Anchor under the title The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016.

The Way of the Dog came out in Spain recently, and a French edition will appear soon. Firmin has already appeared in translation in over a dozen languages.

A collection of short stories is scheduled for publication sometime in 2018 under the tentative title An Orphanage of Dreams. “Dispatches” is from that manuscript.

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Sep 012016
 

Capture2Levitation (2014) by Jowita Bydlowska.

In the slider at the top of the front page this month we have a selection of photo posts from the magazine’s archives. Very simple. Just beautiful photographs. The artists we’ve selected (and there are more, check out the Art index) include Jowita Bydlowska, Mark Lavorato, Roger Crowley, David Helwig, John Solaperto, Bill Hayward and Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix.

Aug 212016
 

01.Something fully itselfSomething Fully Itself: Dave Kennedy (detail)

It just tickles the hell out of me, watching an issue come together. Divine serendipity, or Fate, or blind luck, or, what I prefer, amazing intelligence and taste on the part of our collective masthead.

The other day Rikki Ducornet wrote and suggested I look at an artist she’d met named Dave Kennedy. I found him, wrote to him, and behold! He’s really something. He does large scale photo, photocopy, and junk collages (I guess you would call them) based on ideas of identity and reappraisal he picked up on the streets in the projects when he was a kid. “What are you?” people used to ask him. (He’s Native American, African, and Italian yet undefinable.) So now he makes art out the things that don’t look like art, that aren’t conventionally recognized as having aesthetic merit, and he talks a line of theory that sounds like our patron saint Viktor Shklovsky in a North American mode.

Dave Kennedy A view to a passageway_working_ 2Dave Kennedy

My mother is Italian and Eritrean, and my father Native American. I didn’t look like one ethnic group or another, and I would walk these multicultural city blocks alone, looking for someone else like me. It was common for people to make assumptions as to what I was: Mexican, Samoan, Black. “What are you?!” My response to these objectifying guesses and questions is embedded in my practice and my exploration of an expanded view into unseen subjectivities. —Dave Kennedy

But “What are you?” is an electrifying question. In this issue, we have work from an Irish poet, Mexican writers, an African-American poet, an English short story writer, Canadians, Australians, Americans, a Navajo, a Romanian, an Argentinian, a Catalan, and a Belgian. We have French poems translated into English by an Indian-American. And more!

What tickles me most about this issue is in fact its global diversity. This was always part of the vision at NC (read our non-existent vision statement for clarity on this), to create an indefinable (furiously undefined) mix that doesn’t recognize boundaries or conventions (even the conventions of unconventionality). Contact with the Other is exciting, gets your blood up, is good for you (well, if it doesn’t kill you—always a distinct possibility, though not on NC).

We like it that NC exists online, in the ether, without a defined regional base. It sits firmly in the nation of very smart and creative people.

teixidorEmili Teixidor

Also in this issue, Joe Schreiber (redoubtable, indefatigable, wise) reviews Black Bread by the Catalan writer Emili Teixidor. We will have an excerpt for your edification.

As elements of sadness, grief, and anger slowly begin to work their way into our hero’s voice, it easy, as a reader, to feel a sense of loss; it is as if we have allowed ourselves to grow up again alongside him. —Joseph Schreiber

Black-Bread

Riiki DucornetRikki Ducornet

We have bloody, mythic long poem “White Quetzal” by the above-mentioned Rikki Ducornet, for whom NC is becoming a second home. (A delightful and unlooked for outcome.)

Some awakened in the place named White Bone House
with broken jaws, forcibly initiated
into a dark knowledge. —Rikki Ducornet

Denise Evans DurkinDenise Durkin

After a much too prolonged hiatus, Denise Durkin returns to theses pages with a handful of poems from her heart.

Look at the papers on my desk huddled
under their blanket of dust. Almost
hear the words disappear – blown into
the dry well of what will be forgotten –
—Denise Durkin

2014-06-02-Merwin1W. S. Merwin

Allan Cooper delivers an eloquent and wise review of W. S. Merwin’s new collection.

W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning —Allan Cooper

garden time

4. With Uncle Henry's boys at The Knoll c.1950Elizabeth Thomas “With Uncle Henry’s boys at The Knoll c.1950” from her memoir.

Australian Elizabeth Thomas is back with the third installment of her memoirs of an outback childhood. The most charming thing you’ll ever read. And she has such a collection of old photos. Wonderful to see and wonderful to look also at her earlier contributions.

‘Now change that needle often,’ Auntie Essie says, ‘or you’ll ruin those records.’ She’s not happy that we’re playing with the gramophone in the big lounge room with its elegant arm chairs and those large round Jap-silk cushions of scarlet and midnight blue. I expect she wasn’t allowed in there when she was growing up. But my Uncle Henry said, ‘Of course they can play in there. It isn’t a morgue!’ —Elizabeth Thomas

L_Writer. Elizabeth ThomasElizebeth Thomas

bojan louisBojan Louis

And a discovery. A fresh, gritty, new voice. Navajo short story writer Bojan Louis.

He couldn’t see No-Lee or the kid, but discerned Jared’s frightened sobs, the twist of a plastic cap against glass. He listened as No-Lee swallowed hard twice, twisted the cap back on. Heard the whoosh of something tumbling through the musty cave air and shattering near the kid’s noise. No-Lee laughed, gagged from the effort. Phillip rose and rushed into the black toward the sound; arms bent ninety at the elbow, hands curled to grasp what he could of No-Lee. —Bojan Louis

SydneyLeaSydney Lea

And Sydney Lea is back with poems of aging and wonderment, elegant, effortless, and elegiac.

To watch that band of vultures
coast along their thermal this morning
is to marvel at elegance and composure–
no need to repress old platitudes
about the birds as tokens
of my doom.

—Sydney Lea

Paul McMahon colourPaul McMahon

From Ireland this month, we have beautiful, trenchant poems by Paul McMahon.

I was standing beside one of the cremation paddocks
at the burning Ghats in Varanasi. A pyre was blazing –
bruise-black smoke rose up into the vacant sky

—Paul McMahon

Fleurs-du-mal-1

And our own translator-in-residence (who usually specializes in works translated from Tamil) A. Anupama turns a deft hand to rendering Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal.

Dear mortals, I am lovely, like a dream made of stone,
and my breast, upon which all are bruised in their turn,
inspires in poets especially a love that burns
solid, eternal and mute as radium, pure matter alone.
—Charles Baudelaire translated by A. Anupama

Anu2A. Anupama

Author's Photo colorSusan Aizenberg

And yet more poetry! From the scintillating Susan Aizenberg.

Until very near the end, it played and played.
Paternity Court, followed by Judge Judy,
in the afternoon — fineh mentshn, you’d say,
tsk-tsking and laughing at the unfaithful
men and small-time grifters, shaking your weak head
at this crazy new world. Nights, there were movies,
or docs on PBS, though you mostly missed
the endings, adrift on morphine and Xanax.
—Susan Aizenberg

Erika MihalycsaErika Mihálycsa

Also in this issue a new short story from the Romanian writer/translator Erika Mihálycsa, dense, witty, acutely observed.

Supercilious is the word, it crossed the translator’s mind, as she stepped out of the bathroom half a beat too early and caught in her husband’s look, beside the habitual let’s-drop-it-mom resignation, a new, yet unseen quality, a parry of the foibles: not now, she’ll hear us. It was not the first occasion when she caught her husband at it. —Erika Mihálycsa

The Path of the Jaguar cover image

Stephen Henighan is a Canadian writer and translator, an old friend of the magazine. He returns this time with an excerpt from his novel The Path of the Jaguar, just out in September. Read it and buy the book.

Mist condensed around her head. She felt the child’s twisting far down in her entrails as though it were marooned in a place beyond her reach. The Maker, the Modeller, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, wrought the world out of mist. Her mind strayed through the spaces beyond that haze when the mountains rose out of the water and the first people were fashioned out of corn and took the name B’alam. —Stephen Henighan

Henighan on ferry on Lake NicaraguaStephen Henighan on ferry in Lake Nicaragua

MLbuganvilias1 (1)Mónica Lavín

From Mexico (yes, we’re getting enough Mexican material on a regular basis that we’re almost ready to declare it a regular feature—Number Five in Spanish!), we have two short stories in translation from a lovely writers, Mónica Lavín.

Rose emerged naked and round on the shore, the sparse down of her sex dripping, her breasts pink and large, while the boy and the girl, separated, avoided looking at each other. The women shouted to Wayne not to urinate, which he was doing in a sumptuous arc, on the water where everyone was swimming. And Wayne took off running after his sister. —Mónica Lavín translated by Patricia Dubrava

Lewis ParkerLewis Parker

And from England, Lewis Parker comes back to NC with an hilarious and spot-on send-up of American election practices, which can and must be read in the context of the current campaign. A must read.

“The F.E.C.’s lawyers said making voters recite speeches would breach voter registration laws, although there is a movement in Alabama campaigning to make all registered voters reel off two pages of the Independence Day screenplay from memory.”—Lewis Parker

And there is more! (Always there is more). Rob Gray will return with another NC at the Movies. Jason Lucarelli reviews Naked by the Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Frank Richardson reviews Zama by the Argentinian Antonio Di Benedetto.

 

 

 

Aug 162016
 

Vincent Haycock’s film for Florence + the Machine’s “What Kind of Man” is a nightmare dream of a tango, shaken, sultry, and salt-licked. A vortex of brutality, longing, and beauty swirls around one woman in this cat’s cradle of a film that explores vulnerability, passion (in its full Latin root meaning ‘suffering’), and the ragged place where the bitter meets the sweet.

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The film opens with a lover’s confession to his beloved that he watched her suffering in her sleep and did not wake her, did nothing to save her. This simple conversation, the camera in the back seat of the car eavesdropping, is intimate and feels prophetic. It’s reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s films that take place in cars (Taste of Cherry, 10), but even more so Mania Akbari’s 20 Fingers which follows a man and a woman having various conversations about their relationship in moving vehicles, one of them a car. Cars seem the perfect architecture for such intimate conversations, traveling and unmoored from the day-to-day, public yet private, the passengers facing forward but able to turn and see one another, the way two people on a therapist’s couch might interact, the therapist perhaps containing something of the road’s horizon in him or her. So it seems apt that the only time couples talk in this film is in cars.

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In the brief conversation that opens “What Kind of Man,’ the man tells the woman what he saw as he watched her sleep, so that sleep smudges all that follows, spreading a dream logic where car rides repeat, storms appear on television and in the distance, mobs of men in churches and basements swarm her.

The film is a vortex of masculinity with her in the eye, in some peculiar tension between causing the storm and being buffeted by it. Some of the images are unbelievable, more dreamlike than real, while the two dialogue-based narratives (set in moving cars) feel real, too real: the sublime and the mundane all intertwined.

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The central unifying figure here is the woman, played by lead singer Florence Welch. There are, too, thematic repetitions that connect the parts. The woman in the first car asks the man, “So you think that people who suffer together would be more connected than people who are content;” her question is then followed by two vignettes:  her with a man on a balcony overlooking an impending storm and her with a man in a hotel room with the news of a storm on the television; then the woman, in the back seat of a limousine, tells the man she is with about her dream: “And there’s this big storm that’s all around us and we’re in the middle of it, so it’s calm, but you can feel it, like it’s everywhere.” This storm dream links back to the first car conversation about the nightmare the man did not wake her from, and it links to the storms on television and in the distance.

The stories bleed into one another, the men seem similar, maybe the same man, maybe variations on the same man, though their faces don’t matter as much as her experience of these men. All that ultimately connects these threads is the dreamer, the woman, as she moves from desire, to fear, to violence to mercy, exploring suffering in her relationships with men and questioning when is it passion and when is it destruction.

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As the tango dream unfolds though, three other narratives appear: the woman surrounded by men in a sort of church 12-step meeting room; a quasi crypt where she presides over a bare mattress like its a shrine, flanked by men; and a scene of baptism and cleansing where she is ministered to by women in the ocean. The film slides us from the allure and ease of that first philosophical conversation, to confession, to baptism, to the demoralizing sheet-less bed as the sublime and the abject bleed into one another.

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One of the central causes of bleeding here is the film’s use of choreography, where the scenes play less literal and realist because of the attention to gesture and movement. Both Haycock and Welch in a behind-the-scenes video describe their approach here as “ dance first,” and Welch points out that “You can’t fake it with your body. . . So I think it was quite important for me to do it as a way of exorcising feeling” (though in the interview, “exorcising” sounds like “exercising,” though these might be equally true). This choreography prevents the scenes from being swallowed by realism, reminds us that this is first and foremost an emotional story, and that affect links the film’s non-linear structure.

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Gestures recur: in the throng of the mob she touches a man’s face, the man on the balcony looking over the city touches hers, she touches the face of the man in the hotel room, then tosses him aside, as she also tosses aside the man on the dingy mattress in the basement. A catalog of lover’s tango gestures accumulates here and these connect the narrative’s pieces.

The last three images of the film hint at some sort of a catharsis for the protagonist: her arms embrace air, an absence, she is cleansed by the women in a milky ocean at dusk, and she crawls from the wreckage of the limousine, solitary as she retreats from the disaster. Gone are the couples, the men. She is all that remains.

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This is the first video released from the band’s new album and it is featured first in a larger film incorporating videos for all the album’s songs, a project titled “The Odyssey,” a title with classical and gendered connotations of heroes journeying to identity. In Welch’s words, “I was talking to [Vincent Haycock] about the record and the car crash of a relationship break up I was going through. The highs and the lows of love and performance, how out of control I felt, the purgatory of heartbreak, and how I was trying to change and trying to be free. And we decided we would re-tell this story in full. We would re-claim this experience, re-imagine it and in some way perhaps I would come to understand it, to exorcise it. And so the Big Blue Odyssey began…” This project, says Haycock, is “obviously about relationships, but it’s also about Florence traveling through our version of the Divine Comedy. So in essence this video is the first layer of Hell.”

— R. W. Gray

Aug 152016
 

Rilke
allan cooperAllan Cooper

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In 1974 I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson. I was twenty and had just begun my first real attempts at writing poetry. I was insecure and hesitant about my own work. What if I couldn’t write? What if my idea of becoming a poet was a sham? I was encouraged by these lines in the Fourth Elegy:

….Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Or I can always read. So I decided to read as much poetry as I could. I searched out North and South American, European, Chinese, and Japanese poets to see if I could  develop a voice that could carry the kinds of images and insights that I found in Rilke’s work.

During the fall of 1975, the Canadian poet John Thompson and I had several long discussions about Rilke. He encouraged me to write English versions of some of Rilke’s shorter poems to see what they looked like. I tried two or three and took them back to Thompson. He liked some of the lines, made several suggestions, and the exercise slowly helped me with my own poems. But for years Rilke haunted me, especially the Duino Elegies. At times, reading various translations was like looking down into roiled ocean water and seeing something moving beneath, but nothing was clear.

It seems to me that the Elegies were something entirely new in the canon of literature, as Tom Thomson’s paintings of Algonquin Park were new to visual art, or Pablo Casals’ interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites were new and astonishing in the canon of musical performance. One of the great risks of translating Rilke, especially the Elegies, is that it’s tempting to bring in the “ohs” and “ahs” and embellishments of the original, but we don’t speak that way anymore. One question that dogged me was what Rilke would sound like if he were writing now. So I began translating Rilke with a contemporary English voice in mind.

The themes of the Elegies are immense and often personal. There are passages in the Elegies either addressed to or about his mother and father that are as moving as anything I have read. He praises the things of the world, cathedrals, children, heroes, young women, animals, catkins, mountain springs, and that list in the Ninth Elegy:

…perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?

Rilke’s friend, the pianist Magda Von Hattingberg, said she felt there was a certain dislike of simple joys in the Elegies, but I don’t believe this is the case. In the Ninth Elegy he says we’re here to praise, to transform, to be alive in this world:

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said….
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them…

Or this the passage from the Seventh Elegy:

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

I don’t pretend to understand everything that Rilke says in the Duino Elegies, but working on the poems daily for many months has given me new insights. They feel like long letters to us, letters about what it’s like to live and love and die on this planet. I think of them now as letters to the universe.

§

The Fourth Elegy

Living trees, when do you sense the coming of winter?
We’re not in touch; we don’t have that instinct
the birds feel in autumn. Late, at the last minute
we coax ourselves onto the wind
and fall abruptly into a cold, indifferent pond.
We’re conscious of the blossoming and the withering
at the same time. And somewhere lions are roaming,
unaware of any weakness in them.

And we, who try to focus on one thing,
already feel the lure of another. That conflict
is part of who we are. Don’t lovers
always find the limits of each other?–
although they promised
a certain space, to pursue bliss, to find a sense of home?
They prepare a quick sketch of the other side,
a sort of background of pain
to help us see them, to make
themselves clear. And we don’t even understand
the contours of our own feelings,
only what forms them from outside.
Who hasn’t stood at the curtains of their own heart, shaking?
And when they rose, it was the landscape of goodbye.
That’s easy enough to understand. A familiar garden,
moving slightly in wind. And then a dancer stepped forward.
It wasn’t the beloved. No matter how lightly he danced
he was someone else, a carpenter coming home through the kitchen.
No, a puppet is better. At least it’s complete. I can stand
the limp body, the wires, the face
that’s almost expressionless. Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Am I right? Father, didn’t your life
taste bitter after you’d tasted mine,
the first distillation of what I had to do,
and you kept tasting as I kept growing,
and you, troubled by the aftertaste
of such a strange destiny, tested my lofty vision.
And you, my father, who since you died
I’ve held so often inside me, in my wishes and dreams,
you, concerned and afraid for me,
traded some of the tranquility the dead own,
their kingdoms, for my grain of destiny,
am I right? And all of you
who loved me from the beginning
of my love for you, a love I turned away from,
because when I loved you, the distance in your face
turned into something infinite,
and you were gone… When I’m moved by it
I stand in front of the puppet stage,
or stare at it so intensely an angel appears
to counter-balance my seeing
and make those limp bodies come alive.
An angel and a puppet: now we have a play.
Then the separation created simply by our presence
can come together again. And at last, out of the seasons
of our lives the cycle of everything is transformed. Above us
and beyond us an angel is playing. If no one else feels it,
at least the dying must sense how pretentious
our accomplishments are here.
We won’t let anything be what it is. What I wouldn’t give
for those hours of childhood, when everything was more
than a memory, and what opened out in front of us wasn’t the future.
Our bodies were changing–we felt that–and sometimes
we were in a hurry to grow up, just to please those
who had nothing to show for having grown up.
And yet when we played alone, we were delighted
by what never changed, and we stood in that place
between the world and our toys,
a place where a pure event had been waiting to happen
from the very beginning.

Who can show a child exactly as she is?
Who will place her like a star, and put the yardstick
of immense distances in her hand? Who will make a child’s death
from grey bread, which grows hard, or leave it
inside her round mouth like the core
of a shining apple? What moves a man to murder
is easy to understand. But death,
all of it, completely, even before
our lives have really begun, to hold it gently and not be bitter–
we don’t have the words to describe this yet.

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The Seventh Elegy

This wooing, this courtship won’t be part of your nature anymore,
for your voice has outgrown it. Now your cry is as pure as a warbler’s song
when the abundance of spring lifts him up, and he almost forgets
he’s a small, fretful, anxious thing, not this complete heart
thrown into the clear light of a deep and limitless sky. Like him
you would court the silent one you love,
and she’d begin to feel you, still invisible to her,
and some reply would wake inside her, almost a kind of inner listening.

Even the spring understands this–there’s no place
that wouldn’t carry the sound of your announcement. The first
short questioning notes, and the day, pure, affirms it
and shelters it with more and more silence.
Then the song goes higher and higher, up a stairway of notes
to that dream temple of the future; a trill, a warble, a fountain of notes
that in their rising already know they will fall,
for this is a play of promises… And the summer still to come.

Not only those summer mornings, and the first light breaking,
but the way the light changes and opens up the day;
not only the day, gentle around blossoms,
and the shapes of trees, so solid and strong;
not only the intensity of this unfolding power,
light touching the forest paths, the dusky meadows;
not only the rolling thunder at night, and the air clearing;
then near sleep, and some premonition you finally understood…
But the nights themselves, high summer nights,
and the stars of this earth.
And when you die, to understand that those stars are infinite:
this is something you will never forget.

Look, I’ve called out to the one I love. But she wouldn’t be the only one
who would come. Young women would rise from their insubstantial graves
and stand here. For once you call out, how can you put a limit
on the depth of your cry? The dead are always longing
for the earth again. When children feel something completely
it’s enough to last them for the rest of their lives.
For our destiny is nothing more than the closeness we felt as children.
How often you outdistanced the one you loved
as you ran blissfully, breathing quickly, into the open spaces.

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of the city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

Beloved one, the world only exists inside us.
We spend our lives transforming it, and the world outside us
slowly disappears. And where a house once stood
we create an image of that house inside us, board
by board, as if it were still there, complete, in the imagination.
The spirit of our age has built immense reservoirs of power, shapeless
as the intense emotions it draws from everything.
Temples and all sacred places mean nothing. And where one
remains, where we worshipped, and kneeled and prayed,
it lives on in the invisible world.
We can’t see them yet, we
can’t find them inside us, those pillars and columns
that could be so much greater now.

Each hollow change in the world has its forgotten ones,
who don’t belong to the past and aren’t a part of the future.
For even what is closest to them seems distant.
This shouldn’t confuse us, but make us stronger
in our labour to preserve those forms we still recognize.
Once they stood among us, in the middle of a destiny
that slowly destroys things, in the middle
of what we don’t understand; endured there, and made the stars
bow down from the protective heavens. Angel,
this is what I have to show you: it’s in your gaze,
saved at last, rescued, standing there,
those columns, sacred gateways, the sphinx,
the grey domes of cathedrals thrusting up from a strange city.

Angel, wasn’t it a miracle? Be astonished, great one, for this
is what we are. Tell them what we accomplished here; my breath
is too short to praise it. So in the end we didn’t neglect
our abundant allotment, this world space
which is ours alone. (And how terrifyingly immense
that space must be, which hasn’t overflowed
with our feelings after thousands and thousands of years.)
Wasn’t a tower magnificent,
even compared to you? And Chartres was immense, and the music
reached even higher and transcended us. But even
a young woman in love, alone at night by her window,
didn’t she reach almost to your knee?
Angel, don’t think
I’m wooing you, and even if I were, you wouldn’t appear. For my
call is always filled with leaving, and you couldn’t move against
the strength of that current. My call is like an arm stretched out
to hold you back. And my open hand, as if reaching up
to grasp something, defending and warning
at the same time, is something
you will never understand.

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The Ninth Elegy

Why, if the rest of our lives could be spent as quietly
as the laurel tree, a darker green than all
the other trees, with small curves on the edges
of every leaf (like a wind’s smile)–why do we
try to escape our human fate,
and yet long for it…
Oh not because of happiness,
that quick profit we take just before the coming loss.
Not out of curiosity, or to give the heart practice,
which the laurel tree already feels as well…

But because being truly alive is difficult: because the fleeting
things of the world need us, and in a strange way
call out to us. And we’re the most fleeting of all.
Each living thing is here once, that’s it. And we
live once. But to have been here
once, completely alive here–
to have been a part of this world–nothing can take that away.

And so we’re driven to achieve it.
We try to hold it in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded seeing, in our heart which is speechless.
We try to become the world. But who would we give it to? We’d
hold onto it forever…But then what could we take with us
to the other side? Not our seeing, that we learned so slowly,
and nothing that happened here. Not one thing.
Perhaps pain then, and the heaviness of life,
and love that lasted a long time;
and what can’t be said. But later, beneath the stars,
what would we say? There are things better left unspoken.
The wanderer doesn’t bring a handful of earth from the mountain
to the valley, or what can’t be said, but the pure word, the intense blue
gentian. Perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on,
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?
How much a threshold means
to two lovers, who wear down their own
threshold, like those who came before them,
and those who are yet to come…light as can be.

This is the hour to say things, and this is its home.
Say it now. For now more than ever
the things of this world are falling away from us,
and in their place there are acts without images,
acts like shells that crack open
as soon as what is inside outgrows it and takes on a new form.
Despite the hammering of our heart,
the heart lives on; and though our tongue is clenched
between our teeth, it continues to praise.

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said.
You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the universe
he feels more and more, and you are just a beginner. Show him
some simple thing which, passed down over generations,
lives on in our hands and our eyes.
Tell him about things. He’ll be astonished, as you were
standing by the rope maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them;
transients, they want us to preserve them, and we’re the most transient
of all. They want us to take them inside our invisible hearts
and transform them into ourselves–whatever it is we finally are.

Earth, in the end, isn’t this what you want: to rise inside us
invisibly? Isn’t your dream
to be completely invisible one day? The earth, invisible!
Isn’t your urgent message to be transformed?
Earth, dearest one, I’ll do it. You don’t need to show me
anymore spring times to win me over; just one
is more than my blood can take.
I’ve belonged to you from the beginning, without saying a word.
You’ve always been right, and your inspiration has always been death,
that friend, that companion.

Look, I’m alive, but what feeds me? Neither my childhood
nor the future grows any less… an infinite presence
rises from my heart.

—Rainer Maria Rilke introduced & translated by Allan Cooper

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Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Aug 142016
 

Susan Gillis photo by Alexandra PasianAuthor photo by Alexandra Pasian.

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Yellow Crane

These cold blue dusky mornings, softly cloudy up high, the comfortable rolling of tires on pavement like sighs, the crane on the St. Patrick building site quiet, underlit by a harsh industrial light.

Across the rooftops, lights over the freeway like a small village.

Everything’s bare but for the yellow shrubs overhanging the low wooden fence between the parking lots. Sidewalks and gutters are papered with a mash of leaves.

The dawn sky darkens toward winter, closes in on the busy glare, closes it up inside a spun shell like a wasp’s nest.

At 6.30 precisely the crane swings around through all the compass points, comes to settle pointing west.

How I would like to find that panel in my heart that opens, and open it.

*

What’s that gentle tapping below the shush of tires, as though at great distance?

                        That’s Vlad with his hammer, building the concrete forms.

What’s that small vibration grinding in my bones?

                        That’s the truck hauling girders slowing down outside your window.

What’s that hot musk like a skunk in a corner?

                        That’s what they dug up when they first broke ground.

What’s that tang behind my teeth after coffee?

                        That’s the yellow crane swinging back and forth above the maple crowns.

What’s that form racing toward me in the sky, looking so much like a cloud?

                        That’s a cloud, a dark cloud, just as it seems. Look how it glows, violet and gold, like the inside of the quietest room.

*

Behind and above the yellow crane
the sky is an almost uniform grey
streaked with lighter bits,
messy and thick like putty.

Not a cloud I’d want to lose my head in.

The longer I look, though, the more it seems
that cloud is all that’s in my head

and the crane’s yellow arm
is what I lean on when I lean
into the place that had just been view.

*

A large room where a lot of people were having casual sex, not hot really, just sort of nice, before the earthquake and the building falling in.

Waking to the whole building shaking and the fear of it really happening, an earthquake or the building falling in. People in the building across the street grabbing things and dashing outside in underwear.

I hunkered in a corner. No one knew what to do.

Waking from that to nothing, no panicky people, just morning light catching the yellow crane three blocks away and a kind of helpless relief.

The crane is pivoting. When it stops and points east, it looks like it’s pointing up toward the sun. As it swings south the angle seems to change, though once it passes it’s clear from where I lie that it’s on the level.

Hurrying past the building site I find the wrong glasses in my case, turn to say something friendly to someone who’s not my friend, who hurries past me toward a young woman who is waiting, clearly in love. An octopus swims through the unfinished rooms, bruised purplish tentacles emerging from the window holes.

The life of the imagination—would you choose it over the life of the mind?

What would you do, waking to the dawn sky in the mirror brighter than the same sky outside?

*

As though winter had permeated these objects,

morning light and the coming storm animating,
galvanizing them,

the crane’s short arm, the counterweight hanging from it
vigorous,

each ready for its action to begin, light

sliding along the yellow steel,
pinging off every bolt and join,
blistering, magnifying

the flat grey weight that holds everything steady
like a great square moon maintaining a distance,
always the same distance, light

bouncing into the filigree of leafless trees, dropping,
dropping, brightening as it drops
so I forget the storm gathering there.

In the mirror in front of my window
a man moves down a set of porch stairs in shadow,
small, backwards, behind my building,
a rogue villager lifted from a Renaissance tableau.

One hand slides along the rail as he descends.
The other drags a shiny plastic bag

swollen at the bottom, a bouquet in reverse,

the sky white,
the storm imminent.

*

They rest lightly on the invisible floor, these clouds
glowing with inner buoyancy, grey and glowing with immanence.

All the greys on the grey scale lolling, lightly resting
their porpoise bodies, their eel-selves, weed-strands, bobbling ocean junk.

If all the souls lost at sea this decade stood on each other’s shoulders,
the tycoons, troops, tourists, students, sailors, politicians, pirates, pilots, pets, ……….honeymooners, flight attendants, fishermen, drunkards, divers, criminals, ……….citizens, children

they’d reach the bellies of these clouds, so the one on top
could strike them. Such pearls would spill out! Bright confetti

of lives and portions of lives yet to live would spill down
smothering everything with unspeakable richness.

Instead the world is covered in snow, which returns to the sky
only to fall again, though I beg for plum blossoms

and would settle for feathers. The sky
is thumping us on the head like a stern teacher

from an old book no one reads anymore, shouting
Fools! Have you learned nothing?

*

Watching the yellow crane, thinking about the book I’ve been reading, excited and unsure, opened by it.

The narrator meets a lovely girl. He says he wishes she could grow up quickly, grow into a girlfriend for his old age.

I close the book. The crane revolves. No: the jib swivels.

I feel the need to walk a little.

*

The temperature drop is hard on the new foundation plants.

They dwindle and show more stem than the same specimens further down the row.

Look how that rugosa rose throws up hips at dogs and walkers! Sun-warmed as any summer berry, in spite of frost.

Their dry little brown crowns are pointed yet modest. Oh, weren’t we all flowers once? they intimate; bees knew us, your nose knew us, summer breezes too.

We still hold secrets in our gleaming hearts—

What am I saying? Plants don’t speak English.

And they certainly have no interest in me.

How still they are against the concrete wall, the old ones flush, the young ones thin and almost beaten.

*

I go for a walk, and when I get back, my house is reduced to cobweb.

Young oaks, hurry up and grow into a house for me!

*

Boom, traveller, plumb, hook, cab – I will miss the yellow crane when the building is finished.

The crane has just lifted a load of steel I-beams and lowered them to a point I can’t see, though I can see the figures of people walking along the roof.

Days close in on a wasp’s nest of days.

Is there a procedure for emptying myself?

As when the sky suddenly empties and resurges toward a storm.

*

Girl on a Sidewalk Heading towards the Metro in the Rain

burgundy and nylon tangled wetly
across grit and chainlink
a black scurry
half shrouded
many pronged
lost world receptor
instrument of past battles
channelling doyouthinkIgiveafuck

more wind than song
more push than rain

*

What is so complicated about tenderness? The whole world is wounded.

I opened the curtains at 6.50 a.m. to a rich blue sky flocked with puffball clouds, airy yet firm, dreamy piglets of cloud, the yellow crane over the treetops catching the morning light, its long arm elegant, definitive, reaching northward.

The smell of tea rises together with the clatter of a scrap metal truck passing on the street.

If I am concrete and river, if a direction, which?

“Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond – surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects –“

A thing is sliding along the crane. The arm swivels; now it is out of sight.

“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet—“

Wash, dress, eat, drive, park, talk, perform, record, return, drive, eat, undress, wash, repeat. Note a few random beauties.

What is “really living,” anyway?

Now that we really are.

Imagine the voice of a salamander.

*

Turning left onto the main road coming home, the gilded sky
deepening to indigo, there in a gap between buildings

the thin moon, long and keen, low in the sky as a streetlamp,
an open c turned, stretched, a loose hair, a thread of zest.

“To what summoned? And to whom? Blindly” driving somewhere
and it’s holy, isn’t it, to be called like that, drawn by force toward

“the unattainable small valley” past “horizons of woolly haze.”
Then in an instant called from sleep, summoned through the interchange

of dreams. How like yawning,
pulling the curtains open on a fine morning

to cloud radiating up and out from some low point behind buildings,
loud arms tinted pink as cake, holy spokes radiating out from the blind

wound of the railyards, Our Lady of industrial wrack, traffic squall –
Between the glass of my window and the brick, steel and concrete beyond,

panels of light and shadow tilting –
As I stood looking, two pale legs and part of an arm

floated forward in the dim interior across the street, the very clouds
come forward through the city and up the stairs.

And why not? Why not? Why should our bodies not appear
as transient forms? Smoke and nothing, gathered in a moistness.

Apparition with Blue Coffee Mug

Apparition in a Window

Suppose I pass this woman every day on the street and not know her?

*

When form changes, meaning changes, but my father’s gaze
is my father’s gaze

whether I’m beside him with my hand on his good arm
or just looking at him in a photograph

or catching his grin in the last few leaves of the maple
flashing and waving – “summoned” is a mild word for it.

I reach up to the curtains
and if I’m not careful I’ll pull the whole contraption down.

*

What’s that tearing I hear in the distance?

                        That’s Vlad, ripping away the forms.

What’s that tremor I feel in my ribs?

                        That’s the jack hammer, ripping away the street.

What’s that hot wave like gas at the pump?

                        That’s the future, spilling over the river.

What’s that thickness gathering under my tongue?

                        That’s the sludge of knowledge and memory, festering in the canal.

What’s that rushing at me from all directions?

                        That’s your life, disguised as traffic. Look how it gathers in morning light like molten glass.

*

Slowly the canal is returning to life—the stink of algae expands, cyclists appear, dogs trot on leashes, sparrows flower the shrubs along the bank.

Then the gates are opened upstream and the fresh, still-chill water rushes out to meet its ride to the sea.

Half submerged, ballooning, a plastic bag snagged on concrete billows like a sail.

“A rust-coloured sail dragged in the furrow of a wave….”

*

Evening began to turn everything golden.
My city, though ugly, broken down, grit-whipped, stricken

is also vibrant, shrill in the way summer insects
are shrill, calling out for their lives

and once I pushed through the uglier elements of hatred and fear
I could hear more birds.

As I approached, the skyline grew
bright in front of distant hills, and in front of the skyline

giant screens depicted pixelated towers
multiplexing the future.

Everything so bright!

The people inside them weren’t doing anything
I recognized.

—Susan Gillis

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Susan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario.

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Aug 132016
 

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Night Train to Venice

1. Montepulciano, November 2010

Flawed premise from the start—
an hour to explore in this hill town
before joining Annie,
and I mistook Saint Donato,
buried in Venice, for the Donato
who composed madrigals,
also buried in Venice.
Happy error. Stepping onto
Via di San Donato, I sang what I knew
of ‘All Ye Who Music Love’.~

Singing from the wrong Donato
I headed from the Piazza Grande
down Via Ricci and was stopped
by the sound of sorrow.
In a courtyard of the Palazzo Ricci
a soprano was rehearsing Górecki’s
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Late autumn’s early darkness.
She stopped, started again, practised
ascending grief’s ladder.~

Start off singing a madrigal, return
with words a girl wrote on a wall
of a concentration camp, set to music
by Górecki. I didn’t learn he’d died
until the next day, but lingering
beneath such sadness, I didn’t need
to know. The music
stopped, I walked on,
and the lights in the valley
were candles in a starless church.~

Down Via del Paolino to Via di Collazzi,
where last year we rented a room
with a framed print above the bed
of Piero della Francesca’s
pregnant Madonna, fitting, since I was
trying to celebrate the first birthday
since my mother’s death. I paused
above the valley, recalling
Mother’s teaching me
to make memory scrapbooks,~

then wondered if the Palazzo Ricci
might be connected to The Memory
Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book
I half-recalled about a Jesuit
who taught mnemonics
to his Chinese hosts. It doesn’t matter
that later I found no link, by then
I’d made an outdoor version of Ricci’s
inner palace, linking each street
to the memory of a loved one.~

Ricci’s memory palace was based
on a Greek poet whose works survive
only in fragments. After Simonides
left a drinking party, the building
collapsed, crushing his family
and friends beyond recognition.
Walking past the tables in his mind,
Simonides recalled where each reveller
had been, helping the living reclaim
what there was to reclaim. ~

Since then, waking at night, I often
walk this route in my mind, recalling
loved ones, and if I make it back
to Via di San Donato before sleep,
I set off on pilgrimage to Venice,
to Murano, and the Church
of San Donato where three huge ribs
hang like upturned crescent moons
beneath the Madonna’s feet, proof
that Donato once killed a dragon.

The palace collapses on our friends,
our families. Heartbreak,
and then a route through dark streets,
searching for the chapel
of the human heart. Three long ribs
shine in flickering light beneath
a likeness of a Byzantine Madonna.
Dragon or whale. Dinosaur
or dragon. Outside, the star maze
and the shining water roads.

A silent car climbs the steep hill
across the valley. Was the soprano
practising for a concert or offering
her own tribute to Górecki?
I walked on when she finished, linking
hill town streets to friends and family,
but Górecki found a way to remember
the six million dead. He created
a ladder of complete silence.
Then let one voice ascend.

.

2. Antibes, March 2011

Strange, once again
to be night-journeying, it seems,
towards Venice,
though I was only there
a few hours, forty years ago,
and almost managed
to miss it completely. Only
the impossible bones
in the church of San Donato
made any sense—

Call it the Little Library
of the Road, the way the right book
sometimes waits for you
in a hotel or train compartment.
So F. Scott Fitzgerald
welcomed us to Antibes:
on a shelf in the stairwell, Annie found
a copy of Tender is the Night
which she began reading to me, out loud,
even after I’d fallen asleep.

My turn to read next night.
Didn’t try to go back
where I’d last been awake. Began
where Annie left off, trusting
my dream-self heard
all that I need know, hoping
I recalled the story enough
from reading the book
four decades ago
on a night train to Venice.

Once he said, Draw your chair up
close to the edge of the precipice
and I’ll tell you a story—
fragments then of Fitzgerald
at the rim of sleep,
like tesserae in a mosaic,
clear glass on both sides
of gold leaf so candlelight
will be more luminous
than the gold of narrative itself.

All week our day-selves drove about
looking for where our night-selves
had been at bedtime, partying
with Nicole and Dick Diver.
The Villa Diana and the village
of Tarmes aren’t on the map,
but the rose-coloured hotel
is five miles from Cannes,
so starting with that landmark
we sought out roads to the precipice.

Forty years ago, Annie praised
Tender is the Night in a letter,
so I took it on the train to Venice.
An Austrian psychiatrist next to me
was travelling to see a French girl
in Murano. He spoke English well
and was charming, a young Dick Diver,
but he criticized Fitzgerald
for glorifying the edge. Don’t
go seeking the abyss. It will find you.

Those days, I was just trying
not to go mad. My consciousness
had an alarming ability to suddenly
lurch backward and suspend itself
above and behind my head
so I’d have to hold on to whatever
was there until I found my way back
inside the old brainpan. The precipice
for me was the fear of the broken
ladders of the family tree.

Nicole grabbed the wheel,
forcing the car towards the edge,
hitting a tree instead. The children
screamed as she faced Dick
triumphantly: You were scared
weren’t you? she accused him. You
wanted to live. What
could he say, though he didn’t.
Yes, fear of death, but also
fear of the crack-up. Precipice fear.

Made it through Fitzgerald
to the Church of San Donato
and his dragon, but returned abruptly
to the station, impatient to get back
to Vienna for Annie’s promised letter.
All these years and I’m still this side
of madness, and we read
to each other, waking or asleep.
Do you remember where we stopped
last night?—No, Love. Just keep reading.

.

Pinot Grigio

Because he learned to love this wine late in life,
after his hearing was shot, he called it
Pinot GRATCH-ee-ah,
and I’d try to correct him, Pinot GREE-gee-o,
and he’d agree, Pinot GRATCH–ee-ah,
and we’d leave it at that,
which was just as well, as today I learned,
in Wine for Dummies, it’s pronounced
Pinot GREE-joe.

After the rest of us left, my sister found
Dad had stocked enough Pinot Grigio
to make it through the Apocalypse
so she brought bottles to his friends. Perfect,
since Dad loved combining the virtues
of visiting the sick and giving drink to the thirsty
by smuggling chilled bottles of wine to friends
in the nursing home—‘It cheers them up’, he’d say.
It must have cheered my sister too,

talking with his friends, and when I confessed
that I was wrong all along about the name
she described lingering over a glass
with Dad’s Italian friend Giulia
who said, ‘I never heard him say
Pinot GRATCH-ee-ah, it sounded more like
GRAZ-ee-ah. Sometimes, he could be
almost courtly. Grazie, molte grazie’,
and Giulia raised her glass to the air.

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From The Little Colloquium by the Sea

Too dark now to see the spring tide’s breakers
………..bludgeon the shore road below our house—
………………….they’re surely sundering our lane

for a second time this winter—
………..so we add turf to the fire, start to read
………………….to each other, but find

we can’t compete with the storm’s howls
………..and the stove’s answering roar. Still,
………………….there’s something companionable,

just writing and reading silently in the same room
………..while gusts outside reach 160
………………….kilometers per hour. 160, the same

speed the Turkish cab driver sustained last fall
………..through foggy rain all the way to Munich.
………………….Travelling faster than a hurricane, we

were the unrelenting wind that could upend trees
………..and bring down power lines, a yowl
………………….through the German countryside

that might at any moment be cut short.
………..Yet inside that potential destruction
………………….stories unfolded, whose tellings

began on the plane earlier: there was ample time
………..to share whiskey with seat mates
………………….and talk up there after the aborted

landing in Memmingen, and the retreat
………..back into swirling clouds, circling
………………….for an hour till the weather eased.

Finally we descended a second time
………..and just as the runway reappeared—
………………….the safe Earth a few feet away—

we climbed again abruptly
………..then flew off towards far-off
………………….Friedrichshafen. Audrey,

sitting next to us on the plane, had
………..to get to Munich to give the keynote speech
………………….at a European Union

health conference, so when we landed
………..she hired a cab then urged us to join her.
………………….No time for the driver

to look up the conference centre
………..on global positioning, so he typed
………………….the address with one hand

as we flew down a link road.
………..Tonight, back in Ireland, the windows
………………….pulse like something living,

but it’s good to be firmly
………..on the ground, this house of concrete blocks
………………….is going nowhere,

though the thrumming stillness here
………..is like being in that cab, or that plane,
………………….a place where strangers could share

a few last words, or speak
………..whatever most mattered. Audrey
………………….trembled as she told us

how she’d just cleared security in Dublin
………..when she got a call from Canada
………………….to say her brother Ivan had died.

She’d had to continue towards Munich
………..to give her speech but now it seemed
………………….impossible we’d get there in time

so our gentle cab driver leaned forward
………..as if being a few inches closer to the road
………………….would help him see

and let us get there faster.
………..Passing an exit, I realized the road
………………….led to the Alpine foothills

where the novelist W.G. Sebald was born,
………..and I tried to imagine that side trip,
………………….fog probably freezing

or turning to snow as we entered
………..the village of Wertach, but we tore on
………………….instead towards Munich,

the speedometer still at 160,
………..the highway signs warning
………………….of slippery conditions,

and I remembered how Sebald
………..died at the wheel.
………………….As if to keep her brother

with her in the car, Audrey was telling us
………..a story that Ivan told her
………………….that their mother told him,

which felt like the way Sebald’s character
………..Austerlitz
………………….recounted intimacies

several speakers deep,
………..and there was a fine balance
………………….of terror and camaraderie

as we learned that Audrey
………..had known our late friend Patrick
………………….on Cape Clear Island. Annie and I

first faced winds of 160 on Cape Clear,
………..where Paddy said, Island life is like
………………….being in a boat together, eight miles

out to sea, and we just have to make sure
………..we all stay in the boat.
………………….Then Annie told Audrey

how Paddy had died on Cape the same day
………..she’d had emergency surgery in Boston.
………………….Annie woke to a comforting

hallucination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
………..dancing cheek to cheek. She’s written
………………….about this—how Astaire

sang at the foot of her bed, Heaven,
………..I’m in heaven—but what connects for me
………………….now is that Astaire’s name at birth

was Frederick Austerlitz. So Austerlitz
………..danced for my wife, who lived, and Paddy
………………….died way too young,

and we’d met his friend Audrey,
………..we were in this boat together
………………….with her now, we were travelling

faster than some hurricanes
………..and the cab seemed filled with shades—
………………….Sebald and Paddy

and Audrey’s brother Ivan,
………..and the cab driver’s wife whose photo
………………….was taped above the dashboard,

the beginning of a story we never got to finish—
………..and maybe even Fred Astaire.
………………….The distance between life and death

felt very short as we hurtled down the Autobahn
………..and I recalled how Austerlitz thought
………………….the dead and the living

might occupy the same space,
………..but those who are already dead
………………….must find the living quite unreal.

And I recall staring out into the night,
………..off in the direction of Sebald’s birth,
………………….then wondering

if 160 kilometers per hour was the same speed
………..as the firestorm he described
………………….that rushed through Hamburg

after Allied retaliations, flames reaching
………..a mile in the air as they sucked
………………….the oxygen from everything.

It will be a long time before I forget
………..roaring through Germany
………………….as part of that imagined inferno.

I turned the conversation back to Paddy and Ivan.
………..Destruction and horror are never
………………….very far off, but in the meantime,

there is the chance
………..to be part of this colloquium
………………….between the living and the dead.

I wish it did not feel so one-sided.
………..I wish the ones who spoke
………………….were the ones who knew anything.

—Theodore Deppe

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Theodore Deppe is the author of Children of the Air and The Wanderer King (Alice James Books, 1990 and 1996); Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, Ireland, 2002); Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo, 2009); and Beautiful Wheel (Arlen House, 2014). A new collection of poems, Liminal Blue, is due out from Arlen House in 2016. Ted holds an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A recipient of two grants from the NEA and a Pushcart Prize, he has been writer in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT, and Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Ireland Review, Harper’s, and the Forward Book of Poetry. Ted has taught creative writing in graduate programs in the U.S., Ireland, and England. He is on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program, and directs Stonecoast in Ireland. He worked as an RN for twenty years while teaching poetry and fiction classes. Since 2000, he and poet Annie Deppe have lived for the most part on the west coast of Ireland, and they presently live in Connemara.

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Aug 122016
 

Revulsion

Photo by Nina Subin

The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into Moya’s wonderful novel, where we find Vega, Revulsion‘s narrator, describing his relationship with his brother, Ivo, to the author. Vega has spent fifteen days living at his brother’s home while trying to sell their dead mother’s house, and he has had enough of the noise made by Ivo’s family.

This passage works as an excellent example of Moya’s commitment to writing in the style of Thomas Bernhard. You’ll notice many of the Austrian writer’s techniques on display, from long, run-on sentences to a fantastic sequence of repetition when Vega describes soccer players as “undernourished.”

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was originally published in 1997 in Spanish as El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, and has been translated into English by Lee Klein. 

— Benjamin Woodard

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MY BROTHER Ivo and I are the most different people you can imagine, Moya, we don’t resemble each other in any way, we have not a single thing in common, no one would believe we’re from the same mother, we’re so different we never even became friends, only a few acquaintances know we share the same parents, the same last name, the same house, said Vega. We haven’t seen each other for eighteen years. We never write each other. The half dozen times my mother would call me and he’d be with her, Moya, we’d hardly exchange hellos or commonplaces; we never called each other because we didn’t have anything to say, each of us lived without having to think about the other, because we’re complete strangers, we’re total opposites, living proof that blood doesn’t mean a thing, it’s random, something perfectly worthless, said Vega. I just turned thirty-eight years old, Moya, same as you, I am four years older than my brother, and if my mother hadn’t died I would have been able to live my entire life without returning to see my brother Ivo; that said, Moya, we don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, without anything to say, with nothing to share, no similar tastes, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte, nothing more, said Vega. I have nothing in common with a guy who dedicates his life to making keys, a guy who has dedicated his life to making copies of keys, whose only concern is that his business produces more and more copies of keys, Moya, someone whose life revolves around a business called “Millions of Keys.” His friends gave him the inevitable nickname “Key Ring,” his total universe, his most vital worries, fail to exceed the dimensions of a key, said Vega. My brother is possessed, Moya, it causes me true sorrow that someone could live a life like that, it causes me profound sadness to think about someone dedicating his life to making the most possible copies of keys, said Vega. My brother is worse than someone possessed, Moya, he’s the typical middle-class businessman who trains to accumulate the money he needs to buy more cars, houses, and women than he needs; for my brother, the ideal world would be an immense locksmith operation, and he would be the only owner, an immense locksmith operation where they would only talk about keys, locks, doorknobs, latchkeys. And it’s not going badly for him, Moya, on the contrary, it’s going very well for my brother, every day he sells more keys, every day he opens another branch of “Millions of Keys,” every day he accumulates more money thanks to his key business, my brother is a true success, Moya, he’s found his goldmine, I doubt there exists another country where people have the same obsession for keys and locks, I don’t think there exists another country where people so obsessively lock themselves in, which is why my brother is a success, because people need tons of keys and locks for the walled houses they live in, said Vega. For fifteen days I haven’t had a conversation that’s been worth it, Moya, for fifteen days these two have talked to me only about keys, locks, and doorknobs, and about the papers I should sign to make the sale of my mother’s house possible, it’s horrible, Moya, I have absolutely nothing to say to my brother, there isn’t a single minimally decent topic we could address with intelligence, said Vega. The principal intellectual preoccupation of my brother is soccer, Moya, he can talk for hours and hours about teams and players, especially about his favorite team, called the Alliance, for my brother the Alliance is the finest manifestation of humanity, he doesn’t miss a single game, he’d commit the most heinous sin if it meant the Alliance would win all its matches, said Vega. My brother’s fanaticism for the Alliance is so high, after a few days it actually occurred to him to invite me to the stadium, can you imagine, Moya, he invited me to the stadium to support the Alliance in a difficult match against their long-time rivals, that’s how he proposed it to me, as if he didn’t know that I detest huge crowds, that concentrations of humanity produce in me an indescribable affliction. There’s nothing more detestable to me than sports, Moya, nothing seems more boring and stupid than sports, most of all the National Soccer League, I don’t understand how my brother could give a damn about twenty-two undernourished morons running after a ball, only someone like my brother could almost have a heart attack about the stumbling of twenty-two undernourished men running after a ball and making a show of their mental deficiency, only someone like my brother could have passionate ideas about locksmithing and a team of undernourished morons that calls itself the Alliance, said Vega. At first my brother thought he would be able to convince me that we shouldn’t sell my mother’s house, that it was best to rent it instead, according to him the real estate market improves every day, my brother said he had no desire to sell my mother’s house, but I was emphatic from the start, I had no doubt that the best decision was to sell her house, it’s what suits me best, so I never have to return to this country, so I can break all ties with this place, with the past, with my brother and his family, so I don’t have to hear anything more about them, which, to be blunt, is why I was emphatic from the start, I didn’t even let my brother make his case against the sale of the house, I said I only wanted my half, if he could pay me the forty- five thousand dollars right then, he could keep the house, that’s what I told him, Moya, because I saw his intention to blackmail me with idiotic sentimentalities, with ideas natural to a guy whose life is limited to keys and locks, idiotic sentimentalities like saying my mother’s house represents the family heritage, like saying we were raised there and similarly the house is associated with the best moments of our youth, I didn’t let him continue with that nonsense, Moya, I told him that for me the family was coincidental, without any importance, proof of this was that the two of us had been able to pass eighteen years without a single conversation, proof was that if this house hadn’t existed we surely wouldn’t have decided to meet again, that’s what I told him, Moya, and I explained that I wanted to forget everything that has to do with my youth spent in this country, my youth lived in this walled house that now I must sell, there is nothing so abominable as the years I spent here, nothing more repulsive than the first twenty years of my life, said Vega, they were years committed only to idiocies, Moya, horrible years, associated with the Marist Brothers, with anxiety about getting away from here, the uneasiness caused by the inevitability of having to live my life in the middle of this rottenness.

—  Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein

Excerpt from the novel Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, translated into English by Lee Klein, and published by New Directions, on July 26, 2016.

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moya_nina_subin

Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras and grew up in El Salvador. The author of eleven novels (including SenselessnessThe She-Devil in the MirrorTyrant Memory, and The Dream of My Return), he is now living in the U.S.

§

Klein

Lee Klein‘s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’sThe Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-BetweenThanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.

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Aug 122016
 

moya_nina_subinAuthor Photo: Nina Subin

A blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding
the cynical side of our souls. — Benjamin Woodard

Revulsion

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein
New Directions
88 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2539-7

 

Originally staged in 1995, multimedia artist Bill Viola’s “The Greeting” plays over a tall, vertical video screen, and functions like a painting come to life. From the left side of the frame, a visibly pregnant woman in a flowing orange dress approaches a pair of similarly dressed women chatting on a stylized city street, and as their conversation is interrupted, the group acknowledges each other and the woman in orange pulls the woman closest to the viewer in for a hug. The natural flow of the trio’s movements, in real time, takes less than thirty seconds to transpire. But in his installation, Viola slows his footage so that it spreads over ten minutes. Under these specifications, the figures crawl toward each other, and subtleties lost at normal speeds become amplified. The simple gesture of a hug opens itself up to endless nuanced observations. For example, during this embrace, the woman in orange whispers something—it’s impossible to know what—into her friend’s ear, while the woman outside of the caress peers toward the viewer, her face stressing disappointment as a slight breeze wafts her loose clothing. It is a hypnotizing display, and by the end of the sequence, Viola implies to the viewer a narrative much larger than the small moment depicted.

“The Greeting” was inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s painting, The Visitation, yet literature enthusiasts may see a bit of writer Thomas Bernhard floating on the screen, too, for like Viola’s installation, Bernhard’s novels often cover very little present time, instead dwelling on the thoughts and memories of characters as they experience brief physical exchanges: sitting idly at a table, or walking into a remote inn. Regular readers of Numéro Cinq are no doubt familiar with the work of Bernhard (in fact, we recently ran a review of some of his short stories), yet I offer Viola’s artwork as a visual equivalent for those yet to experience one of the late Austrian’s narratives.

Bernhard, through his darkly funny, rambling, oddly italicized, tense shifting, comma splicing, yet verbally thrilling storylines (typically published as one long paragraph), cemented himself as one of the most respected and original literary figures of the 20th century, and his popularity among readers has only risen since his death in 1989. Such celebrity often lends itself to imitation, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a brilliant parody of Bernhard’s stylistic tics, a slim novella that winks with fans of Bernhard while also recounting the hilarious tale of perhaps the least cheerful man in El Salvador. When originally released in 1997, though he had already published several books and worked as a professional journalist throughout Central America, Moya’s rambling story earned him death threats. Prideful residents of El Salvador, the author’s homeland, failed to find his bitter cultural critique funny and Moya avoided the country for two years. Now nearly twenty years later, Moya’s Revulsion (or, as he refers to it in an included author’s note, “the little imitation”) is seen as his signature work, and for the first time, it is available to the English-speaking world, thanks to a superb translation by author Lee Klein and publisher New Directions.

The entirety of Revulsion takes place at a bar in San Salvador between the evening hours of five and seven. The only speaker is Edgardo Vega, who has returned to El Salvador for the first time in eighteen years to bury his mother, and who has coaxed his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya to meet him for a few drinks. Over about 90 pages, Moya sits and listens to Vega’s monologue dedicated to what he really thinks about El Salvador.

As the story opens, Vega greets the fictional version of Moya with a sentence that immediately brings to mind Bernhard’s style:

Glad you could come, Moya, I had my doubts that you would come, so many people in this city don’t like this place, so many people don’t like this place at all, Moya, which is why I wasn’t sure you’d come, said Vega.

Here, Moya exaggerates Bernhard’s penchant for repetition for comedic effect, employing variations on “come” three times, the name Moya twice, and the phrase “don’t like this place” twice. Vega cannot speak with economy. He must find multiple ways to express each thought. This repetition continues as Vega tells Moya that he is the only one he feels comfortable around, and that he must vent his frustrations about El Salvador before they consume him. He says, “I have to chat with you before I leave, I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here.” Again, we see Vega rattle off variations of the same statement, and once more, Moya the author lets these repetitions string themselves together without inserting an expected period, splicing commas instead. The result is a barreling sensation, similar to that of Bernhard’s work, yet one swelling to the point of ludicrousness.

The reader learns that Moya was the only of Vega’s childhood friends to show up at the funeral. “What luck I didn’t run into any of them, except for you, of course, we have nothing in common with them, there isn’t a thing that unites me with one of them,” Vega proclaims. “We’re the exception.” From here, Vega, now a Canadian citizen, begins a verbal assault on El Salvador, which essentially consumes the rest of the text. He complains of the country’s beer (“it’s only good for inducing diarrhea”), its residents (“a putrid race”), its politicians (“so ignorant, so savagely ignorant, so obviously illiterate”) and its cities (“truly vomitous…where only truly sinister people can live”). After spending the previous two weeks living with his brother and his family, waiting to finalize paperwork for his mother, Vega has moved out and checked into a local hotel to escape the household noise:

…I want to make it clear that my brother has three televisions in his house, you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they often turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is, Moya, I’m thankful to have left that house of lunatics this morning, they only spend their time watching television…

In condemning everything he has encountered while back in his birthplace, Vega shouts in a hyperbolic manner that, like his heavy use of repetition, mimics the diction of a Thomas Bernhard protagonist to an extreme. Take, as illustration, the narrator of Bernhard’s The Loser, who readily complains about both Austria and Switzerland about a third of the way through the novel. He calls the sights “nothing but utter tastelessness,” and claims that Switzerland is “where cretinism reigns supreme.” Recalling the city of Chur, Bernhard’s narrator notes, “the taverns…served the worst wine and the most tasteless sausage,” and “the Churians struck me as despicable in their Alpine cretinism.” When placed side by side with Moya’s Vega, these complaints feel comfortably at home, yet the major difference between a Bernhard narrator and Vega is that Bernhard’s narrators drift in and out of hyperbolic rants, whereas Vega’s entire monologue builds itself on a foundation of hyperbole. There is never a time in Revulsion where Moya lets his character slip from this mindset, for even when he shifts to rare moments of offering compliment, he speaks in an exaggerated register. Early, while acknowledging Moya’s various achievements, Vega can’t help but temper his kindness with the query, “how could it occur to you to return to live here in this shithole, to settle in a city that sucks you down more and more into its pit of filth.” Then later, after a long diatribe against local politicians (“they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering”), Vega attempts to shift gears again, only to fall back into a hyperbolic rage:

But we should hope, Moya, we don’t want to spoil our reunion thanks to these castrated politicians that each day ruin my meals, appearing on the television that my brother and his wife turn on the minute they sit down at the dining table.

Very deliberately, Moya constructs Vega to be a Bernhard character to the nth degree, and the result is a comical curmudgeon with certainly less intelligence than Bernhard’s fictional counterparts, but one who contains an overabundance of the verbal flair that lovers of Bernhard cherish in his writing.

Moya slips other nods to Bernhard in throughout Revulsion, most prominently Vega’s insistence of listening to various concertos while he and Moya sit at the bar, but perhaps the greatest tribute in the novella comes when Bernhard’s name is actually uttered by Vega himself. This occurs at the end of the story, and though divulging too much here would ruin the conclusion of Moya’s narrative, it’s safe to reveal that, after mentioning Bernhard’s name, Vega claims him as a writer nobody in San Salvador would recognize. It’s one final act of hyperbole on Vega’s part, and yet the real life controversy that surrounded Revulsion in El Salvador upon its first publication seemed to prove Vega right. Where Moya produced a biting parody, albeit one with the intention of challenging San Salvador’s culture and politics, readers saw it simply as an attack on their homeland. With death threats came the idea that Bernhard’s legacy in El Salvador was exactly as Vega claimed. Yet, knowledge of Bernhard only enhances the pleasure that is reading Moya’s Revulsion. Operating as both a parody and a darkly funny, explosive rant of a man who detests his homeland, it’s a blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding the cynical side of our souls.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewVol. 1 Brooklyn, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter..

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Aug 112016
 

Zazil by Mari H. Res+®ndiz

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Zazil Alaíde Collins (Mexico City, 1984) has written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (a first collection structured around Jarocho musicicans and the well-known Mexican lotería card game), No todas las islas (her prize-winning book that charts the history of her family myths by way of a sort of nautical cartography in verse), El corazón, tan cerca a la boca (in which she weaves together ekphrastic prose and poetry inspired by the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann) and, most recently, Sipofene. Sipofene, maybe her finest book to date, represents a sort of tabula rasa upon which Collins can construct a fragmented vision of the problems of our times. In the words of Javier Taboada: ‘Zazil Alaíde Collins’s Sipofene does not spring from any myth. By way of a journey back to an original state, the poetic voice strips bare the world of our times “los días más oscuros”. The geography of desertion: the pain that stretches out to the four cardinal points.’

In a world of shortening attention spans and click-bait journalism, it is refreshing to find a poet who still believes in the integrity of the poetry collection. Each of Collins’s books to possess their own unique focus and structure. Perhaps it is not surprising that Collins, also a broadcaster with a wide range of musical interests (her co-edited bilingual volume Músicos en la Ciudad de México/Musicians in Mexico City will be launched this August), is drawn to this kind of project: each of her books feels like a concept album in verse.

This interview, in which Collins discusses her wide range of influences and literary obsessions, was carried out via a series of emails between Zazil Alaíde Collins and Dylan Brennan. Included also is a videopoem featuring the opening verses of Sipofene, click CC for subtitles in English. Translations of poems to English by Cody Copeland.

DB: Tell us about your early life, where you were born, grew up, studied… and when and how you first came into contact with poetry.

ZC: I was born in the Roma neighbourhood of the Federal District, now officially known as Mexico City, on Saturday, September 1st, 1984. One year later, after the earthquake of September 19th I moved to La Paz, Baja California Sur, with my paternal family; a desert in which I learned to walk and observe. It’s an essential part of the imagery of my written work, and the place to which I return any time I need to touch base. When the city was reconstructed, I returned to the Roma area and studied my whole life in Mexico City. My university days were spent between political sciences, literature and anthropology.

My introduction to poetry was aural, before any kind of formal reading. There was never any lack of poetry books in my parents’ house, so poetry was always close. My parents even partially named me after a poet, the Guatemalan Alaíde Foppa, who, to this day, remains disappeared…

The first books of poetry that I can remember were popular cancioneros and two collections by Cuban poets (when I was a child my father lived in Cuba and his gifts were books from there): Mundo mondo by Francisco de Oraá, and Con un garabato by José Antonio Gutiérrez Caballero. In my adolescence, I was struck by “Tarumba,” by Jaime Sabines, and I discovered poetry by James Joyce, George Bataille and, by accident, the Mexican poet Mariana Bernárdez—by my reckoning, one of our most outstanding contemporary poets. I became obsessed with the work of Artaud… And I continued discovering authors in our family library, like Nicolás Guillén and César Vallejo. A short time before entering university I bought, also by chance, a facsimile edition of Muerte sin fin, by José Gorostiza, which changed something for me (I can’t say what it changed, but reading it still excites me, just like “Tarumba”).

Although I could go on naming other authors, the aforementioned ones opened up channels of perception for me, and are part of my initiatory journey, along with the internalised expressions of music and dance. When I was a girl, I studied contemporary dance for a few years and one of my ways of registering the choreography was to write down words that, little by little, began to take the form of verses; I would say that these were my first poems, without me knowing they were poems at the time.

DB: Which poets do you read these days? Which ones have influenced you? Which do you dislike?

ZC: Right now I’m reading the recently published books by Ernesto Miranda Trigueros and Javier Peñalosa. A few years ago I realised that I only read work by dead authors and, since then, decided to force myself to read work by my contemporary colleagues; amongst them, ones I definitely try not to lose track of include Mariana Bernárdez, Camila Krauss, Javier Taboada, Jair Cortés, Alejandro Tarrab, Daniel Bencomo, Ingrid Valencia, Daniela Camacho, Tere Avedoy, Fabio Morábito… I’m also reading a book by Coral Bracho, another by Guadalupe Galván, and I’m re-reading Heather Thomas, who I met a few months ago at a poetry reading in Egypt and whose work I enjoy greatly.

I think that I’ve been influenced by reading work by Oliverio Girondo, Wislawa Swymborza, Octavio Paz, Haroldo de Campos, Miguel Hernández, Jorge Guillén, García Lorca, Ángel González, Anne Waldman, Ferlinghetti and Gertrude Stein. While not poets, António Lobo Antunes  and Roberto Bazlen have become something magical for me. At least they are texts that I admire and re-reading them continues to provoke questions. I believe that poetry should consist of a constant questioning, perennial. I also believe that music exerts a permanent influence over me (even more so than poetry); I cannot disassociate from the poetic endeavour the lyrics of composers, from Henry Purcell to Chico Buarque, from Son jarocho to Canto cardenche (a kind of Mexican a cappella form).

I do not like poetry that tires after the first reading; that feels like something tepid. While we all develop our own obsessive metaphors (words, recurring images), I am not attracted to writers who seem to be writing a monopoem. There are poetics that seem overvalued to me, but it’s not for me to mention them. I will limit myself to saying that the poets that I dislike are those who have abandoned a feel for their own body, who have lost the musicality, the spontaneity. I also dislike poetry with the tone of a saviour, of an illuminator.

DB: Forgive if I’m mistaken but I sense more of a gender balance in contemporary Mexican poetry than in prose. Is this true? Do more women write poetry than prose these days or am I wrong?

ZC: It’s strange. I agree. However, in the professional practice, I mean, from so many anthologisers, teachers, editors or editorial committees, it seems to me that female poets remain relegated, while, in the case of female prose writers, things seem a bit different. Female prose writers seem, somehow, “freer” to me, more at ease, less worried about forming part of a power base, which is something healthier, from my point of view. Maybe I’m wrong. I feel that female poets are more protective of their own space, distrustful even with other female poets. In this way, sometimes there is not a gender balance when they act in the same way as those who violate communal liberties and achievements. In other words, there is not always a sense of sorority between female poets; at least not when it comes to my own experience in central Mexico.

DB: I suppose we could talk a great deal about female poets. I still hear people using the word “poetisa” (“poetess”); can you say something about that? Also, is it more difficult for female poets to get published these days? I know it certainly used to be that way.

ZC: I’m amazed that the word poetisa is still used, among poets. I have never liked this mark of differentiation; I subscribe to Anne Waldman’s “Feminafesto”: “I propose a utopian creative field where we are defined by our energy, not by gender.” I believe that it is difficult for women to get published (nowadays I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult than it is for male poets) because we are not taken as seriously; “Could it be that we don’t go out boozing with the right editors?,” I often ask myself (in an ironic tone, of course). There exists a professional and emotional dialogue that continues to be “restricted” between genders. I have never understood why, but the act of publishing tends to be sectarian in nature, due to a series of factors of public relations, which sometimes spring from motives of class, gender and even sexual orientation. Of course, when I read phrases like “We badly need more Mexican women to write literature of the highest level like the work of Elena Garro, we urgently need them to stop wanting to earn a fortnightly wage and to get down to the business of writing,” though it may just be nothing more than marketing, it is clear to me that the rift still exists. It seems to me that some colleagues have not understood that the problem is not talent, but the conditions and access to certain spaces. For starters, while women earn less than men for carrying out the same job (any job) we cannot begin to start talking about equality. In Mexico people complain about the PRI but many intellectuals (who work in publishing) possess that same PRI mentality, where cronyism and favouritism take precedence over merit, and they are often the people who make decisions about who gets published and who doesn’t. At the publishing houses there also exists a kind of false democratisation: they often don’t even read manuscripts seriously. But, the more autonomous work that is produced, the more this schizophrenia can be challenged.

Sipofene – Zazil Alaíde Collins from Andrea Grain on Vimeo

DB: Is poetry changing nowadays? Is it reinventing itself or is it the same as it ever was? What about the Sipofene videopoem? How did you come up with this idea? Tell us about the process, the director, those who took part, etc.

ZC: New media has caused changes with regard to the way in which readers approach literature, and authors have adapted too; it’s something reciprocal. It’s not that new, really, either; since the avant-gardists there have been textual and discursive explorations, and those who believe that these experimentations, between literature, dance and visual arts, for example, have existed since the beginnings of civilization. My undergraduate thesis dealt with the textual borders of video-poetry, so you can see that I’ve studied the theme for quite a while. However, though I fantasize about directing my own video-poems, my own weaknesses are clear to me: “the cobbler sticks to shoes,” as the saying goes. The reinvention within poetic languages stems from an integral approach to text, audio-visual elements, collective work with photographers, videographers, editors, actors… Literary work can also be viewed as a kind of laboratory. The idea of collectivisation includes working in many fields; at least attempting to initiate dialogues; in this way, creating small mobilisations (this is my idea of activism).

I had already seen photographs and videos made by Adrea Grain Hayton for musical groups, and as she studies literature, I decided to propose that we did something together, without any pretensions, so I just suggested that she could do anything she liked with a few of my poems. She liked the idea and chose just a few sections, as Sipofene is a long poem. She asked me a few questions about the meaning and intention of certain lines, but it was she who visualised and directed the material. For me, poems liven when the readers (not the poets themselves, as authors) perceive them, recreate them, taste them, and, so, I’ve always preferred the readings that others can give to my texts, even when they don’t coincide with my own original ideas. I wanted to know how someone with a visual imagination like Andrea could understand the poem. And in a spirit of making community I decided to invite people who I admire, either because they are friends or because they are poets that I both admire and read (only one poet couldn’t make it).* We met one afternoon at my house, every participant read in front of a camera the complete verses of the first section of Sipofene, called “Bóreas,” and then Andrea cut everything, extracting fragments of each collaborator and combining them. I know that she absolutely associates the visual part with the Greek myth of Boreas and the horses.

*DB: That was me, so sorry I couldn’t be involved.

 DB: Tell us, what books have you written? Tell us a little about each one? What about the process and the reception that your books have received from readers?

ZC: I’ve written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (Lenguaraz, 2009), No todas las islas (ISC-Conaculta, 2012, City of La Paz State Prize winner in 2011), El corazón, tan cerca de la boca (Abismos-Mantarraya, 2014) and Sipofene (La tinta del silencio, 2016); and,  independently I’ve adopted my thesis on video-poetry as a free e-book: Videopoesía, poíesis fronteriza: hacia una reinterpretación del signo poético. I’ve also participated in some anthologies of essays and, also, poetry, as co-author: Deniz a manzalva (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2008), La conciencia imprescindible. Ensayos sobre Carlos Monsiváis (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2009) and the major anthology Antología General de la Poesía Mexicana: poesía del México actual. De la segunda mitad del siglo XX  nuestros días (Océano, 2014). I’ve uploaded nearly all my books to Google Books so that they can be looked up online.

Junkie de nada is a sort of compendium of my first poems; I completed it in less than a month with poems that I’d written over a period of five or six years, approximately, and I tried, of course, to give them a sense of unity. At that time I had to hand a set of lotería jarocha (a variation on the Mexican card game resembling bingo, this one featuring figures from Veracruz folklore), from the Canadian printmaker Alec Dempster, and, in a sort of eureka moment I got the idea that I could play around with the idea of a collection of poems that revolve around the cards of a lotería set. It was fun to throw down the cards and to group the poems together, according to a character or emotion. Some friends from university ran an independent publishing house; they liked the material and decided to publish it. I showed them the poems after they’d been rejected by an official publisher (the federal government). A huge plus for me was that they allowed me to suggest authors for an epilogue, and, of course, I thought of the poet that I admire: Mariana Bernárdez. The editors got in touch with her and she accepted their proposal to read my work and to write something. The book deals with metapoetical anxieties; all part of exploring the meaning of life. I was 25…

No todas las islas was conceived as a sort of cartography of my family’s history (and myths); I threw it, like a message in a bottle to the sea, into a competition and I won the Baja California Sur state poetry prize, and so I got to have it published. This made me very happy because, apart from all the rest, I wrote that book thinking of my seniors (my grandparents, mainly), who live there and whose parents were involved in the foundation of that state. During the editorial process, I suggested to the state government the idea of producing a special edition, different from their normal collections. In reality, all I wanted was permission, for them to allow me to print a special limited edition on my own, one in which two friends would help me, one that would include colour and playful typography; but the publishing section of the Instituto Sudcaliforniano de Cultura liked what they saw and decided to take the chance and change their collection style from that book onwards. While Efrén Calleja, a friend and, now, neighbour of mine, was in charge of the edition, and Benito López was the designer, for almost a year the three of used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss colours, typography, meaning, size, corrections, etc. In this way it has been the book with which I’ve been most involved and the one that has caused me most professional delight. That level of communication with an editor and designer is something I’ve yet to replicate. The book is structured like a travelogue, an imaginary journey, but one which can be followed on Google Earth through the suggested coordinates.

El corazón, tan cerca de la boca is an exercise in which I decided to try to write just one poem, one that would weave together strands of poetry and prose, by way of ekphrasis and the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann. Ideally, this book was conceived in conjunction with the images, but the publishers (Abismos) decided not to include the images—they don’t do that kind of publication—so that, in the end, only the text remained. At the same time, I suggested that a jazz singer work with the material and musicalise some poems in free form; in that way, the texts which gave rise to songs were also translated. The music is online and can be downloaded and/or listened to. The book plays with the word “Bardo,” as a concept and state: the poet bard and the Buddhist “bardo” which represents the intermediary state, a state of transition (another one of my obsessions). Many of the metaphors stem from a journey to Ireland, peyote, meditation and nephelomancy (a form of divination based on observation of clouds).

Sipofene is a long poem that I wrote in 2015, which stems from images of a trip to the desert and the feeling of political discontent, after interiorising these lines from Ferlinghetti: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.” When I thought of the text, I visualised it as a performance, and from there came the desire to make the video, which is free to be seen by the public.

Even today, I still find reviews and new readers of my first book, because, who knows why, they still can be found in some bookstores in outside Mexico City. I think that’s the book that has been reviewed the most, both in print, radio and television. Each of my books, though, has found a distinct audience, I think, because of the playful approach I’ve tried to establish, from the visual to the musical.

DB: What about practical things. When do you write? How often do you write? Where? Any particular process?

ZC: My methodology involves writing a dream diary as soon as I wake up (many of my poems stem from dreams), and keeping notebooks under my pillows, in the bathroom, dining room, in my bag, etc. You never know exactly when that powerful line that can guide a poem or book can appear. I don’t think I have any particular process, but I usually write in the small hours of the night (that is what I most enjoy: the silence), and then closing myself off at home (it doesn’t suit me to be out in the open air); I’m a bit of a hermit but I don’t like to force myself. There’s an intuition which beats in a peculiar manner when I need to sit myself down to write; I try to yield to it.

DB: What is Sipofene?

ZC: Sipofene is a place where death doesn’t exist, from the conception of the indigenous Americans, the netherworld. I knew this a long time after the word had resonated in my head, when the first verse arrived: “When the bones burn, Sipofene,” which motivated me to start the poem. I’ve tried to remember how that word made its way into my imagination, and the surest clue is that I probably heard it in one of the films of the Twilight saga (yes, it’s true, I consume almost anything related to werewolves and vampires)… Or some kind of trick of the subconscious after a reading towards which I was indifferent, what do I know… As the poem advanced, it flowed for two intense weeks, and I found that this world (the world of Sipofene) was an intermediary state, a theme that I had dealt with before in El corazón, tan cerca a la boca. It’s possible that my age is accentuating this anxiety, but this third state that flitters between past, present and future, this third way of being is, for me, the current social, political and human condition. We are living at a time of confrontation between opposing systems, radicalisation, fanaticism, and we need to reconstruct from another perspective, comprehensive and able to accept dissent and diversity. I tried to write while eliminating genre distinction, thinking of a somewhat personified Sipofene that could be something like a muxe (a third gender) that would speak of the search for identity of those who are exiled, for a variety of reasons. There’s an underlying tone of lament, musical, I hope, revolving around our dead and battle-wounded. Sipofene is the others. And the others are all of us who search for, hopeful or resigned, a new world: “another world is possible.”

DB: The published version of Sipofene is something special, tangible, very pretty. Tell us a little about the editorial process. Did the publishers approach you or how did it work?

ZC: I wrote the poem and decided to put it up online, via Amazon, with the idea that some publisher or editor might be interested in it, but, really, so that it could be read online by anyone. I also decided to give away free copies of a paper-bound PDF via social networks and, among my contacts, a former colleague from my master’s program at UNAM read it and told me that she had set up a publishing house and wanted to talk to me. I’m referring to Ana Cruz, editor of La tinta del silencio. And that’s how it all started. I got to know the publisher’s work and I was convinced by her idea to manufacture books by hand, numbered copies, in personalised editions, that suit the text and the author. The publishers were very meticulous with regard to communication and editing. The idea of a prologue and the cover image were left wide open, and so I decided to invite an illustrator that I admire, Alejandra Espino, with whom I’d been wanting to collaborate for a long time, and she agreed to draw the cover image and to make a serigraph. For the prologue I turned to Javer Taboada, a colleague who I also admire for his astute readings and, also is someone who knows my work well since we’ve been reading each other since we were very young. My ideas of publishing involve bringing together talents and disciplines. This is something I’ve been able to accomplish with this book.

DB: To finish up, tell us about contemporary Mexican poetry. Do you like it? Is it in a healthy state? What do you think?

ZC: I like it because I feel that it’s regenerating, like every fabric. Little by little it finds its connections and now it’s difficult to judge it but the debate about whether or not a regeneration exists is growing. We are many voices; for me it’s a restless choir that still hasn’t decided what it’s singing about or, indeed, who is doing the singing. I suppose it’s fairly normal, as it matures. I think of poets such as Homer Aridjis, Ramón Rodríguez and Dolores Castro as completely contemporary voices as well, with solid trajectories free from the false bureaucratic quarrels, with a restless and pointed poetry.  I feel the same about, although he has died, Gerardo Deniz. It may be that Mexico still hasn’t stopped revisiting its modernity and, for that reason, authors such as Los Contemporáneos and Octavio Paz still seem to beat so closely. Poetry prevails thanks to its sincerity; if that continues, as far as I’m concerned, it will never cease to be current.

zazil

—Zazil Alaíde Collins & Dylan Brennan

From No todas las islas

Natural History

Words are crabs
Buried in the deep.

Shipwrecks speak
in seashells.

The wind sings its syllables
of whispered names.

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The Giant Women

They came from the north,
but no one knows when they were wiped out.

From the cave of music
they made their rounds,

raising their pentagram arms;
they all croaked under lock and key.

The old men claim to have seen them
devoured by the sea.

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from Boreas

THE DAY LABORERS howl with the sound
of war in the poppy fields,
music for bull calves,
train whistle that carries the breath
of the soldier suckled by Chernobyl.

There’s so much slackening the thread, Sipofene,
such fire in the crotch,
…………humiliated boots,
…………metallic hands,
…………headquarters’ silences.

What will the dust bring,
if we’re always dead in the presence
of the violet stockings’ nudity?
It is a field of iron, Sipofene,
…….a keloid field.

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from Austral

THE WORLD SHOULD BE A BETTER PLACE,
with more poems and tulips;
no resection of the migrant
who flees in order to survive
the harassment of offices
that are after his right thumb.

Tell us what emporium has robbed you?
How many prisons have you trod?
Who knew the truth of your sandstone?

The cherry and blue meeting houses
were part of the eclipse.
We speculated up until the year of your birth.

NO ONE CLAIMS THE ASHES
of an angel of clay
in the jaws of the common grave,
no one asks for his minimum wage
at the sides of Cadmus’ ships,
and no one deserves to die by stone
on a high tension cliff,
but there go the 50 thousand orphans
who have lost their hunger
walling in the cattle.

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from Zenith

IT IS CALLED RAGE, Sipofene,
the substance that undermines us
breaks us
deludes us
the exhausted gaze of serfs;

it’s called weariness, Sipofene,
this solitude without a capital
these lead hillsides,
paradise of the dissidents.

—Translations by Cody Copeland

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Cody Copeland

Cody Copeland teaches English and writes poetry. His work has appeared in Mexico City Lit, The Ofi Press, and The Bogman’s Cannon. He is currently based in Mexico City.

Dylan Brennan by Lily Brennan
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan
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Aug 102016
 

Ben Lerner is seen in Brooklyn, New York on Monday September 14, 2015. Adam Lerner / AP Images for Home Front Communications

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” — Ben Lerner

lernerbookshot

The Hatred of Poetry
Ben Lerner
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016.
Paperback, 86 pages, $12.

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Ben Lerner’s monograph, The Hatred of Poetry, is an extended meditation on the nature of poetry (or, Poetry) and its relationship to the reader. Lerner first broached this topic in his 4000-word essay for the London Review of Books in 2015, in which he concludes, “You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”  While much of The Hatred of Poetry is derived from thoughts shared in this essay, the revised version is subtler, cannier, and ultimately claims, if only in passing, “a place for the genuine.”

The essay can be read as a tribute to Lerner’s teacher, Allen Grossman, the late poet and critic, and Grossman’s influence on this writing is found everywhere. Only a few pages in, Lerner recollects Grossman’s retelling of the story of 1st century Caedmon, the earliest known Anglo-Saxon poet. The illiterate cowherd was, according to the account rendered by the Venerable Bede, transformed through a dream into a poet; the poem with which he awoke, however, was never as good as the one in his dream, “for songs, be they never so well made, cannot be turned of one tongue into another, word for word, without loss to their grace and worthiness.” From Bede’s rendition of Caedmon’s dream comes Grossman’s characterization of the poem as “necessarily a mere echo” of the truer poem, the “virtual poem” existing just out of reach for the poet. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner writes, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”

From this apocryphal beginning, Lerner deftly sketches a characterization of poetry as a long-beleaguered medium, wearily defended and just as wearily attacked for millennia. Lerner himself, of course, is a poet, author of three volumes of verse. His first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth Prize; his second, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two novels, both of which feature self-reflexive narrators (the first, Leaving Atocha Station, is told by a successful poet [Adam] abroad on Fellowship money; his second novel, 10:04, is told by Ben, a poet in the wake of a surprisingly successful first novel) have been widely acclaimed. Born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, Lerner has already been awarded a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has every logical reason in the world to rest comfortably, yet his work brims with self-abnegation, a “self-subverting whisper” which persistently threatens to spill over into self-pity, but never actually does.

The Hatred of Poetry may be Lerner’s answer to his own unspoken questions. Of poetry – “I, too, dislike it,“ he asserts in the well-known words of Marianne Moore –Lerner writes, “Sometimes this refrain (which Lerner has made of Moore’s words) has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

The rest of Moore’s poem, quoted on Lerner’s opening page, reads, in its entirety: “Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In order to reserve such a place, however, a great deal must be cleared away. In Lerner’s telling – harking back to Grossman’s “virtual poem” – poetry itself is used as a means to provoke negative capability, poetry meaning poetry showing what poetry is not, i.e., words on the page. Whether dissecting the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall or Emily Dickenson’s broken lines (“a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance”), Lerner suggests that poetry makes “a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”

That negative image of the ideal Poem (that poem that “we cannot write”) is reinforced through poetry critique. From Plato’s provocative (to contemporary readers) banishment of the poet as citizen of the ideal city, through, for example, Mark Edmundson (“The Decline of American Verse) and George Packer (“Presidential Poetry”) who bemoan the current state of poetry as being mired in the particular to the expense of the universal, Lerner’s point is that prose written about poetry upholds the place that poetry provides for the “glimmer of the virtual.” In other words, the “defense itself becomes a kind of virtual poetry – it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.”

Lerner closes with a relatively extended meditation upon the virgule, signifying the slash, the virgula or “little twig” used to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry in the context of prose. He observes that Claudia Rankine, in the pre-publication galleys of Citizen: An American Lyric, used the virgule “where it could be read as a typographical representation of verse’s felt unavailability.” In the final copy, however, these virgules were gone, leaving only what Lerner calls “a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation” behind. Rankine’s Citizen, is named lyric where otherwise that quality would not be likely assumed: the poem is, after all, comprised almost entirely of prose. “What I encounter in Rankine,” he writes, “is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry — and especially as lyric poetry — catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb.”

The seeming divide between poetry and prose is a border that Lerner has blurred before: in his first novel, the narrator (a poet) writes, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose (…) where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” He quotes this passage twice in the pages of The Hatred of Poetry, before making a final – and, yes, lyrical – segue towards the essay’s coda. The virgule, he writes,

can be heard in Virgula Divina, the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground…(It can be heard) in the name of Virgil. Dante’s guide through Hell. And in the meteorological phenomenon known as “virga”… streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, between the dream and fire; it’s a mark for verse that is not yet, or no longer, or not merely actual; they are phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.

Throughout the book, references to Grossman are made, off-stage as it were, including Lerner’s telephoned conversation with poet/critic Aaron Kunin (“also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s”), or recognitions of Grossman’s influence on this or that observation. Then, abruptly, a few pages from the book’s close, Lerner writes: “Today, June 27, 2014, Allen Grossman died.”

In Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” the poet writes:

(O)ne of its (personism’s) minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

O’Hara’s manifesto is typically read as mocking; Lucky Pierre is a slang term for the middle person in a 3-person sexual encounter. Of course Lerner, with his love for ambivalence, would produce a manifesto of his own, one placed “squarely between the poet and the person.” But which is which? Who is the person, and the poet – is it Lerner? or is it his teacher, Grossman? Who, of course, can no longer be reached by phone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would suggest that perhaps The Hatred of Poetry could be read as a poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” Lerner writes that poetry is, “where relations between people must appear as things.” Its final pages certainly merit such a reading, as it. By the second to the last paragraph, Lerner can assert that poetry “is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real.” We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

One of the aspects of Lerner’s writing that I find most compelling is the way he distrusts his own facility with language, his self-conscious working against a fluency that he cannot seem to dismantle (as he writes, in Mean Free Path: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed / its quality as object with transparent darks / This is a recording.”) If, as he writes, the “closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them,” then the acknowledgment of that distance is itself the truest kind of faith. In The Hatred of Poetry, we find, I think, the truest kind of love.

— Carolyn Ogburn

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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. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

 

 

Aug 092016
 

Daniel Lawless 2

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Portrait of My Father

Face forever dull scarlet, puckered when he snuffled
Up the last packed flakes of Erinmore
From one of his half-bent’s and gave it out as acrid
Comment on our clothes, my comics, Saint Michael’s
Shoddy footwork on the pitch.
There was a pineapple on the tobacco tin; according to him Virginia
Was full of them, and drunk Indians.
At eight I kept ship’s nails, odd stamps, two perfect ambered bees
In one; by twelve pinched coins against the day
I could train away from that ancient nobody. Then
Cancer. April. Or May. The parlor swooned. By June
His raw lips were a flea circus. Morphine, and soon that jutting
Lawless chin and half his jaw lopped off — a map
Of olde Eire jammed on his shoulders I’d trace with curious fingers
From Kinsale to Letterkenney
As he dozed chair-bound halfway into Benny Hill. October
In memory means standing straight as line poles
At his casket against the garlic-gales
Of Monseigneur’s Castelli’s Lord’s Prayer, our threadbare
Sunday bests smelling of his forsaken Erinmore. The rest
Half-forgotten. Photographs interred in plastic jackets.
Christmas, wistful. Snowflakes. School, our silent friends.
Birthday masses with old women in black dresses, Ma chirping
He’s with the angels, et cetera, we were Irish.

 

Up late

This morning, leather-gloved against blisters and armed
With my aunt’s grand new Flexrake Basket LRB 140 —
An impromptu visit to their old house-keeper Florene’s
rusting double wide
To pick lychee nuts, which I’ve never tasted
But my uncle Bob assures me I will love
Shaved into coconut pudding and topped with something
He calls his Lychee Love Sauce.
She’s not home, of course, Florene: colon cancer. Two years ago
Now. A long haul, her black-haired widower concedes, polite but
Staring straight ahead over the dashboard, waving us on
As he backs the pick-up down the cracked asphalt drive.

It’s hard. Harder than I would have thought.
Twenty minutes maybe half an hour of swatting no-see-ums,
Twisting our doughy necks and arms into soft pretzels,
Working the spring-loaded jaws so they claw
The stems without breaking the rind and then suddenly rain
That pulls us toward the carport: smokes, Cokes in a cooler
Where we’d left them,
Tired chit-chat between rolls of thunder as we lament
The sorry state of Florene’s garden, until turning back we spot
A dazed-looking figure on the neighbor’s lawn.

Sylvie, Clara summarizes — grand-niece, sixteen, drugs as we watch her
Watch us, unseeing, cheeks smeared with mud,
Slow-dancing to la musique inouïe,
Fiddling with a garter snake, making a bracelet, a necklace.
She’s beautiful, wearing nothing but a man’s swimming trunks.

And shall I speak now, Reader, of the rain that never ended,
Our rolled shoulder dash through it
To the car as we left her to her reveries, Florene’s double wide
Receding through the fogged-over rear window
As we bumped back down the gravel road,
The tart almost candy-like scent of what lychees we’d gathered
Squirming out through the twig holes punched in the single Winn Dixie bag
We’d managed to fill,
The darkness of the kitchen as we spilled them on the counter
Where Bob stood with his Oxy peeler, the slow brush of his forearm
As he swept the rough pink-red of their hides
Into the sink to expose balls of translucent flesh?
How we waited as he ground them with fresh coconut flakes
And poured a steady stream of heavy cream and egg yolks
Into a bowl, how we spooned that still-warm pudding up with plastic forks
From Hardees, the rain finally diminishing to plump drops plopping
From the gutter?
Or are you still thinking about that half-dressed dancing girl
With her scorched toddler-mind, how childishly beautiful she was
Making jewelry out of a snake,
The aroma of her pale breasts and the illicit thought
Of kissing them, taking them topped with Lychee Love Sauce
Into your mouth?

—Daniel Lawless

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Daniel Lawless’s book, The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With and Other Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry, February 2018.  Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Asheville Review, Cortland Review, B O D Y, The Common, FIELD, Fulcrum, The Louisville Review, Manhattan Review, Numero Cinq, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. He is the founder and editor of Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry.

 

 

Aug 092016
 

Self-Reliance cover 500pxCover image for The Domino Project’s edition of “Self-Reliance,” c2011.

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Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested—“but these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very ready transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution, the only wrong is what is against it. 

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

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Quantum sumus, scimus. That which we find within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)

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If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)

 

1.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Until I sat down recently to re-read it in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give on the subject, I’d somehow managed to forget just how complex and internally qualified that essay is, and how the interpretive problems are as compounded as they are clarified by Emerson’s later revisitings of his central idea. As Spinoza tells us in the final note to the Ethics, “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” The difficulties one encounters in reading Emerson in general are inseparable from the pleasures. The principal complications stem, in the first place, from Emerson’s temperament and style, and, second, from the richness of the spiritual, philosophic, and poetic traditions in which he was embedded, and by which, for all his originality, he was profoundly influenced.

Stylistically, Emerson is so committed to polarity that his powerful yet ambiguous texts are full of overstatements and qualifications, swerves and counter-swerves. In the second half of many lectures and essays, he takes away with the left hand what he has just given with the right. As he notoriously proclaimed in our main text, “Self-Reliance,” a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (E&L 265). His disciple Walt Whitman was never more Emersonian than when (in “Song of Myself” §51) he asked a rhetorical question and responded audaciously: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then, I contradict myself./ (I am large. I contain multitudes)”—to which Emerson’s German disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, responded: “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[1]

There is a polarity at the heart of “Self-Reliance,” a primary thrust and a secondary elaboration, taking the form of a caveat, an inconsistency, what the prosaic Understanding would consider a “contradiction.” What Emerson meant by his pivotal idea is not always as obvious as our initial excited response to the clarion call to independence in “Self-Reliance” would suggest. The ambiguity lurking beneath the surface has required interpretation, and thus potential misreadings, of what the volatile and not always consistent Emerson actually intended to convey in urging on us his imperative of self-trust and inner reliance. In what follows, I will flesh out those complications and “contradictions,” and attempt to resolve them, not only by exploring Emerson’s later elaborations on the idea, but by placing climactic emphasis where he himself placed it in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance”: on the “peace” that relies on trust in Intuition, yet requires a moral, divinely inspired component, “the triumph of principles.”

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most widely-read essay and, if not his greatest, certainly his most influential. Emerson’s central idea in this essay has had a profound impact on American thought as well as on the world of practical affairs, commercial and political, especially in its glorification of the “individual” at the expense of “society,” depicted as a distraction or hindrance. Many an American Captain of Industry has found Emersonian sanction for often rapacious business practices. But despite his strenuous advocacy of self-reliance, admiration of men of action exercising “power,” and observation that, like history, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (E&L 267), Emerson’s individualism was not meant to endorse commodification and the Exchange in the form of ruthless corporate aggrandizement, nor, though this connection has also been made, to justify Western expansion. It is certainly open to use and abuse, but in its various adaptations, self-reliance has all-too-often been simplified, even distorted—most often in the same way in which “Social Darwinism,” with its self-centered doctrine of the “survival of the fittest,” has misrepresented Darwin’s theory of the various ways, often cooperative rather than competitive, evolution actually works.

We are not wrong to read “Self-Reliance,” a prose Song of Myself, as an unforgettably defiant declaration of independence: an exhilarating celebration of the individual who has cast off the repressive and conformist strictures of society, and buried the dead past in favor of “the present hour.” Employing a favorite device, the rhetorical question, Emerson asks: “Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” Where the soul “is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” Narcissistically, this out-trumps Trump, but it is saved by Emerson’s turn to “today” and to Nature. The “blade of grass or the blowing rose”

exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence….But the man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with a reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy or strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (E&L 270)

But Emerson’s concept of the sovereign self, living for the moment and liberated from the burden of the past, simultaneously incorporates (though often overlooked, especially by thrilled young readers rebelling against their elders) an insistence that every person’s inmost identity is part of a larger whole, a transpersonal universal. To be sure, “Self-Reliance” sets the individual in splendid isolation against all that would threaten the imperial self, especially the opinions of others and all the interrelated conformist pressures of society and tradition. And yet the essay also stresses “virtue” and “principles”: built-in safeguards against the egocentricity Emerson seems not only to most value, but to license and unleash.

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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2.

The concept of an inner self that transcends the merely private and egoistic (just as Jungian “individuation,” or “self-actualization,” often seems inseparable from “self-transcendence”) is rooted in those earlier-mentioned spiritual, philosophic, and poetic sources comprising the “traditions” by which Emerson was influenced. For even this arch-champion of self-reliant originality and radical independence was deeply indebted to selected precursors, preeminent among them John Milton and his visionary progeny: poets and thinkers in the Romantic tradition (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle) and clerics in the line of radical “inner light” Protestant spirituality, from Reformation theologians to one of his own mentors, the liberal Unitarian William Ellery Channing. Emerson’s “star of the American Church” (JMN 7:470) proclaimed, in his famous sermon of that title, “man’s likeness to God,” a God who “dwells within us.” Emerson was an even more ardent believer in the God within. Fusing the “still, small voice” of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) with Jesus’ assertion that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), he told his cousin David Greene Haskins: “I believe I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the still small voice, and that voice of Christ is within us.” He had “only glimpses” of the “divine principle that lurks within us,” but for Emerson, “God is, and we within him,” a conviction for which he found even pagan support—in the 6th and final book of Ovid’s Fasti: “There is a God within us. It is when he stirs us that our bosom warms.” (JMN 4:27-29, 3:12)

However radical, Emerson’s insistence on what Milton (negatively) and the British Romantics (positively) referred to as “divinity within” has precedent in both testaments of the Bible. “I will put my love within them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:32-33), anticipating Jesus’ assertion that “the kingdom of God is within you.” The uncanonical Gospel of Thomas contains an identical formulation, “The Kingdom of God is inside you.” Though a suppressed text unknown to the author of “Self-Reliance” (it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a century after that essay was written), this Gnostic gospel is remarkably aligned with Emerson’s own religious radicalism, most fully developed in the “Divinity School Address” he delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838.

On that memorable evening, Emerson shocked the theological faculty of his alma mater by (among other outrages to even Unitarian convention) describing “historical Christianity” as corrupt and “corpse-cold.” One “would rather be,” he intoned (quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us”), a “pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” than to be a conformist Christian “defrauded” of the “manly right” to “dare” to “live after the infinite Law that is within you.” In a passage uncannily parallel to a central passage in Thomas (“if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), Emerson announces, in the most dramatic antithesis in the Divinity School Address: “That is always best which gives me to myself….That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen.”[2]

What scandalized the Divinity School faculty—especially as garbed in the deliberately provocative rhetoric Emerson employed on this notable occasion—thrilled the young graduates in the audience. Each neophyte preacher, fortified by the God within him, was, proclaimed Emerson, to go forth on a revolutionary mission: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”[3] That unmediated access to the divinity within, Emerson’s refusal to draw a clear distinction between the inspired “self” and the inspired Savior (Jesus was but one, though the first and greatest, to realize that “God incarnates himself as man”), along with his contemptuous dismissal of tradition and “conformity,” allies the Divinity School Address with the essay it directly anticipates: “Self-Reliance.” In fact, that essay is in part a reaction to the furious public controversy following Emerson’s Address: a widespread and incendiary brouhaha in which the lecturer was condemned as a “mad dog,” a “pagan,” an “infidel,” even a demonic Pan or devil who had planted “the cloven hoof” of German pantheism and atheism in New England.[4]

It is true that, in both lecture and essay, Emerson was intellectually participating in a philosophy imported from Germany: in the epistemological “Copernican revolution” of Immanuel Kant, as transmitted to him, “filtered,” through the British Romantics, principally Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom stressed the centrality of Kantian Transcendental Idealism and the radical extension of Kant by J. G. Fichte, who transcended the antithesis between Ich and Nicht-Ich—famously Englished by Carlyle and Emerson as “Me” and “NOT ME” (E&L 8)—by positing a “pure I,” even a “Divine-Me.” In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge published a caricature, what he called a “burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus.” Coleridge’s satiric doggerel opens with a burst of Latin translatable as “Huzzah! God’s vice-regent, myself God,” and continues:

The form and the substance, the earth and the sky,
The when and the where, the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you, and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!

Everything, the Supreme Being included, is part of the world’s “Lexicon,” with the “I” or Ich as the “root.” In all “cases,” grammatical and philosophic, the Fichtean Ich is the “case absolute,” “self-begot,” yet indistinguishable from “the God infinitivus!”[5] What Coleridge says here of the Fichtean Egoismus was later said, more genially and in more readable verse, of Emerson by his friend James Russell Lowell. Writing at his epigrammatic best in the finest vignette in his 1848 Fable for Critics, an amused and yet devastatingly on-target Lowell wrote:

All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to let in a god.
’Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he,
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson![6]

Though Lowell was aware of the complexities in Emerson’s position, his parody conveyed (to quote Coleridge on his own “burlesque” of Fichte) “as tolerable a likeness” of his subject’s “idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.” In an early, unpublished poem of his own, Emerson located God at the “bottom of my heart,” his “voice therein” an “oracle” and “wise Seer” who always guides “aright.” I “never taught what it teaches me,” Emerson concludes. “Whence then did this omniscient Spirit come?/ From God it came. It is the Deity” (JMN 4:447-48). Another notebook entry, a meditation recorded on May 26, 1837, begins and ends with questions: “Who shall define to me an Individual?….Cannot I conceive the Universe without a contradiction?”

In between these genuine questions, Emerson contemplates the “One Universal Mind” and “my being embedded in it.” God is “the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body…and my private will.” A “believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two….Hard as it is to describe God, it is harder to describe the Individual.” He overcomes this philosophic duality and “contradiction” by falling back on the mysterious light of Intuition. At moments, a “certain wandering light comes to me which I instantly perceive to be the Cause of Causes. It transcends all proving. It is itself the ground of being; and I see that it is not one & I another, but this is the life of my life.” At such privileged “moments,”

I have known that I existed directly from God, and am, as it were, his organ. And in my ultimate consciousness Am He. Then, secondly, the contradictory fact is familiar, that I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life….But whenever the day dawns, the great day of truth on the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora.[7]

Emerson’s imagery in this extraordinary passage reflects the Inward Light of radically immanent Protestantism, and, more specifically, the language of his favorite lines in the poem that most haunted him and to which he most often alludes: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” where those intimations are presented as “the fountain light of all our day/…a master light of all our seeing.” But the merging of self and God also resembles that of Fichte, which casts its own light, thrilling yet problematic, on the concept of Self-Reliance.

Wordsworth Coleridge Carlyle composite(l. to r.) William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Allied with the spiritual conceptions of an “inward light” or “divinity within,” the most radical aspect of Emerson’s conception of “self-reliance” is derived in part from German Idealism. Emerson’s core idea had, in turn, a momentous impact on a later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Idealist proponent of the Will to Power and of the Übermensch. The American’s most enthusiastic and formidable European disciple, Nietzsche considered Emerson the major thinker of the age and filled almost every margin of his copy of the Essays with scribbled annotations. Nietzsche is “Emersonian” in his condemnation of the dead weight of the past, in his praise of “Dionysian” instinct and intuition, in his exaltation of the exceptional or “higher” man, and in his dismissal of the conformist “herd.”

At times, Emerson could be as ruthless as Nietzsche toward the mediocre “herd,” as in the following provocative passage on the relationship of “great” individuals to the community, which occurs in no less crucial a text than “The American Scholar,” a lecture read by Nietzsche and a precursor of his untimely meditation “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Here, sounding like Nietzsche, is the supposedly benign Emerson on the current condition:

Men in the world to-day are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men [approximate] to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,—ripened, yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature….The poor and the low are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great person, so that justice shall be done by him to that common nature which it is the dearest desire of all to see enlarged and glorified. (E&L 66)

The goal is the “enlargement” of the self, a crucial concept Emerson derived, as we shall see, from Coleridge. Furthermore, in keeping with the related reciprocity between “Each and All” as laid out in Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” in The Friend, we “each” have a stake in developing the potential of “all” for the greater good. But this Nietzsche-anticipating (if not quite Nazi-foreshadowing) passage in “The American Scholar” is a notably harsh as well as hyperbolic cultural teaching. Usually, Emerson qualified or caveated his most hyperbolic assertions; Nietzsche tended not to. And though he borrowed the phrase from Emerson’s Divinity School Address (E&L 88), Nietzsche, that atheist and self-professed Antichrist, really meant it when he announced that “God is dead.” Emerson, devotee of the God within, cannot have known what the catalytic impact of the doctrine of self-reliance would be on the precociously brilliant German youth who began to read him at the age of seventeen. Himself a great liberator, Nietzsche found his own liberating god in Emerson.

What gets liberated is another matter. Though the Nazis exploited and distorted much that was in Nietzsche, few serious readers any longer accept the once-commonplace alignment of Nietzsche with Nazism. But such explosive phrases as “the blond beast,” “the master race,” the “Will to Power,” and the Übermensch, did provide materials to be exploited and distorted. As Nietzsche himself said in opening the “Why I Am a Destiny” section of Ecce Homo, “I am no man; I am dynamite,” and dynamite, which can explode indiscriminately, is particularly dangerous in the wrong hands, a “fate” Nietzsche feared.[8]

Emerson was an equally brilliant and provocative phrasemaker. His guilt by association is less notorious than the Nazification of Nietzsche, but Emerson—that glorifier of the “aboriginal Self,” celebrator of one’s “sacred impulses,” professor of “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man” (JMN 7:342), and champion of autonomy, “self-reliance” and the “God within”—has also been connected with Hitler and Nazism. One distinguished American critic, Alfred Kazin, reported in 1997 in God and the American Writer that he once heard another distinguished literary critic, the conservative Southerner Cleanth Brooks, “charge that ‘Emerson led to Hitler.’”[9] The charge is of course excessive. Yet, in his own perverse way, Hitler was a product of the same German Idealist philosophy that found its way to Emerson by way of Coleridge, Carlyle, and French philosopher Victor Cousin. Reading Fichte, philosopher of the “Divine-Me,” Hitler marked passages in which Fichte claimed that “God and I are One….My work is his work, and his work my work,” among other identifications of himself “with God.” In perusing Fichte, the Führer found evidence to support his own growing belief that the “mortal and divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.”[10]

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriately enough, Hitler’s eight-volume set of Fichte was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who also gave the world in 1934 the greatest of all propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, whose opening shot features a plane bearing Hitler descending from the clouds: deus ex machina, the Führer as God. At the Eagle’s Nest precisely a century after the 1841 publication of “Self-Reliance,” a metaphysical Hitler informed his mesmerized guests: “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but consciousness and awareness,” adding, in the sentence adopted as my third epigraph, “If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”[11]

This emphasis on divinely inspired intuitive “insights” sounds remarkably like the Emerson of much of “Self-Reliance”: the champion of “Intuition” who privileged “self-trust” and the “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded,” and who insisted on “the source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin” (E&L 268-69). To this Emerson, as we have seen, “no law can be sacred” but that of his own nature. He lives “wholly from within,” and, while his “impulses” seem to him to come not “from below,” but “from above,” even if “I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil” (E&L 261-62). Given his equation of the individual with infinitude, the self with the God within, Emerson, who has been blamed for so much by so many critics of unrestrained individualism, might even be blamed for the messianic psychopath whose will to power transformed the most culturally and philosophically sophisticated nation on earth into the most barbaric and, together with an all-too-willing new Germany, produced worldwide carnage and a genocide so ferocious that it shattered our naïvely optimistic theories of progress and disfigured the image of humanity itself. But unlike Emerson, Hitler genuinely was “the Devil’s child”: “the devil’s miracle man,” in the memorable depiction by psychologist and Holocaust historian Walter Reich.[12] The supposedly “God-given insights” of Adolf Hitler were really the dark side of the Protestant belief in the Inner Light, of Fichte’s “Divine-Me,” and a particularly rancid example of the High Romanticism of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson gone sour.

Pace Cleanth Brooks, Emerson is not responsible for the rise of Hitler. Nevertheless, that the concepts of divinity within and of self-reliant individualism are not only liberating, but also potentially anarchic or tyrannical or both, was conceded by some of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists themselves, usually in their later, “conservative” years. For all their emphasis on the individual mind and heart, and their celebration of “genius” and the godlike creative Imagination, Coleridge and Wordsworth—like their mentor Milton and unlike the advocates of a rugged individualism or will to power that is mindlessly or brutally self-assertive—retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society, knit by ties of reciprocal obligation, were incompatible with selfish (merely private and therefore petty) individualism. Despite his obsession with society’s threat to the self, the same is true of Emerson.

Hitler contemplates Nietzsche Hitler and bust of Nietzsche (via Axis History Forum)(Photo credit)

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On the other hand, making the author of “Self-Reliance” socially responsible runs the risk of de-radicalizing or “taming” Emerson, whose fierce celebration of self-reliance and the God within at once fascinates and troubles even that most devout of Emersonians, Harold Bloom. “In forming the mind of America,” Bloom writes, Emerson “prophesied a crazy salad to go with our meat.” That last image is a silent but appropriate allusion to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), a poem endorsing (in contrast to externally driven women like Maud Gonne, who “eat a crazy salad with their meat”) the “radical innocence” of the autonomous soul that discovers that it is “self-delighting,/ Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” This concern about the Pentecostal and political ramifications of Emerson’s alignment of the autonomous self with the divine will occurs in Bloom’s 2004 book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?[13] The following year, another major literary critic, Denis Donoghue, agreeing with this momentary reservation but, unlike Bloom, hostile to Emerson, set himself against all benign interpretations of self-reliance. Rejecting the depictions by stalwart Emersonians of their hero’s individualism as a “social value,” even “the flowering of democracy” (a thesis nuanced in Stanley Cavell, strenuous in George Kateb), Donoghue, going too far in the other direction, presents us with an “arch-radical” with “no interest in providing professors of politics with a theory of society.” Emerson was “really an anarchist; necessarily so, since he cultivated the thrill of glorifying his own mind and refused to let any other consideration thwart him.”[14]

Two decades earlier, Bloom had registered his negative response to the often-castigated passage early in “Self-Reliance” where Emerson denies his “obligation” to those “poor” with whom he has no “spiritual affinity,” even though he confesses “with shame” that “I sometimes succumb” to the call of “miscellaneous popular charities” (E&L 262-63). In response, Bloom acknowledged that “self-reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness,” a remark endorsed with vigor a few years later by John Updike, always hostile to Emerson, who reduced this anti-philanthropic passage to a simple doctrine of “righteous selfishness.” Subjecting the same provocative passage of “Self-Reliance” to a brilliant textual and contextual reading, Stanley Cavell insists that the biblical sources on which Emerson is playing reveal him as clearly distinguishable from “those who may be taken as parodies of him.”[15]

Perhaps. But there is no denying that Emerson disliked “stirring in the philanthropic mud,” even when—as in his open letter to President Van Buren protesting (in vain) the carrying out of the brutal and unconstitutional Jacksonian policy of uprooting the Cherokees from their ancestral lands—he believed in the cause. What he resented was being pressured into acting. As an exponent of self-reliance, he was determined to do only what “concerns my majesty & not what men great or small think of it….I write my journal, I read my lectures with joy—but this stirring in the philanthropic mud, gives me no peace.” And, in concluding on the quietist note that “I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me,” he endorses the “wise passiveness” of Wordsworth, who condemned (in “Expostulation and Reply”) the overbusy conviction that “nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking.” He had also alluded to these lines in 1837, declaring, in the peroration of “The American Scholar,” that if “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him” (E&L 70), and again, three years later, and explicitly, when he told the abolitionists in his audience that he would persist in wearing his loose and unbecoming “robe…of inaction, this wise passiveness, until my hour comes when I can see how to act with truth as well as to refuse.”[16] That hour would come, the republic would seem to Emerson to have “come” to him, when the question of slavery, and the danger of its extension, epitomized in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, moved Emerson to eloquence on behalf of a republic threatened by what he slowly but surely perceived to be a moral abomination.

The hour had not quite “come” in writing the letter to President Van Buren, when Emerson had accepted the activist role “rather from my friends” than from his own dictate. “It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or word accompanies. Bah!” (JMN 5:479). The violence of his language reveals his sense that no matter the justice of the cause, he had, by submitting to collectively imposed pressure from his neighbors, betrayed his own intuitive “impulse,” his nonconformist creed of self-reliance.[17]

Readers of Emerson are aware of the often-chilly dismissals of human ties sometimes required by the dominant aspect of the doctrine of “self-reliance.” Consider an often-overlooked element in the famous or notorious epiphany in the opening chapter of Nature, where Emerson becomes a “transparent eyeball”:

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign or accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance. (E&L 10)

In this ocular epiphany, the self becomes part of God, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth,“Tintern Abbey”). But we are so caught up in the visionary moment that we barely notice the dismissal of “friends” and “brothers”—even Emerson’s beloved brother Charles, the “dear friend” whose recent death is alluded to in this chapter’s final words (E&L 11). “Who can ever supply his place to me?” Emerson writes in a heartbroken journal entry. “The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now, in a kind of compensation, Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eyeball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, the great and disturbing essay “Experience,” written in the aftermath of the death of little Waldo, Emerson’s son taken by scarlet fever when he was not yet six, proclaims the allegedly superficial nature of grief and love. In the most troubling single passage in all of Emerson, he says of “this calamity: it does not touch me. Something which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me…falls off from me, leaving no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473).

Devastated by the death of his boy, Emerson is struggling to compensate for his loss by adapting Wordsworth’s idealist praise of those “obstinate questionings/ Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings,” in Emerson’s favorite stanza of “Intimations of Immortality.” Yet, even if we detect this verbal and thematic connection to the great Ode, we cannot but be shocked by the apparently heartless use of the coldly scientific term, “caducous,” typically applied to a placenta or shed leaves from a tree, or other fallings-off that leave the quintessential life unchanged.[18] Later in “Experience,” we are told that

The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love….There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture….The soul is not twice-born, but the only begotten,…admitting no co-life….We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others. (E&L 487-88)

xWaldo_Emerson 480pxWaldo Emerson, four months before his death in January, 1842. (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

To return to the essay “Self-Reliance”: immediately preceding his denial of any “foolish” obligation to miscellaneous popular charities, Emerson rejects “the doctrine of love” when it “pules and whines,” famously declaring: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim” (E&L 262). Having, like Jesus (Matthew 12:34-48), played this audacious variation on Deuteronomy 6:9 and Exodus 12:23, Emerson immediately adds, “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” This afterthought is a minor example of a dominant pattern in Emerson, who characteristically supplies the reservations or qualifications to his own liberating, challenging, but overstated case in “Self-Reliance.” Though implicit throughout, it is only at the very end of “Self-Reliance” that Emerson most clearly qualifies, delimits, and moralizes his claim for the liberated self. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he writes, adding at once and finally: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (E&L 282; italics added).

In the second half of the essay Emerson had spoken of “our docility to our own law” and the “poverty” of all else, even “nature,” in comparison to “our native riches.” But this is so only because “God is here within.” Emerson rejects “the rage of travelling” (E&L 278). Man’s “genius” is admonished “to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean” (the source of the title, The Inner Ocean, of George Kateb’s first book on Emersonian “self-reliance”). Consequently, “let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause,” alone, “begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary. So let us always sit” (E&L 272-73). As that loyal Emersonian Robert Frost would later put it in a 1936 couplet included in his collection, A Witness Tree (1942): “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”[19] In fact, to fully illuminate this passage of “Self-Reliance” requires us to enter a veritable echo chamber.

Transparent eyeball by CranchCaricature of The Transparent Eyeball by Christopher Pearse Cranch (Harvard University Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Emerson concludes that “all concentrates,” since the “vital resources” of everything in nature, including human nature, are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (E&L 272). As in his description, earlier in “Self-Reliance,” of honor as “self-dependent, self-derived” (E&L 266), Emerson’s language echoes that of Milton’s Satan, describing himself and his fellow fallen angels as “self-begot, self-raised/ By our own quick’ning power…./Our puissance is our own” (Paradise Lost V:860-64). But the purport (Emerson as “the Devil’s child” notwithstanding) is less blasphemous than an affirmation of what Yeats, as we have just seen, referred to as the self-reliant soul’s recovery of “radical innocence”: the realization “that it is self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,/ And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” The analogy with Yeatsian “radical innocence” is not forced since Yeats is echoing, not Satan, but the Emerson of “Self-Reliance,” who tells us early in that essay that to remain always “formidable” we must “avoid” external “pledges,” and adopt an “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” (E&L 261).

The “ultimate fact” in every instance, Emerson continues in the passage we began with, is “the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE,” since “Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause” (E&L 272). The language of the ONE is that of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, as mediated by Coleridge, but Emerson—fusing psychology and morality with Neoplatonist mystical theology—locates divinity in the tabernacle of the self. It is, however, what he will later call—in “Uses of Great Men” and his late essay “Character”—an “enlarged self.” But even in “Self-Reliance,” his phrases (the “triumph of principles” and “ultimate fact”) echo Coleridge’s insistence, in The Statesman’s Manual, that only the “enlargement and elevation of the soul above its mere self attest the presence, and accompany the intuition of, ultimate PRINCIPLES.”[20] In “Character” (1866), referring in detail to these “great enlargements,” Emerson defines “morals” as “the direction of the will on universal ends,” adding: “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” Having linked the correspondence sought by the Roman Stoic between the universe and his own moral impulses with the modern ethicist’s “Categorical Imperative,” Emerson quickly buttresses Marcus Aurelius and Kant with the Wordsworth of the Intimations Ode, quoting, as he so often does, the lines about “truths that wake/ To perish never,” the “fountain light of all our day,” and “master light of all our seeing,” which lead, in moral men, “to great enlargements” (W 10:94-97). In “Uses of Great Men,” the Introduction to Representative Men, Emerson says that “these enlargements” liberate “elastic” man from his “bounds” so that he is “exalted” by “ideas” transcending his individual self (E&L 622-23).

But this transcendence of the private self, though an aspect of the argument in “Self-Reliance,” is hardly the primary thrust most of us register while reading the essay, or in the immediate aftermath of our initial bewitchment by Emerson’s rhapsodic celebration of the “spontaneous,” “intuitive” self as the very font of “originality” and “power.” In the opening paragraph of the essay, we are urged

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. (E&L 259)

The dramatic imperative to “believe your own thought,” your own “private heart,” can make us miss the reciprocity between “inmost” and “outmost,” our “first thought” and the “Last Judgment,” the individual and the “universal.”

It’s no wonder most readers miss these qualifications and caveats. David Hume roused Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Emerson wants to shake and shock us out of our conformist complacency. So powerful is his advocacy of self-reliance that Stephen Whicher, whose Freedom and Fate was for several decades the most praised study of Emerson’s “inner life,” influentially insisted that “the lesson” Emerson “would drive home is man’s entire independence. The aim of this strain in his thought is not virtue, but freedom and mastery. It is radically anarchic, overflowing all the authority of the past, all compromise or cooperation with others, in the name of the Power present and agent in the soul.”[21] It would be hard to improve on so brilliantly concise a summation of so crucial an aspect of Emerson’s position. Though not the only “strain” in Emerson’s thought, it is exhilarating, and can be—as Denis Donoghue and others have emphasized—anti-democratic and dangerous.

Cavell, Lawrence Buell, and George Kateb would disagree, but hostile critics—most (not all) coming from the political Left, and most of them focusing on “Emersonianism,” as opposed to the personally benign Sage of Concord—have seized on the ambiguous legacy of Emersonian individualism in order to stress immoral rather than moral “enlargements”: the hazards of a detached, egoistic, antisocial, unlimited, avaricious, anarchic, even solipsistic self, valorized and privileged at the expense of solidarity, association, community. Morse Peckham, writing a decade after Whicher, spoke for many in saying of Emerson, he “created a doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ which could be and was absorbed by the anarchic individualism of the socially irresponsible middle-class Philistine.”[22]

One might respond that, just as Nietzsche should not be blamed for the crimes of Nazism, the excesses of unfettered capitalism or of Ayn Randian selfishness should not be laid at the door of Emerson. But the provocative ideas and stylistic seductiveness of both of these great liberators, in particular their exaltation of a seemingly autonomous self, opened casements on some perilous seas. Nevertheless, for those who would, under the aegis of self-reliance, confuse the Miltonic distinction between “license” and “liberty,”[23] Emerson has an austere response, even in “Self-Reliance.” The “populace” may think that the “rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,” a wholesale dismissal of moral law. That is not so. A commitment to self-reliance “enables me to dispense with the popular code.” But “if anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment [for even] one day.” For self-reliance has its own “stern claim” and self-legislated challenge:

truly it demands something godlike in him, who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself as a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (E&L 274)

The preacher of self-reliance as “law, to himself,” has his own Categorical Imperative; and, as in Milton, he “who loves liberty, must first be wise and good.”

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I have already elaborated on the third of my epigraphs, citing Adolf Hitler. As indicated by that epigraph and the first, from Emerson himself, Emersonian Self-Reliance is less a doctrine than—as Nietzsche would put it—potential “dynamite.” It can also be (at least hypothetically and theoretically) diabolical—“if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil”[24]—unless it is tempered by other considerations. Here, the formative influences, crucial to Emerson, are those of John Milton and his principal Romantic disciple, Coleridge.

Like Hitler, Milton’s Satan bases his “divinity” on a corrupted sense of what Milton himself meant in his prose texts, as well as in the masque Comus and Paradise Lost, by “freedom.” As my friend and former colleague, Milton scholar William Shaw, observed in responding to the present essay, this “warped” sense of freedom is impervious “to the freedom of others, and not only self-serving but without a moral foundation.” It inevitably leads to “tyranny, and the more powerful the person, the more terrible the tyranny.” In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Bill notes, the “tyrant” is defined as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.”[25]

As my middle epigraph reveals, Coleridge strove to affirm the primacy of “that which we find within ourselves,” without losing sight of our moral and communal responsibilities and without surrendering to the willfulness of what Coleridge, specifically citing Milton’s fallen archangel, called “Satanic pride,” “wicked” enthusiasm, and self-worshiping rebellion. In its “reprobate” form, he writes in a much-discussed Appendix, “the WILL becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relation of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others,” the consequence of the will’s “fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.”[26]

Like Coleridge and Wordsworth (indeed, all the British Romantics), Emerson was steeped in Miltonic thought and poetry. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God, immediately “fancy that they feel/ Divinity within them breeding wings/ Wherewith to scorn the earth”; but the “false fruit” inflames instead lascivious “carnal desire” (IX:1009-14). Familiar with Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom of heaven is “within you,” the Romantics and their American disciple were also well aware that, in the final book of Milton’s epic poem, the Archangel Michael promises fallen Adam, as abundant recompense for the Eden lost, a “Paradise within thee, happier far” (XII:587). Having experienced a bogus sense of “divinity within,” Adam and Eve achieve (to again cite Bill Shaw) “their ‘paradise within’ when they have learned obedience to God,” along with “such virtues as…temperance and charity. And the Lady in Comus is unassailable because of her subscription to ‘sober laws.’ She loves ‘virtue’ because she alone is free.”

But the Romantics, who venerated Milton, also revised him. To one degree or another, they naturalized the supernatural, secularized the sacred, and, as Wordsworth made dramatically manifest in the great “Prospectus” to The Recluse, psychologized Miltonic theology. For nothing in Heaven or Hell, neither “Jehovah—with his thunder,” nor the “darkest pit of lowest Erebus,”

can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.
(“Prospectus,” 35-41)

Emerson printed the whole of the “Prospectus” in his anthology Parnassus, renaming it “Outline” to accurately present it as Wordsworth’s guide to his entire canon: a Kant-echoing synopsis (to quote the conclusion of The Prelude) of “how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things/…In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”[27] Emerson followed the Romantics in this internalizing process, emphasizing, above all, the sanctity of the sovereign human mind. In the final and climactic sentence of his seminal book, Nature—his imagery of light, blindness, and perfect sight silently but unmistakably gathering up Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—Emerson had proclaimed “the kingdom of man over nature” (E&L 49). Four years later, in “Self-Reliance,” he insists that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” continuing by posing that characteristically audacious rhetorical question: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions if I live wholly from within?” (E&L 261-62)

In such passages, Emerson is the rhapsodic champion of autonomy and originality, exalting an intuitive “divinity within” and liberation from the dead weight of the past. Repudiating outworn institutions and established authority, he insists, in notably virile (and, as we’ll see, again Miltonic) imagery, that to be a “man” one “must be a non-conformist,” since “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (E&L 261). Once again, faced with this antithesis between society and self, we need to seek the balance Emerson wants us to find, however difficult he makes the task by the power of his own rhetoric.

Paradise Lost 1667 title page

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7.

Resistance to conformity and to the burden of tradition also extends to self-reliance and self-trust in engaging literary and historical texts, though, here again, we encounter a huge caveat. We are to read “creatively,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance” and in “The American Scholar,” adding in a third, “History” (which opens Essays: First Series), that the student is to read “actively and not passively; to esteem his own life in the text,” for everything is “within us, of the soul.” This, he asserts, is his “claim of claims” (E&L, 237, 239). If this claim, exciting as it is, seems excessive, it’s because it is. Anticipating all of these essays, Emerson had foreshadowed in an 1831 journal entry his defiant assertion of autonomy and originality. The journal entry reads: “Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence. Let him scorn to imitate any man, let him scorn to be a secondary man” (JMN 3:199). And following this scornful rejection of parasitic imitation in favor of creative originality, he inscribed in the same journal these four lines of verse:

In your own bosom are your destiny’s Stars.
Confidence in yourself, prompt resolution;
This is your Venus! & the sole malignant,
The only one that harmeth you, is Doubt! (JMN 3: 251)

But despite adamant and absolute “confidence in yourself,” this ringing endorsement of self-reliant originality is borrowed. The lines are quoted from a German play by Friedrich von Schiller, which Emerson referred to as “Coleridge’s Wallenstein” since he read Schiller’s drama in the British Romantic’s translation—just one of many examples of Coleridge serving as a transatlantic conduit of German thought to his less-than-totally self-reliant American recipient. “Insist on yourself,” cries Emerson; “never imitate,” which is, at best, to half-possess “the adopted talent of another.” And this imperative was foreshadowed in the dramatic declaration at the outset of “Self-Reliance” that “imitation is suicide,” that a man “must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion” (E&L 278-79, 259). Nevertheless, other examples of what has been called the “paradox of originality” occur in “Self-Reliance” itself. Though it rejects “imitation” and mere reading (“tuition”) in favor of spontaneous “intuition,” “Self-Reliance” begins, “I read the other day some verses….” (E&L 259). And halfway through, Emerson begins a paragraph: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’ but quotes some saint or sage” (E&L 270). But once again, despite the point he is making, Emerson himself is quoting, this time from René Descartes’ Second Meditation. “The truth,” as Emerson acknowledged in an 1835 lecture, “The Age of Fable,” is that “There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain.” Indeed, our debt to our precursors is “so massive” that one might say (as he does in a splendid late lecture, “Quotation and Originality”) “there is no pure originality. All minds quote.” “Genius borrows nobly”; if we could trace the line back to them, we would, he adds, find that “even the archangels” quote.[28] This paradox is never more paradoxical than in Nature. That seminal book, which announces American and Emersonian originality, is riddled with unacknowledged borrowings from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and yet somehow remains original.

Claiming originality yet quoting, mixing what he contrasts as book-learning or “tuition” with original “intuition,” Emerson is not dismantling the whole “upright” and individualistic thesis of “Self-Reliance,” a text that is nothing if not a rejection of suppliant dependence and an expression of what he repeatedly calls the “sovereignty” or “majesty” of “the erect position” (E&L 282)—though, even here, Emerson is echoing Milton’s description of unfallen Adam and Eve, “erect and tall,/ Godlike erect,” and “clad/ In naked majesty.”[29] And yet, since a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson can, in a famous passage at the outset of “Self-Reliance,” propose as the “highest merit” ascribable to “Moses, Plato, and Milton” that they supposedly “set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they [themselves] thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (E&L 259). These inner flashes anticipate the “Spontaneity or Instinct,” the “primary wisdom” Emerson calls “Intuition” (E&L 269, cf. 259 and 271). These gleams of light constitute, Emerson insisted in a contemporaneous (1845) journal entry, “the best part…of every mind.” Tantalizing “gleams” hovering “unpossessed before” a man, they far exceed in significance “that which he knows” through pedestrian Understanding. Emerson’s famous contrast, derived from Coleridge, between “Reason” and mere “Understanding” is complicated by the fact (a source of confusion for readers) that Emerson also follows Coleridge in equating capitalized Reason with “intuitive Reason” and thus with what the Romantics mean by the creative Imagination.

Those mysterious “gleams” to which Emerson refers emanate essentially, as we have seen, from his most cherished poem, the Intimations Ode. He was haunted by its “visionary gleam” and turned Wordsworth’s “a master light of all our seeing” into “the master light of all our seeing.” These profound intuitions and intimations, which even Wordsworth acknowledged were ineffable (“be they what they may”), remained, in Emerson’s favorite phrase from the Ode, “the fountain light of all our day.” That repeated “our,” replicated in Wordsworth’s shift from “I” to “we” in the final stanza of the Ode, marks the transition from the private self to a more generous inclusiveness. The “self within” of Emersonian self-reliance is also more expansive than it initially appears—an expansiveness reflecting a pair of talismanic texts provided to a grateful Emerson by Wordsworth’s friend and fellow-laborer, Coleridge.

I have earlier cited Coleridge’s emphasis, in The Statesman’s Manual, on the “enlargements and elevation” of the principled soul “above its mere self,” a passage echoed by Emerson in both his essay “Character” and in “Uses of Great Men.” Two Coleridge texts that meant even more to Emerson, the “Essay on Method” in The Friend and Aids to Reflection, provided crucial help in forming—as a sort of supplement or qualification, even partial corrective, to “Self-Reliance”—his idea of an expanded or enlarged self. The reciprocity between “each and all” (“the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each”), coupled with the Latin axiom Quantum sumus, scimus (“we are what we know, and know what we are”), became, with the help of Coleridge’s own gloss in Aids to Reflection, momentous sources for Emerson’s finding (to synopsize the passage of Coleridge cited as my second epigraph) “within ourselves,” a self that is paradoxically “more than ourselves,” the ground and substance of the moral life and of “all other knowledge.”[30] This Coleridgean sanction for an inner self that transcends the merely egoistic helps explain what, at its deepest level, Emerson meant by “self-reliance.” However straightforward it may seem at times, it is actually a complex concept—mixing Milton, Kant, and the British Romantics, in a blend that turns out, paradoxically but as usual, to be distinctively “Emersonian.” As such, it cannot, or at least should not, be reduced to “rugged individualism,” let alone to mere selfishness.

Transparent Eyeball by Ron KosterTransparent Eyeball courtesy Ron Koster, Psymon Web Bindery

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Conclusion

Given Emerson’s habit of emphasizing, depending on the occasion, a single aspect of a larger truth, his formulations are often ambiguous, and this is nowhere more true than in his various presentations of self-reliance. In the end, however, Emerson’s key concept seems to embrace and illuminate—however fierce the affirmation of individualism and independence in the essay actually titled “Self-Reliance”—the problematic relationship between the merely private self and what a Coleridgean Emerson called the “enlarged” Self, between the Self and God, even the polarity between what he referred to as Solitude and Society. An “intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea,” Emerson was, notes Lawrence Buell, “forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible.” Nevertheless, like George Kateb, perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the theory of Self-Reliance, Buell insists on the importance to Emerson of what Kateb calls “impersonal individuality”: a formulation that subsumes the apparent or actual “contradiction” between the God within and what Emerson calls “the “Over-Soul,” between the assertion of an autonomous, intuitive self and the absorption of that self in an all-encompassing universal and impersonal life-force. I cannot improve upon Buell’s final formulation:

The Me at the bottom of the me, the “Trustee” or “aboriginal Self” on which reliance may be safely grounded, is despite whatever appearances to the contrary not a merely personal interest but a universal. The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the “private” is a “public” power on which anyone can potentially draw. So Self-Reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, but then resistance to shallow impulse.[31]

That a double negative should be at the crux of an affirmative vision is only one of many paradoxes attending Emerson’s central idea. One is occasionally left wondering if Emersonian self-reliance is advocacy of extreme individualism, or individualism at all. If we are to take Emerson at face value when he later claims (W 11:236) that “Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God,” it has to be added that few of the ardent young readers intoxicated by the essay of that title have taken it as a theological treatise.[32] And what, precisely, is Emerson telling us about the relationship between Spirit, Nature, Mind and, ultimately, between God and Man, Divinity and the Self? Such protean relationships, volatile in themselves, are further problematized by Emerson’s often shifting definitions, within a single text or over time. The paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that begins by insisting that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” continues:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (E&L 265)

In the case of Emerson, this admission or, rather, vaunting of inconsistency, contradiction, and sibylline incomprehensibility, may seem to be the “last fact behind which analysis cannot go” (E&L 269). Yet even in “Self-Reliance,” the aboriginal Self is neither anarchic nor arbitrary; indeed, it is disciplined by “stern” if self-imposed laws, a Self whose internal moral depths renders trivial the merely private good we associate with our superficial selves. “Compare all that we call ourselves,” says Emerson in “Character,” all “our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinence, and we take part with hasty shame against ourselves.” Juxtaposing two phrases separated graphically by only a single letter, Emerson explicitly contrasts our deep “moral nature” with what Wordsworth refers to in the pivotal stanza of the Intimations Ode as “our mortal nature,” whose hasty shame takes the form of guilty trembling. After evoking those Wordsworthian “High instincts, before which our mortal nature/ Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,” Emerson goes on to quote the rest of this crucial ninth stanza—accurately, with the exception of one significant change; he alters Wordsworth’s “a master light” to “the master light of all our seeing.” (W 10:94).

That is the light that Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson, call “intuitive Reason”: the near-angelic power that leads the lowercase self, limited by “tuition” and mere Understanding, to “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition”; and it is in that “deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,” that “all things find their common origin….Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (E&L 269). And it is this “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing,” that guides and distinguishes the higher (individual and yet universal) Self: the Transcendental Self in which we can “trust,” and upon which “reliance may be safely grounded.” The lower self, “bound” and constricted, is often mired in “mean egotism” (E&L 10). But “whenever the great day dawns, the day of truth in the soul, it comes with awful invitation to me to accept it, to blend with its aurora” (EPP 497). In that aurora—the great Ode’s “fountain light of all our day” illuminating intuitive “truths that wake,/ To perish never”—contradiction and duality blend (for those, however skeptical, still open to that light) into a Unity in which Reason and Intuition are indistinguishable, the enlarged Self finding “peace” in (to again quote the final words of “Self-Reliance”) “the triumph of principles.”

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

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Photo credit  Return to photo

Photo originally reproduced in “The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche in the Third Reich: Alfred Baeumler’s ‘Heroic Realism’” by Max Whyte, in Journal of Contemporary History, April ­2008.

Emerson texts cited parenthetically

E&L   Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. NY: Library of America, 1983.

EL   The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

EPP   Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. NY and London: Norton, 2001.

JMN   The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960-1982.

W   The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §2, in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), 99.

  2. E&L 81; italics added. For the passage (verse 70) in Thomas, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 32.

  3. E&L 80, 89. Ironically, given Emerson’s thirty-year ostracism from Harvard following this address, it was voted in 1903 that money left over from the celebration of the centennial of his birth be spent on a marble tablet, placed in the old Divinity School chapel, and inscribed: “Acquaint yourself at first hand with Deity.”

  4. For a synopsis of the vehement response to the Divinity School Address, as well as Emerson’s own response, in his poem “Uriel,” see my Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 339-44.

  5. For both lampoon and commentary, see Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. 1:160. Vol 7 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Bart Winer, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969-2003).

  6. Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: George P. Putnam, 1848).

  7. EPP 497. This polarity was later fleshed out in “Circles,” in the famed paragraph beginning, “Our moods do not believe in each other,” and ending, “Alas…for this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall” (E&L 406): a vacillation between self-deification and utter nihilism.

  8. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 326. This opening paragraph had begun, “I know my fate. My name one day will be associated with the memory of something tremendous.” Expressing a “terrible fear” that “one day” he would be “pronounced holy,” he said he was writing Ecce Homo to “prevent people from doing mischief with me.” Written in 1888, but not published until 1908, eight years after Nietzsche’s death, Ecce Homo did little to prevent mischief.

  9. Kazin, God and the American Writer (New York: Vintage, 1997), 14.

  10. This is the conclusion of Timothy W. Ryback, in “Hitler’s Forgotten Library: The Man, His Books, and His Search for God” (Atlantic Monthly [May 2003], 76-90). In 2001, Ryback studied Hitler’s annotations in these and other religio-philosophical books and manuscripts in the Führer’s personal library, volumes now housed in the Hitler Collection in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Quoted by Paul R. Hinlicky, Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from Nazism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 134.

  12. Reich, “The Devil’s Miracle Man,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1999.

  13. Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2004), 200. Earlier, however, in the title of the Prelude to a 1996 book, Bloom equated Emersonian “Self-Reliance” with “Mere [pure] Gnosis,” especially with the Gnostic concept of the “deep self” as a “unit of the universe,” the “original self” being “already one with God.” Omens of Millennium (New York Riverhead, 1996), 1, 15, 20, 23.

  14. The American Classics: A Personal Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 42-43, 51. In a Marxist critique, V. F. Calverton conceded Emerson’s sincerity and his initially liberating impulses. “Eternally,” however, “Emerson’s stress is upon the self, the individual self, the personal ego. Society can take care of itself, or go hang, as the frontiersman would have put it. It is the individual who must be stressed, the individual who must…become sufficient unto himself….Without wishing it, Emerson gave sanction by virtue of his doctrines to every type of exploitation which the frontier encouraged.” But Calverton goes too far in concluding that the faith of Emerson and Whitman in the common man as “a petty bourgeois individual” is outmoded and must now be replaced (he was writing in the depth of the Depression) by “our belief” in the common man as “proletarian collectivist.” The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 247-49, 258, 479-80.Whatever Emerson’s sins, it’s Calverton’s vision of the “future” that now seems outmoded.

  15. Bloom, “Mr. America,” New York Review of Books (November 22, 1984). Updike, “Emersonianism,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991). Cavell responded to such charges, perhaps more ingeniously than persuasively, in his 1984 lecture “Hope against Hope,” reprinted as Appendix A of his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 134-35.

  16. EL 3:266. His initial reticence but final commitment to the abolition of slavery has been clarified by Emerson’s Antislavery Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson; and by The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, ed. David. M. Robinson (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

  17. Robert Lowell, invited to a White House reception during the Vietnam war (which he opposed), was planning to attend—until urged not to by friends and colleagues, who wanted the nation’s most prominent poet at the time to make a statement by rejecting President Johnson’s invitation. Like Emerson, Lowell agreed with the opposition to presidential policy, but took an activist and public position only because pressed to do so by friends.

  18. The “caducous” passage is repugnant enough to call for a note to assure readers that its author was anything but a cold, unfeeling parent. No stranger to familial tragedy, Emerson had earlier suffered the loss of his beloved Ellen, his first wife, and of two cherished brothers, Charles and Edward. But the death of little Waldo was the single most devastating event of his life. Despite his famous optimism, the self-reliant exponent of “the erect position” acknowledged in “Threnody,” his long-delayed elegy for his son, that “this losing is true dying;/ This is lordly man’s down-lying,/ This his slow but sure reclining,/ Star by star his world resigning” (lines 162-65). With the help of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality Ode, Emerson managed to supply the generically-required consolation; in the final quintessentially Emersonian line, his precious son is pronounced “Lost in God, in Godhead found” (line 289).

    But elegy is one thing, agony another. Nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who had been sent by her father to inquire about the condition of “little Waldo, then lying very ill,” never forgot what she saw and heard when Emerson entered the room. “His father came to me, so worn with watching and changed by sorrow that I was startled and could only stammer out my message. ‘Child, he is dead’ was the answer.” That was “my first glimpse of a great grief,” she recalled in commemorating Emerson’s own death forty years later, adding that “the anguish that made a familiar face so tragic…gave those few words more pathos than the sweet lamentation of the Threnody.” (“Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Youth’s Companion [May 25, 1882], 213-14.) Similarly, the brother of Elizabeth Hoar—who had grieved with his sister when her fiancé, Emerson’s brother Charles, died in 1836—said that he was “never more impressed with a human expression of agony than by that of Emerson leading the way into the room where little Waldo lay dead.” For the reaction of Rockwood Hoar, Jr., see Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.

  19. Frost, “The Secret Sits.” The allegiance to Emerson on the part of Robert Frost was confirmed in his lecture “On Emerson,” delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1958. On that occasion, Frost stressed his alignment with Emerson’s monistic idealism; but in anti-welfare system poems like “Provide, Provide!,” Frost sounds like the Emerson resistant to giving to “miscellaneous charities.” Frost considered “Uriel” (Emerson’s defiant response to attacks on his Divinity School Address) the best American poem; Job, a character in Frost’s The Masque of Reason (line 344) refers to “Uriel” as “the greatest Western poem yet.”

  20. Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (1972), 23. Vol. 6 in CC.

  21. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 56.

  22. Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 236.

  23. In the sestet to Sonnet XII, Milton refers to those who “bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,/ And still revolt when truth would set them free./ License they mean when they cry liberty;/ For who loves that must first be wise and good.”

  24. Nietzsche partially transcribed the passage in “Self-Reliance” in which Emerson nonchalantly says that if he is “the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” An echoing Nietzsche has his prophet say (in “On the Pitying,” the section on repression in the second part of Zarathustra): “to him who is possessed by the devil I whisper this word: ‘Better for you to rear up your devil!’” Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 201.

  25. William Shaw, email to me dated June 1, 2016. Bill raised a crucial double-question: “Is Emerson saying that what made intuitive behavior wise was some fixed principle of the person defining it for him/herself? Or, does the person define that principle as well, so there is this floating relativity?” Though I am arguing that the “principles” that “triumph” in the final sentence of “Self-Reliance” are “fixed,” there is evidence enough in Emerson’s texts to also support a “floating relativity” thesis.

  26. Coleridge, Appendix C of The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay Sermons, 63.

  27. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XIV:450-56. The equivalent cognitive turn in Keats occurs in the first of the great odes. Like the “Prospectus,” the “Ode to Psyche” assimilates and supersedes Milton and adopts Wordsworth’s (Coleridge-influenced) adaptation of Kant. As the neglected goddess’s priest and choir all in one, “see[ing] and sing[ing] by my own eyes inspired,” Keats will, in the extraordinary final stanza, “build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind” (lines 50-51), precisely that “Mind of Man” chosen by Wordsworth as his haunt and the “main region” of his “song.”

  28. “The Age of Fable,” in EL 1:284-85. “Quotation and Originality,” in EPP 320, 323.

  29. PL IV:288-90. In his deliberately sordid 1920 poem “Sweeney Erect,” whose title constitutes a phallic pun on Emerson’s (Miltonic) “erect position,” T. S. Eliot cites Emerson by name:

    The lengthened shadow of a man
    xxxxxxxIs history, said Emerson
    Who had not seen the silhouette
    xxxxxxxOf Sweeney straddled in the sun.

    In these lines, Eliot alludes to another formulation from “Self-Reliance” (“an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”), which he fuses with a related phrase from Emerson’s “History”: “If the whole of history is one man, it is all to be explained from private experience.”

  30. The Friend (vol. 4 of the CC, 1969), ed. Barbara Rooke, 2 vols. I:511; Aids to Reflection (vol. 9 of CC, 1993), ed. John Beer, 30n. This book’s immense impact on Coleridge’s American disciples, Emerson included,was partly attributable to the cogent “Preliminary Essay” by James March (included by Beer) in introducing his 1829 edition of Coleridge’s 1825 text.

  31. Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2003), 65. Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 90-91. See also Kateb’s Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

  32. This fusion of self-reliance with “reliance on God”—along with Fichte’s self-identification with God and Emerson’s similar “inner light” sense of divinity within (at least at certain “illuminated” moments)—has, as we’ve seen in the case of Adolf Hitler, tragic ramifications. There are also tragi-comic examples that amount to a reductio ad absurdum of the idea. Displaying humor as well as utter obliviousness to the widespread suffering caused by his industry, Lloyd  C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, publicly quipped, in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis that had just upended millions of “lesser” lives, that bankers are “doing God’s work.” On a less calamitous level, hip-hop artist and pseudo-fashionista Kanye West, whose colossal ego dwarfs that of even the most self-entitled banker, has proclaimed, with not a trace of saving irony, that “God chose me. He made a path for me….I am God’s vessel.” Both men, especially West, have recently been presented, not as agents fulfilling a divine purpose, but as “assholes.” See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 76n, 85.

Aug 082016
 

Evan Lavender-Smith

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How is metal made?

—Metal. Comes from the earth. From minerals inside the earth. We go down into a mine, gather up the minerals, the ore, iron ore, copper ore, whatever kind of mine it is, like the old copper mine out by the mountain pass I showed you and your brother, remember? Heat up the ore, turn it nice and smooth just like those iron poles supporting that slide there.

—Thanks. Back in a jiff.

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I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—How are mountains made?

—Mountains?

—Mountains. Ever heard of them?

—Are you going to eat your burger or just ask questions? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

—Mountains.

—Plate tectonics. Crust of the earth moving around. There’s these huge pieces of crust called tectonic plates. Sometimes they smash into each other. Nowhere for the smashed edges to go except for up, kind of like how your brother will set two of his trains going at each other and when they collide they’ll both go up for a second. Remember? The plates smash together. Go up. Voila. Mountains.

—Great. Back in a lickety-split.

.

I have a question.

—You going to eat your burger?

—Yes.

—When?

—The Earth.

—The Earth? You mean the planet?

—Planet Earth, ever heard of it?

—Planet formation, the nebular hypothesis. Molecular hydrogen clouds. Protoplanetary disks, planetesimals, runaway accretions, like that young star I showed you through your brother’s telescope. Remember?

—Back before you know it.

.

I have a question.

—Eat your burger. You’re not allowed on the jungle gym again until you finish.

—But first you have to answer my question. And then I’ll eat my burger.

—Fine.

—Can we get the heck out of this place?

—Good question. Now eat your burger.

.

I have a question.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.

—What’s your job?

—My job? Being your father.

—That’s not a job.

—Writer..

—I have a question.

—Shoot. I mean, get back in the pool.

—How much do you make from your writing?

—You’re exactly like your brother. Go on, they’re waiting for you..

—I have a question. Then I’ll get back in the pool.

—Shoot.

—How much does Mom make?

—Get back in the pool, young lady.

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Don’t do that. When did you start doing that, anyway?

—What?

—You must be joking. You always used to say I hope to have an answer.    —Go on. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back in the pool. You’re exactly like your brother.

—You must be joking.

.

I have a question.

—I hope to have an answer.

—You keep bringing him up. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. It seems like you almost always bring him up every single question every single time. So my question for you is this. Why do you always have to bring him up? Is it because he’s a boy and you’re a boy and that means you think you have to bring him up every single question every single time?

—Now hold on a second.

—They’re our questions. You have things you do with him and you have things you do with me. The questions are our thing, not his. We’re two peas in a pod with our questions. I know what you’re going to say. You’re sorry. That’s what you always say when I say something I don’t like about you. You’ll say you’re sorry. And you understand. And then you’ll say you won’t bring him up again. You’ll say that but just watch. You’ll probably bring him up again by the end of my lesson.

—I’m sorry.

—See?

—I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—I promise I won’t bring him up again.

—See?

—I’m sorry. I mean, I understand.

—You must be joking.

—You’re exactly like your brother, you know that?

.

Song or just a back rub?

—I wish he were dead.

—Who?

—You must be joking.

—Dead? You know what dead means? You’d never see him again.

—Exactly.

—Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs, stop asking. I have a question.

—Shoot.

—How old was he when he stopped getting songs?

—Couldn’t say. Don’t remember.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Don’t remember.

—You don’t remember anything, do you?

—No, not really. Come on, it’s getting late. Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. See?

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why do you say always shoot when I say I have a question?

—Shoot. It means go ahead and ask your question. Shoot, fire away, lay it on me. Ask your question.

—It does?

—Yes. What did you think it meant?

—That you were tired of me asking you so many questions. Like, oh no, here we go again. Like, you know, shoot.

.

I have a question. Water.

—Water. Water is a combination of …

—Hydrogen.

—Hydrogen. Hydrogen is an element, see, it’s …

—Stars.

—Stars. Well, there are a number of ways by which scientists …

—Gravity.

—Gravity. Gravity? Well, I’m afraid gravity’s rather …

—The universe.

—The universe?

—The universe, ever heard of it?

—Well.

—The universe, well?

—Well, there are several possibilities concerning the origin of …

—Got it. Back in two shakes of lamb’s tail.

—Are you going to eat your burger? Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Sometimes it seems like your answers come straight out of Wikipedia. Like you have Wikipedia in your head. But you’re just a total nerd dad right? You don’t actually have internet in your head?

—You must be joking.

.

Sometimes it seems like you’re asking your questions just to ask questions. That you’re not even listening to my answers. Or while you’re listening to my answers you’re listening only in order to latch on to some detail that you’ll focus on in a follow-up question. Are you even listening to the answers? Are you even trying to remember my answers or are you only trying to get to your next question?

—That is so mean. That’s probably the meanest thing anybody’s ever said to me.

—I’m sorry.

—I knew you would say that.

—I mean, I understand..

—I have a question. What’s time made out of? I have a question. What color were stegosauri? I have a question. What’s the difference, exactly, between a regular engine and a diesel engine?

—You can ask me as many questions as you like. Anytime.

—I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Why are you so mean?

—Song or just a back rub?

—You must be joking. I’m too old for songs. Stop asking.

.

Do you remember when you were telling me about the universe? We were at Carl’s Jr. and I kept coming back to the table from the jungle gym to ask you questions.

—I don’t know. It’s all kind of a blur now.

—You said that the universe was going to keep expanding and expanding until the galaxies were so far away from each other that no one on any planet would ever be able to know that there were other galaxies or planets out there but it wouldn’t matter anyway because by that time all the planets and stars were going to be frozen solid and no life would exist anywhere and everything would be totally dead forever.

—Did I say that? I must have been in a grumpy mood. Go on, get back in the pool.

.

I have a question.

—Shoot.

—Death.

—Death?

—Death. That’s my question.

—Death.

—Lay it on me.

—Well.

—Death, well?

—No. Well. Shoot. Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you. I’ll have an answer ready when you get back. You’re kind of young for this stuff, though, don’t you think?

.

Look, if I’m too old for songs, then I’m old enough for this.

—You sure?

—As sure as the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

—Okay. You ready?

—Ready and rearing to go.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Heaven.

—Heaven? You must be joking.

—Heaven. God. Angels.

—You must be joking.

—Go on, get back in the pool. They’re waiting for you.

.

Don’t give me an easy answer just because it’s me and you think I’m too young for this. I want the truth. I want to know what I’m up against here.

—What you’re up against? Just eat your burger. Some cow had to die for that burger to happen, you know.

—What I have to look forward to.

—Heaven. You’re an angel. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now your brother, on the other hand … Just eat your burger. You’re not going back on the jungle gym until you do.

—But I’ve heard you tell him that heaven isn’t real. That it’s a fairy tale. Why do you tell him one thing and tell me something totally different? How old was he when you told him the truth about death?

—Couldn’t say.

—Couldn’t say or don’t remember?

—Eat your burger.

—I’m not going to eat my burger unless you tell me what death’s all about. If you don’t tell me the truth about death, then this cow will have died for nothing.

—Just eat your burger.

—What’s going to happen to me when I die?

—I don’t know. Couldn’t say. Two more bites and then you can play on the jungle gym.

—Couldn’t say or don’t know?

—Burger.

—So you admit that heaven isn’t real?

—Go on, play on the jungle gym. Leave me alone.

.

Song or just a back rub?

—Is God real then, even if heaven isn’t?

—Of course.

—You’re lying. I can always tell when you’re lying.

—How?

—Because your voice changes and you use different words. You wouldn’t have said of course if you were telling the truth. You would’ve just said yes or yep like normal.

—Listen to me, sweetie. Everybody gets to believe in whatever they want.

—So why do you always call me your angel if you don’t even believe in angels?

—It’s a figure of speech. Now, song or just a back rub?

—So you don’t think I’m a real angel?

—Listen. If you believe in God and heaven and angels, that’s great. It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what you believe.

—I believe that metal grows on trees. I believe that mountains are made of chocolate. I believe that the Earth is actually a very large flower.

—Well, I’m afraid that’s a bit different. There’s some stuff that science can tell us about and some stuff it can’t. Science can tell us about metal and mountains, but it can’t tell us very much about heaven and God and angels. That’s one of the problems with science.

—Or maybe that’s one of the problems with heaven and God and angels.

—Song or just a back rub?

—You tell me metal is all about mines and mountains are all about plates and planets are all about runaway accretions. Now it’s time for you to tell me what death’s all about. I know you already told him because he told me you did and he won’t tell me no matter what I offer to trade him for it. Now just tell me. Or else I’m not going to sleep tonight.

—You’ll go to sleep if I tell you? Promise?

—Promise.

—Okay, here we go.

—Lay it on me.

—Okay. Heaven. Not real.

—Got it. Heaven, total sham. And?

—Angels. Also not real.

—Angels, bunch of fakes, check. What else?

—That’s it.

—But what about death? You forgot death. What’s going to happen to me when I die? That’s the most important one.

—Song or just a back rub?

—Death.

—You need to try to get this stuff out of your head, sweetie. I want to keep you innocent and naïve for as long as possible. You’re my angel.

—Your angel of death, maybe.

—What?

—Angel of death. Heard it on one of my shows.

—Well, please don’t ever say it again.

—What’s going to happen to me? I think about it a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think about it almost every night after you leave. Sometimes I stay up half the night thinking about it. I’m freaked out. I just want you to tell me the truth. What’s going to happen? Tell me the truth and then I’ll go to sleep.

—Fine. Nothing’s going to happen.

—You must be joking.

—Nothing’s going to happen. That’s what’s going to happen. Nothing. You’re not going to be alive. It’ll be exactly like it was before you were born.

—What do you mean?

—Think back to before you were born.

—What do you mean, before I was born?

—What was going on with you before you were born.

—I don’t know. Nothing.

—Exactly.

—So that’s how it’ll be? After I die everything will go back to being like it was before I was born?

—Yes.

—But that’s not so bad. Right?

—Right. Or, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be so bad. It’ll be fine. That’s right, death’s no big deal. See?

—They didn’t have iPads back then, did they? I’ll have to figure out something else to play with. They still had those Nintendo things. The little ones you could hold in your hands. What were those called?

—Game Boys.

—Game Boys, right. Will you buy me a Game Boy after I die?

—Absolutely. Song or just a back rub?

—Just a back rub. I’m too old for songs.

—Evan Lavender-Smith

 

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books) and Avatar (Six Gallery Press). He lives in New Mexico. More at el-s.net.

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Aug 072016
 

Ray

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A complicated wood 

I spend my morning wondering
about your covered wrists,
the long silences, like those left
in the treacherous sounds
between islands after ships are lost.

I watch the precision
as your fingers navigate a paper-clip,
unlock, then remake the bends,
again, again, again.

At night I exhume, re-wind
Klein and Jung and Winnicott.

My grandmother had a music box
her father made; each time I visited
she’d wind it up, lift the wooden
lid to let the mechanism plink
its mournful Hornpipe
as a siren pirouetted on a rock.

It sits above my desk.
She lies beneath the knotted wood
wrapped in a familiar scent.

Diatom1The glass images between the poems are examples of work by the poet Michael Ray. More can be seen here and here.

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An island turning over on its side

Like insomnia, our meeting wasn’t planned.
She sat opposite the only empty chair.
Madame Bovary lay shut beside her tea.
There was music in the thinness of her wrists.
We talked until the café dropped its blinds,
walked across the city to her bed.
After the tide receded we lay naked.
The gutter pipes were choked,
sheets of rain cascaded.
I watched as she turned over on her side;
the sweep of headlights undoing her youth.
In her left eye, a small red island
floated in a blue unstable sea –
a country I was too young to understand.

 

Livres de la solitude
…….
After Louise Bourgeois

The room is lit
for an interrogation.

The floor, a raised
white platform.

A ring of grey sticks
is growing up –

a cleft fence
or whittled children.

Inside, books of red
cloth are stacked;

the raw edges, bound
with blue thread.

A column
as tall as a woman.

This is love
balanced, sewn shut.

couple

Speed my slowing heart

Outside, liverish leaves are falling
on the lawn, reticulated by the wind’s
bitter this way and salt-flung that.

Autumn has left our picnic spot side-parted.
A bald patch shows the blackbird’s small
white packet and in the air a flick-knife

panic to where he perches in the tree,
and no doubt wonders why dawn and worms
and cats always come in that order.

The thought of breakfast takes me from last night’s
failure, to the cloud gathering above our kettle,
and the sky which couldn’t be more loaded.

Snow begins to fall, reminds me of spring
and us looking out beneath the willow’s
canopy of fluff, speculating why the foxglove

only trumpets every other year;
and how its stem of empty seed-heads
stands like a spent and tattered phallus.

 

That life 

Who paints the bargeboards blue and oils
the gate that used to creak? And despite
seagulls littering the roof, risk of full moons
flooding the yard, who chose the ruined
church, sinking into bracken, for their view?

Who walks a lurcher along the shore,
parks their battered black car a cat’s
hiss from the window box, rioting
violets massed along the sill?

Who sleeps in this cottage with its attic
room of wormy boards sloped towards
the early morning sun? And who
is stood barefoot, on those kitchen
flags that gave such cool relief?

Melt

We break milk

move to solids
and trees shoot
leaves like a fix
for breath

we break ice,
and boats move
like small fingers
through slush

we break cruths –
truss the feet
of young girls,
vacuum pack fruit.

We break down
and listen with
the psychomechanic,
to the fault.

— Michael Ray

.

Michael Ray is a poet and glass artist living in West Cork, Ireland. His poems have appeared in a number of Irish and international journals, including The Moth, The Irish Independent, The Shop, Cyphers, The Penny Dreadful, One, Southword, The Stinging Fly, Ambit and Magma. In 2012 he was a winner in the Fish International poetry competition. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Hennessey award. In 2016, he won the Poetry Ireland Café poetry competition. Michael’s visual art has been collected by the Irish Craft and Design Council, the Department for Foreign Affairs and the National Museum of Ireland.

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