Numéro Cinq has a long suit in book art, art made from books, hybrid book art, and text off the page. Much of this is due to Nance Van Winckel who has gradually built here a grand digital exhibition hall of amazing art and artists, names like Derek white at Calamari Press, Marilyn R. Rosenberg, Ingrid Ruthig, and Todd Bartel. That’s not a total list either. And, on the principle that “if you build it, they will come,” other artists have seen what we are doing a find a way to join in. I think especially of Paul Forte’s contributions to the magazine, including the gorgeous images from a show — Transformed Volumes — he curated in 2013. These are the artists featured this month in the slider at the Top of the Page.
Call it Summer Heat, the sun stroke issue, because…because, well, it’s hot and this issue sizzles (um, as they all do these days) with the macabre and the dead (not all of it, but some).
This time we have gorgeous, melancholy poems from the Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie, daughter on sickbed watch, the generational situation these days. Who does not identify with this? Sad, sad, sad.
Still stuck between our shoulder blades the knife that says “Your father is almost dead,”
That holds in the blood of remorse and guilt, the vast stream comprised of all of the little losings so far and the red ocean to come.
And from fabled Mexico, fiction by the inimitable Julián Herbert, his second appearance in the magazine: a visit to the zombie apocalypse that lends new meaning to the phrase ‘flowers of evil.’ Translated by Brendan Riley.
He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. —Julián Herbert
And our own Contributing Editor Fernando Sdrigotti, from Argentina via London, contributes a mordant little story of domesticity and cat death. (There is a lot of death in this issue.)
A minute later she comes through the door crying with the cat in his cage. I lock myself in the toilet and feed Toto four 5mg crushed Valium mixed with milk in a syringe. He swallows every drop without moaning. I almost feel sad for him. —Fernando Sdrigotti
NC’s social conscience, one of our shadow contributors, Diane Lefer has an essay on the military, imperial violence and a visit to a Marine training base where she runs through Iraq combat simulations.
Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. —Diane Lefer
Pierre Joris, an extaordinary poet and translator (check out his translations on NC), has written for us a lovely memoir of childhood, of learning to read.
But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. —Pierre Joris
Robert Day completes his Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind series with a brief memoir about Raymond Carver. Just a quick note (a more formal announcement will follow): Day’s essays for NC are going to be published in book form by Serving House Press, with a special introduction by dg.
Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure. —Robert Day
Matthew Jakubowski, young and up-and-coming, writes a dreamy story of high rise alienation and glass walls.
She liked how the towers swayed and creaked a little in high winds, like old ships rocking the crew to sleep. She liked believing that somehow the green hills weren’t giving in, they were surging back toward the city from the horizon. —Matthew Jakubowski
Mark Jay Mirsky, author, editor, and founder — along with Donald Barthelme, Jane Delynn, and Max Frisch — of Fiction, reviews Thought Flights, short essays by Robert Musil, translated by our own Genese Grill.
I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind. —Mark Jay Mirsky
All in-house, as it were (my goodness we have a talented bunch of writers working here!), Richard Farrell reviews Ectopic, a new story collection by Senior Editor R. W. Gray (NC at the Movies).
In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. —Richard Farrell
Julie Larios, whose Undersung essays on poets and poetry are consistently amiable and brilliant, introduces NC readers to the experimental and playful pyrotechnics of the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl. This is an essay about Oulipo and translation as well as Jandl.
With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod. —Julie Larios & Ernst Jandl
Also, ALSO, ALSO!!! there is more. Including a stirring homage to his beloved grandmother upon her death by the Cambodian-American writer Bunkong Tuon, Jeff Bursey’s review of David Winters’s Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory (Winters is always on the NC radar because of his special interest in Gordon Lish and his proselytes), a review of the new Jeff Parker book by Ben Woodard, a new installment of Gerry Beirne’s Uimhir a Cúig series, and a new Numéro Cinq at the Movies.
And quite possibly more!
At the end of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) travels to Angkor Wat, the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia and whispers a secret into the walls of the ancient temple. Secrets run through the film and, indeed, the initial English title of the film was to be Secrets so it is not much of a surprise that Wai ends the film with Chow whispering one into the temple wall. For a film set almost entirely in Hong Kong, though, this might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, this epilogic jaunt to another country and its ruins.
In the pseudo sequel to In the Mood for Love, 2046, a fictional character describes how travel related to his unrequited desire: “I once fell in love with someone. After a while. she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there.” So I, too, went to Angkor Wat, but after I traversed the causeway, the moat, and stepped past the tourists making cutesy photos for their Facebook updates, I didn’t find Mr Chow there waiting for me. I was, however, struck by two things as I entered the upper regions of the temple: the sounds of the birdcalls and the length of a secret.
One of the reasons Angkor Wat does not read like a non sequitur in the film is that, despite the film’s tense intimacy and claustrophobic 1960s Hong Kong setting, travel is a trope throughout the film: Mr Chow’s wife and Mrs Chan’s husband are always away on business in Japan; near the end of the film, Chow eventually transfers to work in Singapore and Mrs Chan follows briefly; the music, particularly the title song, come from other cultures, the Nat King Cole songs in Spanish providing significant flavor (an English American singer singing in Spanish for a Chinese audience); and Mrs Chan seems to work in an imports and exports office, where we hear of ships coming and going. Elsewhere matters in the film. Wai builds Hong Kong as a place people are always leaving so there is a story logic to Mr Chow’s destination and what he whispers to the ancient temple.
Even if elsewhere did not matter, the trope of the secret runs significantly through both Wai’s In the Mood for Love and the pseudo sequel 2046, though the only thing the characters seem to keep secret are their unrequited desires. In In the Mood for Love, Chow recounts a story to his lecherous friend Ping about a certain kind of secret:
Chow: In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… you know what they did?
Ping: Have no idea.
Chow: They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.
There’s something faulty in the lover’s logic here, because if one didn’t want to share such a secret, no trees would be harmed. The act of telling an untellable secret to a tree, or to temple ruins must offer something greater than the discretion of staying silent would.
The tale of the secret also appears in 2046 in a slightly different form when a man who might be Chow (who indeed has the same name and is played by the same actor) several more jaded years later writes a science fiction serial in which a character riding a futuristic train tells a similar story to an android attendant on the train he’s falling in love with:
Before, when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain. They’d find a tree and carve a hole in it. And whisper the secret into the hole. Then cover it over with mud. That way nobody else would ever discover it.
I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret … that no one else would ever know.
Ostensibly this is a character in a serialized novel named Tak, a man riding on a futuristic train talking to a beautiful android woman about a woman we never meet, one whom he once loved. Yet if we read In the Mood for Love and 2046 as connected stories, and we take Chow at his word when he says the characters that appear in the novel are taken from his life, then Tak’s unrequited love relates to Chow’s unrequited love for Mrs Chan.
What the second tale of the secret highlights is a reason for telling a secret in a way that it will never be heard: imitation. For Chow, the secret is in part an imitation, a chance to perform Mrs Chan’s silence and, possibly, decipher it.
The night before I am to visit Angkor Wat, I contemplate imitating Mr Chow, finding the place where he told his secret to the ruins, and telling a secret too. I search for the photo of that scene in the film and save it onto my phone so I can compare it to the temple when I get there, see if I could find the exact spot. It feels goofy, but more than a fan impulse, though I can’t be articulate about the imitative urge.
In the morning, as the guide leads me along the corridors, up and down the disheveled steps, I hold back showing him. Maybe I feel too goofy. Then, I see the women. The faces of the women carved into the stone. The ones that appear beside Chow in the film. They are not the right women (these figures are everywhere in the temple) but now I am curious. I tell my guide about the film; he has never heard of it but has much to say about Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider (which used a nearby temple as a location). I show him the picture. He hands me back my phone and I am not sure he has understood. The tour continues as he tells me of gods and demons, the frothing of great seas and the search for immortality.
The guide is trying to explain to me where I should walk next and where he will wait for me, but my thoughts are caught by sudden and distinct bird calls trilling off the temple walls (you can hear these at the start of the clip posted at the top of this article).
I have heard these birds before, but only in this final sequence of Wai’s In the Mood for Love. They are film memories for me. The first shot with the monk and the temple wall begins in silence and then the birds’ calls become distinct. So there is something blaringly real about them, and oddly dissonant, as it would not have occurred to me as a filmmaker to add bird noises to shots of a temple – not peaceful enough. Though Wai added them, I now know they are dietetic, (they actually occur in that place). What I had heard in several movie theatres, on my couch at home, a film sound I had heard and disregarded on many viewings and even listened to ad nauseam on my iPod via the soundtrack, is now “playing” around me. I experience a shock where the scenes in the film becomes more real and I am closer to that moment, to Mr Chow. This is the shock of art and life feeling too close together somehow.
I find the bird making the song, and I follow him for a little, trying to get a good photo of him while my guide watches on, no doubt thinking I am doing this sightseeing thing wrong. His poker face reveals nothing. On our way back down the steps, the guide asks to see the picture again. During our tour he has been searching for the right place. He has not forgotten. Then he points to the wall. And he has found it. The four women standing together, the images that flank where Chow tells his secret. I stare at the wall, then look around, a bit speechless, the guide watching on in his quiet way, the way he has watched through the whole tour, like he agrees speechless reverence is appropriate.
As I stand at the wall, my hands cupped between my face and the ancient stone, it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps for this moment to be authentic I should have an actual secret if I am to approximate why Chow stood there, if I am to understand him. For Chow standing at the wall, there is an indeterminacy, an unsolved mystery: did Mrs Chan love him after all? For Chow, performing such a secret creates a possible explanation for Mrs Chan’s silence: she loves him but must keep it secret.
Imitation and performance form another trope in the film: Mr Chow and Mrs Chan have a dinner where they eat what the other’s spouse would eat; they try acting out scenes that imagine how their spouses might have seduced one another; Mrs Chan practices how she will ask her husband about his infidelity; and, towards the end of the film, they practice how they will say goodbye. In the scenes where they play their spouses they are liberated to imagine and perform flirting with one another by playing the parts of their less restrained beloveds. And yet these scripts they improvise trap them as (off screen and by association) betrayed and spurned, and limit their performance because, ultimately, they do not want to resemble the husband and wife who have cheated on them.
Their desire, their flirtation, has been defined by imitation and performance, so it’s not a leap to imagine that Chow’s secret whispered to the walls of Angkor Wat is in itself a performance and imitation, one that shows him seeking to understand Mrs Chan and her secret emotions and one that makes possible and real for him that there is indeed a secret affection, that she does in fact love him.
Mouth and hands to the temple wall I search for a secret to tell, but I cannot think of one. Perhaps I can’t keep a secret. Or I can’t imagine one I wouldn’t want to be found out. I come from a long line of blabbermouths. Maybe I have no secrets to keep. Perhaps I should think of an unrequited love in this moment, but I can’t think of one of these either. Sure, I have old, melancholy longings for past loves that happened or didn’t happen or I wish were still happening. Maybe I am over thinking this, but I feel inescapably aware I long for moments that are gone, not those people presently. Even then, none of those moments feels much like a secret.
I wonder whether unrequited love was something only my twenty-something or thirty-something self could covet. Chow was certainly in his late 20s or early 30s in the film. I remember hankering for the unrequited, so fleeting, so enduring, so swoon provoking then. Now, I wonder, maybe not so much. All that drama would get in the way of my morning coffee, the good book, a well-lived life. All those big loves of mine went on to get other lovers, and though I still get messages from them occasionally, nostalgic ones even, it’s no longer possible for me to imagine a narrative with death bed confessions of great loves that never were, or were cut short, or endured for all time. These, it strikes me, are the impossible dreams of young lovers.
The original Chinese title for the film was “Huayang Nianhua (translated in the subtitles as “Full Bloom” but more accurately meaning “those wonderful varied years”)” as Stephen Teo points out. He goes on to argue that the original title “is more suggestive of period nostalgia and the Shanghai association, pointing to an iridescent, kaleidoscopic age of bygone elegance and diversity.” Wai himself, though, points to the original title, how for him it is “very poetic, depicting the prime of one’s life, and in particular a woman’s full bloom. The tale itself is nostalgic for a place, a time, and a stage of life. Chow and Chan are ripe for romantic love, for the unrequited, for profound secrets.
My silence at the wall, in a sense, is a moot point. Chow had plenty to say. In film time he speaks to that hole in the wall for quite some time, the monk, like my guide, looking curiously on. For see, the monk and I are no closer to understanding or deciphering the secret even though I now stand precisely in Chow’s place.
This is a paradox: when Chow stands at the walls of Angkor Wat his secret is not very secretive, yet we don’t know what it is. There is nothing else in the film to suggest the secret could be about anything but his unrequited love for Mrs Chan. In the unity of this story universe, there are not a lot of other options, so this is a rather open secret. Why tell a secret we already know. Between what we think we know and the moment of Chow whispering to the temple wall is an indeterminacy, one that suits this tale of unrequited love, for, if we have even a little doubt about the content of his secret, then our desire, too, is unrequited.
David Ng, in his review of the film, points to the complexity of the ending, something Wai apparently struggled with too:
The extent to which Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow have controlled their passions by the movie’s end is open to speculation. Are they still in love? Or have time and distance allowed them to forget each other? The deleted scenes provided on the DVD take us beyond the movie’s conclusion and into the 1970s. We see a changed Hong Kong, one where the young women have traded in their vibrant cheong-sam dresses for fur-lined jackets and bell bottoms. Mrs. Chan, now the proprietress of the apartment building, and still married to her unfaithful husband, learns that Mr. Chow has returned to Hong Kong from assignment in Singapore. Though they try to avoid one another, they have a chance encounter at the noodle stand where they first noticed each other ten years before. The scene is played as an elongated heartbeat: their eyes meet, they tense up, and like a flash it’s all over. Another deleted scene shows them meeting by chance at the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This time they do speak to each other, though it’s clear that they have moved on with their lives. As they stroll through the ruins of the temple, it’s as if they are touring the remains of their own abandoned passion.
These two alternate endings show us how the unrequited tale asks for an epilogue, one that is not satisfied by these two possibilities, as though that frame will stand in for or provide traditional catharsis, as the unrequited narrative demands catharsis without catharsis.
In Wai’s oevre endings are as complicated as beginnings. In directing Maggie Cheung to play Mrs Chan, Wai suggested she “imagine she was [the same character she played in Days of Being Wild, only ten years older]. To make it more easy, we gave her the same name. From that day on she somehow got an idea of her character and was fine.” Tony Leung appears in that film as a hitman character, appears as Mr Chow in In the Mood for Love, and recurs as another Chow in 2046. Characters are connected from film to film, but then not in clear ways. Another unrequited indeterminacy. David Ng, pointing to the alternate endings and how the characters seem to bleed from film to film, points to a tension between story and plot and the desire between them:
Maybe, and this is wishful thinking, these two characters will meet again and again at different stages in their lives. We will see them have children, grow old, and experience all of the pains that come with a compromised life. In this respect, the deleted scenes are like abandoned tunnels: they make us want to explore where the movie might have taken us if Wong had indeed filmed forever. They make the movie feel bigger and more ambitious, as if the final cut were but a snapshot of the story in mid-development.
These characters live in an unrequited story universe that transcends the individual films, that carry on in a chain of desire, built from moments of indeterminacy and longing.
As the guide and I walked down the steps behind the temple, leaving, I noticed one of the walls seems like a jigsaw puzzle of wrong pieces hammered together by impatient hands. Over time, through changing faiths and political histories, some of the temples have been disassembled, reassembled to form new temples even. I pause on the steps, the OCD part of me wanting to take the wall apart and reassemble it correctly. It occurs to me this is, too, a lover’s metaphor, how we take apart one faith, carry the stones all jumbled to the next one, assemble them into new expressions. The metaphor falls apart on the long walls of what used to be Buddha images just scratched out to leave a parade of stone wounds. Or maybe the metaphor could get carried further, but I won’t.
My various critical and personal attempts to understand Chow and his secret at the wall are also not that different, my reading so full of my own desire, mismatched clunky jigsaw pieces. Yet somehow this is preferable to looking out at the lost stones still strewn out among the flanking forest floor. I look back at the temple rising so fiercely out from the trees, and see a fragment of why Chow came to Angkor Wat, why he chose this instead of climbing a mountain and whispering it into a hole in a tree. With the small act of telling a secret to the walls of Angkor Wat, Chow opened the possibility of the secret enduring, living on, held by the temple, staining its walls, creating a new faith around it, the orange-robed monks as witnesses, the trilling birds as heralds.
–R. W. Gray
Tuesday. Somewhere I’d guess around the 4000th
one of my life, and I’m washing my coffee pot
and putting it onto the dish rack, the way I’ve done
every Wednesday too, every Thursday, every Friday,
Saturday, Sunday, Monday for many years–
most of the 72 by now– so there’s nothing
that you’d call thought in the process, and then with a whoosh,
like thrilling cascade or comet, in broadest daylight
a broadwing hawk swoops in and scatters the finches
from the feeder, which, whatever we try, is a feeder
for squirrels as well, both red and gray. It’s a gray one
the hawk has his eye on, and the hawk seems big as a hog,
though he’s lithe and deft and unbelievably quick
in his stoop. Which misses, however. His quarry cartwheels
under a stunted pine I’ve meant again
and again to hew to better the view we have
through this same kitchen window. And now, as something you might
call thought returns after all, I’m pondering whether
I’m glad to have left it standing. The hawk was lordly,
as much as the eagle my wife reported seeing
last week, which started an almost identical dive
but flared up the ridge when he found no game out there
among spilled seeds, where the blood on wet March snow
would in either case have shown so gorgeous, so brilliant.
The look of the writhing squirrel would have been pathetic,
no doubt about that. The world’s a puzzling place.
The metaphor struck me so quickly that it felt trite:
I wanted my son to depend on me forever,
But wanted him also to learn to ride a bike,
First phase of course of a first child’s setting out
Away from his father –farther, always farther.
Speed up. Please stop, I thought. Mixed feelings. Trite.
Knuckles pale, he clutched the hand-grips tight,
Cried Hold me! Hold me! Which of course I did
For week after week as he learned to ride a bike,
Until, while one June day slumped into night,
I took my hands away from fender and seat,
And he pedaled off into darkness and distance. Trite,
Looking back, to figure our future lives,
The changes that would come, the way he’d speed
Away on years, as I stood behind that bike.
It’s right, of course, that he no longer calls me to hold him–
Have confidence, I recall, was what I told him–
Though it never was really a question of riding a bike,
Nor were my sentiments ever entirely trite.
Our old dog threw up today
Nothing new nor convenient
I kept myself from cursing
She didn’t mean to do wrong
True some words pushed at my lips
But I recalled the Psalmist’s
Caution on the loosened tongue
To describe it too mildly
Wrath can be too enticing
That tongue harder to govern
Than any ship or blood horse
Says the scripture I summoned
I thought that of the seven
Deadliest anger might be worst
Though I leave room for pride which
Is kin but today my calm
Seemed to me a miracle
The poor dog looked so contrite
Nothing she had done her fault
Now I must go to the vet’s
The thawing wind came last night
Bringing other things to do
Snow slid off our metal roof
Into a mass on the drive
Which needs to be cleared away
A job of course I despise
But that is where duty lies
And there’s where I need to be
I always wanted to be
Somewhere else I don’t know where
Earth must be the place for me
Sometimes I must laugh at how
Coaches say they want their teams
To play one game at a time
What in hell else would they do
Play two or three at a time
But I’ve been likewise silly
In my crazy history
I take one day at a time
Look for an easy does it
Stance toward life on this planet
Death once beckoned me and I
Rushed there I won’t give detail
Opiate Cutter Gunfire
Mustard gas Sprint Infernal
These were some crossword problems
I pondered last night in bed
Of course they’re not connected
Except in that I saw them
Together I solved just three
Before sleep overcame me
I did not feel frustration
Nor too much inner protest
I know our dog will be fine
I know I’m a lucky man
I’m grateful for peace and rest
I spoke an awkward prayer
If that’s in fact what it was
I only spoke it within
And in ignorant belief
That it might just land somewhere
I thanked some hidden power
That I never carved my life
Quite to hell nor did I race
To needle blade pistol gas
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. 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. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. 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 September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.
THEY CAME INTO MY CLASSROOM to arrest me, two polite police officers, male and female, burdened with the heavy accouterments of law enforcement—guns, walkie-talkies, night-sticks, sprays, flak-jackets. It was the woman officer who asked me to put my hands behind my back so that she could put on the handcuffs. Even while being compliant, it was hard not to tense with resistance. The only student to witness this scene was Jeffrey Millenberg, who had come in for extra help. As they led me out I said to Jeffrey (probably out of some desire to make everything appear normal), “There’s just no getting around memorization. There’s stuff in chemistry you just have to know.”
Jeffrey stared at me but even as the officers led me out of the classroom I nodded, to let him know that I knew he could do it.
I teach chemistry and biology. I had been at the same school for six years. I coached intramural basketball and led the monthly lunch-time music jams with my guitar, so I was pretty well known in the school. And rather liked, I believe, although I wasn’t one of those teachers who needed to be loved and affirmed by the kids. Although only Jeffrey was in the classroom, there were plenty of kids in the hall as the period was changing, not to mention teachers, and they all stared at me too. So did the kids smoking on the sidewalk, although Dan Reddin, a kid I almost failed last year although even though he was smart, called out, “What they bust ya for, Mr.B?” I couldn’t have answered even if I wanted to, for the officers kept me moving, right to the police cruiser where, just like on TV, one of them put a hand on my head to lower me into the back seat.
So my arrest would have been the talk of the school even if there hadn’t been a short article in the local section of the Star. “High School Teacher Charged with Assaulting Orthodox Jew.” The headline made me sound like some anti-Semite, although the article did state that the orthodox Jew was my cousin.
My first cousin Leonard, to be precise. Born the same year as me, also a youngest child, the son of my Auntie Doris. Lenny who lived on the same street three blocks away, whose birthday parties I attended, who I envied because his father, a retail distributor, was always bringing him the latest toys, although even then I suspected his house wasn’t as happy as my own. We didn’t see each other much after the age of eighteen or so, when he began to turn religious, but I would hear about him from my parents. How he now had a beard, how he wore baggy suits and tzitzis under his shirt, how he devoted all his free time to some small synagogue that my father said was “almost a cult.” We got married about the same time and sent each other invitations but neither of us went to the other’s wedding. His own bride, Zipporah, had been introduced to him by his rabbi; my father said it was probably arranged.
Lenny had five children but I didn’t know their names. My own kids, Josh and Leah, were nine and seven. I hoped to keep the arrest from them but Josh heard something at school so I had to sit them down and explain. I was living in a bachelor apartment near the house (Jennifer and I had been separated for four months) and sometimes they stayed over and slept on air mattresses on the floor, although mostly I would go to the house and take care of them there while their mother was out with her boyfriend.
“I’m very sorry to say that it’s true,” I said to Josh and Ella. We were sitting on the Ikea fold-out sofa that was my own bed. “It’s always wrong to hit somebody.”
“Did he deserve it?” Josh asked.
“Nobody deserves it. There’s always a better way.”
“I don’t want anyone to hit me,” Ella said.
“And nobody’s going to.”
“How do you know? Did your cousin know that you were going to hit him?”
He should have known, I wanted to say. But I wished that I hadn’t. I didn’t want my kids to have a father who hit people, or got arrested, or lost his job. It was enough that they didn’t understand why I had left the house.
What happened was that my Auntie Doris, a sweet and much-burdened woman, decided to hold a fortieth birthday party for her son, Rafe. Rafe is Lenny’s older brother. He is what we called mentally retarded growing up. As a boy I was told that Rafe’s air supply was momentarily cut off during birth and that if the doctor had been quicker, he would have been a normal, fully-functioning person. He grew up to speak with a thick tongue, and, it seemed to me when I was as a kid, childish in the way he said certain phrases over and over, “You’re fired!” being his favourite, or how he would poke a person with his finger and tell you the vacuum cleaner didn’t work, or the furnace, or the lawn mower, and that you should fix it right away. Later, I realized that he was frustrated, lonely, and possibly frightened. My father blamed my uncle Ben for not spending more time with him but instead running off to every convention he could, or staying at the club to play golf. Over the years Rafe went to different schools and later to special-skills workshops and group homes but he always came home again, to be taken care of by Auntie Doris.
I’d hardly seen anybody in my family since the problems in my marriage began—or more precisely, since pathetic me began to realize that something was wrong. I avoided family events so that I didn’t have to answer questions about Jennifer, and so I missed even my great uncle’s hundredth birthday. I did, however, go to his funeral shortly after, where no one thought to ask me anything.
When I finally saw that the marriage was lost I decided that it was time to get on with things. Besides, my mother begged me to come to Rafe’s party. Only she and my father knew I was living alone and my mother thought that the isolation was doing me harm. It seemed I needed a coming-out party.
My cousins still lived in their modest house off Senlac Rd. in North York, on a dead-end street that used to be noisy with kids but had grown silent. It was dark when I drove up in a leased car. Through the picture window I could see everyone mingling—uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. A few wore paper hats, and balloons and crepe paper were taped to the walls. Under my arm was a present in store gift-wrapping, a shirt from the Gap. I took a deep breath, ran my hand through my hair, and practiced smiling as I went up the stairs.
Inside the door I smelled smoked meat, pickles, coffee. Auntie Doris was lining shoes up under a coat rack. “Michael! How good to see you. It’s been too long.”
I kissed her cheek. She was small like my mother and getting smaller with age. She wore a bright blue dress but looked tired. “I see it’s quite the party.”
“You know Rafe. He likes to see everyone. I’m sorry to see you’ve come without your lovely wife. And the kids. How is everyone?”
“They’re fine. Jennifer and I are separated. It’s not my night with the kids.”
“Oh, Michael.” She put her hand on my arm. “I’m so sorry. When did this happen?”
“A couple of months ago.”
“Your mother didn’t say a word. Is there any chance of patching things up? Don’t tell me, let me just hope. Come on in, Michael. Eat something. No wonder you look so thin. It’s good to see people who care about you at a time like this.”
“Thank you, Doris.” I took off my shoes and added my coat to the rack and went up the carpeted steps to the living room. A few people turned and for a moment I thought I might get sick. But then my mother came over and whispered that everything would be all right and my uncle’s business partner, Ned Rossoff, gave me a bone-crushing handshake and started to tell me a joke about a Jewish Buddhist and a gaggle of kids banged into me as they ran giggling through the room.
“Hey, it’s the birthday boy.” I clapped my hand on Rafe’s shoulder. His eyes shone with the excitement of the party. There was a bit of tissue stuck on his neck where he’d cut himself shaving. “I said, “You look good, Rafe. Is that a new blazer?”
“You know what the gardener did? He pulled out the rosebush. With the roots!”
“He wasn’t supposed to?”
“I told Mom he’s no good.”
“Here’s a little birthday something for you.”
“Put it over there,” he bellowed into my ear. “I’m getting a Coke.” I added my present to the tottering mound on the sideboard. When I turned back, my cousin Judy stood grinning at me.
“Howdy stranger,” she said.
“Hey, Judy. It’s been a while.”
“Still playing with puppets?”
Judy and I had been close growing up. Together we put on puppet shows for other kids’ birthday parties. But I rarely saw her now.
“Where are your adorable kids? And your adorable wife?”
“Jennifer and I are separated.”
“Crap. It’s like an epidemic these days. Are you surviving?”
“More or less. I didn’t want the kids to see everybody until they knew.”
“Yeah. Trust me, it gets better. All my friends say so. Just don’t let her take the kids away from you.”
“She’d never do that.”
“Dads don’t always feel entitled. Josh and Ella need you.”
“It’s good to be reminded.”
“Let’s go stuff our faces. It’ll do you good. Doris is the only person I know who still serves kishka.”
There’s never much drinking at one of my family’s events. Still, there’s always a bottle of Seagram’s among the oversized plastic missiles of Coke and Seven Up. When I made my way over, Rafe’s dad, Uncle Ben, handed me a shot glass from Disneyworld. “Have one,” he said. “It’ll put hair on your chest.” He always said that to me. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, given the state of my emotions, but I raised the glass and clinked it to his own. The stuff was pretty smooth.
“So Michael,” he said, “have you got a real job yet? I mean one that actually pays some decent money?”
He always said that to me, too. “Still considering my options, Ben.”
“You can always come work for me. At least relatives don’t steal. So where’s your wife? I don’t see that doll around here. She’s got a million-dollar smile, that one.”
“Doing all right, I think.”
“What a shame. But at least you can play more golf.”
“I don’t play golf.”
“Take it up. Also, the way women are these days, it’s easy to score. Back when I was single trying to have sex was like the siege of Leningrad. Except for Noreen Hochkiss.”
“I don’t think I want to hear.”
He filled my glass again. “The secret is to give the woman what she wants. That’s something else we never understood.”
Rafe stood on a chair and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Time to open up the presents!” He grabbed the box on top and tore off the wrapping. A 500-piece puzzle. Next was a cardigan. Then came a shirt (mine), another shirt, a book on animal life, a computer game. Each time he held it above his head for everyone to see.
Maybe it was the whisky, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t mind being around my family. These people had known me all my life. And on this cloud of good feeling I decided to float my way out. I found my parents to say goodbye, responding to my mother’s anxious look by giving her a kiss and saying that I’d bring the kids over for dinner on the weekend. In the hall I found my shoes and jacket and before anyone else could stop me I went out into the night air.
For a moment I stood on the porch, clearing my head and reveling in the feel of approaching summer. When school was over I would begin looking for a small house, not too far from their mother, with a room for each of them. We’d take a holiday, maybe a car-camping trip. The thought of it all scared and excited me both.
“Is that Michael?”
I knew the hardy voice, and the figure coming around from the side of the porch in a bulky coat and fedora. Lenny. As he came into the circle of light he looked a little heavier, his beard broader. I came down the steps and he gave me a hug, squeezing half the air out of me.
“You’re leaving already? I’m coming late from my Torah study group. You should come some time, it’s very philosophical. Remember those late-night discussions we used to have?”
“That was a long time ago. I hope everyone’s well. The kids.”
“Thank God, they’re thriving. But you’re leaving already? Come inside for another few minutes.”
“I really have to go. But it’s good to see you.”
“And your own? How’s Jennifer?”
I didn’t look away this time, but into Michael’s soft brown eyes. He had eyes like his mother and mine. “Actually, Jennifer and I separated a few months ago. We’re getting divorced.”
I heard the huff of his breath and felt a sting on the side of my cheek that shut my my eyes. A slap? Lenny had slapped me?
Shame on you,” he said quietly.
There are so many things I wish I had remembered at that moment. That Lenny’s own childhood had been less happy than my own. That his wife had suffered serious health problems for years. That his jewelry import business had been struggling. I wish I had been able to stop time and at least try and understand what he had done. But of course I couldn’t.
I hit him, a fist to the jaw. Knocked him backwards on his ass.
“Fuck off, Len.”
Trembling with rage, I stepped over him and walked to my car. Fumbled with the key, turned on the ignition, and pulled away. In my rear-view mirror I saw him slowly get up.
The only other time I’d tried to hit someone was at summer camp when I was eight. A kid named Kevin Edelstein stole the leopard frog that I had spent an hour catching in a stinking swamp. Kevin claimed that mine had escaped from its jar and that he had caught a different one. We rolled around on the ground—neither of us even threw a punch—before the counselor separated us.
I discovered that when the adrenaline leaves your body you feel weak and nauseous. My hands could hardly hold the steering wheel. My cell phone rang, my father’s name appearing on the screen. I didn’t pick up, nor when it rang three more times. I got back to my apartment and parked in the small back lot. The building was five stories without an elevator and I ran all the way up, gasping for air as I reached my door. In the bathroom I turned on the light and saw a faint hue still on my cheek. I drew a bath but instead of reading, I lay with my eyes closed. Then I crawled into bed.
When I awoke in the morning, there was a brief, blissful moment when I didn’t remember what had happened. But when I did, I tried not to feel so bad. After all, Lenny had slapped me, the prick. Who did he think he was, my father? God? In fact, he was three months younger than me, as if that somehow mattered. Naturally my conscience would nag at me for a while, and some of my relatives would express shock, but wouldn’t others still be on my side? And then the story would fade, if not entirely disappearing.
I was just leaving the house for school when my cell rang. I saw it was from the house, and thinking it one of the kids, I answered.
“Michael?” It was Jennifer. “What exactly is going on?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said coldly.
Your parents called me. You hit your cousin Len?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this with you.”
“Jesus, Michael. You wouldn’t hit anybody. Maybe you should talk to a professional.”
“I’m hanging up.”
“Your cousin called the police.”
“That’s what your mother said.”
“I’ve got to leave for school. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
I hung up without waiting for an answer. Then I walked to the subway and got on a crowded train. I held a strap and tried to read my book, a history of eighteenth century science, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was glad to get to school, where a couple of students were waiting for extra help. I taught my classes and then went to a science department meeting where I was gratefully bored. Everything was as it was supposed to be. The next day followed, and the next, and just as I became confident that things were going to be all right, the cops arrived.
They kept me for five hours, not in a cell but sitting on a bench in a hallway. Then they told me to get a lawyer and stay clear of Lenny and any of his immediate family, as if I might suddenly kidnap his children. The article in the Star appeared and two days later my teaching duties were suspended. My principal, Audrey Tatcheva, was a good egg and I didn’t blame her.
“I think you should say that you’ll never do it again,” Leah told me. “And then you can make your cousin a card.”
The incident did cause a rift in my family, with most of my relatives siding with Lenny. Doris wouldn’t talk to my mother, which hurt her, although she claimed not to care. My cousin Judy called to say she had a mind to go over and hit Lenny herself; maybe that would shake this religious superstition out of him. But I saw it differently. I didn’t understand Lenny’s faith or how he could live within the confines of such strict practice, but I did sense his genuine need for it. The same need, perhaps, that caused him to slap me.
My summer began early but, unsure of my professional future, I doubted my eligibility for a mortgage and had to put off looking for a house. I found myself avoiding most people I knew, whether they knew what had happened or not. I avoided going to the gym and went on long, solitary bike rides instead. I caught up on back issues of Scientific American and watched re-runs of The Antiques Roadshow. Of course I had my time with the girls, taking them to school and then day camp, cooking dinners, keeping playdates, visiting my parents.
In late July the divorce papers arrived by courier. I thought of phoning Jennifer to make sure she wanted to go ahead with it, and then I thought, what the hell, and signed. A few days later the three of us went on our camping trip to Killarney. It rained the first two days, but then the sun came out and everything more or less dried out. We caught five-inch long bass and sunfish and threw them back, went on nature walks, drove into the nearby town for hamburgers and a movie. We were going through the Narnia books, which my father had read to me, and at night we lay in our warm sleeping bags while I read another chapter of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And then the light went out and all of us slept through till morning.
A trial date was set for February. That meant the charge wouldn’t be resolved until after Christmas, and the school would have to hire someone to teach my classes starting in September. I couldn’t but think this was another step towards losing my job, even though the union rep who came to see me swore up and down that they would argue for reinstatement. I didn’t feel that I had the strength to fight but I needed my job, for my kids, too. I had another meeting with the lawyer, who urged me to find a couple of character witnesses. He suggested again that I file a counter-suit; Lenny had slapped me first, and that, too, was assault. But I couldn’t do it.
With the divorce settled, Jennifer bought out my half of the house with the help of her parents and a larger mortgage of her own. My father said that he would co-sign a bank loan and that waiting for a house of my own wasn’t doing the kids any good. So I began to look and almost right away a house came up just ten blocks away, the modest middle home in an attached row of three. It had rather ugly mottled brick but it was well laid out, and when I took the kids to see it they immediately ran to their bedrooms without fighting over them. The sellers were eager to close as the woman had just been transferred to some job in Edmonton. Almost before we knew it, we were eating pizza on a new Ikea table and laughing about nothing at all, as if we were on holiday. The kids had new pets, a pair of guinea pigs that seemed to me as dumb as bricks but Josh and Leah loved them. Those first nights, with the kids in their beds, nightlights glowing, and me reading in my own, made me feel as if happiness was possible.
Labour day, last day of summer. The kids had gone off with Jennifer and left me on my own. A teacher friend invited me to a barbecue, but I didn’t think I could bear the chatter about a new school year, the recounting of first-day back dreams which all teachers have. Instead, I spent the day painting the girls’ rooms as I’d promised (blue for Josh and, yes, pink for Leah.) It took me the whole day and evening and I was tired and aching. I took a long shower, scrubbing paint off my skin, then fried up some eggs and home fries and took the plate out to the porch with a bottle of beer. Evening fell but I didn’t turn on the light but sat in the shadows nursing a second beer, watching the occasional car pull up and the kids spill up, the parents urging them to get ready for bed because they needed an early night. Somebody whistled the “Ode to Joy” as he walked by smoking a cigarette. And then the street was empty but for me and the occasional slinking cat.
A car turned the corner and pulled up. I recognized it as Lenny’s by the wire holding on the back fender. The door sprung open and he hauled himself out and looked up and down the sidewalk, no doubt unsure which was my house. Then he must have seen my outline in the dark as he came up to the bottom step.
“This is the new house?”
“I brought something.” I hadn’t noticed the paper bag in his hand. He fished inside it and pulled out one of those plastic honey containers shaped like a bear. He looked at it and then put it down on the step. “You know, it’s symbolic. So you’ll have a sweet life here.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Can I come up?”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Right. I’ll stay here. I shouldn’t have called the police. My mother didn’t want me to. I don’t know what I was thinking. Angry, I guess. But I wasn’t angry at you, Michael, not really. Everybody else in the family, they think I believe that I’ve got all the answers. But I don’t, it doesn’t work that way. Anyway, I told my lawyer that I wouldn’t testify. They’re going to drop the charges. I’m sorry for all the tsouris it caused, as if we don’t all have enough, eh? Okay then. Be well.”
He waved and I waved back and then he got in his car and drove away. I finished my beer and went inside.
Josh and Leah, thank goodness, both liked their teachers. I didn’t get to start teaching again until the end of September, when I discovered that my classes had learned almost nothing. A couple of other teachers seemed wary, but with everyone else nothing seemed to change. The kids stayed with me every other week but the two houses were so close they could walk over for visits, and Jennifer and I tried to be flexible and helpful to each other. We got to know our neighbours. The guinea pigs got fat. I made reservations to take the kids to Florida at Christmas to visit my parents, who wintered in West Palm Beach.
It was my mother who told me that Lenny’s wife’s health was deteriorating, and had been for some time but they had kept it quiet. I don’t know if that was behind his anger, although it’s possible. Angry at God, maybe, although that was probably simplistic. I realized then that Lenny’s slap had been something other than it seemed. That it had been a kind of reaching out.
I didn’t know if I should call about Zipporah, or if I’d be bothering them. So I called my mother in Florida for her opinion.
“Here’s my rule,” she said. “If I’m not sure whether to call or not, I always call.”
She’s good about this sort of thing, so I followed her advice.
“Hello?” Lenny said. Even in that one word, I could hear everything.
Cary Fagan‘s books include A Bird’s Eye (finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize), the story collection My Life Among the Apes (longlisted for the Giller Prize), and Valentine’s Fall (finalist for the Toronto Book Award). He is also writes books for children and recently received the Vicki Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature. Cary was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.
Lady Rojas Benavente’s poetry fuses her countless — and sometimes clashing — identities as a Peruvian-Québecoise woman, who immigrated to Canada in the seventies and has lived in the interstices of various nations ever since. While some of her poems evoke a certain nostalgia for an idyllic childhood in Peru or describe the country’s history and its Incan culture, others are starkly candid about the realities of the immigrant experience and existence as the proverbial “Other.” In the poems chosen for Numéro Cinq, Lady Rojas Benavente playfully depicts her upbringing, schooling and first teaching jobs. Her meticulous manipulation of the sounds of the Spanish language is difficult to render into English so the translations are instead instilled with a teasing tone. These poems come from Rojas Benavente’s collection L’Étoile d’eau/Estrella de Agua published in 2006 by France’s prestigious L’Harmattan in a bilingual (Spanish and French) edition translated by Nicole Barré.
—Sophie M. Lavoie
leo a Rilke,
y me imagino
encima de Sartre.
mozas detrás de los monjes
y se les agria la leche
entre las piernas.
he pecado padre,
peco con mi hermano,
y pecaré hijo mío.
cuartos que engordan
en la música
en la religión
y la caridad
no me acuerdo para quién.
Patio al aire libre
a los guerrilleros
que cayó Heraud en su río
y todos los comunistas.
a rogar por todos los maleados
y en especial por mí
pecadora entre los hombres.
I read Rilke,
on top of Sartre.
run behind the monks
and the milk turns sour
between their legs.
father I have sinned,
I sin with my brother,
and I will sin, my son.
Gigantic dining hall
rooms that get fatter
we show off
in the music
I don’t remember who for.
Open air courtyard
it is announced
that they caught
the guerrilla fighters
that Heraud fell in his river
with all the communists.
Off to cross yourself,
to take communion,
for all the degenerate
and especially for me
sinner amongst men.
(Note: Javier Heraud Pérez was a guerrilla fighter and poet who died at the age of 21 (1963), fighting with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) in Perú.)
Atrás el malecón de Chorrillos
y las jóvenes
se hechizan en sus mareas.
Sus bustos se mecen
y en el vaivén del agua
giran sus cometas.
Vallejo les guiña abiertamente
“Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mía”
les hace cosquillas
“Lavandera del alma…
que sí puede…
azular y planchar todos los caos.”
Cerca el bramido alocado
de todos los suspiros
una se ahogó de pena
y se lanzó en el corazón de la ballena
con un grito hembra
de tres agonías.
Las monjas rezan,
en su cruz.
La primera espina ajena
en el pizarrón inmenso
de mis veintiún años.
Beyond Chorrillo’s pier
become bewitched by the tides.
Their busts rock
and with the water’s swaying
their comets swirl about.
We read Trilce
Vallejo winks at them openly
“And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.”
he tickles them
“laundress of the soul…
yes she can…
blue and iron all the chaoses.”
Not far the wild roar
of all the sighs
one girl suffocated from sorrow
and threw herself into the belly of the whale
with a feminine shriek
of three agonies.
The nuns pray,
on his cross.
The first foreign thorn
the immense blackboard
of my twenty-one years.
Tu agua golpea los pedrones
y corre veloz
por tu cintura limeña.
silbando entre la maleza.
Colegio del Rímac
tu vaho de letrinas
la papa a la huancaína.
Los muchachos duermen
sobre las carpetas.
No hay psicología
que los despierte
después de ocho jornadas.
y me pifean,
les crece el macho.
qué quiere decir
y sueño latente
En un instante eterno,
la sierra calla
te seca la matriz
ya no hay cauce
sino un basural inmenso
que como gangrena
va borrando tu “fina estampa”.
Los chicos giran alrededor
de la loca,
la pellizcan, la manosean.
Un día se desaparece.
del cable del televisor
que le regaló su mecenas.
Lloro al joven-niña
con tu pus a cuestas.
Your water hits the pebbles
and runs quickly
swishing through the brush.
Rímac middle school
a whiff of your latrines
my Huancayo-style potatoes.
The children sleep
on their binders.
There is no psychology
that will wake them
after eight workdays.
I wear a miniskirt
and they jeer at me,
their manliness grows.
what do wet dream
and suppressed desire
In an eternal instant,
the mountains are speechless
your spring dries up
there is no longer any riverbed
but a huge heap of garbage
gradually expunges your “elegant fascia.”
The boys encircle
the crazy lady,
pinch her, grope her.
One day she disappears.
She hangs herself
with the television cable,
a gift from her benefactor.
I weep for the young girl
watching you, Rímac,
burdened by your purulence.
—Lady Rojas translated by Sophie M. Lavoie
Lady Rojas Benavente is a Professor at Concordia University. Her PhD (1991) is in Hispanic Literature from Laval University and her current research on Peruvian Women’s Narratives: Violence, Racism and Gender in National Post-Independence was funded by SSHRC (2011 – 2014). She has published 8 books (2 of which are poetry) and over 50 articles in Latin American women’s literary work, especially on Peruvian and Mexican authors. She is president of the Society for Literary Criticism of Spanish American Women Writers’ work (CCLEH) and has served as a Board member of several publications such as Alba de América, a literary journal from the US, and Voces, a Peruvian cultural magazine. She lives in Laval, QC.
Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.
- Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Clayton Eshleman, Ed. & Trans. Berkely/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.↵
It’s the discovery of the naked child in their camp that sets Haints Stay in motion. In the following scenes the killers, Brooke and Sugar, wake to find Bird asleep between them. In some ways Haints Stay is about parenting in the surreal world Colin Winnette creates in the novel. Here we see what kind of tough-love parents Brooke and Sugar could have potentially been. There are also hints in this scene that Sugar is suffering from morning sickness due to his pregnancy. What I love the most in this section is the kind of hardscrabble wisdom that comes at the end when Brooke teaches Bird to hunt: “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever…”
BROOKE’S HAND WAS OCCUPIED by a foreign object. He felt it before opening his eyes to greet the day, which had rose up around them like a warm fog. Here they were, back in the woods again and holding one another as they had always done on cold nights. But Sugar felt different to him that morning. Smaller, thinner. Cleaner. Brooke felt a bone protruding, sharper than those he knew to be Sugar’s. He spoke a few casual sounds and received no answer and opened his eyes to reveal a young boy, hardly a hair on his body, sleeping between Brooke and his brother as heavily as a dead horse.
His brother did not stir.
“Sugar, there’s a boy here.”
Sugar rolled slightly but did not rise.
“Sugar,” said Brooke, and this time the boy was rocked casually in place before opening his eyes to discover the two men at his flank.
“Who are you?” said the boy.
“I’d like to ask the same question, and add a ‘How did you get here and between us?’” said Brooke. He rose and dusted himself, examined the woods around them for a set of eyes or ears or a broken nose. The woods were silent but for the small birds plunging into the pine needles gathered at the base of each enormous tree. They were utterly alone, the two brothers and their stranger.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. He said it plainly and without fright. He seemed as comfortable as the leaves around them.
“You don’t know which?” said Brooke. He kicked Sugar, finally, to wake him.
“It’s horse shit,” said Sugar, unsteadily, his eyes still shut.
“It’s an escape,” said Brooke. “You’re hiding out?”
Again, the boy said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” said Sugar, “who are you?” He was up finally, watching the boy, puzzling out how slow he might actually be, or how capable a liar.
“Who are you?” said the boy. He put his hands to his face, rubbed, coughed. He brought his hands down and examined the two men. “You’re going to hurt me?”
“Let’s assume no one is going to hurt anyone,” said Brooke. “I’m Brooke. This is my brother Sugar. We’re killers by trade and we’re hiding in the woods after a rout of sorts.”
“Killers,” said Sugar, “hiding out.” He was waking up, pacing again and looking between the trees.
The boy seemed weak, a little slow. Incapable of harm, or at least uninterested.
“Who… who did you kill?”
“Which time?” said Sugar.
“Stop it, Sugar.” Brooke poured something black from a leather pouch into a tin cup. He handed it to the boy, “My brother is trying to scare you.”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“Because you’re wrong not to be frightened of two men sleeping in the woods,” said Sugar. “Especially these two men.”
“When you say you don’t know where you came from or who you are,” said Brooke, “what exactly do you mean? Where were you yesterday? Where were you an hour ago?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everyone comes from somewhere,” said Sugar. “Where are your clothes? What have you got in your pockets?”
“I don’t have anything,” said the boy. He was nude and empty-handed. There was nothing in the piles about them that did not belong to Sugar and Brooke, that they had not bedded down with the night before. The boy had nothing to him but his person.
“There’s meat on your bones,” said Sugar. He cracked the bones in his fingers, one by one, then his neck and back. He rose and stood before the boy. “You’ve eaten recently enough. You don’t look ill or wounded.”
The boy nodded slowly. “I don’t feel ill or wounded.”
“Hm,” said Sugar. He leaned forward slightly and set his hand to his waist. He turned and walked into the woods around them and after a few moments his figure disappeared into the mist. They could hear him crushing leaves and cracking twigs with his boots. They could hear faintly the sound of his breathing.
“What’s he doing?” said the boy. “Where’s he gone?”
“Don’t mind it,” said Brooke.
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“I don’t think so,” said Brooke. “If you tell us why you’re here. If you can tell us why we shouldn’t. You can tell the truth, boy. Are you a scout? A young gunslinger trying an impoverished angle? Did you grow up on a perfectly normal farm with perfectly simple parents who were very casual people and did not bother much with towns or neighbors? Were you looking to get out and see the world? Or did your people torture you and send you running into the night?”
“I haven’t done anything,” said the boy. He was crying without whimpering or whining, letting the tears roll from the corners of his eyes in crooked lines down to his mouth. “What’s he doing?”
“Don’t worry about him,” said Brooke.
“Where’s he gone?”
“He’s ill,” said Brooke. “We’re not doctors. We don’t like them. It will stop eventually.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. He’s my brother. It’s always been this way.”
“What’s your name?”
“Brooke. Now yours.”
The boy examined his palms.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “I don’t know anything.”
“Where were you before?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you remember?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you remember about where you were before? What do you picture in your head when you think about elsewhere?”
“I picture you and… Sugar?”
“You and Sugar. That’s all I know. And some voices.”
“What are they saying?”
“I can’t tell. It’s just sounds. From a distance.”
“You don’t remember anything else?”
The boy shook his head.
“Your mother? Your father? What you had for breakfast yesterday?”
The boy was silent a moment. He examined his palms.
“Can I… can I see your hands?” said the boy.
“Where are these words coming from then? What you’re saying? Who taught you to speak and speak like us?”
The boy shrugged. He was crying again.
Brooke put out his palms. They were caked in dirt, a little blood in the deeper wrinkles, which had run from a small crack in the skin between his knuckles. The boy slid his hands under his legs, palms down and pressing into the dirt.
“What’d you get?” said Brooke.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Are you sick?” said the boy.
“No,” said Sugar.
“Are you hurt?”
“You’re a curious little egg, aren’t you? We’re done with this. You need to get along anyhow. Back to nowhere.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
“And if someone comes looking for us tonight, tomorrow, or any day after this, for that matter,” Sugar leaned in, “we’re going to know where he came from. Whether or not you actually said something, we’ve got to act on what we know, pursue reason and statistical likelihood above all else—so we’re going to find you and the people who matter most to you. Did we explain what it is we do for a living, son? Did we make it clear enough? We’ll go right to work on you, and anyone who knows your name.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
“We’ll erase you. Any trace of you.”
“Sugar,” said Brooke.
The boy was crying openly, his palms still buried beneath his thighs. He was flexing his fingers and digging into the leaves beneath him, loosing small rocks and the end of a buried twig.
“I’m telling the truth,” said Sugar.
“You’ve scared him, Sugar. Now leave him alone,” said Brooke.
Finally the boy brought his hands to his face, tried to turn away from them. Sugar snapped him up by the wrists and held out his arms as if the boy were pleading. The boy stared up at him but said nothing.
“Sugar, let him go,” said Brooke, and Sugar held out the boy’s palms to Brooke and pointed with his chin. The palms were blank, staring back at them. Smooth as stones.
“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke.
The boy was on his belly at Brooke’s side and they were watching two deer hoof their way crosswise up a steep and sudden incline only a mile or so from where the men had been camped that morning.
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guilt is all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in the general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be of a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as it is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
“Are you ready?” said Brooke.
“I think so,” said the boy.
“We’ll wait then,” said Brooke.
The deer worked their way up the steep incline without struggle. As they neared the top, the boy said, “I don’t think your brother likes me.”
“He doesn’t trust you,” said Brooke.
“He’s no reason to.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
Brooke watched him a moment. Then the boy said, “I’m ready,” and they rose up and loosed their stones from their slings.
The boy missed entirely, but Brooke’s stone made contact with the larger of the two and when the creature stumbled, stunned, a few feet down the incline, Brooke took off. He collapsed onto the stunned animal, gripped its jaw, its shoulder, twisted and snapped some hidden, necessary part. Everything about the deer went still, then it kicked, shuttered, and went still again.
“We’ll eat,” said Brooke.
“I won’t eat it,” said the boy.
Brooke was sawing the skin from the kill, its legs spread and tied to two separate trees. Brooke shrugged and placed the knife beneath a long length of flesh.
“Then you’ll die,” said Brooke.
Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there. —Jason DeYoung
“There was no logic to life and no road that could take you straight to elsewhere. Living was all winding around and doubling back.” Such are the lives of the characters in Haints Stay, thus is its philosophy.
Written in unhurried, cool prose without traditional chapter breaks—just double space returns—Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there.
But Haints Stay isn’t a traditional western, nor is it Cormac McCarthy-lite. Colin Winnette is already the author of four well-received books of fiction, including Revelation (2011), Animal Collection (2012), Fondly (2013), and Coyote (2015), which won of the prestigious Les Figues’ Nos Book Contest. Instead of the anti-pastoral of the afore mentioned McCarthy, Winnette has fed his vision of this earthy genre through his own sensibilities, one influenced by Oulipo, to arrive at something playful and visceral and acidic.
Haints Stay opens with two hapless killers, Brooke and Sugar, brothers, returning to an unnamed town, where they discover their employer’s bar has been burned to the ground. Looking for baths and beds, they are brought before a tiny man behind a desk. This tiny man doesn’t care very much for them, and at first tries to kill them, but Brooke takes the killer down with an ashtray, after which the tiny man offers them begrudging hospitality. It’s all stage setting for a novel in which—as we are blithely told by a dispassionate narrator—“things change… They changed often. There was not use fighting it.” These words in a way telegraph the novel’s narrative, prepping us for the shifting fortunes and wild plot maneuvers ahead. Indeed, Haints Stay with its circular narrative and relentless doubling lies somewhere between David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The brothers are run out of town, and when they wake the next morning a naked male child is lying between them. The child has amnesia, and doesn’t know how he got to the killers’ camp, or from where he came. He does speak English, but that’s his only asset. The brothers take it upon themselves to try to return the child to his parents or guardians. But before they can get very far on that quest, faceless marauders rob them in the night of their food, gear, and blankets, and “avenging the blankets” supplants retuning the child, whom they call Bird.
Once the blankets have been avenged, and the marauders’ teeth cut out of their mouths and buried—‘So [that they are] buried with their ghosts’—the brothers take the child to a graveyard, where Sugar and a thin man in a suit, sitting upon a rock, have a strange conversation regarding Bird’s future. As the conversation progresses, however, we realize that the words are coded and that Sugar and the thin man are discussing something quite different:
“You should keep the baby this time,” said the man. “The woods are crying out with all you’ve left them.”
He looked up and around, as if at nothing in particular.
“There is no baby,” said Sugar. “Enough about the baby.”
“Nothing’s gone away. You know that as well as I do.”
The thin man wants Brooke and Sugar to keep Bird as their own child, and he also wants Sugar to keep a forthcoming baby. All along we have been given hints that Sugar is not a man, and we’re left to ponder his gender for much of the novel. Later it will be revealed that Sugar is biologically female, but lives as a man, and he is pregnant, perhaps by his own brother.
Sugar is angered by the thin man’s insistence that he keep both children. Enraged, Sugar stabs Bird, and upon stabbing the child a stampede of horses thunder through their camp, taking with them the wounded Bird.
It’s at this point the novel shatters. There’s a sense that it does so because Sugar has disobeyed the thin man, who is…. what?…. a small god, a spirit, a shaman? We’re never told, and we are never told whether the stampede was the thin man’s doing. After Bird is carried off into the dark by the horses, Brooke and Sugar try to search for him, but end up in a dry town, only to get arrested and separated. Brooke is convinced his brother is dead; Sugar is convinced likewise; and the three main characters never see each other again for the rest of the novel.
At its core Haints Stay is very much a novel built on ignorance and of the unknown. Characters knowingly enter fake marriages, shift identities, hold secrets, and practice mysterious customs, which impart a sense that there is more in this world than we could ever fathom. When Brooke and Sugar avenge their blankets the last living marauder spits out that “There will only be more men like us….You will only kill and kill until you are overcome.” We’ll hear these words repeated later in the novel, reminding us that there is something greater out in the abyss that we won’t see until it’s too late: “Between each of the towns was pure wilderness, and what came bearing down upon civilization was beyond imagination.”
In this envenomed wilderness, Bird will come face-to-face with a man who has gone to beast, and eats much of the skin off one of Bird’s arms. Bird’s savior, a man named John, will be gunned down. Why? Don’t know. But the “remarkably nondescript” men who come to do it claim vaguely that they are there to “collect.” Often characters don’t even begin to understand their own plights just the tireless maliciousness of survival, where their faces are rubs in the fact that “we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”
Bird is something of an anomaly among the characters, not even Mary, the other child in the novel, comes close to his naiveté. A kid, around twelve or thirteen years old, Bird is in some ways fresh from the unknown, but has no recollection of it. What we see over the course of the novel is how he grows as a person. At first trusting Brooke and Sugar (especially Brooke), and then after Sugar stabs him, the stampede, and the cannibal’s torture he looses his memory again or it’s all mixed up (or he could be lying). He tells John it was two brothers who killed his family and he vows to avenge them. In many ways, Bird’s path through the novel, his progression and accumulation of knowledge and ethics (or lack thereof) is the most interesting because it is his dumb soul that is rung out through the cosmic stew of violence and consequences, and still he comes out full of bloodlust. For all its humor (yes, there’s humor here) Haints Stay is a bleak tale.
Even with its sinuous plots, Haints Stay is a damn good read and it does a lot well. The use of backstory here is particularly interesting. Brooke recites to himself his and Sugar’s life history to keep sane while he is in the wilderness. Because it’s so integral to Brooke’s survival, this history become a kind of hybrid form of forward moving action. Winnette also is careful not to divulge much about his world, which heightens the suspense and mystery. It takes confidence and rigor to deploy this level of subtle surrealism and leave so many questions unanswered and still deliver a satisfying novel. But the element here that is so well done and surprising is Winnette use of dialogue, and he offers a showcase of dialogue forms to admire:
“How old are we, Brooke?”
“Why would I know that?”
“You seem to know so much about our life and how we should live it. I thought you could tell me a thing or two about how old I am, why your body’s like that and my body’s like this. I thought you could answer one honest question.”
“We’ll get two new horse. They will be stronger and livelier than the old ones.”
“Henry and Buck.”
“Then Henry or Buck, yes, and they’ll serve us well and we’ll love them as we loved Henry and Buck, and then they’ll die and we’ll get more horses. And on and on, Sugar. Now sleep.”
“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke….
“I don’t know,” said [Bird].
“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guild tis all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in a general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as if is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”
“Okay,’ said the boy
“Did they take anything? What did they want?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“That’s not how this works.”
He was crying again.
“Because we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, and that is why you’re scared.”
“I’m Brooke,” said Brook, “and this is Sugar.”
“Twice the fee for two,” said [the hotel manager]
“Same as two rooms?” said Brooke
“Same,” she said.
“That doesn’t seem exactly fair,” said Brooke
“Maybe it isn’t,” she said
On whole, the prose doesn’t contain much internal monologue. Rarely do we get much in the way of what the characters are thinking until they speak. The stark absence of much thought leaves us again in the unknown, but the dialogue delivers us somewhat, and Winnette uses it to great effect to draw his characters, their thoughts and their desires. Additionally, the snappy heat of these exchanges adds a measured balance to all the killing and gore that haunts the pages.
After the characters are scattered by the events of the stampede and capture, the novel uncoils with various plots. After John is gunned down, Martha, his wife, leaves Bird behind to seek revenge for her husband’s murder. Bird lives out a snowstorm with John and Martha’s daughter, Mary. Bird has the notion of becoming a hired gun because within that role he believes he’ll finally find safety. Mary argues that its a foolish ambition, and eventually leaves him after they reach civilization. Brooke wanders the wilderness looking for his brother, and eventually meets a very sick Martha, whom he nurses back to health. Sugar’s baby is brought to term, and delivered by a drunken and manic doctor, who along with the sheriff kidnaps the newborn. Sugar eventually breaks out of prison, and slaughters everyone in sight while looking for his daughter. The novel ends on a safe plateau for most of the surviving characters, but as the novel repeatedly informs us: innocence dies easily, evil lives on.
The story closes in the same saloon and with the same villain—the tiny man behind the desk—it opens with. He is hiring Bird to hunt Brooke and Sugar. The pessimistic vision of Haints Stay is captured in this moment with the Sam-Elliott-tinged statement: “Left to their own devices, people will live out every possible variation of a human life.” These words are spoken derogatorily about Sugar, but there’s something more interesting at play here. It is the unnamable that Winnette seems to be chasing in Haints Stay. It isn’t who we project to the outward world, but that lost soul underneath. Not one character can live out their “possible variation” because civilization (as it is known within these pages) won’t tolerate it and the wilderness is too cruel to allow it to flourish. In the end, Haints Stay tells us that it is only “safety” that its characters can aspire to, satisfaction is impossible.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.
- In general, I don’t like comparing novels to movies, but in an interview with Two Dollar Radio, Winnette explains that while finishing Haints Stay he secluded himself in a “California Knockdown,” where he “just wrote and wrote and read and watched westerns.” So, if he doesn’t mind confessing that he was influenced by movies, I don’t mind saying his novel reminded me somewhat of El Topo.↵
Someone once said of art historian E.H. Gombrich that it seemed pretentious even to praise him. That phrase, whose origin has disappeared from memory, swam back into my ken as I considered the forty-plus years of work contained in Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity. While I might not hyperbolize to quite that degree, I do confess to feeling daunted in the face of such unusual achievement as this poet’s, and am somewhat embarrassed that we, his neighbors to the south, seem to know so little of it.
Even if I could adequately consider the whole of this hefty volume, to do so would demand more time, frankly, than I have just now. Though retired, I am all but frantically busy raising funds—against an imminent deadline—to complete a conservation project in a part of Maine dear to my heart. This latest acquisition will be the final tile in a mosaic of protected land—some private, some state, some (in New Brunswick) crown—amounting to 1.4 million acres.
There are many so-called ecological reserves among these holdings. In our own latest case 7100 acres of fabulous wetland are set aside, including a rare domed bog of almost two thousand acres. This zone will be immune from human alteration whatever until the end of time, and will provide nesting and feeding grounds for any number of bird species.
Don McKay, I believe, would approve. Indeed, I first came upon his work over twenty years ago on a visit to Montreal, when I picked up a used copy of his Birding, or Desire (1983), whose principal speaker, like McKay, is an avid amateur ornithologist. (As I indicated in a blog post some time ago, I then unaccountably forgot McKay until lately reminded by another fine Canadian poet, John Lee.)
Not that birds are McKay’s only wild interest. For all its complexity—or perhaps because of it—I highly recommend his philosophical essay collection, Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001), which, far more than I’ll do in this short compass, may provide insights into McKay’s poetics and poetry. Indeed, prior to considering Angular Unconformity, I think it useful to make a brief divagation into Vis à Vis, because McKay increasingly sees himself as one of several fellow Canadian “ecopoets,” keenly attentive both to the natural world and to its crisis in our time.
It’s all very well for the hip, urbanized postmodernists to dismiss such concerns, no matter their own domains will likely be the first and worst to suffer, as appropriate only to bumpkins or sentimentalists. As McKay himself notes in “Baler Twine,” the penetrating initial essay of Vis à Vis, “admitting that you are a nature poet, nowadays, may make you seem something of a fool, as though you’d owned up to being a Sunday painter…. By this time ‘nature’ has been so lavishly oversold that the word immediately invokes several kinds of vacuous piety, ranging from Rin-Tin-Tinism to knee-jerk environmental concerns.”
McKay seeks another path. His acknowledgment of the postmodern stance, however, is crossed by resistance, for reasons that are “merely empirical: before, under, and through the wonderful terrible wrestling with words and music there is a state of mind which I’m calling ‘poetic attention.’ I’m calling it that, though even as I name it I can feel the falsity (and in some way the transgression) of nomination: it’s a sort of readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess, and it does not really wish to be talked about.”
The author distinguishes between his poetic attention and romantic inspiration; in the case of the latter, McKay notes the aptness of the Aeolian harp to the romantic author’s poetry, such poetry yearning for perception to become language. This is less, he points out, a celebration of nature itself than of the creative imagination for its own sake. “Poetic attention,” on the other hand, “is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it.” The author who pays such attention is in search of an awareness released, however incompletely, from the “primordial grasp” involved, say, in building a home; he or she will pay tribute to the wilderness of the other.
No matter its density, Vis à Vis is a joy simply from a stylistic point of view. For example—and I could find scores—“whenever I see (a raven), I feel absurdly gregarious, and often find myself croaking back, hoping it might decide to perch a spell. Yes, there’s a kind of reverence in this. I do imagine receiving wisdom from this creature, but not packaged as wisdom. It’ll come dressed as talk, palaver. And it will have content, unlike, say, the pure lyric of a white-throated sparrow.”
This prose work is not merely to be read; it is to be re-read and re-read. The same can be said, even more emphatically, of Angular Unconformity. I make no claim, as I’ve already conceded, to having considered each of the book’s hundreds of pages: I have, with a sort of willful non-muscularity, roved through it, and I savor the notion that it will always be close at hand, for even to rove here is to encounter abundant pleasure and challenge.
McKay’s “A Note on the Title” defines angular unconformity—savaged as a title term in a smug, self-indulgent, and stupendously wrong-headed rant against the whole book by gadfly Michael Lista (National Post, October ’14)—as “a border between two rock sequences, one lying at a distinct angle to the other, which represents a significant gap—often millions of years—in the geological record… It might also be described as a fissure through which deep time leaks into history and upsets its authority.” The realms that fascinate this poet, then, are so vast and so imponderable that, as in Vis à Vis, no mortal man or woman may dream of containing them, not even in the 554 pages that go into this grand collection.
I mean, therefore, to “review” Angular Unconformity in an entirely unorthodox, even a dilettantish way, but one which may, I hope, indicate certain abiding themes and motifs, not to mention the sustained high quality, of this poet’s oeuvre. Just as if, in fact, the book lay at my bedside, I’ll dip at literal random into portions of the collection, not even responding to every last one, or, in some cases, responding with mere generalities, and ultimately snapping shut in the interest of space.
My main intention here, anyhow, is simply to say, Go read the work.
I preface what follows with a poem from Strike/Slip (2006). In several ways, I believe, it synopsizes a good deal of what I’ve been discussing. The poem’s omni-referentiality, in fact, may account for the publisher’s decision to replicate it on the dust-jacket:
Astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short
and turned toward stone, the moment
filling with its slow
stratified time. Standing there, your face
cratered by its gawk,
you might be the symbol signifying eon.
What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere
sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds
rear up into mountains, ammonites
fossilize into gems. Are you thinking
or being thought? Cities
as sand dunes, epics
as e-mail. Astonished
you are famous and anonymous, the border
washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone
inside you steps from the forest and across the beach
toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.
Such an utterance, like so many of McKay’s, illustrates (how impoverished a verb!) that radical distinction of poetic attention from Aeolian Harpism, to call it that, in which the natural and the imaginative are presumed to be deeply correspondent—so much so as ultimately to become one. McKay eschews any such notion as Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” whose possessor dares to say “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” In the moment “translated” by the poem above, otherness is so radically other that it parries even such billowy, Emersonian definitions. True, every “border” is “washed out,” but this leads to no seamless interfusion, to nothing like what Coleridge describes, precisely, in “The Aeolian Harp”:
O the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where…
As one often introduced as a nature poet myself, I equally often hear that I take my inspiration from the natural world. But if I am “inspired” (a term at best equivocal to me anyhow)—if I’m inspired at all, it’s because, like McKay, I contemplate nature as otherness, a dimension in which our fixities and definites are idle, and anthropomorphisms simply Disneyesque. As the poet asks here, “Are you empty or pregnant,” “thinking/or being thought”? And of course these rhetorical questions themselves subside at length into the unanswerable, into “the nameless all-dissolving ocean.”
The trouble is, and none is more aware of it than McKay, the moment we say a thing about that otherness we have at least partially removed ourselves from it. Our “translations,” however hard we try, are always partial and rough. To that extent, the lit-theorists have made much of a truth, usually rendered in inscrutable prose, quite evident to any “nature writer” within the first day of his or her career: as McKay knows full well, to mouth or write the word raven, say, is instantly to depart its mystery for a human construct, to enact what he—again in Vis à Vis—calls our “primordial grasp.”
From this self-evident datum, the theorists elaborate, however variously, perspectives that are ultimately nihilistic. Since the very gesture of articulation compromises some putative, absolute truth, then the world from protozoon to planet is one big carny gig, and absolute truth the silliest sort of pipe dream. The poet, however, or at least the poet who like McKay resists such inclinations, finds beauty and even, yes, meaning in the provisional truth to which he or she is reduced perforce. Wallace Stevens, in a poem aptly called “Of Modern Poetry,” described poetry’s actual subject as “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” That nothing will ever suffice entirely is merely a goad to keep trying for that unattainable sufficiency, to write more poems.
I’ve always found it strange that contemporary theory bothers with arguments at all, since those arguments must surely be susceptible of deconstruction themselves; and it’s nearly amusing that it costs so many (cloudy) words to demonstrate the inutility of words. To proceed from that sense of inutility, to go on from insufficiency: that is the mission of so-called creative writing, and not just of the naturalist variety.
Yet of course the natural world is McKay’s principal bailiwick. Notice how he responds, for example, in this excerpt from an early poem in Long Sault (1975” called “Off the Road:”
The kids float sticks
down the creek behind the campsite
while we sip our coffee by the fire.
hangs over the tent like a neutral traffic light that leaves us
uhh just about to say something that
Dusk is almost better than a word.
I recognize that scene: something as fabulous as the moon may move us to verbal response that, even when lyric or clever or both, seems banal, premised as it is, say, on some simile from our quotidian world, such as “like a neutral traffic light.” It might indeed be the better option, as here, not to “say something” at all, for “Dusk is almost better than a word.”
It is, however, that almost I batten onto, because if dusk—or any other natural phenomenon—were entirely better than a word, then we would have no poetry at all, and in Don McKay’s case, we’d lose something which I’d hate to be deprived of.
I’d be deprived, among other things, of his gift not only as lyric but also as narrative poet. Indeed, had I space, I’d quote sections in many of his volumes that contain marvelous, straightforward prose accounts, which are poetic only in the sense that by his very instincts this author must make them so.
“Along About Then,” again from Long Sault, begins like this:
Along about then this new Mountie, Macmillan,
MacDonald, something like that come down here
Sayin how he’s going to clean up all the stills,
And they was plenty in the township.
…………The others grinning steady, they’ve
…………heard it from uncles or grandfathers
…………in kitchens scrubbed like this one with a Scot’s
That is to say that, all through their lives, everyone on hand has heard this story unfold, with various modifications. The cultural studies crowd would call these versions, even the originative one, factitious (or some such), and to that extent, I suppose, lies. But McKay has been exposed to what remains of oral culture in North America. So have I: I know such kitchens or log landings, or campsites, or lumberjacks’ cabins, though in my case the vestiges of those cultures are to be found particularly in northern Maine. McKay is aware that these men (and women?) know the “truth” of a story to be all but irrelevant. What counts is, precisely, its facticity, the degree to which it is a made thing, but one that, almost like a natural organism, has evolved over time and has therefore become, in effect, community property.
It is not the Mountie but the game warden who uncovers the local trade in bootleg booze. The warden walks right up to a deer and touches it, whereupon the animal falls over. Dead drunk.
…old Lalonde and his boys been getting lazy and just
tossed their mash across the fence.
Probably polluted half the game in the township…
Listen to how the poet renders the audience response:
The chuckle’s more a rumble deep down. Everybody
has a sip of beer.
Now the story
will be mulled and tinkered with a rickety
contraption made of names
……………………………..names like the roads
they cut and stomped and rode…
In recent decades, the very notion of narrative has been viewed with opprobrium by certain scholars, regarded as a vehicle for all the usual suspects (for elitism—no matter the importance of story to all tribal cultures—and racism and colonialism and sexism: ism after ism). Indeed, many a contemporary poet shares that disaffection, for similar reasons or others. And one can’t help thinking that to this poet himself the conversion of experience—especially wilderness experience—to tale-telling is a blasphemy against that revelatory realm that lies beyond words.
But even if they be guilty pleasures for McKay, I, who don’t entirely share such scruples, am happy he makes time to indulge them. His austerer vision is the one for which this poet may remain most remarkable, but praise be, like a health food nut who sneaks to the 7-11 for an occasional Moon Pie, he now and then resorts to this one. Indeed, even in the “new poems” section of Angular Unconformity, and in the latest full volume preceding it, Paroxides (2012), the author persists in including those prose narratives.
The plain fact is that, like an Edward Abbey’s, McKay’s oeuvre exists in an area of tension between his affection for narrative and his propensity toward what is now often called Deep Ecology. The work may stray into one realm now, into the other next, and back again. That’s its very nature.
The volume succeeding Long Sault, it seems to me, explores this tension in a unique way. It is a sustained narrative—which persistently questions the validity of narrative, at least as we understand such a format as westerners. Lependu (1978) is immensely complex, and it would be an insult simply to synopsize, not to mention an impossibility. The historical premise (even if the poem at large pokes holes in the notion of any history that’s authoritative) goes as follows.
In 1829, Cornelius Burley, an illiterate and impoverished citizen of London, Ontario, was convicted of murdering a city constable. He may have been prodded into confession by a Methodist preacher named James Jackson, who may in turn—or so at least McKay insists—have shaped the supposed confession to his own ends, especially a love of publicity. (Jackson read the confession to an assembled crowd and later made it into a handbill, which he sold for considerable profit.) The hanging took place in the courthouse square in the summer of 1830.
A grotesque aspect of the whole affair was that a Yale medical student got ahold of the victim’s skull; a budding phrenologist named Orson Fowler, he displayed it all over North America, showing its various bumps and cracks as indications of Burley’s murderous temperament. What remains of the cranium is now on display in a box at London’s Eldon House, along with other relics.
The poem’s speaker visits that house at the outset of Lependu (French for the hanged man, and the epithet by which McKay usually refers to his protagonist). He sees
Hallways lined with trophies, the skulls and antlers of
Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Sable Antelope…
………………………………………………………and (slight pause) Cornelius
In “The Confession: notes toward a phrenology of absence,” McKay writes,
Burley, your silence is the wound in our
We have to climb inside,
into the box we built you, armed with ears
to scavenge and invent…
By way of such scavenging and invention, the poet transforms the pathetic Burley into the mythic Lependu, who comes to epitomize everything in the universe that will not fit into any of our boxes. Various characters throughout the poem, the poet included, will now and then be “inhabited,” however briefly, by his ineffable energy:
When Lependu flu hit Western U
there wasn’t an allusion free from the phlegm
that fell from the air,
Scoffed at profs.
Chalk him not meet blackboard
square but ugh– squawk– sending
shivers of où sont les neiges d’antan
down each individual backbone.
Among other things, Lependu recalls not only a pre-colonial continent (suggested by the pidgin “Chalk him not meet blackboard”) but also a pre-human one. In “Shadow City Shadow City,” the hanged man
lays the absence of his body on the city like a long
black negligee, wakens the buildings
softly, so the bricks remember
So in our bones a new
Precambrian weight begins.
The feeling of that weight—which is really a temporary absence of weight—marks, I believe, the typifying moment of McKay’s “poetic attention,” referred to earlier on. Under the influence of Lependu, anyone can experience such moments—and won’t be the same thereafter. There is a prose sector here, for example, called “The Report of an Old Man Whose Life Was Changed After Briefly Becoming Lependu Back in 1946.” The unlikeliness of the title character betokens the omni-availability of these revelations, provided we get out of those boxes of ours; the old man has been on a days-long bender, puking his guts out until “I threw up everything that tied me down… I hung above myself, the zinging moving through like a breeze without a message, asking and making nothing of itself, a time not long but round, still round in my mind when I think back.”
“No message” in the “zinging”—only, as we recall from Vis à Vis, a “readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess.” The prospect of such readiness arises over and over in Lependu. It’s the untying that matters. At poem’s end, the author notes that when the hanged man invades our consciousness,
the only writing is the writing of the glaciers on the rocks
the only thinking is the river slowly
knowing its valley
until the city, seen
in a stutter of light between the branches
nests in the river’s crotch
our own tongues
speaking in a slightly different language and our heads
antlered with images
Now here I am, all these pages later, and I have not even made it halfway through McKay’s collected poems. So I will now accelerate, again with the advisory that anyone interested in contemporary poetry of international importance give this book more time than I can allow myself.
So as I warned, I leap ahead—first, to the volume that caught my attention more than two decades ago, Birding, or Desire (1983). I have spoken of the tension in this poet’s sensibility between an affection for story and an attraction to the natural world’s inarticulable vastness. In Birding…, I think, that tension is especially conspicuous. On one hand, the author is a birder in the Audubon Society sense, field guide in hand, seeking identification, a mark of the desire his alternate title names. (There is erotic desire in this collection too, but I’m scanting that, as so much else, for economy’s sake). Yet he simultaneously longs for the natural domain’s pure otherness. In “A Morning Song,” for example, as he drives to his professorial job, he thinks how
Soon I will be erasing Latin declensions left by the night class
while the dog, sleeping in the kitchen
nurtures my huge laziness in dreams
which are deep and cold
and speckled with uninhabited islands.
The poet has his own Latinisms (in a later collection, for instance, he’ll entitle a poem not “Starling” but “Sturnus Vulgaris”) but his further dreams, like his animal companion’s, are wild and uncatalogued. His “laziness” lies in his sporadic refusals to count and to list. As he says in another entry, “Audubonless/ dream birds thrive…/undocumented citizens of teeming/ terra incognita.”
The urge to document and the longing for pure abandonment to the unspeakable will persist, I suspect, so long as Don McKay writes—a long, long time, I pray—even, or especially given the world’s eco-crisis, in which we
…watch the nesting instinct of the Bald eagle weaken
shells grow thin
its brilliant mind go dim with pesticides.
Let’s tell cuckoo eagle jokes, e.g.
“Why did the cuckoo eagle forget where she laid her eggs?”
Let’s train the kamikaze starlings.
Let’s plan the street map of Necropolis
let’s have statues of everybody.
Let’s learn our own
We may well not recover from such crisis, as McKay suggests all through the poems from 45 years ago to now, and certainly won’t until we gain awareness of that Audubonless world, the world personified by Lependu, or by, for instance, the peregrine falcon in “Identification.” On seeing the bird,
I write it down because of too much sky
because I might have gone on digging the potatoes
never looking up because
I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe because
my sinuses, those weary hoses,
have begun to stretch and grow, become
a catacomb my voice
would yodel into stratospheric octaves
such clarity is rare and inarticulate as you, o dangerous
The speaker “might have gone on digging the potatoes / never looking up” locked in his quotidianness, which includes the desire to possess. But as I remarked at the outset, the very desire to possess is implicit in the very act of writing things down: this makes for the frustration in the process—
I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe….
True clarity, truth itself, exists in a realm as “rare and inarticulate” as the soaring falcon’s. Given such a reality, a lesser mind would retreat into silence, or perhaps into what I’ve called the nihilism of many recent literary commentators. McKay knows that an utterance adequate to the monumental world of nature, or perhaps to any world, is beyond him. But he moves on from such awareness of insufficiency. He does so not altogether happily, though we as readers should be more than happy for his persistence.
— Sydney Lea
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. 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. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. 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 September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.
Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth….(“The Tower,” II)
The genesis of this essay was a talk I was invited to give as part of Le Moyne College’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. B. Yeats. I’d been asked to say a few words, in the Bernat Special Events Room of the Library, about three of the books to be displayed, and then, widening the gyre, to try to present what I took to be the “quintessential” Yeats: the Identity of the Man beneath the many Masks (to fuse the titles of Richard Ellmann’s two pioneering Yeats studies). To prepare for the next event in our anniversary celebration (the Curlew Theatre production, The Muse & Mr. Yeats), I was also asked to recite some poems to and about his principal Muse, the improbably beautiful and never fully-attainable Maud Gonne. She is the “woman lost,” the “great labyrinth” that fascinated Yeats and from which, he admits in the surprising lines cited in my epigraph, he somehow “turned aside.” I’ll return to this point.
Of the three first editions I discussed, the first was my copy of the pamphlet, On the Boiler (1939). The other two are rare volumes: my signed copies of the Fountain Press edition of The Winding Stair (1929), and of the Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1957). What follows begins with, but goes far beyond, what I said in the library, though I’ve retained some of the talk’s casual tone. Taking advantage of the essay format, I’ve added many poems to those I quoted in the library, most related to Maud Gonne. That is true even of the major poem on which (to borrow Soul’s language) I have most “fixed” my “attention”: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the dominant poem in both versions of The Winding Stair. I focus primarily on Self’s life-affirming emblem, the ancestral sword wound in embroidered silk, and on Self’s peroration, affirming that most painful yet “most fecund” experience of Yeats’s life, his unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Finally, here as in the talk, I try, at some risk of “reducing” the poetry to autobiography, to get beneath the various Yeatsian masks in order to reveal, as he himself did in several late poems, the man at his most human, the poet who moves us most.
In the final movement of “A Bronze Head” (1938), the last Maud Gonne poem, Yeats seems to use her as his mask, imagining her “supernatural,/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,/ On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry, / Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty.” In On the Boiler, also written in 1938, Yeats comments on what he saw as the current decline of European civilization. He had earlier employed female personae, “Crazy Jane” and the “Woman Young and Old,” as masks through which he could speak with remarkable sexual candor. The considerably less appealing mask in On the Boiler is male: the persona of an old seaman (the depiction on the cover is from a design by the poet’s artist-brother, Jack) Yeats once heard ranting from atop a ship’s boiler. Ill, cranky, but energized by what he called (in “An Acre of Grass,” a late fusion of Blake and Nietzsche) “an old man’s frenzy,” Yeats vents some of his least inhibited notions about preserving aristocratic values threatened by cultural, intellectual, and physical “degeneration.”
He had been reading about eugenics, a pseudo-science that infects the final stanza of “A Bronze Head,” as well as “Under Ben Bulben,” too often taken as his last testament (I will conclude by suggesting other candidates for that honor, including Yeats’s own surprising preference). Coupled with the nightmare aspect of Nietzschean Recurrence, eugenics also figures prominently in the remarkable play Purgatory, first published in On the Boiler (along with three previously unpublished poems, one, “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” featuring the reappearance of his best-known female persona, now commenting on politics). Eugenic theory is most notoriously prevalent in the section of the pamphlet titled “To-morrow’s Revolution,” where Yeats laments biological and cultural “degeneration” and calls for war as a preferable alternative. Though Yeats, a man of the theater after all, is being theatrical, flamboyant, and hyperbolic, there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough daylight between the poet himself and that old seaman ranting from atop the boiler.
But it must be added that Yeats, attracted to Fascism, was repelled by National Socialism. Nor, despite his praise of the most skillful of the German submarine commanders of World War I, could he have foreseen the full horror of the Second World War, let alone the most rancid and horrific fruit of eugenic theory in practice: the genocidal extermination carried out in the Nazi death-camps. Like James Joyce and his own “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, Yeats was resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism (the same cannot be said of Maud). Like many others, he underestimated the threat presented by Hitler when he first came to power. But, for all his reckless talk about a coming revolution and salvation through destruction, the sole substantive reference he makes to the Führer has to do with cruelty. As he reports in a February 1934 letter to his most intimate correspondent, Olivia Shakespear, Blue Shirt neighbors had put to death a collie Mrs. Yeats believed (mistakenly as it turned out) had eaten her prize white hen. After quoting the neighbor’s brutally brusque response, “have done away with collie-dog,” Yeats comments: “note the Hitler touch.”
We can turn now from lesser to greater Yeats and to those two signed editions. In the library talk, I discussed the provenance of both, and, taking up the teaser in the flyer that had been distributed, explained how it was that I came to own a signed copy of a book published in 1957, almost two decades after the poet’s death. It takes no ghost from the grave to explain that posthumous signature. Shortly before he died, Yeats signed 825 sheets to be bound into selected volumes of the long-delayed Edition de Luxe of his complete works, to be published, finally, in 1940. Two events intervened: Yeats died in January 1939, and, eight months later, World War II broke out. The deluxe edition was cancelled, and the signed sheets disappeared. Until they were discovered in a vault in the mid-1950s, just in time to be bound into selected copies of the much-anticipated Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, published eighteen years after his death. Precisely eighteen years after that, I was married, and my best man gave one of these signed copies (No. 49) to my wife Ann and me as a wedding present. That was in 1975. Much has changed since then; but I’ve hung on to the book, which has appreciated tenfold in value from the $300 paid forty years ago.
Yeats’s signature in the Variorum requires no ghostly explanation. But is it true (as the poet prophesied in September 1938) that “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid”? I’m no fan of the poem where that dramatic announcement was made, just four months before Yeats died but ten years before his headstone was erected. For decades, “Under Ben Bulben” was printed at the end of the Collected Poems, not Yeats’s intention, as we know from a list he prepared shortly before his death. He meant it to open his final volume, so that everything else in what we know as Last Poems would seem, as it were, spoken from beyond the grave. We should all be loath to accept as Yeats’s final testament a poem whose occasional magnificence is tainted by bombast about “the indomitable Irishry” and Anglo-Irish “Hard-riding country gentlemen” accompanied by a picturesque “peasantry,” not to mention (On the Boiler versified) the eugenic revulsion from “Base-born products of base beds.” And yet the poem rises from its detritus at several points, certainly in the final funereal drumbeat, ending with the “unconventional” and enigmatic epitaph:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
…………Cast a cold eye
…………On life, on death.
…………Horseman, pass by!
The famous epitaph should be read, as should most of Yeats, as an interaction with tradition. The epitaph becomes less cryptic when we interpret it as a vital equestrian and notably pagan response to morose admonishments to travelers to stop (Siste, viator) and reflect that, as the dead are, so shall we be. Instead, Yeats’s “unconventional” advice for visitors to his grave is to look on life and death with equanimity, then, energized rather than enervated, to “pass by,” getting on with our own lives. It should be added that “cold” for Yeats is often an exhilarating adjective. He speaks of the “cold and rook-delighting heaven” (“The Cold Heaven”), hopes to someday write a “Poem maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn” (“The Fisherman”), and presents the girl in the opening poem of “A Woman Young and Old,” less responsive to ethical demands and village morality than to aesthetic impulses, as thrilled that her young man’s “hair is beautiful,/ Cold as the March wind his eyes.”
The epitaph’s mystery can be illuminated. The mystery still surrounding precisely what is buried beneath it is less easily resolved. The poet died in southern France on January 28, 1939. “He disappeared in the dead of winter,” Auden begins his great elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and that wasn’t the end of the disappearances. Yeats was buried in Roquebrune cemetery, near the French-Italian border. When a friend and late lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, who had attended the funeral, visited the cemetery in 1946, the marker was still there. But the following year, when she returned, the marker was gone and she was told that the remains had been moved to a common area. The cemetery records were ambiguous. In September 1948, three years after the war’s end, the poet’s supposed remains were exhumed, shipped to Ireland, and reinterred under the great mountain he had made even more famous. The Sligo Chamber of Commerce, benefiting from the thriving Yeats Industry, doesn’t want to hear about it, but the truth is that we’re not altogether certain what “is laid” under Ben Bulben and beneath that commanding epitaph. One thing that is certain is Yeats’s posthumous literary reputation. Despite shifts in styles and sensibility over the three-quarters of a century since he died, Yeats continues to be generally considered the major poet of the 20th century—“certainly,” as T. S. Eliot said in commemorating his rival in the first Yeats Memorial Lecture, in 1940, “the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language.”
I want now to distinguish the 1929 Fountain Press The Winding Stair from the 1933 Macmillan The Winding Stair and Other Poems, Yeats’s longest volume and, along with The Tower (1928), his greatest. I purchased the Fountain Press edition for $225, after phoning the leading expert in the world, my friend the late George Mills Harper, to confirm my decision. That was in 1979, precisely a half-century after its publication. It’s a slim volume, containing two very short poems (“Death” and “Oil and Blood”) and four major texts, beginning with “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” its beautiful first lines, “The light of evening, Lissadell,/ Great windows open to the south,” establishing the volume’s mixture of elegy and affirmation. Then come “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Blood and the Moon,” and the volume ends with the eleven-poem sequence, “A Woman Young and Old.” Despite the many “other poems” later added, both the 1929 and 1933 volumes begin with an elegy for two women (recalled as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful”) and end with a concentrically-structured sequence spoken by a woman, its final framing poem an elegy for Antigone.
And that rondure is continued beneath the surface since that concluding elegy, “From the Antigone,” was drafted at the same time as the volume-opening elegy for Eva and Con; we know because the ink has leaked through the manuscript page. As suggested by the titles alone, as well as the omphalos-structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” the 1929 and 1933 editions of The Winding Stair are “female” in orientation, countering the preceding, essentially “masculine” volume The Tower—though the fact that, in Yeats’s actual Norman tower, the inner spiral staircase is, of course, part of a unified structure, suggests that the poetic as well as architectural tower and winding stair are ultimately complementary rather than antithetical. The same is true of the relationship between the sword and the silken embroidery wound about its sheathe in the crucial symbol in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” a poem that figures centrally not only in both editions of The Winding Stair, but in Yeats’s work as a whole.
The “Dialogue” also interacts with the whole canon of Body-Soul “debates.” That tradition, going back to Plato and to Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), can be traced in Middle- English debate poems and, in the 17th-century, among others, George Herbert’s “The Collar” and Milton’s masque, Comus. Though wit complicates the tension in Marvell’s “A Drop of Dew,” “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure,” and “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body,” Yeats stands the whole venerable tradition on its head, affirming life and human sexuality in the struggle with soul’s commands and demands. In “Father and Child,” opening the Woman Young and Old sequence concluding both versions of The Winding Stair, Yeats echoes “The Collar” in order to alter it. Herbert’s rebellious speaker, who “struck the board and cried, ‘No more!” grows ever more strident, proclaiming himself to be “free as the wind.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
…………………….At every word
Methoughts I heard one calling, Childe!,
…………………….And I replied, My Lord.
Whereas the Childe in Herbert’s poem ultimately submits to divine authority, the Yeatsian Child remains quietly defiant, oblivious to Father’s ranting. Unmoved by what troubles him (conventional morality reflected in village gossip), she affirms instead beauty and the dangerous, liberating wind of sexual awakening:
She hears me strike the board and say
That she is under ban
Of all good men and women,
Being mentioned with a man
That has the worst of all bad names,
And thereupon replies,
That his hair is beautiful,
Cold as the March wind his eyes.
The victor in the “debate” between “Father and Child” is clear because Yeats makes it so, the poet in him overcoming his own paternalism (the poem is based on a breakfast-table exchange between Yeats and his daughter Anne, a child he advances to puberty for the song’s sake). We may turn now to the related but more momentous agon between opposites in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”
Some critics have thought The Winding Stair a book misleadingly titled. Presumably because, influenced by the Soul’s opening line: “I summon to the winding ancient stair,” they have taken the book’s emphasis to be on the transcendent ascent rather than the cyclical winding. But the “winding stair” of this volume, the spiral staircase within Thoor Ballylee—that “winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair” which Yeats declares, in the opening movement of “Blood and the Moon,” to be his “ancestral stair,” still bearing the “Odour of blood”—is not only, or even primarily, a scala coeli or Jacob’s ladder by which we mount to spiritual vision. Soul would have it so, of course, in “Dialogue”; but the protagonist, the antithetical Self, is not to be bullied into submission. Imperiously commanded to fix his “wandering” attention “upon” spiritual ascent and “ancestral night,” Self remains diverted by the greatest of Yeats’s fused symbols: the “ancient blade” (given Yeats as a gift by a Japanese admirer, Junzo Sato) scabbarded and bound in complementary “female” embroidery. That sheathed and silk-wound sword—“emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night,” fusing the sacred and the profane, war and love, the phallic and the vaginal—becomes Yeats’s symbol of gyring life, set against the vertical ascent urged by the Neoplatonic Soul. And the sword’s winding embroidery is associated, as we shall see, with the labyrinthine Maud Gonne.
In the opening movement of the poem, the half in which there is still a semblance of actual dialogue, hectoring Soul repeatedly demands that Self “fix” every thought “upon” the One, “upon” the steep ascent, “upon” the occult Pole Star, “upon” the spiritual quarter where all thought is done. But the recalcitrant Self remains diverted by the Many, by earthly multiplicity, by the sword wound in embroidery replicating the windings of mortal nature. In unpublished notes to the poem, first printed in full in 1987 in my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition, Yeats describes “Dialogue” as “a variation on Macrobius.” The reference, here as in “Chosen,” is to the Neoplatonist to whose Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis Yeats had been directed by his friend F. P. Sturm. In Cicero’s text, despite the rhetorical admonition of Scipio’s ghostly ancestor, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and contemn what is mortal?” young Scipio admits he “kept turning my eyes back to earth.” According to Macrobius, Scipio “looked about him everywhere with wonder. Hereupon his grandfather’s admonitions recalled him to the upper realms.” Though the agon between the Yeatsian Self and Soul is identical to that between young Scipio and his grandfather’s spirit, the Soul in Yeats’s poem proves to be a considerably less successful spiritual guide than that formidable ghost.
Turning a largely deaf ear to Soul’s advocacy of the upward path, Self (revealingly called “Me” in the drafts of the poem) has preferred to focus downward, on life, brooding on the consecrated blade upon his knees with its tattered but still protective wrapping of “Heart’s purple.” That “flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound” makes the double icon “emblematical” not only of “love and war,” but of the ever-circling gyre: the eternal, and archetypally female, spiral. When Soul’s paradoxically physical tongue is turned to stone with the realization that, according to his own austere doctrine, “only the dead can be forgiven,” Self takes over the poem. He goes on to win his way, despite considerable difficulty, to a self-redemptive affirmation of life.
Self begins his peroration defiantly: “A living man is blind and drinks his drop./ What matter if the ditches are impure?” This “variation” on Neoplatonism, privileging life’s filthy downflow, or “defluction,” over the Plotinian pure fountain of emanation, is followed by an even more defiant rhetorical question: “What matter if I live it all once more?” “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “Well then! Once more!” (Zarathustra 3.2). But Self’s grandiose and premature gesture is instantly undercut by the litany of grief that Nietzschean Recurrence, the exact repetition of the events of one’s life, would entail—from the “toil of growing up,” through the “ignominy of boyhood” and the “distress” of “changing into a man,” to the “pain” of the “unfinished man” having to confront “his own clumsiness,” then the “finished man,” old and “among his enemies.” Despite the Self’s bravado, it is in danger of being shaped, deformed, by what Hegel and, later, feminist critics have emphasized as the judgmental Gaze of Others. Soul’s tongue may have turned to stone, but malignant ocular forces have palpable designs upon the assaulted Self:
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
This would be, as Yeats says in “Ancestral Houses” (1921), to lose the ability to “choose whatever shape [one] wills,” and (echoing Browning’s arrogant Duke, who “choose[s] never to stoop”) to “never stoop to a mechanical / Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call”: Yeats’s rejection of “slave morality” in favor of Nietzschean “master morality.” The centrality of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is enhanced by its repercussions in his own work and its absorption of so many influences outside the Yeatsian canon. Aside from the Body/Soul debate tradition, and the combat between Neoplatonism and Nietzsche, this Yeatsian psychomachia incorporates, among other poems in the Romantic tradition, another Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and Blake’s feminist Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Self’s eventual victory, like Oothoon’s, is over severe moralism, the reduction of the body to a defiled object. In Yeats’s case it seems, above all, a triumph over his own Neoplatonism or Gnosticism: an instance of Nietzschean Selbstüberwindung, creative “self-overcoming,” for, as Yeats said, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (Mythologies 331).
Since “Dialogue” is a quarrel with himself, the spiritual tradition is not simply dismissed, here any more than in the Crazy Jane or Woman Young and Old sequences. For Yeats, the world of experience, however dark the declivities into which the generated soul may drop, is never utterly divorced from the world of light and grace. The water imagery branching through Self’s peroration subsumes pure fountain and impure ditches. There is a continuum. The Plotinian fountain cascades down from the divine One through mind or intellect (nous) to the lower depths. As long, says Plotinus, as nous maintains its gaze on and contemplation of God (the First Cause or “Father”), it retains the likeness of its Creator (Enneads 5.2.4). But, writes Macrobius (Commentary 1.14.4), the soul, “by diverting its attention more and more, though itself incorporeal, degenerates into the fabric of bodies.”
Viewed from Soul’s perspective, Self is a falling off from the higher Soul. When the attention, supposed to be fixed on things above, is diverted below—down to the blade on his knees wound in tattered silk and, further downward, to life’s “impure” ditches—the Self has indeed degenerated into the “fabric,” the tattered embroidery, of bodies. And yet, as usual in later Yeats, that degradation is also a triumph, couched in terms modulating from stoic contentment to fierce embrace:
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
Following everything to the “source” within, Self spurns Soul’s tongue-numbing doctrine that “only the dead can be forgiven.” Instead, having pitched with vitalistic relish into life’s filthy frog-spawn, Self audaciously (or blasphemously) claims the power to forgive himself. In a similar act of self-determination, Self “cast[s] out” remorse, reversing the defiling image earlier “cast upon” him by the “mirror of malicious eyes.” The sweetness that “flows into” the self-forgiving breast redeems the frog-spawn of the blind man’s ditch and even that “most fecund ditch of all,” the painful but productive folly that is the bitter-sweet fruit of unrequited love. It would violate decorum—and is hardly necessary—for Yeats to name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” but I will return to her at the end.
That sweet flow also displaces the infusion (infundere: “to pour in”) of Christian grace through divine forgiveness. It is a claim to autonomy at once redemptive and heretical, and a masterly fusion of Yeats’s two principal precursors. “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” Yeats claimed. If, as he also rightly said, Blake’s central doctrine is a Christ-like “forgiveness of sins,” the sweetness that flows into the suffering but self-forgiving “breast,” the breast in which Blake also said “all deities reside,” allies the Romantic poet with Nietzsche. He had been preceded by the German Inner Light theologians, but it took Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, to most radically transvalue the Augustinian doctrine that man can only be redeemed by divine power and grace, a foretaste of predestination made even more uncompromising in the strict Protestant doctrine of the salvation of the Elect as an unmerited gift of God. One must find one’s own “grace,” countered Nietzsche in Daybreak, a book read by Yeats. He who has “definitively conquered himself, henceforth regards it as his own privilege to punish himself, to pardon himself”—in Yeats’s phrase, “forgive myself the lot.” We must cast out remorse and cease to despise ourselves: “Then you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourselves!” (Nietzsche, Daybreak §437, §79)
In 1902, enthralled by his “excited” reading of “that strong enchanter,” Yeats drew in the margin of a Nietzsche anthology a diagram crucial to understanding much if not all of his subsequent thought and work. He grouped under the heading NIGHT: “Socrates, Christ,” and “one god”— “denial of self, the soul turned toward spirit seeking knowledge.” And, under the heading DAY: “Homer” and “many gods”—“affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.” That diagrammatical skeleton, anticipated by the pull between eternity and the temporal in such early poems as the crucial “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (1892), is later fully fleshed out by Yeats’s own chosen exemplar in “Vacillation” (1932)—“Homer is my example and his unchristened heart”—and Self’s choice of Sato’s sword wound in “Heart’s purple,” flowers “from I know not what embroidery”: “all these I set/ For emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” While Yeats could never bring himself to endorse Nietzschean atheism, the final chant of Self in “Dialogue”—“We must laugh and we must sing/ We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest”—is clearly the product of Yeats’s brilliant in-gathering of Nietzsche and Blake, whose Oothoon cries out climactically, “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!” To be sure, Self’s final lines are riddled with other echoes. But the critical figures remain Blake and Nietzsche. It is under their twin auspices, as manipulated by Yeats, that Self finds the bliss traditionally reserved for those who follow the ascending path. Yeats’s alteration of the spiritual tradition completes Blake, who considered cyclicism the ultimate nightmare, with that Nietzsche whose exuberant Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight”:
In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer, all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3:16)
We might say that Zarathustra here also “jumps” into a cluster of images and motifs we would call Yeatsian, remembering, along with Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, “Among School Children,” where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know/ The dancer from the dance”; the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems; and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero, both in The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted,” into a singing bird.
In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the Yeatsian-Nietzschean Self, commandeering the spiritual vocabulary Soul would monopolize, affirms eternal recurrence, the labyrinth of human life with all its tangled antinomies of joy and suffering. In subverting the debate-tradition, Yeats leaves Soul with a petrified tongue, and gives Self a final chant that is among the most rhapsodic in that whole tradition of secularized supernaturalism Yeats inherited from the Romantic poets and from Nietzsche. In a related if somewhat lower register, it is also the vision of Crazy Jane and the Woman Young and Old: the female embodiments of the often anguished but ultimately life-affirming vision that dominates, first, The Winding Stair, and then— four years later, when the volume was fleshed out by Words for Music Perhaps, beginning with “Byzantium” and concluding with the Crazy Jane sequence—The Winding Stair and Other Poems.
One purpose of the original library talk had been to prepare the audience for a more formal celebratory event: the Curlew Theatre production of The Muse & Mr. Yeats, written and produced by Irish poet Eamon Grennan. I therefore said a few poems I had by heart, centering, inevitably, on the poet’s only-once-named but known-to-all Muse, Maud Gonne—according to George Bernard Shaw, not an easy man to awe, “the most beautiful woman in the British Isles.” I began with an early, mythologically-disguised Maud poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), originally and reductively titled “A Mad Song,” which at least clarifies the action-initiating “fire” in the speaker’s “head.” The speaker and seeker in this almost miraculously beautiful lyric is the Celtic god of poetry, love, and youth, though here he ages in his eternal quest of the transfigured beauty, palpable but elusive, he had once glimpsed in the evanescent form of one of the shape-changing women of the Celtic Sidhe:
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl,
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
That “glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair,” however magically transformed (even that is connected to Maud by the self-pitying “The Fish,” in this same volume),  will remind us that when Yeats first saw Maud, in 1889, “she seemed,” he recorded in 1922, “a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window.” By then he had described her in a poem, “The Arrow” (1901), as “Tall and noble but with face and bosom/ Delicate in colour as apple blossom.” Nevertheless, the exquisite “Song of Wandering Aengus” is cloaked in mythology. An earlier, even more covert Maud poem, “The Cap and Bells” (1893), was accompanied by an evasive note when it was published in The Wind Among the Reeds. Describing it (as Coleridge had described the genesis of “Kubla Khan”) as coming to him in a dream or vision, Yeats concludes, “The poem has always meant a great deal to me, though as is the way with symbolic poems, it has not always meant quite the same thing. Blake would have said, ‘The authors are in eternity,’ and I am quite sure they can only be questioned in dreams.”
He had reason to deflect the curious. For him, “The Cap and Bells” was, in retrospect, a counter-poem to the beautiful but abject “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” which he described as “the way to lose a woman.” Being “poor” (the nonce word in this poem “Enwrought with golden and silver light”), he cannot afford “the heaven’s embroidered cloths,” and so “I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
This is to invite the female response Nancy Sinatra threatened a half-century ago: “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do. / One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” as well as the recent pictorial spoof by Annie West.
If he was not engaging in either massive repression or sardonic irony in describing the even more beautiful and even more masochistic “The Cap and Bells” as “the way to win a woman,” Yeats must have believed that Maud Gonne was to be won only through total sacrifice.
In a chivalric scenario set in the evening in a garden beneath the palace-window of a young, beautiful, and aloof queen, a lovelorn jester bids his blue-garmented soul, “grown wise-tongued by thinking” of her “light foot fall,” to rise upward to her window-sill. Unresponsive, she decisively “drew in the heavy casement/ And pushed the latches down.” He then sends her, in a “red and quivering garment,” his heart, “grown sweet-tongued by dreaming/ Of a flutter of flower-like hair.” It “sang to her through the door.” But the dismissal of the heart is even more painful because so nonchalant: “she took up her fan from the table/ And waved it off on the air.” With soul and heart, thought and dream, both rejected, he sends the young queen what is most quintessential, at once the symbol of his occupation and (it takes no Freud to tell us) of his manhood: “I have cap and bells,” he ponders; “I will send them to her and die.” And, “when the morning whitened/ He left them where she went by.”
She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song
Till stars grew out of the air.
In the original draft, “She took them into her chamber/ Her breast began to heave,” less in grief than triumph. Though Yeats deleted these lines disturbing the poem’s ethereal tone, their morbid eroticism (which would flower perversely in his late dance plays where lowly fools are decapitated to appease haughty queens) offers a psychological glimpse into the poem’s human, all-too-human origins. When, at last, the queen lets in soul and heart, they set up a “chattering wise and sweet,/And her hair was a folded flower/ And the quiet of love in her feet.” But it seems too little too late. Soul and heart had “grown” through suffering. Now her “red lips” sang his final offering “a love-song/ Till stars grew out of the air.” Grew, because, in a variation on the mythic origin of the constellation Coma Berenices, her star-making song’s genesis lies in his lethal self-sacrifice. Here as “always” in Yeats, a “personal emotion” has been “woven into a general pattern of myth and symbol” (Autobiographies  151). But on the “personal” level of this medieval Poet/Muse drama, the belle dame sans merci to whom the lowly jester gives “all” is unmistakably Maud, “that one” who (in “Friends”) “took/ All till my youth was gone/ With scarce a pitying look.” “The Cap and Bells” ends with “the quiet of love in her feet”; but they are the very “feet” under which he had “spread my dreams” in the abject poem supposedly rebutted in a ballad of terrible beauty, lyrically lovely but psychologically rooted in a symbolic act of self-castration.
These are covert Maud poems. The most overt, the only poem in which Yeats claims, in his own name, that his passion for Maud was reciprocated, is “To a Young Girl” (1915) in The Wild Swans at Coole. The girl addressed is Maud’s daughter Iseult (not adopted, as she publicly claimed, but the fruit of her liaison with the French activist, Lucien Millevoye). Like many of Yeats’s middle poems, this one is short and “thin”: a single sentence, one syntactical unit spun out over eleven three-beat lines. In another irony, Iseult had come to Yeats, of all people, for advice in love. His response contains perhaps more than Iseult needed to know:
My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.
He acknowledges his own intensity in “Friends,” written four years earlier. “Now must I these three praise—/ Three women that have wrought/ What joy is in my days….” Naming no names, he begins with Olivia Shakespear, praised because, over fifteen “troubled years,” no thought “Could ever come between/ Mind and delighted mind.” Next is Yeats’s friend and patron, Lady Augusta Gregory, whose steady “hand” had the strength to unbind “Youth’s dreamy load, till she/ So changed me that I live/ Labouring in ecstasy.” But the third and climactic figure to be praised presents a challenge. Yeats poses two questions, and answers them:
And what of her that took
All till my youth was gone
With scarce a pitying look?
How could I praise that one?
When day begins to break
I count my good and bad,
Being wakeful for her sake,
Remembering what she had,
What eagle look still shows,
While up from my heart’s root
So great a sweetness flows
I shake from head to foot.
That image will be repeated in the “Dialogue,” where “So great a sweetness flows into the breast” that it absorbs and absolves the “folly” the Self “does or must suffer” if he loves a “proud woman not kindred of his soul”: that most painful yet “most fecund” ditch of all. If there were no Maud Gonne, Yeats would have invented her, requiring, like most poets in the Romantic and Celtic traditions, a Muse, an enchantress, a femme fatale who is a life-giving yet destructive goddess. But there was a Maud Gonne, a pre-Raphaelite “stunner” who combined all three roles, along with being a committed and passionate Irish patriot. The impact on Yeats as a man and as a poet is attested to by innumerable shorter lyrics, and she figures in major poems as well—in “The Tower,” II, as the “woman lost,” and in the “plunge…/ Into the labyrinth of another’s being.” And she is at the heart of one of Yeats’s indisputable masterpieces, “Among School Children.”
Maud serves as warning and counter-example in the paternalistic, conservative, but nevertheless beautiful “A Prayer for my Daughter.” The protective father prays that Anne, “half-hid/ Under this cradle-hood and coverlid,” yet born into the violent world and “rocking cradle” evoked in the immediately preceding poem, “The Second Coming,” will be granted moderate rather than excessive, troubling beauty and “natural kindness” free of rancorous political hatred. For “Have I not seen the loveliest woman born/ Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,” because of her politics and “opinionated” mind, “Barter that horn and every good/ By quiet natures understood/ For an old bellows full of angry wind?” I’ll later propose a relationship between “Among School Children” and the final Maud Gonne poem, “A Bronze Head.” But for now let’s browse through some earlier Maud lyrics.
Beautiful as many of them are, most of the poems to his “Beloved” in The Rose (1893) and even in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), are too “heavy” with dream and dew, too perfumed with fin-de-siècle “lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream” (“The Travail of Passion,” 1896), too filled with languor and dim hair, to move most modern readers. My favorite poem in The Rose—the song James Joyce sang in lieu of the requested prayer at his mother’s deathbed and that haunts Stephen Dedalus throughout Bloomsday—is “Who Goes with Fergus?” The king of Ulster who put aside his crown to live in peace and “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade” invites a young man and maid to join him in his forest paradise, where they will “brood on hopes and fear no more”;
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.
But despite the emotional respite promised, the poem’s imagery—“shadows” of the wood, the “white breast” of the sea, the “disheveled” stars –extends to this supposedly peaceful paradise all the erotic tumult of “love’s bitter mystery.” That phrase alone might summon up Maud, but the beautiful final line suggests a deeper connection. “All disheveled wandering stars” fuses Eve’s “disheveled hair” (Paradise Lost 4:306) with Pope’s echo in The Rape of the Lock, which ends with Belinda’s shorn tresses consecrated “midst the Stars”: “Not Berenices’s Locks first rose so bright,/ The Heavens bespangling with disheveled Light.” A year after writing the Fergus poem, Yeats would have his young queen, a medieval version of Maud, place her lovelorn jester’s cap and bells under “a cloud of her hair,” and “her red lips” would sing “them a love song/ Till stars grew out of the air.”
Stars reappear in the most familiar poem in The Rose, “When You Are Old,” which departs from its original in Ronsard. As Maud grew older, Yeats obsessively summoned up her youthful beauty; here, he imagines her, at the age of twenty-five, “old and grey and full of sleep,/ And nodding by the fire.” Then, he tells her, take down “this book,” written by the “one man” who “loved the pilgrim soul in you”;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
But the first Maud poem in Yeats’s more naked style is “The Arrow” (1901), which opens the Maud-cluster in In the Seven Woods (1904), poems addressed to a Muse now in her ‘thirties. The enjambed lines of “The Arrow,” in tension with its taut couplets, are all in “feminine” or double rhyme, a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable, a falling pattern established with the title-word itself :
I thought of your beauty, and this arrow,
Made out of a wild thought, is in my marrow.
There’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in colour as apple blossom.
This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.
In the next poem, a “kind” friend (in fact, Lady Gregory), counseling “patience,” suggests that “time” and the diminution of Maud’s extravagant youthful beauty should “make it easier to be wise.” But
…………………………….Heart cries, “No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.”
O heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.
He has, he tells Maud and us in “Old Memory,” thought and written about her “Through the long years of youth, and who would have thought” that it would all have “come to naught,/ And that dear words meant nothing? But enough,/ For when we have blamed the wind we can blame love.” In “Never Give all the Heart,” he advises us to “never give the heart outright” to passionate women. For they
Have given their hearts up to the play,
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
In the next poem, the plangent “Adam’s Curse” (1902), Maud sits silently by while her sister Kathleen and the poet discuss on a late summer evening various forms of “labour.” They include the poet’s quest, even if a line “takes hours” to write, to “make it seem a moment’s thought,” and Kathleen’s intuitive knowledge that a woman “must labour to be beautiful.” It’s certain, he responds, that “there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.” There have been
……………..“lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
So much for the courtly love tradition. This same year, Yeats had put Maud on stage as Ireland herself in Cathleen ni Houlihan. That “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland” was her favorite Yeats poem is unsurprising. Written in 1894 but now incorporated in this sequence, it makes Maud indistinguishable from Cathleen as Ireland. Most readers are thrilled by the couplet on one queen’s mountain cairn: “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,/ And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.” But it was surely this stanza’s final lines—echoing “the quiet of love in her feet” from the finale of “The Cap and Bells,” written a year earlier—that appealed to Maud, servant of another queen: Angers like “noisy clouds” may have “set our hearts abeat;/ But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet/ Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.”
The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) opens with a cluster celebrating Maud as a Helen of Troy redivivus. He has dwelt on and written about her for so long that he dreams he has “brought/ To such a pitch my thought/ That coming time can say/ ‘He shadowed in a glass/ What thing her body was.’”
For she had fiery blood
When I was young,
And trod so sweetly proud
As ‘twere upon a cloud,
A woman Homer sung,
That life and letters seem
But an heroic dream.
Now that he has “come into my strength,/ And words obey my call,” he hopes, in the next poem, “Words,” that, “At length,/ My darling understands it all.” Yet “Had she done so who can say/ What might have shaken from the sieve?/ I might have thrown poor words away/ And been content to live.” But Yeats does not really believe that the poetry was a mere substitute for life and sex. Even if it is in part sublimation, the poetry itself matters. It is in a poem, after all, that he speculates that, had his love been requited, he “might” have “thrown poor words away.” It wasn’t; he didn’t. The poet in him “turned aside” from Maud to “words.”
“Words” is followed by the more famous “No Second Troy,” consisting of two five-line rhetorical questions, followed by two more, each distilled to a single line. We are initially seduced into sharing the poet’s complaint; he had abundant reason to “blame” her, she having “filled” his days, not with joy, but “with misery.” But Yeats is setting us up; his rhetorical strategy reveals our own pettiness faced with a Helen born out of phase, a classic figure living in a modern age unworthy of her.
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
With no Troy to burn, her incendiary energy had to be directed to what was at hand: whether Ireland or Yeats himself, both, perhaps, lacking “courage equal to desire.” But she could do no other. In acting as she did, she was being true to her quintessential being: “what she is.” What is to “blame,” outrageously enough, is not the terrible beauty of Yeats’s magnificent heroine, “high and solitary and most stern,” but the low, gregarious, and ignoble modern world itself, for not being (as Richard Ellmann once wittily remarked) “heroically inflammable.” The question of “blame” is also raised in the opening line of the next poem in the sequence.
During a public lecture in 1903, Yeats was suddenly informed of Maud’s marriage. The unexpected news struck him like a thunderbolt. “Reconciliation,” the poem immediately following “No Second Troy,” records that reaction. The background includes her subsequent separation from John MacBride (later an Easter Rising martyr, but at the time a drinker abusive to Maud and, perhaps, Iseult), and the reunion of Maud and Yeats, at long last, if briefly, sexual (in Paris in December 1908). Like “No Second Troy,” “Reconciliation” is twelve lines of iambic pentameter, though this time in couplets:
Some may have blamed you that you took away
The verses that could move them on the day
When, the ears being deafened, the sight of the eyes blind
With lightning, you went from me, and I could find
Nothing to make a song about but kings,
Helmets, and swords, and half-forgotten things
That were like memories of you—but now
We’ll out, for the world lives as long ago;
And while we’re in our laughing, weeping fit,
Hurl helmets, crowns, and swords into the pit.
But, dear, cling close to me; since you were gone,
My barren thoughts have chilled me to the bone.
The sequence ends with “Peace,” depicting her fascinating and oxymoronic mingling of “charm” and “sternness,” Scripture’s lion and the honey-comb (“All that sweetness amid strength”), and concluding, “Ah, but peace that comes at length,/ Came when Time had touched her form.”
Responsibilities (1914), much more focused on public issues, contains only a handful of Maud-related poems toward the end; but the volume is prefaced by intimately personal untitled lines directed to his ancestors, asking their “Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,” he has no child, “nothing but a book,/ Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.” The little cluster of Maud poems begins with “A Memory of Youth.” Reminiscent of “Adam’s Curse,” it records moments of play and wit, until “A cloud blown from the cut-throat north/ Suddenly hid love’s moon away.” Praise of his beloved’s body and mind had brightened her eyes and brought a blush to her cheek, “Yet we, for all that praise, could find/ Nothing but darkness overhead.” They sit in stony silence, knowing, “though she’d said not a word,/ That even the best of love must die.” They had been “savagely undone,” but for a sudden burst of emotion-revivifying illumination, when “Love upon the cry/ Of a most ridiculous little bird/ Tore from the clouds his marvelous moon.”
The next poem, “Fallen Majesty,” records “what’s gone.” Although “crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,” now one might gather, and “not know it walks the very street/ Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.” Following “Friends,” cited earlier, come two somewhat mysterious, almost apocalyptic poems, “The Cold Heaven” and “That the Night Come.” The latter presents a woman who so “lived in stir and strife,” that her soul, desiring what “proud death may bring,” could “not endure/ The common good of life,” seeming “To bundle time away/ That the night come.” The thrilling but enigmatic “The Cold Heaven” requires A Vision to be fully explicated, but no mumbo-jumbo about the posthumous “Dreaming Back” stage of the “Spirit” is needed to explain why
…………….imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.
The next volume, the autumnal The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), is haunted by the memories of a man in his fifties, but feeling older. He is thinking of Iseult in “The Living Beauty” (“O heart, we are old;/ The living beauty is for younger men:/ We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears”); but the heartache in the volume’s title poem mingles echoes of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” with memories of Maud and of his own lost youth. In autumn, at twilight, he has looked on the swans, paired lovers, “And now my heart is sore.”
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
The swans seem changeless, but “All’s changed” with him, not only because the “nineteenth autumn has come upon” him since he first counted those wild and “brilliant creatures,” but because he is writing in the immediate aftermath of Maud’s recent rejection of yet another proposal of marriage. Perhaps that is why there are “nine-and-fifty swans,” one unpaired and solitary.
Five poems in The Wild Swans at Coole focus on Maud herself (“Her Praise,” “The People,” “His Phoenix,” “A Thought from Propertius,” and “Broken Dreams”); and the poem preceding them, “On Woman,” is a Maud poem in biblical disguise. Since “Her Praise” and “The People” pay tribute to her work on behalf of the Irish people, they are not quite Muse poems. The lighthearted “His Phoenix” ticks off, in jaunty hexameters, a “crowd” of women “through all the centuries,” starting with Leda and including the famed dancers Ruth St. Denis and Pavlova. “And who can say but some young belle may walk and talk men wild/ Who is my beauty’s equal,” though that his “heart denies.” For none could reproduce her “exact likeness”: the “simplicity of a child,/ And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,” as well as that “shapely body” with not the slightest detail “gone astray./ I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done:/ I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.”
In “A Thought from Propertius,” echoing the second Elegy of Sextus Propertius, Yeats imagines Maud “fit spoil for a centaur/ Drunk with the unmixed wine,” yet “so noble from head” to foot that she might have “walked to the altar/ Through the holy images/ At Pallas Athena’s side.” (In 1938, enumerating “Beautiful Lofty Things,” images of “Olympian” nobility impressed on his memory, Yeats concludes with “Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,/ Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head”—the single reference to her by name in his poetry.) The Propertius poem, eight tight lines, is followed by “Broken Dreams,” 41 lines of artfully rambling reverie, rhymed but written in a semblance of free verse to match its almost free associations. Maud was now in her early fifties, a fact registered in the poem’s opening lines: “There is grey in your hair./ Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when you are passing.” Yet
For your sole sake—that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meager girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty—for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.
He imagines some young man asking an old man, “Tell me of that lady/ The poet stubborn with his passion sang us/ When age might well have chilled his blood.” In a desperate certainty reflecting his reading of Plotinus and Swedenborg, he is confident that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that “I shall see that lady/ Leaning or standing or walking/ In the first loveliness of womanhood,/ And with the fervor of my youthful eyes.” And yet, though she is “more beautiful than anyone,” she had a flaw; her small hands were not beautiful, and he is afraid that she will run, and “paddle to the wrist” in “that mysterious, always brimming lake/ Where” the blessed “Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged/ The hands that I have kissed,/ For old sake’s sake.” The “last stroke of midnight dies,” ending a day in which he has “ranged” from “dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme,” in “rambling talk with an image of air:/ Vague memories, nothing but memories.”
This Maud-cluster is preceded by “On Woman” and framed by two short lyrics to be discussed in a moment. Written in May 1914, “On Woman” anticipates the 1918 “Solomon to Sheba” and “Solomon and the Witch.” But unlike those poems, composed after his marriage and addressed to his wife, this Solomon and Sheba poem has to do with Maud. We are told that Solomon “never could,” although “he counted grass,/ Count all the praises due/ When Sheba was his lass.” The sexual “shudder that made them one” anticipates “Leda and the Swan,” but the lines that immediately follow (and conclude the poem) anticipate Self’s choice, in the “Dialogue,” of eternal recurrence, with its “fecund” intermingling of joy and pain. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of Eternal Recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally”? (The Gay Science §341). The speaker in “On Woman” prays that God grant him, not “here,” for he is “not so bold” as to “hope a thing so dear/ Now I am growing old,”
But when, if the tale’s true,
The Pestle of the moon
That pounds up all anew
Brings me to birth again—
To find what once I had
And know what once I have known,
Until I am driven mad,
Sleep driven from my bed,
By tenderness and care,
Pity, an aching head,
Gnashing of teeth, despair;
And all because of some one
Perverse creature of chance,
And live like Solomon
That Sheba led a dance.
Here, as in “Broken Dreams” and, a decade and a half later, in “Quarrel in Old Age,” Yeats invokes renewal beyond the grave. “All lives that has lived,” he announces in “Quarrel” (1931); “Old sages were not deceived:/ Somewhere beyond the curtain/ Of deceiving days/ Lives that lonely thing/ That shone before these eyes”: Maud, who seemed armed like a goddess and “Trod like Spring.” It is a recurrent hope, compounded of Plotinus, Swedenborg’s vision of frustrated lovers posthumously united, and the embrace, by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, of the eternal recurrence of passion and joy, no matter the attendant and inevitable suffering. And “all because of one/ Perverse creature”—“that one.”
The two short framing lyrics I referred to both consist of six trimeter lines rhymed abcabc, and both emphasize the indelible imprint of the One among the many. Again, she is unique; there are all the “others,” and then there is Maud. The title of the first, “Memory,” could refer to all the Maud Gonne poems:
One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm.
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
What better image for the impress of memory than the crushed grass where the elusive mountain-rabbit has lain? She is gone, but the “form” remains forever.
Maud told Yeats she would never marry him, and that he should be “glad,” since “you make such beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness.” But she also swore she would marry no one else. She did. “A Deep-sworn Vow” registers that broken oath and its sexual consequences for him. Yet he has been faithful in his fashion; for “always,” at intense moments of truth, when the defense mechanisms are down, there is a sudden return of the repressed:
Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.
However expected, the revelation is sudden. As in the discovery of true love in Poem IV of “A Woman Young and Old”—“And now we stare astonished at the sea”—Yeats is here recalling the sestet of the sonnet in which Keats compared his discovery of Homer to the awed moment when the ocean’s Spanish discoverers “stared at the Pacific,” and the conquistador and his men looked at each other “with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” In “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Yeats does not fall asleep; instead, he vigorously “clambers” to its visionary “heights.” He also repeats (heights, excited, wine) the long i of Keats’s wild, surmise, silent. And both poems end with a double-caesura preceding the abrupt revelation: in the case of “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Maud’s “face” looming up from the subconscious. It is a chthonic apparition; the highly unusual exact rhyme makes her “face” indistinguishable from the “face” of death, as befits a femme fatale.
Since the death’s-head image culminates in the last and most somberly impressive of the Maud Gonne poems, “A Bronze Head” (1938), I will move directly to that poem, deferring comment on two Maud-related poems (“An Image from a Past Life” and “Under Saturn”) from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), the volume that follows The Wild Swans at Coole. I have already noted the presence of Maud in the 1921 volume’s “A Prayer for my Daughter.”
As mentioned earlier, “A Bronze Head” is related to “Among School Children.” Just as Purgatory is the dark twin of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” animating the terror implicit in Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence (the enactment “again, and yet again,” ultimately embraced in the “Dialogue”), so “A Bronze Head” seems a darker reexamination of the relationships explored in “Among School Children” between unity and division, the One and the Many, underlying substance and its various manifestations. The crucial philosophic question and speculation in the later poem is restricted to Maud, ever a shape-shifter: “who can tell/ Which of her forms has shown her substance right?/ Or maybe substance can be composite….” This would be no less at home in the poem in which the Yeatsian old man walks through the long schoolroom “questioning,” dreaming of a “Ledaean body,” Maud’s, and what came before and after: the beloved as “child” and in her “present” form, feeding on the insubstantial, her image (visually Dantesque, verbally Shakespearean) “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind/ And took a mess of shadows for its meat.”
That is the image, though even further time-ravaged, sculpted in the plaster of Lawrence Campbell’s bronze-painted bust in the Municipal Gallery. But not even the titular sculpture could permanently fix the protean image of his beloved for Yeats. She is an artifact, but also something “Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,/ Everything else withered and mummy-dead.” Though now a “great tomb-haunter” sweeping the “distant sky” and terrified by the “Hysterica passio” of her “own emptiness,” she was “once” a “form all full/ As though with magnanimity of light.” Yet she is also “a most gentle woman.” And there is more. As the poet first saw her, she was an unmanageable filly—“even at the starting post, all sleek and new,/ I saw the wildness in her”—and a vulnerable human creature, her animal wildness transferred by empathy to the protective poet-lover, who “had grown wild/ And wandered murmuring everywhere, ‘My child, my child!’” Finally, returning to the “bird’s round eye” of the opening stanza, Yeats describes her in her anything but vulnerable aspect: “Or else I thought her supernatural;/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall….”
Dispensing round his magnanimity of images, Yeats goes beyond the triads of “Among School Children”—though there too Maud had been evoked as child, beautiful woman, and aged crone, even as bird (a Ledaean “daughter of the swan”) and animal (a wind-drinking chameleon). “Among School Children” questions the chestnut-tree of the final stanza: “Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” It is of course all three since we can no more break down the organic unity of that “great-rooted blossomer” than we can “know the dancer from the dance,” or isolate Maud as child from Maud as “Ledaean body,” or from her “present image” as hollow-cheeked but still voracious crone. Yet it is as a crone that Yeats compels us to envisage Maud Gonne in “A Bronze Head”—compels us by ending his poem in a repetition and intensification of that “present image.” The birdlike “sterner eye” looking through Maud’s eye—that “mysterious eye” that, Yeats reports with fascination and dread (Memoirs, 60), British journalists felt “contained the shadow of battles yet to come”—seems not only Yeats’s own eye, as I suggested at the outset, but that of the Morrigu, the one-eyed “woman with the head of a crow.” It seems to be that Celtic war-goddess who presides here, as in The Death of Cuchulain, her “sterner eye looking through [Maud’s] eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,” and wondering “what was left for massacre to save.”
The Morrigu, the Celtic demoniac bird of the dead who haunts corpse-strewn battlefields, is the dark side of the Old Woman, Cathleen ni Houilihan, who demands “all” of her devotees in the passages Yeats wrote for Maud in the 1902 play in which she personified the oppression and resurrection of Ireland: the old crone transfigured into “a young girl” with “the walk of a queen,” rejuvenated by blood-sacrifice. That climax was anticipated, reports Stephen Gwynn, present on opening-night, when Maud’s Cathleen rose, “still bent and weighed down with years or centuries; but for one instant, before she went out at the half-door, she drew herself up to her superb height; change was manifest; patuit dea.” Gwynn’s Virgilian allusion is apt; though she is disguised as a Spartan huntress, Venus was revealed to Aeneus as she walked away, vera incessu patuit dea, “the true goddess revealed in her step” (Aeneid 1.405). But Gwynn also “went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot.” As we will see, Yeats asked himself that very question preparing for his own death. Maud, too, comes full circle: from the beautiful woman, bent and hidden under the rags of the Old Woman of Cathleen ni Houlihan, to an actual old woman: the literal terrible beauty of “A Bronze Head.”
No wonder there were “others,” none as magnetic as Maud, yet minor Muses. Olivia introduced him to sexual love, but could not uproot Maud. “I had a beautiful friend,” he mourns in an 1898 poem, “And dreamed that the old despair/ Would end in love in the end:/ She looked in my heart one day,/ And saw your image was there.” Despite the tearful parting that followed, lovely Olivia remained his lifelong friend and most intimate correspondent. In one late letter (December 18, 1929), Yeats sent her the moving “After Long Silence,” its heartache distilled in the single word “young” hovering at the end of the penultimate line:
Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.
The late marriage to his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, in 1917 (he was 52, she half his age) ushered in Yeats’s most creative period. Her interest in the visionary and occult matched his, her gift of automatic writing generating his book A Vision (1925, 1937). In “Under Saturn” (November 1919), he asks “how should I forget the wisdom that you brought,/ The comfort that you made?” But he has to ask the question in the first place because, having “grown saturnine,” he fears she might “Imagine that lost love, inseparable from my thought/ Because I have no other youth, can make me pine.” Like Olivia, George (as Yeats preferred to call her) saw Maud’s image there. In “An Image from a Past Life,” the immediately preceding dialogue-poem, She, possessed like George of occult powers, senses that
A sweetheart from another life floats there
As though she had been forced to linger
From vague distress
Or arrogant loveliness,
Merely to loosen out a tress
Among the starry eddies of her hair
Upon the paleness of a finger.
He reassures her that any such image, “even to eyes that beauty had driven mad,” can only “make me fonder.” Unconvinced, She does not know whether the uplifted arms of the spectral figure intend to “flout me,” or “but to find,/ Now that no fingers bind,/ That her hair streams upon the wind.” What she does know is that “I am afraid/ Of the hovering thing night brought me.”
Given the context of the ghostly and mysterious wisdom brought to the poet through Mrs. Yeats’s occult “Communicators,” it is unsurprising that his greatest “love poem” to his wife should occur in the Browningesque dramatic monologue, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” (1924). The “gift” the great Caliph gives to his friend and learned treasurer Kusta Ben Luka is a woman who “shares” his “thirst” for “old crabbed mysteries, “yet “herself can seem youth’s very fountain,/ Being all brimmed with life” (85-90), Whatever the “Voice” of the Djinn she heard, Kusta comes to realize that his young wife is not simply a conduit; that that mysterious voice has drawn
A quality of wisdom from her love’s
Particular quality. The signs and shapes,
All those abstractions that you fancied were
From the great Treatise of Parmenides;
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
And now my utmost mystery is out. (179-87)
But this revelation is followed immediately by the poem’s concluding lines, in which Kusta-Yeats insists that, while “A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner,” he is neither “dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost / In the confusion of its night-dark folds.” Within the poem, this imagery echoes the opening lines about the “banners of the Caliphs” hanging “night-coloured/ But brilliant as the night’s embroidery” (6-7). However, in the context of the full canon of Yeats’s love-poetry, the image inevitably recalls “the heaven’s embroidered cloths”— “Enwrought with golden and silver light,/ The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/ Of night and light and the half-light”—the young, Maud-infatuated poet wished to “spread…under your feet.”
Now, a quarter-century later, he is no longer “dazzled” by the storm-tossed and night-dark but brilliant embroidery because, ostensibly, he is choosing wisdom over beauty—autobiographically, George over Maud. This is what he had actually done in January 1919, when he turned Maud from the door of her own house, 73 St. Stephen’s Green, which she’d rented to the poet and his wife. Returned from London to relish the Sinn Fein victory in the December 1918 elections, Maud was in Ireland illegally. George was not only pregnant with Anne, but gravely ill of the influenza that killed millions in the aftermath of World War I. Fearing the police might burst in during such a crisis, Yeats, soon accused of cowardice by Maud and her supporters for his threshold rejection, “turned aside” from her, choosing the Vesta of hearth and family over his storm-tossed night-visitor and Muse.
Still, as we’ve seen, and as suggested by the intrusion of the embroidery-image on the heels of Kusta-Yeats’s tribute to his bride, Yeats’s genuine feelings for his wife did not preclude ghostly visitations by past images of Maud—and present images of Iseult, to whom Yeats, in September 1917, having been rejected yet again by Maud and before approaching George, had proposed marriage. Like mother, like daughter. As Yeats’s “Heart” tells him in a poem written the following month: “How could she mate with fifty years that was so wildly bred?/ Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild.” This poem, “Owen Aherne and his Dancers,” was saved for The Tower, where it leads directly into the sequence “A Man Young and Old,” autobiography masked as Everyman. The emotional/ erotic tensions involving Yeats and his new wife, Maud and Iseult, also play out symbolically in The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), the most lyrical of the Cuchulain plays. That play opens with the First Musician’s “Song for the folding and unfolding of the cloth,” in which the “loveliness” of “a woman’s beauty” is compared to that of a “white sea-bird alone/ At daybreak after a stormy night,” and to an “exquisite” sea-shell the “vast troubled waters bring/ To the loud sands before day has broken” : a beauty-producing violence “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind,” an autobiographical maze intricate enough to enfold three women barely detectable beneath the otherworldly mythology.
There were more palpably intimate post-marital relationships, including a late liaison, following others with Margot Ruddock and Ethel Mannin, with Edith Shackleton Heald, who, as we’ve seen, visited Yeats’s grave in Roquebrune cemetery. His relationship with Lady Dorothy Wellesley was poetic (they collaborated on “The Three Bushes” and its attendant lyrics, and talked much of poetry) and, though passionate, was non-sexual; she was lesbian. But she did inspire the eerie and rather overwrought “To Dorothy Wellesley” (1936), in which he imagines her stretching her hand “towards the moonless midnight of the trees,” and, “Rammed full/ Of that most sensuous silence of the night,” climbing to “your chamber full of books.” The poem strains toward, and attains, a final sublimity:
……………………..What climbs the stair?
Nothing that common women ponder on
If you are worth my hope! Neither Content
Nor satisfied Conscience, but that great family
Some ancient famous authors misrepresent,
The Proud Furies each with her torch on high.
But, to state the obvious, there can be no doubt that it was, above all, Maud— “that one”—who simultaneously broke Yeats’s heart, fascinated him, and inspired the greatest love poetry of the twentieth century. Harold Bloom, an anything but uncritical admirer, has rightly said of Yeats as a love poet: “one can wonder if any poet of our century enters into competition here with him.” She also transfigured him in the process. I’m alluding to “First Love,” the opening poem of “A Man Young and Old,” which concludes The Tower just as “A Woman Young and Old” concludes The Winding Stair.
Here, Yeats’s mask as Everyman slips from the outset, and the lunar figure is clearly based on Maud. “Though nurtured like the sailing moon/ In beauty’s murderous brood,” she “walked” and “blushed” awhile and “on my pathway stood/ Until I thought her body bore/ A heart of flesh and blood.” But since he “laid a hand thereon,/ And found a heart of stone,” he realizes that “every hand is lunatic./ That travels on the moon.” She “smiled and that transfigured me/ And left me but a lout,” wandering aimlessly, “Emptier of thought/ Than the heavenly circuit of its stars/ When the moon sails out.” And this final stanza of the first poem leads directly to the lunar opening of the next in the sequence: “Like the moon her kindness is/ If kindness I may call” what has no “comprehension” in it, “But is the same for all/ As though my sorrow were a scene/ Upon a painted wall.”
It should be mentioned that, in contrast to most of this man-centered sequence, poem IV, “The Death of the Hare,” expresses unexpected empathy for the female in the love-hunt. The Man’s “heart is wrung,” when he remembers her “wildness lost.” He experiences the “yelling pack,” and, finally, the death of the pursued animal. “The Death of the Hare,” looking back to “Memory,” anticipates the “stricken rabbit” whose death-cry “distracts” Yeats’s “thought” in “Man and the Echo.” It also anticipates the empathy with the female perspective expressed throughout “A Woman Young and Old.”
The poems that follow in the “Man” sequence emphasize the tragedy at the heart of the Yeats-Maud relationship. Poem VI, “His Memories,” and VIII, “Summer and Spring,” allude even more unmistakably to that relationship. In the guise of an anonymous old man, his body “broken,” Yeats can claim, even more graphically than in the poem addressed to Maud’s daughter, “To a Young Girl,” that the relationship with his Helen was sexually consummated. His “arms” may be “like twisted thorn/ And yet there beauty lay”;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take—
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck—
That she cried into this ear,
“Strike me if I shriek.”
Two decades later, that night in December 1908, no matter how fleeting, remains paramount among the “memories” of Yeats’s “Man Old.” In “real life,” after their night of lovemaking in that Paris hotel, Maud had quickly put the relationship back on its old basis, informing Yeats in a morning-after note that she was praying that he would be able to overcome his “physical desire” for her. In a journal entry the following month (21 January 1909), Yeats referred despairingly but realistically to the “return” of Maud’s “old dread of physical love,” which has “probably spoiled her life….I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poison.” Hence, those “others.” Since Maud was, ultimately, “not kindred of his soul,” Yeats sought complete union, if only in memory, in poetry, and specifically, masked as “A Man Young and Old.”
In “Summer and Spring,” poem VIII of the sequence, two lovers grown old reminisce “under an old thorn tree.”
And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we’d halved a soul
And fell the one in ‘tother’s arms
That we might make it whole.
We recall, as we are meant to, “Among School Children,” written in the same year. In transitioning from the first to the second stanza, we shift abruptly from Yeats’s persona as senator and school inspector, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” to the inner man, the poet himself reporting an incident Maud once related from her childhood:
I dream of a Ledaean body bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
The tragedy lies in the need “to alter Plato’s parable,” since the blending here is empathetic and partial (there remains a separation between yolk and white even within the unity of the “one shell”) rather than the full sexual union of Aristophanes’ haunting fable in The Symposium. It is a “whole” union the old man claims in “His Memories” and in “Summer and Spring,” which concludes with a sexual variation on the unity of being symbolized by the dancer and the “great-rooted blossomer” of “Among School Children.”
O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!
Even here, however “fecund” the bursting out and blossoming, it is all memory and heartache. As in most of the poems having to do with Maud, “Love,” mingling strength and sweetness, is at once vulnerable—that “bitter sweetness,/ Inhabitant of the soft cheek of a girl”—and immensely powerful. I am quoting “From the Antigone,” the final poem in both editions of The Winding Stair. Echoing Sophocles’ choral ode, but also expanding on “No Second Troy,” where Maud would have “hurled the little streets upon the great,” Yeats calls on Love, “O bitter sweetness,” to “Overcome the Empyrean; hurl/ Heaven and Earth out of their places,” that in “the same calamity,” brothers, friends, and families, “even “City and city may contend,/ By that great glory driven wild.”
In “No Second Troy,” Yeats tells us that Maud could not have “done” otherwise, “being what she is.” And, from “No Second Troy” to “A Bronze Head,” what she is or was, under all her myriad “forms,” is a Helen reborn. As Yeats reminds us in “The Tower,” II, “The tragedy began/ With Homer that was a blind man,/ And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.” That establishes the pattern for both Maud and Yeats, whose Self in “Dialogue” is “a blind man,” plunging into “a blind man’s ditch,” especially “that most fecund ditch of all,” the folly one does or “must suffer” if one falls hopelessly in love with a woman fated to reenact the role of Homer’s Helen. “No Second Troy” and, even more, “From the Antigone” (altered with the help of his friend Ezra Pound) suggest that, like Pound in Cantos II and VII, Yeats was fully aware of the punning epithets on her name in the choral ode in the Agamemnon where Aeschylus calls her helénaus, hélandros, heléptolis: destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities. Maud, mythologized by Yeats as a reincarnation of the Greek Helen, is not only the paragon of beauty, but of a terrible beauty at once destructive and inspiring.
That is her quintessence, at least as Muse. If we are to locate the “quintessential” Yeats, it will have to be he who could not have “done” other than be what he is, a poet, and a poet both cursed by and blessed with an incomparable Muse. But what is it about his poetic legacy that compels most of us to judge him the greatest poet of the 150 years since his birth in 1865? As Auden noted in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” writing shortly after Yeats’s death and thinking of some of his less respectable dabblings in the occult and politics: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” Auden’s threnody proper begins:
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry….
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
Though that last line recalls the tragic joy of Yeats’s sages in “Lapis Lazuli” and Self’s final chant in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Auden’s meter and couplets here, in the final section of his elegy, echo the tetrameter couplets of “Man and the Echo” and, most obviously, the final movement of “Under Ben Bulben.” That was, perhaps, inevitable; but, in terms of the whole of that poem, we should follow the poet himself in rejecting “Under Ben Bulben” as his “last word.” If we must choose a final poetic “testament,” we might consider, along with the final chant of Self in “Dialogue,” a handful of very late retrospective poems, beginning with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” completed in September 1938.
In “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” looking on the images of his life’s companions, men and women who shaped modern Ireland, Yeats concludes: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,/ And say my glory was I had such friends.” One of those images in the Gallery was Campbell’s bronze head of Maud, who also plays a central role in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Here the poet and playwright, enumerating “old themes,” focuses on the early work; and the “heart mysteries there,” though “Covered with embroideries/ Out of old mythologies” (“A Coat”), are mostly associated with Maud. That “sea-rider,” the hero of The Wanderings of Oisin, had been “led by the nose” by the goddess Niamh; “But what cared I that set him on to ride,/ I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.” Its “counter-truth,” his play The Countess Cathleen, dealt with physical starvation. The mythical Countess’s benignly Faustian sacrifice of her own soul to save her starving people reflects Maud’s actual efforts to feed the populace in famine-struck Donegal; but, intensifying Maud’s bartering of the horn of Plenty for an “old bellows full of angry wind” in “A Prayer for my Daughter,” Yeats cries out: “I thought my dear must her own soul destroy/ So did fanaticism and hate enslave it.” These “heart mysteries” were transformed into “masterful” images, “complete” images that “grew in pure mind but out of what began?”
Having deconstructed his early work to reveal its partial genesis in the unrequited love of Maud Gonne, Yeats audaciously gives us, as his mature genetic material, the lowest, most profanely debased matrix-forms of the central icons of his greatest poetry: the starlit or moonlit dome of Byzantium revealed as, or reduced to, “a mound of refuse,” the ancestral sword wound in silken embroidery, to “old iron…old rags.” The Muse herself becomes “that raving slut/ Who keeps the till,” tallying up the loss and gain in the transformation of pain into poetry. (That is true even of that “changeless sword” covered in “embroidered dress,” which lay, in Part III of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” in Sato’s house five hundred years, “Curved like new moon, moon-luminous.” Yet, “if no change appears/ No moon; only an aching heart/ Conceives a changeless work of art.”) In the end, the old man, deprived of his means of ascent, both Platonic and phallic, must return to the place of origin: “Now that my ladder’s gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” The drafts of the poem reveal that all references to the “heart” were added late in the process of composition; but the Maud-inspired creativity that rose from Yeats’s “heart’s root” and “aching heart” was always already implicit. In what was also a very late addition, in this case to “Two Songs from a Play,” we are told that “Whatever flames upon the night/ Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”
And yet, if I had to select just one last testament, aside from Self’s chant, the choice would narrow to the final movements of three of the last poems: “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo.” Written in July 1936, “Lapis Lazuli” was published with war imminent. Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe. To counter their consternation, dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents Shakespearean figures who—like Ophelia, Cordelia, and (by implication) Cleopatra—“do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian joy (“He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness”), the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli;
Over them a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Aside from the obvious resemblance to the Grecian urn, the repeated “or” seals the connection, with description yielding to a stunning exercise of the creative imagination, worthy of its precursor, the 4th stanza of Keats’s ode. Since the place of origin of the figures in the sacrificial procession is not depicted on the urn, Keats speculates: “What little town by river or sea-shore,/ Or mountain-built….” Yeats ups the ante to four repetitions:
Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.
Yeats turns every discoloration and “Every accidental crack or dent”26into a feature of the mountain landscape. But the even greater creative leap in this exquisite final movement is the setting of those sculpted figures, frozen in lapis as Keats’s were on the marble urn, into motion, with the poet delighting to “imagine” them having attained the prospect of the gazebo half-way up the mountain. That the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis, that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision: an affirmation, registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene,” in which the eyes of Yeats’s sages, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability, nevertheless glitter with a tragic joy lit by the poet’s own creative “delight.”
The end of mutability is death. The ancient Chinese sages’ gaiety in the face of tragedy may remind us of Yeats’s central mythological figure, Cuchulain, the hero of several Yeats poems and a cycle of five plays, ending with The Death of Cuchulain. The poet’s final encounter with his Celtic Achilles takes place in a ghostly poem completed on January 13, 1939, two weeks before his death.The magnificent and eerie “Cuchulain Comforted,” composed, appropriately, in Dante’s terza rima, finds the nameless hero, wounded in battle and slain by a blind man, in the Underworld among “Shrouds that muttered head to head,” and “Came and were gone.” He “leant upon a tree/ As though to meditate on wounds and blood.” He is among his polar opposites— “convicted cowards all,” according to one “that seemed to have authority /Among those birdlike things,” and who informs the still armed hero: “Now must we sing and sing the best we can.” The poem ends with the hero’s apotheosis imminent. Having joined these spirits in a kind of communal sewing-bee, making shrouds, he is soon to undergo their transformation, described in haunting final lines reminiscent of Zarathustra’s vision of evil absolved by its own bliss so that all that is body should become dancer, “all that is spirit, bird”:
They sang but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before,
They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.
The triumph of this mysterious and yet revelatory poem is that it discloses, along with an unexpected aspect of the solitary hero, Yeats himself: the man under the many masks, “one that,” in yet another bird-image, “ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”). It recalls the similar if more personal triumph-in-defeat of “Man and the Echo” (1938), a poem that borrows the questioning and tetrameters of Coleridge’s confessional, “The Pains of Sleep.” A “Man” halted in a rock-cleft on the mountainside shouts “a question to the stone.”
All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?
It is unclear what Yeats might have said to save Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, or have not said to preserve the sanity of Margot Ruddock, the infatuated and crazed girl memorialized in “Sweet Dancer” (1937). As for “that play of mine”…. Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ostensible celebration of blood-sacrifice written for and starring Maud Gonne as Ireland herself, did send out men that were shot in the Easter Rising; in fact, the first to die was an actor cast in a revival of the play. The “terrible beauty” born that Easter had many causes, but Yeats, fingering the “links in the chain of responsibility,” wondered “if any link” was forged “in my workshop.” Along with pride at its popular success, he felt guilt in having produced a patriotic but propagandistic play that was, at heart, a love-offering to his own terrible beauty, Maud Gone, and a betrayal of his own better judgment.
We cannot simply dismiss some of Yeats’s late and irresponsible ranting (as in On the Boiler), and his theatrical waving of Sato’s sword, and cry for “war,” in responding to an Indian visitor’s request for “a message for India.” Nevertheless, a tame, double-minded Yeats was no less opposed than Joyce to the blinkered, rabid nationalism most memorably embodied in the crude and violent “Citizen” in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. That one-eyed Fenian, a reincarnation of Homer’s Polyphemus, may also be a male equivalent of Ireland’s own one-eyed Morrigu, the overtly dark side of Cathleen ni Houlihan. I have a suspicion amounting to a conviction that Yeats thought “that play of mine” not really his (in fact, most of the dialogue, though not the lyric passages, was written by Lady Gregory), and that, when he wasn’t basking in its popularity, sometimes wished it had been omitted rather than committed. In “Man and the Echo,” his responsibility for its impact is the first “question” that causes him to “lie awake night after night.”
Here is Coleridge, as sleepless and anguished as Yeats: “All confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered or I did: / For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe.” Yeats concludes his questioning in the same perplexity: “And all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Echo: “Lie down and die.” But that, Man responds, would be “to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work.” There can be no thought of ending life until he can “stand in judgment on his soul.” Once “all’s arranged in one clear view,” and “all work done,” he will be ready to “sink at last into the night.” But, given Echo’s sardonic repetition, “Into the night,” that prospect only raises more, and more metaphysical, questions (“Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?”), until all cerebral self-centered thoughts stop together, interrupted:
But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.
“Take physic, pomp,” cries a chastened Lear out on the storm-beaten heath, finally exposing himself to feel pity for life’s naked victims. The greatness of “Man and the Echo” has to do with a similar intervention from the existential physical reality outside Yeats’s own self-absorbed thoughts about death and the fate of his soul. Above all, the poem’s triumph lies in the old man’s setting aside, as in “Cuchulain Comforted,” of the “heroic mask”— of Swiftian arrogance or Nietzschean master morality, of the perspective of the predatory hawk, of Cuchulain, that “great hawk out of the sun”—in order to fully and humbly accept common mortality: the radical finitude he shares with human rags and bones, with cowards, with the pitiable death-cry of a rabbit, struck down by hawk or owl. At the end of “Man and the Echo,” amid uncertainty (“joy or night,” “hawk or owl” dropping out of “sky or rock”), the one certitude is death. “Mortality touches the heart,” epitomized by what Virgil calls the “tears that are in things” (Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). Yet here the tears are unshed from “an eye” that has “kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” Like Wordsworth at the end of the Intimations Ode, Yeats is touched by the human heart’s “tenderness, its joys, and fears,” but, registering the death-throes of one of the humble, transient things in nature, he is left with “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo,” are deeply moving retrospective poems, the fully-ripened fruit of an aged but major poet working at the height of his undiminished creative power. Two other retrospective poems, less formidable than occasional, should also be discussed in rounding out Yeats’s life and career, the second of them the poem he himself chose to be his final word.
Two years before his death, Yeats received a request for a “representative” poem for The Erasmian, the magazine of his old Dublin high school. He selected “What Then?” (1937), which lays out for the Erasmus Smith students a planned life of disciplined labor, aimed at achieving what Yeats’s own schoolmates, his “chosen comrades,” believed to be his destiny, a belief in which he concurred: that he would “grow a famous man.” Writing intimately though in the third person, “he” tells the young students and us that he “crammed” his twenties “with toil,” and that, in time, “Everything he wrote was read.” He attained “sufficient money for his need,” true friends, and that predestined yet industriously sought-after fame. Eventually, “All his happier dreams came true”: house, wife, daughter, son; “Poets and wits about him drew.” But this self-satisfied rehearsal of accomplishment has been challenged by the refrain ending each stanza: “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’” As in “Man and the Echo,” despite best-laid plans, an ultimate uncertainty attends the certainty of death. In the fourth and final stanza, as the litany of achievement mounts in passionate intensity, the opposing challenge from the world beyond earthly accomplishment also reaches a crescendo:
“The work is done,” grown old he thought,
“According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought”;
But louder sang that ghost, “What Then?”
In “The Choice,” in the 1933 Winding Stair, Yeats had declared that “the intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The “something” brought to “perfection” here is clearly the second choice. Must “he” therefore, as in “The Choice,” “refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark”? Momentous in import despite its casual tone, “What Then?” revisits the “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the spiritual spokesman, despite being restricted to two words, at last mounting a potent challenge. The refrain Yeats places in the breathless mouth of that formidable ghost—“What then?”—fuses the Idealism of that “Plato [who] thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things” and the Hindu tatah kim (you may have gained glory and accomplished all your desires: what further?) with the question raised in the synoptic gospels: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his immortal soul? Here as always, dialectical Yeats is not quite succumbing to the spiritual; “his” litany of achievements is essentially imaginative rather than material, and it is warranted. Instead, Yeats is vacillating “between extremities” or “antinomies” (“Vacillation,” I), and, in the process, making poetry out of the quarrel with himself. It was Yeats’s chosen counter-weight to Plato and Plotinus, Nietzsche, who said, “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”
Yeats himself wanted to end his canon on a lighter note, “seduced” to flesh-and-blood “existence” from the outset (and confirmed in the conclusion) of a poem even shorter and more occasional than “What Then?” Apparently frivolous, even irresponsible or unseemly on its surface, the little poem “Politics” (May 1938) responds to its epigraph, a recent comment by Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” Yeats’s response, anticipating the modern cry to make love not war, looks before as well as after:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
Why would Yeats choose this seemingly offhand poem rather than the portentous “Under Ben Bulben” to be his final word? In part, I think, because under its colloquial surface, “Politics” resonates with poetic tradition. Even in the midst of political turmoil and looming war, Yeats is affirming the primary theme of lyric poetry, epitomized in the old and anonymous cri de coeur petitioning the Western Wind to blow so that the lover can return home: “Christ, if my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again!” But the seemingly minor “Politics” also, like “What Then?” and “Vacillation,” echoes the major poem at the heart of this essay.
In their “Dialogue,” Soul commanded Self to “Fix every wandering thought upon” the spiritual; to keep the mind, which should be focused on the One, from “wandering/ To this and that and t’other thing”—especially (in the case of “a man/ Long past his prime,” who should “scorn the earth”) to things emblematical “of love and war.” Yeats, as we saw, was echoing Cicero’s dream of Scipio, whose ghostly grandfather had asked rhetorically, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and condemn what is mortal?” But young Scipio “kept turning my eyes back to earth,” just as the Yeatsian Self turns his eyes down to the blade “upon my knees” wound in female embroidery, choosing, not to be delivered from “the crime of death and birth,” but to plunge into life’s ditch, and “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.” In “Politics,” in a variation on Soul’s imperious command that Self “Fix every wandering thought” on the One rather than wander to the Many, the restrictive one (“politics”) is actually many (Roman, Russian, Spanish), while the One is “that girl” upon whom the aged, lovelorn poet—as “distracted” from “larger issues” as the speaker was by flesh-and-blood immediacy at the end of “Man and the Echo”—cannot help but “fix” his “attention.”
The ribald old man may be cavalierly abdicating his responsibilities in a world of war and war’s alarms, but his own instinctual and poignant cry from the heart is a hard-to-resist affirmation of life and an acknowledgement that lust can still spur him into song. For Yeats, as for the enthralled warrior in Antony and Cleopatra and Thomas Hardy in “The Annals of War,” star-crossed romantic love is simply a more profound poetic theme than war and politics: a theme that had haunted him from The Wanderings of Oisin on, certainly as meditated on in retrospect. And, whether or not we see the last line of “Politics” as looking back to The Wanderings of Oisin and so “giving a circular, reincarnative shape to the ‘book’ of Yeats’s poems,” the opening and closing lines of “Politics” bring us, in Yeats’s version of Joyce’s inevitable vicus of recirculation, back to Maud Gonne.
For even here one wonders if “that girl standing there”—“not a real incident, but a moment of meditation,” he told Dorothy Wellesley—is not one more “form” of Maud (“Which of her forms has shown her substance right?”). In “Among School Children,” having just recorded that “tale” his “Ledaean” Maud “Told of a harsh reproof or trivial event/ That changed some childish day to tragedy,” the poet and senatorial school inspector looks out at the Many, one child or the other in the classroom, wondering “if she stood so at that age—/ For even daughters of the swan can share/ Something of every paddler’s heritage”; and “thereupon my heart is driven wild:/ She stands before me as a living child.” If “that girl standing there” in “Politics” is in any way a “form” of Maud, it would clarify both the old man’s distraction from war and war’s alarms, and the climactic placement of “Politics” as Yeats’s poetic farewell, a last kiss given to the void.
In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” that central text radiating out to so much else, Maud may also seem a vivid presence that disappears. Even the folly that man does or must suffer in unrequited love seems absolved in the final blessing, and subsumed by the all-inclusive symbol of Sato’s sword wound in silk. Crucial as that double-icon is, such Romantic symbolism may seem both antiquated and unrelated to that “proud woman not kindred of his soul.” But sword and embroidery might be illuminated by juxtaposition with three earlier Maud Gonne poems. In 1899, the poet wished to spread at his beloved’s feet “the heaven’s embroidered cloths.” As we’ve also seen, when, four years later, Maud “went from” Yeats, he “could find/ Nothing to make a song about but kings,/ Helmets and swords, and half-forgotten things/ That were like memories of you” (“Reconciliation,” 1909). In the title phrase of a poem written between these two, in 1905, he advises us, “O do not love too long,/ Or you will grow out of fashion/ Like an old song.” Returning to “Dialogue,” we can finally name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” and find, in that poem’s sword and silk, half-forgotten and out-of-fashion things that were like memories of Maud.
Yet, the lovelorn heart, the place “where all the ladders start,” is not where they end. For in the end, says Yeats in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” it was the playwriting and the poetry that “took all my love,/ And not those things that they were emblems of.” It was in this sense, even more than in his marriage and intimate relationships with “others,” that Yeats “turned aside” from the “great labyrinth” of Maud Gonne. Fergus had falsely promised a haven where frustrated lovers would “no more turn aside and brood/ Upon love’s bitter mystery.” But Yeats could turn aside from Maud Gonne only, paradoxically, through the power of his own words written for her: not even she could triumph over the poetry she inspired and which then absorbed its genesis. Unsurprisingly, given that Yeats intensified polarities for dramatic effect, “all” is by far the most frequent word in his vocabulary, as it was in that of his mentor, Blake, who declared that “without Contraries” there could be “no progression.” Yeats had asked in 1911, “What of her that took/ All till my youth was gone?” In old age he counters with another hyperbolic more than half-truth: the poems and plays “took all my love,” not those things that they were emblems of.
Finally, what of his central “emblem,” that “male” sword wound in “female” silk? The sword’s “flowering, silken, old embroidery…round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” may have personal associations with the “heaven’s embroidered cloths” he once wished to spread under the feet of Maud Gonne, her beauty at once palpable and “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind.” But that embroidery has emblematic reverberations beyond Junzo Sato’s gift, and exceeding autobiographical connections with Maud Gonne. Here, as always in his mature work, Yeats has woven a “personal emotion…into a general pattern of myth and symbol.” For that labyrinthine, wound embroidery replicates the archetypally female, ultimately life-affirming spiral. Not only the gyring stair in Yeats’s Norman tower and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” but in the overarching design—rondural and “feminine” —of The Winding Stair as a volume, both in 1929 and as expanded in 1933.
—Pat Keane/ April 2015
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 (2007).
- “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson reminds us. In pursuing my particular theme on this occasion, I’ve neglected much of the other poetry on which Yeats’s claim to preeminence rests. Even being highly selective, I need mention only “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”; the two Byzantium poems; the two “Songs from a Play”; the two Coole Park poems; the great triad of world-transforming annunciations: “Leda and the Swan,” “The Mother of God,” and “The Second Coming”; the two splendid sequences added to The Winding Stair, “Vacillation” and the Crazy Jane poems; and, above all, the two sustained political sequences: “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and (arguably Yeats’s single greatest masterpiece) “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” In self- justification, I would insist that, if what I’ve said here is only part of the truth, it is part of the truth↵
- Having donated it to the library, I had been asked to say something about On the Boiler, which, reluctantly, I did. In this pamphlet, Yeats deplores the replacement of “the better stocks” by the “stupider and less healthy.” Culturally, too, the best is being driven out by “the inferior.” There “was once a stock company playing Shakespeare in every considerable town”; but now the signs of civilizational decline “are already visible in the degeneration of literature, newspapers, amusements.” Three-quarters of a century later, it is hard to disagree. But few will want to follow Yeats, who elsewhere longs for “minds strong enough to lead others,” when he calls upon “the educated classes” to take “control” before the “uneducatable masses” multiply. In his most reckless and fascistic romanticizing of violence, the man on the boiler dreams of civil war, “with the victory of the skillful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses.” He even praises the skill of the “twenty-four” among the 400 German “submarine commanders” who accounted for 60% of the shipping damage in World War I. “The danger,” in 1938, he says, “is that there will be no war, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those other civilizations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.”↵
- What Yeats calls in the letter “our most recent event” included the killing of five additional dogs by these neighbors. He notes that his wife “hates ‘blue shirts’,” the nationalistic-fascistic movement with which he himself flirted, though he is clearly appalled by “the Hitler touch.”↵
- My best man, Bill Baumert, was resourceful as well as generous. His wife, who was ill, had not come to the wedding. She’d packed the book, but not his trousers!—a discovery he made an hour before the ceremony. Bill drove frantically into Hartford, a city he did not know, found a suit (the inseams were shortened by gluing the material), and got back just in time for the wedding.↵
- The list was discovered by Curtis Bradford. See his “Chronology of Composition” and “The Order of Yeats’s Last Poems,” in Yeats’s “Last Poems” Again, Dolmen Press Yeats Centenary Papers (1966), ed. Liam Miller.↵
- The sequence is an example of ring-composition. Flanked by two framing poems (I and XI), the others lead up to and away from the still center, Poem VI, “Chosen,” in a concentric pattern, with II paired with X, III with IX, IV with VIII, and V with VII. In “Chosen,” the “lot” chosen by the old woman is the same “lot” chosen and “forgiven” by Self in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” When the old woman is questioned about her “utmost pleasure with a man,” she takes “That stillness for a theme/ Where his heart my heart did seem/ And both adrift on the miraculous stream,” a stream “Where—wrote a learned astrologer—/The Zodiac is changed into a sphere.” Yeats borrows his stanza structure from John Donne (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”) and his astrology from Macrobius, the same 4th-century Neoplatonist whose Commentary on Scipio’s Dream helped define the debate in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and shaped (or deformed) the occult musings of the opening four lines of stanza V of “Among School Children.”↵
- “Odour of blood” echoes the lines, written a year earlier, in which Yeats brilliantly synopsized the logic-defying god-as-man miracle that disrupted the rational classical world: “Odour of blood when Christ was slain/ Made all Platonic tolerance vain/ And vain all Doric discipline.” In The Winding Stair, “everything” connected with “power” and “life” has “the stain of blood,” though —according to the final lines of “Blood and the Moon”—“no stain/ Can come upon the visage of the moon/ When it has looked in glory from a cloud.” The short poem, “Oil and Blood,” immediately following “Blood and the Moon” grotesquely simplifies its antithesis. In contrast to holy men and women entombed in gold and lapis lazuli, under loads of trampled clay “Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood,/ Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.” The only poem in the volume, both in 1929 and 1933, more theatrically blood-drenched is Poem VIII of “A Woman Young and Old,” in which a woman “too old for a man’s love,” to “find if withered vein ran blood,” tears “my body that its wine might cover/ Whatever could recall the lip of lover.” This act of sexual mutilation evokes a vision of her slain Adonis-like counterpart, her “heart’s victim and its torturer”—“That thing all blood and mire, that beast-torn wreck.”↵
- The gleam of the “malicious eyes” that cast upon Self a distorting lie so powerful that he falls victim to it is borrowed from the opening stanza of Browning’s quest-poem, in which the first thought of Childe Roland was that he was being “lied” to by that sadistic cripple, “with malicious eye/ Askance to watch the working of his lie/ On mine.” (The earlier allusion, to Browning’s Duke, refers of course to “My Last Duchess.”) Even closer to Self’s temporarily mistaken belief that that “defiling” shape “cast upon” him by mirroring eyes “must be his shape” is the initially deluded, masochistic cry of Blake’s Oothoon (2: 36-39) for her “defiled bosom” to be rent away so that she “may reflect/ The image” of the very man (the moralistic sadist, Theotormon, who, having raped her, now brands her “harlot”) whose “loved” but unloving “eyes” have cast upon her precisely this “defiled” shape—one of Blake’s, and now Yeats’s, grimmest ironies. But both recover.↵
- The diagram was drawn on p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (1901). Given to Yeats as a gift in 1902 by attorney and patron of the arts John Quinn, it is now in the Special Collections of the library at Northwestern University. First mentioned by Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), these annotations were transcribed for me by another late, great scholar, Erich Heller.↵
- To mention just the three most salient: along with Shakespeare’s chastened Lear (“We’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and…laugh”) and the Wordsworth of “Tintern Abbey” (sure “that all which we behold/ Is full of blessings”), there is, minus his orthodox “kind saint,” Coleridge’s watersnake-blessing Mariner, who tells us that, having perceived the previously “slimy” creatures in all their iridescent vital beauty, “A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware.”↵
- This poem, long titled “The Fisherman,” precedes the Aengus poem in The Wind Among the Reeds. The fish-woman “may hide in the ebb and flow/ Of the pale tide when the moon has set,” but people in time to come will know how the poet cast his net, “and how you have leaped times out of mind/ Over the little silver cords,/ And think that you were hard and unkind,/ And blame you with many bitter words.”↵
- The Trembling of the Veil (1922): Four Years, 1887-1891, §V. In the unpublished version, he writes of that first encounter: “I was twenty-three when the troubling of my life began. I had never thought to see in a woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past” (Memoirs , 40). Though Maud thought they had first met in 1887, at John O’Leary’s house, Yeats, as the more thunderstruck, is likelier to be right about the date: January 30, 1889. That meeting was at Bedford Park when Maud came, bearing an introduction from O’Leary, to visit Yeats’s artist father. That was the ostensible purpose; but, as Yeats’s sisters surmised, she may have been more interested in meeting the young poet who, having just published The Wandering of Oisin, seemed a promising talent to be enlisted in Ireland’s cause.↵
- In an 1803 letter to his friend Thomas Butts, Blake said he was able to praise his epic poem Milton, “since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary; the Authors are in Eternity.”↵
- For a Berenice-related Yeatsian fusion of Eve’s “disheveled hair” in Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s earlier combining of Milton and the Berenice myth in The Rape of the Lock, see the discussion, below, of “Who Goes with Fergus?” The myth is straightforwardly adopted in Yeats’s much later poem, XIII in “Words for Music Perhaps,” in the 1933 Winding Stair. A woman dreams “That I had shorn my locks away/ And laid them on Love’s lettered tomb:/ But something bore them out of sight/ In a great tumult of the air,/ And after nailed upon the night/ Berenice’s burning hair.” (“Her Dream,” 1929)↵
- A decade later, in “His Memories,” the Man of Poem VI of “A Man Young and Old” (in The Tower) claims that, while his aged body is now broken, he can remember when the “first of all the tribe”—“She who had brought great Hector down/ And put all Troy to wreck”—lay in his arms and “did such pleasure take/…That she cried into this ear,/ ‘Strike me if I shriek’.” Readers would know, of course, that any reference to Helen of Troy was to be read as meaning Maud.↵
- To Yeats’s immediate grief, though it triggered a mature reassessment on his part, Maud quickly reverted to their previous, intimate but non-sexual relationship. See below, discussion of “A Man Young and Old.”↵
- Along with the odd number of swans, there is another anomaly in the poem: lines 1 and 3 of each stanza are unrhymed. From the time of his first visit to Coole Park, in 1897, Yeats had associated Maud with swans. He told her in an unpublished poem written that year, “it is/ of you I sing when I tell/ of the swan in the water.” In this volume, even a creature of change–the charming yet mysterious replicator of the lunar phases who, in “The Cat and the Moon,” creeps through the grass, “Alone, important and wise,/ And lifts to the changing moon/ His changing eyes”—is related to lunar Maud. Referred to by name, Minnaloushe was her black male Persian.↵
- In “the old days,” we are told in “Her Praise,” because of her beauty and revolutionary energy, “she had young men’s praise and old men’s blame.” But “Among the poor both old and young gave her praise.” In the second, Yeats, defending art from philistine attacks, complains of being unappreciated by the Irish people. But then he recalls remarks made by Maud, who—even when the “dishonest crowd I had driven away…set upon me” those she had “served” and sometimes “fed”— never, then or ever, “Complained of the people.” He responds that she has “not lived in thought but deed,” and so has “the purity of a natural force,” while he finds it hard to hold his “critical tongue.” And yet, “because my heart leaped at her words,/ I was abashed, and now they come to mind/After nine years, I sink my head abashed.”↵
- Yeats is fusing images from Hamlet and King Lear. “How fares our cousin Hamlet? asks Claudius. “Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish,” quips Hamlet; “I eat the air, promise crammed. You cannot feed capons so.” In addition to drinking the air, the voracious image of Maud “took a mess of shadows for its meat.” When he foolishly casts his child Cordelia from him, Lear makes his “sometime daughter” as alien to him as “he that makes his generations messes/ To gorge his appetite.” The closeness disclaimed by Lear, “propinquity,” is echoed by Yeats in “A Bronze Head,” an even more richly Shakespearean poem. Yeats borrows from King Lear not only that rare word, “propinquity,” but, obviously, the “hysterica passio” of Maud’s inner “emptiness.” Most importantly, when Yeats wonders which of Maud’s “forms” has shown “her substance right,” he is echoing Sonnet 53, where Shakespeare wonders about the beloved’s Platonic essence and its relationship to her accidental attributes, her external appearances: “What is your substance, whereof are you made,/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”↵
- As noted earlier, Yeats was remembering the same passage of the Aeneid in recalling his first glimpse of Maud. She seemed to him a “classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone.” Gwynn was a Protestant constitutional nationalist. For his vivid description of the electrifying impact of Cathleen ni Houlihan, see his Irish Literature and Drama (1936), 158-60.↵
- The poem is “The Lover mourns for the Loss of Love” (1898), in The Wind Among the Reeds. Privately, Yeats quotes Olivia directly: “There is someone else in your heart” (Memoirs, 88-89).↵
- Maud had been arrested on suspicion of complicity in the non-existent “German plot.” The splendid “On a Political Prisoner,” written in January 1919 (published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer) is about Con Markiewicz; but, as Yeats wrote to George “I’m writing [a poem] on Con to avoid writing one on Maud. All of them in prison…” After her release, Maud was living in London, forbidden to return to Ireland, when she suddenly showed up at 73 St. Stephen’s Green. She was furious at being turned away from her own door, and, as Denis Donoghue remarks, “it took several years for the wounds to heal, if they ever healed” (We Irish, 224).↵
- Prior to his marriage, among other affairs with Abbey actresses, there were a few nights with the gifted and sexually-sophisticated Florence Farr, who remarked, “I can do this for myself.”↵
- Bloom, Yeats (1970), 459.↵
- The rest of the poem, songs to open and close the curtain of the play The Resurrection, was written in 1926; this final stanza was added in 1931. For the late addition of the “heart” references to “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” see Curtis Bradford, Yeats at Work (1965), 164.↵
- Damage to which I very nearly contributed in 1995, when I almost dropped the piece of lapis I’d been invited to examine during a visit to the home of Michael and Gráinne Yeats.↵
- A week later, dictating to his wife days before his actual death, Yeats wrote “The Black Tower,” in which he resumes the heroic mask shed in “Cuchulain Comforted” and “Man and the Echo.” Here, “the men of the old black tower,” though down to their last provisions and faced with a relentless, sordid enemy, remain “all…oath-bound men;/ Those banners come not in.” Their final exclamation—“Stand we on guard oath-bound!”—echoes an assertion Yeats liked to quote from his favorite Anglo-Irish hero. Defending the merits of the Ancients against the Moderns, Jonathan Swift pronounced himself a man “appointed to guard a position.” “The Black Tower” has its own merits, but we are right to regret its place of honor as Yeats’s very last poem.↵
- “Can you give me a message for India?” Professor Bose asked Yeats at the end of their 1936 interview. Insisting on “the antinomy,” Yeats’s “message” was war. “He strode swiftly across the room, took up Sato’s sword, unsheathed it dramatically and shouted, ‘Conflict, more conflict’.” (Quoted in Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats , 491). There may also be a hint of melodrama in the more important question Yeats asked himself: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” No, according to the irreverent Paul Muldoon, who has W. H Auden respond (in the “Wystan” section of Muldoon’s long, many-voiced poem, “7, Middagh Street”): “‘Certainly not.//If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead/ would certain men have stayed in bed?’” Muldoon’s point, appropriately placed in the mouth of Auden (who had declared in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”), is that history is the “twisted root,” and poetry, “art,” its “small, translucent fruit//and never the other way round.” On balance, I think Yeats’s question is sincere.↵
- Coleridge’s language here (uncertain whether “I suffered or I did,” with all seeming “remorse or woe”) was earlier echoed and altered in the “Dialogue,” where Self “cast[s] out remorse” regarding “the folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos” a woman like Maud Gonne.↵
- The repeated “or” seems to me to echo not only Coleridge’s “whether I suffered or I did,” “remorse or woe,” but, more importantly, as in “Lapis Lazuli,” the repetition in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In all three cases, the description is of things not seen, but vividly imagined.↵
- Virgil, Aeneid I.462. Wordsworth, final lines of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood.”↵
- Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. III.3.The young editor of The Erasmian who phoned Yeats for a submission and first printed “What Then?” was A. Norman Jeffares, who went on to become a biographer of Yeats and a pioneering scholar of his work. Essays in his memory have recently been published in a special issue (#18) of the Yeats Annual. J. M. Kennedy, the first translator of Nietzsche’s Die Morgenröte (Dawn or Daybreak), also translated, in the same year (1913), the Satakas (or Wise Sayings) of the Hindu hermit-poet, Bhartrahari, whose Vairagasataka §71 I paraphrased in glossing tatah kim.↵
- Mann’s remark was quoted in Archibald MacLeish’s spring 1938 Yale Review article, “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry.” Yeats was pleased by the article’s praise of his work. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley (DWL, 163), he revealed the immediate stimulus of his poem: MacLeish’s remark that because of his “age” and relation to Ireland, Yeats was unable to use this “public” language on what was “obviously considered the right public material, politics.”↵
- Roman, Russian, Spanish: did German politics, even responding to Thomas Mann, a prominent opponent of Nazism, play no part in Yeats’s thoughts in 1938 about impending war? In lines intended for “Under Ben Bulben” he presented a different triad, wondering about “the odds if war must come/ From Moscow, from Berlin, or Rome?” Having declined to nominate for the Nobel in Literature an anti-Nazi German writer, Yeats explained to Ethel Mannin (in an April 1936 letter) why, despite her urging, the prize should not be politicized. He cited “The Second Coming,” a 1919 poem that “foretold what is happening” in 1936, as evidence that “he has not been silent,” and that he is not now “callous”; that “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.”↵
- A suggestion advanced and retracted by Warwick Gould, in his appendix to Yeats’s Poems, edited and annotated by A. Norman Jeffares (1989). In Appendix Six, 749n76, Gould finds the suggestion “tempting,” but suspects it may be “too neat to accord with Yeats’s last days.” Perhaps; but, as evidenced by the rondural design of The Winding Stair and the concentric structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” Yeats was fascinated by such circularity.↵
- As just noted (n.31), “Politics” was the poet’s direct response, as he reported to Dorothy Wellesley, to MacLeish’s reference to Yeats’s “age” and the question of “politics.” He also told her that the poem’s subject matter—the distraction from discussion of potential war caused by “that girl standing there”—was “not a real incident, but a moment of meditation.” Who better to meditate on than “that one.”↵
- The Concordance reveals that Yeats used “all” twice as often as its nearest competitor, “old.” There are some double-“alls,” almost all Maud-related. “Never Give all the Heart” (1905) ends: “He that made this knows all the cost,/ For he gave all his heart and lost.” A decade later, in “Broken Dreams,” he is certain that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that he “shall see” Maud again in her “first loveliness.” In “The Cold Heaven” (1912), he assumes all the guilt for love’s failure, then instantly takes it back: “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason.” In a forthcoming essay on ‘The Cold Heaven,” Denis Donoghue refers to this line as “the line I most dislike in Yeats’s poems.” He adds that “its only competitor for me in that regard is the line in ‘The Tower’ about Mrs. French, ‘Gifted with so fine an ear.” I seldom disagree with Denis Donoghue on Yeats, but I can think of lines more bombastic than “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,” and I have to confess that I actually like the black humor of the line on Mrs. French, especially the outrageous pun on “gifted.” Donoghue’s essay, “Reading ‘The Cold Heaven’,” will appear in Yeats 150, a volume of essays (including one of my own) compiled by Declan Foley to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.↵
Long recognized in Europe as one of the most important Czech writers of the twentieth century, Richard Weiner’s surrealistic fiction, often compared to Kafka’s, is now available for the first time in English with the publication of The Game for Real by Two Lines Press. Described by translator and Weiner scholar Benjamin Paloff as a “novel-in-two-novellas,” The Game for Real plumbs the subconscious mind through two metaphysical mysteries: The Game of Quartering and The Game for the Honor of Payback (read the Numéro Cinq review here.)
In the following excerpt from The Game for the Honor of Payback, the nameless protagonist travels aboard a train en route to Paris, a brief interlude between the principle settings in this tale of estrangement. Although the nameless man shares the train compartment with a jovial group of people, he remains isolated, the narrative style mimicking his feelings of alienation by juxtaposing the surreal landscape of his consciousness with a naturalistic description of the other travelers. Representative of Weiner’s prose and Paloff’s masterful translation, the third-person narration elucidates the nameless man’s anxious state of mind through symbolic, imagistic language, and in the world of Weiner’s psychological projections, we see the reflection of our own insecurities, our own fears.
The publisher Two Lines Press granted permission to publish this excerpt. The reviewer would like to thank Benjamin Paloff for his personal communication.
From The Game for Real
Richard Weiner; Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press
THE TRAIN OF THIS auxiliary line ran daily, but it wasn’t used to it. It was a homebody. Three hundred sixty-five departures a year, and each one as tediously awkward as the frightened excursion of an antediluvian aunt. Express trains, which make sense to everywhere and nowhere, carry people whose yesterdays have all been shed behind them; they take them to tomorrows, which are innumerable. On express trains, everything is possible, express trains bar nothing. – This little train, however, was shambling in vain: it was already far out of town, and yet it couldn’t be rid of it. It drew it behind; the town was inside it,its presence petty, bespeaking sulkiness and hardship, and like them it lined the horizon, the little town calling itself importunately, pitifully to mind, like a dog barking behind a truck: nothing, but so puffed-up that what had been there could no longer find room for itself. Love, let’s say, had boarded the train; love, which might alter the world’s appearance; hatred had boarded the train, pledged to the same miracle; hostility toward life and death had boarded the train, or else it was a fidelity that depersonalized people into virtues—it was loaded with destinies, sins, and saintly deeds, invisible as atoms and heavy as worlds—but the train got the better of everything: it squeezed down everything that was within it, to the point of fussiness. A single chance remained: the transfer stop. The little train was carrying an impatience for the transfer stop.
There one awaits the express to Paris. The little train pulls into the station, still not entirely awake. Under a low, yet already promising sun, the chaotic optimism of a September morning, which befriends the sleepers returning to cities from their vacations. The tracks awaken to their infinitude with such enthusiasm it’s as though they’ve discovered it today for the first time. It has dawned on the warehouses that they are significant and anonymous, they’re even beginning to attain a barbarian beauty. A platform full of people. They marvel at the reassuring sense of their solidarity, but they marvel even more at the fact that they haven’t discovered the reason for this sureness: yet it’s as delectable as an ample vacation breakfast in the mountains. – So far, nothing has yet shattered this superhuman concord, but a spry inkling that there was worldly disorder nearby has already snuck in; it’s imponderable and pronounced. Heads turned to the right as if on command. The train was still far away down the ruler-straight track, so far away that they guessed its arrival not so much by the blackpoint into which it withered, but by the overbearing white plume with which it announced itself, and the immense din of this as-yet unheard announcement was such that it overpowered everything, everything and everything. It was the din of an obstinate and disciplined dominance that subjugates while reassuring and ennobling. You might think of the Pax Romana: that’s sort of how it was rushing, at the head of proud and perceptive legions. A throng of latecomers descended onto the platform. Boys and girls. They were laughing and shouting. One, large, proud, with straight chestnut hair, is next to him, dancing, stepping back. He was dancing his courage, but he was dancing it for one of the girls (you could immediately tell), and you could tell immediately which one. It was the one who, being too happy, was the only one brooding: her conquest was still a flower unto itself; it had happened last night. The platform was now entirely subject to the onrushing train-tyrant, beside whose arrival there was nothing in the universe at this moment that would be “worthy”; and on the platform the shouting throng, for whom the only thing “that’s worthy” was last night, because that’s when the two had met; this was a cluster of the free within a crowd of the enslaved. They alone were not waiting. They were going to meet the emperor, who was coming to meet them. The carefree among the solemn, the unhurried among the bustling, they roared and skipped all the more provocatively for being oblivious. The train! If they miss this one, they’ll catch the next. The nine-thirty train’s as good as the eight. They cared about the direction, which is invariable, not about the trains, which are innumerable.
The locomotive was coming in on the first track; it was only inadvertently—for the rambunctious group fascinated him—that he’d caught sight of the train’s eccentric, wheels, and rod. A fleeting dissatisfaction: that the relationship between the dizzying speed of arrival and the nearness of the goal, where that speed would be impressively renounced, seems incongruous to him, as always. – He’s lost sight of himself. The cluster dashed for the car it had arbitrarily selected; it dashed as though betting on a lottery number, knowing that there was no reason not to bet on any other number: that’s why, by all that is holy, it won on just the number it had bet on. The train exerted all its will and worked itself down to a spare trot. He saw it all, waiting for the door that would stop in front of him. Why run after the car he’s selected when there’s one, when there’s surely one that will stop right in front of him? Why bet if he knows for sure that he has to win something? He was standing here, waiting, disengaged, for it was to no purpose. And while he was waiting thus, that is, waiting while awaiting nothing, all of a sudden he discovered, just as we discover something that doesn’t concern us, that he was unhappy.
No, he didn’t discover his unhappiness so much as that he was unhappy. He beheld it with all his senses, each of which had as though assumed additional sight—perhaps to compensate for some enigmatic virtue of his.
He beheld it out of the blue, having anticipated anything but just this. It was a surprise for which amazement failed. He beheld that he was unhappy. He beheld it like a thing that is quite peculiar, though by no means awful; a thing apart from everyday reality, yet not at all imagined. It was a vision, but so cohesive that it outlasted even the shock of physical torpor, that is, the moment when he stepped forward to board. This thing—that is to say: that he was unhappy—gripped him, even though it accompanied him like a trusted friend, even though, like an atmosphere, it had became his environment, even though he carried it with care and respect.
The express had already departed again; with a tread each time more drawn out and pinioned. At last it took a shot at levitation, and a lucky one; it encouraged it with the bribes of intermittent bounces off its soles. The train became a self confident gale. Now, once again, there was nothing besides the rumbling that had begun somewhere where individual destinies had ceased, and that would become somewhere where any destiny could emerge. The travelers’ past had been obliterated, they had not yet arrived at the future that would sort them all out again: they were for the most part from among the favored, each one empowered by all the others, and their lack of skepticism was multiplied by their glee. –He, too, was aware of this, but only as information. Yet what he knew was that he was separate from that simultaneously destructive and unifying solidarity. There is no centrifugal force powerful enough to part him from the broodingly unexcited phantasm “I’m unhappy.” There is no centrifugal force that would pull him back into that forgotten self, like a Segner sprinkler spouting from a spinning wheel of destinies that had ceased being destinies. He is apart, unsociable, monstrous.
These monotonous testimonies! He’s asked his neighbor whether he might place his attaché on top of his thick rucksack. He has to depend on someone: he was coming off as affable, he even borrowed a smile (from where?); he sought his neighbor’s eyes so obtrusively that he found them, but in vain: consent was mumbled; the eyes, averted. And the person opposite him, a lady whose lips prepared so many times to ask a question, which she finally took to the adolescent, though he was sitting so far away! (It was just the one who’d been dancing for that happy throng; he replied—astonishingly!—so politely, obligingly, and almost sadly.) And the talkative conductor who misheard his query, as though professionally; his query alone . . . Right . . .
That he’s unhappy is a limpid phantasm, and it is also he: the two, inseparable. He’s not scared of it. As a companion it is seldom encouraging, but that it would weigh him down: no! –It searches patiently, ransacks itself, digs into itself, thinking itself simultaneously both the soggy finger and the fisherman who wants to find earthworms in there, and the more, the better; it searches the worm-soil, and with so certain a certitude finding itself that it has to guard against self-congratulation for so great an ardor: well no, not really, as many worms as it seems it finds there, it’s nothing against how many it won’t find; not even close. It’s just: where, where do they come from, all these misunderstandings, disagreements, losses? Where is it from, that unbridgeable hiatus between what he says and actually does and what can be heard and seen from his words and actions? Between what he’s intended and what he’s expressed? Between what he’s wanted to do and what he’s had to do? Where? From this thing that materialized so suddenly, transparently, and convincingly amid the screeching of the axles and the racket of cheerful country youths, from this thing so immaterial yet existing, from this thing shining with a kind of faint, stable, and interior moonlight, from this serious, real, calm, and collected thing. How to begrudge, how to bemoan an attribute so loyal, constant, and innocent! More and more he sees that he is unhappy. But no, that’s not really how it is; the fact that he’s unhappy—this thing made for his sake already long ago and decreed once and for all—he sees with increasing clarity, subtlety, persistence, and bitterness, but astonishingly he sees it bitterly without having experienced its bitterness, without a grudge, without bemoaning or lamenting.That’s how it is. It is neither weirder, nor more unfair, nor more hopeless than being happy, deserving, or famous, it’s pretty much like being loved by someone. That’s how it is. That’s how it is: this is his world, his share, his reward. The sun of his day and the stars of his night. And because it is so, all he needs now is to make a rather slight effort: to say “yes,” and from the fact that that’s how it is something even more cosmically positive will emerge, something that could not and cannot be anything else . . . and that’s all there is to say.
Benedictine Mill and its ignominy, and the spiteful and insidious town, and the frenzied circuit closed the previous night by that monstrous and unadulterated calm: to be compensated with money for a loved one’s ugliness (how majestically foul this love is!)—what remains of ignominy, spitefulness, and frenzy if we know that we are under the protection of this eternally present, broody-looking attribute, next to this thing whose unwittingly evil eye no prank will cheer up, nor deflect from us? That’s how it is. Why say that it could just as well be some other way if—and who cares if it is—we’re the only ones who know, we and no one else, that now and then we maybe feel like something else? Perhaps something better? But if there’s no choice, then what’s worse, and what’s better? –“I’m unhappy” isn’t threatening, it’s not scary; it simply is, and it’s one of those rare things that doesn’t go sit somewhere else. How loyal it is, how self-sacrificing this inscrutable and indiscernible thing outside us is, to which we have no obligations. It answers for mistakes and blunders, it shields from wrongs, it assumes failures and shame upon itself. It’s the screen he is safe behind; and right away, again, the sacrificial lamb he redeems himself with; and right away, again, the confessor with absolution. That he’s despised by them? But out of ignorance! That he’s treated unfairly? But out of misunderstanding! That he’s unappreciated and deprived? What does it matter, so long as there’s this “I’m unhappy” of his, behind which and within which his innocence, his human worth, and his unrecognized right have found refuge? – “I’m unhappy” is broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly. To him it imparted so suspiciously great a respect that he was awash in anxiety as to whether he might have started to love sinfully. He was seized with some puritanical fear that he might be flirting with incest.
They were alone; that is, he was alone. In the unifying whoosh of the express train, slavishly and proudly alone. The rest had already lent themselves out to each other; they deserved each other, they communicated, they understood each other. They understood, without talking it out, all the way to the point of collaborating on that circle with which they circumscribed the solitude they’d assigned to him. Each one did only a section, but it fit the sections entrusted to the others so precisely that a literal circle emerged, a circle in the middle of which were him and his exclusion and his “I’m unhappy,” which he looked in the eye with suspicious pride. It was a circle of the spontaneously formed and colloidally diffuse tale of his leprosy, it was the guard of the healthy against the plague. He knew this, he didn’t suffer for it; he asked his “I’m unhappy” questions; it answered him with a melancholic, yet encouraging, smile. He was alone, he was grieving, he was dejected but—no, he wasn’t dejected; “I’m unhappy” was a sanctuary. What more can we ask for if we have a refuge?
A jolly, corpulent gentleman was telling a story; he was dumping it onto the person sitting opposite him (again, the inspiring youth from the platform). He began intimately; his neighbor added the punctuation with guffaws that, though sparing and concisely courteous, were getting longer and taking on an infectious virulence. The storyteller didn’t take his eyes off them, he was sizing them up, and then, as though having judged that they had grown to a size worthy of a counterpoint, he encouraged them and himself, and the slapping of the neighbor’s thigh became more frequent and substantial. The express train, too, finally eased off its enthusiastic levitation; it landed and dashed now only with attenuated, hulking strides. – The private joke was slowly being made public, admiring itself, reveling in its increasing gravity. And suddenly—as if it had remembered that it was actually that tiny crystal in which a helpless supersaturated solution had found its purpose—the sundry laughs ran to and fro like crazy shuttles and wove a net that no one wanted out of. But despite its having been woven with a speed that was utterly insane, it was careful not to miss him. The entire compartment had been as though gathered into a corner, where the overstuffed words were gushing, along with the youthful laughter that had been patronizingly surrendered: a fairy-tale prince, too happy to shy away from a graceless woodsman’s joy. – He, the whole time alone with himself, he, the whole time sad and with a torturously senseless dignity, for he was boasting of something (and knew it) that hurt. He didn’t surrender, not even when they started to dance the belly laugh, whipping into the walls like a downpour onto a slapdash rooftop, a shower as well as steam, both water and its benefaction. –
And just then, a settling down: a sudden, swift, noise pregnant silence. He looked up: the dancer had stretched out his hands, on the fingers of which—like puppet strings—was the travelers’ unbounded attention.
“He’s going to sing! Attention!”
And a solo, as notarially somber as hushed laughter:
“Dans le jardin de mon père …”
The refrain and chorus buried the solo, as the masquerade procession buries the buffoon’s monologue.
“Auprès de ma blonde …”
The refrain, a good-natured rascal, ruminated over what might be left of the individuals.
The people in this train compartment got along as no one had gotten along before, as no one would get along again: through words that were not the words of any of them.
And he suddenly understood that a great happiness had burst in here, that in which each would lose his trace, finding the trace of those similar to himself, and he is following it greedily.
His defiance broke into torrential relief: this is happiness! –Now he wanted it.
“Qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon …”
He joined in, he felt like a fish in water.
“Qu’il fait …”
He shrieked into silence, into a silence ordered by the dancer’s outstretched hands.
“Hold on! That sounded off. . .Who’s spoiling it?” The eyes of the entire compartment are simultaneously upon him; halberdiers clearing the way; and behind them, the dancer’s finger, like the finger of a public prosecutor:
“It’s that gentleman there! Please, don’t spoil it for us . . .”
The song rolled out again like a ball in a steep trough; if only it could know what it was rolling through!
He, however, cast a timid glance to the side, where his encouraging “I’m unhappy” had still been sitting a moment before. Something shabbily diaphanous was sitting there. It had long, groomed eyelashes over ashamedly downcast eyes. It had the attractive and sticky-sweet smile of the fine-looking man from yesterday. It was only now that this yesterday was making itself manifest in its hidden truth. It was like a morsel that he couldn’t get rid of, and that tasted like a purgative.
—Richard Weiner, translated by Benjamin Paloff
The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” —Frank Richardson
Richard Weiner was one of Modernism’s great outsiders. Born in 1884 in the small Bohemian town of Písek in what is now the Czech Republic, Weiner began his adult life as a chemical engineer, only to abandon it for belles-lettres. In 1912 he moved to Paris and began writing poetry, but made his living writing articles for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny. And he was Jewish. And he was gay. And then there was his fiction—abstract, surrealist explorations of guilt and shame and fear; metaphysical mysteries that undermined logic and reason, that simultaneously employed and rejected narrative techniques of verisimilitude to create psychological spaces at once disturbing and beautiful. Weiner’s last prose work, Hra doopravdy, now available in English for the first time in Benjamin Paloff’s translation The Game for Real, exemplifies his descent into the subconscious, his attempt to expose those regions of the human psyche most would prefer to keep hidden and locked away.
Completed in 1933, The Game for Real arrived at the apex of Modernism, into a world still reeling from the Great War—a war into which he was drafted. When he returned to Paris, in quick succession he published three volumes of short stories including Lítice (Furies), one of the first books in Czech about World War I. By the late twenties Weiner had become close friends with a splinter group of surrealists (including René Daumal, Roger Vailland, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte) who called themselves Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game), and in 1929 he published Lazebník (The Barber), subtitled “A Poetics,” a collection of stories prefaced by a long lyrical essay. It had been a heady decade for fiction with the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando; James Joyce’s Ulysses; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and from Weiner’s homeland, Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. Weiner’s experimental, psychological fictions are products of their times, poetic stream of consciousness investigations inspired by surrealism, organized not according to plot or character, but through theme and imagery.
Benjamin Paloff describes The Game for Real as a “novel-in-two-novellas” and as “thematically intertwined detective stories,” and perhaps this latter description should suffice over conventional genre labels. In fact, depending on whom you read, The Game for Real will be described as a novel, or a collection of two novellas, or a novel and a novella. Semantic debates aside, The Game for Real contains two long fictional works—the first, The Game of Quartering, is 100 pages long; the second, The Game for the Honor of Payback, is 180 pages long. Each can stand alone; however, the stories share themes and images that suggest a unified novel, although whether they share a single protagonist is, finally, unclear. That the book’s unity is questionable is only the beginning of the mystery, and presenting the nominal plot of each is an exercise in hilarious futility; nevertheless, Weiner’s surrealism isn’t automatic writing, the book is carefully constructed, and there is method in his presentation of madness.
The Puppet Theater
The Game of Quartering opens simply enough, it is after midnight on a Paris Métro train and the first-person narrator, initially alone, describes a man boarding at La Trinité. The narrator, a middle-aged bachelor and self-described “hack,” is on his way home from the theater. He doesn’t know the stranger, but feels like he’s being followed, and when he disembarks, the stranger follows him to his apartment where another stranger, a woman, waits by the door. He knows, intuitively, they are from the “same team,” and the strangers follow him past the concierge’s door to his apartment where they flank him as he slots his key and turns the lock. The narrator presents his tale in the past tense from some notional present, though no indication of a date is given, and the events he describes could have taken place days, weeks, even years in the past.
Although not designated by chapter breaks—there are only occasional double line breaks—the story consists of four episodes that together complete a circular timeline, i.e. it ends at the beginning in a manner reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks.” The second episode begins when the narrator enters his apartment and his observers are transplanted from the hall to inside the apartment. They don’t follow, they are just present. Weiner often uses such sudden transpositions, a dream-effect with characters appearing and disappearing. The male stranger is afraid, cowering and mute; the female stranger is doll-like, her neck jointed. Struggling to make sense of his visitors, the narrator speculates that they are manifestations of himself:
Who knows, maybe that’s just the sort of horror that makes us sweat whenever, out of nowhere, we’ve run into ourselves, as I did today when I ran into my apartment; who knows, maybe there is constantly residing within us this sort of unexpected eternal visitation . . . (28) [Weiner’s italics]
And so we speculate with him—are these strange characters figments of his imagination, personifications of alternate selves residing within his psyche? Weiner doesn’t let us off so easily. The features of the strangers begin to merge into a combined likeness, prompting the narrator to examine why he was so late coming home, and the narrative begins its third and longest episode.
Earlier in the evening he arrived at a tavern where he finds his friend Fuld arguing with Mutig (German for “courage”) over their mutual acquaintance Giggles, who observes silently. The characters are in profile, like shadow puppets behind a scrim. The narrative shifts between the protagonist’s speculations and the overheard conversation of Fuld, Mutig, and Giggles, much of which is presented in the style of a stage script (a nice touch since it reinforces the idea that we are watching a play, something false, a fiction, probably a dream). Lights go up and down and the stage set—and he uses the word “stage” to describe the scene—changes many times.
In this section, more than any other, the dream-like qualities of Weiner’s narrative technique are apparent. People and objects appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. Memory blends with reality (assuming anything is real). Locations morph from the streets of Paris into gardens into aquatic landscapes stretching to infinity. It is a world of “impressions” and “projections”—a world where an entire scene takes place inside the chest cavity of a “blackamoor.” The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” (84).
The last episode begins when the narrator finds himself where he began, in the Métro. He designs an experiment to test whether or not he is in a dream, but when the result indicates he is awake, he discounts it, and his final conclusion—before he plunges back into dissociative meandering—is “who knows?” for “certainty is only a word.”
In The Game of Quartering we follow an unnamed protagonist down the rabbit hole of his own mind. The Game for the Honor of Payback also features an unnamed protagonist, but his story is presented by a first-person omniscient narrator. Or is it? One of the mysteries of this tale is whether the first-person narrator and the protagonist are the same; furthermore, whether this narrator is the same as the narrator of The Game of Quartering.
The story begins with a dream, a nightmare to satisfy any appetite for existential imagery. When the dreamer awakens, he is described as an “isolated” person, a “nameless” person, a man whose name is “Shame.” The man is alone in his rented room at the Benedictine Mill Inn. The events of the previous day play through inchoate thoughts, and Weiner’s circumlocutions capture the man’s drowsy, dreamy world, his tenuous grip on reality, his psychological agitation, and his anxiety. Here, he regards his reflection in the mirror, a reflection that assumes its own identity:
He saw someone who was unwelcome; he was, however, expectedly unwelcome. A foreigner. He sized him up with tepid animosity; he judged him with gestures and facial expressions. That one there performed them with him: both of them ironic, but with an irony so unsuspiciously innocent that it was disarming. A hand, sullen with a sullenness that lacked substance, ran across ashen stubble; squeamish fingers unearthed the degrading vegetation of the sparse, coarse hairs sprouting all the way up to right beneath his eyes, and the irritated flash in his eyes reproached them for this meddlesomeness . . . . He scowled at him, and the little person paid it back to him so faithfully that neither of them dared pull his eyes away: for they hated each other . . . (120-121)
Riddled with enough self-loathing to warrant comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the man sees himself as an outsider, a foreigner—a prominent theme in The Game for the Honor of Payback. We learn of his actions the previous day, his altercation with the affluent Mr. and Mrs. Steel, and the nucleating event of the plot: the theft of Mrs. Steel’s bracelet. Everyone in the inn assumes the nameless man is the thief, and he is eventually expelled. The narrative, like a rock skipping across a pond, alternates between long stretches of third-person narration of the man’s internal world and brief dips into dramatic real time.
Weiner continues to explore the outsider theme through a homosexual encounter the man has while spending two days in a neighboring town (before continuing to Paris). Throughout both tales Weiner’s imagistic narration adds to the surreal nature of the story. In this excerpt, the protagonist watches as a young man, “fleeing from Sodom,” approaches:
He was encouraging this rottenly ripening beauty with a harvest of smiles that feigned indifference and fished around for someone to whom they might hungrily appeal; he was disdaining it with a lattice of long, groomed, pasted eyelashes that denied the presence of lust no differently than a valet who’s been slapped around denies the presence of the master with a guilty conscience. . . . but when the other fellow spotted him, he flared his nostrils, already just as much on the scent, but till then indecisive. But now they were certain, and from beneath the shadowy eye sockets an unabashed, masterfully aimed harpoon had been hurled; it sank into the pupils of the seated man. Its thrower was drawing near; the rope with the barbed hook was being reeled in . . . (186-187)
Nathalie Sarraute used similar imagistic detail in her novel The Planetarium (1959) to slow the narrative rhythm and represent consciousness metaphorically. Weiner’s poetic imagery extends to characterizing the nameless man’s specific emotions. For example, while on the train to Paris, the man obsesses over his unhappiness, an unhappiness that is “self-sacrificing,” “inscrutable,” that “answers for mistakes and blunders,” is a “screen,” a “sacrificial lamb,” the “confessor with absolution”; his unhappiness is “broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly” (218-219).
In his Manifeste du surréalisme, André Breton defined surrealistic writing as “automatism . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Contrary to this definition, Weiner’s The Game for Real displays a carefully crafted narrative with clear concern for aesthetics. Like contemporaneous painter Salvador Dalí, Weiner used the techniques of realism to create a symbolic effect.
In this strange and compelling novel—or however it is defined—the settings and characters morph and blend in a constantly shifting phantasmagoria of existential angst. True to their surrealist heritage, these stories undermine reality and the self-assurance of a scientific world that made the First World War possible. Weiner, who had already rejected science for poetry, rebelled into the surreal and produced one of Modernism’s true gems, and, ironically, through his creation he gave us a view of the world that has rarely looked so honest, so human, so real.
Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.
- Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.↵
Why God fucks us
A moment ago, I was wondering where I was.
I was holding my legs, my arms around them.
I sit like this so often, head resting on knees.
God finds me in this pose, and leaves me to sulk.
I suppose then I get angry and chase Him down,
and He can’t be found anywhere.
He knows He is torturing me, and He laughs.
So, I go into the kitchen to make curry, and while I am slicing onions
and crying, He comes up behind me and caresses my breasts.
It’s good that He’s impervious to the knife in my hand.
I suppose that I could have told Him to go away,
but it’s God after all, and I like it against the kitchen wall.
He likes this too, and I am hoping that I will not lose all of me
or stab anything that shouldn’t be stabbed with a kitchen knife
while He is having me. He is here again?
Chasing doesn’t work, so I stand here, being a woman,
and I am lucky that way. Do men wish they’d invented a goddess?
Instead of the guy in robes? Maybe, I don’t know.
Does God like it that He’s a guy?
Yes. Why else would He fuck us all so often?
I couldn’t look at the river anymore
so I drove north to Rockland Lake.
I passed the hospital, where Oak Hill cemetery
presses close to the road. I passed Hook Mountain
where it broods over the Tappan Zee,
and I drove to the far side of the lake, where in old times
men had cut and hauled blocks of
ice from its clear hard surface.
I parked the car and stayed in it. I looked at
the ice. I thought about the hook in my
watery place, the new-conceived baby,
the ill-conceived affair, and how I was
now caught where the darkness pressed close
and thought about going to a clinic for an abortion.
Then the thread of my thought, which
had been unraveling from some invisible seam
near my right shoulder, grew taut. I looked around.
I pulled my arm forward, but it wouldn’t
give any more. I went back home.
Durga threw up in the bathroom this morning a second time, and she was tired. She went through the bathroom cabinets looking for the Sea-Bands. She found them. She went to the radio on the counter and turned it on. Madonna was dressing him up in her love, which sounded good. Durga moved a little, catching the beat. The nausea lifted a little. A little meant a lot. She turned up Madonna a little louder. “All over your body,” singing salty sex in a pregnant soupiness.
She looked at the Sea-Bands and felt disgust. Another drawer, where was the vibrator? Durga put a hand on her hip and rummaged. No, not there. She searched another shelf and then went to their bedroom. Mahish’s bedside drawer was locked. Why locked? she wondered in annoyance. The diaphragm, who cares? But the vibrator too.
She walked back to the bathroom and put a Sea-Band on her wrist. It pressed her acupressure points. She couldn’t imagine it helping. The nausea swept in again with the Air Supply song playing now. She moaned softly, put her head down on the cool counter and then a conch shell appeared in her hand. She put it to her lips and blew and felt a vibration start inside it and end in her whole body.
Another Sea-Band on her second wrist, and now a sword appeared in her grip. Shining like the sea, and sharp as seawater in a cut, it gleamed a power to open the drawer by splitting it in two. Durga chuckled, knowing she wouldn’t have to since she already had the conch.
Next Sea-Band, on her third wrist, brought a chakra, blowing a cooling breeze on her hot flushed pregnant face. Another Sea-Band and a bow appeared, stretched taut like her belly, stretched out like Kama’s bow. It shot, taking out Mahish, who was in his study. She didn’t notice.
A Sea-Band on another wrist, and now the scepter, like a trident. To rule over the tides of this nausea? she wondered. And on her last arm, the Sea-Band’s plastic nubs pressed her wrist, twisting her hand up—a mudra. Her hand opened out and away from her, away
from her belly
a tiny dream.
The mudra lifted from her hip to her navel. Then Durga felt a muscular body under her thighs. A tiger moved there, sleekly.
Climbing of a tree
“When a woman, having placed one of her feet on the foot of her lover, and the other on one of his thighs, passes one of her arms round his back, and the other on his shoulders, makes slightly the sounds of singing and cooing, and wishes, as it were, to climb up him in order to have a kiss, it is called an embrace like the ‘climbing of a tree.’”
—from The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, tr. by Sir Richard Burton
Once, half way up your thigh,
my calf twisted around yours
while my hands clasped behind your ears
like the tender tendril ends
of wisteria, leaves still
Now I am chopping these down
whole woody coils fall
each time I stop to cover my face
and cry. I feel them,
lying heavily on the ground
and dragging as I walk.
I smell them, living green,
and they coat my hands, sticky sweet.
Kodaikanal vacations of my childhood
Minakshi steps demurely over the Vaigai River and proceeds firmly out of town toward the Palni Hills. She gets tired of the sweltering heat in her palatial temple on the plain. We follow her between the rows of tamarind trees to the place where the road starts to climb. She takes the short way up, a graceful leap, and she arrives at the beautiful lake, where the air is thin with altitude. We drive up the winding road, past fruit stands, forests of eucalyptus and waterfalls.
When we arrive, she is standing waist-deep in waterlilies, making garlands for herself by dipping her body into the water. We hire horses and ride around the lake, looking at her from every angle in this mountain-place. She reveals herself here, in the cool air closer to the burning sun.
We visit Coaker’s walk and gaze at the plain in the evening, when the electric lights flicker on as the heat lets off. Shiva winks at her from there, we notice. Minakshi laughs brightly behind us and leaps over us, gliding down on everything.
Sometimes a jam jar full of jam
and jam is spilled on the floor.
My children asked me to write a poem
about that because it happened just
after I read a poem at their school
about my jam jar filled with peppercorns.
I am writing this in pencil
because I cannot bear to spill
or have it spilled indelibly
And how can I write it this way
for my children? Do they know yet
about the indelible stains?
The sharpness of glass
in blueberry jam?
They saw it with their own eyes today,
and they chortled with delight
because I write.
A. Anupama is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Bitter Oleander, CutBank, and elsewhere. She studied at Northwestern University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in writing. She currently organizes literary community and is a founding editor of the literary journal River River, riverriver.org, and a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. She lives and writes in Nyack, New York. Find her musing at seranam.com.
Even with the door to the main street thrown open the post office was stifling. Having clawed back only a quarter of the year from the despotic winter, summer led a full-frontal attack all over Manchuria. It seemed to Hiromitsu that the mail had been frozen, a glacier of sacks bulked up over winter that now came flooding out in a sweeping rush of thaw. Propping himself against the counter, he sorted and re-sorted the undeliverable mail; some with illegible names and addresses, some written in good faith to dead soldiers.
A bead of sweat trailed from Hiromitsu’s hairline down his forehead, caught on a fine eyebrow and quivered, before raindropping silently to the envelope before him. It sat for a beat, magnifying the ink below it, interrogating the last downward stroke in the kanji for Manchuria. Then the moment and the drop were gone, as if absorbed by the great nation itself.
The letters, wrapped in envelopes like skin, were interchangeable from the outside but – the thought waded towards him – there were lives inside each one; the breath of loved ones caught in the cutaneous layers of mail, familiar gestures swept up in the brush strokes of gossip and pleasantry and duty. Paper was a strange messenger, inviting stains and creases onto the delicate surfaces of itself, hiding secrets made of nothing that slid across its planes and came to rest in its folds. Stuffing the letter into his lapel, Hiromitsu added his own story, as his thumb smeared the ink slightly across the paper.
Summer evenings were spent alone in the dim back room of the post office. Cloistered in the syrupy heat, surrounded by the smell of the family who had owned it, even the air seemed to begrudge his presence. It refused to circulate.
He sat at a low table, arranging his four netsuke in order of preference. The rooster, the snake, the tanuki, the rabbit — nearly a year ago he had chosen these four to travel with him to Manchuria. They all wanted to be on the far left of the row. Each time he reordered them he turned those that sat to the right of the favourite slightly to face it, so that three small carved animals displayed an act of proper deference to their superior. He rearranged them again and again, making them leap like Go pieces in competition. It had been a favourite pastime in his childhood, played with his grandfather’s and great grandfather’s cast off netsuke. He had built a little army of chipped animals and old favourites, their features worn smooth from so much care.
From the undeliverables, he allowed himself one letter each week. In the hot nights, at the end of hotter days, his skin gritty and slick, he would pull the chosen message from his lapel. The envelopes, wilted soft, were a marvel every time; they always came undone so easily in his hands —
All around the city, the cobblestones have nothing to say. As I walk to the shrine, the snow mutes my wooden shoes and engulfs them. I pray the gods will bless you, everyday. Do the wisps of incense reach Manchuria?
Your sister cracks the ice on the pond. One koi she fished out dead but the others seem to have grown rapidly to cancel the void. Or perhaps it’s the stretching illusion of the water.
Winter is the season for letter writing, don’t you think?
Your devoted, Mother.
Lying on his futon, motionless as a corpse, in love with the gaps between the floorboards through which drafts told stories across his skin, Hiromitsu sometimes wrote back, invisible letters in the air —
Yes, the wisps of incense reach me.
* * *
Winter. A month’s coal rations undelivered with no explanation. Days, weeks without a civilized word. The army had continued North and left Hiromitsu shouting at the locals, his mouth an angry train in the cold. Even official dispatches were lost, somewhere between the land and sky that together conspired to a sphere of unearthly, unheavenly, directionless white. There seemed to be nothing for Hiromitsu to do but stamp his feet and grind his inkstick into frozen water, scribing the official records ever-shorter.
The cold was creeping tight in his chest as he pulled on his thickest clothes. They blanketed him like a snow drift, softening his angles, rendering him as indistinct as the peasants in the street. He mounted his horse, Hachi, and keeping the village at their backs, together they were hoof prints disappearing.
All around them, lumps of landscape were shrouded with the same white blanket, like vast knees and shoulders and elbows in disjointed ruin. But who could say if there was really anything underneath? Before them, no distance could be measured between one gratuitous curve of snow and the next, and on turning, the village was gone. Hiromitsu’s eyelashes grew heavy with ice and air had to be sucked in past the damp fabric of his muffler. He took strength from the heft of Hachi’s body beneath him.
At last, there stood the two shacks he remembered, so tumbledown that the banks of snow seemed to be all that was holding them up. The weaker of the two was selected. He gave the peasants his orders and waited as the occupants of the rickety hut began scurrying back and forth to their neighbour’s, carrying furniture on their backs, bags of grain and babies under their arms. They looked up at Hiromitsu sometimes, their heads low.
Hiromitsu kept a distance that was proper, parading back and forth only for the sake of keeping the worst of the cold from Hachi. With the way clear at last, he dismounted, and went about securing a thick rope first to the saddle, then to the central post of the empty shack. On his command, Hachi pulled the shack down with a few locomotive paces.
Hiromitsu remounted, glad to raise his feet above the frozen ground, and watched as the peasants stacked the timber. They bound the wood together with twine plaited last season, then fastened the load like a sledge behind Hachi. The postmaster and his horse pulled away to retrace their journey, splinters of wood dirtying the snow behind them.
In a corner of the post office, a depleted mailbag offered a home for spiders. The small warmth of the fire, hard won from his journey, had enlivened the little creatures, so Hiromitsu thought, as he counted their webs and smoked his pipe.
The locals had been unable to dig a hole big enough for Hachi. Manchurian winter owns the earth a hundred miles down and the ground had shut itself off from any further invasions for the year. So the big body had to lie in the snow, the mane stiff as rope, the brown hide patterned with the story of snowflakes falling from the sky.
The end of winter is always the hardest to bear, and sure enough, whenever Hiromitsu looked out the window, all he saw was the hump of snow that meant Hachi. Another hill of snow, another victory for the Manchurian winter.
With delight the idea came to him. He struggled on with extra clothes and requisitioned one of the two rising suns that hung rigid on poles at either side of the post office door. With difficulty, he waded towards the hump and in snow up to his knees, stopped to consider the prospects. The flag would be even more visible from here. The pole plunged into the horse’s flesh almost by itself. Hiromitsu breathed hard from the exertion and gave a muffled whinny in celebration, his breath freezing almost before it left his mouth.
Zoë Meager is from Christchurch, New Zealand and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. In 2013 she won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region, and her work has since been shortlisted in a number of contests and appeared in various journals at home and abroad. There are links at zoemeager.com and tweets @ZoeMeager
Individuals move against history’s current throughout Georgi Gospodinov’s fascinating, quixotic novel, newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. In this excerpt, a memory of the narrator’s father becomes the catalyst for an imaginary Socratic spat, a tribute to the ephemeral, and a demonstration of how a writer’s sense of control on the page can evaporate in human interaction. Gospodinov expands and contracts time and drapes layers of self-consciousness over the narrative to amplify the internal conflict that powers the novel. The reader is rewarded with passage through an enthralling maze that pivots and advances in a nonlinear trajectory and conveys experience of a life filtered through fiction.
Buffalo Shit, or The Sublime Is Everywhere
I remember how we walked through a historical town famous for its Revival Period architecture, uprising, fires, cannons made from cherry-tree trunks, history rolled down the narrow streets but my father was impressed mainly by the geraniums on the window sills, praising aloud those who had grown such flowers. Suddenly he stopped in a street and started hovering over something on the ground. I went to see what he had discovered. A pile of buffalo shit. It was standing there like a miniature cathedral, a church’s cupola or a mosque’s dome, may all religions forgive me. A fly was circling above it like an angel. It is very rare to see buffalo shit nowadays, my father said. No one breeds buffalos here anymore. And he spoke with such delight about how one could fertilize pumpkins with it, plaster a wall, daub a bee hive (of the old wicker type), how one could use it to cure an earache—you should warm it well and apply it to the ear. At that moment I would have agreed that the Revival-Era houses we were touring and the pyramids of Giza were something much less important than the architecture, physics, and metaphysics of buffalo (bull?) shit.
Even if you weren’t born in Versailles, Athens, Rome, or Paris, the sublime will always find a form in which to appear before you. If you haven’t read Pseudo Longinus, haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns, of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.
Socrates on the Train
If everything lasted forever, nothing would be valuable.
The world is set up in such as way that it looks obvious and irrefutable. But what would happen if for a moment we turned the whole system upside down and instead of the enduring, the constant, the eternal, and the dead, we decided to revere that which is fleeting, changeable, transitory, yet alive?
The train was passing through the hot stubble fields in late August, where they still use that barbaric method of stubble burning. The fields had been reaped and to make for easier plowing afterward, someone had set a match to them. I imagined the meadow birds’ scorched wings, the running and squealing mice and rats, the burned up lizards and snakes. Storks were anxiously circling above the burning fields—we’ve got to get out of here ASAP, ASAP . . . Everyone wanted to run away, the world was heading toward autumn. At the same time, I was returning to the town of T.
In the end, man, if we still insist on seeing him as the measure of all things, is closer to the parameters of the fleeting—he is changeable, inclined toward death, alive, but mortal, perishable, constantly perishing.
I sensed that my imagination was running wild, I needed an opponent. I invented an opponent, clever, with a sharp rhetorical bite, I generously endowed him with qualities and gave myself over to my favorite pastime, Socratic spats.
“So, my dear sir, you propose that we replace the lasting with the fleeting,” my opponent began.
“I suggest that we examine this possibility.”
“Very wellll . . . Just say it aloud and you will hear how absurd it sounds—to replace the lasting with the fleeting. Illustrate it with a concrete example, isn’t that what you always love to say, my dear fellow? Now then, imagine a nice, sturdy house on the one hand, and a tumbledown hut on the other. Would you exchange the house for the hut? In one hand, I’m holding gold, in the other straw. Which would you choose? Won’t the straw grow moldy after the first rain?”
“Wait, wait, my most noble opponent . . . You speak wisely and take shameless advantage of your right to peek into my own misgivings. Yet let us look at the other side as well. Imagine a world, in which everyone agrees to a new hierarchy. In which the Fleeting and the Living are more valuable than the Eternal and the Dead. The opposite of the usual world, which we share today. And so, let us imagine what consequences this might have. Immediately many of the reasons for war and theft fall away. That which entices one to theft is that which is eternal or at least lasting, like a bar of gold, for example, or sturdy houses, cities, palaces, land . . . That is what’s ripe for the taking. No one goes to war over a pile of apples or lays siege to a city for its fragrant, blossoming cherry trees. By the time the siege is over, the cherry trees will have lost their blossoms, and the apples will have rotted.
“And since gold will have lost all of its agreed-upon value (because that’s exactly what it is, a contract value), it’ll just be rolling around on the ground and no one will think to up and go on a crusade for it.
“And speaking of crusades, let’s look at that side of the question as well. The religions that stand behind every crusade or holy war will suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them. The old gods were the Gods of the Eternal in all of its aspects. Is there a God of the Ephemeral? If there are Gods in the new constellation—and why not?—they will be exactly that: Gods of the Ephemeral. Gods of the Fragile and the Perishable. And hence fragile and perishable gods. Sensitive, feeling, empathizing. What more can we say? Mortality raises the price and opens our eyes.”
“But isn’t all of that so fleeting and unstable . . .”
“You’re fooling yourself. Let’s take that straw, which you’ve been clutching in your left hand since the very beginning of our debate. That straw used to be wheat, which used to be seeds, which used to be wheat, which used to be . . . And here, nota bene: the perishable reproduces itself. And that is its first advantage. While the gold, which you’ve been holding in your right hand, is made once-and-for-all, it won’t give birth to gold even if you plant it and water it every day for two hundred years. Let me put it like this, paradoxically—the perishable is more enduring, precisely because of its death, than that which is imperishable and cannot reproduce itself.” (I’ve completely forgotten about the opponent I created.) “What do you say to that, my friend?”
“Wellll, what happens to tradition then? To all of art, to your own pathetic scribbling?” (We’ve left politesse behind, my opponent is pissed off.) “Let me ask you this—that book you’re writing, is it on the side of the ephemeral, or does it uphold the values of the eternal? How long do your own words last?”
“How long do words last?” I repeat this, because I don’t know the answer. “Let us assume that they last as long as the breath with which you utter them. You exhale the word, it’s so light, you fill its sails and send it toward the harbor of the Other. It might perish before reaching shore, it might sink along the way, shipwrecked against the flotilla of another’s words. Whether that is fragility or unfathomable endurance, I cannot say.” (I won’t apologize for this outburst of lyricism here.)
“I’ll ignore the lyrical explanation. So where does that leave your own identity, if you set store by the changeable?” He refuses to give in. “Where does that leave your forefathers, traditions, culture? All of that which was created from constancy? All of that which you call up so as not to forget who you are and where you come from?”
“And what has that identity of yours ever given you, ass-hat?” (Politesse has now definitely been left in the dust.) Blood and wars, busted butts, suicide bombers—there’s your inheritance. There’s only one true identity—to be a living creature among living creatures. To be ephemeral and to value the Other, because he is ephemeral as well.”
“Man is the measure of all things, thus what man creates must endure so as to outlive him.”
(Now I’ve got him—I invented him after all, I have the right to push him into a trap.)
“Exactly, man is the measure of all things. And everything that exceeds this measure and lasts longer and remains after his death is inhuman by its very nature, a source of sorrow and discord as a rule.” (Are you listening to me now? He’s listening, that’s what I invented him for.)
“But . . .”
“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go into cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgment Day. All of this tells you: you pass on, but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point or justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark night of the primeval, living in their flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires . . . They truly lived forever, even if they died at thirty.”
Things Unsuited to Collecting
(a list of the perishable)
cheeses – start to stink
apples – shrivel up and rot
clouds – constantly change their states of aggregation
quince jam – gets moldy on top
lovers – get old, shriveled up (see apples)
children – grow up
snowmen – melt
tadpoles and silkworms – anatomically unstable
If we draw the line, it turns out that nothing organic is suitable for collecting. A world with a permanently expiring expiration date. A perishable, shriveling, rotting, deteriorating (and thus) wonderful world.
A Place to Stop
I can imagine the look on the face of the first person to find these notes. He’ll probably think that some monster lived here. Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man, a woman is carrying my child, I sometimes go to the seaside, alone, or travel abroad. I keep up what they call “a normal life” in the upper world. OK, fine, I do pass as quite withdrawn and reticent, but in my line of work, that absolutely goes with the territory. My books sell relatively well, which allows me the time and space to do my own things and guarantees me much-needed tranquility. I don’t give interviews.
I used to be able to take part—a bit sluggishly, true—in lively conversations and at the same time to be somewhere else entirely, in a different body or memory. Sometimes this would show ever so slightly, one or two women with whom I was in closer contact always caught me. I got off the hook using the alibi of a writer. You can be absent as much as you like, they’ll always understand when you want to be left alone or when you don’t respond to repeated invitations. At first they keep calling, then they quickly forget you. Here people forget quickly, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that already.
—Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel
Below, the lecture I delivered to my high school sophomores in our last class of the year at the French-American School of NY. I tie the fundamental problems explored in our Western Civ curriculum – half history of Western philosophy, half classic literature – to the analogous problems facing this next generation. —Tom Faure
YOU’VE COME A LONG way this year. You’ve encountered bronze-kneed Greeks (Iliad), old and midnight hags (Macbeth), and white bitches from Bronxville (“Virgins”). You’ve met impetuous gods, impetuous angels, impetuous humans. Tragic humans—many tragic humans. Remember Camus’ words: humans are tragic because they are conscious. We’ve journeyed the stormy waters of the history of Western Civilization, noting with irony that history is written by the victors. History is written by the victors—and all too often these victors have been white men. White men who embody primitive instincts like strength and courage. Cruel men. White men too, though, who possess a relative wisdom.
I use this term “relative wisdom” to assure you of a very important fact of human nature: our virtues and our vices are limited, relative. They are relative to our technology, our social conventions, the knowledge and morals of our time. Our paradigms. More on this later.
So yes, the victors have been white men—not white bitches from Bronxville. But, though we have used the dead white men as the spine of our yearlong conversation about human nature and human nurturing, I hope you have seen how frequently the discussion has turned our attention to the non-dead, the non-white, the non-men. What I’m getting at is that notion we have treated both seriously and laughingly this year: privilege. And those who are underprivileged. Privilege—as I have defined it in my own words: access to capital (economic, political, cultural)—privilege is at the center of today’s paradigm about global capitalism. But you might have a different definition for it. It is not a new notion. As we have analyzed this year, the same concepts keep returning wearing new robes—new names. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are like Frank and Claire Underwood. The Iliad explores the psychological experience of war as do “Redeployment” and “The Point.” The Flood of “Gilgamesh” and the Flood of Oryx and Crake. God of the Bible and Satan of Paradise Lost. Everywhere a search for knowledge, for understanding why we were made. Fallen heroes everywhere. The brashly democratic rogues at FIFA are like Agamemnon and, well, like Vladimir Putin. And like Obama and our American democracy. Oh well. The analogies are everywhere. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. That’s not my line—it’s attributed to Mark Twain, but apparently it wasn’t his line either. History in a nutshell, there. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The myths of the epic hero are echoed by the myths of the religious fanatic, are echoed by the myths of the American Dream, are echoed by the myths of the dorm room hacker-ingénue. The morality, logistics, and existential threat of Artificial Intelligence and high-frequency trading are analogues to the morality, logistics, and existential threat of any of the supernatural forces we’ve read about this year—gods, God, witchcraft, the uncanny, the unknowable tricks of nature and fate.
Privilege, it seems, is one of the various threads we could sew through Oryx and Crake, through Gilgamesh, into the Greek Philosophers, around the Saints and the Dantes, up and under Shakespeare, Milton, and the Renaissance, through the existentialists and the contemporary short story writers. Privilege—knowledge, strength, moral righteousness. Access. Our texts invite basic questions: what do we want our leaders to be like? Do we want our leaders to be like us, or better than us? Like gods? What about our gods? Our idols? Do we want our heroes to be made in our image or to transcend it—to whisper of possibilities, to suggest there is more out there? These are some of the questions you will continually return to as you search the world and search within yourselves for a sense of what exactly the hell is going on. Other questions we have asked this year and you will continue to ask—because history does not repeat, but it rhymes: what is the universe? Who are we? How can humans co-exist? Why do we have morality—is it in our nature, as some studies suggest (but have failed to prove), or does it stem from religion, mythology, and other collective responses to what was deemed necessity? A sad truth about most influential people today is that they accept the Hobbesian view that man is biologically bad and so created society to hold this bad nature in check. But a number of the philosophers and writers you studied this year, including the Cynics, Locke, and Rousseau, argue compellingly that man is naturally good—that society is not inherently a regulatory mechanism designed to keep man from his baser nature, but is rather a harmful set of restrictions designed by those in power in order to maintain control. The politicians and scientists who dominate mainstream intellectual discourse do not recognize this. They are a product of Western capitalism, which has a tendency to try to placate the dissenter with the odd reflection: “if it is so, it must be so for a good reason.” Please do not forget the Rousseauian perspective.
Today I want to turn your focus, as I have often done in our classes together, onto you. What will become of you? “The world is your oyster.” That’s an expression suggesting you have limitless potential. The world is within your reach! The world is your oyster. Unfortunately, the oyster has been sitting in the sun a little too long. (That’s a global warming joke.)
The reason I want to bore into you this concept of relative wisdom is because, as I allude to with the oyster gone bad, your generation faces a terrible time. And we have more ways than ever before to learn about how terrible that time is. This global awareness and interconnectedness can trick us into thinking that if we just think BIG enough, we can solve the big problems. It’s very tempting. But I think that, if you think too big, you might despair. You might fall into the black hole Kurt described in “The Point.” So think about RELATIVE success. Because you happen to have been born at a particular time when there is more information available than ever before about how underprivileged most people are. Our world is incoherent: the 1% own 40% of the wealth. Public schools are becoming ghettos for children of the poor. Indeed, the proliferation of private schools in the 20th century is due in no small part to the efforts by Civil Rights Movement reformers to desegregate public schools. White folks—in other words, the people in power—realized the government was going to try to create equal opportunities, so they expanded the small business of elite private schooling and turned it into the de facto segregating mechanism we have today. I’ll make it simple for you: the globe produces enough food for at least, by conservative measures, 9 billion people. There are 7 billion people on the planet. 2 billion people are going hungry. 2 billion people’s worth of extra food. 2 billion people starving. That’s some incoherent math for you.
And yet millions of poor people in the world actually describe themselves in happier terms than the rich do. Yes. It may be a question of ignorance—i.e.: they don’t know better. What do you think? Are they just ignorant? Perhaps they have relative wisdom. They have a moral life as rich as a wealthy Westerner’s, if not more so, yet they do not suffer the angst of the complacent consumer suffering an embarrassment of riches. The sense is that the unhappiest people are those who are physically suffering (which is a significant number of people) and those who, wading through a muck of decadence, have never learned how to actually fight for happiness.
You face a global capitalist economy and a system of geo-political boundaries whose only impartial (nominally impartial—in reality, I don’t know) oversight comes from a weak, castrated United Nations. Socialism is a dirty word for fascism in some parts, democracy is a dirty word for American imperialism in others. We as a country are wealthier than ever and lonelier than ever. Easy consumption and communication further isolate us. Our solution to isolation is to increase our isolation by interacting with digital versions of ourselves, digital and therefore boxed in by the logics of computation. We begin to define ourselves in response to our performances online—our social network avatars take precedence over the spontaneous, creative, freeing capacities that humans possess and computers don’t. You operate in a digitized social network that feeds valuable information to the technocrats of the future. Google, Facebook, and the NSA are compiling enough data to write the next Matrix. Are we still here, or have we finally plugged in too long? The Matrix might be disguised as the next Bible or the Q’ran. Are we the old man who dreamed he was a butterfly? Or are we the butterfly who dreamed of being an old man? I will tell you one thing: I’d rather be a butterfly than a computer algorithm.
Let’s think about our classic texts. On the one hand, technology could have really helped Oedipus out! Imagine if he could have Googled his genetic heritage! Or if he had Twitter! @Oedipus: “Feeling confused. Bad things keep happening around me.” @BlindProphet@Oedipus: “You accidentally killed your Pops. Try not to sleep with your moms now #self-fulfillingprophecy” @Oedipus@BlindProphet: “I see you. (See you. Get it?) Thanks for the heads up. My bad about King Laius.” We might have been robbed of some quality dramatic irony. But more seriously, imagine technology in the hands of Agamemnon. Think of the war shouts he could have delivered if he had data on behavioral trends, your search engine history, your deepest secrets texted to your friend when you thought no one was looking. He would of course exploit that and inspire you and you wouldn’t even know it. Every omen would be a good omen! (Remember his humorous diatribe against Nestor, the seer: “You never give me a good omen!”) Every omen would be good, and it would be evil. You would die for his ego, his empire.
I am frightened by the likelihood that this is close to what goes on now. It’s only paranoia if I’m wrong.
But I’m getting off track. The point is that, yes, it’s fun to think about these things, and joke about the past, and compare Agamemnon to the Most Interesting Man in the World from Dox Equis. By the way, the meme contains its own particularly interesting narrative power and therefore a subtextual dynamic of privilege. But, yes, while you have a series of collective challenges ahead of you (global warming, poverty, inequality, and systematic opacity blocking sound governance) you also have a series of personal challenges you each will face. You are no doubt already aware of some of them. The personal challenges may seem more difficult, though at the same time you may have better luck overcoming your own demons than making the world a better place.
This all comes back to the things we’ve been reading. What is man—this conscious being whose consciousness may be the only thing that makes it unique. Consciousness makes us tragic; it also makes us capable of something computers literally can’t do: think outside the box.
This lecture raises the notion I called “relative wisdom.” I do not want to suggest that everything is relative. Objectivity does exist. This year we have continually explored the difference between absolutes and particulars. 2+2=4. All bachelors are single. Not all bachelors, on the other hand, are happy. It is raining or not raining. Some of our knowledge is true a priori, while some is true conditionally or a posteriori. And SOME of our accepted knowledge is NEITHER true a priori nor a posteriori—it is UNTRUE, we just don’t know it yet ! Yes, some knowledge will be defeated by the progress of knowledge. C’est la vie. The earth is not flat, but it’s also not round—it’s actually an oblong type of flattened sphere, bulging in the middle, like Mr. Faure—kind of like a deflated soccer ball. Somebody call Tom Brady and the NFL. Speaking of corruption.
The point: there is universality. There is objectivity. But you have to accept your own limitations. Relative wisdom. Another concept: the Romantic poet Keats’ negative capability. Recall that this is the ability to accept the fact that some things can’t be immediately known—it is a relinquishing of enormous pressure. It links nicely to Sartre’s call not to give up in the face of radical freedom. A third concept: Nietzsche’s amor fati. Embracing your fate. These all triangulate around a central, primitive emotion: fear of the unknown. I will be the first to tell you I don’t know everything. I don’t even know everything that I DON’T know—that is my personal weakness, my own project. I hope one day to have climbed Plato’s ladder sufficiently to simply understand my own lack of understanding. Yes. You know me fairly well now—you might have noticed my own intellectual confidence. But I actually do possess some humility, I am not all that arrogant—I try to espouse the humility of Socratic self-doubt. I doubt myself. I don’t let others make me doubt myself, I do it myself. And I find that there is so much I don’t know. So step on in. I welcome you to the unknown. It is quite cozy in here.
So let us accept that some things are knowable, and our lives are worth pursuing even if we have stared into the dark abyss of meaninglessness and seen it has a compelling face. Even Nietzsche, to whom we have mistakenly ascribed the label of nihilism, believed life is worth living—in fact, he thought nothing was more essential. What can we do about the problems I’ve mentioned—problems just barely mentioned, and which are just the tip of the iceberg? There are many more problems, universal and personal, you will encounter. I’ve mentioned a few obvious ones. For all this, and in sincere fondness and full acknowledgement that I am just one small, well intentioned but flawed person of thousands whom you encounter in your life journey, I offer you a few parting thoughts, which I won’t go so far as to call lessons:
1) People are generally good.
It’s systems, bureaucracies, institutions, and especially these over the course of time that usually cause the problems. It’s the slow crawl of change. And the essential phenomenological division between individuals and groups—it makes it difficult and frustrating to reconcile individual desires and ideas with the plodding, democratic group’s work. This leads people to frustration and to giving up on the group project. They grab what they can and say “hey, survival of the fittest.” But that doesn’t mean people are bad. Don’t become cynical (small -c) about humans. You can be cynical about humanity, but don’t let that ruin your experience of humans. Humanity =/= Humans.
You need community. The thing about today is you could easily live in a gorgeous expensive luxury New York City apartment and never leave it. You could work from home, shop from home, have sex from home. And this would be your end. Do not hole yourself up inside a world devoid of actual human interaction. I’m not saying this to be anti-social networking. It’s not about that. It’s about the dulling of your senses, your empathy, and your creativity. Empathy, creativity. Because computers are closed circuits. Social networks are not conscious, not tragic, not free. You will be happier if you have people.
3) Relative wisdom.
Maintain an ambition to understand everything and everyone. Accept that you will fail. Accept the unknowableness of being. Accept this even as you study the history of your people and, building on this class, the history of other people. History is written by the victors. But just because history is a construct does not mean we cannot learn from it.
4) There is no perfect painting.
Extending from the previous point: don’t be afraid to fail, period. Not only don’t fear your ignorance. Don’t fear your inevitable failures. Remember what Sartre said. We face—and continually reface—a blank canvas. And we may be tempted to stare at the blank canvas and not add a single brushstroke until we see the endgame, the eventual painting. This is a mistake. You should attack that canvas. We could spend eternity staring at the canvas, unwilling to mark it, searching for the perfect painting. The radical freedom should not render you forlorn. Do not be afraid to mark the canvas. There is no perfect painting.
5) All you need is love.
Not only the Beatles knew this. Some of the most influential engineers and scientists have said the same thing. That the meaning of life is in the ones we love. We have, after all, very little other purpose. Let’s close read that sentence. “All you need is love” sounds like it is defining something via a negative: that ALL you need is love, in other words you need NOTHING except love. But you can read it another way too: “EVERYTHING that you need is love.” Think about that. Everything that you need involves love. Everything you love, you will need. All you love, you need. All you need is love. Woot close reading!
Love is a mystery—we’ve associated it this year with eros, pietas, beatific love, platonic love, familial love…yes, it is probably instinctively as powerful as our fear of the unknown. We biologically need love for the survival of our species. And love has been responsible for the horrors of war and the truth and beauty (another Keats line) of art. Remember Oryx and Crake, the game “Blood and Roses.” Love is a primary motivation for both sides of human history.
I can tell you up front that love is the single greatest thing you will experience, and that on the flip side love will probably cause you great pain. Why? Because human life is short, and the experience of our lives is also myopic, and we make mistakes. We screw up, we hurt people, and, even if we don’t do that, we eventually die. Death is the best case scenario. Grief is the price we pay for love. So yes, love may hurt you. And if it does, then you will be one of the lucky ones—for that pain, though sucky, would be a testament to the greatest feeling a human being can have.
This year I have tried to guide you on your own journey to more critical thinking and reading. I hope the journey has opened your eyes, transported your mind, etc. Maybe even occasionally touched your heart. It has mine. It’s been a pleasure being the Anchises to your Aeneas, the “wise” (hah!) elder who offers the hero knowledge or a weapon so as to obtain the elixir for the hero’s people. I do not take so much credit—you have sought out much more knowledge than I could give. Please, please, keep doing so. Go forth and plunder. Climb the Platonic ladder. Do not forget that the hero’s journey always involves, either directly or indirectly, the seeking of knowledge. Don’t ever let anyone cause you to question yourself. Question yourself. Be well and be good.
Even if, as G [the narrator] writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blue prints all the time. — Geeda Searfoorce
B y interlacing Greek myth, autobiographical and ancestral stories, and reflections on growing up in Bulgaria during the latter part of the twentieth century, Georgi Gospodinov constructs The Physics of Sorrow, a novel of fragments that reads like a playful hybrid between a frenetic roman à clef and a collection of diary entries untethered by chronology. The book’s unifying image—the halfling Minotaur imprisoned in a labyrinth—underscores the protagonist’s struggle with acute melancholy and provokes the reader to consider how individuals struggle in the wake of larger political transformations. And its structure—replete with interruptions, digressions, visual imagery, and anecdotes—is necessarily labyrinthine in order to immerse the reader in its protagonist’s experience of attempting, through fits and starts, to simultaneously escape and return to his homeland and in the process rediscover himself.
One of Bulgaria’s most translated authors since the country’s shift to post-communism in 1989, Gospodinov has won critical acclaim for his work, which includes four poetry books, his first novel, Natural Novel (published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a collection of stories titled And Other Stories (published in English by Northwestern University Press, 2007), two plays, several screenplays, and a graphic novel. His skill working between genres is evident from the beginning of The Physics of Sorrow, first published in 2011 and newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, and several of the nine—yes, nine—epigraphs alert the reader to abandon any previously held preconceived notions of the constrictions of form.
What follows—in nine chapters bookended by eight prologues and eight epilogues—is a nonlinear recounting of various tales by a narrator, named Georgi Gospodinov (sometimes referred to as “G”). After embarking on an extensive period of travel to attempt to moderate his profound mid-life melancholy after his grandfather’s death, his father’s dementia, and his divorce, G returns for an extended visit to his boyhood hometown, staying in one of the many basement apartments his family inhabited during his youth as they worked toward a more solvent financial future which never materialized. He takes up residence in a “gloomy birthright of a basement,” wanders the town, encounters an old classmate, now working in a dilapidated “kitsch emporium” filled with tzotchkes that once enchanted G’s childhood imagination, and gazes at the “sullen, tired, and expressionless” people who are struggling in a Bulgaria that has been transformed during the last two decades of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first.
G devotes himself to compiling his grandfather’s stories, along with the tangible records of his life thus far—myriad lists, newspaper clippings, a gasmask “filled with the exhausting fear of atomic and neutron bombs, of air raid sirens being tested,” an excerpt from a sex scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a sharp retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in which old age is the wolf that devours the grandmother, and books with their “old socialist price tags”—and other memories and ephemera from his childhood and young adult life that would disappear if it were not for his doggedness. He wants to create a time capsule for posterity and fill it with everything and everyone he has ever known. The implication is that this time capsule will forestall annihilation, a fear that has plagued G from an early age.
“Some books need to be equipped with Ariadne’s thread,” G writes, referring to the tool Theseus used, in the Greek myth, to navigate his way through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and restore peace to Crete. Gospodinov offers a few strands to guide the reader through the labyrinth of his novel. The first thread is the notion of story itself—its vital importance in G’s life and its necessity throughout history. Even if, as G writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blueprints all the time. Materials are forever being tested and retested and combined in new ways. Midway through the novel Gospodinov offers a primer for how the reader can enter it. In Chapter IV “Time Bomb (To Be Opened After the End of the World),” G writes:
Since other capsules depicted the world like a postcard—kind, pretty, dancing, endlessly inventing various trinkets—the capsule in my basement had to contain the signs and warnings, the unwritten stories, such as “The History of Boredom in the 1980s,” or “A Brief History of the Ephemeral,” or “An Introduction to the Provincial Sorrow of Late Socialism,” “A Catalogue of the Signs We Never Noticed,” “An Incomplete List of Fears During 2010,” or…my grandfather, the abandoned boy, the stories of all those coming of the void and going into the void, nameless, ephemeral, left out of the frame, the eternally silent ones, a General History of That Which Never Happened…. I imagine a book containing every kind and genre. From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book…. (140)
Lists and catalogs populate the novel to form another thread. With them Gospodinov displays G’s predilection for conflating world events with personal history—the engine upon which the book builds its momentum, albeit fitfully:
First kiss (with a girl).
Second kiss (different girl).
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
A long half-life of exponential decay ensues. (103-4)
The backdrop for G’s “half-life” is modern-day Bulgaria, a country he deems is running on a “physical and metaphysical deficit” and which he describes through images of darkness, rust, and concrete even as it draws him back from his travels abroad. In Chapter VII “Global Autumn,” an annotated list of places G travels is preceded by a statistic: “Eighty percent of Bulgarians had not left their native country before 1989.” A startling observation, but no less so than the fact that in just fifteen years after the collapse of communism over one million mostly young people left because of the economic crisis that enveloped the country still in transition.
Gospodinov, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, has witnessed firsthand the tumult of his native country during the years following Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Todor Zhikov’s resignation in 1989 after thirty-five years. Democratic reform since the Autumn of Nations has led to widespread corruption and a stagnant economy that have caused a wide swath of the population to feel caught in a system that seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink of ruin.
The principal organizing image for The Physics of Sorrow—the famed Minotaur of Greek myth—is a creature with the body of a human male and the head of a bull. “I have not found any compassion for the Minotaur in all of the classics,” G tells us. “No departure from the established facts.” G begs the readers’ empathy for the Minotaur and, as the labyrinth of the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the human/animal is not only G’s psychological doppelganger, whose salvation may ensure G’s ability to emerge from the labyrinth of his misery, but also a stand-in for Bulgaria.
Even as G’s misery threatens to overtake him, Gospodinov’s humor is at play throughout the book, often amidst passages recounting brutality or injustice. In Greek mythology, the author notes in the second chapter, children “insofar as they exist…are most often devoured by their fathers. Any left undevoured will devour their fathers.” This observation is followed by a section titled “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” and a “P.S.” that depicts a “wacky echo in modern times” of a staged photo of a baby jokingly posed on a baking pan about to enter an oven, exposing the link between this classical motif and a modern family endearment (“You’re so sweet, I’m going to eat you up with rice.”). The chapter then ends with a fragment of “The Minotaur’s Speech in His Own Defense”—an alternately quirky and dire polemic, written in hexameter, during which the ostracized human/animal asserts his humanity (“I’m kin to all you all”) before King Minos orders his son locked up again.
Gospodinov employs repetition and ellipses to create an elegiac rendering of G’s past. Through these devices, Gospodinov asks the reader to consider not only images but the idea of language as an incantation, meant to simultaneously conjure G’s memory and release him from it. But the sheer number of memories conjured in the book are at odds with the desire to linger that the language creates. In one section, recalling his youth spent as a latch-key kid of socialism, awaiting his mother’s return from work and studying survival manuals in preparation for the atomic annihilation that racked him with fear as a child of the Cold War, G repeats the line, “We bang around like Mintoaurs in these basements…” Rather than unraveling the implications this metaphor carries with it, G decides it should be included in his “catalogue of epiphanies” and tucked into the capsule along with all the detritus he has stockpiled and saved for posterity and the reader is led toward another fragment.
The strongest thread is comprised of a handful of fragments scattered throughout the book describing G’s daughter Aya in beautifully simple language as a source of joy amidst his melancholy. He writes, “While I’m writing about the world’s sorrow’s, Portuguese saudade, Turkish huzun, about the Swiss illness—nostalgia…she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen.” (177)
By interweaving all these threads Gospodinov offers G the possibility of deliverance from the sorrow gripping him, along with reminders that he can always duck down a side corridor for respite or if he’s worried that he’s lost his way. Because ultimately the “stories coming out of the void and going into the void” are what will lead him and Bulgaria—and the reader—through a maze dense with memories to a new idea of what it means to return home.
— Geeda Searfoorce
Geeda Searfoorce is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes fiction and plays and teaches through the Vermont Young Playwrights program. Her work is forthcoming in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.
THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.
Pants, I say, and she yowls.
My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.
I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.
There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.
Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.
We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.
Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?
When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.
Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.
The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.
In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.
You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.
Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.
Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.
Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.
It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.
Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.
For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.
One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.
When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.
In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.
While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go? I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.
It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?
I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.
The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.
Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.
The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.
At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.
And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.
The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.
On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.
I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.
Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.
A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.
Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.
Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.
I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.
The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.
This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.
Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.
Ray Bradbury reminds us that the plot of a story is contingent upon characters chasing after their desires. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations,” he says in Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. “It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic” (152). What makes the difference, then, between a mechanical plot and a dynamic one? Bradbury suggests that characters will write your story for you if you simply get out of the way and let them go. But I know my characters’ footprints reveal more than just a direct trail to their desires – by charting the plot steps of any story, I can discover what makes a plot dynamic.
I begin by looking up the definition of plot in J.A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:
The plan, design, scheme or pattern of events in a play, poem or work of fiction; and, further, the organization of incident and character in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or reader. In the space/continuum of plot the continual question operates in three senses: Why did that happen? Why is this happening? What is going to happen next – and why? (To which may be added: And – is anything going to happen?)
Cuddon defines plot as a pattern of events organized to arouse curiosity and suspense for the reader. He implies that the organization of incident and character must continually incite the reader’s interest; we are not just wondering what’s going to happen next, but we’re left wondering why these particular events are important to the characters and the story. He mentions E.M. Forester’s example of plot versus story to highlight the emphasis on causality: “‘The king died and the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot’” (Cuddon 676). Plot is not just the ordering of events but the ordering should be accompanied by the cause or motive of why an event occurs.
Cuddon’s definition also includes Aristotle’s ideas on plot. In Poetics, Aristotle sees plot as ‘the first principle’ and ‘soul of tragedy’ (Cuddon 676). Aristotle calls plot ‘an imitation of the action,’ as well as the arrangements of the incidents (I learned from Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook that ‘imitation of action’ is not a physical action but rather “an internal, psychological need.” In other words, we can discuss plot in terms of a character’s need or desire and the related incidents that occur). Aristotle requires the plot to be ‘whole’ (to have a beginning, middle, and end), and he also distinguishes between simple and complex plots: the complex has a crisis action that involves recognition and/or reversal, and the simple has neither (Cuddon 676). Aristotle’s ideal plot, therefore, ends with a moment of revelation to the protagonist that coincides with the protagonist’s sudden change of fortune.
Douglas Glover further explains how dramatic narrative can be developed after the initial desire and resistance have been established. In Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, he states: “A character first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats, reels back, makes compromises with necessity, concedes a position out of politeness, ponders his own reactions, realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior” (Glover 26). Put simply, the short story form consists of a character going after something, being blocked from getting it, and changing his behavior to get it another way, and this sequence is repeated over and over. Glover emphasizes that this pattern of conflict must occur such that the opposing forces (A and B) “get together again and again and again” (three being the critical number or minimum). He notes that in the repetition of these poles conflicting, writers are “forced to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way and you are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships” (Glover 27). Glover argues form opens up more possibilities in that writers must create new material related to the same conflict.
In the following discussion on plot, I focus on the repetition or pattern of conflict. In three example short stories, I trace the pattern of character desire and resistance within a story. I am interested in how increasing pressures force characters to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict.” After I identify the pattern of conflict, I see how each story’s sequence of plot events build to a climax and forces characters to “go deeper” and eventually change significantly.
Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point” is about 13-year-old Kurt Pittman who, at his mother’s request, agrees to escort his mother’s friend, Mrs. Gurney, back to her home. Kurt is used to chaperoning drunk locals home, but he quickly realizes that Mrs. Gurney will be difficult. Before they can get across the playfield, she falls on her ass twice and begins to sift through the sand. Kurt finally gets her onto the boardwalk and, despite her protests, dumps her on a wagon to pull her. When he takes a break to breathe, she disappears further down the boardwalk, takes off her nylons, and runs towards the sea. When Kurt repeatedly tries to redirect them to get her home, Mrs. Gurney vomits over herself, babbles on about her age and beauty, threatens to commit suicide, and finally comes onto him by undressing herself, throwing both her blouse and bra into the wind. Kurt at first refuses to look, but he ends up looking at her aging body and expressionless eyes. She presses against him, and he must decide whether to take advantage of the situation or take her home. He decides to bring Mrs. Gurney to her house and tucks her into bed. When Kurt returns home, he can’t sleep and decides to read an old letter written by his father, a Vietnam veteran who has committed suicide. In the letter, the father describes being a medic during the Vietnam War, trying to save the wounded, including a 19-year-old soldier who eventually dies from an explosion. Kurt walks out to the playground, sits in a swing and recalls finding his own father’s body with a bullet wound in the head.
“The Point” is approximately 7,700 words and is told in first-person from Kurt’s point of view. D’Ambrosio breaks up the story into five sections, using line breaks. The major conflict steps between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney (opposing forces A and B) take place in the second, third, and fourth sections. By major conflict, I mean the structure of desire and resistance: Kurt’s desire to bring Mrs. Gurney home and Mrs. Gurney’s resistance to this desire. The first four sections are chronological, moving forward from the party to Mrs. Gurney’s house in about an hour. D’Ambrosio ends the last section with a scene outside of the main plot, a scene that shows Kurt reading his father’s letter and remembering his father’s suicide (thus it is backfill, not plot).
The conflict really begins at the opening of section two when Kurt attempts to walk Mrs. Gurney across the playing field, and Mrs. Gurney plops herself down in the sand, “nesting there as if she were going to lay an egg” (7). She takes off her sandals and tosses them behind her, which prompts Kurt to fetch them. This is Mrs. Gurney’s first action to derail Kurt from his goal. He responds by reiterating his goal (the plot desire): “The problem now is how to get you home.” As if Kurt’s goal isn’t already clear, he thinks to himself, “I’ve found that if you stray too far from the simple goal of getting home and going to sleep you let yourself in for a lot of unnecessary hell.” They start walking again and take “baby steps” across the playing field before Mrs. Gurney falls back “on her ass into the sand” again – another hitch that prevents Kurt from reaching his goal (10).
Once on the boardwalk, Kurt decides to bring Mrs. Gurney home another way: drag the drunkard in a wooden wagon. Despite Mrs. Gurney’s protesting, he somehow gets her into the wagon and starts pulling. When Kurt pauses for a break, he finds “Mrs. Gurney was gone” (11). She slips down the boardwalk, farther from her home, and tries to engage him in drunk talk about Mr. Crutchfield, another local who died earlier that summer. This is Mrs. Gurney’s second major resistance against Kurt’s attempt to bring her home; she no longer sits in the sand but makes it more difficult for Kurt by fleeing the scene.
In section three, Kurt repeats his desire to get Mrs. Gurney home four different times in the span of four pages. The first time is after she pulls her nylons off and he runs and fetches them. He says, “We’re not too far now, Mrs. Gurney. We’ll have you home in no time” (14). She then vomits between her legs, he consoles her with a cigarette, and he again repeats, “We just have to get you home” (15). When she asks him to guess her age, he reminds her, “You’re going home, Mrs. Gurney. Hang tough” (16). When she continues with her drunk talk of how bad life can get, he says, “We need to get you home, Mrs. Gurney … that’s my only concern” (17). In Mrs. Gurney’s four separate attempts to derail Kurt from his goal, he responds with four clear affirmations of his desire.
In section four, Mrs. Gurney poses the most resistance by trying to seduce Kurt. At the beginning of the section, Mrs. Gurney lies down in the sand and takes off her blouse and bra. Kurt looks away and tells her they should go. When she tries to get him to sit, he thinks: “I’d let us stray from the goal and now it was nowhere in sight. I had to steer this thing back on course, or we’d end up talking about God” (19). He says to Mrs. Gurney, “This isn’t good. We’re going home,” once again repeating his goal (for the sixth time, not counting the times he thinks it). He also mentions he can see the house, observes it’s only “one hundred yards away,” and that they’re “so close now” (19-20). Mrs. Gurney, however, tries to engage him in conversation again by offering her house to him after she dies, threatening she’ll kill herself, and babbling about how she met her husband – all her ways of resisting going home.
When none of Mrs. Gurney’s attempts seem to faze Kurt, she tries to seduce him. Mrs. Gurney steps closer and leans in – he resists by saying, “Mrs. Gurney, let’s go home now” (his seventh time). He looks into her “glassy and dark and expressionless” eyes, and he then feels her hand brush the “front of his trunks” (23). He wonders whether he should go “fuck around” and “get away with it.” In the climactic moment, he chooses to resist Mrs. Gurney and hands her his t-shirt to cover up. They move away from the shore and cross the boardwalk to Mrs. Gurney’s home. The plot ends when Kurt leads Mrs. Gurney by the elbow into her house.
Kurt comments at the beginning of his journey that “everything … had a shadow and this deepened the world, made it seem thicker, with layers, and more layers and then a darkness into which I couldn’t see” (9). I had a similar experience of seeing layers and more layers of this story after I separated the plot from the rest of the story. The repetition of the same desire and resistance makes up the main conflict: Kurt wants to take Mrs. Gurney home, but she does not want to go home. Kurt repeating his simple desire versus Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance drives the story forward – there’s nothing unclear about what he wants (since he says it seven times). The protagonist doesn’t hint at or suggest his desire –Kurt uses the phrase “I want…” to make the reader aware of his concrete desire.
Glover states that the repetition of the same desire and resistance forces writers “to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way … [writers] are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships.” Kurt’s desire to take Mrs. Gurney home may seem humdrum or routine at first – he doesn’t have any stake in his relationship with Mrs. Gurney since he’s just doing his job. The tension rises with Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance: she first falls over, then wanders away, then takes off her nylons, and starts to babble nonsense. But her dialogue in the third section begins to take on an ominous tone: a threat to kill herself is more loaded than her previous statement of how bad life can get. Notice how the tension increases in the following dialogue right before the climax:
“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Gurney said. “I’m so homesick.”
“We’re close now,” I said.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t know what I mean.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “Please put your shirt on, Mrs. Gurney.”
“I’ll kill myself, “Mrs. Gurney said. “I’ll go home and kill myself.”
“That won’t get you anywhere … You’d be dead … then you’d be forgotten.”
“My boys wouldn’t forget” (21).
This dialogue serves two functions: 1) The back-and-forth between opposing forces A and B creates the suspense that plot should incite (according to Cuddon’s definition), and 2) The content of the dialogue foreshadows Kurt’s flashback at the end of the story since Kurt did not have any forewarning of his father’s suicide, and he could never forget the bloody and emotional mess.
These previous plot steps build to the climactic moment in which D’Ambrosio must escalate Mrs. Gurney’s resistance dramatically: the drunk woman takes off her bra and tries to seduce Kurt. Her actions force Kurt to “go deeper” into himself and reveal what Glover calls the “moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and relationship”– on the surface, Kurt must decide whether to stick to his goal of getting Mrs. Gurney home or give in to her seduction. On a deeper level, the adolescent questions his beliefs by asking himself, “What is out there that indicates the right way?” (23). In a later flashback, Kurt mentions he misses “having [his father] around to tell [him] what’s right and what’s wrong, or talk about boom-boom, which is sex … and not worry about things” (31). Kurt finally expresses his emotional need for his father after the plot ends, but the main plot between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney allows us to see how his internal conflict plays out in their actions.
The main conflict between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney only takes up three of five sections. D’Ambrosio could have ended the story after section four when Kurt gets Mrs. Gurney home, but the author ends with the backstory of Kurt’s father – specifically, the ending focuses on the father’s mission as a medic during the Vietnam War and his suicide. The father’s story ties in with Kurt’s story because they both have a “mission” to carry out: the father helped the wounded in Vietnam, and Kurt helps the drunk (and wounded) in his hometown. Kurt considers himself a “hard-core veteran” ever since his father assigned him the job when he was 10 years old (5). Both Kurt and his father mention the “job” and what happens when you “lose sight” of the job or “stray too much from the goal” (28). D’Ambrosio includes the backstory of Kurt’s father to resonate with the main plot structure: Kurt’s “mission” to escort Mrs. Gurney home.
By extracting the plot from the rest of the story, I notice what is left on the page: the subplot of Mr. Crutchfield’s death, the root image of the black hole that splinters into white image patterns, Kurt’s internal monologue expressing thematic motifs, and the backstory of Kurt’s father’s suicide. I mention these non-plot devices to point out that if I hadn’t previously traced the plot beforehand, I would have naïvely assumed that the father’s story or Kurt’s flashback to his father’s suicide were all part of the main plot instead of devices that enhance the plot. In many stories, ancillary devices can echo the structure of the main plot, which, in this story, deepen the meaning of the protagonist’s desire to get his job done. “The Point” portrays character desire and resistance mostly through dialogue and action, but the next story shows how another writer captures the main plot in internal monologue.
In “Under the Surface” by Slovene writer Mojca Kumerdej, the narrator is a woman who desires to be alone with her lover and have him all to herself. When she sees an attractive woman flirting with him, she gets pregnant in hopes to keep him forever. She gives birth to a daughter, but the new daughter seems to steal her lover’s attention. The little girl interrupts their Sunday mornings in bed, and on the narrator’s birthday, they celebrate as a whole family – not romantically and privately. One day on vacation, the narrator goes to up to the house while her lover and daughter remain by the shore. She watches her lover napping in the sun while the daughter gets dragged out into the ocean. She lets her daughter drown, drinks brandy, and falls asleep on the bed. Her friend wakes her up and tells her the news. The narrator reflects that she may have let her daughter die, but the narrator now has her lover all to herself.
The story is 3,000 words and is written as an interior monologue mixed in with dramatic monologue. A retrospective narrator reveals to the reader her secret that she withholds from her lover, but Kumerdej uses the second person “you” to direct the monologue at the narrator’s lover. This story covers the span of more than eight years (pre-baby years, five years with child, and three years after the child’s death). Kumerdej also uses a conventional circular structure to the story: the beginning of the story is also the end of the story that takes place three years after the narrator’s daughter drowned. The rest of the story is told chronologically and focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her lover and daughter.
The plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, is created from the narrator’s desire to be alone with her lover and the apparent threats that the narrator sees as a danger to her relationship. I say “apparent” threats because we only see the story from the narrator’s perspective (from an outsider’s perspective, she needs professional help to separate her delusions from reality). The pattern of conflict plays out in the following steps: 1) the narrator has a baby to gain her lover’s attention, but the little girl cries and steals the spotlight, 2) the narrator wants to sleep in with her lover on Sunday mornings, but the little girl physically gets in the bed, 3) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover on her birthday, but the lover wants the whole family together, and 4) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover in the future so she lets her daughter drown.
The set-up of the conflict starts when the narrator sees another woman flirting with her lover by “calculatedly moving around [him] … and “licking her lower lip” (7). The narrator never thought to have a baby – what two people in a relationship who love each other usually do – until now. The real action starts in paragraph two when the narrator announces she “had to take action” and get pregnant (7).
But when the baby comes, the narrator notices that the child doesn’t solidify their love but instead comes between them. The narrator observes that the lover first kisses and plays with their child, leaving the narrator to “wait [her] turn” (8). Even at night when the narrator is woken up by the daughter’s “piercing screams,” the lover rarely gets up to spend time with the narrator. The narrator becomes so angry that she slaps the child, which in turn angers the lover. She considers her baby competition, which drives the couple further apart thus propelling the plot forward.
In the next plot step, the narrator describes again how the daughter intrudes on her alone time with her lover. On Sundays, which were usually reserved for sleeping in, the little girl would run into the room and jump on the bed to hug her father. The narrator thinks: “Our time was becoming more and more the little one’s time, she was the one giving rhythm to our mornings and nights. You didn’t want us, as I suggested once, to lock ourselves in” (10). When the narrator tries to regain alone time with her lover, the lover responds, “That isn’t good … she needs us.” This prompts the narrator to ask, “But what about us?” The narrator feels reproached by him and looks “towards the door in fear … wishing not to hear the tiny footsteps coming towards our bedroom” (10).
In a third plot step, on the occasion of the narrator’s birthday, the narrator suggests to her lover that she wants to celebrate her birthday differently, just “the two of us together” (11). She suggests that they drop the girl off with his parents, but the lover opposes the suggestion “both times.” The narrator assumes he prefers to be with the “whole family,” and he acts as if his parents would be insulted if they didn’t invite them. Each time the narrator tries to be alone with her lover, she feels her lover straying further away.
The last five pages of the nine page story focuses on how the narrator finally gets her lover all to herself: by letting her daughter drown in the ocean and allowing the lover to take the blame. She watches her daughter chase after an inflatable dolphin and get dragged out to sea. The narrator knows she could alert her lover by screaming, but at that moment she “saw a chance for things to be the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone …” (13). The plot ends when the daughter’s body is “sucked into the depths” (13). In this moment, the narrator achieves her goal at the expense of a dead daughter and a guilty conscience that she suppresses by taking showers.
When I met Mojca Kumerdej in Slovenia this past summer, she mentioned that her readers – regardless of what country they’re from – want to argue about the mother’s actions in “Under the Surface.” Kumerdej said many readers attack the narrator because they think the narrator’s actions are highly unbelievable – “no mother would ever do that!” they claim. I would argue that the narrator’s obsessive desire partially explains her psychotic actions (or rather lack of action to save her daughter). A closer look at the plot, however, shows a carefully crafted sequence of events that makes the narrator’s actions seem justified in her own mind.
Unlike “The Point,” Kumerdej’s chosen point-of-view brings us into the mind of the narrator, in which we are only presented with her perspective. Plot is not entirely made up of scene as it is in “The Point” where D’Ambrosio uses dialogue and actions to express desire and resistance. Instead the narrator in “Under the Surface,” in a stream-of-consciousness-like confession, proves how far she will go to be alone with her lover. At first glance, the story appears to be a long rambling about the narrator’s undying devotion to her lover (she says she loves him five different times in the span of the story). But the story still includes a clear desire and resistance pattern; the narrator articulates immediate obstacles that become clear plot steps creating tension in the story. The baby arrives, cries and steals attention, grows up and physically and emotionally gets in the way of the narrator’s relationship with her lover. In these plot steps, Kumderdej builds to a crisis action that forces the narrator to commit the unthinkable. The only “logical” action in the narrator’s mind is to permanently get rid of her daughter – as soon as the narrator has the opportunity, she lets her child drown in order to have her lover all to herself.
The narrator’s internal monologue at critical points in the story adds even more tension to the main plot. Kumerdej creates a pattern in which every other paragraph leading to the climax ends with the narrator’s intense desire for her lover and the sacrifices she made:
When for the first time you put your hand on my stomach I knew I had you, and that’s when I decided to have you forever, wholly and completely, without intermediary, disturbing elements that could jeopardize our love (second paragraph).
But no woman in the world is capable of loving you as much as I do, no woman in this world would be capable of doing what I did … (fourth paragraph).
And precisely that is what I did for you, and once in my life took away what meant the most to me … (sixth paragraph).
These lines are not directly part of the main plot structure, but the narrator’s repeated thoughts emphasize her fixated desire. The narrator justifies killing her daughter as a form of her devotion and love. To clarify, the opposing forces aren’t the narrator and her daughter but rather the narrator’s desire to be with her lover (A) versus the narrator’s apparent threats in her mind preventing her from having her lover all to herself (B), which repeat in four distinct steps.
In the climactic scene of “The Point,” the plot steps lead up to a moment that forces Kurt to take action: he ultimately chooses to rebuff Mrs. Gurney’s romantic offering and takes her home. In “Under the Surface,” the plot steps lead to a climax in which the narrator chooses not to take action and leaves her daughter to drown: “I didn’t do anything – and by doing so did everything” (7). Similarly in both of these climactic scenes, each character wrestles internally, even if briefly; both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej include the characters’ internal thoughts that allow us to see how the pressure forces them to change (or not). Kumerdej writes: “At that moment, I saw a chance for things the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone … I was watching the scene, and it seems to me I didn’t feel anything. No pain, no kind of fear, I was only watching what I thought as things happened” (13). Interestingly the narrator doesn’t “feel anything” in this moment but expresses her emotional transformation after the plot ends.
After the narrator has her lover to herself, Kumerdej includes five short paragraphs that reveal the narrator’s change of emotions. The narrator still desires her lover, but she’s also haunted by the image of her drowning daughter dragging her “into the depths.” The narrator feels isolated because her lover will never know the truth, and she wakes up in “terrifying pain” from guilt-ridden nightmares (14-15). Both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej could have ended their stories when the plot ended, but they chose to include backstory and internal monologue that illustrate how their characters transform after the crisis action occurs. In one last story, we see again how the sequence of plot events builds to a climax that significantly changes the characters, especially in regards to their emotional and mental state.
Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is a novella about fourteen-year-old Eréndira who survives her grandmother’s cruelty and, with the help of a young man, becomes free. The story begins in the grandmother’s ornate mansion where Eréndira exhaustedly completes her endless chores. When she falls asleep, the wind knocks over a candlestick she left burning and destroys the property and the grandmother’s possessions. The grandmother decides to prostitute the girl so she can pay off an impossible million-peso debt she has incurred by causing the fire. During her servitude, after countless encounters with men and paying customers, Eréndira meets a young man Ulises who falls in love with her. Among other adventures, a group of missionaries kidnaps Eréndira to protect her, but the grandmother pays an Indian boy to marry Eréndira and free her from the mission. Having fallen in love, Ulises disappears from the story for a while but inevitably returns to run away with Eréndira, but they don’t get far; the grandmother captures Eréndira and chains her to a bed to prevent a future escape. Eréndira entertains the thought of killing her grandmother with boiling hot water but has no confidence in her ability to kill her oppressor. Ulisses returns, and she begs him to murder her grandmother. After two failed attempts with rat poison and a bomb, Ulises slaughters the grandmother with a knife, and the old woman finally dies. Instead of turning to Ulises, Eréndira runs in the direction of the wind and is never heard from again.
The novella is approximately 16,200 words and is divided into seven sections with line breaks. Márquez uses a third-person omniscient narrator with the exception of a two-page transition to a first-person narrator who tells his personal account of seeing Eréndira and her grandmother with his own eyes. Unlike “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” we get to see, from a limited distance, the perspective of multiple characters. Márquez tells the story chronologically (Eréndira is 14 at the beginning and 20 by the end), and his use of the techniques of magic realism creates a fable-like quality. The story also carries the “wind of misfortune” motif that governs Eréndira’s actions– first it blows at Eréndira and causes the fire, then the wind brings along the missionaries and also incites her to run away, and, in the end, she runs into the wind and beyond it.
The main plot takes up only a small portion of the entire text and concentrates on Ulises’s and the grandmother’s conflict over Eréndira. Ulises falls in love with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from being with her. The following plot steps occur between Ulises (A) and the grandmother (B): 1) Ulises wants to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother denies him entry into the tent so he sneaks in and sleeps with the girl anyway, 2) Ulises falls in love and convinces Eréndira to run away, but the grandmother captures Eréndira and dog-chains her to a bed, and 3) Eréndira magically summons Ulises, and he attempts to rescue her by killing off the grandmother (third time’s the charm). With the grandmother dead, however, Ulises doesn’t end up with Eréndira since she runs into the wind and disappears forever.
Márquez delays the main plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, until the third section of the story. The grandmother’s unrelenting abuse of Eréndira seems like a one-sided conflict until Ulises, the son of a Dutch farmer and Indian woman, poses a threat to the grandmother’s scheming. In the first plot step, Ulises lines up with the other soldiers to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from seeing her: “No, son … you couldn’t go in for all the gold in the world. You bring bad luck” (298). He later sneaks into the tent and manages to sleep with Eréndira while the grandmother talks in her sleep. Eréndira loves Ulises “so much and so truthfully” – their connection solidifies the continuation of the main conflict. The two lovers are separated after this point since the missionaries kidnap Eréndira in order to protect her.
In the second plot step, Ulises’s mother notices he’s “lovesick,” and he sets off to trek across the desert and reunite with Eréndira. When Ulises finds Eréndira sleeping with her eyes open, he tries to convince her to run away by tempting her with his father’s homegrown diamonds, a pickup truck, and a pistol. He tells her, “We can take a trip around the world.” Eréndira says, “I can’t leave without [my] grandmother’s permission,” but that night her instinct for freedom leads her to flee with him (316). Their romance is short-lived; the grandmother initiates a car chase to get her granddaughter back. The grandmother then dog-chains Eréndira to the bed slat so the girl can no longer escape (325).
Ulises doesn’t reappear until six pages later when Eréndira calls out Ulises’s name “with all the strength of her inner voice.” This time, Ulises crosses the desert and instinctively (or magically) knows where to find her. While the grandmother sleeps, Ulises kisses Eréndira in the dark and they both hold “a hidden happiness that was more than ever like love” (329). After sobbing in her pillow, Eréndira asks him to kill her grandmother, and he says for her he’d “be capable of anything.” This reunion sets Ulises up to encounter the grandmother for a final time.
In the last major plot step, Ulises and the grandmother meet face to face, and he attempts to kill her on three separate occasions. First, Ulises lies to the grandmother and says he’s come to apologize on her birthday. The grandmother concedes and devours his cake that’s secretly baked with a pound of rat poison. Instead of dying, the old whale sings until midnight and “went to bed happy” (332). Next, Ulises tries to blow up the grandmother with a homemade bomb, and the woman was left with her wig singed and her nightshirt in tatters “but more alive than ever” (334). In Ulises’s last attempt, he grabs a knife and stabs the grandmother’s chest, her side, and a third time for good measure, but she doesn’t go quickly and yells, “Son of a bitch … I discovered too late that you have the face of a traitor angel.” Covered in the grandmother’s green blood from head to toe, Ulises manages to cut open her belly, avoids her lifeless arms, and gives “the vast fallen body a final thrust” (336). The plot ends when the grandmother finally dies, but Ulises doesn’t end up with his love since Eréndira runs into the wind never to be heard from again.
As I mentioned earlier, Glover states that plot is a repeating desire-resistance pattern between two poles A and B. Readers may at first confuse the grandmother’s abuse and sexual exploitation of her granddaughter as the main plot. It’s not. Márquez begins “Innocent Eréndira” with a lengthy dramatic set-up that isn’t part of the main plot structure: a meek, soft-boned girl cannot escape her grandmother’s horrible exploitation. In the narrative set-up, Márquez keeps our interest by pushing the limits of the grandmother’s brutality: she negotiates Eréndira’s virginity for 220 pesos, she orchestrates a bazaar – complete with musicians, a photographer, and a circus tent – to attract hundreds of solicitors, and not until Eréndira shrieks like a frightened animal and thinks she’s dying does the grandmother give her a break. Eréndira doesn’t fight back and consequently doesn’t pose a formidable resistance to her grandmother. Márquez can only sustain readers’ interest for so long (before they ask, “will anything else happen?”) and introduces Ulises in the third section as the real resistance to the grandmother.
Once Márquez establishes the two opposing forces in conflict, he increases the pressure and varies the conflict in an interesting way (he also interrupts the plot steps to reinforce the grandmother’s malevolent behavior and the granddaughter’s helplessness to escape). Notice that in the first two plot steps, Ulises tiptoes and sneaks behind the grandmother’s back in order to physically interact with Eréndira. In these scenes, Ulises doesn’t face any real confrontation with the grandmother other than their first brief encounter, but the old woman and her command over Eréndira still pose a threat. Márquez intensifies the pressure when Ulises comes into direct physical contact with the grandmother; the boy quickly fabricates a story in order to save himself and carry out the grandmother’s murder. This confrontation forces Ulises to take greater risks: he poisons her, fails, blows her up and fails again. Ulises’s actions follow Glover’s definition of plot when the character “first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats … realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior.” Only when Ulises notices Eréndira’s “fixed expression of absolute disdain, as if he [doesn’t] exist,” does he finally carry out the murder. In this climactic moment, Ulises has the choice to either kill the grandmother in order to win Eréndira’s love or he can retreat – he, of course, chooses “disorderly love” over “antiseptic order” and kills for love.
Just like “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” the plot ends with the crisis action, and the author includes the transformation of characters in the aftermath of the climax. In a final scene, Márquez describes Eréndira watching with “criminal impassivity” the final fight between Ulises and the grandmother. In fact, the girl embodies “criminal impassivity” throughout the entire story. Not until after the grandmother dies does Eréndira suddenly “acquire the maturity of a [20-year-old]” and escapes into the wind where “no voice in this world could stop her.” Eréndira’s bold action is the exact opposite of the once cowering, servile girl who couldn’t live on her own freewill. Ulises, on the other hand, suffers greatly after he kills the grandmother. The crisis action leaves him “lying face down … weeping from solitude and fear” since he has just lost the love of his life and is “drained from having killed a woman without anybody’s help” (337). Márquez deliberately arranges the plot steps to finally reveal the emotional and dramatic reversal and recognition that the characters experience.
Márquez’s novella reads like a fairytale because of his use of magic realism (not to mention the similar overtones to the Cinderella story-line: note the use of threes – three plot steps, three murder attempts, very much like a fairytale). In particular, Márquez utilizes magic realism to bring characters back together “again and again and again” in order to continue the main plot. For instance, when Ulises falls in love, every glass object he touches turns blue; Ulises then runs to find Eréndira and tempts her with his father’s magical oranges that contain “genuine diamonds.” Ulises also reunites with Eréndira for a third time when she summons him by calling out his name; in his plantation house, he hears her voice “so clearly” that he knows exactly where to find her. In a last example, Márquez uses magical realism to prolong, rather humorously, the conflict between Ulises and the grandmother. Instead of the grandmother dying after Ulises’s first (or second) murder attempt thereby ending the plot, the old woman lives on to croon her songs and babble in her sleep. Ulises even knifes her open and gets splattered with her green blood, but she’s not yet dead. Although Márquez seems to randomly pepper magical realism throughout the story, he strategically uses the technique to reunite characters and advance the plot. These moments defy our expectations and incite the very suspense and curiosities that plot should stimulate. Márquez’s story exemplifies how imaginative qualities, engaging characters, the combination of horror and humor, and a narrative set-up can coexist with the main plot structure so long as it sustains the reader’s interest.
The example stories I analyze may follow the same form or pattern, but the writers construct the plot in three distinct ways. In “The Point,” the plot is straightforward – Kurt and Mrs. Gurney battle it out until Kurt overcomes her resistance. The unreliable narrator in “Under the Surface” muddles the plot steps in her internal monologue, but she still articulates her desire and competition. In “Innocent Eréndira,” the plot is delayed for nearly a third of the story and yet still manages to mold into the same structure in the end. Plot, however, is not the same mechanical formula applied to every story – plot is a dynamic form that we identify as a pattern of desire and resistance between two opposing forces, but infinitely varied by each writer.
These stories were also originally written in different languages (English, Slovene, and Spanish, respectively), which suggests that in any culture (and time period), plot translates to the same pattern. Why do stories follow this particular pattern of desire and resistance? If plot is to “induce curiosity and suspense” in the reader, writers must invent new ways for characters to pursue their desires, charge through increasing resistance, and come out of a crisis action significantly transformed. No matter what the native language or nationality is of a reader, he or she will inherently invest in characters who chase after their desires, fail, get up and try again. We root for characters who, in our minds, allow us to imagine what it is like to step into their skin and travel to “incredible destinations.”
— Nicole Chu
Ambrosio, Charles. “The Point.” The Point and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.
Cuddon, J. A., and Claire Preston. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. Print.
García Márquez, Gabriel. “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” Collected Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.
Glover, Douglas H.. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. Print.
Kumerdej, Mojca, and Laura Turk. “Under the Surface.” Short Stories Collection:
Fragma. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2008. 7-15. Print.
Nicole Chu is about to receive her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is originally from California and currently lives in New York City, where she teaches English Language Arts at a public school in the Upper West Side.
…her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations. — Julian Hanna
After the Tall Timber: Collected Essays
New York Review of Books
528 pages ($29.95)
Looking back, Renata Adler’s journalistic career and the era it spans appear almost as the stuff of dreams. Our own age, which can seem like a nonstop Gawker feed of the horrible and the miserable, stands in stark contrast to the four glorious decades captured in After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, which covers Adler’s career as a staff writer at The New Yorker and ‘serious intermittent critic’ for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The American Spectator, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. Adler covered most of the defining issues of the day, including issues that she had the uncanny sense to know would come to be age defining. Beginning with the march from Selma and the counterculture in the 1960s, Adler went on to cover Watergate in the 1970s, the resurgence of the Republican right in the 1980s, the Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, and the legal wrangles surrounding the US presidential election in 2000. But more than that, she covered these stories from the front lines: following Martin Luther King, Jr. to rallies in the South; filing a “Letter from Israel” from the Six-Day War; reporting from the war torn fledgling nation of Biafra shortly before its inevitable fall; and covering key trials, including impeachment proceedings against two presidents. As Jonathan Clarke recently pointed out, Adler’s career is unique, a one off, and moreover in the present climate her fierce independence is best viewed as a cautionary tale: “These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.”
Throughout her writing career, in fact, Adler bears witness not to a golden age but to the steady decline of serious journalism and a serious readership in America. Resistance to this perceived decline is one of the defining features of this collection, seen perhaps most famously in her attack on fellow contrarian (and former colleague) Pauline Kael. Adler’s attempt to end what she saw as Kael’s reign of “brutality and intimidation” as the longstanding house critic for The New Yorker pairs her description of journalism in decline with her struggle to counterbalance abuses of power and to check corruption and complacency in institutions of all kinds. By choosing this uphill battle, Adler necessarily courts controversy and makes herself a target for attacks. Perhaps that is why Adler, who was educated at Harvard (under I. A. Richards and Roman Jakobson), the Sorbonne (under Claude Lévi-Strauss), and Yale Law School, and who is the author of two difficult, dazzling, boundary-exploding novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), so often appears to be writing from the margins. Despite her success and centrality to contemporary American letters, Adler always works against the cultural grain. This collection divides roughly into three sections. First is the intellectual It Girl decade from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, made up entirely of New Yorker pieces; then a short middle section covering cinema; and finally what I might call—and many would no doubt disagree—the rest: covering Adler’s essays for a range of publications from the mid-seventies to the early noughties.
The early pieces in the first section are compelling for their eyewitness accounts of key historical figures and events. But on a deeper level, their power lies in the disruption of familiar historical narratives with the all-too-human: the messy and complicated reality behind even the most sacred historical moments. When MLK takes the stage in Montgomery, Alabama to rapturous applause, for example, Adler records someone muttering: “This personality cult is getting out of hand.” The opening essay, from the introduction to Adler’s first collection of New Yorker essays in 1969, sets the tone. She describes the politics of her between-the-cracks generation as progressive, empathetic, led by heroes like Hannah Arendt; yet always aloof, sceptical, cautious, and focused on the word (“we are the last custodians of language”). The second essay (“The March for Non-Violence from Selma”) exemplifies this “radical middle” approach: hopeful yet retaining a critical view. The mood on the historic march, for example, is described predictably as one of “jubilation.” But that is not all: there is also “tedium” and “inaudible speeches,” fear of attacks from local rednecks, bad food (“three tons of spaghetti” served from “garbage pails”), and fashion-conscious hipsters trivializing the meaning of the event (“Which demonstration are you going to? Which one is the best?”). The atmosphere of the march is beautifully recorded from moment to moment: the changing light, the temperature and humidity, and the shifting mood of the crowd, “at once serious and gay.” Adler conveys the feeling of the vulnerability among the marchers as they camp by the roadside in hostile territory—there are frightening rumours of “bombs and mines”—as well as the carnivalesque, proto-Woodstock atmosphere on the last day when stars like Nina Simone, Joan Baez, and Tony Bennett perform.
The diversity of the civil rights movement—black and white, north and south, urban and rural—is an underlying theme, and clueless interlopers are a constant trope. One student marcher complains to the Reverend Andrew Young, who is giving instructions on non-violent protest: ‘Man, you’ve got it all so structured.’ Another expresses a fear of Maoists, who are confused with Kenyan rebels: “Maoist. You know. From the Mau Mau.” But despite occasional indulgences in “Talk of the Town” style light humour, Adler does not spare us from shocking facts. In one oddly contemporary use of surveillance technology, white bystanders are seen taking photographs of marchers, “presumably as a warning that their faces would not be forgotten.” (Later the marchers turn the tables and begin to photograph the roadside hecklers.) Statistics are used sparingly but effectively: one county on the route, for example, is said to have “a population of fifteen thousand, eighty per cent of them blacks, not one of whom had been registered to vote” because of fear of reprisals. Actual violence is absent from the story, but there are several tense moments. At one point Adler describes a gang of crewcut local boys who jump out of their cars and surround a group of marchers, but they turn out to be menacing only in their aimlessness and ignorance.
After the report on Selma comes a series of essays that form a striking picture of the turmoil of the late sixties. On the lighter side there is the rebirth of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (“Fly Trans-Love Airways”), which in early 1967 was “practically deserted” except for “evangelical bands of elderly squares and young longhairs.” Adler reports from the scene in the guise of a hip and slightly jaded older sister: I imagined her standing among the love beads and ragged Confederate jackets in an open-neck white shirt, like the Avedon portraits. The essay ends with an erratic performance by Arthur Lee and Love that perfectly captures the time and place. But even in this seemingly light, “youth of today” piece, Adler manages to delve into the economics and polarized politics of LA, and from there to the growing polarization of America as a whole. She describes the widening “split” between “the Yahoos, on an essentially military model, occupying jobs,” and “the longhairs, on an artistic model, devising ways of spending leisure time.” (And it was ever thus.) In the next essay, “The Black Power March in Mississippi,” Adler provides an anatomy of the key players in the civil rights movement. She lists “the drones” (white marchers “with only the fuzziest comprehension of issues”), “the press” (rushing to “cover one of the last of the just wars”), “the white supremacists” (aptly described as “Stock characters out of the southern bestiary”), “the local blacks,” and finally “the leaders.” Adler downplays white fears of black violence: the only marcher advocating violent revolution is “a white college graduate, unemployed, wearing a baseball cap,” a fashionable Marxist whose propaganda is met with derision by black marchers (“I don’t know what to say to you”).
Adler is similarly dismissive of white middle-class revolutionaries when she covers the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago (“Radicalism in Debacle”). “The conference presented, from the first,” she declares, “a travesty of radical politics at work.” While the nation is gripped by “the problems of war, racism, and poverty,” the self-absorbed delegates of conference radicalism are portrayed as the least likely remedy for the nation’s ills. Part of the problem is, once again, the “persistent debasement of language”: the word “revolution,” for example, is used to express “every nuance of dissent.” As things grow darker and the decade slouches toward its heavy conclusion, Adler turns to a critical history of the National Guard in the wake of the Kent State massacre. Like many of the pieces in this first section, this essay (“But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load”) has powerful echoes for the present crisis in America. Adler repeats the findings of a damning report by the FBI: “the National Guardsmen at Kent State were not surrounded, had not run out of tear gas, had not been hit by rocks or subjected to sniper fire, and were not in any way injured when they killed four students and wounded thirteen others on May 4.”
One of the most affecting reports comes at the end of the first section. “Letter from Biafra,” a gem at the heart of this book, is a devastating story of idealistic promise and backs-to-the-wall hopelessness. The article was published in October 1969, just months before the Nigerian army crushed the secessionist movement that for three years had kept the fledgling and largely unrecognized Republic of Biafra alive. The conflict resulted in a death toll of between one and three million from war and starvation between 1967 and 1970, higher even than the war in Vietnam that overshadowed Biafra in the Western media. The forces behind the war sound eerily familiar: a war for oil, with the interests of Shell-BP defended through British arms shipments to Nigeria; the promise of a 48-hour “surgical action” that turns into years of chaos and bloodshed. While she acknowledges the complexity of issues leading to the conflict, Adler is clearly moved by her experiences with those engaged in the struggle. Many of the people she encounters on the Biafran side are intellectuals trained at British and North American universities who returned to fight for their homeland; as Adler notes, Biafra (Eastern Nigeria) was one of the most densely populated, highly developed, and highly educated regions in Africa.
In one surreal moment a young surgeon, apparently mystified by the world’s indifference at his country’s suffering, tells Adler: “We have always done well on exams.” Many of the conversations recorded in the essay are unsettlingly calm, as literary topics interweave with death and famine and life under siege. Adler describes a mood of “crazed, articulate, sometimes even irritable courtesy, in the face of an absolute desolation closing in.” One of her interlocutors is Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958), who later wrote about his country’s brief history in There Was a Country (2012). (Kurt Vonnegut also speaks to Achebe in his own heartbroken account, “Biafra: A People Betrayed”.) Near the end we catch a rare glimpse of Adler appearing in her own story. Alone in the dark, her invincibility slipping for a moment, she admits: “I was scared, not of violence … but of not being able to get out.” (This was not an irrational fear: Nigeria had shot down Red Cross and other aid planes.) But she did make it out, and like Vonnegut and a few others reported what she saw there. If there is a silver lining to the atrocity it might be found in the words of General Ojukwu, who says of returned intellectuals like himself that whereas they used to look down “on those who stayed at home,” they now felt pride in the attempt—even the failed attempt—to establish “the first viable black republic, able to compete on an equal basis with white nations of the world.” But the very threat it represented to the status quo only hastened its demise. The colonial lines of the tragedy are clearly drawn by another interviewee, who tells Adler: “The West brought us good tidings, but it wouldn’t let us expand on them. Now we are suffering this strange mercy killing at the hands of the British.”
Earlier in 1969, under less dramatic circumstances, Adler visited Cuba. Her “Three Cuban Cultural Reports (With Films Somewhere in Them)” were published on the very last day (February 11) of her yearlong stint as chief film critic at The New York Times. The position, which the still twentysomething Adler was offered despite having neither written nor read much film criticism, was to replace old guard critic Bosley Crowther, who was finally pushed out after he mounted an unfashionably fogeyish attack on Bonnie and Clyde. From the start the job was an uncomfortable fit: Adler was used to reporting on events in “Selma, Harlem, Mississippi”; she “detested” the New Journalism with its emphasis on “the personal,” which she saw as “a new variant of … yellow journalism.” So the task of giving her personal opinion on films she cared little about—“Hollywood produced scarcely any movies of any value” in 1968—was awkward at best, at worst liable to provoke an existential crisis. In contrast to long-form journalism, writing under the constant threat of deadlines felt to Alder like “catching your sleeve in a machine.” So she took the scandalous decision to return to The New Yorker, opening a rift with The Times that has never quite closed.
Film criticism—already well covered in A Year in the Dark (1970)—comes up only once more in this collection, but it is the book’s bravura performance. You have likely heard of “House Critic” (originally “The Perils of Pauline”), Adler’s infamous scalpel job on New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. It has the reputation of being a journalistic bloodbath—is it really so bad? And why does Adler have the knives out for Kael? First of all, yes, it is so bad, thrillingly bad: a watch-through-your-fingers gore fest, a thorough dismemberment of America’s then most famous film critic. The review is fascinating to witness for two reasons: Adler starts from a position of shock and disbelief—she claims that her revelation, that Kael is not in fact a great critic but the worst kind of hack, comes upon her suddenly when she tries to swallow Kael’s latest collection (When the Lights Go Down) whole. This rhetorical approach makes the description of her epiphany very convincing, as we follow her through the carefully arranged evidence. And then there is the fact that while Kael is exactly the kind of critic to write a bloody hatchet job—just as she wrote effusively about slasher films—Adler is not. She turns the hatchet on Kael, to great effect: in Adler’s hands the hatchet becomes a scalpel, and Kael’s language is dissected word by word (here Adler’s training under a master of close reading like I. A. Richards, as well as her legal training, becomes apparent). The book “is, to my surprise,” she insists, as surprised as we are, “without Kael-like exaggeration … worthless.”
As for why Adler has the knives out, Kael seems to represent all that is wrong with writers and readers in America, and ultimately what has gone wrong with America itself. Kael’s writing style, her “affectation of straightforwardness,” relies on a vulgar and limited vocabulary and employs every kind of “hyperbole, superlative, exaggeration.” The readership the book posits is not much better, being “composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews.” Worst of all, Kael—who became a film critic at The New Yorker the very same year Adler took a leave of absence to do the same job at The Times, in 1968—“has ceased to care” about films. The critic, like the one time revolutionary hero, has become a despot with a sadistic lust for power. The whole situation is, Adler tells us with a degree of understatement following her lacerating remarks, “an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic.” As for America, the example of Kael cautions us to be on our guard against the little dictator, the institution run wild, and the exchange of substantial language for the high fructose corn syrup of sensationalism.
The third section of the book includes much of the legal and political reporting for which Adler, who completed her J.D. at Yale in 1979, is so uniquely qualified. Many of Adler’s hardcore fans will no doubt consider this section the highlight; I must admit I found it an uphill climb. There were bright moments: revisiting the Starr report from 1998 was certainly more fun than it sounds, with Adler providing a deft analysis of the “utterly preposterous” six-volume report on presidential blow jobs. Other moments in this section, however, made me want to swipe. I could only muster faint enthusiasm, for example, at the prospect of a lengthy analysis of the scandal surrounding failed Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Nevertheless Adler, more than any other reporter, manages to make this material seem urgent and compelling: the fundamental theme here, she makes clear, as elsewhere in the book, is the “self-perpetuation,” the “determination to eradicate dissent” and the “commitment to a notion of infallibility” that so often marks institutional behaviour, whether it is the Office of the President, the chambers of the Supreme Court, or the film desk at The New Yorker. At the end of the book Adler finally begins to appear embattled, surrounded by powerful enemies. She has pissed off most of her peers and former colleagues at The Times, The New Yorker (which she rather prematurely declared “dead” in her book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), and elsewhere. But does she care? Not much, it seems.
In “A Court of No Appeal” (2000), Adler depicts her war with, and “institutional carpet bombing by,” The Times. “The issue,” Adler writes, “is not one book [her own] or even eight pieces [attacking her in The Gray Lady]. It is the state of the entire cultural mineshaft, with the archcensor, still in some ways the world’s greatest newspaper, advocating the most explosive gases and the cutting off of air.” At the time, the collapse of the old media establishment seemed imminent. As it happens, the present decade has seen these venerable institutions, to varying degrees, adapt and regain some of their lost power. The Atlantic looks stronger than ever; The New Yorker is still on the town, a ubiquitous presence; The Times seems to be doing all right. Yet the predicted cultural shift, of which Adler’s mineshaft canaries sang (or rather failed to sing, and fell silent), has taken place: American intellectuals today are as likely to turn to their Twitter feeds or swipe through The Guardian or listen to a Slate podcast or even leaf (yes, leaf!) through a copy of n+1 or any number of little magazines to get the latest word on the latest thing. So where does that leave us? Selma just passed its 50th anniversary, and the ever-vital Adler is now an astonishing 76. Michael Wolff, whose introduction to this volume tends toward provocative overstatement more than Adler ever has (with statements like “journalism is not a writer’s game anymore”), nevertheless argues convincingly that Adler more than anyone else “has violated the clubbiness of the literary and journalistic world.” Despite the fact that present-day writers may be unable, in practical terms, to achieve such a long and distinguished yet singularly outspoken career, her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations.
— Julian Hanna
Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.