In the spirit of our Undersung series on the great-but-somewhat-unnoticed poets, Denise Low, former poet laureate of Kansas, pens here a passionate, erudite essay on the late Kansas poet Ronald Johnson, as she says, a second-generation Black Mountain poet, who invented a brilliant “cascade” structure for his poems. I love this essay for its close reading of the text, its technical expertise and for its consciousness of tradition and influence. It seems to me that unless you have read for years and studied hard the territory of poetry can seem dauntingly homogeneous. But an essay like this sets out a part of the map. It’s also a part of the map with which I feel an affinity, the San Francisco poets (I practically memorized Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiographical Novel at one point) and the Black Mountain poets (reading Charles Olson taught me about place and the economy of the parenthetical). I even brushed up against this world (which still seems distant) personally having once had the opportunity to interview the poet Robin Blaser. In any case, what I mean to say is read the essay! Think about the traditions, the landscapes and the form.
In the mid-1990s I saw poet Kenneth Irby at the Lawrence public library, a brief encounter over book shelves, and he mentioned the Kansas poet Ronald Johnson had moved to Topeka. This was the first I heard of Johnson, who had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area. This lumberyard worker’s son, born in 1935, is one of the most influential second-generation Black Mountain poets. Indeed, he and Irby (born in 1936) both were influenced by Charles Olson’s geography-informed poetics; Robert Duncan’s experience of occultism; and the synergy of the Bay Area during the 1960s-70s.
Johnson wrote one of the first and most influential erasure poems, RADI OS, in 1977 (Sand Dollar Press). For this project, Johnson found copies of Paradise Lost in used bookstores and erased words on each page to create his own text. He experimented with concrete poetry, and he wrote the epic ARK (Northpoint Press, 1980, and Dutton, 1984) in the tradition of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky.
His influence is considerable, and as his work becomes more widely available, it will grow. Peter O’Leary, his literary executor, has edited new editions of Shrubberies (2001), RADI OS (2005), and most recently ARK (2013). All of these are from Flood Editions. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas houses the Ronald Johnson archives, where first editions and journals are available.
Johnson’s last work, The Shrubberies, has apparently modest dimensions, short poems of two to fourteen lines. Nonetheless, the collection innovates a poetic form influenced by botany and optics.
This last work, written from 1994 to 1998, is Johnson’s “own elegy,” his final project, written with full awareness of his own mortality (Naylor 507). He had returned in 1993 to care for his father, but within months he collapsed with symptoms of his own final illness (O’Leary 128). He worked part-time as a groundskeeper and handy man at a public garden in Topeka, and so plants were in his daily sight. The Shrubberies grew to “perhaps 300 poems” (O’Leary 128). The resulting posthumous book, “pruned” by his friend and editor O’Leary, is 125 poems, arranged chronologically for the most part (128). I am most interested in the optics, especially mirrored binary structures, in the poems. Binary couplings appear throughout the work, including life / death, natural / cultural, light / dark—“oscillation between light and dark” (Naylor 513)—and belief / disbelief—“stanzas of belief / strewn with disbelief” (Shrubberies 55).
Johnson does not declare his overall arrangement for the book-length collection of poems in explicit terms, and Naylor see the book as “a long, unfinished series” (507). O’Leary selected a poem from the middle of the manuscript for the opening poem, following Johnson’s own direction: “I have not altered the order of the poems in the manuscript, with the exception of the first poem, which is to be found in the middle of the manuscript. Although it was not the first poem composed, Johnson marked it with the marginal notation: ‘beginning’” (130). The rest is a chronological sequence, with some references to seasons and garden tours, so some temporal and spatial ordering do occur (O’Leary 128). However, because Johnson gardened, I believe he set a master plan, probably in his mind as gardeners plot out their beds before sketching them on graph paper. Johnson structured all his major works deliberately, like the concrete poem projects or the RADI OS erasure based on Paradise Lost. His open-ended plan for Shrubberies is a deliberate if not closed system. He understood the organic composition of a garden and its imperfect symmetries.
The poem Johnson chose to open the book creates a template for physical construction of the rest of the book’s poems, at micro- and macro-levels. Here is the first The Shrubberies poem in its entirety:
mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye of things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle (1)
The most important trope is “mirror cascade.” This splicing of two similar but unlike things joins opposites—human-constructed “mirror” and the parallel term “cascade,” a natural water feature. This parallels how a mirror reflects a Plato’s cave dyad: flat cave wall reflection and its intangible and complex physical form.
The opening two lines set the pattern of balance between natural and imaginative qualities: “Circadian” references human measurement of daily cycles, in latinate vocabulary—Johnson used European tropes as the deep text within his writings. “Rhythm” is abstraction of time intervals, vague and unquantifiable. The quotation “and words to jointly knit” is from Richard Tottill’s description of Queen Elizabeth I’s acceptance speech for a gift, a purse of gold, presented in a public procession. This was just before her coronation, January 12, 1558-9. Tottill described the great woman’s rhetorical craft: “. . . if it moved an extraordinary shout [from the crowd] and rejoicing, it is not to be marvelled at, since both the heartiness thereof was wonderful, and the words so jointly knit.” Johnson “jointly knits” his own procession through a rhetorical garden of delights.
Nature and culture interweave in the work and in this poem, with language as the medium. Johnson’s choice of “circumlocutions,” in the third line emphasizes speaking around meanings, as in riddles, and the concise poem-lets are indeed like word games. This set of poems is a “series,” writes the poet, not just isolate occurrences.
Next, the poet is the human “eye” or “I” or “aye” within “the eye of things”—and despite his dire health, Johnson, found affirmation, and indeed “delight,” through his inner- and outer-directed sight.
But most important are the last two lines. The “asphodel,” or white asphodel, is a plant associated with death in Greek mythology. Robert Glen Webb agrees that Johnson felt his mortality as he opened The Shrubberies with this flower symbol: “I’ve always felt the asphodel had the echo of the Greek Asphodel Meadows and thus his foreknowledge of death.” The spectacular spike-like asphodel has myriad small blooms, each with five sharp petals. Their translucent, white texture would reflect that hue intensely in direct Kansas summer solstice sunlight, with sap visible through the light-colored petals. The effect would be a clump of prisms, so indeed asphodel is a “mirror cascade.”
So the entire The Shrubberies cascades, one page after another. Poems are similar but not identical, like Kant’s mitten pairs. Johnson himself writes of his use of accretions and bricolage. He described Sam Rodia’s building Watts Towers, as “realm of mosaic” and used it as a model for his deliberately built ARK (311-2). But cascading tiles are linked even more closely to each other than mosaic pieces. They have intentional overlaps and reflections of parts. They create a more liquid effect, like waterfalls. To emphasize this fluidity, the poet uses no line capitals or end punctuation, so the individual verses read as a continuous sequence, all parts of the whole stream. Poems were interchangeable parts because of their shared structures. Johnson did not know the final make-up of the book, but any assembling order would create his “cascade” effect.
The poetics itself is mirror-based. The lines have a binary, reflective quality within themselves, and the sequence from one line to the next is a continuum. This entire opening poem has a doubled quality, a mirrored symmetry. At each level—from line to couplets to entire poem—the composition is like paper snowflake cutouts, made by folding paper in half to create repeated patterns. This initial poem has three beats to the line, asymmetrical, with perhaps the fold in the middle of the line.
Match-ups within lines are: “circadian” and “rhythms”; “’words’” and “’knit’”; “series” and “circumlocutions”; “eye” and “eye of things”; “mirror cascade” and “asphodel”; “delight” and spectacle.” The pairs repeat each other, and the lines, one after another, re-contextualize the ideas and sounds of the line before. Lines one, three, and five, use latinate terms—circadian, circumlocution, “cascade of asphodel.”Even-numbered lines two and four have one-syllable Anglo Saxon words like “words,” “knit,” “eye,” and “things.” The poem ends with a rhyming couplet, end-words being “asphodel” and “spectacle.” Latinate and Anglo Saxon words balance in the first four lines, and the ending couplet is its own sets of more cultivated Graeco-Roman-based words.
Another couplet illustrates this bisymmetry, not quite half-way through the collection: “a plummet depth / death plumed / heights prized / into Empyrean” (60). Here deep earth—the site of graves—couples with flames of the Greek heaven, where fire originates. “Plummet” is a fall, while plumes are agents of flight. Indeed, the next poem takes up the mirrored themes of human and natural, with the opening line “tigered orange & black / a gathering of Monarchs.” The themes of “spectacle” and royal procession overlap this as well.
And so the cascade moves forward, from one sight to the next, from one dance of verse to the next. The entire poem is overlapping, paired lines, stanzas and individual poems. Bradin Cormack describes the mirror-like quality of lines in a later The Shrubberies poem: “The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole” (521). Each poem is an individual reflecting tile, assembled into a spire of a larger aggregate. The model of the asphodel spiked blooms is both regular and irregular, an overlapping of natural and cultivated geometries. Kenneth Irby did visit with Johnson briefly, during the composing of The Shrubberies, and they had brief correspondence. From both Kansas-by-way-of-Black-Mountain poets I learn to look closely at each word, how each evokes etymological lineages, other imperfect and overlapping sequences.
Based on comments presented on the occasion of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library- Special Collections exhibit of Ronald Johnson manuscripts, 16 April 2013.
Cormack, Bradin. “A Syntax of Vision: The Last Poems of Ronald Johnson.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 517-528.
Johnson, Ronald. ARK. Chicago: Flood Editions, 20013.
—–. The Shrubberies. Edited by Peter O’Leary. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.
Naylor, Paul. “After ARK.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 505-516.
O’Leary, Peter. “Afterword.” The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001: 127-31.
Tottill, Richard. “The Passage of our most drad Sovereigne Ladye Queene Elyzabeth through the Citie of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, Anno 1558. Imprinted at London in Flete Streete, within Temple-Barre, at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, by Richard Tottill, the WWIIII day of January, quoted in John Gough Nichols’s compilations of accounts of royal processions – 1837 – City of London (England) p. 57
Webb, Robert Glenn. Personal correspondence. 1 April 2013.
Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and www.deniselow.com.
Over at Tin House, Andrew Ervin speaks with Kyle Minor about Minor’s new story collection, Praying Drunk. This was one of the best books I read last year (though, technically, I think it’s coming out right about now), full of intense visuals and subtle links from story to story. It’s fantastic to read the process that went into the book’s construction.
AE: The stories are set in Florida and Haiti and Kentucky and the halfway point between heaven and hades. Can you tell me a little bit about place and how it informs your characters?
KM: Maybe we live in a time in which “place” is a harder thing to define in a literary way, because the world has become so mobile and interconnected, and because at the same time so much of so many of our lives will be spent in sub-spaces, sub-places, which have their own rules, and those of us who are mobile among sub-spaces alter our behavior as we move among them, if nothing else so that we can be understood and function and avoid being kept from what we want or need, and those of us who stay put in a single sub-space are often confused by the social milieu inside the house next door or the building down the street.
When my first book, In the Devil’s Territory, was published, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Palm Beach Post, and I knew from the tone of his questions that the Palm Beach County I was writing about was very different from the Palm Beach County of his imagination, even though it was the place where he lived and worked and also the place where I had spent my entire childhood. I could tell he was thinking about the Palm Beach of power, Boca Raton and Jupiter Island, Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and the Kennedy compound, the wintering people from New York and old money Europe, the movie stars and the Porsches and the surfers at Carlin Park. I had written about the Southern Baptists across from the dog track who believed in the rapture, the creationist people who had built the Christian school in order to keep their children from going to school with black children in the era of forced integration, the elderly people who lived in the trailer parks thirty miles west of the Intracoastal Waterway, who had been brought to town in their youth to dig wells and ditches and canals for the mansions and the golf courses on the other side of the water. White people whose parents and grandparents talked with Southern accents, and whose children sorted themselves along the class divide by choosing whether or not to continue to talk with Southern accents, and who negotiated varying degrees of uneasy distance from or increasing closeness to neighbors newly arrived from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, or Guatemala.
I think that almost everywhere, “place” is a function of the conditions of a person’s birth, family connections, religious or social immersions, access or lack of access to opportunities, and most of all the attitudes about the world that attend to those who have influence or power over a person. Place is an abstraction of overlapping individual experiences and imaginations, ever-changing.
— Benjamin Woodard
“A home filled with nothing but yourself. It’s heavy, that lightness.
It’s crushing, that emptiness.”
Margaret Atwood, The Tent
Is this what it means to be an artist? To be a committed, practicing artist over decades? Perhaps. If so, this world, this version of “home” is utterly familiar to Bruno LaVerdiere. His subject matter over these many decades has been nothing other than the simple shape of the home, the house, devoid of detail. Completely Zen in its presentation, could it be seen as a representation of the life of an artist himself – that heavy, that light, that crushing, that empty? For him, “It’s a spiritual thing.”
When you listen to Bruno, he describes the creative life with delight, from his childhood into his seventies, as something rich and full of magical experiences. And you get the idea that he would describe any path he had chosen in this way, so full of verve is he. Seen through the eyes of this peaceful, joyful man, the world and art seem both simple and complex. At times he is effusive with excitement about the creative life. At times, it is something beyond words. And in his “quiet moments,” he gives us a gentle wisdom through his persistent work.
- Mary Kathryn Jablonski
I remember I was about seven or eight years old. It was in Maine. My father had given me a jackknife and he encouraged me to carve and whittle, you know. What do kids do with a jackknife? It was during the Second World War and my father was an airplane mechanic, so I was pretty much into airplanes and I had a small piece of wood. I think it was a piece of lath. And I carved an airplane wing. And I remembered the shape of the wing, but then I also knew that the wing had a dip in it, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t carve that piece of wood in the shape of a wing with a dip in it. It was the most exciting thing I had done! And all of a sudden I felt I could do just about anything with that jackknife. This was sort of a beginning. And I felt this sense of – oh – what do you call it? I was kind of “in charge of it.” It gave me courage to continue with it. Confidence! It gave me a lot of confidence. It was the Beginning.
It was the beginning of having control over a craft – of being able to do something, and do something well. And so that feeling has continued with me several times, piece after piece, where there was a kind of breakthrough with the craft. And it didn’t have anything to do with “art.” It was control over a medium: to be able to make it do what you wanted it to do. And I remember being excited, very excited, about half way through a project, standing back and looking at it, starting to absolutely hyperventilate at the craft of it, not at the art of it.
Years later I remember going to the MOMA, looking closely, very closely, at a Matisse painting, studying, say, a one square foot area, and looking at his brush strokes, and having that same feeling, which he must have had when he looked at them or while laying down that paint, just right. But it had nothing to do with the art. The entire painting was… it was a process, a technique. Art is so much beyond that. You know, this emotional moment of feeling good about a craft is not at all the same thing you find in “art.” Art is a lot harder to do – to come by. I had a guru once who told me, “If there is a harder way to do it, it must be wonderful; tell me about it.” That is the beginning of art. But you can’t really tell anybody about it. It has to come from inside you someplace.
And I guess you can’t get away from the physicality of art-making. Whether you’re writing a book, a poem, choreographing a dance, creating music, drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil, painting. The physicality of it all; you can’t get away from it. But that’s not art. The art is almost a by-product of the physicality. And that’s not to demean it, not at all. It can’t exist without the physicality, but it’s an untouchable thing. It’s not a physical thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It comes from the heart, not from the hand, or from the mind. It’s a spiritual thing. Was there ever that moment, that honest moment where something just flowed that easily? You can’t talk about the spiritual because you destroy what you’re talking about.
The intellectual is when we try to pretend we’re doing something terribly intelligent. My efforts in this regard have been to try to create simple things that don’t take any intelligence to observe and give the chance for the person observing to have a spiritual moment… that is not hindered in anything else. That’s what simple things do. So, in a sense, you might say I learned things from the Pop Culture. Where you present people with something they might recognize immediately, like a Campbell’s soup can. They don’t have to think about it; where it came from. You bypass that, and that doesn’t enter into it, the spiritual moment. Although I don’t think Andy Warhol had that in mind, it opened the door. With my work, I do create quiet moments for myself or for the viewer.
I moved to the Adirondacks from New York City in about 1970 and left, I suppose, all the near influences of the galleries and other artists behind and became somewhat of a loner. The work took an enormous dive into a pothole that took me awhile to, uh, get past. But, I climbed out of it somehow. And a couple of years later I found a new source of inspiration. I remembered the old Adirondack graveyards. Before the bicentennial they cleaned them all up. The tress growing up in between the stones and the sort of mixture of natural chaotic nature and the order of man-made stones mixed together in great harmony was a huge influence on my work.
My sources have been historic, such as temples, shrines, the graveyards (of course for awhile) in places like the U.K. and Spain… What stayed with me the most was the house form, the home; the universal shape. All over the world people recognize it immediately. It’s just a little pointy structure, which was meant for many purposes in history I suppose: homes, barns, storage places, temples, churches, etc. Those became my work. And I simplified it down to just a little shape, a kind of “Monopoly” house, if you want to put it that way. And I’ve been working with it for ten years now. And I can’t let go of it.
Before that I was skipping around with not much of a specific idea; just creating things without having any kind of foundation to them. And because of that I had a really hard time getting into the market. Galleries just found it was too scattered. Now, because in my sixties and seventies I’m not looking for an art market anymore, just creating, I have this, this focus that I didn’t have back then, and I feel good about it. It’s hard to work with. It’s harder to work with than a continued change of menu.
Occasionally I’ll drift off from this particular source. A few years ago, I spent four years just drawing cats. And it was a great kind of release, but when I ran out of the pleasure of doing that, I fell back onto my “house” again. And let’s just say I feel like I came home! It’s always been a place that I’ve been able to come back to and feel like I’m on the right track.
Recently, in my later years, I have really slowed down a great deal, and I don’t venture into a new project very easily anymore. I’m not as prolific as I used to be. But I feel like I’m not making the huge mistakes I used to make. Not that I’m playing it safe; that is not at all what I mean, but I guess you reach a certain maturity in your work after 50, 60 years of working and you do find a certain comfort zone. Which doesn’t make it any easier, by the way. The work actually gets harder. I’m still working with clay. That was my main material throughout all of my years in the arts. Using it as a sculpture medium, more than a pottery medium, or a craft medium, I don’t think of it as a craft source anymore, although clay is associated with craft quite heavily. There are a lot of great artists who have used clay to create their statements both in pottery as well as in sculpture.
I’ve been working with color for the past four years with these houses, and the color has opened up a whole new world of art for me: the science of color. By using it as a means of portraying my house shapes, my little quiet spots: a cold area here and a hot area there, you know, the colors may introduce a kind of emotional thing, which color can do. I remember once going to the Guggenheim and almost crying because of color. The Guggenheim had a collection up with a Gauguin landscapes and I stood there and almost cried, not at the landscape, it wasn’t the subject matter, but at the color. Extremely powerful source of inspiration. It was so wonderful, so imposing on my senses. Not very often can it be said does this happen, where tears would come to your eyes because you were looking at a painting.
—All photos by M. Cheri Bordelon, copyright Bruno LaVerdiere
Born in Fairfield, Maine in 1937, Bruno LaVerdiere was a monk with the Benedictine Order at St. Martin’s Abbey, Olympia, Washington, from 1955 to 1969. He studied art at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1967. His work is held in numerous private and public collections including the American Craft Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, and the J. Patrick Lannan Collection. He received Artist’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and 1990, and an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1987. He received a three-month residency grant from the La Napoule Art Foundation in southern France in 1991, and shared the job of resident director of that Foundation from 1994 to 1996. He is a working artist living in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
“The Plot” is a pun that pays off at the end of Trey Sager’s terrific new story “The Plot,” which is notable, yes, for its plotlessness. Instead of a plot, the author rather brilliantly substitutes a couple of backstories that keep weaving into the text and a set of motifs that he juggles like colored balls before the reader. There is even a sex scene; it’s in a dream. “The Plot” is thus an anti-story of sorts that depends on structure and the strength of the author’s wit and writing skills to capture the reader’s interest. And wit and writing skills Sager has in abundance as well as a poetic sensibility that makes the words into images on the page. I love the way the dead birds that collect outside the windows of the protagonist’s house turn into letters. And the way the poet is described as “an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language.” Also the lush word “passerine,” which means, yes, what it means but passes over the story like a dead hand. The poet is a passerine and the word sounds like melancholy itself. Trey Sager is the fiction editor at Fence; you can read a terrific interview with him on the subject of his novel Fires of Siberia.
At the end of his life, Ronald Reagan raked his lawn each day, and at night the Secret Service dumped the leaves back onto the grass. Guy wondered if whatever degrading plot the future had in store was already upon him and, like the Gipper, he was simply oblivious to it. But he was only fifty-three. Surely there was more time for him to disappear into his lawn. He sat in front of a half-eaten English muffin and a damask-patterned mug of coffee, both of which looked abandoned, as if part of a crime scene. A Sunday abduction. No, a murder, he speculated, picturing himself prone on the living room rug, his assailiant’s skin under his fingernails, his fish eyes open and staring at the carpet fibers and dust particles he could no longer see. He felt unhappy to be dead. Then he heard a knock at the door.
He thought it might be the mailman. Everyone else would be at church or at home, playing with their round, overemphasized children. He was friends with the mailman. They’d met at the grocery store shortly after Guy moved to town, standing in line with a young girl singing “escargot, my car go.” The mailman lifted his eyebrow as an invitation to deride her, but Guy opted for a joke about snails. Occasionally Guy brought Dickel whiskey to the tracks and the two of them passed the sweetened gasoline back and forth, taking tolls on their mutual emptiness. The more the mailman drank, the more he acted like a thirteen-year-old girl.
It could’ve been a bird at the door, Guy speculated. They were often slamming into the back bay window, beckoned by the reflection of the pines and, for someone who isn’t fully paying attention, the sound of a fist clapping against a wooden door resembles a bird thunking against a house. Guy hated the birds more than he felt sorry for them. He was a poet, and spent his time laboring over which words to pair, an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language. But the birds were ever oncoming. One was always on the verge of cracking its sunflower seed–colored beak and feathered skull on the glass. At a party a woman asked him what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield. Its asshole, she laughed. The birds (he looked them up) were passerines.
Of course Susan came to mind, as she often did, but it would not be her either. He’d last seen her a month ago when she came to collect her toothbrush, a package of aromatherapy candles from Target, a few Sade CDs, and an unwashed yellow summer dress. She’d called out of the blue. “I want my things,” she said. Guy lamented the idea, that words came from the blue. The sky. He worked hard to find his. Susan was happy to retrieve her belongings, though she did not expect the toothbrush. She took it in her hand the way a policeman handles a piece of evidence.
Once, Guy dreamed that he and Susan were at a bus station in Los Angeles, and she wanted a package of Razzles. Somehow she slipped inside the vending machine. “I want you to buy me,” she flirted through the glass. Guy checked his wallet but it was empty, and Susan slinked to the bottom of the machine, pretending that she’d been purchased, hiding behind the flap. “Come on, buy me,” she repeated. “Guy, buy me.” A woman whistled behind him. Guy turned around. She was wearing a chinchilla coat and cheap pink scuffs, and although she was not very attractive and wore too much makeup, Guy reached under her skirt and his middle finger whished inside her. She slipped a dollar bill into his other hand and pushed him away. Guy hurried to insert the dollar into the machine, but when he turned back the woman in the chinchilla coat was gone.
“You want to hear a joke?”
“A guy breaks up with his longtime girlfriend and moves across town. He’s carrying a chair to the front door when he notices a snail on the welcome mat. He brings the chair inside and on his way out, he picks up the snail and chucks it onto the lawn. He finishes moving everything inside and settles in nicely. A year passes. One Sunday afternoon, the man is at home. He hears a knock at the door, so he puts down his bag of potato chips and gets up and opens the door. To his surprise, there’s no one there. But then a voice says, ‘Hey, what’d you do that for?’ He looks down at the ground and sees the snail staring at him from the edge of the welcome mat.”
More than once Guy fantasized about standing outside the back bay window, knocking the birds down with a rake. But he hated that the birds died so it didn’t make sense. Anger offered only a sideways path. Early on he wanted the dead birds to transform somehow into the letters or even the words of a new poem, as his karmic reward for enduring their deaths. He tried to write about that idea in a poem, but it turned into a drawing of a deer wearing an army helmet. Eventually Guy decided the birds were killing themselves on purpose. They knew the glass was glass and, like so much on Earth, their lives had nothing to do with him.
He once considered tossing the dead ones into his neighbor’s pool. What else could he do other than imagine them. It was difficult to watch them convulse on the mulch as their broken necks communicated death. Susan said his poems were like cut flowers in a vase, and that she wanted to have sex with the flowers. But you can’t have sex with flowers, she complained, because they’re too delicate. What about a bird of paradise, he asked. After she left him, the mailman brought over whiskey and the two drank in silence, looking at the constellations from his back lawn. Guy convinced the mailman to drive drunk to the supermarket. They bought a giant can of red Kool-Aid powder and, after a few more whiskeys, they dumped the Kool-Aid into the neighbor’s pool so that in the morning it’d look like blood.
What had gone wrong with Susan was the same thing that always went wrong. She loved his books, loved the idea of them, of being with a poet, she thought he was special, and he was special, but special in the way a salamander’s asshole is special. He had interesting secret thoughts, he once imagined straightening her pubic hair with a flat iron, but he could not share those thoughts with her, or in his poems, and she grew bored with her safety. It seemed that a salamander needs its asshole to be interesting.
His poems were full of fruit on crooked tables, a spray of young forsythia, the weary baker walking home to a family saga. He’d made a living off his work, won the Walt Whitman prize and published every year in the New Yorker. Like a telescope he revealed the world in constellations, but Guy did not love the stars. He was the kind of telescope that wanted to spy on his neighbors having sex. Not his new neighbors, of course—the ones he’d abandoned in Los Angeles, they were attractive. But he’d sickened of their enthusiasm, so many charlatans declaring themselves poets, like chocolate chip cookie bakers telling Julia Childs they cook.
If everything is possible, can something be impossible? Guy had discovered the question as a child and felt proud for coming up with it. Some kids got good at baseball, while Guy relished articulation. He hated sports. He thought them uncomplicated symbols of sexual processes, golf the crudest of all. “Get in the hole,” the crowd shouted, like an audience cheering on sperm. You could practically see the flagella in the tracer paths of Titleists. Each competition whittled down the field to a single winner. Unless there was a tie, which they say is like kissing your sister. Always a ball trying to penetrate a goal, usually a circle or a net. Once on television he came across a basketball player dancing at center court after a game, and the man bellowed toward the rafters, tears mixing with sweat on his face. “Nothing is impossible!” he screamed.
Barefoot and in chinos, no shirt, corrugated hair on his lower arms and across his chest, much more than what was on his head, Guy found himself outside. He continued down the street, passing the homes of people he knew the last names of: the Riggs, the Lyons, the Lims, the Carters, the Hardens and the Agbayanos. Their houses were stanzas in a sestina called “Eggshell.” The Carters were right next door, the ones with the aboveground pool. Their son practiced free throws well into the night and everyone knew it would amount to nothing. A few homes down Mrs. Harden had a flower garden, and there she was, crouched on all fours, transferring mums from clay pots into the rich soil. Guy wondered if it had been her at the door. Mrs. Harden sensed someone and turned. She put down her spade, then clapped her garden gloves together and said his name.
“Do birds ever kill themselves on your windows?” he asked her.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Are you well?” she asked.
“No, lately I’m not myself,” he confessed.
“Maybe my mums will inspire you,” Mrs. Harden smiled.
Quietly he watched her scoop the dirt and deposit a bright yellow mum into the earth. He remembered an art installation he’d once seen in Los Angeles. There was a giant representation of a forest, about forty square feet, inside a gallery. When he walked into the room, he heard something squeaking, a machine with an A-B-A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. Soon he discovered the source of the sound was a man made out of plastic having sex with a tree. The man wore a suit, with his trousers at his ankles, and his face was solemn yet ambivalent. Guy thought it was a lurid variation on the myth of Apollo and Daphne, but after watching Mrs. Harden in her garden, he was no longer sure.
“Maybe,” he replied.
“What do you think of my hair?” she asked Guy, her eyes stuttering upon his chest.
A flock of Canada geese passed overhead, honking and honking, a southward bound V.
“I should probably go,” he said.
“Nice to see you.”
Shortly after collecting her toothbrush, Susan had sent a letter in the mail. The stationery smelled like jojoba. Sometimes he took the note from the drawer and breathed it in. All she’d written on the perfumed page was “Thank you.” Guy drove through her neighborhood once or twice. He wanted to write a poem with her looking out the window, forlorn, unemployed, smoking again, terrified. A mirror, in other words. But Susan was never home.
The mailman had announced early on that he did not like poetry. He didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. At the town lake, they sometimes fished from a rust-trimmed canoe. What a way to pass the time, the mailman said. One afternoon his friend pulled up a small porgy, nothing worth keeping, and he flashed Guy a wolfish grin. He swung the rod in the air, whipping the fish back and forth, then slammed the porgy onto the side of the canoe. Don’t do that, Guy pleaded. The fish bled through its silver scales while suffocating outside the water. Guy had childhood friends who’d strapped fireworks to toads and poured gasoline down the holes of anthills. He wanted to tuck a large metal hook into the mailman’s mouth and swing him into the sun where he would be annihilated in flames. The mailman ripped the fish off the hook and tossed it into the water, where it lilted down, a feather in the breeze.
On his front lawn, three passerines pecked at the grass. Guy went to the front door and rang the bell. No one had been outside. No one would be inside. He waited, regarding the birds with a mild suspicion. They kept their heads down, snapping at insects and hidden grubs. Soon Guy wandered to the back, where he stumbled across a rake and a shovel leaned against the house. He’d once read that John Hinckley was allowed to visit his mother from time to time, and that he roamed the grounds of the mental hospital feeding stray cats. That Ronald Reagan was something else, the pundits often said, but no one knew what. Guy grabbed the shovel and went to the center of the lawn, where he slid the blade into the ground. The earth was surprisingly soft. If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?
Guy worked for hours. The passerines watched him as if he were a different kind of glass. They disappeared at sunset. Crickets replaced the birds, along with a half-hearted moon, which, as the night wore on, faded behind a thick prison of clouds. All the while Guy shoveled dirt from the hole. He dug through the night, and only stopped when the light returned, a mystical pre-dawn that illuminated brush strokes of pine trees and houses and aboveground pools, all cast upon the window that was really the Earth.
The hole, a six-foot pocket, was narrow but deep enough to stand in. Guy slid into it, leaving his arms at his sides, his eyes level with the edge, a gun in its holster. He tiptoed in a small circle, taking in his surroundings, the world of living pine trees and all the rotting houses mocking him with their false precedents. Soon one would become the other. The rising sun would flash across the back bay window, summoning the passerines. They would fly, they would flee one world for another, and each desperate bird would break its neck on the glass. Each would become a word in Guy’s poem, the same word. New life born from death, as if that were possible.
Trey Sager is the author of Fires of Siberia, a romance novel loosely inspired by Tea Party champion Michele Bachmann, published by Badlands Unlimited. He’s also written two chapbooks with Ugly Duckling Presse (O New York and Dear Failures), and is a fiction editor at Fence magazine.
Louise Bak interviews DG this week (February 11) on Sex City, the CIUT-FM radio show that airs Tuesday nights at 11pm (after decent people are in bed) in Toronto. Why he consented to this we have no idea since there is nil sex in his story collection Savage Love, aside from one or two brief, evanescent, glancing, fastidious moments of uncontrollable passion (well, maybe three or four; okay, well, again, no more than 18 — we lost count). If you miss the show, you can listen to it after the fact on the web at the Sex City blog or on their Facebook page. Young people may find it highly instructive. Very young people should be kept away. Lock up small pets and aged parents.
Diane Lefer’s essay about Northern Ireland now, in the after-glow of the Troubles that began nearly half-a-century ago, is a cunning amalgam of observation, intervention and charming self-deprecation. It reads conventionally enough till you get to the seventh paragraph where she writes: “Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite.” At which point you suddenly realize that you’re in the hands of a world-traveler, an activist and a person who knows herself and her perspective. By telling the reader not to trust her, she manages to make the reader trust her (and like her) even more. Oh, such a tricky thing the language is.
Diane Lefer is an old friend, a Numéro Cinq stalwart (a member of what I call the unofficial masthead). She has written a series of essays for NC on subjects varying from abandoned nuclear sites in Los Angeles, to half-way houses for convicts to folk festivals in Colombia. And now she’s been to Northern Ireland. See also Diane’s essay about the Ballymurphy massacre families, “Hunger for Justice,” in the current issue of New Madrid, their special issue on The Great Hunger.
If you fly to Dublin on Aer Lingus, you’ll see that Belfast, Northern Ireland—my destination—is listed as a city in Ireland, not in the UK. Taking the bus north, I must have blinked and missed the border altogether. There’s no checkpoint, no control. Quite a change from The Troubles that erupted in the North in the late 1960′s: 30 years of bombings and shootings. Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholics, IRA splinter group volunteers killed Protestants and killed police of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and killed British soldiers who did their own share of torture and killing. Ordinary people were caught in the crossfire.
These days, the first time you realize you’re in another country is when you need pounds sterling instead of euros (though if you change your dollars at a branch of the Bank of Ireland, you’ll get perfectly legal pound sterling notes that don’t bear the image of the Queen.)
I went to Northern Ireland in October 2013 to join my frequent collaborator, Hector Aristizábal, and his nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, dedicated to the idea that accessing our imaginations and envisioning alternatives can lead to transformative social change.
Hector grew up in Medellín, Colombia, when it was the most dangerous city in the world. “Theater saved my life,” he says. While his friends in the barrio were recruited by the guerrilla movement, right-wing death squads, or the drug cartels, Hector found his gifts and a wider world through art. After arrest and torture by the military—but also after extensive training and practice both as a theater artist and a psychologist–he ended up in exile in Los Angeles where we met.
Just as psychotherapy aims to heal individual trauma, Hector believes that theater—a form of ritual—can offer communal healing. “Without healing not much social justice is possible.”
The past few years, Hector has offered theater workshops in Belfast and Derry to support peace building by bringing Catholics and Protestants together in joint creative projects. This time I wanted to be there.
Before I say more, let me acknowledge that everything you hear from me may be a load of shite. How does someone enter someone else’s world and in three weeks have the nerve to think she knows it all? Especially when that someone only recently offered a benign picture of life in South LA, including the ice cream truck that made the rounds through the neighborhood. Two weeks after that piece appeared right here in NC, I attended a community meeting where people complained about the ice cream truck that makes the rounds to sell drugs and guns.
This same someone once tried to say Thank you in the Zapotec language to the people who’d welcomed her to their village. Everyone laughed. My bad pronunciation, they said, resulted in my saying Monkey’s bellybutton. It was only years later, visiting again, that a friend said they hadn’t known me well enough in those days to be honest. It wasn’t a bellybutton, it was a penis.
So now that you know I can’t be trusted, let me tell you about Northern Ireland.
I’m glad you’re reading this online. Too many trees have already died for the many hundreds of thousands of pages that tell how ever since the 12th century the Irish have tried to drive the English conqueror from their island. In modern times we eventually ended up where we are now: with the south as the Republic of Ireland and the six northern counties still part of the UK.
If you want a full history, please look it up. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief oversimplified account of what made the North different.
Irish chieftains in the North offered the most resistance to English rule and enlisted military assistance from Catholic Spain. To pacify the region–and we’re talking a long time ago, a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (or wherever they actually made land)–England created the Plantation of Ulster. Land was confiscated from the indigenous Irish Catholics; Protestants from Scotland and England were settled there, trusted to be loyal to the Crown. The first plan was to get rid of the Irish altogether, but someone was needed to work the farms. Catholics were consigned to inferior status not only socially but by law.
Flash forward to The Troubles.
At last the paramilitaries began to demobilize. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the governments of Britain and Ireland along with the main armed groups agreed on basic principles that guaranteed Catholics in the North equal access to education, housing, employment, and the vote, along with a share of political power. For people around the world, including me, the 1998 accords represented what was possible. Northern Ireland was the model: in spite of hundreds of years of hatred, distrust, and violence, two peoples could say enough, and live in peace.
In Belfast I join up with several other artist/activists who use theater arts to empower vulnerable communities. They are young and eager to learn from Hector and to experience work in a post-conflict society. Anna was born in Poland and raised in The Netherlands which is also home to Evanne who has worked in post-conflict Uganda. Tania was born in El Salvador, raised in Australia. Tamar is from New York but has lived most recently in Germany and Tunisia. Jeroen is an activist from Belgium who knows more about radical politics in the US than I do. The Europeans are all fluent in English though all of us struggle to understand the Northern Irish accent.
So this essay isn’t really about Northern Ireland. It’s about a group of people landing in someone else’s country imagining they have something to offer.
Hector thinks when you are working in your own city or country, you tend to believe you know all about the community. In fact–and I’m living proof–you may be quite ignorant. “People are the experts about their own lives,” he reminds us. In a foreign context, we are less likely to think we know best. Aware of our own ignorance, he says we’re more likely to remain humble and see the workshop participants in an authentic way. Ideally, this will carry over into our work when we return home.
We share a house, shopping, cleaning, and cooking–the latter turning out to be less of a challenge than expected considering our group includes a few omnivores, a couple of mostly-vegetarians, one dedicated vegetarian, and one raw foods vegan. The group dynamic affords Hector a chance to use the skills he developed over decades as a psychotherapist though, personally, I find nothing smooths over tension like the shared viewing of online cat videos.
For me the work starts right away when I meet with the Ballymurphy Massacre Families. Their loved ones were gunned down by British paratroopers in 1971, the killings justified with false claims that the dead were all IRA terrorist gunmen. Forty-two years later, the families are still seeking an official government apology. They want to see the names of their parents and brothers cleared.
There’s already been a documentary about the killings and a stage reenactment but additional ImaginAction artists, led by Alessia Cartoni from Spain, have been helping the families create something different: a play they will perform themselves focused on how they, as surviving family members, were affected. Their stories of trauma and grief should resonate on both sides of the sectarian divide. By evoking shared pain, maybe it’s possible to bolster the shared desire for peace.
Instantly I conclude this is the reality of Northern Ireland today, a place conversant with the language of human rights and the demand that there be no more culture of impunity. It’s not just the Ballymurphy families. Adults who were abused as children in Catholic orphanages and state institutions demonstrate in front of Stormont, the Parliament building, demanding an investigation. People are filing claims for compensation for their torture years ago by the British.
Soon after, though, I conclude that while people are more than willing to air grievances from the past, they won’t face up to problems in the present day.
Then, as the weeks go by, I meet people who don’t want to bring up past grievances at all. Pain is still there, but they want to put it all behind them. “Some people are just obsessed,” I hear. Or, “What do you expect from the lower class?”
People tell me it’s not the same for the younger generation. There’s a frenetic club scene, Protestants and Catholics seeking release, outrunning and out-dancing the past together, fueled by alcohol and ecstasy. But a municipal employee at work in a Protestant neighborhood lowers his voice when he says, “I’m from the other community.” And when I ask a mixed group of university students whether sectarian division is a thing of the past, I get a resounding No.
We have time off for sightseeing. Evanne catches me with her camera as I hike the Red Trail at Giant’s Causeway. Tourists wander over the flat stones that were laid down, according to legend, by Finn MacCool so he could cross the North Channel to Scotland without wetting his giant feet.
The next day we tour the two famous working class neighborhoods in Belfast: the Falls Road (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Belfast now has a tourist trade which seems to be based on being the birthplace of the Titanic–a ship that went down; Milltown cemetery where you can lay flowers on the grave of IRA hunger-strike martyr Bobby Sands; and the sectarian murals that serve as constant visual provocations.
Yes, there are also murals with messages about safe driving and climate change and nonviolent action but for the most part, they honor the martyrs and promise that resistance (on both sides) will continue. “Peace walls” keep Catholics and Protestants apart and allow foreign visitors to scrawl Kumbaya sentiments on whatever blank space can be found. At night, steel doors close off the road between The Shankill Road and The Falls.
So much for peace. Of course, as I–and everyone–should know by now, governments and leaders can make all the agreements they want, but real change has to start at the grassroots.
And I shouldn’t be surprised that Loyalist extremists reject any political settlement as a sellout and betrayal. They rioted in 2013 when Belfast City Hall began to fly the Union Jack only on state occasions instead of every day. The IRA still murders—”executes”—prison guards. “Just the screws that abuse us,” a prisoner tells me, but I also hear any guard can be killed if his home address becomes known. Splinter groups continue the armed struggle. Teens and adolescents still enjoy recreational rioting–throwing rocks and bricks over the walls at each other’s communities. Loyalists swear they’ll never surrender their allegiance to Britain. Nonviolent Republicans believe it’s only a matter of time till Ireland is united.
Even away from the working class neighborhoods where the conflict has long been centered, we see curbs painted red, white, and blue in the colors of the Union Jack, high rises where the Irish flag flies, portraits of the martyrs, plaques on buildings everywhere memorializing the dead.
I wonder if the backdrop has become so normalized that no one who lives here even notices the hostile defiance. But I don’t believe that. We return to our house and I feel weighed down with a heaviness I can’t shake.
All of us who’ve been involved in community work have been told at one time or another not to get emotionally involved, it’s a surefire path to burnout. But Hector says you have to bring your heart to the work The real cause of burnout, he says, is repressing emotion, being unwilling to acknowledge and face what we feel.
I feel fear. I’m not afraid to be in Belfast. The continued violence from extremists and the dispossessed terrifies me because of what it suggests about the US. Don’t these things ever end? I was never so naive as to imagine racism and bigotry were gone from America where we like to imagine that our history–genocide and slavery–no longer count. That can piss me off, but the virulence of the race hate evident since Obama’s election goes further. It shakes me to the core.
Obama disappoints me but sometimes I suspect he’s overcautious because he, too, is afraid. Not just for himself, though rightwing groups have indeed issued their fatwas, making him a legitimate target for assassination. Does he tread so carefully because of a well founded fear of armed insurrection? If you bother to look, you’ll find the threats out in the open, from the most extreme “patriot” websites to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.
I think I’ll shake off my depression once we get to work. I can’t wait to meet Protestant extremists–the more extreme, the better. I’ll allow myself to get involved. I’ll connect. I figure I can feel for them without having to agree with them. No Surrender, they say, but as far as I can see, they’ve already lost if their cause was to preserve the status quo. The police force is now integrated with Catholic officers and can no longer be a purely sectarian arm of repression. Catholics have a share in–at times dominate–the government. Loyalists must be scared wondering how they’d fare in a united Ireland.
I can see how the loss of privilege would feel–no matter how irrational the feeling–like violent dispossession. I see that at the same time that Catholics were gaining equal rights, Belfast companies and factories were closing and moving overseas. Working class neighborhoods where good manufacturing jobs were once reserved for Protestants now face massive long term unemployment. These days, to generalize, Catholics blame globalization and capitalism for job loss; Protestants blame the Catholics. And I tell myself if I can empathize with Loyalist extremists and treat them with respect, maybe I’ll do better at recognizing the humanity of angry white men back home.
But it turns out we won’t be working on sectarian reconciliation after all.
We’ve been asked to work with other groups: The Playhouse in Derry is connecting us to low-income youth (vulnerable to recruitment by the paramilitaries), and the LGBT community. The Prison Arts Foundation has invited us to offer workshops in correctional facilities.
Hector’s workshops draw on the techniques of Theater of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal, the late Brazilian theater artist and activist. In fact, Hector and I met more than a decade ago when people in Los Angeles interested in Boal’s methods got together to share techniques. For several years we brought the master himself to town to teach us about using theater arts with vulnerable communities.
Like most Boalians, Hector starts his workshops with games to provoke laughter and loosen inhibitions. Games create a sense of community and also demand focus and concentration. Where Hector is different from most facilitators is that he pushes the group to play at lightning speed. When you move fast enough, there’s no time to feel self-conscious. Everyone is bound to make mistakes and each mistake is celebrated. He wants to get participants past the fear of being wrong.
In Los Angeles, we’ve worked and played with torture survivors who needed the chance to experience their voices as something other than what got them in trouble, their bodies as something other than a site of pain. We’ve played with gang members who needed a chance to be children again (or for the first time). We’ve worked–not as much as we would have liked–with prisoners. In California, it’s very difficult to get permission to bring an arts program into correctional facilities. In Northern Ireland, this turns out to be relatively simple.
It’s not the only difference. I meet a man in maximum security whose baby was born while he was behind bars. He was given a 6-hour leave to go home and hold his son before being returned to custody. I can’t even imagine that happening in California. (At the same time I can’t forget that during the Troubles, torture of prisoners was standard procedure in Northern Ireland.) Inmates in California who want to take college courses have to come up with their own tuition money. In the UK, a free university education is available to at least some prisoners.
We, however, have been asked to work in Hydebank Wood Youth Prison with young men, ages 17-24, who’ve refused to participate in any educational or therapeutic programs. They are, however, intrigued by Hector who comes from the land of cocaine. So they show up, sort of. They squirm in their seats, get up and walk around, don’t make eye contact, talk among themselves, ask for smoking breaks and tea breaks (or take these breaks without asking), turn their heads aside and laugh heh heh heh from the sides of their mouths, and even when they do speak, most of us can’t understand their accents.
Back at the house, we’re discouraged by the lack of participation.
“Then you have a narrow idea of what participation looks like,” Hector tells us. “They are always participating, even when rolling cigarettes, leaving the room. They are being who they are.” We should be learning about them, taking the temperature of the room, and understanding they have no reason to open themselves up to a bunch of strangers who suddenly show up in their lives.
I think I’ve experienced this before faced with a student who seems entirely unresponsive, with whom I am completely unable to connect. Until I realize she or he is paying very close attention–to me. Studying me, figuring out if I’m someone who can be trusted. I have to go on the assumption that this is exactly what’s happening. Stay calm, stay present, remain engaged as if there is a connection.
“We are our own worst enemies because we create our own stories of what we should accomplish,” Hector says. “Get out of your own fucking way.”
Eventually some of the young men talk to us about how they can’t see a future. With or without an education, there are no jobs. The only hope is emigration but with their criminal records they believe the necessary visas will be denied them.
I’m seeing an aspect of Hector’s work I never witnessed before: teacher, mentor. Teaching “is not a process of vomiting information or how well I can talk about topics.” He challenges each one of us. What are the voices inside our heads that block us? Where and when does our energy flag? He probes us, looking at what’s going on inside each of us that may affect our work. “Don’t expect to be handed a curriculum with different techniques spelled out step by step,” he warns us. We will live the technique but what we must do is enter the space fully present, aware, our hearts open. “Learning is an act of love, there’s no other way to learn.”
Am I thinking through an ideological lens rather than with my heart?
I feel…what? Naive. Responsible. I dwell on the American propensity to export war, whether it’s ordinary people in New York and Boston funding the IRA, weapons manufacturers and dealers arming drug cartels in Mexico (and anyone else willing to pay), our support for repressive armies in Latin America, our military interventions around the globe, our drones dropping death from the sky. Yes, we mourn our servicemen and women who die and those who are maimed in body and spirit. But what do most of us, safe at home, know about the killing we pay for?
We’re supposed to be here giving people tools to claim agency over their own lives, while I feel…guilty, and helpless.
Hector finds it strange that the IRA martyrology bothers me more than the aggressively violent imagery of the UVF Loyalists. It troubles me that political tours and Republican museum exhibits are available in the Basque language. I’d like to believe it’s just that people whose own Irish language was in danger of dying out believe in preserving another rare tongue. But I can’t help but suspect collaboration between the IRA and the ETA. You can choose the label yourself: freedom fighter or terrorist.
I’m not Irish American by descent and can claim kin only through extended family, but I grew up in New York hearing–and not always understanding–the songs of the Irish struggle for freedom. They’re hanging men and women/For the wearin’ of the green. I took those lyrics to heart. When I started kindergarten–my first venture outside the safety of home–I checked my plaid skirt carefully for any trace of the dangerous color.
The Irish Republican Army freedom fighters were heroes of my childhood. Later, it was second nature to support anti-colonial struggles.
When I packed to go to Northern Ireland, I knew I had to be (or at least appear to be) neutral. I was cautious again, choosing clothing with no hint of green.
Which side are you on? was the unspoken–and sometimes spoken–question I faced over and over again. And I was ready with my carefully prepared answer: “It all turns out to be more complicated than it looks from the other side of the pond.”
The Irish Civil War…The Troubles. When is enough enough?
In Belfast, a woman sighs and says no cause in the world was worth all the suffering.
One of the Ballymurphy family members tells me, “The Protestants from up on the hill were shooting through our windows. The British killed my father. The IRA killed my brother.”
Hector, it’s not just ideology. My heart is indeed in this place, and my heart is troubled.
We get ID cards and escorts when we enter Maghaberry, the maximum security prison. Then it’s pat-downs and multiple checkpoints with biometrics and down hallways and across yards where guards patrol with dogs.
Most prisoners here spend 23 of 24 hours in their cells. Some have revived the old IRA “dirty protest”–refusing to wash or shave and smearing their cells with their own feces. But we are working with prisoners in “Family Matters”–men who are fathers, and drug-free. They have privileges and are able to move about freely in their own part of the prison as long as they maintain good behavior. They participate in programs meant to reduce recidivism by strengthening parental skills and family ties. Our theater workshops are now part of the program.
We invite people to explore difficulties in their lives by creating scenes for each other. Then we invite participants to reflect on what they’ve seen and improvise alternative scenarios. Theater becomes a rehearsal for life. Improvisation shows you can change the script. People who can’t envision any other path than the one they took can begin to explore other choices.
So: We walk into the room where more than twenty men await us. We have to set the tone right from the start and so we circulate, greeting each individual, introducing ourselves by name, smiling, shaking hands. After fast-paced games and a lot of laughter, Hector continues the workshop with another of Boal’s techniques, Image Theater. Me, I always want to fall back on words, but Image Theater is wordless. We are invited to express emotions through our bodies or, in pairs or in groups, we create random images that are open to multiple interpretations. What you see tells a lot about who you are.
With all this talk about expression through the body, and considering we’re in a prison, it’s no surprise that sexual imagery shows up. One man positions himself in front of Hector who is kneeling. No ambiguity here: everyone sees blowjob. Hector laughs it off and goes on to the next exercise. As he tells us later, he’s glad the subject of sex came up right at the start so we could get it out of the way and move on. I’m impressed with the prisoner, astute enough to test the boundaries with Hector and not with one of the young women.
We break up into small groups to create scenes about problems. But everything’s all right, the men say. They have no concerns.
Of course they have reasons for not speaking openly. One man comes right out and says, “The enemy is here.” They may fear retaliation from the guards. Or, as Hector reminds us, “Why should they open up to you? They don’t know you.”
I try to explain to my group, “For the scene to be dramatic, we need a difficulty or a conflict.”
“It’s all right.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” one man suggests.
Why do you look outside, at somewhere else? I wonder.
Then I have to wonder who I mean by “you.” Back home in Los Angeles County over the course of 30 years, 25,000 lives were lost to street gang violence–more than in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine combined. And why was I saying we needed conflict?–an idea that, as a writer, I always resist. Even Hector has needed to seek alternatives. When he was in China, people insisted conflict could not exist in their society. They structured scenes instead around a dilemma. Maybe a question would work.
“Do you worry about your kids?” I ask.
“Naw. Their mother takes good care of them.”
“Is it difficult for them to come for visits?”
“Naw. No problem.”
“Be ready in five minutes,” Hector says.
Under pressure, we start to role-play a family visit. The father is besieged by his children and his wife all wanting his attention at once. He is stressed and miserable and doesn’t know who to turn to first.
“Time’s up.” Hector wants to see each group’s piece. He adds, “Whatever you do is perfect.”
In the scene we present, the father is reluctant to leave his cell. He wants to see his family, but he hangs back. As he walks at last to the visiting room, Tamar shadows him, speaking aloud the words in his head. During the visit, his two kids and his wife all clamor for attention. By the time the guard tells them to leave, he’s exhausted and depressed, feeling inadequate. Now he opens up about his feelings: As long as he’s in prison, he can’t give them what he wants to give and that they need.
None of the scenes that day looks like professional theater but so what? Hector is right: each one is perfect because it provides fertile ground to ask What do you see? Does this really happen? How might it be different?
Another man tells me later that watching these scenes teaches him empathy.
Every time we drive back to the house, the good feeling of human connection dissipates. I feel assailed by the sectarian slogans and the flags. People tell me no one talks about conflict resolution anymore, but rather conflict transformation. It’s not peace, they say. It’s just a lull. This one context–Northern Ireland–tells me a larger story about wounds that don’t heal. Hatred like a virus lies dormant between deadly outbreaks. The violent troubles throughout the world never seem to end.
I walk in the park behind our house to clear my head. I remind myself that among the Falls Road murals, there’s a portrait of a Nelson Mandela. He smiles down at everyone who passes, symbol of reconciliation and hope. Inspiring, but the South African story isn’t done. And to use one of Hector’s favorite words, images are “polysemic”–having multiple interpretations. The mural artist included a quote: In my country we go to prison first and then become President.
The writing on the wall: was the artist thinking of forgiveness, or of power?
Before you can forgive, do you have to win?
What a person sees in an image can reveal who she is.
We go to the beautiful city of Derry (also known as Londonderry if you’re a Loyalist or Derry/Londonderry–”Stroke City”–if you’re hedging your bets). The 17th-century city walls stand complete and intact. Catholics, once forbidden to live inside the walls, created the Bogside neighborhood which became the center of the nonviolent civil rights struggle and its own kind of walled city. “Free Derry” lasted from 1969-1972 when residents of the Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods put up barricades to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army out.
The armed wing of the IRA was active in Derry too. The famous Bogside murals memorialize the innocent civilians gunned down on Bloody Sunday but also honor the Irish heritage of Che Guevara and the iconic Petrol Bomber of Free Derry, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Brits.
These days, the Derry police station has a security perimeter worthy of a U.S. Embassy and the police do an excellent job of defusing live bombs before they explode.
A Protestant university student tells me, “I’m a Hun.”
“That’s what they call me. A Han. Like in China.”
The Han Chinese were sent to colonize Tibet, to break the back of Tibetan culture and make the region loyal to Beijing.
How long can Protestants in Northern Ireland be considered colonizers and interlopers? I think of Southern California where I live, land that was taken from the Chumash and Tongva and then from Mexico. The descendants of those early inhabitants are still struggling for an equal place.
“I’ll say it about myself,” says the Han. “But don’t call me that.”
Derry was designated the UK City of Culture for 2013. Dozens of cultural events and celebrations would, in the words of the organizers, provide “a new story for the city to tell to the world.”
In the Neo-baroque Guildhall, Anna and I find an exhibit about the Ulster Plantation and learn some new facts: Scottish settlers were sent over in part to break the power of the Highland chieftains who also resisted English rule. Many were Presbyterians who–Protestant but not Anglican–sought to escape religious persecution. The laws that limited the rights of Catholics in Ulster were applied against Presbyterians too. Anna and I watch a series of panel discussions and debates on video, with actors in period garb offering different perspectives on the Ulster experience. The monologues are carefully scripted so that after each debate when the visitor is asked to push a button to say, for example, whether the sectarian divide is surmountable or insurmountable, almost anyone relying on the video presentation would be likely to choose “surmountable.”
The Bogside artists whose partisan Republican murals draw visitors from around the world were excluded from the City of Culture program.
Mandela also said, “Let bygones be bygones.”
But what if what’s going on hasn’t yet gone by?
Sometimes I think those who remember history are doomed.
I think about that silly book, The End of History, that people unaccountably took so seriously a few decades ago. Fukuyama argued that history had ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. I never noticed any such triumph or that humankind had reached a utopian end of the road. But now I begin to wonder if what we’re really seeing is the triumph of the Market. Not the free market, of course, but the rigged market, signaling the End of Society–something Margaret Thatcher famously declared did not exist. With the End of Society, we face the End of Civilization.
Hector takes me to task over my pessimism. If I bring that energy into a group, people will feel it. “Especially when working with young people, it is a huge responsibility to bring medicine. Otherwise you just contribute to hopelessness and apathy.”
And we do work with kids in an afterschool program in an impoverished community–though Hector and I see no homeless people, no burned-out lots filled with trash, no derelict buildings, no graffiti (except on one wall, a phrase people either agree with or fear to paint over: JOIN THE IRA). In spite of decades of Thatcherite austerity, maybe there’s still more of a safety net in the UK. Tania, on the other hand, recognizes signs of deprivation invisible to us. “This is what it looks like in Australia.”
With these kids–a couple of quiet girls, a lot of very jumpy adolescent boys–we start off by playing soccer so they can burn off energy, have some release after hours of sitting in school, and get ready to focus. We also bring them snacks and sandwiches. We have a chance to get to know each other before starting the theater games. And we learn the area is indeed deprived. The kids can’t remember a time when their parents were employed. Families live on government assistance and the adolescents expect they’ll grow up to stay home receiving government checks and playing video games or else they’ll go to jail. There are no jobs.
Their scenes portray teachers blaming kids for offenses they didn’t commit; parents unconcerned when their kids are suspended from school; kids getting into fights and then facing their fathers’ wrath.
The kids are so lively, the love between the older boys and their little brothers so evident, it’s easy to dismiss their realities, the “hopelessness and apathy” that shadow them. I like them so much I want to believe they can step out from under that shadow. I want to believe my pessimism doesn’t show.
Anyway, there’s a difference between rejecting optimism and being a pessimist. Years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic when it seemed like everyone who contracted the virus would die and die soon, an activist explained the difference between optimism–blind faith that everything is for the best and will work out just fine– and hope, which keeps you going regardless. He said he’d learned this from Vaclav Havel. Years later, I heard that Havel learned it from B.B. King. Whoever should get credit, I embraced the idea years ago of commitment without any guarantee as to outcome.
The UK no longer recognizes people arrested for sectarian violence as political prisoners. Some political groups have indeed devolved into ordinary thuggish street gangs. (Is that what’s meant by conflict transformation?)
At Maghaberry, some men do consider themselves politicals with the Republicans more outspoken than the Loyalists. One day the men improvise another Visiting Day scene. The young son tells his jailed father he is ready to join the IRA. The father expresses pride.
“What else could the father say?” Hector asks. “Does he really want his son to end up in prison?”
This is how Forum Theater works: people in the audience have the chance to replace a character onstage and try out different words, different behavior. But it seems no one wants to contradict the committed Republican.
I can’t stand it so I volunteer to take the father’s role. “I’m proud of you, my boy,” I say, “for your commitment to our cause. But you don’t want to end up here like me.”
“If it’s where I end up, it’s where I end up.”
“I don’t want that for you.”
But the son is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“All the bloodshed and the time in prison,” I say. “What good has it done? It hasn’t brought us closer to our goal.”
“We have to keep fighting.”
“The fighting hasn’t been effective. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere. There has to be another way.” Idiot American, I think. Keep preaching.
“I’m joining the IRA,” says the son.
“There has to be a better way,” I say. “At least, tell me you’ll think about it.”
I do believe in their cause. But what I’m thinking about is the well intentioned exhibit in the Guildhall. Am I equally guilty of using culture to manipulate?
The father who is playing his son lowers his head and studies the floor. He accommodates me: “I’ll think about it,” he says.
Our last day with the recalcitrant young men at Hydebank Wood, we’re scheduled to present a performance for other prisoners and the staff. We’ve developed and rehearsed a script but our lead actor disappears. The other men don’t want to perform.
Hector actually seems pleased. He’s been trying to teach us that when you work with vulnerable communities, people have very complicated lives. You don’t complain about who’s missing; you work with whoever shows up. You can plan an elaborate production, but you always have to be ready to shift gears. Offer something that engages the audience even if it’s very different from what you planned.
So we foreigners get up and improvise scenes starting with a girl telling her teenage boyfriend she’s pregnant. His response is to walk away.
Hector extends an invitation to the audience. “What else could he say? What else could he do? No, don’t tell me. Come up here and show us.”
All of a sudden we have volunteers. Maybe the guys just want the chance to play at being Evanne’s boyfriend. But one by one, they step up. Telling her to get an abortion. Telling her abortion is wrong. Asking her to marry. Denying it’s his baby. Saying his parents will help. Promising to get a job.
The audience is rapt.
“Now they have the baby. What do you think happens next?”
The baby is crying, the wife is desperate, the unemployed husband comes home drunk and angry. He looks for work. He goes back to selling drugs.
The young men who never sit still, never listen, never “participate” have their attention riveted. They all want to have their say. The prison staff has never seen them like this. One after another they improvise alternatives to the situations they’ve seen in their families, experienced in their own lives, or feared.
“If someone sees you,” says Hector, “it saves your life. You may recognize a gift in a young person who has spent his life misunderstood and stigmatized.” Modest expectations, I think, reaching one person out of many, one at a time. But believing as we do that every human being is of inestimable worth, it should be enough. “By truly seeing him, you give him the experience of seeing himself in a new light, and the strength that comes from this mutual recognition can last a lifetime.”
I’m frustrated by how much people don’t want to see. They are supposed to be the experts in their own lives.
A 12-year-old girl in Derry tells me she can’t wait to get out. Her dream is emigration to Australia. (Australia seems the destination of choice these days. People say they’d love to visit relatives in Boston and New York, but to live in the States? Too violent, too much inequality, not enough opportunity.) She talks about the constant bomb threats, the grenades, and the shootings but assures me, “No, I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not troubled.” She says everything’s all right, but she can’t wait to leave.
Members of the LGBT group blurt out their concerns: how a lesbian mother has no parental rights and can lose her child if she’s not the biological mother. But when it comes to dramatizing the situation, “No, it’s negative.”
We try a different approach and ask for coming out stories. Of any sort. Tania tells how for years she didn’t want to identify herself publicly as a “refugee.” One man insists he never had to come out because he was always out. Later in the conversation he tells me he was married for years. When his wife learned he was having sex with men, she exposed his secret and he was promptly fired from his job.
I don’t get it. Why all the denial?
One evening a gay man offers a scene in which he goes to donate blood and is turned away. He sits, wordless, head down.
“What is he feeling?” Hector asks.
Sad. Depressed. Humiliated, people suggest.
“What else could he do?” Hector asks.
No one in the LGBT group reacts so members of our group take turns replacing the actor. I ask whether the blood is screened. It is. So there is no medical reason to refuse anyone. I threaten a lawsuit. Jeroen replaces me and, instead of threatening, asks the doctor to sign a letter and petition agreeing there is no medical reason to discriminate. Another member of our team talks about wanting to give blood because a family member was saved by a transfusion. In this scenario, the doctor still can’t change the policy but responds with human empathy instead of putting up a cold bureaucratic wall.
The gay and lesbian members of the group seem to me speechless with surprise. As though it hasn’t occurred to them before that you don’t have to accept things as they are. You don’t have to take it and absorb the hurt. You may not be able to change law or policy right away, but you can assert your humanity. You don’t have to accept discrimination as inevitable and normal.
One day at Maghaberry the prisoners show their scars and merrily reenact the form of street justice called “the six-pack”–as though it’s normal to shoot someone in both knees plus a bullet in each elbow and each ankle. As normal as the murals and the flags. And I think again of the 12-year-old girl. Violence will drive her from her birthplace but at the same time, she won’t admit it bothers her. It’s such an accustomed part of daily life.
It’s her life, their lives. I shouldn’t judge people who are just trying to get by the best they can in a world not my own.
I return home and land at LAX the day before the terminal is invaded by a young man who shoots to kill. A couple of days later, another young man takes his rage to the shopping mall in New Jersey near where my sister lives. The Sandy Hook school site is being demolished. There’s a mass killing in a Detroit barbershop. And another mass shooting and another. I sign a petition or two and go on with my daily life. The 12-year-old girl wants out. I’m not going anywhere. What do I feel? Sad. Depressed. Ashamed.
And I remember the day in Maghaberry Prison when I was paired with a man I could barely understand. He didn’t seem to get what I was saying either. But what with the Irish and Yankee accents, incomprehension had become entirely normal to me. It took two hours till I realized the prisoner was an immigrant from Lithuania with limited English.
Don’t trust me.
— Diane Lefer
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit,awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor toCounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”
It’s been a good weekend for Annie Bleecker, Yesterday, we published the lovely fragment series pulled from the cover letter to her first packet of the semester. In particular, in his introduction, DG highlighted Bleecker’s aphoristic style.
Today, in an instance of serendipity, synchronicity or just plain coincidence, she published her first essay, “Neutral Ground”, in Literary Mama. It’s a meditative ride through New Orleans with her young daughter, whose journey through life is just beginning:
In this summer you are two and I am 32, and on certain Sundays, the city is ours. We wait for our streetcar in the thick heaviness of mid-morning August. I can see it up there stopped at the end of the line, which is also the beginning of the crescent our city is named after. It’s as distinct as a dimple because the green of the neutral ground ends abruptly in concrete and traffic light and strip mall. These things crowd the other side of the intersection as if built up against an imperceptible wall they can approach but not breach. As vulnerable as this city is to swirls of wind with warm hearts and floozy names, it has kept at bay the more formidable threat of homogeneity.
The neutral ground, that’s what they call this airstrip of grass with two sets of tracks that divides the avenue. We begin our journey here, in this place owned by no one. The driver of the streetcar reads a newspaper and pretends not to see us, biding time until he can figure out whether we’re actually waiting on him or just idling here on the grass. You’re doing your dance of discomfort: you want up, then down, then to cross the street but by your damn self. I struggle to keep you on the green. It’ll be over 90 before noon. I smooth the damp chestnut hair off of your face and point to the parked streetcar with exaggerated gesture to both hold you in place with anticipation and signal to the driver that we are indeed his passengers, the only passengers on the morning that the rest of the city sleeps or prays. It works. He folds his newspaper exponentially until it is as small as physics will allow. He begins pulling levers. The grunt of the released brake succors my anxiety and the streetcar begins its crotchety, begrudging glide toward us.
I suppose now there is no reason to carry on with the magazine. We have reached the pinnacle. Frequent NC contributor Jonah Glover’s Super Bowl commercial (shown only on Canadian TV) has become the subject of a full-on report at CNN News. CNN even re-edited the commercial to put Jonah first. Makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your lives. You could too could be paid to be on TV and appear on CNN.
We are a bit mystified that Numéro Cinq is not mentioned by name in the coverage. The whole piece seems strangely obsessed with McDonald’s and chickens. After all, Jonah cut his teeth working for us. NC, breeding ground of the great and famous.
[Ed. Note. There is a takeaway from this. Not the jokes above. Jonah walked into the commercial his first day in Toronto last summer. He said sure. He signed a contract and got paid. He actually shot a second commercial. It was meant for Internet release. It was released. Barely noticed. Jonah had a fulltime job over the summer. No time to pursue this. Then suddenly the commercial appears during the Super Bowl. Then on CNN. It makes you smile. Life can be so various and astonishing sometimes, such a ride. Yes, it just makes you smile. Such a hoot. Nice to be alive and see it. There's always more to the story.]
Today, Part Six, the penultimate installment of Robert Day’s serial novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is about love. We have two narrative poles: the narrator as a young man in Berkeley in the 1960s and the narrator now, as a desperately ennui-ridden middleaged book designer, frittering away his life with bon mots and his Plaza wives. His stoic endurance sometimes looks heroic and sometimes looks a little stalled.
I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.
His sister Elaine has his number. “Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it,” she tells him. But if he won’t do anything for himself, the past is busy organizing something for him to do. Someone is sending those mysterious packages. The local art institute is hosting an exhibition of work by his old Berkeley flame Beth, the unavailable one. And in the past, in that Berkeley period, we have a gorgeous precursor-scene when Elaine (the sister), Tina (the old girlfriend from Emporia) and Jo (the woman who has been bonking him secretly as an “extracurricular” sport) all show up at his doorstep pregnant.
Ennui vs. Angst
Currier But Not Ives: A Family Christmas
—Are you going into “hibernation”? Elaine has asked.
Sometimes in December we get warm sunny days, as if a jigsaw puzzle piece of Indian summer found a serendipitous fit in a “Winter Wonderland” scene.
My sister and I were outside on my balcony. The sun was falling toward the house on Lowell. From below, we hear music of the outdoor speakers: “Sleigh Ride.”
Our father would leave us for Christmas: working late in the garage, puttering with his Studebaker, working early the next morning, not talking, skipping lunch, coming back past nine for suppers of leftovers, working on Christmas day. New Year’s as well.
Then one day he would return, saying to me: “The radio is calling for snow,” which meant: would I help him at the shop put on tire chains for his customers, a service for which he did not charge?
—His family was poor when he was your age, said my mother. As was mine. Meager.
—Do you know why he went into hiding over Christmas? said Elaine.
—Are you asking why I do?
—To honor him. In my case, instead of working on the Studebaker, I’ll test run my new book printer.
—Lillian will be home. She is bringing her boyfriend. I think he is black.
—What are you going to do?
—I can’t make him white. Or do you mean about Gerhard?
—About the sleeping arrangements.
—Ah, she said. Now that’s a question without yet an answer.
—What makes you think he’s black?
—Lillian said he was different. What do you think?
—Let’s go back to sleeping arrangements.
—Gerhard wants to put them into two rooms. I say let’s put them in the master guest room because it has its own bath, but Gerhard says that room has a queen-sized bed and you know what that means!
—What it meant was Gerhard, Jr.
—I thought to say that, she said.
—But did not?
—I suggested we move out the queen bed and put in two single beds.
—The craft of marriage is the art of arbitration, I said.
Melinda walked by. Alone. Heading toward Barnes and Noble. A last minute Christmas present? For a friend?
—“Atonement,” Elaine said.
—Do you know the story about mother and her words?
—I knew they were too poor to send her to college. Everything they had went to Uncle Conroy. She didn’t finish high school.
—There’s something more to it than that, Elaine said.
—Do you know?
—I do not. Even after father died, she’d say her words out loud to nobody but herself. Atonement. I was too stubborn to look them up.
—It was what she was saying that first Christmas after father died. Gerhard and I had just moved back.
—Do you know what it means?
—I do now.
—Before I go into my cave, how about I walk you half way to your house?
—To Married Love?
—I was hoping you’d ask.
The early evening was still a puzzle of warm weather.
—Want to come for a meal?
— “A Guest Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
—It might be playing soon at a house near you, Elaine said.
We stood to watch the western sky burn red along a line above the black land. The Plaza lights were coming on. Our father is in his garage.
—See you in a month of Sundays, Elaine said.
Your Photo Album
All that fall my mother had been mailing me Care packages.
—What have we here? said Hazen.
What I had was a small box in which my mother had put a stick of deodorant; two pairs of jockey underwear (sale price still on them); three boxes of Jell-O (with instructions from my mother to make with sliced bananas); one of my father’s discarded doubled-edged Gillette razors (complete with a half-used pack of Blue Blades); two pairs of white socks (mine; I had left them behind); and a picture of me standing next to my father beside the glass globe in the yard the summer before I left for California.
Such packages would arrive every two or three weeks, sometimes with cookies or brownies that I’d share with Beth and Hazen. Sometimes with clothing. Always with a picture of me. I got younger as the fall semester progressed, so that by Christmas break I am standing beside Uncle Conroy on a beach in Galveston, Texas. “Turtle on its way,” somebody had written on the back of the snapshot.
Neither Elaine nor Steve made it back for Christmas. Our mother had not told them the seriousness of our father’s illness; they didn’t return until the following summer.
I cashed the check my mother sent for a plane ticket and took the bus. I gave her the difference. I didn’t tell Tina I was coming home. I asked Hazen to look after Pretty who was still in the lab, but got weekend passes at Beth’s. My father worked as he could at his garage.
—Were you with him when he died? Elaine asked me one day on our way to Lowell.
—No, I said. He was in the hospital and Mother and I were home. I was in the basement and heard the phone ring. “He’s gone,” is what Mother said when I came up.
—I don’t know what I feel about not being there, my sister said.
—Good for you, I said.
—What do you mean?
She had turned down Lowell.
—It’s better that you don’t understand your feelings than you borrow generic ones.
—Like “I feel so guilty?”
—I was with Gerhard. We went to Maine. I never told Mother. I told her I had to stay for summer school because I had an Incomplete.
—I had an Incomplete that is still incomplete.
—They can stay that way forever, I said. Consider it a metaphor for life.
—What did Steve say?
—More or less the same thing.
We were about to pass the house. Elaine was slowing down, tapping the brakes the way Aunt Lillian did when she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stop at a green light or not. The transmigration of “perched and alert.”
Before I returned to California for the second semester my mother gave me four Care packages: two for me, and one each for my friends, Howard and Beverly, as she understood them to be.
—Is Beverly your girlfriend? my father had asked Christmas evening when he came home early from the garage.
—Are you doing your dictionary words? asked my mother.
—Why do we have to tell Tina that you are not here? asked my father.
Going back, the Trailways took the northern route toward Denver. It was snowing when I left and it became worse as we went west. I got as far as Atwood on Highway 36 before the bus pulled into a motel where I was stuck for two days. The only café in town was closed, so I ate the brownies out of one of my Care packages. After Denver we headed south through New Mexico, then up through Carson City and finally into Berkeley. It wasn’t a bad trip. To this day I like buses.
—What have we here? said Hazen when the three of us met again.
—Care packages for Howard and Beverly, I said.
—I think this one must be yours, said Beth to Hazen. It has Gillette Blue Blades in it.
—And what’s this? Hazen said as Beth brought The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid from her bedroom to the table.
It’s About Time
—I used to hate my room, said Elaine. And the house.
—Because other girls had better rooms and better houses?
—You know how in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the girl Mick wants to have a party?
—She has it.
—But I couldn’t because I thought that’s what it would be like. All the rich girls coming from nice houses in Leawood and seeing ours. Then back in school, they wouldn’t talk to me because they had found out who I was.
—Would you let Lillian go to a party at our house on Lowell?
—Because I don’t want her to become the snob I am.
We were sitting in Elaine’s living room. Lillian was upstairs with-or-without Sidney Poitier. I don’t ask. It is my first day back from putting chains on my book even though there has been no snow on the radio.
—I didn’t know you’d read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
—I just read it now. Lillian brought it home from college. I rented the movie. I felt the way Mick feels without knowing other people felt that way.
—Carson McCullers is what Kim Novak’s sister is reading in Picnic to get herself out of Hutchinson because she’s too young for William Holden, I said.
—I didn’t know that either, my sister said.
We are quiet together, and into that silence I find myself thinking: What else to do with your memories except to let them inhabit you? The furniture of our lives: Merriam and Berkeley. The Plaza and Berkeley. Melinda. Muff. Furniture that has been around the Horn in the same room with aluminum folding chairs. The glass globe of my father’s death. The boy I saved off the deep end one summer.
We hear someone stir upstairs and I wonder if my sister’s silence means she is reading my silence:
I am here as well as there. My lists of weeks. Nurse Barkley. The clock of Brush Creek. My Wednesday seminar students. We too are family. You are what becomes you: The Plaza boutiques moving their soaps and pressed flowers and spinach pastas and Sardinia grappa into the magazine homes of my sister—or into an apartment down the hall, owned by—but not occupied by—a man of a certain age. The migration of affluence.
Would it help to admit I like the insistent tasteful tastelessness of it: The philistine vulgarity. Why would l like that? For the same reasons my best books are unused? For the same reasons I won’t marry? For the same reasons I am looking through Harrisons? For what? An aversion therapy? Even before I diagnose my phobia? Call Doctor Percy. My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind.
—What keeps you here? Elaine asked.
—My questions are beginning to concentrate my mind, I said.
—I’m serious, my sister said.
—You, I said.
—You’re getting a bit . . .I don’t know what. . . living here.
—“Arch?” I said.
—What does that mean? she said.
—Witty. With an edge.
— I don’t think living on the Plaza where you can look down on us is doing you any good. And those wives. You don’t like them, they are just. . .
—Coffee table books.
—Being right about yourself doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it.
—What’s to do?
—You have the money. You could live anywhere. You’ve never been to Europe. Why not go to Paris? You’ve done books on it. Why not go yourself?
—Every time I want to go someplace, I do a book about it. That cures me.
—I’m being serious, said my sister.
—I have never been more serious.
—Have you ever done a book on the Plaza? she asked.
—That would leave me with a cure, but no place to be other than where I am.
—What’s the matter with that?
—You’ve been reading my mind, I said.
More than two feet seem to moving above us. There is talk.
—It’s about time, Elaine said.
I am struck by how much of what we say has meaning beyond what we intend.
An Agenda: The Brookings Show
The Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery has a decent collection of Oriental work, but not much Spanish—which is curious, given the Plaza’s connection to Seville. Across the street to the west from the Nelson is the Kansas City Art Institute whose most famous painters were Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. My sister says there is a home in the area that claims the fireplace into which Mr. Pollock took a piss during a dinner party. Other fireplaces and other dinner parties make the same claim. Pollock would probably not have believed the pissing had he done it himself.
Over the years, I have had design work for both the Nelson and the Kansas City Art Institute: student manuals and benefactor gift calendars for the Art Institute; exhibition catalogues and (very pleasing) postcards and posters for the Nelson. I did not get the contract for the Thomas Hart Benton retrospective a number of years ago, but the woman who did produced a fine book. The exhibition was brutalized by a hash of hay bales and two-by-four fencing arranged in the rooms where Benton’s Midwestern Mythic paintings hung. I understand it was a New York “art consulting” firm that inflicted its provinciality on Kansas City. It was not necessary.
It is the Art Institute students who made the busts that look over the Plaza and down at Ben Franklin. And it is the Art Institute’s women who have recently formed the cheerleading squad that is out and about rah rah-rahing everything from fountains to traffic signals to Winstead’s to Winnie and Clementine. Up and down the Plaza they go, one part high hoke, one part low camp. “Hip” or “Hip-Not,” I don’t know. Elaine tells me Steve knows and “we” cannot know. Not even The Shadow knows.
My present Nelson project is an Agenda for the Beth Brookings exhibition to open this spring. There is a catalogue (that I did not design, even if I am not credited) that comes with the painting part of the exhibition, a traveling one, originating in San Francisco and now in Santa Fe. Those paintings are a selection of twenty-four by thirty inch “Set Ins or Reverses made from her early murals, the ones that made her a break out painter—to quote the catalogue. Along the edges of some of these paintings, and on some of the murals as well, are snippets of hand-written text: Bye-bye Mussolini, From One Girl to Another, Ganiff..
Added together, these paintings (all acrylic) cannot be assembled into any one of the murals from which they are taken. I suspect this is by design, but by what design I am happy not to know. I like the studied incompleteness of it, but not for what the catalogue writer calls “. . .the compelling nature of the missing links of the pictorial narrative, as if Ms. Brookings has a story to tell that she alone knows (the painter’s dramatic irony is at work here!), and that can only be told by visiting the sites (all across America!) where that story is self-evident, and to which we are asked by implication to migrate.” It is a sentence Chekhov would have someone else write.
There is also A Painter’s Room of My Own, the well-reviewed coffee table book. I have not seen the final version, but I expect it is well designed: Tailored and elegant. Then there is an exhibition of The Room: furniture, books, platters, early paintings, cupboards, and a bong. Painted doors leading to a bedroom and bathroom. Mirrors. Bandanas. It is as if A Painter’s Room of My Own had emptied itself while keeping itself in tack. I know the feeling. The Room is to be arranged at the Nelson according the artist’s instructions. I wonder what will replace a record player with its speaker in the lid.
In connection with the exhibition, the Nelson has published my Agenda using the “Set Ins,” as well as post cards and a poster from A Painter’s Room of My Own.
At a meeting I attended, the Agenda won over a cookbook that would have featured recipes of the Mrs. Bridges who give money to the Nelson. I favored the cookbook for reasons that had to do with nepotism. Also, it would have made a fine abecedarian: B is for Brownies. M is for meatloaf. N is for Nonsuch. R is for Risotto.
My proofs for the Agenda, the post cards and the poster have come and gone, but today the finished Agenda arrived; somebody at the Nelson assumed there must be a mistake in my request not to claim the designer’s copy. Shortly after the package came (Earl calls you when you have something too big for your mailbox), I brought it upstairs and put in on my coffee table; I have not opened it.
It is a Monday. My week’s octavo is on my dining room table, oddly blank from cover to cover. I am noir on the wall. Tomorrow Rosetta comes. Wednesday will be the penultimate visit of the wife who has found her niche among my Nudes in Painting. She bought me a copy (on sale at Barnes and Noble, I noticed) and told me I may choose any pose I want. Perhaps I should have asked one of the art students to paint a backdrop of a large seashell—even though this particular wife is a brunette. The Rubens will have to do. There was a Poussin I liked, but it needs two lustful Satyrs and I am only one.
America the Plum Blossoms are Falling
—“America free Tom Mooney. America save the Spanish Loyalists. America this is quite serious.”
Hazen had bits and pieces of Ginsberg’s “America” memorized. Until I got my own copy of Howl I thought it was a madness he shared with King Lear.
—“I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations,” he said one day upside down in his Tall Tugger. “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week. / Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store. / I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.”
—Tomorrow’s the day, he continued. We’re going to the Berkeley Public Library and you’re going to read “America” and I’m going to read Time Magazine.
—It’s the anniversary of the day he wrote it. January 17, 1956.
I had come to realize I had lost Beth to Hazen. “Lost” was not the right word. No word was. But I had not lost Hazen. There was something in his loyalty to my feelings about Beth that kept us friends. He never bragged that he was “balling” her. I never knew from him (or her) when they had been together. After our conversation that day when we were driving to Half Moon Bay to dive for abalone, Hazen didn’t talk about Beth in any way that made it painful for me. Not that it wasn’t. It just turned out we were not your usual triangle, more a three-character play where one of the actors is sent off stage now and then. Why I was faithful to my lines I do not understand. Why Beth was I never understood as well. How a woman could fall for a man like Hazen was in those days I don’t understand to this day. But then I never understood why Kim Novak would get on a bus to Tulsa for the likes of me.
On January 17th we drove Austen to the Berkeley Public Library. True to Ginsberg’s poem, the periodical section was in the basement. I had my copy of Howl in the back pocket of my jeans. Hazen got Time Magazine from a rack and both of us sat at one of the reading tables. There were a dozen or so people in the library basement that morning.
—You begin, said Hazen.
All along, I had thought he meant I was to read “America” out loud. It would be our two-person Happening with “America” as our manifesto. I had my two dollars and change. I stood up, Howl in my hand.
— “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” I read, much to the astonishment of those in the room—and, as it turned out, to Hazen as well who I later learned just thought we’d read the poem to ourselves. “America, two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956.”
I reached into my jacket pocket and put two dollars and twenty-seven cents on the table. The quarter rolled around before it settled, heads up. Hazen looked at it, then at me.
—“I can’t stand my own mind,” I continued. “America when will we end the human war?”
— “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,” said Hazen as he stood up.
When we finished, our small audience applauded. Hazen waved the copy of Time Magazine. I took a bow.
The Conflicted Book of Medical Ethics
I would look at the dogs in their cages, and after awhile I could not look at them if they looked at me. There were dogs we were bleeding then dumping into the incinerator; there were dogs that we killed in the surgical experiments to develop the heart-lung machine that would save lives in the hospital across the parking lot; there were pregnant dogs whose unborn puppies were being implanted with an intestinal blockage—again, to save lives in the hospital across the parking lot. And all those dogs, along with their unborn puppies, got “Cook Timed.” You could get through a day bleeding dogs if you thought about the children. Or at least I could. And couldn’t.
From the beginning, Uncle Conroy would take Hazen and me on weekly tours of the hospital. He introduced us to the staff; he arranged for us to go on rounds with the doctors; he even arranged for us to scrub and stand against the wall of the OR while the surgeons worked. Once, a surgeon sent a nurse over to bring us closer to the table. It was heart surgery.
The doctor talked to us as he cut and clipped, the hemostats clamping the bleeders. Through his mask he explained what he was doing, what he was cutting. He said that ten years ago, this child would have died because they did not have the skills or the knowledge to save it. Now, they would be able to give her a new life, albeit (I remember he used one of my mother’s words) a limited life. Perhaps by the time the two of us became doctors, we would be able to return such a child to perfect health. He looked at us over his surgical mask.
—What Conroy Watkins is doing is very good work. You boys help him. It is very good work. Kelly, please.
My uncle understood I was concerned about the Blood Factory dogs—as well as the other animals that were dying a variety of deaths at a variety of rates for either a variety of reasons or for one reason, depending upon how you looked at it. Driving home with him after I had bled five dogs, he asked me:
—What do you think of your studies so far?
My uncle always called our work in the lab “studies.”
—Fine, I said.
We were going up Grove. Austen was parked at Beth’s. I almost asked my uncle to stop and let me off. But I had reading to do and my books were at the Derby room, so I said nothing.
—I once practiced medicine, my uncle said. Private practice, I mean.
—What? I said.
—Not long after Lillian and I were married, I had a practice for two years. In Galveston. It was just after the war. About the time we sent your turtle to Oakland. I felt we needed to buy a house but not have a mortgage so I could continue my research.
Many of the conversations adults have with the young are confusing to both because whole premises are missing: the details of domestic lives. My uncle wanted to own a house free and clear for Aunt Lillian so that he could return to his less-than-lucrative calling as a research-university doctor, as opposed to the substantial wealth of one in private practice. With these facts new to me, I didn’t know what to say. And my uncle had grown quiet on his side of the car.
—Do you think you might want to be a doctor? he said.
—Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, I said.
—From the dinner with Hazen’s father? My uncle said, and laughed.
We drove on.
—I want to tell you something about my medical practice in Texas, my uncle said. He had forgotten he was to take me to Derby and turned into the Berkeley Hills. At times I would go home to dinner with him, but that was not the plan tonight. I decided not to interrupt.
—I had a patient from “down island,” as they used to say in Galveston. Shrimpers, I think. A pro bono patient. Do you know what pro bono means?
—No, I said.
—I did not charge a fee, said my uncle. The mother came into the office with the child. Four years old. Female. She had a rash on her back. Slight fever. A non-specific macular rash. Nothing else. A mild viral infection, I thought. I got a sample of salve from my cupboards and gave it to the mother. I didn’t see her again until the hospital called. She was probably too ashamed at not being able to pay me, so didn’t come back when the rash turned purple. By then I knew what it was. Any doctor would.
My uncle made another wrong turn. A bad one, because while we were still going into the hills behind the Claremont Hotel, we were not on any road that would cut through. We would have to go all the way up to the top and take a crossroad and come back down. I didn’t say anything.
Nor did my uncle. I waited. He drove into the hills. He seemed to concentrate on the windshield. Finally.
—You know my medical bag? he said.
—The black one in your office?
—In it are the instruments I used in those days. And a pad on which I recorded the symptoms of my patients and the prescriptions I wrote, and the effect my treatment had. Two years’ worth of notes about what kind of doctor I had been.
—I didn’t know that, I said.
—If you want to know who you are, he said, read what you write about what you do.
We have gotten to the top of the hill from where we could see downtown Oakland. To the right was the Berkeley campus. Sather Gate. Durant. Down Grove, I could see the parking lot between the lab and the hospital. Below us was my uncle’s house. “Paid for” I couldn’t help thinking.
—I feel bad about killing the dogs, I said.
—I know you do, said my uncle. I have felt worse about other deaths.
A Political Guide to Sather Gate
There was usually something of a circus around Sather Gate, and later, when the University officials cracked down, along Telegraph and Bancroft. You could find tables with petitions to sign and flyers handed out by intense political radicals. Amid the bright sunshine, the eucalyptus trees, the fountains, the cafes, the spacious walkways, the sports cars and cars with surfboards on them, the deeply tanned Katherine Rosses and the young men of families whose furniture had come around the Cape, it was nearly impossible to believe anyone cared what happened elsewhere in the world. Many did not.
—What’s the deal with Cuba? I asked Hazen.
—What do you mean, what’s the deal with Cuba?
—I got a flyer to free Cuba and I got one to get the CIA out of Guatemala.
—Cuba’s communist, which is good or bad depending upon what you think of capitalism. The CIA is probably bad no matter what you think.
My politics in those days were mild to middling. Maybe it was growing up in Kansas City with a William Allen White father; maybe it was just being more interested in Muff LaRue skinning dipping than in Stevenson or Ike. Probably it was being who I was, and still am. I tend to tend my own garden even though I don’t have one. Add that to my interest in Titian’s live nudes, and you have a concoction of disbelief that the world exists beyond my imagination, which leads to a bad case of non-vicarious solipsism. Maybe that’s why I have freeze-framed myself. I am there; therefore, I am here. In plasma. In electronic formaldehyde.
As I was coming from class one day I saw Juliet at a table along Bancroft. It had been two or three weeks since she had been to my room in the middle of the night to have her “sex fix.” After that, she could not be found.
Our romance had little to do with me. We never had a “date.” I did not call her. She showed up. Sometimes, I’d spot her on campus with another man, but if she saw me she’d wave me off, her hand making something like a flip of the wrist ball throw. When she came to my room we did not talk. Not about art. Not about cars. She never said: “What could it possibly matter?” But then neither did I.
—Hello, I said as I came to the table.
There were photographs taped along the front, and a signboard propped to one side.
Jo was by herself. Usually these tables had two or three people, one to take your signature, the others to tell you something about the protest: what the group represents and when the next meeting was going to be. She had seen me coming. She had not flipped her wrist.
Looking back, we did not have much in common. In today’s language, she was jerking my chain. Or jerking me around and pulling my chain. Something to do with toilets. I’ll have to check with my sister who will check with Lillian.
—Hi, Jo said.
—Busy? I said.
—Sometimes, she said.
—I didn’t mean about us, I said.
—There is no us, she said.
Another girl arrived and put her purse in a vacant chair. She was carrying a large roll of canvas tied with twine.
—I’m Amy. Has Jo signed you up?
—No, I said.
I stepped back and looked at the photographs taped to the front of the table, and then at the poster board. The pictures were of hamsters and rabbits and guinea pigs—diseased or malformed. There were photographs of dogs in cages. The shots of the dogs had been enlarged. There was a photograph of Pistol unloading dogs from the back of her truck into a lab. Not our lab. But it was Pistol. She was wearing bib overalls. Her gloves.
—We’re ARN, said Jo, pointing to a button she was wearing. “Animal Rights Now.”
—Did you know, said Amy, that all over Cal-B there are labs filled with dogs like this (and here she pointed to a H-57) that are being starved so some professor can get a publication? So he can get a promotion. Or tenure. So he can live in the Berkeley Hills and have dinner parties with other professors who are also starving animals so they can get a publication and a promotion. The professors get the promotions; the dogs get fucked.
By this time Jo had helped Amy untie the canvas. Then the two of them opened it: “Professors Publish. Animals Perish.”
The letters were in red. Inside the first “O” of ‘Professor’ was the face of a hamster. The second “O” had blood dripping from it.
—Jo’s boyfriend is a painter, said Amy. He made it for us. He’s making another one on a sheet we can use as a flag.
Jo was peering over the top of the banner.
—You want me to hold it? I said. So you can have a good look.
—Thanks, Jo said.
I took Jo’s end and Amy and I walked across Bancroft.
—Do you know her boyfriend? Amy said.
—I don’t think so, I said.
—Are you one of her extracurricular?
—I guess so.
—So am I, said Amy.
We stretched the canvas out full-length. Jo nodded yes and put two thumbs in the air.
—You want to sign up? Jo said as we came back to the table.
—I don’t think so.
A Hi Sign: Not of My Own Making
—Are you going to Beth’s show? my sister said.
The Nelson’s quarterly calendar (which Elaine takes and I designed) has finally listed it, which means my sister can confront me with what she has known all along.
—Yes, I said.
—I don’t believe you.
—I wouldn’t, I said.
—Then you are not going? she said.
—I have a sign, I said.
— You and your signs. You’re just telling me you don’t believe it even if you see it.
—I did some designs for show.
—Does that mean you did? Or that you did not? she said.
It has been our good luck as brother and sister to live among our various selves with a companionable deja vu: much about what we have done, did do, will do, are doing, comes as a delight. It is as if we have been there before. And for my part, it is not so much that I can read her mind (and she mine) as that at moments I am her mind. I am told twins feel something of the same thing.
—That I did some designs? I said. Are you surprised?
—Not at all, now that you mention it, she said. Did they know?
—Did the Nelson know about you and Beth?
—Not even Beth and I knew about Beth and me, I said.
—I get nowhere with you, Elaine said and looked out her side of the car window to hide a smile. We were on our way to Merriam.
—Maybe there is nowhere to go, I said.
—That too, she said, turning back to watch the road.
I am curious to see if Waldo has been at the house. I have sworn both him and Rosetta to secrecy.
— Look! Elaine said as we turned down Lowell. The grass is cut; maybe somebody bought it.
—It’s still vacant, I said.
Elaine tapped the breaks as if to think.
—You bought it! she said, and almost ran into the ditch.
—Would you believe me if I said yes?
—No, she said, wobbling us back onto the straight and narrow.
—If I said no.
—Are you surprised?
—Either that I bought it or that I did not buy it? I said.
Instead of stopping she picked up speed and turned the corner at 52nd Place.
—I’m not surprised at you even when I am, she said, as she went past the memory of the burning building that was our father’s filling station, and how we came out of high school one afternoon to see him with his garden hose trying put out the flames, and how we could hear the sirens in the distance.
And this memory as well: both of us standing there, not immediately going to help him because he was a mechanic who ran a filling station, just as our mother was a clerk at the county water department. All around us were our classmates who, for a moment, were not getting in their cars and driving to the suburbs where there would be no glass globe in their yards, no Thor in their kitchen, no living in the basement with heating ducts for an intercom. We all stood there watching a man’s filling station on fire. Then Elaine and I dashed out of the crowd, me to grab another hose, and Elaine running to the county office down the road to get our mother and come back with her just as the fire department had doused the flames before much damage had been done.
On our return to the Plaza, Elaine and I talked about whether I had bought 505 Lowell or not, and if I had, what I should do with it, and if I had not, whether I should—both scenarios amounting to the same thing. And why Elaine had not stopped but had gone faster.
—I’ll find a glass globe, she said. And lawn chairs.
—I’ll find a Thor.
—Try e-Bay, my sister said. Or Google.
—I don’t use e-Bay or Google, I said.
—Why doesn’t that surprise me?
In fact I have found a Thor through a local appliance dealer who probably did use e-Bay. It is in the kitchen. I have not seen it, but I have paid the bill and the trucking charge. Some reality is better imagined which is why I don’t use Google. And why I don’t go to Paris, not even to see my books in stalls along the Seine. If they are there, am I not there?
An Abridged Encyclopedia of Pregnant Women: Volume One
—Elaine is coming, said Aunt Lillian.
I was standing in the hallway of my rooming house where the phone is located. Dustin Hoffman’s landlord was also in the hallway; he listens to our conversations to see if we are saying anything Un-American.
—Today. Your uncle is meeting the plane. It is all very sudden. I think something is amiss. She took the night flight. There must be something amiss. Do you know what it is?
—No, I said. Has Uncle Conroy left for the airport?
—Yes. But I will come and get you so you can be here when Elaine arrives. She says she wants to see you right away.
—I have to go to the lab. I’ll meet you there in an hour.
—Something is amiss, said my aunt again. And we are about to leave town.
This was the second phone call I have gotten this morning; the first was from Tina. She and Bottle James are in Reno. She has been trying to call me for two days. Where have I been? She will be here tomorrow. All she has is the address of a bookstore in San Francisco. Where is she supposed to go? Where will she stay? Why didn’t I call before she left? Bottle James is going to Los Angeles at the end of the week and not coming back. What is she supposed to do? I gave Tina the address of my uncle’s house and some rough directions. My landlord listened.
—You can’t have women here, he said as I got off the phone from my aunt. No women. No dogs. Goldfish only. No cats. No birds. I said that to you in the beginning. No women. I know about that nuts woman who’s been here in the night. That agitator. No women.
All spring, Tina and I have been getting her clothes off. It was slow going because I had “neglected her” over Christmas. There are days when I can see her, and there are days when she is nothing but a voice. But as her body is fading from focus at my end of the conversation, at her end, she is becoming more and more exotic.
—Some hormonal switch has been thrown in her, said Hazen. And you, dumb fuck, threw it.
In recent calls Tina has put the phone on her desk and talked to it from wherever she is in her room. It gives her more freedom, she says. At my end of the line she sounds like she’s in a cave.
—I love doing this for you, she said. I am soooooo happy. I am turning around so you can see me. There.
I am trying to see her. I close my eyes. I see Beth in her yellow chair. I see the sunlight bouncing off San Francisco Bay. I see Allen Ginsberg reading Howl. I see myself standing in Tina’s room at Hulga’s house in Emporia, Kansas—but it is dark and I cannot see Tina. I see Hazen because he is standing at the door to my uncle’s office where I have placed the WATS call.
—Next time I will light a candle, said Tina. I promise. I promise. I will light a candle. I feel so happy when I am with you like this. Bottle James says to say hello. I feel very sexy when I am with you like this. Tell me how you feel. Tell me a story. I am coming toward the phone. Can you see me? Talk to me.
—I have to go, I said.
—Oh no, she says. Please don’t. Not yet. Please don’t go. Not yet.
—A doctor has just come in. He needs me.
—Call me, Tina said.
—Goodbye, I said.
I hung up.
— Kansas Naked lady? said Hazen.
—You’re weird. Call the brothers Menninger. Is she coming here?
—Not mellow. Pas bitchin. Tres mal-bad. Tres mal-pas bitchin. We got two more dogs to drain. I got one going but he’s big and I need you hoisting and squeezing.
Elaine is pregnant. Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian have left to attend a medical meeting in San Francisco. When they do that, they stay with Hazen’s parents for a few days, and I house-sit. In this case, after the meeting, they are all going to Mexico. The place is mine for a week. My aunt has fixed me Nonsuch.
—Who is he? I asked.
We were in the living room. Below us are the lights of Berkeley. There had been a brief shower that afternoon and clouds are still over the Bay. From time to time, they cross the sky, like sails; San Francisco gets blotted out for a moment. Then the lights come on again. My sister is mesmerized by the scene. She does not answer.
—A friend, she said finally.
—Did you tell Uncle Conroy?
—Did you come here because you think he can arrange an abortion?
—Have you told Aunt Lillian?
—Just before they left.
—What did she say?
—That we could not tell Uncle Conroy.
—That I should have the baby and that we should tell the family I have been secretly married for a year and that my husband is in the military and that he went to Vietnam where he was killed. She even has a married name for me. Devine. I am Mrs. Elaine Devine. My husband is Lt. Peter John Devine. He was a Blue Beret and he died in combat. I had to tell Aunt Lillian they were Green Berets. She thanked me. She’s been very sweet.
—She said all that?
— I think she made this plan because she knew something was the matter.
—“Amiss,” I said.
—Yes, says my sister and smiles. How are you? You seem different.
—What do you think I should do?
—Do you like the guy?
—He says we’d make a great team.
—He said that?
—I said it to see what you’d say. It’s a place to start. Marry him.
My sister and I were quiet.
—Are you going to be a doctor? she said.
She was looking at me as if for the first time. The lights from a car are coming down the driveway. They flash into the living room.
—Is somebody here? she said.
—Probably a friend and a girlfriend of mine from Kansas, I said.
But it was not.
Chekhov: A Study Guide
In Chekhov, the women get pregnant at the end of chapters. If the pregnancies are legitimate, the babies die at the end of a following chapter. If they are illegitimate, the babies live past the end of the story. More or less.
—What would you say if I told you I am pregnant, Art Book Alice said to me. We were having espresso before she leaves.
—Am I the father? I said.
—You would be, she said. Now what do you say?
—That I don’t believe you, I said.
—But what would you do about it?
We had our pose before lunch. She got herself started with a glass of white wine and a few “nibblets,” slipped into my bedroom and returned to her entrance. In the past she would half sing, half rap “naughty ditties.” Today there had been no ditties, only a subdued “Little Fur.”
—Why do you ask?
—I was once pregnant, she said.
—You have a son, I said. I have seen you with him.
—Not him, she said.
—Do you want me to ask any other questions? I asked.
—No, she said.
I liked her more for this.
—Am I the father? I said to Jo that night in my uncle’s driveway, Elaine inside, Bottle James and Tina still prowling the East Bay in an old Hudson.
I was rather surprised at what I have said. It was not in the context of those times for a young man—and a jejune one—to have such nerve. At least not so quickly. I caught Jo by surprise.
—What do you mean? she said and stomped her foot. I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! And you’ve been fucking me. Without a rubber. You’ve been fucking me without a rubber!
My sister came to the door.
—Who’s she? said Jo.
—My sister, I said. She’s pregnant too.
There was silence. Then:
—My name’s Jo. It’s short for Juliet. Your brother’s been fucking me without a rubber and now I’m pregnant.
Elaine later told me that was the first time she had ever heard a woman say either “rubber” or “fucking.” She wasn’t so much shocked as impressed.
—Come in, Elaine said.
—Nice pad, Jo said.
It is what Bottle James will say an hour later when he arrives with Tina, who is also pregnant, but doesn’t know it.
For a test run of my new book printer I am composing a Study Guide to Chekhov. I have typed in bits and pieces of a number of his stories. They are cut and pasted together so that a woman wearing a beret in Yalta has left her dog with a drunken schoolteacher whose young daughter has been married off for to a rich government official of fifty-two. There are other such ensembles that create a single not-so-short Chekhov story that Chekhov did not write. I have titled it Not My Life. At the end I have written “topics for discussion”:
1. What makes the women happy?
2. Is there anything bad that has happened to a woman that is not the fault of a man?
3. What do you think of the compelling nature of the missing links of the narrative?
4. Discuss the following passage:
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”
These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life groveling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.
Gurov did not sleep all night. . .
The Angel Connection
A badly designed flyer showed up on the table in the lobby. It was from a group called “Angel Connection Training” that are conducting sessions at Unity Temple on 47th street.
For a “Love Donation of $25.00 or more” I can learn how to “Ground and Prepare to Connect,” “Release Barriers to Connection,” “Align with Angel Vibration,” “Converse with My Angel,” and “Enjoy and Utilize my Angel Connection.” I am also asked—as a “precursor” to making my “Love Donation”. . . to search my heart.” “Are you ready to learn more about how to use our love and healing light? Are you open to considering the gifts we can give?”
I have put the Angel Connection Training flyer, along with two tens, into the envelope for Bottle James. There have been recent reports of a clock bonging near “Married Love.” My gift seems not so much a considered act as a predestined one. Maybe if he “aligned with an angel vibration,” he’d get one of the jobs he pretends to have. In a few days I will return his black cape.
—“You cannot see your way,” Bottle James said with a flourish as he came into the garage apartment.
—Who are you now? I asked.
—“Madman and beggar too. Look there, look there.”
—Wear it to be somebody you’re not, he said, and tossed me the cape.
I had asked Elaine to store it when we cleaned out the house after mother died. It was then she agreed to keep Pretty.
—I don’t think I have it, she said the other day when she stopped by before we went to lunch But I’ll look. Why do you want it?
—To give to Bottle James, I said.
—Has he returned? asked my sister.
—I’ve heard that he has.
—What’s this? asked my sister.
—A package. I said. It came the other day.
—Why don’t you open it?
—I’ve been waiting for my birthday.
She was turning it over to find a return address.
—There is none, I said. I’ve gotten others.
—Let’s open it, she said.
Inside were Kelly clamps, a hemostat, a surgical mask, all wrapped in a set of green scrubs.
—Who do you think sent it?
—Either you did or I did, I said.
Thor: Owner’s Manual Update
—Remember when Thor attacked us? Elaine said.
Thor had valves to turn and racks to remove and dividers to install and large square buttons to push in a complicated sequence. Get them wrong, my brother had observed in his cryptic way, and you would start a nuclear war.
—It was what I was going to add this trip, I said.
—Then you can have it, she said as she turned down Lowell.
—Let’s share, I said.
It was a warm and splendid early spring day. The lawn has been mowed a second time. Elaine has, I see, found a globe and a set of webbed aluminum lawn chairs. Flags are coming up. Waldo has put out planters with impatiens in them. My mother liked the early blooming flowers above all others. Next week, I’ll get Rosetta to clean the house.
We parked in the driveway.
—Shall we? I said.
—Sure, my sister said.
We sat in the lawn chairs, me on my father’s side of his glass globe and Elaine on the other side and, passing the text of Thor back and forth as if turning pages, told each other how one Saturday when our father was at the garage and we were having lunch, our mother started Thor to do laundry, but in the spin cycle the vacuum cleaner portal began to suck air.
Steve plugged the hole with a garden tomato that was pulverized. Then Thor jerked himself toward the kitchen table leaving thick black marks on the floor. Our mother attacked him with a broom.
—The broom breaks, I said.
Thor marched to the end of his cord and unplugged himself.
—For weeks he smelled like ketchup, said my sister. Or did you want to say that?
—You can have it, I said.
My guess is we are thinking the same thing: that we have not gone into the house.
—Want to go in? she said.
— Do you?
—Let’s wait for a signal, she said.
—A cosmic Hi-Sign? I said.
—Let me look for it, she said. Between watching for Beth and Bottle James, you’ve got enough on your sensory plate.
—“Sensory plate?” Doctor Pill? Oprah?
—Muff LaRue. That’s what she says about you these days.
It was during the ride back that my sister told me again that she knew about me and Muff La Rue and asked again if I had “done anything about her.” Her car CD was playing Streisand’s “Sweet Inspiration.” For my part, I talked about how our mother would call down to us through the heating ducts, and how we all claimed the forty-five record player, and how Steve didn’t want his part to smell like pot.
—Do you still have it? I said coming along Brush Creek with Bottle James in front of us.
—It’s in the attic along with your record collection. Do you see him?
—Yes you do. Up ahead. On my side the creek. And I’ve found the cape.
Tina and Bottle James: A Travel Memoir
It was four in the morning when Tina and Bottle James found my uncle’s house. He had called from a pay phone in East Oakland an hour before. They were badly lost and Bottle James wanted to check into a motel. I could hear Tina crying.
—Want a pull? he said when he got out of the car, a vodka quart in his hand. It was the Blue Hudson. I didn’t think it would make it. Tina sat there and stared at the dashboard. She looked like a chewed toothpick.
—No thanks, I said. We’ve been doing six packs half the night.
—Can we crash here? said Bottle James. Nice pad.
—Sure. My aunt and uncle get back at the end of next week. We all have to be out of here by then. I’ll need a day to clean up.
—Who’s all? said Bottle James.
—My sister. A girlfriend.
—A girlfriend of yours? A girlfriend not her?
Bottle James looked at Tina.
—You got trouble. I’m here to tell you, you got trouble.
—More trouble than I know about?
—She’ll tell you, so I will. Popped her cherry. Carson City, Nevada.
—Somebody had to.
—You’re not pissed? he said. She’s pissed. Not that I know what about. Once she did it, I couldn’t keep her off me. A real bunny, you got there. Sure you don’t want a pull?
—Go in, I said. I’ll stay here.
—Come on Stella, get out, said Bottle James.
The Better Sex Book of Wednesdays
—Why so many in your life?
—Not so many, I said.
Elaine has found the red boa. Rosetta left it out; there is a conspiracy between them. She’s also gone into my office where the book printer is set up.
—Two, I said. Down from four. Three if you count Nurse Barkley, but she is not a Wednesday Wife.
—Red Boa Rachel. Stripper Suzie.
—There was Art Book Alice, I said.
—I didn’t know about her.
— She didn’t make it through the book. I was hoping she’d get to Bonnard’s Woman with Black Stockings.
—What are you talking about?
—I’m not going to tell you.
—Yes? That’s three then, said my sister.
She knows about these women and has given them their names, because when she questioned me about my lovers, I’ve told her: Yes, I am having an affair with a woman who likes to take off her clothes—or at least some of them—on the apartment balcony. And a Red Boa is after all a Red Boa. The art books and the women in them are of my own design. As to their given names my sister, like Hazen, has affection for alliteration. I’ll be curious to know who Muff turns into.
—I’m glad about Muff.
—I lied about Muff.
—That means . . .
—Aren’t you a bit old for all this? Elaine said.
—Are you asking if you’re a bit old for the way you feel about Hazen?
—That as well, she said. But you first.
—Let’s call it a tie and either flip for it or not talk about it, I said.
—Hazen was always flipping imaginary coins, she said. And after she said that we didn’t talk about it.
I came to like my sister in the way I like her now as we were sitting in Uncle Conroy’s house that night she told me she was pregnant. And in the week that followed when she hung around the lab with me and Hazen and Beth.
I have never had the kind of woman in my life that Elaine wants me to have. It turns out my brother has that kind of man in his life, and he seems pleased with the arrangement. My sister has the kind of husband my Wednesday wives have, and has survived it.
—Not that I think you should get married, Elaine said. But don’t you think we could find you a woman who would bring more to your life than sex? A woman who you could let us meet? Somebody to go to the movies with? Somebody we could invite to spend a week or so at Uncle Conroy’s place in Mexico? Who are these women, anyway? I take it they are all married. Who are they?
—Art Pose Alice, Stripper Suzie, Red Boa…
—Oh, never mind, my sister said and pushed her smile into her eyes. Why only married women? Is Muff still married?
She had gone into the kitchen where she was making lunch. It was Sunday. A solid warm spring day.
—Because I don’t want to be married, I said. There are other reasons as well.
—What makes you think one of them won’t leave her husband and show up on your doorstep? Then what would you do?
—That happened in a Chekhov story. Chekhov handled it well; the man in question did not.
—What other reasons? my sister asked.
I had thought she had forgotten that part of my answer.
—Have some Navarra, I said as I poured her a glass.
—Is it from one of your lovers?
—What other reasons?
—Married women make better lovers, I said.
—They do? she said. Why?
—Because of their husbands, I said.
—What about their husbands? she said. I have a husband.
—Because they are no longer free with them. If they are not angry, they have become embarrassed. They do not want to be excessive. Or depraved. They do not want their husbands to know about the excitement they feel for the forbidden. They must have a secret from him, and I am it. Not me personally; I have no doubt about that. Just me. . . .
—If you wish.
— No. They must go elsewhere for that. I just let them dance whatever dance they want to dance, which is exactly the dance they do not want to do with their husbands.
—And when they go back to their husbands, are they better with them? Is that what you think?
—I doubt their husbands can tell the difference.
—And when you are tired of them? my sister asked.
—They get tired of me.
— One day they cannot make the date and the next time they do not call, or they blow me a kiss as they get on the elevator. Or they bring up some reference to their husbands, or suggest how we might “better our relationship.” That, too, is a way of being tired of me. Sometimes I see them on the Plaza and we nod. I spot them from my balcony. Once in a while they call, but it is usually after months; one called after more than a year. They come back for the memory of it. There is usually sex. But we know it will not continue. By then, I have replaced them. They must come on a Friday or a Monday. Some never return.
—I see, my sister said.
I think my sister is trying to decide if she wants to say something about Hazen. She has been trying to decide this for a number of weeks now; sometimes she gets close; sometimes it is a passing thought. Today she is close.
—Do you…? I asked.
—No. But tell me about that printer in your office.
—It’s a Thor for books. Or a gun over the fireplace for what I’m designing these days.
—You’re being some e-word our mother used, she said.
A Broadside of Talk
Between the time Jo arrived and Bottle James and Tina showed up, Jo stopped standing in the driveway saying I’d fucked her without a rubber and came into the house where she sat down with my sister. After a few beers, the two of them started talking about how they were both pregnant. They talked as if I were not in the room. I had been there before. I don’t remember saying much for two hours.
—Just raise the kid yourself, Jo said at one point after my sister had explained Aunt Lillian’s plan. You need a dead husband like you need a live one.
—I don’t have the nerve, my sister said. I couldn’t. What are you going to do?
—Abortion, said Jo. I just want your brother to pay for it. Even if it isn’t his. Somebody’s got to pay and it’s not going to be me. Men are the fuckers, but I don’t have to be the fuckee.
—But that’s a life, my sister said. Why not raise the child like you’re telling me to?
—I don’t want to, Jo said. The reason I’m telling you to is because you want to. I’m saying you can have the child, but you don’t need the man. I can tell you don’t want the man.
—How can you tell that? my sister said.
My sister hesitated.
—That’s how, Jo said.
—But what about the baby? Your baby, said Elaine. Don’t you want it?
—You want me to give birth so you can take care of it? Is that what you’re saying?
—I’m not saying that. Not that at all. It’s just that abortion is. . .
—Illegal, said Jo.
—For you. Not for me. Do you want me to tell you what’s wrong and right for you?
I see myself high in the Berkeley Hills with the wealth of the Bay below: I am a bump on a couch with a beer in my fist, listening to two women talk about themselves, about the lives growing in their wombs, about their choices, about the men in their lives, about men. That’s when I hear the horn of the Hudson.
—You coming in? I said to Tina.
—I know about you and Bottle James, I said.
—No you don’t.
—What do you mean?
—It’s not like you think. It’s not his fault.
—Whose fault is it?
—I want to go home. I should have never come here. I should have never let you talk to me that way on the phone. I should have never never ever ever let you talk to me that way over the phone.
—Why don’t you come in? I said. Get some sleep and we can deal with all this later.
—Where are you going to sleep?
—In the car.
And she did.
The Book of Rosetta
—What do you want me to do?
—Give the place a good scrubbing. Two days’ worth, I said. I’ll pay you double your wage.
—You pay me well enough, she said. When I’m not paid right, I’ll let you know and I’m not letting you know. Me and the Lord keep track of my wages.
—Go slow, make it sparkle, I said.
—Waldo says the place is low rent. What do you want with a low-rent place when you live high in the sky here? And you got that apartment next door doing nothing. I don’t ever see that anybody’s been there. You’d be better off doing your hanky-panky down that hallway and leaving this place clean for Jesus.
—So you don’t soil your own nest, she said. Even a snake don’t soil its own nest. There’s two kinds of dirt and Jesus doesn’t like either one of them. Inside and outside dirt. You can be slick as a snake but you’ll get the nasties with all these woman coming in here Wednesdays. And not just where the doctor can cure you.
—I thought you didn’t like snakes, I said.
—You right about that, said Rosetta as she stopped dusting the plasma screen. They may be clean on the outside but they are full of cooties on the inside. That’s why God made them.
—To fool a body. Just like you are fooling yourself with these women. They may be slick and shiny with perfume, but they are nasty for being here, and the Lord won’t have them in his heaven come the end. Which is just about near as far as I can tell with all those art kids running up and down the Plaza half naked half the time cheering in front of poor old Mister Franklin.
—What happened to ticks? I thought I was slick as a fat tick.
—What you do with them women I know, she said ignoring me. If you keep doing it the cooties on your insides will come out to your outsides and you’ll look like that bum on the creek thinking he’s a clock Or that bum you had a picture of on this here wall television.
In her dusting Rosetta takes special care with the television, studying the screen for streaks. Once I saw her looking at her reflection.
—And if you think these women are going to peel off their expensive undies in that low-rent house, you are running the train of your brain on the wrong track.
—Do you think cleanliness is next to godliness? I asked.
—We are all going to be dirt and worms, soon enough, so you got to get right with the Lord and that means you got to be clean inside and out for Jesus. It’s the dirt of your body you leave for the worms, so Jesus can have the clean sheet of your soul.
—Rosetta has done a good job, my sister said. Did you tell her to “make is sparkle.”
We were standing in the kitchen. Thor is there.
—Flags, she called them, I said to my sister looking out the window at the Iris. I always wondered why she used that word.
—And shears for scissors, my sister said.
—How she always told us to leave something on our plates for the kitty. And we never had a cat, and every other mother was telling her kids to clean their plates because there were starving children in Korea.
I plugged in Thor. A series of lights came on. I opened the lid. Elaine turned away from the window. There is something she wants to say, but this time I don’t know what it is. Some cosmic vibration between us has been interrupted. Then:
—I have heard from Hazen, she said.
We walked to the end of the lot where Pretty’s grave is marked by a stone onto which Elaine had affixed her nametag.
—Here, she said getting a bandana out of her purse. I saved it for you. A little worse for wear, but I thought you might like it. I washed it after she died. “From two girls to you,” is what I am supposed to say. Will it do for a Hi Sign?
—Yes, I said.
It occurs to me that our lives—at least the story of our lives—has as much to do with others as with our parents. My sister knows my silences. She thinks I’m going to ask about Beth.
—I named Pretty for a girl I met at Uncle Conroy’s lab, I said.
—I’m not sure how I’d feel about getting a dog named for me. Did she know?
—I never told her. Like you, she was in love with Hazen.
We walked up the slight hill of the lot to the house. Inside we went our separate ways: me to my room in the basement, my sister to her room above me.
—Are you there? she said, her voice bouncing through the heating ducts so that by the time it gets to me it has something of our mother’s voice.
—More or less, I said.
Before we leave, I unplugged Thor. A series of lights go off. On our drive back we don’t talk until we get to the Plaza.
—How about dinner? Elaine said.
—Thank you, I said.
—That means no?
—Is it because of. . .
—Does that mean yes?
—Has Rosetta been talking to you about the end of the world? my sister asked.
—And the return of clocks, I said.
Then, just as we get to Ben Franklin:
—Lillian is pregnant, Elaine said.
We both know this is not “added.” But not subtracted either.
—Does Gerhard know?
—I’ll walk over for a drink later, I said.
Beth Brookings: The Curator
During a meeting at the Nelson, the curator of Beth’s show asked if it was true I had been at Berkeley in the sixties.
I thought she was about to ask me if I had known Beth Brookings, but she did not. Nor did anyone ask if I was familiar with Beth’s work. In business—even the artistic business—you proceed along non-expository lines: the missing links of our pictorial narrative: the designer’s dramatic irony at work.
We were studying the prints of the show’s canvases. Before they had traveled to Santa Fe there had been a small debate about flying to San Francisco to look at the paintings themselves in order to judge the quality of the reproductions, but most thought it was not the kind of expense the museum business office would approve. However, the curator had suggested I could amend my contract and include a trip for myself, and by this device it might be approved. I understood that she would be pleased to accompany me.
—I noticed two paintings are called “Doctors at Mels,” she said.
—Yes, I said.
—But there are no figures in them. Just coffee cups and a counter. A Hopper counter. With a Bonnard background. No doctors. And the cups are all on curiously large, colored pottery plates. Dinner plates I would have thought them to be. With numbers beside each plate where a napkin might go. And the frames are the backside of the stretchers with Omega workshop-like drawings on them. And text: Ne pas bitching on one. Giniff on another. Curious.
—That’s true, I said.
—Do you think we have the wrong title for this series? Maybe it goes with another series she has not sent us. Or maybe the doctors are in the rest of a mural.
I like it when someone other than my sister thinks I am hiding something. The Curator is lovely. Thin lipped. Some cosmic vibration tells me she likes good jazz. I am told she is an expert on Benton.
—Maybe I should call Ms. Brookings before I make the page designs for this section, I said. Do you have a phone number in California? Or an e-mail address?
— I’ll get them for you before you go.
The rest of the meeting concerned the instructions for setting up A Painter’s Room of My Own.
I placed the card on which Beth’s phone number, e-mail address, and Berkeley street address had been written in an envelope and mailed it to myself at the City Lights Bookstore. On it I wrote: “Please Hold”. Before I sent it I did not read its contents. I put no return address. Its absence from my apartment is yet another sign.
In today’s mail came a poster tube with a letter rolled inside. There was a return address: Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, xxxxxx
No Mail, No Turtle: A Self-Help Religion
One day I drove to the City Lights Bookstore to see if I had any mail. I did not.
—Hey, said Lawrence Ferlenghetti. You’re the doctor man. You still have the book I gave you?
—Yes. Right here.
I took it out of my back blue jean pocket.
—I told you it would be a fit, he said.
— A friend of mine and I read “America” in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
—That’s the place to read it.
— My friend says you’re a poet.
—Your friend is good to say so.
—Published? I asked.
—Self published, he said. You want my poems? I give you my poems.
He went behind the counter and got a small black-and-white book off the shelf.
—Will you sign it?
—Sure. “The Doctor of City Lights” How’s that?
—Thank you, I said.
—Next time you come over, he said, look for an envelope addressed to “The Doctor of City Lights.”
—Yes. You’ll see. From a friend of mine.
I drove Austen to the bench at the old Oakland Naval Yard where I had stopped with Beth. There I read Coney Island of the Mind. No turtle passed by.
—What is this? said Red Boa Rachel.
—A book of poetry, I said. She opened it.
—Are you a doctor? I thought you were a writer or something like that.
We were having coffee; soon she will pick up her son at his day school. She does not want to be late.
—I write medical books, I said.
—I don’t “get” poetry, she said. Only that it is prose that doesn’t go all the way across the page. That’s what my English teacher taught us. And this?
—A religious book.
—Ta-Bid, I’ve never heard of it. Is it a self-help religion?
—And written by hand. Is it a copy? But of course it must be a copy.
—It is the original, I said.
She was thumbing through it. When I said it was the original, she stopped.
—The original, she said. From when?
—The sixties, I said.
She was trying to guess which sixties: the first sixties? She is the kind of woman who, when puzzled, moves on.
—Next week, I cannot come, she said getting up, her coffee cup in hand. But the week after, I could come later in the afternoon and we could have dinner, and I can stay the night because I am supposed to be out of town for the Arts Council meeting and I don’t really have to be in St. Louis until noon the next day.
—I am sorry, I said, but that is the night the Society of Ta-Bid meets, and since I have the original I am obliged to attend.
She looked at the book. She turned to look at herself in the mirror behind the couch. She is a stylish woman: tall, dark-red hair. Green eyes. She has made herself out of Town and Country. An accidental retro. She probably doesn’t think she can do better for a lover. She can. I hope soon she will.
—I’ll see you the week after that, then, she said. I’ll bring some wine from the Better Cheddar. A friend of mine says they have a new Italian champagne.
—Yes, I said.
My guess is she will call to cancel and, save for now and then when she is walking on the Plaza, I will not see her again. If she doesn’t cancel, I will. Besides, she’s picked the wrong Wednesday.
—Goodbye, she said.
—Goodbye, I said.
She blew me a kiss from the elevator as the doors closed.
After she left, I paged through The Illuminated Manuscript of Ta-Bid and read:
And They Shall Not Go In Peace
There shall NOT be prohibited by the Flaymen speculation about the dual nature of Ta-Bid. Especially allowed shall be the question of the hyphen; and sects that dispense with the hyphen are encouraged to develop; as are those who run the names together, as in “Tabid;” or sects that separate the names by a comma, as in “Ta,Bid;” or those that make a capital for both names; or for one. Let a myriad sects of Ta-Bid, Ta,Bid, tabid, TaBid flourish in the name of Ta-Bid, and be in conflict over it if it shall come to pass that the members of the Ta-Bid stray from the original orgasmic message of Ta-Bid and begin persecuting one another in every fashion that can be learned by consulting the texts of other religions. In this way, an Anti Ta-Bid shall flourish and be in brotherhood with fellow religions of the world. And they shall NOT go in peace.
In some of this I recognized my “embellishments.”
A Letter from the Present
“Dear Mr. _________,
My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four. I live in the house where you and your roommate lived when my mother was alive. Which is where she lived when she was alive. My father died in the Vietnam War and I never met him. I live in my mother’s old room and I do not rent the others, except the garage where you and your roommate lived, I was told. After she died, I was cleaning out her house and found the enclosed certificate.
My mother said she liked you a lot, but that she didn’t much like your roommate who was always drunk. I work at the college in the Alumni Office where you are not listed, except in a computer file labeled To Be Found. If you want me to change that to Found, it will then be moved to the SAL (Standard Alumni List) after it is confirmed that you are you. Then you will get our mailings about reunions, weddings, death and births, and other bonding events. Unless you don’t want to.
I have not been over to the History Department to see if your name is on the Humbolt plaque but I called Linda the secretary there and she said it is. That was a long time ago. Congratulations!
If you want to know more, write me back and I will tell you. I hope you are who I think you are otherwise none of this will make any sense and in that case would you send the award back? Thank you.
Concentrating the Mind
—I know this “concentrating the mind” business means death, my sister said. It’s a famous saying from someplace.
—We’re all dying, I said.
—That’s not what you meant, she said.
—Suppose I told you I have the same disease that father did.
—Do you? she said.
—Would you tell me? she said.
—Then why tell me anything at all? she said. What’s the point? Just to pass the time of day before you go back to whichever wife it is today?
—O.K. Tomorrow. Who is it?
—If I told you, would you believe me?
—No, she said.
—So, here we are, my very distinguished movie star looking and helpful brother, the man who has seen me through all kinds of crises from my illegitimate pregnancy complete with a legitimate birth, to my daughter’s illegitimate pregnancy with a pending legitimate abortion—seen me through all this and more with nothing but the finest and most patient counsel and now, sitting here in the reVerse on a non-wife Tuesday, I am told he is either dying or not dying and that he is either having or not having an affair with my new best friend. Have I got the soap opera right? Maybe we should call doctor Jo.
—I’m dying of ennui, I said. And I am your best friend. New or old.
—You don’t study “ennui” the first two years at Vassar. How do you get it?
—Don’t be enigmatic just because you read books all the time and looked up our mother’s words, my sister said. Now tell me in plain Country Club Plaza lunch language, what is ennui?
—It’s the opposite of angst. I said.
—Now we’re getting somewhere. I know about angst. Muff LaRue, who is not my new best friend, and who you are not seeing tomorrow—or maybe you are—is all the time talking about angst. She has angst over her husband. She has angst over her flower garden. She has angst over Charles—that’s her oldest son—who she thinks is gay. She has angst over politics. She has angst over angst. What should I tell her?
—Tell her you don’t have angst “over” something, not even angst. Tell her that if you have angst, angst has you. If she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t have angst and is probably not very interesting. If she smiles, tell her I have tomorrow free into which she may or may not already be scheduled.
—How about we return to the question of your death and dying? Elaine said. There was a course in it at Vassar. But it seemed to me they had it backwards. Shouldn’t it be dying and death?
—It’s a matter of the verbal rhythm, I said. If you have angst, death comes before dying.
—And you’re going to tell me that if you have ennui, dying comes before death.
—More or less at the same time, I said.
—I don’t believe you.
Behind her passed Muff LaRue. She saw me but did not stop.
—Bottle James again? said my sister.
—Yes, I said.
—I don’t believe you, she said and turned around to look.
But Muff was gone.
—I saw you yesterday with Elaine, said Muff when she finally settled down.
The day had begun with sunshine but turned cold and windy. When Muff came in she had a blossom in her hair, toward the back on the right side.
—I saw you as well, I said. You should have stopped.
She was reconsidering our afternoon; probably she has been reconsidering it for some time and thought about calling me to say she would not be here today. She has taken off her coat; it is resting on her lap.
— You two seemed in deep conversation, she said. I have gotten a bottle of wine and two glasses. Muff has brought me nothing: no flowers, nothing from the Better Cheddar—no soap from the French shop down the street.
I imagine two of my wives standing at the counter, one with Marius Fabre Lavande, the other with two blue boxes of Floris “Rose Geranium.” They smile. “Gifts?” says one. “Yes. And you?” “Yes,” she says. “I have a friend who likes soap,” she says. “Me, too, the other one says. They both understand the word “friend.” “Cleanliness is next to. . .” they say in unison, and laugh at themselves. One day, between their Wednesdays, they will lunch together.
—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said.
—What? Muff said.
She was fiddling with her coat.
—My sister and I were talking about angst, I said again, pouring her a glass of wine as I passed behind her, tempted, but not yielding, to remove the blossom from her hair.
—I have it, you know, she said. I’ve told her about it. I have a bit of it now, she said. I’m not sure I should . . . I don’t really quite know what I’m doing here. When did we first meet again? Last fall? I’ve been thinking about you ever since. Maybe I shouldn’t have called.
Obvious exposition is an early symptom of angst.
—I have ennui, I said.
—What’s that? she said.
—It’s a French malady.
—I’ve heard of it, she said. Is it like depression?
Her angst was fading.
—Not at all, I said. More an amusing boredom.
—You don’t seem sick, she said, looking at me while taking a sip of wine. In fact I was thinking just yesterday when I saw you at the reVerse how healthy you look. Has anyone ever told you that you look like a movie star? I think he’s dead.
—No, I said.
—Where may I put this? she said moving her coat off her lap.
—I’ll hang it up for you, I said.
—Tell me about ennui—is that how you pronounce it? And I’ll tell you about angst and we’ll have a good time. What’s this? she said.
—A blossom, I said. It has been in your hair. From a dogwood, I think.
—All this time?
— And you didn’t tell me?
—That’s ennui for you, I said. It doesn’t want to contribute to angst.
When she laughs, a deep throaty laugh, she climbs out of the pool, golden in the light of an elegant moon.
Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Six of X
1. Title: Ennui vs. Angst
A. Single sheet of unnumbered 8/12 x 11 typewriter paper.
B. Typeface for text: Currier
C. Half-Title Page: Humbolt Award.
D. Front Piece: America
C. Text as follows:
“Dear Mr. ___________,
My mother died last year of ovarian cancer, number four.
Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”
The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.
Last April, Sydney Lea, John B. Lee, Marty Gervais and I combined for the epic Reading by the Lake mini-tour of southwestern Ontario (along the Lake Erie shore, shoreline of Fate and Fable). We had musicians, too, Ian Bell and the incomparable Michael Schatte, who now contributes a brand new, unreleased song, premiering on NC, and a knowing and literate essay on the art and craft of song-writing, which essay includes advice from Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis and, yes, Nick Lowe. Michael is a dream of a guitar player, a dashing performer, but also a thoughtful and self-conscious artist. His advice and wisdom, his methods, can cross-pollinate to any other art; he works with words and sounds and rhythms while others ply different media, but the work is always work. And he is so damned quotable. “The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten.”
Our Sun Sets Early
by Michael Schatte
Falling on down like a rotten old tree
Can’t you see, can’t you see, can’t you see?
Yes we’re sapped and the poison is trapped
From the foot to the canopy
Oh you say “we’ll live another day”
Can it be, can it be, can it be?
The last I checked the future was wrecked
And the past is the place to be
Come with me
The gates they look so pearly
Come with me
Our sun sets early
Listen here brother when I tell you what I tell you
‘Bout the sea, ’bout the sea, ’bout the sea
Your smug little chuckle’s gonna meet my knuckle
If you cry conspiracy
The water’s gonna boil over fires from hell
Oh the heat, oh the heat, oh the heat!
Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges
And Apollo plays a war beat
Where’s that voice, where’s that voice, where’s that voice I hear?
Whispering words of a doomsday ditty gonna take us all out of here
Follow me brother I’m the one receiver
Don’t you see, don’t you see, don’t you see?
The time has come, I’m the chosen one
To lead us through the prophecy
© Michael Schatte, 2013.
I recently had the pleasure of being asked to teach a four-part songwriting course in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario. The intention was to have me instruct participants on how to write songs, but then I said something to the program coordinator which I suspect at once disqualified and qualified me for the challenge. I declared in no uncertain terms that a person cannot be taught to write a great song. Instead, a person with musical ambition can be enlightened as to the creative tools which can aid the process, as well as taught to develop the protective panoply required to filter bad ideas and channel good ones. But even this was stretching it, I suppose, because the panoply I had in mind is entirely unique to the ear of the writer, being as we are at the mercy of our own taste, history of musical absorption, and innate ability to weave rhythm, melody, and lyrical poetry into something original and, in only the most successful cases, satisfying to the preponderance of people who hear it.
Despite my best attempts to sabotage this compelling opportunity, the songwriting course materialized with me in the instructor role, and it was a delightful experience. I tell this tale because the following text echoes the notion that it is impossible to teach someone how to write a song. It attempts the equally silly task of communicating a songwriting methodology and philosophy that I often cannot even explain to myself, and which therefore might only be of interest as a kind of untouchable curiosity akin to those behind glass in a low-budget 19th century traveling exhibition.
In an attempt to add tangibility to the intangible, I have included herein a brand new studio recording of a previously unreleased song of mine. By way of its lyrics and accompanying audio, I hope Our Sun Sets Early will serve as something of a case study illustrating the ideas I present briefly before you. Regardless of whether the song tickles your own musico-sensory receptors, I hope that at the very least my explanation of the conception, birth, and growth of this piece will prove interesting, if not instructive to your own creative endeavours, musical or otherwise.
The most ubiquitous trope in songwriting has nothing to do with good songs, and everything to do with good songs unwritten. I refer to the classic creative ‘dry spell,’ or state of artistic doldrums in which creative people seem to find themselves for interminable lengths of time. While this may be a very real phenomenon for some, I refuse to credit it. Indeed, for the sake of my own productivity, I reject it outright. The concept of writer’s block is simply too seductive, too easy an excuse for bad song craft, or far worse, periods of no song craft whatsoever.
The approach I take is what I’ve heard described as a rusty tap metaphor: sometimes the water must be turned on for a time to clear the detritus from the pipes before the pure goodness of ingestible substance arrives. That is to say, by keeping songwriting ‘office hours’ during which I simply must write – lack of imminent brilliance notwithstanding – I prime the mind for the eventual arrival of the mental goods that will become musical works deserving of capture. This is not to say that great ideas do not often arrive outside of these scheduled hours, it is simply that the regimenting of my time with songwriting in mind more readily facilitates their timely appearance.
Working in this way involves a constant battle for confidence, because there is nothing as undermining to a creative person’s self-worth than a conspicuous lack of actionable ideas. Nabokov, like most great authors, established a daily routine of composition which featured early morning writing followed by a taking of the air wherever he found himself. A head-clearing walk has worked for me on many occasions, and often I’ve found that the rhythm of my steps inspires ideas for drum patterns. You can imagine how terribly normal I must look strolling down the street hands a-flailing, banging my chest tribally to the groove in my poor head. Nabokov’s scheduled approach reminds one that productivity requires a business-like discipline, and that we mustn’t take the work of creative geniuses for granted. As the producer Brian Eno opined, people have a tendency to attribute the output of a talent like Beethoven’s to his genius and not to his hard work. It is tempting to assume a mind that produced such glorious music did so effortlessly, discounting entirely that the real genius lies in the consistent ability to channel brilliance through hard work and persistence. There are many among us who would like to join the ranks of the prolific, but very few with the discipline to do so.
Seemingly Trivial Tools
When I sit down to write a song, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that the conditions are correct for creativity. In a pinch I’ve written useable lyric ideas on the side of a bathroom Kleenex box, but I much prefer to have a familiar and conducive surrounding if I’m spending several concerted hours at it. This means little or no fluorescent light (for me, the cozy glow of an incandescent bulb is vastly superior), no computer screens in sight (was there ever a more tyrannical attention stealer?), a large scrap book for writing in (cream coloured pages without lines encourage the free flow of ideas), and finally, a gel ink pen that can keep up with the frantic pace at which I scratch across the page. I share these banal details because I’ve found them to be essential to my system, though they collectively place a distant second behind the one tool I simply must have present to create my music.
If you listen to Our Sun Sets Early, the dominant role of the guitar should leave no question as to why I require that instrument by my side while composing. I’m occasionally asked whether I write words or music first, and I answer that it is almost always the music, and almost always a guitar riff or chord progression that ignites the process. Indeed, on Sun Sets, the electric guitar was so inextricably linked to the plot and energy of the song that I began to hear the lead guitar as directly representative of the tumultuous nature of the cult leader’s twisted thinking. Thus, in the instrumental outro we hear the whammy bar (a device used to bend the pitch of the guitar in unique and, if the stars align, Hendrixian ways) undulating the pitch while my voice descends into a dissonant, groaning cacophony of reverb. I included this effect to give the impression of the cult leader falling away from the world. But are these final notes and rhythmic gasps indicative of the entire world’s end or simply the demise of a mad man? Not for me to say, of course. I leave final interpretation to the listener.
It was during one of my Nabokov-inspired songwriting days that the audio available herein was conceived. Where the jolly idea to write a song from the perspective of a doomsday cult leader came from I know not, but clearly I found it interesting enough to devote some four hours of my time to the writing of a tune around it. Our Sun Sets Early speaks to the danger of proselytization of all stripes, illustrated here in the protagonist’s invocation of apocalyptic prophecy. At the time of its composition, I had recently released an E.P. whose title (Four Songs, One Apocalypse) and lead track (Final Night) toyed with the notion of the end of days, so writing this song was a natural extension of the same chipper, Top 40 radio conquering theme.
The writing proceeded quickly. I was excited by the concept’s potential for a brand of lively wordplay that is too seldom heard on mainstream music channels. The Greek pantheon is mentioned, for instance, with Apollo himself expected to lead the charge against the corrupt, rotting humanity the narrator invites us to escape from. You’ll notice that I avoid explaining things too overtly; instead of mentioning suicide directly – could there be a less musical sounding word? — I allude in the chorus only to sun sets and pearly gates. Not hard to guess what I am driving at I suspect, though you would be amazed at the misinterpretations of some of my lyrics I’ve been privy to. I love such wild misses, as they remind me of the wonderfully unique way each person hears a piece of music, and therefore the constant potential for a singular connection between musician and listener. In order to nurture that connection, I don’t often employ lyrics so abstract that meaning is completely uninterpretable, hoping instead to find a middle ground that rewards careful listening but does not require studying the constellations to divine my intent.
Cliché and Poetry
A few words on words: I find myself bristling every time I hear a cliché-laden song on the radio, which is to say I bristle daily. When this happens, echoes of Martin Amis’ War on Cliché ring loudly within my bulbous cranium. And yet, I think the songwriter must occasionally peddle oft-heard words and phrases, if only to create the occasional opportunity for the listener to know what one is about to sing before it is sung. There isn’t much of this dealing with the stylistic devil in Our Sun Sets Early, though perhaps I could have come up with fresher means of communicating ‘the place to be’ (verse 1) and ‘the chosen one’ (verse 3). I hope I made up for those predictable phrases with punchy alliterations like ‘doomsday ditty’ (verse 3) and ruthless rhyming a la ‘Pantheon judges holding ancient grudges’ (verse 2), both being word combinations I have never before heard uttered in song or seen in print.
I often sit staring at my raw lyrics and wonder whether they can be considered poetry. I tend to think not, as their construction is so dependent on the musical rhythm and melody of the piece, two things that cannot be communicated by the words on their own. It is akin to extracting the liquid paint from a Picasso and throwing it down on a different surface: the entire framework is lost, and the context destroyed despite all the same colours and substances being present. When I write songs, I tend to envision the lyrics bound in holy matrimony to the chords, the completed song welded to the recording process, and the final output bonded tightly to the packaging of the album itself. In other words, every step in the process is linked to what came before and will come after, and to pull any element from this context renders it impotent as far as the art is concerned.
Production and Completion
It is for this reason that I now find myself in the increasingly common position of being my own recording engineer and producer. For those not in the know, the former executes the technical capture and mixing of the song while the latter, often a non-engineer, is responsible for keeping the big sonic and economic picture in mind whilst hopefully nursing the production to a critical and commercial success. I have readily found both joy and frustration in the tackling of these roles myself. But as long as I continue to regard the capture and presentation of my songs as of near-equal importance to the song itself, I do not foresee relinquishing much of that control while I can still manage it. Hence, I’m able to write from conception with the sonic pandemonium of Our Sun Sets Early in mind, and create the loud, violent ending of the mix with my original intent firmly wed to the sonic manipulation that came of it. Whether this connectivity to all facets of the production truly benefits my music is perhaps not for me to say, but one can rest assured that the various stages of the process form a circle of inspiration that at the very least keeps my pen returning to the page, ready to drop the ink of the next song.
That being said, I often find it difficult to start a new composition if there is a potentially good song in a state of incompletion. Knowing when the thing is finished is possibly the most difficult aspect of the entire process, and there have been many works in progress lost to a kind of creative purgatory. This is probably for the best, as the finest songs seem to have a way of writing themselves, and quickly at that. In these cases I am left breathless at the end of the writing session, marveling that so much was done in such short order when there were occasionally entire days of aborted ideas and lyrical dead ends that preceded it. How do I know when the song needs no further effort? I cling strongly to British songwriter Nick Lowe’s imperishable litmus test: the song is finished when it sounds as though someone else wrote it. I will leave you now, as I ponder the psychological implications of that statement.
Michael Schatte is an acclaimed Canadian guitarist, singer, and songwriter based in Toronto. He has released several albums under his own name, including his latest, Four Songs, One Apocalypse. Michael will release a new double album in late 2014, on which Our Sun Sets Early will no doubt reside. For more information including live performance footage and album audio visit www.michaelschatte.com.
Julián Herbert is a brash, exciting, young Mexican novelist, poet and musician, and it’s a special honour to be able to publish on NC this excerpt from his 2011 novel Canción de Tumba (Song of the Tomb), a fiction based loosely on his childhood, his mother (who died of leukemia in 2008), and their impoverished, wandering life in the 1970s and 80s. As the translator, Brendan Riley, points out, the language here is neither artfully embellished nor romanticized; but the text is packed with story, casual violence, large personalities, and the tragicomedy of life. A terrific read, it wakes you up, does what fiction ought to do, make the world seem vibrant and flash with energy, even the saddest things seem grand.
I find value in Julián Herbert’s words because they feel true, they relate a powerful variety of suffering and marginal behavior without surrendering to melodrama or getting stuck on the sentimental flypaper that makes some pages of Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, or even, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, pretty overwrought. To take a more contemporary, and Latin American example, Antonio Ungar’s Tres Ataudes Blancos is a terrifying novel, but it’s also a leering, artful dodger of a book which flexes its literary technique with real panache. With Julián Herbert I feel more like I’m in the pages of something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs; with no need for guile, Herbert simply shows us the sad, sordid life he was forced to endure as a prostitute’s child, and this is what gives the story its power.
All writers reassemble the past but there is not a jot here that feels unlikely or necessarily embellished. Life routinely outstrips fiction. By comparison, a highly stylized, smoothly poetic story like Roberto Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, whose narrator recalls the life of his porn actress mother, feels crammed, baroque, and cloying. Maybe therein lies an authentic difference between pornography and real prostitution. Bolaño’s story is comically blue, making fun of the weird toil involved in committing sex to celluloid. “Mama Leukemia” succeeds by way of its hard, simple, realism: the exhausted prostitute taking her boy to the market in the morning, a family having all its belongings repossessed, surviving for three years in a self-constructed cinderblock hut with a cardboard roof.
You only get one mother. And I sure got one.
Armando J. Guerra
Mama was born on December 12, 1942 in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, she was named Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Nevertheless, she assumed –in part to give herself an aura of mystery, in part because she perceived her existence as a criminal event– an endless number of aliases throughout the years. She changed her name with the same insouciance with which another woman might dye or curl her hair. Sometimes, when she took her kids to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or her volatile aunts-in-law in Matamoros or Villa de la Paz, or the old señoritas in Irapuato for whom she’d been a maid after she ran away from my grandmother’s house (there’s a photo: she’s fourteen years old, her hair is cropped very short, and she’s wearing a blouse with appliqués which she ironed onto the cloth herself), she’d give us instructions:
“Here my name is Lorena Menchaca; my cousin is the famous karate expert.”
“People in this place call me Vicky.”
“Around here I go by Juana, like your grandma.”
(My grandmother, usually, called her Condenada Maldita –that is, “Goddamned little bitch from hell”– as she gripped her by her hair to drag her across the patio, smashing her face against the flowerpots.) Her most consistent identity was “Marisela Acosta.” That was the name my mother used for decades when she made a living as a prostitute. I don’t know in which moment exactly she became Marisela; that’s how she was known when I met her. She was very beautiful: very small and slender, with her long straight hair falling down to her waist, her well-built body, and some shamelessly lucent indigenous features. She was a little over thirty but looked closer to twenty. Very much the go-go girl: ample hips, nicely rounded buttocks, and a flat stomach all which she used to her advantage, wearing only jeans with a wide scarf crossed over her lean breasts and knotted in the back. Sometimes she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, put on some sunglasses and, taking me by the hand, led me through the dark, squalid streets of Acapulco’s red light district –at seven in the morning, while the last drunks staggered out of La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels leaned out on the metallic sills of tiny rooms to call me “cutie” –to the market stalls along Canal Street. With the spleen and exquisite abandon of a sleepless whore, she would buy me a Chocomilk shake and two coloring books.
All the men eyeing her.
But she was with me.
There, five years old, satisfied, I made the acquaintance of this nightmare: the avarice of being the owner of something that you’ll never manage to comprehend.
As a boy I was called Favio Julián Herbert Chávez. Now, however, in the civil registry office in Chilpancingo, they insist that’s not the case: the official register reads “Flavio”, whether thanks to some wicked mischief of my parents or because of some error by the old or new bureaucrats, I really don’t know: I can’t manage to distinguish (among the tons of crappy government propaganda and the hypocritical “¡Viva la familia!” video clips broadcast by Televisa. What family? The country’s one and only happy Family with roots in Michoacán is a clan of narcotraffickers whose members are experts in decapitation) between one and another. When it came time to renew my passport and my voter registration, I was required to use that name, “Flavio”. Thus all my childhood memories come, fatally, with a misprint. My memory is a hand-lettered cardboard sign posted on the outskirts of a modern airport equipped with Prodigy Mobile, a Sanborns department store, and a Casa de Bolsa bank office: “Welcomb to México”.
I was born on January 20, 1971, in the city and port of Acapulco de Juárez, in the state of Guerrero. At the age of four I met my first corpse: a drowned man. At five, my first guerilla: my godmother Jesu’s younger brother Kito, who was serving time for bank robbery. According to the nomadic conditions which my mother’s profession imposed on our family, I spent my early childhood traveling from one Mexican city to another, from one pimp to the next. Year after year, armed with a burning patience, I traveled from the deep south until reaching the splendid cities of the north.
I thought that I’d never manage to escape the country. I thought that I’d never not be poor. I’ve worked –and here, with no desire to offend, I paraphrase an illustrious Mexican statesman, a prime example of our sublime national idiosyncrasy– doing things that even blacks would refuse. I’ve had seven wives –Aída, Sonia, Patricia, Ana Sol, Anabel, Lauréline, and Monica– and very few occasional lovers. I’ve fathered two sons: Jorge, who is now almost seventeen (he was born when I was twenty-one), and Arturo, who will soon turn fifteen. I’m going to be a father for the third time in September, exactly one year before the bicentennial: no one can ever accuse me of being unpatriotic. I’ve been a cocaine addict throughout the course of some of the happiest and most atrocious times of my life: I know how it feels to surf upon the shoulders of what Dexter Morgan called “the dark passenger”.
Once I helped to recover a dead body from the highway; I’ve smoked crystal meth using a lightbulb for a pipe; I did a fifteen day tour as a vocalist for a rock group; I attended university and studied literature; I’ve swallowed absinthe until I was blind drunk while making the rounds through the Spandau quarter of Berlin; I smuggled a chunk of opium through customs in Havana, Cuba, by distracting the officer with my t-shirt for the Industriales baseball team; I lost the school learning achievement competition whose prize was getting to meet Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado; I’m left-handed. None of those things prepared me for the news that my mother was dying from leukemia. None of those things reduced the sordidness of the forty days and nights I spent in vigil by her bedside, Noah plowing a flood of blood chemistry, caring for her and hating her, seeing her grow feverish to the point of asphyxiation, watching as she went bald.
I’m the sort who travels, swollen with vertigo, from the south to the north. I’ve followed a return path back from the ruins of the ancient civilization towards the conquest of a Second Coming of the Barbarians: Free Market; u.s.a. ; your motherfucking mother’s dying day.
I don’t have much experience with death. I suppose that could eventually present a serious logistical problem. I should have practiced with some junkie cousin of mine or some grandmother with a weak heart. But no. I regret to say that I lack experience. When it happens, I’ll end up making my debut in the Big Leagues: burying Mama.
One day I was playing my guitar when someone knocked on the door. It was the neighbor. She was sobbing.
“We’d like to ask you to stop playing your guitar. Cuquín got run over by a Coca-Cola truck. It killed him. We’ve been holding a vigil for him in the house for sometime now.”
I was fifteen, a useless layabout. I did them the courtesy to stop playing. Instead I slipped on my Walkman and switched on “Born in the USA.”
After a while, someone knocked again, insistently. It was my friend and namesake, the neighbor woman’s son and dead boy’s older brother. He said:
“Come with me to buy some bags of ice.”
I put on a t-shirt –it was summer: in the 117˚ summer in the Coahuila desert, people live inside their houses semi-naked–, I hopped over the fence and walked with him to the beer distributor.
He explained to me:
“He’s starting to smell. But Mama and Papa are pretending not to notice.”
We bought four bags of ice. As we walked back, my namesake stopped on the corner and started to cry. I embraced him. We stayed that way a long time. Then we picked up the bags and I accompanied him to his house. Shouts and cries floated out from inside. I helped him carry the bags to the porch, bid him good afternoon, and I went back to my headphones. I remember that episode today because something similar happened to me the other night: I went out to buy water at the Oxxo convenience store across from the hospital where my mother is a patient. Returning, I noticed a pedestrian having difficulty dodging the traffic in the street. In one moment, just before reaching the spot where I was standing, he stopped between two cars. The car horns flared up blaring instantly. I set my bottles of water down on the sidewalk, went to his side, and I gently pulled him towards the curb. When he felt my hand, he slid both his arms round my neck and began to cry, murmuring something bout his chiquita –his little girl–; I didn’t know if he meant his daughter or his wife. He asked if I could give him a telephone card. I gave it to him. There’ s something repugnant in the embrace of a person crying about death: they hang on to you as if you were a hunk of meat. I don’t know a thing about death. I only know about mortification.
When I was a little boy I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. Sooner rather than later I discovered my lack of aptitude. It took me years to accept the fact that the Earth is round. Better to say, I wasn’t able to think about the Earth as a sphere. For a long time I only pretended to agree. Once in school –one of many: I attended eight different elementary schools– I stood in front of the class and explained, without stage fright, the movements of transit and rotation. Inspired by the textbook’s diagram, I used an orange decorated with blue crayon, and graphically illustrated these processes by piercing it with a pencil. I tried to memorize the illusory accounts, the hours and the days, the sun’s transit; the segments of each rotation. But, inside, no: I lived with that proud and lucid anguish that brought more than a few heresiarchs to die eviscerated at the hands of Saint Augustine. It was Mama’s fault: we traveled so much that for me the Earth was a gigantic basin circumscribed in all directions by railroad tracks. Curving tracks, straight, circular, elevated, subterranean. Ferrous and floating atmospheres that made one think of a disaster movie with sundering, crashing polar ice. Confines dark and inescapable as a tunnel, celestial as a cliff in Tarahumara, crackling as an alfalfa field upon which the sleeping stamp their feet. Sometimes, atop a rock or killing time atop a cliff along the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán in Acapulco, I looked towards the sea and seemed to see rattling yellow train cars and diesel engines with the “N de M” emblem, more spectral than the breeze. Sometimes, at night, looking out a small train car window, I imagined that the glowworms under a bridge were those neighboring galaxies my older brother talked about. Sometimes, while I slept next to Mama, stretched out in a metallic hallway or hunched against a hard wooden seat, the whistle warned me that we were on the edge, that we might plunge into hyperspace. One day, while the train stopped in Paredón to change tracks, I reached the conclusion that the planet’s size and shape changed with each passing instant. This all sounds stupid, of course. It fills me with a monstrous sorrow. It makes me feel sorry, most of all, for Mama. Now that I see her completely wasted away in that bed, immobile, surrounded by translucent bottles of VenoPax stained with dry blood. With enormous bruises on both arms, needles, pieces of blue and yellow plastic and tiny BIC pen letters on the adhesive tape: Tempra 1g, Ceftzidime, Citarabine, Anthrcycline, Ciprofloxacin, Doxorubicin, poisonous solutions they shoot into her, mixed in black bags to protect them from the light. Crying because her most beloved and most hated child –the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she’s ever shouted “You’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re no better than a rabid dog”– has to spoonfeed her, see her withered breasts while changing her robe, carry her dead weight to the bath and listen (and smell, oh, how she hates smells) to how she shits. Without strength. Drunk from three blood transfusions. Walled away behind her surgical mask, waiting for them to remove a bone marrow sample.
I regret not having been, because of her (thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or some happiness, none of which ever existed in this Suave Patria––this Gentle Motherland), a model son; one capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Scientist or doctor. A man in a white coat who might be able to explain something to her. To recite something to her. To console her with a little bit of experience and wisdom and impressive medical machinery amid this hour in which her body shudders with wheezing and panic in the face of death.
In my final year of adolescence, at the age of sixteen, there was a second cadaver in my neighborhood. I didn’t dare to look at its coffin because, even now, I retain the sensation of having formed part of a shady plan for his murder. His name was David Durand Ramírez. He was younger than I was. He died on a September day in 1987, at eight o’clock in the morning, shot with a .22 caliber automatic pistol. His unfortunate death influenced my family to emigrate to Saltillo, and for me to study literature and choose a profession and, eventually, to sit myself down on leukemia’s balcony to narrate the sad and incredible account of my mother’s life. But, in order to explain how David Durand’s passing marked my life, I have to begin several years earlier. All this happened in Ciudad Frontera, a town of some fifteen or twenty thousand people which sprang up around the metalworking industry in Monclova, Coahuila. In that town, my family experienced its years of greatest ease as well as its whole catalog of indignities.
We moved there after the brothels in Lázaro Cárdenas went belly up. Mama took us there in search of sympathetic magic: she thought that with its flourishing iron and steel industry, the bonanza times we enjoyed in Lázaro Cárdenas would return to grace our home, the times before the Dry Law imposed by one of the most conservative PRI politicians of those years: Governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano.
At first, she wasn’t wrong: in a brothel called Los Magueyes she met Don Ernesto Barajas, an old cattleman from the area. He began to visit her regularly, like any other whore, but as the months went by he began to realize that Mama wasn’t stupid: she read a lot, possessed a rare talent for mathematics, and –however absurd this might sound– she was a woman of unbreakable principles. She was, above all, incorruptible when it came to talking about finances –something that in this country makes a person practically a foreigner.
Don Ernesto hired her to be his eyes and ears in a few business ventures: a different brothel, and the town’s only gas station. He offered her a decent salary and affectionate treatment (which did not prevent him, after four tequilas, from slipping his hand into her pants; advances she had to manage to avoid without losing her composure or her job).
Marisela Acosta was happy. She trained her children to take care of each other so she wouldn’t have to shell out any more money for neurotic nannies. She rented a house with three bedrooms and a small patio. She acquired some furniture and a shoddy, sky-blue Ford. She brought black soil cultivated at a nursery in Lamadrid and with it sowed, at the end of the property, a small plot of carrots that never grew. Our neighborhood sported an ominous name: El Alacrán –the Scorpion. But, however stuffy it might sound, (and it will: what more could be expected from a story set in la Suave Patria?), we lived at the corner of Progreso y Renacimiento –Progress and Renaissance. There, between 1979 and 1981, our childhood unfolded: my mother’s and my own.
Then came the crisis of `82 and, within my childish pantheon, José López Portillo entered the ranks of posterity as (these are my mother’s words) El Gran Hijo de Puta – “The Great Son of a Bitch”. Don Ernesto Barajas gave up on suburban business ventures; he went back to livestock and let Marisela go. We kept the house but once again began to move from place to place: Acapulco, Oaxaca, San Luis, Ciudad Juárez, Sabinas, Laredo, Victoria, Miguel Alemán. Mama tried, for the umpteenth time, to earn a living working as a seamstress in a Teycon clothing factory in Monterrey. But the pay was criminal and they only hired her part time, two or three shifts a week. So she ended up returning to the daytime brothels on Villagrán Street, sordid dives which by mid-morning were overflowing with soldiers and lawyers more interested in the drag-queens than in the women, a fact which gave the competition a violent and miserable air.
Soon it was impossible to keep paying the rent on the house. At the end of `83 they evicted us and repossessed all our personal belongings. Almost all: by express petition the actuary allowed me to keep a few books before the police loaded our junk into the moving truck. I took the two fattest books: the Aguilar edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, and Volume 13 of the New Thematic Encyclopedia (Literature has always been good to me: if I had to return to that instant knowing what I know now, I’d choose the very same books). We spent three years in absolute misery. Mama had acquired a small bit of property on some disputed communal lands, but we possessed nothing more on that plot of land than dead cacti, a few little sand dunes, enough gravel to fill half a truck, two bags of cement, and three hundred cinder blocks. We built a tiny room about as high as my shoulder, without any foundation, atop which we laid sheets of cardboard for a roof. We had neither water nor drainage nor light. My older brother Jorge quit high school and found work shoveling corn flour in the tortilla factory of an industrial cafeteria. Saíd and I sang on buses for spare change.
After a year, Jorge exploded: he grabbed some clothes and left the house. He was seventeen. We received word from him again on his twenty-third birthday: they’d just named him shift manager in the Vidafel Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He made it clear in his letter that it was only a temporary job.
“I was born in Mexico by mistake,” he told me once. “But one of these days I’m going to fix that once and for all.”
And he did: before he turned thirty he emigrated to Japan, where he still lives.
I can’t talk about myself nor about my mother without recalling those days: not for the pathos and sadness, but because it’s about our own curious Mexican version of The Dhammapada. Or, better yet and more vulgar, our version of the mystical kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Three years of extreme poverty don’t destroy you. On the contrary: they awaken a certain kind of visceral lucidity. By singing on the intercity buses which transported the workers from the Ahmsa steel company back to the bone-dry archipelago of the neighboring towns (San Buenaventura, Nadadores, Cuatro Ciénegas, Lamadrid, Sacramento) Saíd and I got to know the almost crystalline sand dunes, black and white hills, deep walnut groves, a river called Cariño – which means “darling”–, fossilized pools of water with stromatolites and box turtles with shell patterns like giraffes…. We had our own money. We ate whatever we felt like. As runs the verse with which we concluded all our performances: esto que yo ando haciendo, es porque no quiero robar, which means “I sing for my meals because I’d rather not steal.” We learned to think like artists: we were selling a part of the landscape. Sometimes the howling wind was our Coahuiltecan version of the simoom, blowing so strong that it ripped the cardboard covering right off our shack. Then Saíd and I would go running after our roof spinning and flying away down the middle of the street.
Between 1986 (when Mexico hosted the World Cup) and 1987 (the year when David Durand died), things improved: we rented a house, bought some furniture, and slowly, gradually re-entered the class of “poor but honorable people.” Save that Marisela Acosta, without the majority of the neighbors knowing it, had to spend four nights a week in the brothels in Monterrey, trying to earn enough money so she could send us to school.
I was in my first year of high school and, despite the shame of half the town having known me as a child beggar, I’d managed little by little to make friends with the Durands –a blond family of French descent, without much money but quite popular.
One night Gonzalo Durand asked me to accompany him to La Acequia. He was going to buy a pistol.
Gonzalo was a kind of alpha male for our street corner gang that met at night to smoke marijuana and try to flirt with the junior high school girls. Not only was he the oldest: he was also the best fighter, and the only one who had a good, dependable job: he operated the desulphurization unit in Furnace Five at Ahmsa. He’d just turned nineteen. The age of armed fantasies.
Adrian and I were the ones chosen to share his rite of passage. In an illegal, unregistered `74 Maverick we headed straight over to the next neighborhood. First they offered him a revolver; in a thick pasty voice –surely from being stoned off his ass on cough syrup– the seller called the Smith & Wesson a Mita y Hueso. Then they showed Gonzalo the small automatic pistol. He fell in love with it right away. He bought it.
The next day, Adrián came to see me and he said:
“Something terrible’s happened: Gonzalo fired the gun by accident and killed Güerillo while he was sleeping.”
The first image that came to my head was ominous: Gonzalo, sleepwalking, murdering his family… But no: Gonzalo had come off the third shift and, sleepless and anxious, hurried home, climbed into his bunk, and started to clean his pistol. A bullet had slipped into the chamber. Gonzalo, who didn’t understand weapons, didn’t even notice. At some moment, the pistol slipped out of his hands. Trying to grab it, he accidentally fired. The bullet struck his little brother, who was sleeping in the bunk below, piercing his belly.
David Durand must have been how old? Fourteen? One time he’d run away with his girlfriend. Maybe because he wanted to get married. Both their parents beat the hell out of them.
Adrian and I attended the funeral, but we didn’t have the nerve to go to the wake. We feared that at any moment someone might ask us: “Where did that bastard get himself a pistol?”
Gonzalo was in jail, I think, for a couple months. That was the last I heard about him. Mama said to me, very serious:
“You’ll be sorry if I ever catch you looking at guns or hanging out again with those scumbags.”
The rest of the year went by. One day, shortly before Christmas, Mama came home very early, with alcohol still on her breath. Saíd and I were sleeping in the same bed, clutching each other against the cold. She turned on the light, sat down next to us, and sprinkled a light rain of wrinkled bills down on our heads. Her makeup looked clownish, and a small red wound stood out on her forehead.
She said: “Let’s go.”
And just like that, without packing or taking apart the house, we fled the town of my childhood.
Occasionally I return to Monclova to give a lecture or to attend a book launch. Sometimes we drive along the edge of Ciudad Frontera, on the way to the swimming holes at Cuatro Cienegas, or to pick pomegranates at Mario’s and Mabel’s ranch in Lamadrid. As we drive along the Carlos Salinas de Gotari beltway, I tell Mónica: “I spent my childhood on the other side of this airport.” She replies: “Let’s go see it.” I tell her no.
I leave the hospital after keeping vigil for 36 hours. Monica comes to get me. The light of day looks harsh, like the air has been sprayed with filthy powdered milk. Monica says that she’s gathering together all the bills to see if they’re tax deductible; that my ex-boss promised to cover, through the Institute of Culture, at least part of the expenses; that Maruca has been behaving herself but that she misses me terribly; that the garden, the kapok tree, and the jacaranda have been freshly watered. I don’t understand what she is saying (I don’t manage to make the connection) but I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. To sleep fitfully on a chair without armrests you need a rope dancer’s agility and the fury of an off-kilter madman, far from the wall and very close to the reggaeton broadcast on the radio from the nurses’ station: mírala mírala cómo suda y cómo ella se desnuda ella no sabe que a mí se me partió la tuba. – “Look at her look at how she sweats how she strips she don’t know how it made me so hard my horn just split”. A voice inside my head woke me up in the middle of the night. It was saying: “Don’t be afraid. Nothing that might be yours comes from you.” I rubbed my neck and closed my eyes again: I supposed that it must be some greedy peddler’s koan recited by the TV astrologer and medium Mizada Mohamed on the television set in the next room. It’s not reality that makes one cynical; it’s how hard it is to get to sleep in the city.
We make it home. Monica opens the big garage door, parks and locks the Atos inside, and says:
“If you want, after lunch, you can come for a while to the garden to read and just sit in the sun.”
I’d like to tease my wife for saying such prissy things. But I’ve got no strength. Besides, the sun is falling on my face with a palpable bliss. On the freshly watered grass. On the leaves of the jacaranda… I tumble down and lie on the grass. Maruca, our dog, gambols out to say hello to me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sunshine doesn’t, no.
–Julián Herbert; Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley
No matter how strong your command of Spanish, translating any piece, especially a literary one where you confront a personal voice, in this case a very personal one, forces you to encounter a variety of challenges. In addition to the fact that the Hispanic world contains dozens of countries, each one of them contains many different regions with a dizzying variety of idioms and local flavorings. This is well known. All those possible complications are increased when filtered through the mind and voice of an individual writer. But the need for communication provides a kind of governor, in both the source text and the target language. Unless writing for purely personal reasons or constructing some thanatoptic dream language, à la Finnegans Wake, grammar and orthography offer the translator some reassurance that despite whatever difficulties encountered, they are going to encounter meaning, and though there are often no exact matches there must be some meaningful equivalent. Finding that is part of the fun.
Another enjoyable aspect, especially in a memoir like “Mama Leukemia,” is discovering people and places. Reading and translating this text is like spending time in the company of the writer and the character, almost like getting to know them and the places they inhabit. Thanks to Julián Herbert’s precise prose I’m able to revisit Acapulco, where I once spent a beach weekend in 1984, when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving there on a tour coach from Mexico City and, as I had been in the capital city, shocked by the close proximity of poverty and opulence, vast shanty towns clinging to crumbling hillsides just a short ride from luxurious hotels whose likes I’d never imagined. Julián Herbert’s harrowing experiences with and without his mother make those scenes I glimpsed in passing far more vivid because he populates them and sets them in motion.
I’m also grateful for having had the chance to correspond with Julián while working on this translation and to receive his generous and thoughtful feedback. He answered each of my questions and also spotted a number of details which needed correction, and he kindly, patiently discussed them and offered feedback. He helped me clarify some locations when I had conflated Acapulco with some of the story’s later locations in north central Mexico. He also helped clarify the term “cigarra” which is literally a “cicada” but also as slang carries the meaning of “layabout” or “loafer”. It’s interesting to see how the noun “go-go girl” can be used in Spanish as an adjective; Julián uses it to describe his prostitute mother when she was young: “Era muy agogó” which literally means, she was as vivacious as a go-go dancer. A very interesting localism appears in the Spanish phrase about a car: “Nos enfilamos en un Maverick 74 chocolate al barrio de junto.” I was working from a Word document I’d made from the PDF. In the PDF the word “chocolate” is italicized, but it didn’t appear that way in Word. Had I noticed that at first I might have paid more attention to it, but I simply took it to mean brown, and produced this sentence: “We got into a chocolate-colored `74 Maverick and drove over to the next neighborhood.” Julián pointed out to me that chocolate (with the Spanish pronunciation), as used here, comes from the word chueco which means “outside the law” and in the story’s context refers to an illegal, unregistered car, imported from the U.S. into Northern Mexico, without paying taxes. A similarly interesting corruption of pronunciation occurs in “Mama Leukemia” when, in this illegal Maverick, (whose real color, he tells me, was green), they go to buy an illegal gun, a Smith and Wesson, which the stoned Mexican seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”.
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. “Mama Leukemia” is a chapter from his novel Canción de Tumba (2011).
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.
Today, a truly fascinating essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, on À la recherche du temps perdu and A Man Without Qualities, that starts with a comic anecdote about Musil’s annoyance at being compared to that “nibbling mouse” in Paris and goes on to a parallel use of a certain technique, the “extratemporal” moment, the moment outside of time. Both Musil and Proust make a special case for the mythic or transcendent quality of metaphor, both write to infinitely expand the minute. Genese Grill is that wonderful combination, a scholar and an artist; and she does that lovely thing poets can do: she enacts in her prose the subject of her essay; she juxtaposes two quite different authors and in that moment of tense suspension creates a spectacular moment of clarity and insight.
But it was also like a metaphor, where the things compared are the same yet on the other hand quite different, and from the dissimilarity of the similar as from the similarity of the dissimilar two columns of smoke drift upward with the magical scent of baked apples and pine twigs strewn on the fire (Musil MWQ 153).
In a diary entry from the late thirties or early forties, Robert Musil complained that people were comparing his work to that of a contemporary French novelist, and that their comparisons were rather like equating the unshakeable will of a lion with a nibbling mouse. The lion — Musil himself — admitted elsewhere to having read no more than ten pages of this mouse’s voluminous work in his life, afraid presumably of being tainted by either influence or, more probably, the rumor of association. And yet, from the farther distance of three quarters of a century, from a more thorough reading of Proust than Musil’s own ten pages, one may begin to draw some lines of association, to make a metaphor, as it were, of these two separate persons. Neither Musil nor Proust, despite their famous exactitude about language, bothers, to note a relevant though minor similarity, to distinguish between different sorts of figurative language, referring indiscriminately to metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, and anthropomorphism as simply metaphor, likeness, or association. For the purposes of this discussion then, at the risk of offending grammarians, metaphor will refer — as it did for these authors — to any process of association between objects, things, persons, experiences, events, or times.
Admitting that, as Musil’s character Ulrich both warns and wonders, metaphoric association always involves a level of inaccuracy, a process of leaving out, and a necessary optical illusion of sameness where myriad differences prevail, we may begin to force these two different authors for the space of this short paper into a slightly uncomfortable proximity, in hopes that such temporary and perhaps over-bold imprecision will be fruitful. This process involves a reduction of a complex arrangement of details to broad strokes, generalities, universals. “Every concept,” wrote Nietzsche, “comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent […] by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another”. “Truth,” he continued, is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms” (Nietzsche 877-878).
And Ulrich, explaining to Diotima that she, like an author, always “leaves out what doesn’t suit [her]” argues that “all concepts upon which we base our lives are no more than congealed metaphors,” — which doesn’t contradict his previous statement that “by leaving things out, we bring beauty and excitement into the world”(MWQ 625-626). Proust’s definition of Beauty, provided in a letter to Madame de Noailles, describes this optical illusion similarly: “It’s a kind of blending,” he writes, “ a transparent unity in which all things, having lost their initial aspect as things, have lined up beside each other in a sort of order, are instilled with the same light and are seen within each other. I suppose,” he concludes, “this is what is called the gloss of the old masters”(qtd. In Tadie 443). And, in The Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator admits the necessary reduction and abstraction which takes place in the translation of reality into fiction, confessing that he has reduced the whole environs of Combray to a few outlines, “like the decor one sees prescribed on the title page of an old play, for its performance in the provinces”. “As though,” he continues, “all of Combray had consisted of but two floors joined by a slender staircase, and as though there had been no time there but seven o’clock”(I 33) .
In this regard, every work of art — and every personal judgment about reality — as a result of selecting out and reduction or — one might even say, abstraction, is a process of metaphoric association, or, to use the terminology which Musil and Proust mostly chose to ignore, a process, more specifically of synecdoche, whereby a part only of reality is presented as a representation or symbol of the whole. A work of art, then, is a sort of selective microcosm of places, events, persons, experiences, and details of all kinds, an attempt to symbolically contain all of time within the boundaries of its form. In a novel the size of Musil’s or Proust’s, however, we see art straining to stretch a map somewhat like the mythical one Borges describes in a short sketch–a map which was so exact that it covered over the entire territory it attempted to describe. While traditionally, novelists have selected only those elements which, as Hamlet notes, “serve to swell the progress of a scene,” Musil and Proust, in the almost willfully lethargic non-action of their characters, raise the question: how would a novel look which described all of the moments in between the action, or a map which depicted all of the places leading up to or receding from the usual focal points of a journey?
Their moments of attention are quite different than what our readerly expectations have been trained to await. These moments, moreover, do not necessarily line up like purposeful dots to form an easily traceable path. Musil and Proust present us with an emphatically different methodology for arranging and thinking about our lives and about the possible narration of experience. This methodology rests, I submit, in the metaphorical qualities of what I will call the extratemporal moment–a recurring motif in both novels wherein two objects, places, persons, times, or experiences are temporarily associated with each other, lifting the experiencer and the reader into a realm outside of the time of the novel, and, what is more essential, to a realm which is outside of time altogether. For both Proust and Musil, the consciousness of an extratemporal reality is connected with mystical and mythical ideas about an eternal realm untainted by the scourges of time and death, and, for Musil–more specifically–of the realm he calls the millennium–a thousand years of heaven on earth–wherein an eternity is thought to be contained within a moment. “A thousand years is nothing more than the opening and closing of an eye”(MoE 1233 ); but all of Musil’s novel enacts this relationship of the moment with eternity. “For Proust,” writes Gerard Genette in a footnote, “lost time is not, as is widely but mistakenly believed, ‘past’ time, but time in its pure state, which is really to say, through the fusion of a present moment and a past moment, the contrary of passing time: the extra-temporal, eternity” (ff.7, 226). Genette continues, quoting Proust’s Jean Santeuil: “As if our true nature were outside time, created to taste the eternal” (ff.8, 226). Another way to taste the eternal, perhaps a little easier than attaining to the millennium or falling into a mystical trance, is through the creation or experience of a work of art. Proust’s narrator’s discovery of a vocation through the sudden realization of correspondences is, of course, a manifest illustration of this theory of metaphor. The creation of a work of art, in other words, depends upon the involuntary association of two separate entities; metaphor is, for both of these authors, the means to the extratemporal, to the eternal moment.
In precisely a “moment” within The Man Without Qualities, wherein two concepts, “violence and love do not have quite their conventional meaning” it occurs to Ulrich that “life–bursting with conceit over its here-and-now but really a most uncertain, even a downright unreal condition–pours itself headlong into the few dozen cake molds of which reality consists” (MWQ 645). The fact that two concepts temporarily lose their conventional meaning here, and that they do this within a moment, is another reflection of the fruitful nature of metaphor; but, paradoxically, the insight which is born is that metaphor can be reductive as well as rich in possibilities. These few dozen molds which constitute one way in which people and authors metaphorically translate reality are clearly somewhat restrictive; they seem to limit rather than expand imagination and, by association, the possibilities of literature and life. Perhaps we have to differentiate between the “congealed metaphors” which Ulrich mocked in his discussion with Diotima, metaphors which are more like clichés or tired concepts, and another fresher, more immediate species of newly minted juxtapositions.
In a particularly complex chapter wherein Ulrich confronts the imposing beauty of an old church and with it the tension between petrified forms, traditions, definitions and the creative energy of a fluid force he calls “mist,” metaphor is precisely the open sesame to seeing things differently, to creatively de- and re-constructing the fixed meanings and historical course of the world. Ulrich sees the church as an old matron, “sitting here in the shade, with a huge belly terraced like a flight of steps, her back resting against the houses behind her.” “It was only seconds,” relates the narrator after a long digression on time, beauty, and change, “that Ulrich stood outside the church, but they rooted in him and compressed his heart with all the resistance of primal instinct against this world petrified into millions of tons of stone, against this frozen moonscape of feeling where, involuntarily, he had been set down” (MwQ 136). A metaphor, followed by insights which “flashed on Ulrich with surprising suddenness,” is in this case a fruitful and expansive momentary experience which stops the flow of the narrative and undoes reality by merging two possible objects abducted from the world of real and solid things.
Proust’s narrator, describing Elstir’s paintings of seascapes, describes further metaphor’s ability to take from things their initial characteristics or qualities: “The charm of each of them,” he explains, “lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor, and that, if God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their names or giving them other names that Elstir created them anew” (I 628). More famously, in the waiting room at the Guermante’s mansion, inundated repeatedly by a series of metaphoric correspondences and sense-memories (paving stones, clanking spoons, textures of cloth) which make him believe for the first time that he can write, the narrator notes the sudden transmutation from real world to the realm of fairy tale. After wiping his mouth with a napkin that is like unto a towel from his past life, he explains that, “immediately, like the character in The Arabian Nights who unwittingly performs precisely the rite that calls up before him, visible to his eyes alone, a docile genie, ready to transport him far away, a fresh vision of azure blue passed before my eyes…”(II 993).
The sudden perception of a correspondence between two separate entities transports both Ulrich and Proust’s narrator from their present time-bound world into the extratemporal like magic; such correspondence cannot, according to both theorists of metaphor, be bidden, it cannot be logically prepared for; but when it comes, it comes with a beatific force to temporarily blot out everything else. While there may, then, be only limited petrified realities (heavy and fixed as stone) or formal arrangements out of the pragmatic necessity of the pursuance of normal life and the continuation of some semblance of narrative, there seem to be infinite possibilities for the extratemporal legerdemain of metaphoric displacement—to effortlessly topple centuries of tradition, discombobulate time lines, or to magically translate a dreamer from a post-WWI Parisian drawing room to a hovering trans-historical magic carpet.
Metaphor–the act of making equivalent that which is not equivalent is a sort of a category mistake, a deviation. And, more importantly for the creation and valuation of literature, metaphor, as Paul Ricouer wrote, “bears information because it ‘redescribes’ reality. Thus,” he continued, “ the category mistake is the de-constructive intermediary phase between the description and the redescription” (Rule 22). Metaphor, in other words, being inherent in the creation of any fictional world, involves something like a critique of the real world as prerequisite to a redescription . By connecting Ricouer’s work on metaphor with his work on narrative and time, we may note that fictional time, in his conception, is a metaphoric redescription of cosmological and historical time which explores “the resources of phenomenological time that are left unexploited or are inhibited by historical narrative [...] These hidden resources of phenomenological time,” Ricouer continues, “and the aporias which their discovery gives rise to, form the secret bond between the two modalities of narrative [fictive and historical]. Fiction,” he concludes, “is a treasure trove of imaginative variations applied to the theme of phenomenological time and its aporias”(Time 128).
While all novels thus bear a metaphoric relationship with reality, in The Man Without Qualities and Remembrance of Things Past, we are not only presented with two simple or self-contained redescriptions of the world; in addition to performing the normal metaphorical function vis à vis reality, metaphor in these works takes on a more specialized role, that of presenting further imaginative variations to the basic imaginative variation of each fictional world itself; this double undoing reflects strikingly back upon life from the realm of literature by its explicit questioning of all attempts to make order and to tell stories in a strictly linear order. As Musil wrote in response to a criticism leveled against the relative plotlessness of his novel, “The problem: how shall I come to narration, is as much my stylistic problem as it is the life problem of the main character”. Both novels, furthermore, wage their own wars on normal reality: Ulrich, when asked what he would do if he could rule the world for the day, announces, “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality” (MWQ 312); Marcel, for his part, declares that art alone can reveal to us “our life, life as it really is, life disclosed and at last made clear, consequently the only life that is really lived…” (II 1013).
While metaphoric processes within these two books repeatedly stem the flow of the narratives (such as they are) and, within the already disjunctive and non-linear procession of their lengthy, never-ending and never finished scope, present momentary and extra-spatial distentions, they also serve to call attention to the extra-temporal process of metaphoric thinking which is the basis of both literature and life. Metaphoric thinking is, thus, an alternative to what Ulrich describes as longing for “the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented, in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated ‘thread of the story,’ which is, it seems, the thread of life itself”. Although, he continues to muse, people love the illusion of this consequent ordering of cause and effect, and look to it “as their refuge from chaos,” he notes that, “he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface” (MwQ 709). In a modernist novel which has lost that “elementary, narrative mode,” one can see the function of metaphor as the creation of an almost infinite number of expanding thought moments, decentralized centers, if you will, within the “infinitely interwoven surface,” which assert convincing alternatives to the comforting illusion of the “thread of the story”. “Then there is a center,” writes Musil in a late draft, “and all around it other centers come into being” (MoE 1524, trans. mine).
Ulrich asserts repeatedly through the novel that he wants to live life like a character in a book, removing what he calls “the fatty tissue of life”; and Proust’s narrator describes a state of mind wherein a supposed real character, his lost love Albertine, is perceived as a fictional personage. He posits a world “in which Albertine counted so little [...] perhaps an intellectual world, which was the sole reality,” and a world in which his grief would be, “something like what we feel when we read a novel [wherein we would] think no more about what Albertine had done than we think about the action of the imaginary heroine of a novel after we have finished reading it” (II 374-5).
In both cases we are right to pause, for Ulrich and Albertine are, in fact, already characters in books! But —and this is the important question here — what sort of books? Books, it should by now be clear, which by undermining material reality, may reach the more essential — the eternal — Proust’s “sole reality” or Musil’s life without the fatty tissue, books wherein the thread of the story, otherwise known as the plot, is very tenuous amid the heady atmosphere of swirling timelessness and the dense non-action of thinking, amid the constant distention of extended metaphors and recurring metaphoric moments of mystical aesthetic experience. The books in which these characters would live if they were real are, presumably, the sort of books which they do live in as fictional, books rather more like those favored by Virginia Woolf in her essay Modern Fiction, which, rather than recording plot, tragedy, love interest, or catastrophe, describe life as it really was after the turn of the century, as a subjective experience of “myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of incomparable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there”. “Life,” Woolf famously continues, “is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (106).
That the metaphoric moment, for both Proust and Musil, constitutes a means for the arresting and dilating of time, a sort of escape from the normal reality of the novels themselves, should be examined in light of the length of these novels; the tension, in other words, between these recurring moments and the stretch of pages that persists. Judith Ryan, in her excellent book on early psychology in the modern novel, writes that “The early 20th century writers’ attempt to embed depictions of such moments into the novel, rather than reserve them for lyric poetry as the Romantics had done, was symptomatic of their view that these special states were part and parcel of reality, not something beyond it” (223). The difficult question explored by this formal challenge concerns the relationship of these exceptional moments of experience with the necessary continuation of normal time and some semblance of linear narrative.
How are these moments to be valued within these novels? How are we to understand the narrator Marcel’s statement that the pleasure which these metaphoric moments of contemplation had given him at “rare intervals” in his life, “was the only one that was fecund and real” (II 998) or that he “would have sacrificed [his] dull life in the past, and all [his] life to come, erased with the India-rubber of habit, for one of these special, unique moments”(II 395)? Can we begin to take seriously the challenge waged against reality by the mystics with whom Ulrich and his sister Agathe go to school, who saw that in certain states of consciousness, “the ordinary world, with its apparently so real people and things that lord it over everything like fortresses on cliffs, if one looks back at it, together with its evil and impoverished relationships, appears only as a consequence of a moral error from which we have already withdrawn our organs of sense”? Or must we, still stuck in the paradigm of positivism, linearity, and the illusion of permanence which these novels explicitly aim to dissolve, deem Musil’s experiment with the “other condition” a failure because Ulrich and Agathe’s idyll in paradise does not endure any longer than an infinite moment? Or conclude that Proust’s world of literature is merely an untenable aesthetic dream because its ultimate judgment on life favors transcendent moments experienced solipsistically and in an infinite circle?
Perhaps one last metaphor will provide us with a provisional answer (in a world of partial solutions and eternal non-closure) to at least the question of Musil’s ultimate conclusions about the viability or value of “the other condition” of these extratemporal moments. If we boldly make a metaphor of Musil’s and Proust’s novels, comparing along with all we have already discussed in all too swift passing their strikingly similar methods of continual drafting, of experimental overlapping versions, of non-closure, we may pause to wonder if Ulrich’s development, from something like what Gilles Deleuze called Proust’s narrator’s initial “apprenticeship to disillusionment”, might likewise have been towards the discovery of vocation and the autobiographically shadowed next step of beginning to write the novel which we have just read. In other words, as Proust’s own life is metaphorically echoed in his novel (through displacements, gender shifts, and palimpsests of a-chronology); so is Ulrich’s story very similar to his author’s, who, like his character, was an army man, an engineer, and a mathematician; and who had found, like Ulrich, a twin who was not really a twin in his wife Martha. Gene Moore in his book on Musil and Proust interprets that Musil wanted to depict in this way the “cultural suicide” of his age and, by association, the failure of his dream of “the other condition”. The culmination in war might, instead, be merely the next step in the metaphorical narration of Musil’s own experience–a next step with surprisingly positive connotations for Musil, who experienced a powerful near death experience while on the battlefield which serves as one model for the ecstasy of the other condition.
That “War,” as Musil writes in a late novel draft, “lasts a month and sex a night,” is not an argument against the reality of either. Nor does Proust’s narrator’s patently absurd attempt to eternally imprison Albertine (La Prisonierre) within his rooms, to catch and hold beautiful youth, translate to a negation of the relative meaning of that which must necessarily, by its nature, be fleeting.
That neither Musil nor Proust depict the duration of these moments of exceptional experience is precisely the point; for “real essences,” in a post-Einsteinian universe, are neither solid nor consistent; real essences are in flux; they change depending upon the conditions, the atmosphere, on our relative relationship to them, depending, most of all, upon their association or temporary metaphoric relationship with other essences.
Ulrich, hundreds of pages before he even so much as thinks of his forgotten sister Agathe, says that he will either have to write a book or kill himself, and then again in later notations for the end of the novel, confesses that his three choices in life were: “Suicide, writing books, going to war” (MwQ, 1757). Perhaps — if you will humor me in my metaphor for a moment or two more, Ulrich’s answer to the impossibility of holding the moment in the real world, of maintaining a sense of conviction, desire, love, or beauty, can be glimpsed in the reflection of Proust’s novel, wherein the narrator discovers, after returning from a long convalescent exile during WWI, that all of his friends have grown so suddenly old that he believes at first that he has arrived at a masquerade party where the guests are wearing powdered wigs and face make-up. “For I knew,” the narrator relates — pointing to the inevitability of death, “what these changes meant, what they were the prelude to”(II 1045). The only answer, of course, could be the creation of a lasting work of art, the writing of the book which Musil would spend the rest of his post-war life writing—the book he was working on the day he died. “Truth,” Proust writes, “will begin only when the author takes two different objects, establishes their relationship […]and encloses them in the necessary rings of a beautiful style […] makes their essential nature stand out clearly by joining them in metaphor, in order to remove them from the contingencies of time[…]”(II 1008-9).
Which must be why Proust himself, on his death bed, furiously dictated his experiences of dying to his secretary to be transposed into the still unfinished novel as the death scene of another character! Even — or perhaps especially — in death, literature was more important than life. “Little patch of yellow wall, little patch of yellow wall,” mutters another perishing character in Proust’s novel, sucking in his very last glimpses of beauty before a Vermeer painting: “And finally,” Proust writes, “the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His giddiness increased; he fixed his eyes, like a child upon a yellow butterfly which it is trying to catch, upon the precious patch of a wall”(II 509) For there in this little patch of color, not, after all, in remembering the people he had loved or lost or been betrayed by, not in reviewing the fleeting heroic actions, the failures and successes of idle scenarios or delusive desires, but there, in a metaphoric transubstantiation wherein paint becomes an image of a wall becomes prose becomes the uncatchable, elusive, fluttering yellow butterfly which is mortality, there is the extratemporal moment, eternally though ephemerally trembling…not something that lasts, alas, but, on the other hand, the only thing that does.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Genette, Gérard. Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Columbia U P, 1984.
Moore, Gene E. Proust and Musil: The Novel as Research Instrument. Garland Series in Comparative Literature. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1985.
Musil, Robert. Briefe [Letters]1901-1942. Ed. Adolf Frisé with help from Murray G. Hall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1981
— Gesammelte Werke: Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften. Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978.
— Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition; KA): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009
— Tagebücher (TB). Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1983.
— The Man Without Qualities (MWQ). Trans. Burton Pike and Sophie Wilkens. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”. Trans. Ronald Speirs. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent P. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff. New York : Random House, 1934, 2 volumes.
Ricouer, Paul. Time and Narrative, pt. II. Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin & David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
— The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Trans. Robert Czerny ; with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto/Buffalo : U of Toronto P, 1977.
Ryan, Judith. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991
Tadie, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust: A Life. Trans. Euan Cameron. New York: Penguin, 2001
Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’. Collected Essays. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966, 3 vols., II.
Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.
- Musil, Robert. The Man without Qualities (MwQ). Trans. Burton Pike and Sophie Wilkens. Knopf: New York, 1995, 153; Gesammelte Werke: Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (GW, MoE) 145: “Aber so wie in einem Gleichnis, wo die Dinge die gleichen sind, dawider aber auch ganz verschieden sind, und aus dem Ungleichnis des Gleichen wie aus der Gleichnis des Ungleichen zwei Rauchsäelen aufsteigen, mit dem märchenhaften Geruch von Bratäpfeln und ins Feuer gestreuten Fichtenzweigen, war es auch”.↵
- Robert Musil: Tagebücher [Diaries]. Ed. Adolf Frisé. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1976, 934.↵
- From a letter probably written to Bernard Guillemin, January 26th, 1931. Robert Musil: Briefe [Letters]1901-1942. Ed. Adolf Frisé with help from Murray G. Hall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1981, 498 (translation mine).↵
- Judith Ryan. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991↵
- GW 5: MoE, 1642 (translation mine).↵
- Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition; KA): Annotated Digital Edition of the Collected Works, Letters and Literary and Biographical Remains, with Transcriptions and Facsimiles of All Manuscripts. Ed. Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino. Robert Musil-Institut, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, 2009, Transkriptionen und Faksimiles, Nachlass Mappen, Mappengruppe II, Mappe II/2 “NR-23-”, Notizen zur Reinschrift 23-36, 2/11/16, NR 33-3/Studie zum Problem Aufbau-3: “. Letzte Zuflucht Sex u Krieg: aber Sex dauert 1 Nacht der Krieg immerhin wahrscheinlich 1 Monat. usw.”↵
Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English. — Natalie Helberg
Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton is wide open, a bliss text, pulsating. It is as open as a text can be, maximally excited, welling into hot, rank, sticky meanings. Alarming meanings. Tender meanings. Its lovers fuck, staining the page with Medusian laughter—Cixous, that French gorgon’s—such that even eroticized aggression—that cultural cage, that check on our sexual imaginaries—becomes risible, linguistic (so not less erotic). Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English.
Cunt Norton is a conceptual project: It is the sequel to Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups (2001) and, like Cunt-Ups, the fruit of a feminist deployment (and salubrious denaturing) of the Dadaistic ‘cut-up’ technique William Burroughs was busy plugging in the 1950s and 60s. For Cunt-Norton, Bellamy used canonical sources—poems from the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry—fusing them, smearing Chaucer through Hughes, with her own pornographic text. Like ‘cut-ups,’ the pieces in Bellamy’s “anthology” are the quickened, crystalline remains of a ludic encounter between language and itself. (‘You lie gently down and cut through my skin; you shower me with mica on the side of small rivers…’)
Like cut-ups, they speak to the idea that the speaking voice, and all writing, is an amalgamation, a patchwork of texts, a conflation of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ of ‘mine’ and ‘yours,’ ‘me’ and ‘you,’ ‘culture’ and ‘self.’Even Bellamy’s original pornographic material belongs to another, in this case, another poet: its lines are transplants, carry-overs from an e-mail collaboration. This source text, moreover, is active as a partial base in both Cunt Norton and Cunt-Ups, and so lines from one re-erupt in the other, seeming only slightly altered. Taken together, these books are reminiscent of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which locks the same re-contextualizing tactic between two covers; as a pair, they are Marco Polo, radically echoic, co-constitutive, incorporated into one another.
Irigaray, then, is particularly apt when she turns up in Cunt Norton’s epigraph: ‘Between us, the movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside, knows no limits.’ In this vein, the text, too, begins, appropriately but never properly—there is nothing ‘proper’ about it—with a kiss: ‘So I take the tape off your mouth, no dance, and there is only the dance, and we tongue huge gobs of spit.’
The work’s fluid, gender-shifting speaker is the effect of this dance, or is made up of multiple voices which emerge and recede. There is no need to read a unified subject across Cunt Norton’s pages, and there is no need not to: disjunction and consistency exist there simultaneously. ‘The speaker’ is thus (rather magically) able to inscribe its own lover as a presence (Bellamy herself thinks of the text not in terms of a unified speaker, but in terms of two lovers): One “letter” reads ‘Love’s not while I jerked off, thinking of thee covertly…I slide between thy lips red: if snow be white, why then walls. I stick thy cock stone inside my cunt for at least fifteen minutes.’
Most of Bellamy’s work ruptures membranes, gushing through kinds of language, polluting, if not gender, consistently, then genre. The Letters of Mina Harker, for example, incorporates found poetic language into “original” prose, appropriates fiction and TV text (e.g., Stephen King’s Carrie; I Love Lucy), merges fiction and autobiography (read: becomes meta-textual ascension), and of course lodges itself loosely in the narrative framework that constitutes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which it warps lovingly and re-hammers. As Kathy Acker, one of Bellamy’s aesthetic touchstones, speaking of one of her own pieces, claimed: “I placed the second text on top of the first text, crudely. You do what you have to…”
Even as a writer with narrative impulses, Bellamy’s interests lie less in narrative itself than in linguistic play and formal innovation, less in representation than in language that reminds us it is language, that orchestrates, as she puts this in an interview, ‘a romance’ with the reader. To borrow a phrase from Cunt Norton, it seems that for Bellamy ‘all is permitted, as long as we come.’ Pleasure and a fast-paced, libidinal sort of energy guide her writing, which often wreaks the loveliest havoc on conventional grammar as it shoots along impulsively and associatively, subsisting as pure, all-encompassing flow.
Bellamy, like Cunt Norton’s ambiguous, ever-shifting addressee, ‘wets everything’ she touches; she blasts the normalizing strictures that fuel Creative Writing (the institution) and desiccate it in practice, writing about these with a hatred that is as flagrant as it is delectably subdued.Cunt Norton, by virtue of its title, section titles (‘Cunt Whitman,’ ‘Cunt Lowell,’ etc.) and esteemed source texts, exists as a critique of these strictures in a way that Cunt-Ups cannot:
It exists as an extension of the culture wars Bill Readings locates in the 1990s, when the corollary of the rise of interdisciplinary studies seemed to be canonical erosion: All of culture, too much to anthologize, was suddenly too legitimate to leave out (ambassadors from the margins were railing at the doors; the guardians of Culture, guarding their own authority, wrote some of them up). Cunt Norton, then, pays homage—facetiously, of course—to the form of denigrating tokenism that often buttressed and continues to buttress the English canon’s—perhaps any canon’s—claim to political correctness and inclusivity: Emulating Norton minimalism, it includes one woman writer and one black writer (‘Cunt Dickinson’ and ‘Cunt (Langston) Hughes’).
More than this, though, and as others have noted, it engages with the philosophical question of whether those existing on the fringe or beyond the borders of a hegemonic system can speak through and within it. This is the question Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses in her famous essay on ‘the subaltern.’ Spivak answers in the negative. Audre Lorde was answering a similar question (answering it similarly) when she wrote ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ The Language poets thought differently, suggesting that language itself—read: ‘the master’s house’—can render itself strange to itself. Rendered strange—rearranged, syntactically fractured—language, the suggestion ran, could reveal and transform the oppressive logics of the day, which it otherwise consolidated.
Bellamy, in Cunt-Norton, is in some ways embracing a Language strategy, is choosing to dwell in the master’s house, is pissing in it, using its materials while soiling them with others while leaching through the walls. This is why the text’s language is often so cunningly beautiful: ‘I hear spirits sob in each blood-on,’ the stone made stony (made strange, though not unrecognizable), the dead text (‘the graveyard under my tongue’) renewed. And yet Cunt Norton has no master, or rejects various masters, or defaces various homes:
Bellamy has her own version of the subaltern: the feraltern, a mythic, unruly, improper, ravenously expansive form of energy, a figure that represents her own negotiations with what she describes as a brutal, vulgar, working-class childhood, and with different forms of aesthetic pressure she encountered in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1978, Bellamy moved to San Francisco, where she of course found herself at the confluence of various hot writing scenes: feminist writing groups rejected her impulse to write about sex and violence (queer writing communities embraced it); the Language movement’s cachet and ubiquity made it difficult to pursue narrative as poetry (she had to pursue it as ‘New Narrative’). The feraltern is in part a response to that matrix: it is both powerful and vulnerable; it is every gesture that flies in the face of naysaying forces, that both yearns to shit and shits on censorship.
Cunt Norton, like Cunt-Ups, is an attempt to explore, source and ultimately spew forth feraltern energies. It is too feral, then, too dirty, for a master—again, whatever master: It borrows what it can from whatever dominant movements (‘Language poetry’; ‘conceptual writing’), while exceeding their bounds. It is too close to being syntactically and narratively coherent to be conventional Language poetry. This is slightly less true of Cunt-Ups, which, as a ride that is a rhythm, is, compared to Cunt Norton—whose secretions sound seamless and seem effortless—bumpy, more jarring, littered with halts:
You’re my third victim and we’re standing up fucking kept the skulls kept the skulls slowly like a wave at Ocean City. I wiggle around and shiver…It’s such a thrill to have something you actually touched, I stuck the tape between my legs and tried to hump it, a diffuse feeling over-came me like my cunt had expanded and you’re floating. (Cunt-Ups)
That thing which everybody feels, when their ravenous ghosts stream out disturbing meals or love, saying fuck me, thy cunt is so huge—we all know that—yet here thou art, begging for “security” from my body, my glassy brooks, thinking unutterable things. (Cunt Norton)
Even Cunt Norton’s conceptualism—since Bellamy has edited, has sculpted these cunt-ups—is baroque (impure). It also wears its idea:
Vanessa Place writes ‘I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page.’ Against this, the oral/aural sex motif that runs through Cunt Norton codes the feral subaltern’s predicament: The cock in the mouth (the cock/tongue in the ear) is language itself, is the master’s house, ramming its violence, rendering speech impossible, or enabling its colonized forms. (‘I would die if thou put thy tongue in mine ear, thy salamander, thy divine child in mine oven’; ‘the Tongue is not made for Speech as I bang my Cock against the back of thy throat.’) The mouth, conversely, which risks violence, figures the idea that the tongue brutal words, brutal logics and institutions sit on might offer them back metamorphosed: ‘Slobber all over my Cock until Eternity. Tell all the Truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.’
But if Cunt Norton is, like the heathen poetics it enacts, an ‘upheaval born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ.,’and if it explicitly inscribes this idea, blowing blow jobs like molten glass into a theme for its pages, it is nevertheless not reducible to this idea. It truly barfs. In her Barf Manifesto, Bellamy explains that The Barf—which, arguably, names an approach to writing, an aesthetic, as well as writing with certain qualities—‘says so much…says too much’; its meaning is ‘so surplus it decimates form,’ its form ‘so vicious it beats the fucking pony[-piñata] of content to bits.’
Cunt Norton, then, is a fickle renegade, forever changing its mind as to whether language is stymieing or generous, as to whether the master’s house is or is not the master’s house. It is a plexus of affective complexity. If it fucks, fucks up and fucks over its linguistic forebears, it loves them and lapses into them too (‘Each time I open my mouth—though assaulted and battered by the wind—when I close my lips around you, I enjoy it’). Cunt Norton speaks; it is spoken. It thinks, and its thinking is perverse. And beautiful. It is as beautiful as the word pulchritude is ugly. It is immaculate filth.
Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.
- In “The Rejection of Closure,” Lyn Hejinian writes ‘We can say that a ‘closed text’ is one in which all elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the ‘open text,’ meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited…’↵
- ‘All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard.’ (William Burroughs in “The Cut Up Method”)↵
- See, for example, her chapbook-length Barf Manifesto as well as her essays collected as Academonia.↵
- ‘Adding on to and/or editing the source material is more a strategy of post-conceptualism [baroque, or impure conceptualism]; so is reneging on the faithful execution of the initial concept…Do these broken promises point to a failure in a conceptual writing text?… Failure is the goal of conceptual writing.’ (From Notes on Conceptualisms by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place)↵
- This line is from Barf Manifesto.↵
In the same year (1998) John Kelly took the journey from Belfast to Dublin to present the ground-breaking music show Eclectic Ballroom (listen here) on Radio Ireland, this other Irishman was making the journey from Dublin to a remote community in Northern Manitoba (Canada). A few years later when John joined RTÉ, Ireland’s national radio and television broadcaster, to present the award-winning and cult classic Mystery Train, I was still sequestered in my own little world listening to a small First Nations radio station broadcasting local Cree gospel music, Métis fiddle, community announcements, and bingo — so sadly our airwaves never crossed. Since then John has established himself as one of Ireland’s best known music and arts broadcasters currently hosting The Works, an arts series on RTÉ Television, and The John Kelly Ensemble on RTÉ lyric FM. But as if this wasn’t enough, he has also published a number of critically acclaimed novels. The extract below is from his forthcoming novel, From Out of the City (Dalkey Archive Press). The language is rich, exuberant. At times like “that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall,” it dive-bombs, screeches, wheels, and plummets; other times it flourishes in a lush lyrical reverie. And funny, shrewdly funny. Joyce, Beckett, Donleavy….quietly wandering around in the background, amidst the ruins, smiling wistfully at the outrageous absurdity of it all.
— Gerard Beirne
Dublin, some years from now, and the President of the United States has just been assassinated during a state dinner in his honour. The official account has already taken hold but a hawk-eyed octogenarian named Monk, believing that there’s nothing that cannot be known, has a version of his own—a dark and twisted tale of both the watcher and the watched.
But this, says Monk, is no thriller or invented tale of suspense. It is, he insists, an honest and faithful record of breakage and distress at a time when dysfunction—personal, local, national, global and even cosmic—pervades all. A time when everything is already broken and when, in many ways, the shooting of a pill-popping President is neither here nor there. The only thing that matters, Monk tells us, is the truth. And this is why, stationed high in his attic room with a Stoli in a highball, he does what he does. “There’s divinity in it,” he says. “And a modicum of love.”
“The book begins with a prologue in which the narrator, Monk, tells us of the assassination of the American President while on a state visit to Ireland and gives his thoughts on same. Here, with Chapter One, Monk tells us about himself and his place and he begins to speak of his very particular activities and preoccupations.”
— John Kelly
The feast of St. Isidore of Seville and I awoke to the sound of rain. It panicked me briefly – that old spurt of fear that I’d been transported through the night to some foreign land where summer downpours are still imaginable. I thought perhaps that I was in Iceland or Nova Scotia but a quick scan across the yellowing sweep of my pillow was enough to assure me that my locus was as was – my own country, my own house, my own room, my own scratcher. Which was very good news. And what’s more, there had been no bad dreams, it seemed, from which to thrash awake. No twistings of the limbs, no tightenings in the chest, no pulses in the lumpy bald- ness of my head. An erection too no less. On this unexpectedly wet morning of my eighty-fourth birthday, lo and behold, a boner of pure marble. Happy Birthday to me, I whispered to myself. For I’m not a squishy marshmallow. We’ll roast you on a stick. Bum-tish!
Eight tumbling decades since I first landed at the South Dublin Lying-in Hospital, Holles Street named for Denzille Holles, Earl of Clare – a place now infested with cut-throats, brigands, smackheads and rats but still serving then, at the hour of my arrival, as The National Maternity. A very palace of human nature.
— What kind of a name is Monk? asks the midwife.
— Named for Thelonious, says my father, his eye on the clock.
— θ, says my father, Thelonious with a θ.
— Oh right, says the midwife (a culchie). Little Thelonious.
— Yes, says my father, as in Thelonious Sphere.
— You have me there again, says the midwife (Roscommon).
— Thelonious fucking Monk, says my mother with a sigh. A fucking trumpet player.
— Piano, says my father, buttoning up his coat. And celeste on Pannonica.
— I see, says the midwife, not seeing at all (Boyle).
— At one stage, says my mother, this prick was pushing for Stockhausen.
— Stock what? says the midwife (somewhere out beyond Boyle).
— And Suk, says my mother. That was another one.
— It’s pronounced Sook, says my father, and I never once suggested Suk.
— Stockhausen, says my mother. For fucksake. Stockhausen or Suk.
And so this is the pair — Bleach and Ammonia — who gave me life and this grand ruin of a house in which to enjoy it. 26 Hibernia Road, Dún Laoghaire. Three-storey, over-basement, Victorian residence c.1850, features including original replaces, quality cornice-work, centre roses, paneled doors and five generous bedrooms of proportions considered gracious. From the street, it resembles every other house in this section save for its evident security apparatus — a multitude of surveillance cameras perched like blackened gargoyles on the walls. All of it necessary alas as we live in changed times and while Hibernia Road, leading to Britannia Avenue, now Casement Avenue and named for Sir Roger, was once an address considered salubrious (c.1850), it’s now no more than a desolate trench of dereliction and crime. Burned-out, sea-blown, not altogether inhabited and shoved well back from the main strip, Hibernia Road is, these days, neither visited nor traveled. Not by citizens. Not by Guards. Not even by the gentlemen and ladies of the military. Ours or theirs.
In fact the whole town of Dún Laoghaire, named for a 5th-century king of Tara, is now largely defunct and undesirable. Like a mouthful of rotten teeth it grins ever more grotesquely into the swill of Dublin Bay — Cuan Bháile Átha Cliath — polluted beyond all salvage by plutonium, uranium and flesh and where sits, in apparent permanence, a Brobdingnagian aircraft carrier, named not for Kevin Barry, just a lad of eighteen summers, or Maggie Barry who sang “The Flower of Sweet Strabane”, or James J. Barry of Barry’s Original Blend Corkonian Tea, but for Commodore John Barry, the Father of the American Navy, born in Wexford in 1745. The thing has been sitting there for so long now that people don’t even see it any more. And if they do they pass no further remarks. And in any case, don’t all the nice girls love a sailor?
Dún fucking Laoghaire. Where I have lived all my life. Dún Laoghaire, Dún Laoire, Dunleary (briefly Kingstown) where the monks of St. Mary’s caught their shoals of herring. In the 17th century it was a landing place for big-shots and men-of-war and in 1751 a shark was hauled ashore. In 1783 an African diver disappeared under the waves in a diving bell, and in 1817 the first stone of the East Pier was laid and all those virgin tonnes of granite were dug out of Dalkey Hill and dumped. Otherwise there’s not much to commend the place at all. Not now anyway. Dún Laoghaire. 9.65 km ESE of the metropolitan hub — the very spot where the Millennium Spire used to be and, before that again, an effigy in Portland Stone of Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe etc., etc. e Pillar blown to smithereens of granite and black limestone in 1966. Granite from Kilbride. Pedestal, column and capital. His nibs on the summit, myopic, head lathered in the guano of herring gulls. Vice Admiral of the White and my two uncles that did it. Maguire and Patterson. And Clery’s Clock stopped dead at 1:31. Faoileán scadán. The colony. The colonized. Nelson’s blasted colon : the colonoscopy for fucksake. And I’m sleepy now. Might roll over yet and perhaps some dreams will come. And snooze. And slumber. And I might as well. Only young once. Snuggle and snooze.
But of course this rain was wrong and I raised my head to check once more that this really was my room. And surely it must be. The goose-down duvet, grey and unstained, the clock and the Glock, the empty glass still fragrant with dusty Hennessy, the ancient maps of Paris and the Dingle Peninsula, the curling snaps of smiling people long dead, and the sideboard with the stolen bust of Berkeley fitted with old wraparound shades, now a bookend for the little concertina of Sci-Fi paperbacks all read so eagerly when I was a boy so happily in love with the future. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, nicked sixty years ago from the Long Room of Trinity College and taken out the front gate in a wheelbarrow. So yes, I assured myself once more, with an element of certainty now, that this was, surely to goodness, my room. My own leaba in number 26 and I had not, unless I was grievously mistaken, been kidnapped or otherwise rendered in my sleep. And it was my birthday too. And in Dún Laoghaire, as if to mark the occasion, there appeared to be actual precipitation.
These thoughts, such as they were, uncontrolled, semi-conscious and leapfrogging each other, were suddenly interrupted by a most extravagant yawn. My jaws shifted and cracked and a pain shot through my skull like a little private bullet of my own. And then there followed the long slow-motion masticatory shimmy in order to correct the jawbones again and with that second crack there came a certain peace, not so much a click this time as a clock, and I could relax again, still alive, glubbing now on my pillow like an old lippy cod. Gadus morhua. Extinct source of vitamins A, D, E and several essential fatty acids. And what a treat that would be on my birthday. Cod and Chips from Burdock’s of Werburgh Street, named for the church of St. Werburgh, named for Werburgh of Chester, a Benedictine abbess, prophetess and seer of the secrets of hearts. And Burdock’s had haddock and ray and lemon sole and scampi and goujons — until that final scare, that is, and everyone stopped eating fish. Even the cormorants in Dún Laoghaire stopped eating fish and they all died away with the seals. The Germans call it Seezunge. And the Spaniards too. I do miss a bit of tongue, says Missus McClung. Lenguado. All things lingual and gustatory. Larus argentatus. And that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall, dive-bombing all who might chance it on foot across the Tara Street Bridge. Screeching. Wheeling. Plummeting. And the best of it all is that it’s more than likely that I know every last one of them — both chancer and gull — by name, reputation and record. Because nothing gets past a man as invisible as me. Oh where oh where is that gallant man? Eighty-four today.
But now on this unexpectedly wet morning in my gargoyled house on Hibernia Road, my sub-duvet reverie at an end, I finally manoeuvred myself to the edge of the bed, gripped my thighs and pressed down hard, the pressure of it translating to push and the body yielding to forces and physics and, whatever the kinetics, whatever the systems and sequences of internal pulleys and cranks called upon so early in the day, my creaking self slowly loomed and my cool morning arse presented itself to the blue grain of the room. I’m up, says I. Another day another dolor — and I announced in the darkest voice of MacLiammóir, Comedia nita est. Then chuckling like a changeling in my white t-shirt and abby boxers I lurched to the window, parted the curtains and peered into the light. Time to think straight now. Time to assess. Time to focus. To get, says you, to the point.
But again I stress that this is not about Richard King or his assassination. Nor is it about how, when they asked me where I was when it happened, the incident in question, that I was able to tell them that I was at home, at number 26, seated on my sofa, a Stoli in a highball, watching the rolling coverage just like everybody else. Or about the fact (and this is something I, of course, neglected to tell them) that I could barely breathe that night as I waited, waited, waited for that newsflash to come, for confirmation from the Castle that the bullet had flown and that ambition’s debt had finally been paid. No. Not at all. This is not about any of that. And it never once was. It’s more about me and where I live and what I do. And it’s also about those people in my care and who will enter soon. But for now this is just me, on my birthday, eighty-fourth, out of bed and at my bedroom window in my boxers and my vest.
And so what did I see? One of my foxes, soaked and muddy, was dragging a blue hula hoop across what used to be a flowerbed and I immediately pictured what I must have missed — the moonlit fox gyrating like a pole dancer and counting out the revolutions. The thought of it made me giggle and I decided that perhaps this really was a very good day in Dún Laoghaire. There hadn’t been rain in months and now here it was at last. Real dancing rain just like the glorious downpours of my childhood and I could smell within it some strange hint of the perpetual. Pandiculation followed. A temporary deafness. Then elbow pain and recovery. I placed my pistol in the drawer, closed it tight and then, and only then, I began to pad the bare boards to the bathroom. I take no chances now, ever since the time I found myself half asleep at the sink, putting toothpaste on the barrel, about to scrub my thirty-two teeth with a loaded weapon. I’m far from doddery but even so.
The electric is erratic these days, water even more so, and so I showered for the thirty-second legal max. en I dried myself off, dressed quickly in a clean white t-shirt, shorts and sloggy bottoms and descended to make myself a camomile tea with honey substitute. Lots of men my age couldn’t manage these stairs at all but I’m as supple as I ever was, my joints constantly swimming in fake fish oil. Thanks to the good folks in Nippon my bones are fortified by every available mineral, vitamin, and dietary silicon smoothie, and once I’m up and about I have neither ache nor pain. Not physical pain at any rate. Jesus, Mary and Joseph where would we be without the synthetics? And without the Japanese? Dab hands the Japs and we’d be lost entirely without them. But fuck it I do miss the bees. I wish the Japanese would sort the bees. And the bee’s knees. For honey, substitute is no substitute. The signs were there for years and nobody lifted a fucking finger. It wouldn’t have happened in Japan. Only it did. World without bees. Amen.
From the kitchen window I watched the fox, still tossing the hoop, and although I always hate to spook such a scene, the instant I punched in the code, Vulpes vulpes shot off like a brushstroke and the hula hoop rolled, keeled and settled on the burning grass like a portal. Sorry Foxy Loxy, I muttered as I put on my trainers and stepped out into the air, raising my face briefly to the skies for the wet of the rain, the actual rain, and I walked briskly, swerving around my dripping barricade of dumped antiques, down to the tumbledown shed which, these days, leans drunkenly against the sycamore. I took my tea with me. The rain was warm and syrupy and it plashed with pleasure in the steaming mug.
There was a wood pigeon balled up in a beech (I have the eyes of a raptor) and a blue-tit was hanging on the giant echium — the self-seeding, tit-feeding echium growing about a foot a day like some slow-motion purple rework. There were wrens up until about fifteen years ago. Troglodytes troglodytes. And blackbirds too. And I used to see them run low across the lawn like infantry out of their trenches and I loved to listen to them sing, watching them snuggled in the holly bush, thinking themselves well defended in the jags.
These new alien finches can be unexpected company at times, but it’s not the same. And the shrikes I can do without. Butcher birds. Cruel impalers. Cracticus something and there’s always one on the shed, eyeing me up, a shrew in its bill, or some supersized beetle which arrived in a suitcase from West Africa.
The shed (the dacha I call it) is warped and narrow and it houses century old, half-empty buckets of paint, an original mountain bike, an axe, bits of obsolete surveillance equipment and sheetweb spiders the size of kittens. I love it in there. Most especially in the rain. As a child, the sound of rain always soothed me and I used to hunker in this very same shed, watching the showers lash the cordylines in scenes which seemed tropical. For a moment, I felt like I was the same child again, sheltered in my hidey hole, enjoying the thrilling little shivers which enveloped me — Bleach and Ammonia back in the house arguing about the nap of the lawn or the pressure in the tap. Heavenly, I told myself, perfectly at peace and in the shed, and then with an almost overwhelming sense of liberation, I lowered the front of my sloggy bottoms and pissed with panache from the dacha porch. Breathing deeply like some ancient God I targeted the agapanthus with my jet.
On my first day as sole owner and occupier of number 26 Hibernia Road, flush with freedom and possession, the very first thing I did was relieve myself in this very garden. As the Gods made Orion. The second thing I did, and just as symbolic, was remove most of the contents and dump them outside. Bedsteads, mattresses, tables, chairs, sideboards, china cabinets, Ottomans, bedside lockers, standard lamps, carpets, rugs, mats, holy statues, vases and assorted prints by late 20th-century racketeers. These I piled on the flower- beds before going back inside to lie on cushions on the floor and crank up the thumping Hi-Fi. Compact discs in those days. My preference then was for bands like New Order, Pere Ubu, Suicide, and The Fall. My father’s study, with its CDs of Bartók, Stravinsky and Stockhausen, I locked up and left alone. He was a vulpine man, my father. Vulpecular. But he liked his music, eschewing the wigs for the moderns and enjoying it in his own way. I liked it well enough too, but I was never in the mood for it. Not in those days anyway.
By four in the morning, I had begun to realize my actual discomfort and I returned to the barricade to strip it of essentials – one sofa, one rug, one kitchen table and one chair. These I reinstated in the house while everything else was left bewildered to the elements, where it lies to this day, piled up and creaking, providing shelter and security for generations of scraggy Dún Laoghaire foxes, all of them, including the one with the hula hoop, born and bred within its labyrinthine heap. Otherwise the place hasn’t been touched at all and number 26 has somehow distilled with natural precision to the point of being quite perfect for my purposes.
On two floors, front and back, the rooms full of boxes (cereal and shoe) stuffed with photographs, files, scribbles, cuttings and notes, now packed almost to the ceiling, decades of profiling stacked in dense little cities of leaning piles of paper and card. Priceless material all of it, of course, and a fire hazard beyond all imagining, but if it goes up, it goes up. It’s no use without me anyway. Without meaning. Like a web without a spider.
At the very top of the house, with a dormer window facing the street, is the actual HQ. On one side of the room, under the plunging slope of the ceiling, is a bank of monitors, permanently on, which links me to the city and beyond. The rest of the space is commanded by a high-back swivel chair of distressed black leather and a fold-out single bed covered in notebooks, orange peel, pencils and sharpenings — the never forgotten stench of desk — all laid out on a carpet so grey and so stained with decades of spilled coffee as to resemble, with some accuracy, a map of the surface of the moon. And this is where I do what I do. And I do it without cease. It takes sustained and careful husbandry but I’m able for it still. There’s divinity in it. And a modicum of love.
— John Kelly
John Kelly has published several works of fiction including, Grace Notes & Bad Thoughts and The Little Hammer. His short stories have appeared in various publications and a radio play called The Pipes (listen here) was broadcast in 2013. He lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he works in music and arts broadcasting.
Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1998. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published three novels, including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His most recent novel is Charlie Tallulah (Oberon Press). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His personal website is here.
There is no substitute for that moment when a book places into our mind thoughts we recognise as our own. For those who carry a pencil, this is the thing we underline. The identification is instant and intimate. If the sentence is long enough, the sensation can even overtake us while we are still in the process of reading the thought that summoned it. These notions spring from a mind similar to ours, except this mind has read books that we have not, has known experiences we lack, has relentlessly stripped away its banalities until this apt remark remains. We admire those who create these thoughts, even as we secretly believe that we might have been the ones to write them first had we lived differently. These discoveries come over us with the force of a reclaimed memory: life momentarily regains a sense of potential. We feel awe, gratitude, and magnification.
Just the other day I encountered such a line in the poet Mary Ruefle’s essay ‘Madness, Rack, and Honey’: she calls on Mary Oppen to describe this very experience, and Oppen herself calls on Heidegger to help her do so. ‘When Heidegger speaks of boredom,’ quotes Ruefle from Oppen, ‘he allies it very closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond. And that is a poetic moment, a moment in which a poem might well have been written.’ In which one’s mind begins to reach beyond – that is precisely it. Our senses are momentarily augmented. Things heretofore imperceptible emerge into existence. An essential few phrases become the focus of our thoughts, and if we can, we scribble them down immediately. Irrepeatable once they have been lost, they carry within them a full poem.
Read the rest at Scott Esposito: Another Way of Thinking | The White Review.
A few months ago, Micheline Aharonian Marcom emailed thanking me for a review I wrote of her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, which you can read an excerpt from on Numéro Cinq. It was thrilling to get an email from an author whose work I admire so much. While writing the review, I’d become fixated with each of her novels because of their remarkable mixture of passion and formal inventiveness. They often recall for me passages of William Faulkner and Clarice Lispector. Gorgeous and original novels, they seek obsessively the ineffable within language. Here’s an exemplary passage from her most recent novel:
And yes is the hillside grove; the invisible songbird inside of it. Yes the three-legged dogs in the white clay city. The blue pushing the sky out like a girl pushes from behind her mother’s skirts with her hand to see what she has hidden from only moments ago. His feet, bony, ugly and black, and her toenails painted with lacquer a red or brown. Water. The water in the glass. The clear glass, the clear water. Water and the glass the same color which is clear and the word clear which doesn’t say the yes of the color or the isness of all the life in the color or nothing in the glass holding water oxygen like refracted on the glass which is the image on glass of the window, the blue peeking sky, fingerprints, greasy and earthy, so that the glass doesn’t fly off into ethereal metaphors and the girl herself, Maria, in the glass: thin stretched-down face, dark eyes, the right darker than the left, the right hand lifted in prayer, in benediction, and the mouth smiling now, open, saying, singing herself.
—A Brief History of Yes (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
After her initial email, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her novels, her working habits, and artistic vision. As Marcom says below she takes her obsessions with “stories that go untold” as the subject of her work and turns them into inquires. She has explored the Armenian genocide in her first three novels (Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy, and Draining the Sea) and female sexuality in her most recent work (The Mirror in the Well and A Brief History of Yes). In each of these books, she proves herself again and again to be a writer with an unremitting gaze, depicting acts both tender and monstrous that push her characters to places—whether internally or externally—that is beyond or without language. Our interview took place over email in late 2013.
Herewith is an interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom.
Jason DeYoung (JD): You’ve written a trilogy on genocide and now you are writing (or have written) a trilogy of ‘domestic dramas,’ as you’ve described them. What is it about trilogies that attract you? How do they serve you as an artist? And are there trilogies that have influenced you?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom (MAM): I don’t think, in either case, I knew or planned to write a trilogy—it was more that when I was finishing my first novel I realized that everything I wanted to think about would not “fit” into one book, and also the second one began to emerge in my mind. I realized, or decided at that point, that naturally there would follow three books, following three generations of Armenians, and in some manner, following my own family’s timeline and geographical movements (although neither the second or third book in that trilogy is biographical). Whereas the second trilogy I wrote, what I think of as a “domestic” one spiraling around women narrators in relations with men, and the questions of love including its big themes—adultery; unrequited love; the forces, drives and mania of eros—I didn’t realize until I had probably written the third one, The Nothing on Which the Fire Depends, that these were in fact three and in some kind of relationship to one another, and hence a kind of trilogy. Beyond those six novels, I have written three others which are not trilogies…so perhaps it had more to do with the subject matter into which those books inquired more than anything else. And three is an old and stable number: a triangle…the trinity. It is the “culmination of manifestation” as the Dictionary of Symbols says: nothing can be added to it.
JD: You said in your interview with Context that “books… ‘make’ writers into the writers that they are.” Could you talk about or describe what you mean by this?
MAM: I often tell my students that the books they are writing, especially, perhaps, the first one, “makes” the writer. When I was writing Three Apples Fell From Heaven that book was so beyond my ken, my skills, what I thought I was capable of, and so it pushed me—the material mattered so much to me, not only because it was the story of my own family’s survival of the Armenian genocide, but I also felt a responsibility to the unknown dead whose stories had not either been widely told. So there was high bar in the writing of that book, a steep learning curve. And language already didn’t feel like it could hold the stories, the losses, but it had to try to do so. I had to try my best and the book, as it emerged, responded in some way: perhaps this is the great mystery of making books: that the writer does her best, studies craft, reads and reads and reads, “everything,” as William Faulkner exhorted us to do—and she writes and fails and writes more—to fall into the rhythm of the stories and the “voices” and find, ultimately, and make, a book’s final form. Writing for me is akin to how I experience consciousness: it contains its highs and lows—the spiritual and the very mundane—one must, after all, sit in one’s chair and write and revise for years on end, it’s a quiet, unadventurous vocation, and yet the gods do come in…inspiration is also part of the process.
JD: I just finished up a large project on Joseph McElroy, and during my research I came across his essay on 9/11 and in it he asks himself “what knowledge have I that’s of any use.” This statement really shook me because (as I took it) here is one of the great fiction writers of the Twentieth Century asking what his role is in the face of this tragedy. But his question got me thinking again about the role of the writer, and the many definitions I’ve read; two that come quickest to mind are E. L. Doctorow’s assertion, “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness”; and William T. Vollmann’s “We should portray important human problems.” Each writer seems to have a personalize definition of the “job.” What’s yours?
MAM: I respect William T. Vollmann’s work tremendously and am, I think, in great accord with what you’ve quoted from him how a writer “should portray important human problems.” Writing for me is inquiring. And what I inquire into has varied and continues to vary as my interests broaden, my concerns are raised, my heart and mind are involved…my obsessions reveal themselves. I am always interested in stories that go untold, are censored, denied, erased: the interstitial stories, the ones, also, that many turn their heads from, where shame is a form of censorship. I suppose you can see these “obsessions” already in my earliest novels: the genocides of Armenians and the Ixil-May in Guatemala, but they are also evident in Mirror with its story of unhindered uncensored female sexuality, and in my latest novel, The New American, about an undocumented Guatemalan-American college student who is deported to Guatemala and returns to California riding on cargo trains with other Central American migrants. I guess you’d say I only write about things that feel urgent to me, that I believe matter. But this also includes small things—like the hummingbird I wrote about that came and sat on my back porch, or the orb spider who spins his web anew each night in September in the garden. Natural beauty matters also.
JD: From what I can gather from looking at some other interviews with you, you are a deeply read person. I’m always curious about author’s reading habits and how they read. Do you have a method to your reading, to the texts you study? Are you looking for anything in particular?
MAM: I’d like to be a deeply read person, I love books, and there are so many I haven’t yet read or read only one time. When I began writing and studying more seriously in my late twenties I read everything—the old, the new, the recently released, etc. Now I find I am only more or less interested in reading books that are masterful, that are “at pitch”…something which years of reading means I can now sense more quickly. With the books we call classics we trust that there is this “aesthetic achievement”: they’ve lasted and been lauded for a reason. With newer books one must trust one’s own instincts and follow one’s own predilections, because time cannot yet help us. But I am always so happy to discover new writers and new books! And basically toward this end I ask writers and critics and deep readers I know for recommendations. I try to read widely, across time and space. I’ve never understood reading only one’s peers in one’s own country. But I also think of someone like Montaigne who read fewer books, great ones, over and over again—that seems to have tremendous merit as well: reading deeply. Many books won’t stand up to a second reading, after the plot is discovered, all the energy falls out of the book—it’s why a second read (and third and fourth) tells you so much, reveals so much about a text.
JD: One of the striking characteristics of your writing—and something I admire—is your exploration of the body, as in A Brief History of Yes, the lover’s concave chest; in The Mirror in the Well, the woman’s cunt; and, of course, Draining the Sea has a lot to say about the body and bodies. Some of it is beautiful and some ugly (but there’s a freedom and warmth toward that ugliness, too, of giving it witness). What role might the visceral, the body, the flesh play in your work? This question is in part inspired by two sentences in A Brief History of Yes: “Have you not seen your Christ on the cross? And why does the Protestant deny the image where the knowledge can be felt.”
MAM: In his wonderful essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and in response to fierce criticism of that novel, DH Lawrence wrote: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac busy; real anger, real sorrow, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” In response to your question, I would say that I have long been and remain interested in the real, and intuitively and sometimes consciously, as Lawrence says it here, I know that the real is experienced in the body. It’s how we know anything. He goes on to say: “The Christian religion lost, in Protestantism finally, the togetherness with the universe, the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.” Perhaps that’s part of my “writing the body,” my interest in writing the whole, the “togetherness.” I have long thought that there ought to be a word in English that encompasses to think-feel, this seems to me how we come to know things, and then just recently I realized that the Latin word “sentire,” which in English we define as “to realize” and is the root of words like “sentiment,” actually does mean that! Think-feel.
JD: You’ve spoken about your novels being inquires, and that you write by instinct, but at some point formal concerns must become a priority. Can you talk a little about that point? Does the work expand or contract at this point? How do you think about the patterns in your work?
MAM: I always am thinking about form, and patterns. It is not an afterthought, but concurrent with the making of a book. I follow what I think of as “heat” as a writer. Write scenes as and where I feel energy, I guess you could say. Over time, the mind makes patterns and the form begins to become apparent. But I make a lot of conscious and deliberate decisions about form, I’m the artist and I know it’s my job to hold the reins of the book, fine-tune it, order it, etc. To that end the editing process can be a very long and detailed one. First drafts I’m kind of free-wheeling, but later I batten down the hatches and read and edit and revise until a book is finished. Until every comma is where I want it. Every word. To the degree I am capable of.
JD: You’ve written “social” novels and “domestic” novels, can you give any insight about the process of writing the two, the differences? Do you value one over another? Or are they the two sides of one coin, meaning one cannot exist without the other?
MAM:I write what I feel like writing, what I feel called to write, what is urgent. The only real difference between the “historical” and “social” novels I’ve written is that the former usually require a significant amount of research and travel, whereas the latter have needed less. Although as I say that, I then remember how I traveled to Portugal to write A Brief History. I also did a lot of research about Lisbon and fado music and listened to fado regularly as well as studied icon painting and its history and went to museums to look at them, and then at some point found myself studying bird migration and hermit thrushes. So in some ways all of my books go hand in hand with some things I’m researching and learning about. I suppose it’s not only that writing is inquiring for me, it’s also that I’m curious and like to know better than I do and books are one way for me to deepen my various interests of the moment and plus everything I’m interested in tends to make its way into my books!
JD: You are (or have been) a teacher. What is the one teachable component to writing? What would most students say you teach them?
MAM: I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years, one subject or another—I was a teacher before I became a writer actually. For the past eleven years I’ve been teaching in an MFA program, working with creative writers. I teach writing from my own experience as a writer. The biggest influence on my teaching style was my former teacher, Ginu Kamani, who taught me to “apprentice” with books. The one teachable component to writing? Read! Love books and read read read—the books are the teachers. I think my students might say that I encourage them to be their own best editors, to train themselves to be their books’ best readers, and to trust themselves: the work is theirs, and only they can do it and only they can determine if it’s done to their satisfaction.
JD: Any new work forthcoming?
MAM: My sixth book, The New American, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
—Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Jason DeYoung
Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of five published novels. The first three—Three Apples that Fell from Heaven (2001), The Daydreaming Boy (2004), and Draining the Sea (2008)—take as their subject genocide, and operate loosely as a trilogy. Her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is the companion novel (and the second in a new trilogy) to The Mirror in the Well. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/USA Award for Fiction, and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction and other writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, Music & Literature, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.
At the 9-second mark, frequent NC contributor Jonah Glover appears. The last question. The guy with the sunglasses hanging from his shirt collar.
The commercial played on Canadian TV during the first ad break of the Super Bowl.
Jonah’s reaction: “Yes, well, now I’ve been in a Super Bowl commercial.”
A son makes good. Fatherly pride overflowing. (All those Method Acting classes. Sheesh.)
Next stop, the Academy Awards.
My work on earth is done.
Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. — K. Thomas Kahn
When the Time Comes
tr. by Adrian West
(Winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, 2008)
Contra Mundum Press, 2013
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
Natura Morta: A Roman Novella
tr. by Adrian West
(Alfred Döblin Prize, 2001)
Contra Mundum Press, 2014
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
Until recently, Anglophone readers wanting to investigate the fiction of Austrian writer Josef Winkler faced only one option: the exacting and elliptical novel The Serf (1987/1997; trans. Michael Mitchell). Published in English by Ariadne Press, The Serf joined Winkler’s Flowers for Jean Genet (1992/1997; trans. Michael Roloff), his biographical and readerly homage to the French writer Jean Genet, whose influence is felt throughout Winkler’s own fiction, as the only works available in English.
But the reader requires an immersive education in Winkler before undertaking The Serf. And even Flowers for Jean Genet, while critical to comprehending Winkler’s aesthetic—his queer appropriation of high camp, religious and perverse imagery; and his homoeroticism (I would suggest, from Ronald Firbank as well)—fails to give the reader a cogent glimpse into his creative output, an oeuvre for which Winkler has garnered many accolades including the Alfred Döblin Award in 2001, the Grand Austrian State Prize in 2007, and the Georg Büchner Prize in 2008.
Luckily, two additional fictions by Winkler were published in the past year by Contra Mundum, When the Time Comes (1998/2013) and Natura Morta: A Roman Novella (2001/2014), both translated assiduously by Adrian West, who, to use his own words (as applied to Winkler’s prose), is able to render the “painstaking … visual detail” and “attention to the musicality of phrases” found in the original German texts with a skill that honors Winkler’s writing as a “writing-against.”
Winkler eschews a traditional plot; instead, narrative fragments work together by means of repetition to complicate his vision of modern life. But single scenes can also be understood on their own terms, if one considers the images and their relation to the overall thematics of the text.
Subtitled “A Roman Novella,” Natura Morta is less a novella than a series of poetic vignettes, a succession of glimpses of life around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Rome where various figures appear, disappear, and then reappear: people “festooned” with commodified and locally popular “colorful plastic pacifiers”; “two teenaged Moroccan rent boys”; and a man whose “eyelids and eyelashes [are] painted black with mascara” and who is taunted with the homophobic “Sida!” There are plenty of “bloody chicken heads and yellow chicken feet” in the marketplace juxtaposed with iconographic images like “a doll of the Christ child” parked in bowl surrounded by “dried pineapples, dates, and figs” and “the Virgin Mary … look[ing] over the fingertips of her clasped hands toward a box of Mon Chéri chocolates.” These images constitute a fixed yet fluid tableau, a natura morta, a still life echoing its literal translation: dead nature.
Winkler is primarily concerned with the fig vendor’s son Piccoletto, “[a] black-haired boy, around sixteen years old, whose long eyelashes nearly grazed his freckle-studded cheeks.” Piccoletto’s function is to join the seemingly disparate images of the city and its inhabitants in a way that allows Winkler to explore the religious history of Rome, particularly as it deviates from contemporary vice and greed. “Sacred kitsch” litters the city; the text works by juxtaposing religious iconography and a marketplace saturated with “one crucified Lord after another,” juxtapositions that in turn inform and reflect the distorted sexualities, the myriad “perversions” and vices paraded before the reader and the young, impressionable Piccoletto: from “[t]wo nuns … lick[ing] the chocolate toes of an ice cream bar shaped like a child’s foot” to Michelangelo’s Pietà, “framed with bulletproof glass,” an icon fetishized by “[a] toothless Pole” with the desire “to clasp the mother of God in her fingers.”
Winkler’s imagistic prose shows debts to the cinema. In one scene, Piccoletto spies a videocassette of “the film Sciuscià by Vittorio de Sica” “[a]top the apricots and white peaches” carried in a plastic bag by an anonymous woman on a streetcar. This mention of de Sica’s first major work as a director—filmed in 1946 and translated in English as Shoeshine—reveals how images in Winkler function similarly to those in a neorealist film; not only do many of the series of images contain potent mixtures of the sacred and the profane, but they overvalue the image itself (in its repetition and in its recurrence) in ways also reminiscent of auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni.
Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. Consider the following two passages:
A dog on its hind legs with a protuberant member snapped over and over at the small crucifix hanging from the wrist of an exhausted woman leaning with her eyes closed against the wall. A kneeling girl bumped her forearm against the thigh of a young monk holding a clear plastic bag of freshly watered cherries.
Aroused, staring into the girl’s leg holes and sniffing at her map, the boy [Piccoletto] bit down on his tongue, coated in bits of fruit bar, then stopped as he became aware of the taste of blood filling his mouth and glanced self-consciously as the mincing red feet of the pigeons. Piccoletto stood, daubed his lip with a handkerchief, passed the city map of Rome to the girl with the words “Mille grazie!” and looked for the toilet.
Winkler wants us to regard a teenaged boy—who is always “playing with his sex”—as a Christ for our times, in a world comprised of tourists, clergy, tradespeople, sex workers, and drug addicts. The fragmentary glimpses of city life in Natura Morta are refracted through the sexualized consciousness of Piccoletto whose observation of two other boys “gnawing on a fig, fresh and purple” is followed up immediately by “[t]he two boys huddl[ing] together, whispering and giggling, eyeing Piccoletto’s broad buttocks.”
Even more crucial to Winkler’s sexual vision of modernity is Piccoletto’s interest in soliciting both male and female gazes, and how he can arouse and also express sexual interest across the gulf of gender. Winkler’s aesthetic construction of modern-day Rome conjoins sex and the city, forcing individuals to confront the past in a present whose greed, lusts, and sensual pleasures—e.g., “Frocio wrapped fistfuls of ice chips in tin foil, pressing them into the form of a phallus, held the cold fetish at his hips, and squeezed the ice chips out of the tin foil in front of the fig vendor’s son, as though releasing kilos of ejaculate”—contrast with the iconographic and architectural reminders of latter days: “a stone phallus” in the Piazza San Vittorio the scene where an ambulance “pick[s] up a young drug addict, passed out and foaming at the mouth”; “the exit of the papal tombs” of Saint Peter’s Cathedral “leaking blood in the filthy streets,” streets littered with pages of the Cronaco vera, “in which tragedies from throughout Italy—illustrated with hearses, eyewitnesses, chesty women, and Mafiosi…—are reported every week.”
In contrast with Natura Morta’s portraits of city life, Winkler’s When the Time Comes takes rural Austria as its focus (Winkler’s native Carinthia). But like Natura Morta, When the Time Comes centers on a young boy whose intellectual and sexual maturation are influenced by his attempts to compile the stories of those who have come before him. In When the Time Comes, the storyteller is “the bone collector” Maximilian, whose “black bone stock … smell[s] of decay” and yet, because it contains the bones of the dead, has within it a history to decipher, record, fathom. Maximilian is Winkler’s anchor point; other characters’ stories are woven into his “clay vessel” of bones, creating a portrait of life in rural Austria spanning generations.
The town’s pastor has erected a terrifying painting representing God’s judgment at the town center, an icon that oversees the lives and deaths of the townspeople in a “town built in the form of a cross.” It depicts a man “who dragged a life-sized statue of Jesus through the forest before the Second World War and threw it over a waterfall,” causing Jesus to lose both arms; the painting shows the man’s retribution in life, since he “lost his own arms in Hitler’s war,” and after, in the fires of Hell. The often vindictive Old Testament God’s relationship with his flock, one built on fear as much as veneration, is a paradigm that repeats at the secular and personal levels. One is never free from one’s history, and even rewriting history, placing bones upon bones—as is the bone collector’s iterative, inscriptive task—cannot pry the individual from his or her community and the repressive social and religious structures of the past.
Winkler inverts the famous “begat” passages in the book of Genesis, opening the sections of When the Time Comes with his characters’ often tragicomic deaths rather than with their births; because of this, their lives seem to take on a more purposeful and even allegorical meaning. For example,
Willibald, who had worked for decades in the Heraklith factory on the other bank of the Drava, was dead from long cancer. His hands in the air and his pants around his ankles, he stepped out of the bathroom and called [to his wife]: Hilde! Hilde! Help me! then fell over and died on the spot.
“Death is my life’s theme,” Winkler has stated, and its presence—impending or otherwise—is felt on every page of When the Time Comes.
Most of the narrative in When the Time Comes, however, is taken up with the story of two boys, Jonathan and Leopold, names that allude to religious and popular examples of queerness—the first, a reference to Jonathan’s homoerotic relationship with David in the book of Samuel, and the second recalling Leopold of the Leopold and Loeb murder scandal in 1920s Chicago. It is typical of Winkler to fuse extremes: love alongside fear, pleasure alongside pain, and loyalty alongside greed: in this case, Jonathan and Leopold achieve an extreme jouissance combining pleasure (mutual masturbation) with pain (autoerotic asphyxiation):
The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards… With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin…
Neither the bone collector Maximilian nor the townspeople condemn the boys for their homosexuality; instead, the townspeople grumble about the senseless act itself, not its queer connotations (“those two idiots who did away with themselves together!” in “this godless village”), and Jonathan’s mother Katharina grants her dead child unearthly powers, certain that he will return like the resurrected Christ to be again among his family. Whereas “[i]n death they were separable,” the intermingling of “their tears, their urine, and their sperm” in life had rendered them inseparable: they can now be mourned as individuals, despite the fact that, curiously, “Leopold was buried in Jonathan’s death mask.”
W. G. Sebald notes that Winkler’s use of repetition points to something personal in his work, an act of self-definition that requires sifting through and making sense of one’s origins: “Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre … is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.” If repetition is the sole way to work through trauma, as Freud has suggested, the rural portraits in When the Time Comes suggest that trauma is as endemic to everyday life as is a kind of quiet joy, and the ways in which collective and personal traumas are eventually reconciled with one another are mediations intrinsically bound to the storyteller’s sociocultural function.
Sebald’s remarks on Winkler’s work also point to a moral complicity that individuals need to recognize, one that carries the weight of the past and also points toward a future—though, just what that future constitutes is bleakly uncertain. The teleological aim of the future, as Winkler sees, points only toward death. Thus, the reader meets each character in When the Time Comes at the moment of his or her death, the narrative then working backward through the character’s life. Winkler’s vision privileges the figure of the artist as conduit between past origins and present traumas, interpreting “the flood of recollected images [as it] begins,” but just what the artist or storyteller figure does with these “bones” is undefined, as is who will replace Maximilian when his own time comes.
Like Sebald and like his own Austrian compatriots Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, and Thomas Bernhard, Winkler flags memory and history—collective and individual—as inescapable traps that affect present experience. Winkler is concerned with the individual’s role in history, how it is necessary to acknowledge complicity with the past, and how one must grapple with the external forces of inhumanity, greed, and immorality and ultimately reconcile with that past. And yet, while it is essential to remember the stories of the dead, sadly, we erase all memory of them before we have had time to absorb all that they can offer us:
Tomorrow morning or the day after, they will scrape it [candlewax] off with a kitchen knife and sweep it up with the leftover flowers strewn about, then there will be no more traces of a dead man in the house, the mourning house will smell no more of rotten flowers, burnt spruce twigs, and wax candles.
—K. Thomas Kahn
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Music & Literature, Berfrois, and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @proustitute.
- I would like to thank Kristine Rabberman for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this piece.↵
- “Among the first instances in Winkler’s fictional works alluding to his role as human camera—one with a “camera-head” (Filmkamerakopf) occurs in his third novel, Muttersprache (1982), yet to be translated into English. I am grateful to translator Adrian West for this insight.”↵