Jun 242016
 

IMG_7601Rikki Ducornet scroll detail.

McDonald inspired by Ducornet 2 (1)Margie McDonald work in response to Ducornet scroll paintings.

Rikki Ducornet is a phenom, protean, experimental, fearless. I invited her to send some work to NC and she responded that she hadn’t any new writing. Most of her energy was going into painting scrolls. My ears perked up at that. It’s always interesting when an artist confesses to something out of the ordinary, to taking a turn, like the knight’s move in chess. What paintings? What scrolls? I asked.

That led to 1) a very funny email conversation about scrolls, Pompeii (new technology allowing archeologists to read burned up scroll libraries), and Pompeiian pornography, and 2) a stupendously beautiful gallery of collaborative art work in the July issue. It turned out that Ducornet and her friend, Newfoundland-born sculptor Margie McDonald, are working together toward a show next year. Ducornet is painting on huge 25-foot paper scrolls and McDonald is creating sculpture out of, well, picked up materials. The two are influencing one another. And the work is explosive, obsessive, fugue-like, original, inspirational and free. Ducornet calls it CRAZY HAPPY, and it is. These two women are on fire.

Ducornet & McDonaldMargie McDonald & Rikki Ducornet

Lance OlsenLance Olsen

But going in exactly the opposite direction, we have in the coming issue an excerpt from My Red Heaven, a novel in progress by the great experimental (“metamodern”) prose writer Lance Olsen. The excerpt will make you weep. Olsen calls the book a love song to Berlin in 1927, that is Berlin as it begins to descend into the chaos that led to Nazism and Hitler. It is about the slaughter of innocence (and innocents). The writing is pristine. It will stun you.

For just under a minute Delia will remember bounding at those birds in her dream, feeling as if she is just at the gray edge of waking up again, and then she will be over. —Lance Olsen

Version 6Julie Trimingham

Also in this issue, Julie Trimingham is back with an essay on whales, dreams, sex, and President Obama. Trimingham just never goes at things in a conventional way. Her directness and capacity for self-revelation are the heart of her art. She can shatter you with a line.

When I was pregnant, I had a dream. A dream of sex and a killer whale. Of sex with a killer whale. —Julie Trimingham

photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016Eric Moe, photo by Barbara Weissberger, 2016

Also in this issue, continuing her revelatory series of interviews with contemporary composers, Carolyn Ogburn talks to Eric Moe (we have music, too).

Then I moved up, pretty much in chronological order: Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg…and then at some point I was running out, and I was hungry for more. And I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what there was, so, at that point, I figured it was time to write it myself. —Eric Moe

StratfordTrainCirca1971Mary Rykov circa 1971 on the Stratford Train

And Mary H. Auerbach Rykov in Toronto contributes a new My First Job essay to our ongoing series. Rykov sent this in during our brief open window for submissions. It’s a delightful little memoir of Toronto in the early 1970s (Rykov was a budding folk singer in Yorkville as well as a walk-on librarian).

My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. —Mary H. Auerbach Rykov

anita-desai-1Anita Desai

Anu Kumar contributes a magnificent and compendious essay on the work of Anita Desai.

It is through her characters, like Matteo, in Journey to Ithaca, that Desai tries to explore in turn the contrary pull of renunciation (as opposed to living the householder’s life). She suggests that renunciation too is a bond of a kind. — Anu Kumar

anu northeast reviewAnu Kumar

Yannis LivadasYannis Livadas

And we have quirky, surprising poems from the Greek experimental poet Yannis Livadas (our first contribution from Greece).

Of all the dubious elements of the abyss
The boomerang ideas
I most appreciate,
Which return dazzling
To their one and only locus.

—Yanis Livadas

John Gould 2016John Gould

Canadian short story writer John Gould specializes in writing very small stories, carved out of stone, with a kick.

Meaningless, that was the key. To mark death you had to make a sound that carried no meaning at all, that was in fact a constant obliteration of meaning. Mr. Neziri was mourning himself, articulating his oblivion before it arrived. But what of those, such as Stan’s own mum, who couldn’t muster the strength or the vision for this task? Who would cry out for them? —John Gould

Kinga Fabo 2016Kinga Fabó

From Hungary, Kinga Fabó sends poems in translation — sexy, surprising, veiled, dark.

The client is the same man.
Hiding in my shadow.
Matters not what I say or do.

There is no love: Spring’s been postponed.
It might be hiding in my shadow.
Snip. I’ll cut you up, you false thread.

—Kinga Fabó

Jordan-Smith-1Jordan Smith

New poems also from Jordan Smith who has appeared in the magazine many times, poetry and prose, and has always made us better.

The smell of Islay whiskey, sharp sea air, iodine and cold
Spray smoking over rocks. With that in my head, I don’t care much
About the crazed varnish, about the old bow’s thinning hair.
Just this sudden brightness in the fine part of the tune,

That would be worth singing about, if it weren’t already song.

—Jordan Smith

Desktop5From top left clockwise: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Whitney Lee, & Sheela Clary

And a special treat: four startlingly direct and emotional list essays from four students in a workshop I taught last winter. These started as exercises but turned into something more. New authors to watch for: Tracy Proctor, Megan Okkerse, Sheela Clary, and Whitney Lee.

And, yes, there is more. A new NC at the Movies, poems by our own Mary Kathryn Jablonski, also Jason DeYoung reviews Vaseline Buddha by the South Korean author Jung Young Moon (we have an excerpt)  and Joseph Schreiber reviews Life in the Court of Matane by French-Canadian author Eric Dupont (with an excerpt as well — such a wealth of fiction in this issue).

Maybe more. Who knows?

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Jun 142016
 

R W Gray

For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we welcome writer and experimental filmmaker extraordinaire Michael V. Smith who in this month’s issue interviews our own R.W. Gray about his film “zack & luc.”Gray wrote about this short film in his article “Love at First Sight, or The Problem of Beginnings.” Next month, R. W. Gray will interview Smith about his film work and will turn the dialogue the other direction.


 

R. W. Gray’s short film “zack & luc” is a polyphonic love story, a duet that follows two young gay men falling in love then breaking up. Told using a pair of split screens which play out either character’s perspective, the images create a tension between its moments: tender first encounters play alongside the machinations of separating. The film feels contemporary and vintage, all at once. It feels at once innocent and experienced, as much weary as it is refreshing. It’s a lovely film, and sly. I had a discussion with Numero Cinq’s intrepid senior editor to get his thoughts on this little gem of a story.

MVS: There was this wonderful moment for me watching “zack & luc” where the split screens began to clearly do two very different things. And I wondered, isn’t he worried about us missing something in the film? We might miss an important clue, maybe.

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RWG: The ongoing conversation was always what does it matter most that the audience get and what can be left to subsequent viewings or never be noticed at all. When near the end of the film you see on the left the first moments they met, the tree / bird scene, the characters are physically further apart, the shot wider, because we and they know it’s going to end even as we remember the beginning. That changes the memory. I was conscious I was layering in details that might never get noticed.

MVS: Yes, the characters are also missing signs from each other. The small moments that lead to resentment. One doesn’t notice how he’s being irritating to the other. One character sleeps through an intimate touch in the night. So that we see through some of those moments how their information is incomplete.

RWG: I suppose in a larger sense I wanted this to be a film where you might wonder why the relationship doesn’t work out, might see some clues, but not be able to decide beyond the shadow of a doubt. One of my favourite films, Une liaison pornographique, has a similar conceit, where the two lovers meet for some unspecified sexual act in a hotel room, and they and the narrative never let you know what it was, though they do describe having a sore back, thighs and I think point out that they can’t really do it twice in one day. With “zack & luc” I wanted the same flirtation, but with heartbreak.

MVS: Yes, that incompleteness, that made me think about romance. The filmmaker has a god-like perspective on this piece. So do we. We can play it over and again and collect each half. I don’t think it’s the act of replaying that is romantic, necessarily, but the desire to do so. The filmmaker’s desire to capture all those conflicting intimacies strikes me as romantic. I’m going to be a jerk and say that that perspective—that we can know anything in its entirety—is naïve, because I suspect you can run with the provocation.

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RWG: I agree. I hope the film plays a little more with omniscience, the way fiction or the novel can more easily, but I didn’t want it to claim one could know another, the beloved. Each can never fully know the other. And, truly, they are never absolutely present in terms of time except in a throwaway staring contest in the epicenter of the film and in their final moments together. The two sides are never simultaneous except with the staring contest.

I’m attracted to that modern irreconcilable structure of narratives, what Kurosawa does in Rashomon with the three versions of the story that cannot be resolved into one truth. Intellectually. Luc and Zack, like the rest of us, are stuck in their little goldfish bowls, bumping against others hoping to find time and space to be together.

MVS: That sounds maybe a little jaded. A little anti-romantic.

RWG: Yet there is no romance, no desire, without that separation. But yeah, it does sound a little nihilist I guess.

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MVS: Balanced, I guess, which is ironic, because I was going to ask you about nostalgia next, which is like romance’s dreamy cousin. I want to argue that both the content and the aesthetics of the film are nostalgic—the characters are looking back on their relationship, the film quality is what? Early 1970’s split screen, where the voiceover in the story replaces dialogue, making two times overlap. I’ve seen lots of that overdubbing in ‘70s gay porn. Are you consciously remaking a history, or filling in the silences in a history? Is this telling a kind of love story we haven’t had in romance films? Is it showing the intimacies from those porn worlds, like we’re seeing the footage the films have left out?

RWG: Never thought of a porn connection. Super 8 film is very much home footage though, which taps it into the personal / subjective / memory category instantly. I love the memory pieces in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, though I don’t know if those were specifically super 8. I knew from the start that I wanted the look to be grainy, flawed, over saturated the way memory is.

Super 8 film has no sound, so no matter what I did there was going to technically be a gap between sound and image. But I wanted any dialogue or voice over to be stylized, dream like, dislocated slightly. I imagine this is the way dialogue or talking appears in dreams.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 9.13.34 PM

MVS: There is also this sense of time standing still, or all times existing at once. Time repeating. Like with the repetition of the line, “Can I kiss you?” The strategy is tied to that delicious ending. What’s your sense of nostalgia’s relationship to time, playing out here?

RWG: The seed of the film was a relationship I was having where, in a sense, I think I was the man’s first love. On the other side of that, as I am sure you know, I have had a few more loves. We would have these conversations as we were starting to go out and as we were breaking up where I would invariably say something the gist of which was “So now this will happen,” like I knew how the story goes. Yet he didn’t. And, often, I was wrong about how the story would go.

In “zack & luc” there is Luc in the right hand, chronological frames, experiencing the relationship in real time. On the left hand side, there is Zack, who even from the first moment of the relationship has a sense of the ending on the left. And in the end, he is remembering the beginning. Some of us are more nostalgic creatures. The end is in the beginning. Once you have loved and lost a few times, firsts and lasts are layered this way I think.

MVS: I’m always interested in how metaphor is made from two things that in turn create a third. In “zack & luc,” the split screen sort of does this, making emotional ironies. There are bittersweet moments created with the tensions between happy and sad images sharing the screen simultaneously. I’m being reductive when I say happy and sad, but you know what I mean. The film celebrates the grey scale between white-and-black polarities. If this film is using the in-between as a strategy, I’m curious what you think it is between? “zack & luc” resides in a spectrum between what and what?

RWG: Technically, this was such a nightmare challenge for the composer Christian Berube. I am in awe of how he was able to read the two frames together musically.

I like what you’re saying about the idea of metaphor here. It’s like Eisenstein’s montage: two images clash to make a concept. The frames paired were always intended to clash, but some more than others. I don’t think they resolve themselves so much. At least for me it becomes about the irresolvable bits in a relationship. Moments of toothbrushing joy clashing with irritating cereal slurping. Sad break up conversation silences with first date breathless silences. These can’t be mulched up into one new thing so much as emerge as a feeling of ambivalence (seeing more than one direction at once, not apathy). A melancholy ambivalence. One that can look forward and backward at the same time. But also one that can see both joy and sadness in the same beloved at once.

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MVS: It displaces us, to some degree. Unsettles what we think we know—like a tap on the shoulder, we know more than we think, or care to admit.

I’d like to also ask about Kristjana Gunnars’s poem which is referenced in the credits. Was that where the story idea came from? If “zack & luc” is an answer to Gunnars’s poem, what do you think her next response would be? What do you imagine Gunnars’s answer would be to this film?

RWG: Her poem is the one Zack is reading next to the bathtub. For Zack, who in the film always seems to have his face in a book, I wanted a poem that had that tension, of great love yet terrible restraint, fear. I love Gunnars’s work, so much so that I wrote a dissertation on melancholia and focused partly on her work. She’s moved to painting now so I think her response to the film would maybe also be visual. Then of course I would have to move to something like 3D animation so I could respond to her in turn. Maybe it carries on into infinity.

MVS: At the end, one of the young men delivers a voice-over in a different voice. It’s reflective, more a narrator’s voice, and we’re listening in on his internal monologue. I’m assuming it comes from that poem? Why the switch? Why is that moment prior to the end self-reflective? It’s like he’s talking to himself, looking in the mirror. What’s your relationship to that pause? You’ve left us there for a reason, so I want to know your reason.

RWG: I’m not sure. I think on the one hand I wanted a direct intimacy between Zack and the audience there. He speaks in the second person. He implicates the audience. I think, too, he is pointing out to the audience that they are already implicated. They now have all these memories, they are now in this last moment carrying all these other places in time, all these other moments of love. What follows is a bit of a quick montage of memory fragments, because I couldn’t bring myself to end the film as Zack leaves the truck in the rain.

As I was saying before, Zack’s side of the film is more nostalgic from the start. And, truly, he wins. The film is nostalgic. I don’t think anyone would argue that the moral of the story is that Luc’s version of reality—being more present, in the moment, nostalgia-free—is the way to live. It’s built to offer you a chance for your own nostalgia.

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MVS: The film implicates the audience, opens itself to a dialectic.

RWG: Exactly. I wanted this film to be a series of significant yet nothing moments and in between the gaps I hoped the audience would bring their own archives, their own nostalgia. From the start I kept thinking about Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. He says something like, and here I am butchering it, that we carry this lover’s archive with us. It’s why when a friend tells us about their heartbreak we tell them about ours. One broken heart reads another. I bring you mine, you bring me yours. We go get new loves. From a poem to a film to a painting to infinity. Our longing can be this place where we commune.


 

MVS112

Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.


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Jun 132016
 

benjamin-hale_0

Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. —Mark Sampson

the-fat-artist-and-other-stories

The Fat Artist and Other Stories
By Benjamin Hale
Simon & Schuster, 2016
288 pgs.;$26.00

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Call it book reviewer’s pride. I was infinitely pleased with myself that I had caught, without prompting, the literary reference in the title of Benjamin Hale’s new short story collection. Because I am a responsible critic, I went back and reread Kafka’s fabled tale “A Hunger Artist” before I even cracked the covers of Hale’s book, thinking it would prepare me for what I assumed was an album of short fiction that wears a Kafkaesque homage heavily.

But Hale resists this temptation. While the title story does acknowledge its antecedent in Kafka and borrows from his dark, absurdist world view, The Fat Artist and Other Stories is, on the whole, influenced more by famed footnoter David Foster Wallace, and by the gritty, violent realism of, say, Raymond Chandler, than it is by that Czech scribbler writing prescient tales about the looming horrors of the twentieth century. What’s more, Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. Hale is the author of a previous novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and he has been (forgive the pun) hailed as a dark, comic risk taker in his fiction, someone unafraid to mix together tenderness and the weird. This new book lives up to such a reputation. It’s about what to do with bodies: bodies that have died and need disposing of, bodies that have aged and betrayed their owners; bodies that need nourishment and respect; bodies that have grown fat for the sake of art.

Indeed, the title story here is an unalloyed masterpiece. Tristan Hurt is an avant-garde artist who slogs through the duo battles of staying on top of the New York art world and hiding from everyone that he is, more or less, a fraud. He shares with the reader some of his more embarrassing secrets:

As a person, I was nearly as lazy as I was self-absorbed. I had never actually read very much. Almost nothing, really. All that critical theory in college and graduate school? All that heady French gobbledygook? Not counting the front and back covers, I probably read a cumulative fifteen pages of it … I knew the names of the writers I was supposed to have read, and could pronounce them with haughty accuracy and ironclad confidence that withered on the spot those who had actually read them.

(Despite his general disinterest in reading, Tristan does possess a rich vocabulary of ten-dollar words that had me digging with glee into the dictionary: bloviate, piccolo, petrichor, soporate, etc.)

Tristan begins a shaky romance with a creative writing instructor named Olivia who can see through his ruses. As a gift, she gives him a copy of her beloved collected stories of Franz Kafka, leaving a condescendingly harsh inscription inside: “Tristan— Here you go. Most of them are pretty short. Olivia.” (We soon learn just how precarious this romance is: Tristan discovers that she had bought a previous copy for him, but had to get a new one after she accidentally wrote “Love, Olivia” in the inscription.) Being what he is, Tristan immediately latches on to the story “A Hunger Artist” included in the book, a tale of a man who sits in a cage and starves himself as a work of art. But when Olivia breaks things off with Tristan, he goes in the opposite direction. Exiling himself to his New York City condo, he spends 10 months in near-total isolation, doing nothing but eating, drinking, doing drugs and watching online pornography. He emerges as a 500-pound fatso, broke and in desperate need to re-establish himself in the art world. After attending a hoity-toity party, he gets an idea: he will become his own artwork, the inverse of Kafka’s creation, gaining even more weight in full public display with the aim of reaching 1,600 pounds and thus becoming the largest human being ever recorded in history. Here’s his rationale:

The concept was elegant in its simplicity: to turn Kafka on his head. “A Hunger Artist” in part derives the power of its allegory from the sheer horror of self-abnegation. Why on earth would anyone deliberately starve himself to death? But in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self abnegation no longer retains the primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior.

The project is thus: Tristan is set up on a large bed-cum-weight scale in a museum, with catheters attached to his anus and penis to pump waste away unseen from his body. The public lines up around the block day after day to both see him and bring him something to eat. Provided the gifts are edible, Tristan sets a rule for himself that he must eat everything his audience brings him: buckles of fried chicken, boxes of pizzas, plates of spaghetti, bags upon bags of candy. He inhales it all, and his weight climbs accordingly. The installation is a smash! Glowing reviews appear in the media, and the crowds keep coming. Tristan’s weight soon plateaus around 1,360 pounds as he tries to push through to his goal.

But then, just as quickly as the public embraced him, it soon loses interest in his project. The crowds disappear and Tristan’s visitors dwindle to a trickle. He actually begins to lose some weight. Here, Hale’s commentary is subtle but clear: even when the artwork involves our bodies, the interest in that artwork is capricious at best. The story is both rib-cracklingly hilarious and a little bit sad, especially when Olivia shows up at the end to visit Tristan in his now morbid state. She comes with news of the death of his father, and brings Tristan flowers as a gesture of condolence. What he does with those flowers after she leaves the museum is both deeply comic and wholly heart-wrenching.

It would seem the haughty, art-world humour in “The Fat Artist” comes naturally to Hale, which makes the fact that he is able to write in other, equally adept registers in this collection all the more impressive. One story that feels like the polar opposite of the title piece is “If I had Possession over Judgment Day”, a dark and intricately laced narrative set in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world. There are several threads and tropes weaving throughout this piece, and Hale leads us through them with a skilled hand. The story opens with images of satellites orbiting the earth, hovering like silent observers to the violence about to unfold. The narrative shifts and introduces us to two characters, Caleb and Maggie, whose relationship begins in childhood with an act of unmistakable cruelty. Caleb, age nine, is the habit of pinning Maggie, age seven, down on the ground after they’ve gotten off the school bus in order to spit in her face. But the way Hale describes this attack hints at a more sexualized overtone that foreshadows events later in the story:

[Caleb] would dredge up a glob of snot from the back of his throat with these exaggerated sucking noises, mix it with his spit, let it dribble out, coil onto her face in a long string. He liked to get it in her eyes and her hair … [H]e would slurp it back up like a yo-yo, chew on it some more, until he could no longer abstain from the pleasure of seeing it slopped on her face.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caleb and Maggie fall in love with each other much later on, in high school, and eventually move in together for a time. But then Maggie leaves him for a guy named Kelly, and the two soon marry and have a child together named Gabriel. Caleb, however, remains on the periphery of Maggie’s life.

The narrative then shifts to describe Kelly in his struggles as a breadwinner and father. Maggie becomes a plumping, unemployed stay-at-home mom, and Kelly needs to work two grueling jobs in order to support them. The first is working on a construction site by day, and the second is delivering newspapers overnight using his frequently unreliable pick-up truck. Hale takes us into the very core of Kelly’s misery: he loves Maggie and Gabriel but knows that he is failing them, failing life, and that he is not quite man enough. The pressures of his hanging-on-by-a-thread poverty imbues each day with whetted despair.

Things take a turn when Maggie accuses Caleb of coming over one night while Kelly is at work and raping her. The narrative shifts once more and adopts the gritty, street-lingo diction of one of Kelly’s coworkers as the two of them plan their revenge on Caleb. The idea is to lure him to a deserted park at night and assault him with a crowbar. Meanwhile, the satellites in their sky look on.

While all of this happens, there is a subplot to “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” involving a photographer named Fred looking to take artful nude photographs of his intellectually precocious 16-year-old niece, Lana. Their conversations are charged with flirty literary allusions, and there is something deeply sexual about their interactions even though Lana wears full body paint for the photo shoot. The two of them end up in the same park as Kelly and Caleb during the attack with the crowbar, and the way these two narrative threads loop into each other is nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, all of the elements that have been in play for several dozen pages – the constantly stalling truck, the naked teenager, Maggie’s scolding over Kelly’s lack of manliness (“I want you to grow a dick,” she tells him at one point) come to a head beautifully.

Another stand-out in this outstanding collection is “Leftovers,” a tale similar to “Judgment Day” in its subject matter and well-plotted narrative. A soon-to-be-retired corporate lawyer in southern Texas named Phil Grassley is having an affair behind the back of Diane, his wife of 30+ years, with a young woman from his office named Veronica. While Diane is out of town at a conference, Phil invites Veronica over for an evening of dinner, margaritas, and fucking. Over the course of this date, we learn just how shallow and entitled Phil is: he looks forward to a retirement of drinking beer, sailing his catamaran, and enjoying these dalliances behind his wife’s back, without a care about how hurtful his actions are. As he takes Veronica on a tour of the house, we learn about Phil’s three children, the middle of whom is a screwed-up drug addict named Julian that nobody has heard from in over a month.

It comes to pass that, after Phil and Veronica have had sex in the bed he shares with his wife and fallen asleep, Julian arrives at the house in the middle of the night looking to steal the TV in order to, presumably, sell it for drugs. Phil hears the intruder and creeps down in the darkness to confront him. Whereas “Judgment Day” uses a crowbar as its weapon of choice, “Leftovers” finds Phil taking up the rolling pin he had used to crush the ice for the margaritas to defend his home and property. He doesn’t discover that the invader is his own son until he’s cracked him over the head. Not that it much matters – the assault reveals just how callous Phil really is, and it’s Veronica, now emerged from the bedroom, who shows Julian some kindness.

But things grow complicated when Julian comes to and discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. The broader intent of the story becomes clear: Phil, we see, has a life full of what Alice Munro would call the kindness of women, and yet he is completely oblivious to his great fortune, and cannot see past his anger at Julian for being such a fuck-up.

And a fuck-up he is: the boy is still in rough shape, a stoned and wrecked-out mess. And when he dosses down on the couch and then dies in his sleep after choking on his own vomit, Phil has an opportunity to rid his son from his life for good and also hide his sexual dalliances from his wife. He conscripts Veronica in his plan:

“Nobody knew where the hell Julian was for a month, or more. He was totally incommunicado. We still don’t know, actually, and probably never will at this point. Point is, this didn’t have to happen. You see what I mean?”

Eventually, she saw what he meant.

It’s striking how little editorializing Hale does as Phil concocts a plan to use his catamaran to dispose of his own son’s body in the Gulf of Mexico. The author keeps the moral gauge at neutral and does not lose the story’s propulsion despite the fact that his protagonist is an entirely vile human being. It’s an impressive feat in a tale – much like “Judgment Day” before it – about keeping a murder secret.

This authorial detachment is just one of Hale’s skills. Throughout The Fat Artist, he shows a talent for writing in multiple registers, for tackling a variety of subject matter and giving each of his stories its own rich, believable world. In “Venus in Her Mirror”, we have another dead body that someone is unsure what to do with. Rebecca is in her late thirties and working as a BDSM call girl under the name “Mistress Dalilah.” Divorced and wanting a child, she’s developed a close bond with a client, a high-profile Democrat in Washington whose name is Sam but goes by “The Representative” in their sex play. When he dies suddenly from a heart attack during one of their engagements, Rebecca is forced to confront both the realities of her own life as well as the secrets of the man whose corpse she must now deal with.

“Beautiful Boy”, meanwhile, shows us the confluence in early 1980s New York City of the murder of John Lennon, drag queen culture, and the rise of AIDS. The final piece in the book, “The Minus World”, set in Boston, shares a kinship with “Judgment Day”: Peter is fresh out of prison/rehab and down on his luck, turning to his brother Greg and his wife Megan to help him get his life turned around. Greg lands Peter a job driving a truck that delivers squid from the wharf to the biology lab at MIT. But like Kelly in “Judgment Day”, Peter just cannot get a handle on his various vices, and the story ends with a violent vehicle accident that snaps into focus just how desperate his life has become.

Individually, these stories are immensely compelling and brilliantly imagined. Taken together, they reveal a broader vision that is so much more enriching than that Kafkaesque tease in the title would suggest. I suspect it will be a long, long time before I enjoy a short story collection as much as I enjoyed this one.

—Mark Sampson

NC
Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

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

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Jun 122016
 

SydneyLea

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“MAYBE I’LL TRY that special,” my new pal Joe said, a sardonic smile on his face. The six of us had just lingered outside a moment to laugh at the sign in the diner’s window. The Baseball Special consisted of a hotdog and two hard-boiled eggs. Needless to say, as witless college freshmen, we swapped some witless humor about what may after all have been intentionally ribald humor on the part of the place’s owner.

None of us yet knew that owner’s name, because this was our first wee-hour foray to the United, part of a timeless freshman rite: the first All-Nighter. Eddie Witten insisted he’d pulled one in high school, though the rest of us, innocent of any such experience, were loudly skeptical. Our little group shared an odd exhilaration –unspoken but obvious, at least to me– at the prospect of hitting the books until the sun came up. It felt like an initiation into independence from conditions so lately abandoned. None of us now needed to consider household rules or curfews.

We did quickly come to know the name of the United’s only waiter; Gus was stitched in raveling red on his pocket. He seemed ancient to us as any pseudo-Gothic or pseudo-Federalist building on a Yale quad. Stooped and flat-footed, he wore an expression, bored, world-weary, or both, as he took our orders, turning an ear, presumably the better one, to each speaker in his turn.

At last Gus gathered up the ketchup- and coffee-stained menus and limped back to the kitchen. No one had asked him for the Baseball Special. The old man wrote down none of our very varied requests, and I marveled, thinking he must be what my Dad meant by an old-time waiter, a real pro.”

Gus soon returned with a tray of food, none of it bearing the least resemblance to anything we’d asked him for, but for whatever reason, nobody thought to complain.

The week just past in New Haven had held other novel experiences for me. During Convocation, famed art historian Vincent Scully, the sort of spellbinding speaker I’d never heard, assured the students assembled in Commons that they represented “a thousand future world leaders.” I concluded, instantly and instinctively, that the description couldn’t possibly apply to me, and I likewise remember looking around at the other 999 freshmen, and having similar doubts. Fifty-odd years later, my inference still feels right.

In the case of those who did become leaders, most, with honorable exceptions like my classmate Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, became leading money men, not moral nor cultural exemplars.

On the day after Convocation, I’d been far more taken by Professor Scully’s lecture. His was the first art history course I’d ever taken, one starting with classical Greek sculpture and architecture and ending, at year’s end, with the modern abstract painters. There in the United, I fancied that if I squinted my eyes, I could almost make the images of Greek monuments on the diner’s walls blend with those in Mr. Scully’s slides. During lulls in our boisterous conversation, I did a lot of such squinting, because for all my greenhorn irony, I enjoyed being imaginatively transported in that or any other way.

My daily schedule at the start of college days was about exactly opposite to the one I’ve adopted for most of my life since. Once I moved on from lowly freshman status, I’d gotten most of my required courses out of the way and could elect ones that met in the afternoon or, at worst, at 11 a.m, which allowed me to sleep in, even if, so far as a liberal education was concerned, this scarcely represented a good premise for selection.

As a freshman year, however, I couldn’t duck those morning classes, including ones on Saturday, so as soon as the last was dismissed, I would usually return to bed. On awakening from my afternoon siesta, I’d think of something to amuse myself until suppertime. Sadly enough, alcohol– a demon I later had to struggle hard to exorcise– played a progressively prominent part in such amusement, more, say, than hockey practice, swims at the gym, or simply reading.

My obligatory schoolwork waited until after dinner, and it often took me well into the early hours of the next day. I soon, therefore, became more or less an habitué of the United, going there for a break at least three times a week, sometimes in company, more often on my own.

Every college freshman likely tries at some point to dope out a schedule that will allow him (we were all hims at early-sixties Yale) somehow to beat the system. Most of my friends soon discovered there was no such magic formula, and went back to saner modes of behavior. I either failed to make that discovery myself, or, having made it, persisted no matter. I honestly can’t remember which.

Becoming a regular led to frequent contact with Spiro, the United’s proprietor, a soulful-visaged Greek who dressed, invariably, in blue suit and dark, solid tie. Spiro assigned himself the night shift at the register, for reasons I shortly divined: he had another daytime enterprise.

I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion.

Spiro had cultivated a manner of discussing his undertaking in what can only be described as blurbese, an idiom that favors antithesis. Sixty Steps from Yale, he announced, was a tale at once sweet and dark, despairing and uplifting. It concerned a beautiful Greek girl, recently arrived in America and a Yale student from an old Connecticut family, who had fallen in love.

Spiro would insert a Byronic hand between shirt and jacket front, lean his head back, and proceed more or less like this. “The young Greek woman is of humble origins but born with a noble spirit. She meets her lover at her father’s restaurant. The two look at each other from separate tables. How great is the distance that separates them, yet how much greater the attraction that blooms in their hearts.”

Spiro always spoke at whatever length I had time for. I don’t quote him exactly, I’m sure, but I do catch his manner. “The poem is both light- and heavy-hearted,” Spiro might begin. “The couple’s destiny is written in heaven, but every force on earth seems to interfere with it. The boy’s parents disapprove, the girl’s are suspicious of the Yale man and his airs. At times wildly comic, at others gloomy, Sixty Steps from Yale is not only a love story but also a look at two cultures, one ancient and one young.”

However flowery, his speech was every bit as articulate as I indicate.

Today, half a century later, I wince at how I betrayed my pledge of secrecy. The very day after first being sworn to confidence, I shared what I’d heard from Spiro with my closest companions. I’d ape the old man’s book-jacket rhetoric, and my cohort would obligingly guffaw.

I should instead have felt honored to be Spiro’s interlocutor. There seems to have been something in me, specifically, or so I like to think, that Spiro considered congenial, perhaps even poetic, no matter that the notion of becoming a poet would have struck even me as absurd. No, I liked booze, girls, and ice hockey, in descending order of preference. I certainly had no epic intentions, no ambition as a writer of any kind, none in fact as anything. I’d genuinely rejected Professor Scully’s prognostications of my future.

As a sophomore, I moved far from where I’d been billeted that first year. My schedule didn’t become much saner, and yet my sorties to the United became ever rarer. The Connecticut drinking age being 21, I’d befriended another local merchant, who served as my liquor dealer until graduation. Now my wee-hour diversions tended to involve nothing but liquor, until my trips to the United ceased altogether.

Thus it was a good while after it happened that I learned of Spiro’s death– and only by way of scanning the obituaries in the New Haven Register. I assumed that the old gent’s magnum opus remained unfinished, that it would never be discovered, save, perhaps, by some family member, who’d stash it away with other keepsakes from the writer’s life, not to be considered again.

As I write, I’m older than Spiro was in those days. I may even be older than our waiter Gus, who back then struck our company as unimaginably ancient.

Unlike him, unlike Spiro, I find no orthodoxy, Greek or otherwise, fitted to what I believe. And yet just this morning, prompted who-knows-how, I found myself praying to God, scarcely for the first time, that He forgive me for having once shown qualities so often joined in the unworldly young– stupidity and arrogance.

How, after all, can I know that Sixty Steps from Yale was fit for ridicule? I never read it, of course, having, in Ben Jonson’s words, little Latin, less Greek. Still with all the confidence of immitigable ignorance, I imagined the work to be farcical, sentimental, and overwrought.

Unlike poor Spiro, I’ve published twelve collections of poetry. I’ve won a prize or two, garnered this or that sweetheart fellowship, taught in various higher educational institutions (Yale among them) for over forty years. At the same time, of course, I remain a stranger to the vast majority of citizens, bookish ones included, even within my tiny state of Vermont. After I am gone, my obscurity will in all likelihood become as complete as that of the United’s owner. The diner itself lives only as a sketchy memory of people my age and older. With no false humility, I can say that I’ll lack the sort of accomplishment that Spiro could have pointed to. He did manage the United, after all, well and for a long time.

Perhaps I’m the sentimental one these days, but now it strikes me that there was real poetry in Spiro’s merely composing what he did of Sixty Steps from Yale, given his need to keep his diner going, to keep Gus more or less content, to keep serving what was, after all, pretty good food. And as I recall all this, it seems that Spiro’s very authorial effort was epic in and of itself.

— Sydney Lea

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

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Jun 112016
 

image001Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Among the Long Shadows

This is the fourth and final chapter in Paul Pines’ book-length essay on the Fisher King of legend. You can find the earlier essays in the NC archives, but for easy reference, here are the links.

 

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Parzival felt all the grief he had encountered since he first began his long journey into exile from true innocence of heart. And in the same moment of anguished illumination, he saw how—mile after mile, day after day, battle after battle, until he had finally met defeat at  his brother’s hands—that guilt-driven journey had taken him further and further from the one true source of joy and meaning in his life. Reflecting on his pride and bitterness, the willful error of his ways, he found himself wondering what the wound was at the heart—or in the mind—of man that kept him forever in exile from what he most desired.

—Lindsay Clarke, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven

For Whom the Buoy Tolls

image002Marsden Hartley: Lighthouse

For several months I’d had an email correspondence with Justin. We’d never met face to face. He was a poet who had also been a fisherman and spent time at sea. A mutual friend in the UK had initiated an electronic introduction based on our common interests. Subsequently we’d exchanged work by mail—copies of our respective memoirs and latest books of poetry. I had hoped my collection, Fishing on the Pole Star, would ring true for him.

We both grew up fishing for blues out of Sheepshead Bay and Montauk, I as a passenger on party boats, and he as crew. The account of his childhood, under the rigorous command of his father, a charter boat captain, haunted me. I was moved by the thought of him as a boy filling the ice chests, cleaning the catch, stowing gear and hosing the deck. What might he have been thinking as he untangled the lines of anglers fiddling with the drag, or gaffing a big blue before it jumped the hook? His formative years in my imagination tolled like the buoy I passed as a seaman, Robbins Light, at the entrance of New York Bay.

Justin’s emails to me were cool, almost formal, a few words to make a point or ask a question. Probing further in this medium after reading each other’s personal confessions on the page felt awkward. He had been born in Sag Harbor, a brilliant blue-eyed boy. He’d done well financially, and moved to the UK where he was now a citizen, with an office at Oxford of the kind reserved for scholars and Emeriti.  I was surprised by his email in early April saying that he’d be spending the summer at his home, Ardetta Exilis, on Martha’s Vineyard, and would I care to visit him there on the weekend following my residency in August at the Gloucester Writers Center. I wrote back that my wife would be joining me in Gloucester and we had planned coincidentally to be in Vineyard Haven on Thursday where I’d be reading at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore. In a following message dated Friday, August 1st, Justin indicated that due to an unforeseen obligation, he was no longer free to host us for the entire weekend, but an overnight on Friday, the day after my reading, would work well for him. He apologized that it couldn’t be longer, but looked forward to our visit.

“Let’s do it,” said my wife.

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Leaving Gloucester

On the my last night of my residency, Carol joins me in the one-room cape, perched on the road between Gloucester and Cape Anne. She may have expected something more elaborate. We sit at the small writing table I’ve been using all week, taking in the scene. With her broad cheeks, and full lips, red highlights in her shoulder length hair, she is my Queen of Cups. I point out the black and white photo of poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived there, beside his friend, Charles Olson. Both have been palpable presences for me. Imposing at 6’7”, Olson’s physical size is proportional to his impact on American poetry. With good reason he named the persona that gave voice to his vision, Maximus. From the first night I spent there, lines from Olson’s visionary poem “The Kingfishers,” have been echoing in my dreams.

What does not change / is the will to change

image003Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water

Carol points out that I’d come to this fishing village, inhabited the home of another poet/fisherman, friend of an even more renowned one, to read from Fishing on the Pole Star, my own poetry collection about fishing.

“It’s almost operatic,” she comments. “Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.”

“I woke with these lines from ‘The Kingfishers’ in my head…then couldn’t stop thinking about Amfortas.”

“In Wagner’s Parsifal,” Carol comments. “Amfortas is a baritone wounded by his own holy spear.”

“Wolfram’s Amfortas betrays his duty as Grail keeper by killing another knight, who leaves him with a wound that won’t heal. His pain is almost unbearable. Only fishing eases it.”

“Until Parzival appears to heal him.”

“Or he’s able to get insured for a pre-existing condition,” I tease her.

“Parzival or Amfortas, which are you?” Carol’s green eyes sparkle.

I shrug. “Navigating between baritone and tenor.”

Earlier in the week I’d given a talk after my poetry reading. The title had come to me on the first morning here: Trolling with the Fisher King. Ideas and images followed. I recorded them in my dream journal. The thirty or so people who came to hear poems from Polestar remained when I followed up the reading with my talk. In fact, they seemed more engaged. What I had to say about the Fisher King spilled like water out of my Aquarian unconscious.

Operatic, indeed.

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On the day of our departure, over coffee, I recall last night’s dream. I’m seated at a long table between Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini, waiting for a scheduled event. They are talking about poetry and art, the essential nature of creative imagination with its spontaneous production of symbols. I lean over and say:

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us
On soiled angels’ wings…

“What do you make of it?” Carol studies me.

image004Tarot (Alphonse) Mucha: Queen Of Cups

“My discussion with them, and this place, is coming to an end. But why soiled angels’ wings?”

“Maybe that’s what happens when we try to fly beyond our comprehension.” She touches my hand. “Or sing off-key.”

I had embarked on my Fisher King troll with the encouragement of an imagined Vincent Ferrini gazing down at me from the black and white etching on the wall that made him look like Pedrolino.

“What if I can’t hold onto the Fisher King, the conversation I’ve been having with him all week? It could stop cold when I drive away from Ferrini’s house?”

“We can’t let that happen.”

Carol takes my arm as we walk to the Hyundai. As she sees it, my troll with the Fisher King is open-ended. We might think of our Martha’s Vineyard journey as a quest, and our mysterious destination, Ardetta Exilis, as the Grail Castle.

I slip easily into the driver’s seat.

Ardetta Exilis. My wife repeats the name. After fastening her seat belt, she checks her iPad. Carol is expert at searching the internet. Even before I pull out on to the road, she finds the definition: the Castle at the end of our road is named for the least bittern, a small wading bird similar to the heron.

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In Flight

image005Wayne Atherton: Cover, Fishing on the Polestar

I point our silver Hyundai south, toward Boston. We will spend the night there on Kenmore Square, not far from what used to be Miles Standish Hall, the dormitory for Boston University students half a century ago. We arrive at the Buckminster Hotel, a grey stone and brick structure designed by Sanford White at the start of the last century. It follows the U-shaped corner of Beacon and Brookline in a circular embrace. What had been the front entrance is now a Pizzeria Uno, but in the 50s it had been the home of Storyville, that hosted Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Sarah Vaughan among others. Many of them had performed here at the same time I lived across the street, before I knew their names.

The new entrance on Brookline is marble, with glass sliding doors leading into the original art-deco circular lobby, painted lemon yellow and crowned with gold-leaf laurels over the registration desk.

The space feels like the past renewed, still vital, reassuring but not cloying, open to what may come next.

In our case, a nap. And then a slow walk down Commonwealth Avenue like a European boulevard divided by a verdant mall. Falling light casts a glow over the stone and brick buildings with their turrets, garrets and wrought iron fences. We turn onto Mass Ave. and again on Boylston. The streets are full of tourists and natives, often distinguished by their respective body languages. Even the exuberant traveler betrays a certain stiffness.

On the veranda of the Atlantic Fish Company we are lucky to score a table by the rail hedged with flowerboxes and set with silverware on a white linen tablecloth. Carol and I split a toasted goat cheese salad of wild greens, roasted red and golden beets, spiced pecans, and red wine vinaigrette. She orders a seared north Atlantic salmon with ricotta gnocchi, Andouille sausage, spinach, heirloom cherry tomato and a white wine-lemon pan sauce. I can’t resist the seared sesame tuna served rare with sautéed bok choy. Half way through the meal we realize that only a year earlier this place was devastated by the Boston Marathon bombing. Which explains the pristine condition of the interior, the white walls and stair to a second tier, polished wooden floors and impeccable modern bar under a raised ceiling.

The wounds are no longer visible. I am less confident that they are entirely healed, that they do not bleed through, as unseen but cohesive as dark matter.

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The afternoon is slightly overcast when we start out, follow US-1 down the coast, but burns off by the time we take Exit #7 towards Cape Cod.  We cross the Bourne Bridge, and proceed to the second exit on the roundabout to MA-28, a flat highway divided by a median that will take us south to Woods Hole, where we will catch the ferry to Vineyard Haven.  We stop in Falmouth at the bagel café, then continue down Woods Hole Road, then make a left to the Steam Ship Authority where we wait in a line of cars to be directed on to the ferry. We eventually follow directions to the belly of the vessel. Once parked, we climb three flights of stairs to the top deck. Summer residents and weekend tourists sit on hatches and lean against rails. Seagulls cry and the smell of salt air revives us from the fatigue that had nestled in my bones on the drive down.

The invitation to read at the Bunch of Grapes, the island’s only year-around book store, came through Jay and Ivy who shuttle between their house in Tisbury, and an apartment in Boston. Jay has spent the summer playing piano in a jazz duo at the country club, while Ivy owns and operates an art gallery exhibiting mostly local artists. They thought my Pole Star would attract an audience on an island populated by poets and fishermen, and offered to host us for the weekend. But when I told them about Justin’s invitation for the following night, Jay shrugged and agreed with Ivy that Justin was entirely unknown to them, as was the compound called Ardetta Exilis, in the area they referred to as Menemsha Heights. And when they greet us at the landing stage in Vineyard Haven, they confide that no one they’ve talked to has anything more to add.

I tell them that this is because the Fisher King’s castle occupies an imaginary space, a dimension that intersects with ours, but can’t be accessed by intention.

“Invitation only.”

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The Bunch of Grapes is a legendary bookstore on the island, catering to a literary population, among them a couple of visiting U.S. Presidents. Located on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, it occupies a space across the street from the original store that burned down in 2008 when the restaurant next door, Moxies, went up in a kitchen fire. The new location, once a Bowl & Board, is now hedged by wooden book cases and table displays behind lattice windows. Prominently on display are signed copies of Boys in the Trees by local author Carly Simon. And another island resident, historian David McCullough, has left a supply of his latest book, The Wright Brothers.

I am here to read from Fishing on the Polestar. Our event takes place in a nook at the rear where chairs and a couch have been arranged in a circle. There may be as many as thirty people gathered and we need more chairs. As we suspected, the subject of fishing appears to have  expanded the audience.

image006Richard Saba: Ancient Clamor

Most of those here understand how to read the book-of-the-world in birds and schooling fish, weed-lines and tides, and an invisible bottom. These fishermen, both commercial and sport, are intent on blues, stripers and bonito. But I talk about small islands, some uninhabited, or protected by reefs, and I enumerate the rituals of trolling baits and lures on multiple lines that shape the pursuit of marlin, the fisherman’s Grail, through the Bahamas. The focus of everyone in the room coalesces when I reach the poem at the heart of this collection, “Marlin Strike.”

It opens when a five-hundred pound marlin takes the hook, and a life and death communication between fish and fisherman transpires through a strip of mono-filament. The powerful creature dances, leaps, tail-walks the water until it is exhausted and comes willingly to our starboard side where the “wire man”, hand wrapped carefully around the wire leader, “swims” the fish until his color returns. A marlin with faded pigment is instantly a feast for sharks. At full strength, the marlin is shark-proof.

I describe how Caleb, our wire man, holds the creature close to our hull, talks softly, strokes his bill. The boat cruising at a super slow speed allows water to circulate through the gills. Caleb swims him until we see the marlin’s deep purple and green stripes glow, then removes the hook. The marlin, whose jaws are capable of crushing a human hand, gently bites down twice on Caleb’s to indicate he is ready to go. Caleb releases him. Still brushing our gunwale, this great creature rises above it, remains suspended for a timeless moment:

we gaze into
the perfect roundness of his eye
……………….watch the boundary
…………………….between us
………………………dissolve
……………….glimpse

in that great wink of eternity

………..the Divine Child

……….watch him swim
……………..away

………..the unconscious
………….conscious of
……………..itself

When I‘ve finished, people linger for Q & A. The blonde woman who had been working the register when I came in, wants to know more about what I saw in the depths of that perfectly round eye. The question brings tears to mine. I have a hard time describing that gaze, so deeply knowing.  Except to say that it continues to gaze at me, locates me in my own depths, a primordial moment that endures as an inexpressible word on the ocean’s tongue.

And then, to release the catch? Inconceivable for most, especially for those who troll the waters around this island.

“There’s no choice, if you truly recognize the intelligence you’re dealing with.”

 “Is it hard to release it, watch it swim away?” a thin young man with a piratical blue do-rag tied around his head wants to know.

“How do you say goodbye to one who takes a part of you with them?”

A greybeard in a watch cap, about my age, comments on my image of Vietnamese fishermen in dugouts pulling up silver splinters of light on multiple hooks. He has seen them too, on the South China Sea, and appears comforted by the memory.

An elderly women in L.L. Bean jacket lets me know she is well into her eighties and regularly fishes from her dingy in Katama Bay.

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Good Directions

image009John Marin: Marin Island

I remember that in the tale, Parzival is told by a man fishing from the back of a boat that he can find shelter in a castle not far away. But he must follow the fisherman’s directions, proceed up the road, make a left, and then cross a drawbridge. Parzival is unaware that this is the Fisher King himself guiding him to the Grail Castle, or that in symbolic terms the left is the direction of the unconscious, the side sinister.

The road is flat, lined intermittently by low stone walls framing oak, and white pine hedged by meadows and wetlands. We wind through Tisbury, and Chilmark, past an untended graveyard where John Belushi is buried. A mile beyond that landmark we find Menemsha Road, make a right, snake up hill, admiring private homes tucked into the hills. Night Heron Lane, a name that foreshadows the least bittern, comes up quickly. We turn left, and continue climbing. Soon Carol points to the unsigned road on our right, thickly wooded and flanked by huckleberry, bayberry and the occasional white oak saplings. We have followed the directions faithfully.

“This must be it,” Carol’s voice is hushed “The entrance to Ardetta Exilis.”

I steer the silver Hyundai between imposing stone pillars eight feet high on to a graded gravel road that curves gently up a wooded slope. We level off past a grassy alcove hedged by rhododendrons on my side, before opening on Carol’s side into an informal Japanese garden, featuring a pond surrounded by weeping maples. This careful balance of art and nature announces a domain created by a precise and prosperous hand.

image010Toyen (Marie Cerminova): Eclipse

I stop a few feet from a structure resembling a Mayan stele or Egyptian boundary marker planted in the ground where the road loops right into unseen territory. We get out of the car and walk over. This stele is made of a polymer material that might be mistaken for translucent marble. There are words engraved on it, which turns out to be a poem. In two four line stanzas the poet asks us to consider which is most frightening, an indifferent or hostile universe.

“One of his,” I tell her.

The mutual friend who had introduced us thought that Justin and I, two fishermen/poets, might have something to say to each other. This had prompted an exchange of books, along with a few brief emails. I’d been touched by the unornamented severity of his memoir. But the same quality in Justin’s poems left me unmoved, indifferent rather than dismissive. Whatever we might have to say to each other had not seemed pressing as I read his writings. But now, having entered his world, I’m curious.

“Do we abandon all hope?” My wife strays to the edge of the Japanese garden.

“Not yet.”

I follow her to a bench beneath the weeping cherry tree. We sit. Neither of us know what to expect, but I fill her in as best I can, starting with details I recall from his memoir.

Justin was born to an Irish mother from Hell’s Kitchen on the upper West Side. The family had owned a bucket-of-blood bar on Broadway. Her brother, an avid fisherman, and a Westie, had taken a bullet in a gang related incident. She met her future husband at her brother’s wake, the Captain of a charter boat out of Montauk. After they married, she moved to Sag Harbor, and never went back. Her only child, Justin, grew up a working class Bonacker, or “bub”, tags most island locals wore with pride. Justin never identified with either. There are photos of him as a wiry boy with curly locks, his jaw set as befits one under his father’s thumb. He is alone in each of the black and white photos, one taken beside a bicycle, the other in front of the boat. Justin excelled at school, but otherwise spent his time securing lines, gutting fish, and cleaning up after rich customers—until he escaped on scholarship to Harvard, graduate work at Oxford, and then to a career in international finance. Evidence would indicate success.

image011Herman Maril: Province Town

 It’s a long way from a peninsula at the tip of Long Island’s south fork to this gardens in the Menemsha Hills. Hands that once dispensed chum, the smelly stew of fish parts, bones and blood thrown into the water as bait, now held a British passport and the key to rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he spent at least half of his year. He also has an apartment in London’s elegant Palace Gate.  This house in the Vineyard may be as close as he gets to his blue-collar Bonacker roots at the end of Long Island.

While I often fished out of Montauk on party boats, the pricey charters were always financially out of my childhood reach. It’s just possible though that Justin and I crossed paths as teenagers on the dock. I’ve spent enough time in that world to imagine what it was like to grow up as he did, and why he felt compelled to escape it.

Less familiar, is the world in which he now lives.

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Be Welcome Here

We continue up the drive to a parking area in front of a circular blue stone terrace where a weathered woman in denim coveralls, her silver hair piled on her head, waves us into a parking space. Her dark eyes are wide set above broad cheeks. It’s hard to judge her age, but it is north of forty. She welcomes us to Ardetta Exilis.

“Did you have trouble finding us? First timers often do.”

“It feels like a separate world,” observes Carol.

“What’s left of our ancestral lands.”

image012Djorde Ozbolt: Monkey Business

She is quick to let us know that she’s a full blooded Wampanoag, who traces her line back to the great chief Massasoit. Even with her coiled silver hair, and in work clothes, she radiates dignity. I think of her as “princess.” She helps us carry our backpacks and carry bags up a hill that flattens into a field bounded at one end by a forest. Through a gap in the vegetation she points out a view of the Aquinnah cliffs.  We follow her to the guest cottage, a grey cape perched on a raised deck that offers a view of the ocean trough a tangle of windswept pines.

“This is the highest point on the island,” she tells us. “Over three-hundred feet.”

Our princess opens the sliding glass door, then invites us to enter. In spite of the rustic exterior, the appointments inside include brass bathroom fixtures, comforters stuffed with the finest down, and flower arrangements flanking silver trays of dried fruits and trail mix. Our princess waits for us to take it all in, before instructing us to feel free to explore the grounds or rest, but that we will be dining tonight with our host. The path at the far side of the meadow follows the ocean and leads eventually to the Main House.

We’re expected there at 8:00 PM.

“Please,” she adds before taking her leave, “try to be on time.”

.

In the Zone

We start out early. The path runs through a forest of Bonsai pines, their limbs artfully twisted by strong winds. Beyond it, parallel rows of solar foot-lights are reminiscent of a miniature landing strip. Their glow lines a gravel path across a lawn that slopes to a ridge on the right. We walk to the edge, where a rocky slope drops to a beach sixty feet below carpeted with smooth round stones. The light appears to be falling fast. S/W of us clay-faced bluffs burn red in the last rays of the sun. Los ultimos rayos del sol.

image013Arthur Dove: Red Sunset

Carol points to a steep descent along a trail flanked by huckleberry, and bayberry. On the west side of the slope white oak saplings flank the trail to a look out, and from there a cedar and fir stairway descends to the beach. Small waves break soundlessly. A red-tailed hawk circles above them. Carol would like to go down there, feel the spray.

I touch my watch. No time for a detour. But she holds my arm, and we linger there, details in a painting where light spills over the bluffs like blood from the wound in a darkening sky. Before the sun disappears, we break the spell and head back to the path edged by dwarf conifers. Solar lights glow like fireflies that lead us to a pond, where they end at a wooden foot bridge. Just beyond the bridge, a blue stone patio borders the two story structure of stone, wood and glass at the crest of the hill. It is a hybrid of modernist and Romanesque forms. A wall of tinted glass rests on a fortress of weathered grey shingles incorporating cathedral windows and an entrance set into a gothic arch.

“Ardetta Exiles,” whispers Carol.

Our shared but unspoken sense of the occasion is now clear: what started off as a trip has turned into a pilgrimage. Two stone benches on the patio convey the peacefulness of a medieval monastery. Carved oak doors rise the full height of their gothic niche. It is clear that beyond the entrance, the walls disappear behind a wall of arbor vitae to occupy considerably more space than meets the eye.

“It’s an eyrie,” I reply.

“I agree,” Carol squeezes my hand. “Very eerie.”

“Not that,” I clarify. “Ardetta Exiles, the bittern’s nest.”

image014Percival’s Quest, 1385-1390

A carved wooden door set into the niche rises to a vaulted ceiling. Strips of glass on either side of the door allows a peek into the ante-chamber. I can’t find a bell, so reach for the brass knocker shaped like an eagle’s claw. Before I can bring it down, a shape appears on the other side of the glass.

The man who opens the door wears a navy cashmere crew neck over white ducks and boat shoes. I barely recognize him from the black and white photos in his memoir. Justin’s once curly locks have thinned, spun gold turned reddish and threaded with grey. He bows slightly, then stands back to let us in. As I wonder if he is permanently bent like a question mark, he straightens to his full height, I guess at 6’3” or thereabouts.

“I believe we’re on time.” I enter, Carol close behind me.

“Perfect.” His voice is soft, almost apologetic. “Forgive me. We keep only a small staff, so I must answer the door myself. Come in.”

image015Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W. (1955)

Justin’s head appears too small for his body, but his clean shaven face, curiously unlined except for grooves bracketing his mouth, makes his age impossible to judge. The most striking features are his blue-grey eyes. They catch mine like fish hooks, then release me.

“Please.”

Justin takes our jackets and folds them neatly on the bench to his right. His long-fingered hands are tapered, almost delicate, in contrast to his corded neck common to certain thin men whose muscles are like cables. His shoulders are slightly bent in the manner of one who must gaze down at others. When he leads us into the vestibule, he appears off balance, as if one leg were a millimeter shorter than the other. A skylight in the entry way illuminates an abstract painting. Justin draws our attention to it.

“de Kooning,” I guess, thinking it one of the Untitled series he painted in the 70s.

“Auerbach,” Justin corrects me. “Our greatest living painter.”

A few steps beyond we stop in front of a cubist assemblage on a pedestal. It stands at the arched entrance to a dimly lit room. Steel straps wrap a green vertical chess board. I could picture it in a garden by a wading pool, a New Age sundial.

“David Smith?”

“No,” Justin gentles my ignorance. “It’s a Caro. Chamber Music. If you listen closely, it sings.”

Caro nome…” says my wife.

“Ah, you know Rigoletto.” Justin’s face lights up for a moment, then becomes stern. “I mean Anthony Caro. The music his sculpture makes isn’t an aria, from the heart, but structural, detached, like the vibration NASA captures in the planetary rings, Uranian music.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever hear such music,” Carol is thoughtful

Justin steeples his fingers in front of his lips. He takes her in.

“Keats tells us, unheard music is the sweetest,” I observe.

Justin is less impressed with me. He takes Carol’s arm. She steps closer to the assemblage. “Bend closer.”

“Ah, I hear it,” she says, rising after moments of fixed attention. “The whispered song in a chambered nautilus.”

“Indeed.” He lets go of her arm, and, as if to balance the moment, addresses me. “Caro made this piece in the 60s. I found it in his studio shortly before his death last year at eighty-nine.”

We cross the threshold into the next room, which is also dimly lit. On the far side I can see a picture windows framing the night sky. When he turns up the lights, the world bursts into color. Paintings of all descriptions float on white walls, luminous as reef fish. Glazed ceramics, dyed weavings and metal sculptures glow on shelves and in niches like shards of the spectrum. Carol and I are stunned.

image016Kenneth Armitage: People in the Wind

A monumental Anselm Kiefer dominates one wall with its mottled surface, lattices of blacks and golds floating like clouds in a white and blue sky above a field of wild flowers, and mountains on the horizon. Running through the sculptural topography of ridges and charged particles there is the suggestion of train tracks in the field. I think they must lead to Auschwitz.

Jerusalem,” he all but sighs. “This way.”

Justin leads through an arch on the other side of the painting, but cautions us to be careful. There are three steps leading down into the dining room. As he takes the steps I note again his slight but definite limp. He walks to the head of a table surrounded by cathedral-back chairs. The space can seat twelve comfortably. Tonight it is set for four. He pulls out the chair on his right for Carol, then indicates the one to his left for me. The fourth place at the other end remains empty. Each place is set with delft china and Waterford crystal. Wild flowers—violets, dog roses, primrose, black eyed-Susan, orange cornflower, red trillium, buttercup and purple phlox decorate the center.

I’m comforted by Carol’s smile facing me across the table, then direct my attention to what is on the wall behind her. A rectangular canvas in a plain metal frame features a beefy young woman, dark hair pinned back, in a white satin sleeveless dress and toe-shoe on her one exposed foot. Her other leg folded under her, she sits on a chair with her left arm plunged into a long black boot which she polishes with the cloth in her other hand, back to a window in the stone wall. What’s most remarkable about this work is the way moonlight floods the room with shadows, at the edge of which a cat stands on two legs looking up at the sky. I see elements of Balthus, and Magritte, but know it’s neither of them.

image017Paula Rego: Angel

“Latin American.” I guess. “Botero?”

“Nice try.” His frown lines deepen when he smiles. “Paula Rego. The Policeman’s Daughter.

image018Paula Rego: House Underground

Rego, he tells us, is Portuguese, though she’s long been a resident of the UK. We learn that she is highly respected in the English art world, and has been honored by the Queen. Justin knows Dame Paula, has spent time at her studio. He describes her work as darkly childlike, dominated by grotesque fairytale figures in narratives that hint at sexual secrets. This one, between father and daughter.

A tall, expensively preserved woman in her fifties interrupts our host when she enters from the kitchen behind me. She has salt and pepper hair cut boyishly close. Her pale face defined by “good bones,” is webbed with fine lines, but tight skin around her mouth and jaw hint at cosmetic surgery. Makeup, skillfully applied, heightens the color in her cheeks and lips. A white cardigan over designer jeans relieves the formality of her presentation without cheapening it. Her voice is soft, and slightly accented.

“Good evening. So glad you could come.”

“This is Violette, my fourth wife.” Justin rises briefly.

“I hope you’re not vegetarians.” Her voice betrays a hint of an accent. She shakes our hands before taking a seat facing her husband at the other end.

“Violette is French, more precisely, Parisian.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” Carol told her.

“All those years at the American School,” Violette replied.

“And at Cornell,” commented her husband. “She’s a vet.”

“Large animals. Mostly horses,” his wife pours claret from a crystal decanter beside her husband, then moves to her seat at the opposite end of the table.

“There will be a warm port later, to wash down the daube, which Violette has prepared.”

“I hope you like daube,” she says.

“We had a memorable daube several years ago in Normandy,” I tell her.

“I think of it as a variation on beef stew,” Justin toasts. “Bon appetit.”

Carol observes that Justin seems to know most of the painters on display here personally.

“He makes a point of it,” his wife replies. Violette rings the bell at her end.

Our princess, the Wampanoag woman who greeted us this afternoon emerges from the kitchen, followed by a man who might be her husband carrying a silver tureen: the daube has arrived. They are both dressed in white shirts and black pants, familiar servers’ colors. The man places the tureen in front of our host, besides a stack of porcelain bowls. The smell of vegetables and meat well-seasoned with herbes de Provence increases when Justin removes the lid.

Deliberately, as if he’s peeling skin from a grape, Justin serves dinner.

I ask him about Anselm Kiefer, a favorite artist of ours. Kiefer’s breathtaking Let the Earth Open and Bring Forth a Savior, has drawn us again and again to MASS MoCA, the museum in N. Adams Mass., since 2008. Justin shakes his head sadly.  Kiefer has become complacent, he says. Paula Rego continues working despite health issues. Frank Auerbach, he repeats, remains the great genius of our time. At eighty-five he is as productive as ever, and uninterested in the marketplace even though his work increases exponentially in value by the day.

image019Anselm Kiefer: Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior

“The marketplace has been good to you,” I observe.

“People I do business with know me well.” He fixes me with translucent blue eyes, then smiles ever so slightly. “As we speak, I’m in the process of letting go of a company I built years ago to create a new one. I do it with minimal stress.”

“Almost casually?”

“Exactly.” He rolls past any suggestion of irony. “My great love, beside art, is the sea.”

“One we share,” I remark.

Justin is quick to let me know that here, too, I’m out of my depth. He has crossed the Atlantic in small crafts three times—most recently on the 38 footer. The earlier ocean crossings he made with other men. He will make the next one alone.

“I’m sailing my boat to Naushon Island tomorrow morning. Five miles to the North Shore in Buzzards Bay.”

“Sounds like a good life,” I observe.

“Not without its challenges.” His voice softens.

I agree. No life is free of difficulties.

“He’s referring to his son and third wife.” Wife number four gossips openly. “Others in his family, also, who will go unnamed.”

“Many depend on me. And I take care of them all.” His tone changes from confession to something harder edged. “I care for them, but not about them.”

“Really?” Carol is piqued.

“I don’t get emotionally involved.”

Justin declares as a point of pride that he doesn’t trust emotion, which includes love, vows of all kinds, gratitude, and promises. His jaw and neck tighten visibly, then release.

“What do you trust?” Carol asks him.

“One thing only: the human need for protection. I’m willing to provide this for others, according to my code. After I’m gone, that ends.”

“What do you mean?” my wife leans forward.

image020Francis Bacon: Lucien Freud

“Tell them,” Violette’s frown lines deepen. When he hesitates, she continues: “He’s leaving all his wealth, including his art, to charity—nothing to his son who has not lived up to his expectations.”

“It must be difficult to live up to the expectations of one who has accomplished so much,” I keep my tone neutral.

“That’s true. Children of men like me don’t fare well.”

Justin’s tone is flat, but something flickers in his eyes. For a second I glimpse the wounded bait boy from Montauk with the hands of an artist, one who spent his childhood cleaning other people’s fish. I wonder if we passed each other on the dock as kids, and if we had, would I have noticed, or remembered him?

Violette rings the bell.

Her minions are almost invisible in their ministrations. The man whom I guess to be a Wampanoag too, clears the table, then helps the princess bring in individually built dishes of fruit compote. Our host becomes animated again and pours four snifters of deep red port to go with the dessert. He then turn his attention to Carol.

“And you, who know the words to Caro nome…?”

“I’m a private voice teacher.” She sings a few words from Gilda’s aria in Rigoletto.

Justin becomes visibly intrigued. He probes further, listens attentively to Carol talk about her training, and early career as an operatic soprano. She has performed with the original Wolf Trap Company, in the Bernstein Mass, sung with the Philadelphia Symphony, but at one point found a professional career too stressful to pursue. Instead, she has taught music in the public schools until her retirement five years ago.

“I have my own voice studio, and work with a few aspiring performers, but mostly young people involved with theater. I find it very rewarding.”

image021Dragon King

Justin nods, then inclines his head as if hearing something inaudible to the rest of us, and then, in a light, but not unmusical baritone, sings:

La ci darem la mano,

La mi dirai di si,

Vedi, non e lontano,

Partiam, ben mio, da qui.

Carol hardly notices he is touching her hand, and responds in her haunting soprano:

Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, e ver, sarei,
Ma puo burlarmi ancor.

“Mozart. Don Giovanni,” says Justin.

“Don Giovani attempts to seduce Zerlina,” Carol explains. “La ci darem la mano, ‘We will take each other’s hands.’”

“My favorite duet,” he says, then half-sings the words. “’Andiam, andiam…come, come with me and reawaken the pleasure of innocent love.’”

“But Elvira, whom he has already seduced, interrupts him.” It is Carol, in this case, who interrupts our host.

Justin’s long fingers linger on her wrist, before he withdraws them. But not his gaze.

“It doesn’t end well for the Don,” my wife continues. “In the end he refuses to repent and a chorus of demons take him down to hell.”

“The poor baritone is undone.” Justin apologizes. “As you can see, beside art and fishing, my other great passion is opera.”

“I thought you didn’t trust emotion?” Carol reminds him.

“Except in opera,” comments Violette.

“I’m not at all sentimental.” Justin glances at his current wife, then turns his attention back to mine. “But I have powerful desires.”

“My very own Don Giovanni,” Violette’s voice falls to a whisper. “And he, too, is unrepentant.”

His jaw tightens again. This time, it doesn’t release. In that bait-boy voice, his eyes still fixed on Carol, he confesses to being a great philanderer.

“It’s the only thing I learned from my father, besides how to fish and captain a boat.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Carol’s voice breaks. She is genuinely moved.

“A question for you.” I intervene, attempting to mask my chagrin.

“All right.” Reluctantly, he turns toward me.

“Do you consider your impact on others?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your entire presentation from the moment we walked in has been a demonstration of your power. And now you sing the part of Don Giovanni gazing at my wife as if you’re about to invoke the Droit de seigneur.”

Justin appears surprised to hear this stated so boldly. He at first steadies himself as if to fend off an insult, but recovers in seconds. A smile crosses his face.

“Of course,” he replies. “You could read it that way.”

Intending to disarm him and to touch the core of his wound, I ask: “Was it hard to meet your father’s expectations?”

Justin takes a deep breath, then nods. “I forgot, you’re a psychotherapist.” His voice is almost raw. “I did everything he asked of me on the boat. I was cook, mate, rigger, and fisherman. My father thought that everything else had little value, including my wealth, art, or intellectual achievement.

What you see here, my ‘presentation’ as you put it, would have meant nothing to him.”

I suspect that his father’s rejection of what the world now considers his son’s accomplishments, utterly devalues them for Justin. Without a doubt, my question has pierced through, but instead of healing his wound, has opened it up. I realize that I wielded my challenge like a sword, as Amfortas did when he betrayed the Grail.

I recall Parzival’s question. The one he failed to ask which now perches on the edge of my tongue: What ails thee?

But I can’t get it out.

Try as I may to manage my response, his defenses have triggered my aggression rather than my compassion. Although ashamed, I am defiant. I’m also more aware than Parzival was on his first visit, and this changes everything.

What ails thee?

Would Justin find the question naïve? Whatever I surmise about his condition, he is surrounded by abundance and gives from it what he deems necessary to those he must, and those he favors.

All else is post mortem.

After coffee and fresh fruit compote, I am ready to leave. I fold my napkin and place it beside the empty crystal. Carol follows suit. As I stand, and as my wife pushes back her chair, a hint of panic flushes his cheeks.

“Au revoir,” says Violette. “I’m going riding in the morning and probably won’t have a chance to see you.”

We exchange European ghost kisses with wife number four, and prepare to leave.

“A few more minutes of your time, please.” Justin faces us. “I know you’re tired. It won’t take long. There’s something I want to show you.”

.

image022Paula Rego: Vanitas (pastel, 2006)

There is a new note in his voice, a compelling urgency. Violette and the princess have already started clearing the table. Our host indicates that we should turn right, to another wing of the house. We follow him through corridors displaying art work by blue chip painters, sculptors and ceramicists, to a landing where we stand at the rail of a balcony that looks down at a floor below. Justin points to the spiral staircase a few feet away. We descend single file down into the belly of the castle. I’m reminded of the unrepentant Don Giovanni sinking into hell surrounded by a chorus of demons and I half-fear what we might find—a dungeon outfitted with leather whips and electronic sex-toys for practices not inconsistent with the humiliation he experienced as a child.

But I am wrong.

Justin wants to show us his secret place. It is dimly lit, without windows or mirrors. This is his temenos, a sanctuary where he feels safe and, perhaps, even whole.

The space resembles a cathedral—not through any architectural intention, but in the almost shrine-like arrangement of contents beneath a vaulted ceiling. State-of-the-art Bose speakers like icons rise from perches on the walls. Amplifiers, monitors and support equipment all have their own niches. At the center of the room, elevated a foot above the floor on a wooden platform, a black leather chair with a headrest waits with open arms. A headset and a remote rest on end tables on either side.

It is a throne.

Carol and I have been given an audience, are the audience, in this throne room surrounded by invisible courtiers— tenors, baritones, sopranos and mezzos. CDs and vinyl, arranged on tiers of shelves like rungs on a heavenly ladder no doubt hold a peerless collection of music, especially opera. The throne is placed optimally for balanced sound. It can swivel, or be adjusted for comfort at any in angle of repose.

image023Robert Fludd: Temple of Music

Of all his worldly possessions, the ones in this chamber are not for display. Everything here, he confides, exists for him alone. He has felt compelled to bring us here thanks to Carol. In spite of his protestations, her response to his sculpture with Caro nome, and in the duet La ci darem la mano… her Zerlina to his Don Giovanni has opened Justin’s heart. And then I, too, have pierced it with my question. Even if I haven’t fully understood how, I have penetrated his the shield of his wealth, his palace of defenses to realize his struggle all along has been with the Charter Boat Captain, the philandering father, who saw in his son only what he despised in himself.

And I grasp that it’s a wound we share. How else could I have seen it in him, if it weren’t mine as well!

“I am happiest when I come here,” he tells us. “I don’t need anything or anyone else. And I am never lonely. Let the world do what the world does, as long as I can sit in that chair and listen to Maria Callas.”

Quickly, Justin selects a record from a shelf, sets it on the turntable, adjusts the earphones, and then ascends the throne. He picks up the remote, locates the cut he is looking for, then clicks it. At that moment, his eyes close, his head falls back, rests on the chair, then jerks forward and twists, like the torsos of Michelangelo’s prisoners struggling to liberate their still imprisoned bodies from uncarved marble. He clicks the remote and the voice of Maria Callas fills the room with Tosca’s lament, Vissi d’arte.

His features compress, then release from what appeared an unbearable moment of agony. And then I see his cheek is wet, but without a trace of tears.

.

Reeling In

image024John Marin: Sunset, Casco Bay

We are packed and ready to leave Ardetta Exiles a few minutes after 7:00 AM. Only the conifers stir in a sea breeze. We walk from the guest quarters to the main house hoping to thank our host and say goodbye. No one answers my claw-hammer knock at the door. Justin told us that he’d be leaving early to catch the tide on his trip to the privately owned Naushon Island, where only invited guests are allowed access. Violette, his fourth wife, let us know she had plans to go riding in the morning, and said her good-bye after dessert. She keeps a horse at a stable nearby, where one of her companions, a former Olympic dressage competitor,  often accompanies her.

“I wish we could’ve talked more,” says Carol. “She reminds me of Don Giovanni’s spurned lover, Elvira.”

“How does it end for her?”

“She enters a convent. But before that, Elvira gets to sing a great angry aria.”

Back in the parking lot, we search for the princess. This descendent of Massasoit exhibited the rare balance and wisdom of natural royalty, even as she served and cleared someone else’s table.  I’d hoped to thank her for making us feel at home, but neither she nor her male companion are in evidence.

Belted into our  Hyundai, we start back down the road along which we arrived the day before.  In the stillness that accompanies our departure I feel like Parzival leaving the Grail Castle, haunted by the specter of missed opportunity.

image025Peter Reginato: Yellow Interior

Justin protests that his solitude is sufficient. It doesn’t matter if anybody sees what hangs on his walls or hears what he hears in the depths of his castle. For all of his material abundance, cultivated esthetic, imperial assumptions, he remains Amfortas. The voice of his suffering continues unheard in its own operatic frequency.

“Why are you frowning?” asks Carol.

 “Not sure.”

Again, I’m seized by a sense of personal failure. I’d missed the point of the dinner at Ardetta Exiles, and the challenge posed by my host. It was easy to look into Justin’s face and see his wounded pride, but not my own. Instead of resonating to his buried grief, I’d fed my envy.

“Have you figured it out?” my wife pursues.

“The name Parzival means ‘to pierce, to break though’. I ruffled his defenses, but failed to breach them.”

“Or you own” she says.

We drive past the default question our host has graved in polymer: What frightens us most, the indifference or hostility of the universe?

Beyond the stone pillars, we turn onto the road that will lead us back to the ferry from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole.

“What’s to become of Justin?” I ask aloud.

“You tell me.”

“What if the Fisher King were to disappear completely, or become like the neutrino, a particle that leaves no footprint but binds the world?”

My wife smiles. “Would that change what’s in your heart?”

image026Kusama: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
(light installation at the Tate Modern)

I glance up into the rearview mirror. As I do so, an image appears in another mirror at the back of my head where a moment ago there had been neither image nor mirror. The unhealed Fisher King, crowned by earphones, listening to Maria Callas sing—not Gilda from Rigoletto, or Zerlina from Don Giovanni—but an aria by Puccini.  The shock of her voice pouring from those Bose speakers, filling the room with Tosca’s lament when she fears that her God has abandoned her. It begins:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore
I lived for art, I lived for love

And ends:

Perchem, perche, Signor
Ah, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?
Why, why Lord
Do you repay me like this?

And this is what I’m left with, the image of Justin on his throne. Long after it dissolved, I can feel the aftershock of his unbearable pain and invisible tears.

.

Dancing in the End Zone

image027Wayne Atherton: Everything Is Permitted (collage)

We feast on clam chowder in the open air on the ferry’s top deck. Later, as we cross Buzzard’s Bay on the Bourne Bridge, it is comforting to drive in silence, each of us attending the theaters of our discrete minds.  After a long straight drive on the Mass Pike we pass into New York State. After so much time in New England it looks unkempt. This is abundantly evident as we approach Albany on the other side of the Hudson. The State Capital is a bizarre assemblage of architectural periods conjuring the archeological remains of an incoherent civilization: Rockefeller’s modernist Empire State Plaza with its three phallic white tombstones and the other worldly entertainment center, The Egg, nested at its center, mingle with 19th Century row houses, beside Gothic  and multi-arched Romanesque revival buildings like the State Capital.

“Home again,” I observe.

“Are you ready for re-entry?”

“I’m working on it.”

It occurs to me that in our time the Fisher King might exist not as a figure to be healed, but one who wakes us to ourselves by remaining unhealed. A post-modern Parzival’s attempt to heal him must fail. When I share this with her, she points out that I did affect Justin with my question, even if I’d asked it in anger.

“The attempt may fail, but not the longing to heal. In spite of your anger, you wanted to get through to him.”

“Personally, I’m looking forward to poached salmon, and a glass of wine.” I yawn. “Then early to bed.”

“If you’re tired, I can drive.” she says.

“We’ll open a bottle of Breca,” I tell her. It’s our favorite Spanish red.

We turn right at Albany on the elevated highway that crosses the Hudson to 787 North along the river to Troy. We take this as far as the exit to 7 East towards Saratoga. I reconsider Parzival’s question, what ails thee or me?  The answer, I conclude, is numbness.

image028Roy Laewetz: Three Fishing Ladies (detail)

I search for the mystery once evoked by the image of a fisherman in the mist on the stern of a skiff. I am having difficulty feeling anything that expresses the awe and fascination once posed by The Wounded Fisher King.

“Stay to the right,” my wife directs me. “We turn off here.”

“I see it.”

“What are you feeling?” asks Carol.

“Lost,” I tell her.

.

I’m careful to negotiate the next turn that arcs right, then twists left to 87 North without a hitch. After merging on to the Adirondack Northway, I adjust the Cruise Control to the 75 mph that is consistent with the flow of traffic.

“Let’s stop at the Price Chopper,” says Carol. “I think we need salad, vegetables, and maybe a baguette.”

“Is it conceivable that in the course of time Amfortas might have become so disconnected and that he turns into Justin?”

“And if your wound went unaddressed for ten centuries?”

“You were right from the start,” I admit. “This only makes sense if Parzival and Amfortas are two split off parts of a single psyche.”

image030Albrecht Durer: Melancolia I (detail)

We get off the Northway at Exit #18. A few minutes later we pull into our driveway in front of the white ranch at 55 Garfield Street in Glens Falls, NY, home of Bob & Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America”. I take comfort in this, and the “quantum uncertainty” in which a particle can exist everywhere and nowhere, until consciousness connects subject to object and we see as we are seen. Carol removes her backpack from the trunk, and hands me mine.

image029Paula Rego: Dame with a Goat’s Foot

“It’s good to be home,” says my Queen of Cups, as she takes my arm with her free hand on our way to the door.

.

In Search of the World Soul: An Afterword

If life is to be sustained hope must remain,
even where confidence is wounded,
and trust impaired.”

—Erik Erikson

.

By all accounts, in his early years, Carl Jung was terrified at the prospect of being so internally split that he would forever suffer from a psychic Amfortas wound.   Later, in 1959, during a BBC interview, in response to the idea that collective dissociation would at some point reach a critical mass, Jung observed: You know, man doesn’t stand forever his nullification.

image031Darren Tunnicliff: Quantum Entanglement through Time

Jung pointed out that the latent intelligence of the deep psyche, what we call the unconscious, responds to painful conflicts under pressure, over time, with the dreams and symbols that help us to understand them. The Grail is such a symbol. It arose from the growing disconnection between Eros and agape, the elevation of spirit in a devalued physical world. Wolfram’s Parzival tells us that the Grail’s wounded custodian, the Fisher King, can be released from suffering by one who becomes conscious that he shares such a wound. Jung’s calls this process in which the solution to a systemic conflict emerges the Transcendent Function.

The embedded intelligence from which symbols, and myth arise is autonomous. It doesn’t depend upon or necessarily reference discursive intellect. Often, the shifts in attitude take place under the radar and are communicated in the language of dreams. The deep nature of conflict addressed at this level can’t be resolved by reason or custom. And the resolution arrived at can only be described in the telling or enactment of a myth.

Wolfram gives us a myth within a myth which locates the origin of his tale in a war waged in heaven between the angels of light and darkness. It is the neutral angels who descend to deliver the Grail, a symbol of wholeness, to us. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd Century also speculated that the creation of the world as we know it was born as an answer to heavenly conflict.

In our time, quantum physics has shed light on what earlier had been beyond our grasp: at a sub-atomic level matter and energy, particle and wave, are interchangeable. The speed and direction of these particles can’t be known at the same time, and the form one will take depends as much on the observer as the observed, and can be discussed only in terms of probability. The relationship of energy to matter exists as fact, but remains unimaginable to the naked eye. This resolution is a measure of our time, free of symbolic/mythic content. At best, it leaves us with uncertainty.

I remain drawn to the idea of the Fisher King, but he, too, has become difficult to recognize. The myth in which he is rooted compels me, but no longer describes the challenges that shape my world—the G-Force rate of change, geometries recognizable only in virtual space, the suspended alternatives of “super states,” and a cosmology that points to a multi-dimensional universe.

How might any prospective Parzival penetrate the intuition of a realm beyond intuition?

Physicist Irwin Schrodinger’s model of the atom as a solar-system fell apart because the image no longer described the electron’s behavior. Without it, the atom became unimaginable. Wolfgang Pauli, who’d deconstructed it, assured his colleagues that an image would emerge in time to embody what waited faceless in the dark. Albert Einstein understood that the mystery of our condition is more deeply apprehended when it looks back at us. If not, we are gazing into the abyss. Without recognizable landmarks, we are lost at sea.

                                                                    *

I glimpsed the Grail in the marlin’s eye, and immediately recognized what stared back at me as “the Divine Child.” In my book, Fishing on the Pole Star, I record watching “the unconscious conscious of itself” swim away on release to disappear into the primordial depths. What good is that unless something is born from it, seed of my heart-break?

I remember that glimpse even as I reel in the projections of our collective fears. They are recycled Victorian nightmares with a post-modern flourish: Dr. Frankenstein masters the genome, Dracula transforms into a vampire rock-star, only to be superseded by legions of viral zombies which define our war with creeping numbness. I cling to the hope that longing, even expressed as anger, will “pierce through” the callous thickening around our humanity. It is unclear what might deliver our cultural psyche under the assault of constant stimulation that leaves us dumb in an avalanche of words.

image 30Arthur Dove: Me and the Moon

The neutral angels might want to reconsider their strategy and take the Grail back to the war in heaven—reboot the Transcendent Function.

This is not where I thought my troll would end, with a suspicion that the entire mythos, and the psychological underpinnings of symbol formation itself, are no longer reliable.

I began this journey trolling with the Fisher King, and ended it with Justin, crowned by headphones, weeping for the doomed singer, Tosca, who rises on soiled wings to relocate human pain in the sublime. Justin as wounded Amfortas points to what we are both missing, the divine breath that carries such a voice:  Vissi d’arte, I lived for art/ Vissi d’amore, I lived for love. In Tosca we glimpse the World Soul, the interstitial presence connecting visible and invisible realms. Not a particle that leaves no footprint, unless it is possible to imagine a suffering neutrino.  Tosca, a recognizable aspect of the World Soul reminds me of words by Leo Stein: “Though the mole is blind, the earth is one.    

The World Soul exists in and out of time.

The philosopher Alfred Whitehead suggests the World Soul has two components, the unchanging primordial, and the consequent nature that shares our experience. The Primordial abides but is informed by the consequent that unfolds in space-time, shares in our suffering and joy, and is changed by it. From that point of view, the archetype of the Fisher King, like all expressions of eternal forms, is beyond our grasp. What we visualize as the Fisher King, the figure on the stern of a skiff, is our idea of the archetype, and subject to events beyond our control. It is possible, even inevitable, that changes will re-shape the ideas we thought unchanging in ways that make them unrecognizable, like gods disguised as beggars.

image 31Wayne Atherton: Spider Mind

Wolfram makes it plain that neutral angels brought the Grail to earth to save it. More than the danger posed by warring angels, the Grail’s descent into our world replicates the Transcendent Function, the active principle of the World Soul. A symbol, Jung tells us, is alive to the extent that it expresses “the immutable structure of the unconscious.” Only such a symbol and healing mythos can address the challenge that pits us against our “nullification.”     

We live at the center of a mystery that nothing prior to the present moment can cipher, uncertain how the Transcendent Function will eventually respond to what can’t be imagined.

Something vital to the World Soul pins us to the production of symbols, myths, and dreams that inform its primordial aspect, and the consequent one in space-time that flows in sympathy with our condition. It may be that I no longer recognize the Fisher King or Parzival as I had at one time conceived of them. The changes to our archetypal ideas may be our greatest hedge against nullification. The Grail, that had been an external principle of restoration and balance, may best be realized now as an internal potential. We are each us a Grail, in which warring and neutral  angels continue to give birth to the Transcendent Function.

This is where we find ourselves
On soiled angels’ wings
This is the way we come to the end
The way the end comes to us

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—by Paul Pines

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Pines_Paul

Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published ten books of poetry:OnionHotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, Breath, Adrift on Blinding Light,TaxidancingLast Call at the Tin Palace, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Divine Madness and New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros. The last collection recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing Award as the best book of poetry in 2013. His eleventh collection, Fishing On The Pole Star, will soon be out from Dos Madres. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia appear on the Summit label. He is the editor of the Juan Gelman’s selected poems translated by Hardie St. Martin, Dark Times/ Filled with Light (Open Letters Press, 2012). Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend.

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Jun 112016
 

A D Jameson

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You’ve probably heard about me. I was murdered by women. It’s OK. I had it coming. I deserved it. And it made me kind of famous. I’m pretty famous. My death was all over the evening news. It was the murder of the decade, a ratings sensation. The details are not for the faint of heart. They’re fairly gruesome. Sheila used a frying pan to bash in my head. Antonia tore open my throat with a paring knife. The coroner, later, couldn’t determine who struck first. I wish I could shed some light on the subject, but it was a blur. A whole lot of things were happening at once. Margaret stabbed me with some scissors, in the heart. It wasn’t the center of my heart, but very close. Her RN training served her well. Cecilia slashed at my legs with a knitting needle—a pity. I had magnificent legs, very sexy calves. I know she admired them, Ceci did. In the end, she destroyed what she couldn’t have. At least, I think that’s what she was thinking. I can’t be certain.

The women were nice to me beforehand, gentle and sweet. They invited me over for dinner. I should have suspected something then. I knew they despised me. They had good reasons to be vengeful. But I thought they loved me still. So when Melissa called, I was eager to believe. She said she’d been talking with the gals, and that they all felt the need to get on with their lives. She said they’d decided: let bygones be bygones. It seemed too easy, but I agreed. What can I say? I couldn’t deny them anything. I never wished them any harm. In retrospect, they got into my head.

The meal was nice. They cooked me lamb chops, which were my favorite. As well as roasted baby potatoes, and sautéed mushrooms and asparagus. And for dessert, they made lemon sorbet. Which later turned out to be poisoned. The women weren’t taking any chances.

We had a lot of drinks with dinner: wine and bourbon and shots of Malört. At last, Barbara stood up and hoisted her glass. She proposed a toast on my behalf. It was an intricate, rambling speech. She must have spent hours preparing and practicing it, the dear. I wish I could remember what she said. But I wasn’t paying much attention. I was staring at Amanda, who was winking and smiling at me. And Constance was toying with her hair, and winking, too, and blowing me kisses.

Barbara concluded. Sally stood up and said it was time for the entertainment. Some of the women started to dance—Mandy and Megan, Deborah and Grace, and Sherry Ann. They’d choreographed it. It was kind of like a striptease. I was intrigued. I straightened up, started paying more attention.

That’s when it happened. Lulu crept up from behind and started to choke me. Samantha meanwhile pinned down my hands, with help from Mindy and Denise. Vanessa struck me across the chin, while Kelly and Madelyn castrated me. The rest is history.

To their credit, they didn’t deny it. The women didn’t conceal my body. Instead they threw my corpse from the balcony into the street. “See what we’ve done!” they loudly proclaimed. “It is we who have murdered him! We have his blood on our hands!” And with this they held out their hands and let people photograph them, and interview them.

Of course they were arrested and there was a trial. There had to be. They spent their time in the media spotlight. It was a bit of a circus, really. There were debates and oversized headlines. Pundits pontificated, and politicians argued. Academics presented papers at conferences. The nation was scandalized and thrown into an uproar. Some called for justice, while others said that justice had already been served. The women grew famous far and wide. Men sent them proposals, begged them to “come and murder me.” But the women ignored them, god bless their hearts. They said they’d been after only me. They’d taken their fury out on me. They proved a class act, declining book deals and record contracts. They refused to pose for Playboy, or any other magazine. And when the TV movie got made, they issued a statement, urging people not to watch it. They said my death wasn’t entertainment, but a necessary correction. They’d done what they’d done for humanity’s sake, and the good of the land.

In the end, they were acquitted, one and all. Due to extenuating circumstances, or evidence tampering—technicalities. It made no sense to me, but law wasn’t my strong suit. I’m no legal scholar.

I bet you’re wondering if I hate them. No. How could I? I had one of the finer deaths. If I’m being honest, it’s how I secretly wanted to go—hence the curious manner in which I lived my life. The heart is crafty in its steady pursuit of desire. I have no regrets. If you had asked me, I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but deep down, I always knew, in the end, I’d be murdered by women.

—A D Jameson

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A D Jameson is the author of three books: the short story collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence & Gibson, 2011), and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, 2013). His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Brooklyn Rail, PANK, and dozens of other journals, while his articles on film and pop culture have appeared at HTMLGiant, Big Other, and Press Play. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’s finishing up a book on geek cinema.

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Jun 102016
 

Julian Herbert

 

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:

“You want an aspirin, baby?”

It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.

My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.

“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.

Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.

Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.

It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”

Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.

“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”

“Ceftriaxone.”

“That’s it.”

“And Acetaminophen.”

“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.

We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.

Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.

I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.

The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.

Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”

I paid in advance.

Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:

“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”

I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.

“OK,” I told her.

I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.

Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.

We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.

One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.

Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:

“How much do I owe you?”

“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”

I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.

Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.

“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.

One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.

Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.

I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.

Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.

There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.

For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.

Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.

Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.

“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”

“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.

It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.

My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.

The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:

“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”

I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.

Cecilia.

I sell sheepskins.

A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.

— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley

 

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. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.

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Brendan Riley

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.

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Jun 092016
 

dn

I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. —Dorthe Nors

So Much For Winter

So Much for That Winter
Dorthe Nors
Trans. Misha Hoekstra
Graywolf Press, 2016
160 pages, $15.00

I. So Much for That Winter comprises two novellas, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days” by the Danish author Dorthe Nors. In the first, she employs simple sentences (as rendered in the translation) that often begin with the first name of the main character, Minna, or someone she knows. “Days” is the diary of an unnamed female narrator with most quotidian details left aside. In both works there is inventiveness and emotion, angst and loss, puzzles and minor epiphanies.

Nors is the author of novels, as well, and a breakout collection of short stories, Karate Chop (Graywolf, 2014), that introduced North American audiences to her. In his review of Karate Chop and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (Pushkin) in the Guardian, John Self declared:

For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media, parenthood and other excuses, who struggle to read even a 20-page story in one sweep: this is the book for us. Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, contains 15 stories in 82 pages. The stories don’t feel minimalist – they’re full of life and ripe with death – but they’re brief because there is no fat on them. This makes them moreish, and if you don’t like one, there will be another along in a minute.

Similarly, these two novellas occupy a small amount of space and are, at the same time, big with themes and passion.

II.

In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” the sentences are quite short, offering minimal background information oscillating between two topics: Minna’s broken heart, and her need for a place to practice her music. Everything is given in lists of sentences. Here is passage where Minna is with her older, domineering sister:

It’s a miracle.
Elisabeth’s visiting Minna’s apartment.
Elisabeth stands in the middle of the living room.
Elisabeth’s in stocking feet.
The face as hard as enamel.
Elisabeth’s rage is family legend.
The examples are legion:
Elisabeth removes bikes in Potato Row.
Nothing may shade the house.
Nothing may destroy the harmony of the façade.
Elisabeth doesn’t move the bikes a couple yards.
Elisabeth walks around to other streets with the bikes.
No one should think they’re safe.
Elisabeth threatens people with lawsuits and
psychotic episodes.

(An unpredictable force, Elisabeth brings into the novella a crackling energy. Perhaps we’re meant to see that she robbed Minna of her share of verve and iron control by coming first into the world by ten years—but what a burglary gone wrong! The contrast between the sisters on this level does not obscure their kinship when it comes to single-mindedness.)

There are at least two things one can draw from this sample. First, the presentation calls to mind works by, to choose two writers, Édouard Levé (if he had separated his sentences and cared about plot) and David Markson (with his index card notes). Each effectively compiled lists or banal utterances to get across the content of a narrator’s mind. (One can say that in the case of the Ten Commandments both a religion and a culture’s concerns are codified with the same succinctness.) These previous works are mentioned to avoid the risk of claiming too much for Nors’ work, and not to take away from the arrangement of the material.

Second, that focus on this and then this moment in Minna’s life (and that of the few others who make an appearance), each thought separated by space at the end of a line, allows for the kind of breathing associated with mindfulness, albeit a mindfulness more evident on the part of Nors than her unhappy character who, as each page shows, goes from mood to mood as she urinates (defecation occurs often), sweats, cries, unfriends people on social media, indulges in self-pity, resents hearing about the sex lives of her female friends and her former boyfriend, and reads, aghast, her mother’s blog that “is more intimate than Mom’s Christmas letter to the family.” Minna is regularly nonplused by what people do and the confidences they want to share. Though she has friends, she is a lonely woman, and alone as a composer (“Paper sonatas don’t write themselves”). Her sole source of male company is represented by the written works of a film-maker, though this relationship is one-sided and a source of frustration:

Ingmar Bergman opens up for her.
Bergman’s wearing the beret.
Bergman’s gaze peers deep into Minna.
Bergman wants to get in under Minna’s persona.
Minna’s persona attempts to make way for him.
Minna wants Bergman all the way inside…
Bergman’s words don’t work.
Minna’s lower lip quivers.
Minna whispers, I used to sing.

Always around, more insistent at some times than others, is the requirement for a room of Minna’s own where her music can open up. This is both a ‘real-world’ requirement demanded by the fiction, and emblematic of how the lead character is going through something that, one suspects, she has done before—breakup and recovery—but that hurts more keenly than past experience. Rehearsals help us learn something by heart. What is Minna supposed to learn that she hasn’t yet? Often in her thoughts is her father, who spent a lot of time with Minna and taught her many things. This male figure, the template for the kind of partner she’s looking for—though never fully described, we gather he provided support, kindness, and love—is present and absent (much like the idea of the rehearsal space), and someone like Lars will come up short of the mark. When Minna does find her room and her voice—and it would be a spoiler to describe that episode—the threads of this intimate novella come together.

In the TLS, Alison Kelly described “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” as experimental and almost a “verse novel,” while at the same time charging Nors with choosing a form that resisted letting out the emotions; in her phrase, “[d]espite this somewhat self-conscious format, rather than thanks to it, the novella offers poignant insights into rejection…”[1] This misses a point, I believe. The intimations we get of the future—a throwaway line from early on resounds in the last pages—and the palpable emotions would come off as melodramatic if not restrained by the form Nors has chosen. We can see her awareness of the restriction in the imagery of Minna singing at the top of her voice when out alone on a spit of rocks. She can only feel unconfined when far away from everyone else, but she rarely feels such release. We can sympathize with her quest for the right space and can join in when she “doesn’t pull her punches” in the freedom she discovers. Or to put it another way, escaping from the normal modes of writing allows Nors to let out Minna’s thoughts and feelings.

III.

“Days” also stays in the world of one female narrator, and while the sentences are longer Nors has kept to a form that limits what can be said. List follows list, ranging from 11 to 22 items. Here is the opening:

1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.
5. Chewed out an entire school because a single sentence bugged me
6. and drank my hot chocolate, sweet/bitter.
7. Worked,
8. considered traveling somewhere I never imagined I’d find myself
9. yet stayed where I was
10. and banged on my neighbor’s wall,
11. was in doubt, but sure,
12. was insecure,
13. stood still by the window,
14. let my gaze move from running shoes to wool socks
15. and lay down on the bed.

These lists, resembling what’s found on the Internet, rarely concern themselves with people, though a former lover and her parents do make appearances. News stories and mundane parts of a day largely are left out. Instead, poetic insights, pregnant images, and flashes of emotions are recorded, with emphasis added through italicization. We learn of the narrator’s desire to change from the person she was, involved with a man in some way, to something else with “gills, paws, antennae.” She is caught in her life, bicycling and jogging, translating books, or crying. Shifts from speculation to personal philosophy to optimism, in a wry humour at times, are registered, as here:

3. went for a run through Søndermarken and through the cemeteries, for now it is spring, and it’s tough to be happy on schedule, and rarely does anyone get what they deserve, yet now it is spring.
4. Took notes that later might prove useful, and everything’s dicey, but quiet.
5. Thought of the people you’re allowed to like, the ones you’re not allowed to, and the ones you really do anyway but never mention a word about.
6. Gave my secrets a good going-over.
7. and I haven’t given up hope, I still believe that things can open and become soft and alive, German bunkers, Berlin walls, abandoned abattoirs, it’s only a question of time and it’s all well in the end, I thought in line at the grocer’s…

The “art of loving in the right way” is a theme of “Days,” and however far the entries might seem to stray from that topic it rises up, often exposing the rage that lies just under the surface of the narrator’s entries. She can feel possessed by Kali, goddess of creation and destruction: “Felt the fury drawing up from the floor through my body like a soundless roar…” and this can be provoked by a simple act. Eating an ice cream cone leads into a fight for her own individualized way of thinking about life: “for people who don’t know how I feel should stop feeling for me, and if they can’t think my thoughts to their conclusion, they should think about something else, maybe they should think about their own lives, and when they think about them, they should ask themselves if their lives make more sense…”

Each list shows the narrator in a different light, and while we see facets rather than a rounded picture, nevertheless, patterns and concerns recur, while others appear at random, true to any list we might want to compile about ourselves. “Agreed with myself never to wear a large hat, not even if I could use some class” shares with note 6 above both humour and self-questioning, this time on a more superficial level. Who does the narrator want to impress, or not impress, through the acquisition of class? In the same list, commenting on pigeons mating, she says: “…those of us over here in our segment know that nothing done is undone… and that you have to take the consequence.” Mating has meant more to her than the animal act, we glean, and this reveals a tiny bit about her past relationship, but what is more intriguing is the word “segment.” Like finding herself lacking in class—and therefore in some other, lower category—segment separates her (and many others, though perhaps not all) from the non-human animal world. There is pain under the words “nothing done is undone” and the “consequence” of those actions, whereas the pigeons’ biological function is uncomplicated by feeling. We are left to wonder if she envies them. As the entries continue there are shifts, improvements in mood, regressions, losses and gains, and a small measure of peace at the conclusion.

As with “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” this work is far from disconnected—the lists are as plot-driven as traditionalists might want—and one can view both works as fictions made up of fragments. S.D. Chrostowska’s philosophical novel Matches (2015), itself a fragmentary work, offers a useful interpretation:

The aphorism, the romantic fragment, the sketch, the kleines Stück, and a host of other diminutive artistic forms share a resistance to the spirit of system, whether the latter unfolds primarily in time, as it does for instance in music or literature… or in space, as in visual representation… The freedom of art is best exercised, best “captured,” in small pieces; they let us come and go at will, without a key or address. They require no submission to creative force, no suspension of judgment or disbelief. Rarely do they define the artist who produced them. In a society that rewards consistency and individualism, they assume the character of common property, if not its form, without (for this very reason) becoming common.

That “freedom of art” sits alongside Self’s words from the opening of this review: “For those whose attention span has been shot to pieces by social media…” Yet Nors packs much into her telegraphic works; readers are given what’s required, but not in a mingy fashion when it comes to style or emotion.

IV.

In an interview with the Paris Review, Dorthe Nors expresses a definite position on what, for her, writing should offer:

I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. Some minimalist writers, they want to have the literary language, but they don’t want to have the passion or they don’t want to risk too much. That kind of writing is cheap. It doesn’t dare to stand out there naked. When I see that kind of writing, I always wonder, as a reader, Am I not worth it? Why don’t you want to give me any of your skin?

What a very provocative last question. “Skin in the game” is the overused demand of personal investment (does it replace asking for a pound of flesh?). While the novellas that make up So Much for That Winter may look slight, they contain despair, grief, family conflicts, aesthetic pursuits, and the mundane; the two narrators are present, flesh, bone, heart, and spirit.

—Jeff Bursey

N5

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Alison Kelly, “How nature acts,” Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 2015, No. 5847, 20.
Jun 082016
 

Patrick Modiano Nobel announcement 2014

Patrick Modiano at Swedish Academy Press conference 2014Patrick Modiano at the Swedish Academy’s press conference 2014 (via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

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1.

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature, not very many people knew who he was. This was a delicious irony, if you had ever read any of his novels. Modiano’s work, when seen as a whole, is like a patchwork quilt, his books forming a coherent design, related by pattern, theme, and sometimes character, each one revolving around a fugitive, enigmatic narrator. Sometimes the narrator searches through the rare fragments of his past, trying to shed light on his personal circumstances, and sometimes it is the present that is bewildering and opaque, in which he searches for that lovely French concept a point de repère, an orientation point, an anchor, a compass direction. In both cases the same ambiance is created by the story: one of melancholy, nostalgia, an aching emptiness where there should be the bustle and roar of ordinary daily life, a sense of dislocation from others, and a quest that never ends.

I first came across Patrick Modiano when I was teaching twentieth-century French literature, some time around 2002 or 2003. The first novel I read was Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person), quintessential Modiano, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the year it was published. It is the story of Guy Roland, a private detective who is suffering from amnesia. When his amiable boss retires, Guy decides to take this opportunity to make his identity the subject of his researches. He contacts a man he knows who has a vague memory of him from the past; Paul Sonachitze takes him to meet a friend and together they ponder Guy’s oddly ageless face and their own memories. Perhaps they have seen him in a nightclub they kept, in company with a Russian named Stioppa? Guy tracks Stioppa down to a funeral and makes contact with him. Touched by his story, Stioppa gives Guy a biscuit tin containing old photos and documents. In one of the old photos Guy sees a man who maybe resembles himself a little, in the company of a woman Stioppa identifies as Gay Orlow, a Russian who emigrated to America. When Guy tries to track her down, he finds she committed suicide many years ago. But another name, another trace arises, keeping him tied to his quest. This is how his narrative will progress, a slow hopscotch from clue to clue, none of which will prove definitive, though he will tenaciously keep going.

Eventually, the pattern of his researches repeatedly circles around a single black hole. During the Occupation, Jimmy Pedro Stern (who he thinks he may have been) and his presumed girlfriend, Denise Coudreuse, retired to a chalet in the southeast of France, aiming to outwit the threat of the Nazis. They seem to have made a break for the border of Switzerland in the company of smugglers, but something must have happened, something traumatic of which Guy has no recollection, only a faint sense of unease. Denise has never been heard of since. Only one person might be able to enlighten him about this event, a friend called Freddie Howard de Luz, who shared the cabin with them. Freddie has moved to Polynesia, but when Guy arrives in Bora-Bora, Freddie has of course disappeared in his boat. The novel ends with Guy about to pursue the final clue he possesses, an address in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome where he may once have lived.

You might think that this inconclusive ending would be disappointing, but I did not find it so. Closure, an answer, the solution, would by this point have been the intolerable choice. Throughout the entire novel, Guy has been searching, until it feels that this uncertainty, the solidity of not-knowing, is precisely what defines him. And as the story wends its way through a fragmentary archive of papers, postcards and old photos, the reader understands how little such material could ever say about a person. If Guy even knew his real name for sure, what would this tell him about himself? The most audacious conceit of the novel is to pit an urgent quest for identity alongside a dawning realisation on the part of the reader (never the narrator, alas) that there is no single formulation that could define and describe a person, no one event, no one friend, no one piece of information, that could tell us what we truly need to know about ourselves. Collective memory turns out to be the great repository of our lives, and yet it is never more than patchy and discontinuous, little more than a reflection of ourselves looking back.

Rue des boutiques Missing person collage

At the time of reading this novel, I had never been more overworked or more stressed. I had a young child and a highly demanding job and it seemed to me that I was living multiple and incompatible lives. I found this novel unusually soothing. Guy’s world was so serenely empty, rarely containing more than one person at a time alongside himself. The places he visited—restaurants, manor houses, apartment blocks, rural railway stations—were always empty or abandoned. He was dislocated, for sure, but, considered from another perspective, he was free. In the way that reading a book can provide a fantasy environment inhabitable for the duration of a story, a sort of holiday destination for the mind, Modiano provided me with a refreshing void. I felt a rush of hopefulness that the networks of love and responsibility that bound me might one day fall away, leaving no trace. It was so peaceful, this untethered existence in a barren place, from which the whole of a life might be seen if one could climb high enough into the depleted air.

Naturally, this was not what I taught the students when we read Modiano together. We spoke about the more obvious themes of memory and identity and trauma. But when I reread this novel, beginning to think about writing this article, those were not the themes that touched me still. Twelve years after that first encounter with Rue des boutiques obscures, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had left the university, my son had grown and moved away, I now worked every day alone. I had in fact moved into the position that Modiano’s narrators occupied, often obliged to look back over my own past and try to make some sense of my memories. This time I identified with the melancholy and the nostalgia in the writing. I felt within my body the perplexity of missing a past that had been so intense, so urgent, so overwhelming. It is the strangest feeling to look back on times of passionate engagement and find the old emotions worn so thin and threadbare. What odd creatures we are that we can lose the best and worst of ourselves with equal disregard, no matter how hard we try to cling on.

This was the experience that reading Modiano offered me: a game of two halves, each so different to the other as to be unreconcilable. Yet that stretch of time in between my readings seems crucial to understanding Modiano as a writer. The fracture that runs between the present and the past lies at the origin of all his novels. For Modiano’s formative experiences came from a time that he had not lived through himself, but for which he would vicariously search across his books: the dark and troubled era of the Occupation in France during the Second World War.

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2.

Born in 1945, Patrick Modiano was the son of a Jewish businessman of distinctly shady transactions and a Flemish bit-part actress. Neither had any interest in being a parent or was able to show any kind of affection. Patrick and his younger brother, Rudy, were shuttled between caretakers and friends when small, and then sent to boarding schools, even when the parents were living less than a hundred meters away. His mother was a ‘pretty girl with an arid heart’, whose emotional crimes Modiano couldn’t even bring himself to enumerate in his brief memoir, Pedigree. The admission that he felt ‘the childish urge to set down in black and white just what she put me through, with her insensitivity and heartlessness,’ is immediately countered by the assertion that he will ‘keep it to myself. And I forgive her. It’s all so distant now….’ Distance becomes the key note of Modiano’s account of his early life; the death of his younger brother aged nine is recounted in a paragraph, entirely without specific details. But it seems evident that it is not a lack of emotion that fuels his brevity, more the sense of skimming narrative stones over pools of memory that have the quality of molten lava. ‘It’s not my fault if the words jumble together’, he writes. ‘I have to move quickly, before I lose heart.’

His father warrants more attention in the memoir. Alberto Modiano survived the Occupation, which resulted in nearly 76,000 Jews being deported from France to the German death camps, from whence a mere 2,500 returned alive. Between 1940 and 1944, his father lived in permanent danger. He found a security of sorts in underground collaboration work, becoming a black marketeer and engaging the patronage of a group of morally deplorable demimondains. Modiano believed that his father was on the outskirts of the notorious rue Lauriston gang, also known as the Bonny-Lafont gang. Henri Lafont began his life of petty crime aged 17 and used the confusion of the French exode to escape from prison. Aided by a number of spies for the German army and a handful of military men whose speciality was punishment, he let it be known to the German powers that he could provide information and goods that could not be obtained legitimately, and even conduct kidnappings and assassinations if need be. When Lafont teamed up with corrupt French police inspector Pierre Bonny, his black market business took off in ways that blurred the distinction between policing and crime. The Bonny-Lafont gang represented the most shameful element of the Occupation, the sort of organization that arose out of the vortex of normalized brutality and petty crime, and that sucked in the poor and the vulnerable alongside the immoral and the violent.

Modiano clearly longed to have some genuine insight into his father’s emotional life during the Occupation. But his father was a ruined man by the time he knew him, a man who held him at arm’s length, explained nothing, and wrote terrible letters of accusation and reproach as his only contact with a son abandoned in unsavoury boarding schools. ‘He never told me what he had felt, deep inside, in Paris during that period’, Modiano wrote in his memoir. ‘Fear? The strange sensation of being hunted simply because someone had classified him as a specific type of prey, when he himself didn’t really know what he was?’ To understand the emotions that motivated him would justify Modiano’s compassion and encourage a fantasy of reconciliation. But Modiano would never know whether his father fell into crime because he had no other recourse or because it suited him as well as anything else.

Un Pedigree collage

In 1968 at the precocious age of 22, Modiano burst onto the French literary scene with his first novel, La Place de l’étoile, which won him both the Prix Fénéon and the Prix Roger-Nimier.  It was the wildly picaresque story of Rafael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born at the end of the war, though seemingly with the capacity for time travel. The narrative hops and skips frenetically through the history of anti-Semitism, with Rafael working in the white slave trade and then becoming a confidant of Hitler. He is tortured for collaboration and about to be executed when he wakes up on an analyst’s couch. Never again would Modiano write such a fierce and scattered novel, and that was just as well. By his second novel, La Ronde de nuit (The Night Watch), his focus had narrowed in ways that added intrinsic power to his narrative. This novel employed stream of consciousness to depict the schizophrenic life of a young man who is working as a double agent for both the French Gestapo and the Resistance. It has a nightmarish tone as the narrator sinks into hopeless confusion over his identity, torn as he is between the conflicting demands of the groups he works for, either of whom will denounce and execute him should he fail in carrying out their demands. The novel could be read from one perspective as a loose dramatisation of the Bonny-Lafont gang, and it contains a large selection of repulsive characters, many of whom carry the real names of people his father had known.

By his third novel, Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads), published in 1972, Modiano’s intent to merge himself with the fantasized place of his father in history becomes clear and is used as a masterful narrative conceit. The novel opens with the description of a photograph: three men in a bar, one of whom is the narrator’s father. As the narrator sinks his gaze into the photograph so the frame falls away and we enter the scene with him. The narrator is a young man attempting to have a relationship with a father he barely knows; in fact, the most memorable event they shared was his father’s failed attempt to push him under a metro train. Still, the son is determined to create some sort of intimacy, and in order to get closer to him, he infiltrates the ring of collaborators and black marketeers with whom his father is working, though he keeps his filial association secret. As the narrator gets closer to his father, the ambivalence of his feelings of love and hatred become stark. He begins to realise how pitiful and impotent the man is, how desperately tenuous his hold on security, how little respect he has for him. And at the same time, the things the narrator must do and the people he must associate with sicken him ever more.

Plunging into an atmosphere that sapped me mentally and physically; putting up with the company of these sickening people; lying in wait for days on end, never weakening. And all for the tawdry mirage I now saw before me. But I will hound you to the bitter end. You interest me, ‘papa.’ One is always curious to know one’s family background.

The narrator does indeed accompany his father to the bitter end. When his father tells him that he has paid for safe passage out of Paris and an escape route to Belgium, the narrator is convinced it is a trap. And when the two of them go to meet their contact, they are arrested and put in a police van. At which point, the narrator steps neatly out of the fiction he has created, the one that began when he stepped into the photograph, reminding the reader that there was nothing of substance being recounted here, just the fantasies provoked by an evocative old snap. It’s a moment of brilliant dislocation for the reader, although it’s not as if we haven’t been warned over the course of the narrative. ‘You become interested in a man who vanished long ago’, the narrator tells us at one point. ‘You try to question the people who knew him, but their traces disappeared with him. Of his life, only vague, often contradictory rumours remain, one or two pointers. Hard evidence? A postage stamp and a fake Légion d’honneur. So all one can do is imagine.’

And imagine is what Modiano does. These three novels, published in English together as The Occupation Trilogy, are resolutely cerebral affairs, red-flagged works of fantasy that proclaim their uncertain status every step of the way. But there are touchstones that return repeatedly—the desire to plunge deep into the collaborationist experience with sympathy for the complex emotions and necessities that compel it, guilt, shame and pity for the father and the wretched filial love that seeks to absolve and rescue him. The critic Nathalie Rachlin ties these components of Modiano’s texts in with the findings of Austrian journalist Peter Sichrovsky, who interviewed the sons and daughters of Nazis for his book, Naître coupable, naître victime. Sichrovsky found that these children ‘often charged themselves with and experienced the guilt and remorse their parents never expressed or perhaps never felt about their roles in Nazi crimes.’[1] Sichrovsky saw it as a strategy that would whitewash the parent’s image in the imagination of the child, making that parent a viable role model again. It would seem that the sins of the fathers do indeed become the psychic burden of their offspring.

The Occupation trilogy

Or, at least, the legacy of the Second World War for the next generation in France and Germany was one of unresolved guilt. In the aftermath of the Occupation, emotions swung violently between extremes. The retreat of the Germany army was followed by immediate reprisals in a wave of violence against collaborators that became known as l’épuration sauvage—the brutal purge. Some statistics suggest that more French people were killed by vengeful resistance fighters than lost their lives in the war. But when de Gaulle returned to liberate Paris and head up the provisional new government, he came with a ready-made narrative to soothe the troubled French soul. De Gaulle believed in a country that had been united in solidarity against the occupying forces, and a vast resistance network that had worked tirelessly and unflinchingly throughout the war. This was the myth that salved the conscience of a nation, but produced what the historian Henry Rousso would describe as unresolved mourning for the reality of its traumatic past.

Modiano started writing about the black truth of the Occupation while it was still a taboo subject, but he wrote for a generation that was ready and willing to catch him up. Rousso argued in his book The Vichy Syndrome that in the years between 1975 and 1994 France became obsessed with reviewing the Occupation. The death of de Gaulle signalled the end of an era, and previously hidden documents were coming to light during the trials of war criminals in Germany that proved the extent of French involvement in the deportation of the Jews. Rousso declared that ‘Patrick Modiano must be placed in a category of his own, so great was his influence in those years.’ The novelist spoke directly to a powerful cultural upheaval, and spoke in the terms of bewilderment and loss that seemed so pervasive. For Modiano, it was a private compulsion to peer into the obscure regions of the past and to dredge through the ambiguous mess he found there. But it happened to coincide with the nationwide shock and vertigo that accompanied revelations of scarcely imaginable wrongdoing.

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3.

To read Modiano purely as an elucidator of great historical concerns is to miss how crucial the personal is to his work. And without that personal element, we underestimate his extraordinary technical audacity. The book that perhaps shows this the best is Dora Bruder, in which Modiano describes his attempt over many years to uncover the biography of a young Jewish girl who was deported with her father to Auschwitz and died there. Some reviews of the book in translation call it a novel, which is most certainly is not, but given its structural similarity to so many other Modiano works, it’s a forgivable error. Fiction, in Modiano’s hands, is always a sort of autobiographical fiction, and non-fiction, in the form of Dora Bruder, is somewhere between a Holocaust memoir and a highly speculative historical reconstruction. It is written in the cool reportage style that is so quintessentially his, and which in its very serenity seems able to provoke a storm of emotion in the reader. (Modiano reminds me of Edith Wharton in this way—terrible things are recounted in a voice of supine elegance, as lives are ruined for the failure to adhere to a dominant social code.) But what Modiano has to report is his usual tale of loss and fragmentation.

‘Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading of page 3 caught my eye’, Modiano begins. It’s a petit annonce, asking for information about a 15-year-old runaway, Dora Bruder. The fact that her parents live on the Boulevard Ornano is really what captures Modiano’s imagination. For it is an area of Paris he knows well from childhood visits with his mother and adolescent dates with a girlfriend. He can conjure up a number of memories, all mundane and yet resonant for him, of his presence in this place, and as always for this author, the pull of psychogeography is immensely powerful. All Modiano’s narrators walk the streets of Paris, aware of traces of the past—their own or other people’s, it really doesn’t matter. The point is to be attentive to a kind of profound historical vibration that keeps the past enmeshed with the present. For instance, when Modiano finds himself watching a film from the 40s, he writes that: ‘I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation….[B]y some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film.’ In the immediate surroundings of his characters, the material meets the ineffable in a way that enriches their experiences. For Modiano it’s a sixth sense, one he appeals to when he declares that his memory begins before he does. ‘So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born’, he remarks at one point. The elusive Dora Bruder, whose traces he will follow with increasing tenacity as the points of contact between them multiply, becomes one of them. The traces her presence has left on Paris will be there for Modiano’s perception.

Dora Bruder

Finding out anything factual about her is painstaking and time-consuming work. It takes four years for Modiano to discover her date of birth, longer to discover when Dora and her father were deported to Auschwitz. At one point, Modiano writes a novel inspired by Dora (the brilliant Voyage de noces, or Honeymoon) in the hope he might exorcise the hold she has over him, but it doesn’t prove to be satisfying enough, and back he goes to the hard-to-access records, the fading testimonies, the endless speculation. Gradually a shadowy and incomplete portrait of Dora begins to emerge, a possibly headstrong young woman who runs away from the convent where her parents placed her in the hope of keeping her safe from the Nazis. The notion of the fugue is a very redolent one in Modiano’s writing, for he, too, was a runaway aged 15. That experience in 1960 was one of the most intense of his life:

It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke: the clean break, deliberately made, from enforced rules, boarding school, teachers, classmates; you have nothing to do with these people from now on; the break from your parents, who have never understood you, and from whom, you tell yourself, it’s useless to to expect any help; feelings of rebellion and solitude carried to flash point, taking your breath away and leaving you in a state of weightlessness. It was probably one of the few times in my life when I was truly myself and following my own bent. This ecstasy cannot last. It has no future.

The shift into the present tense is a subtle moment of coincidence between Patrick Modiano and Dora Bruder, and the extended community of runaways and self-selecting outcasts. By settling his emotional experience down over her rare facts, Modiano comes closer to Dora, breathing life back into his insufficient data. There is more: his father’s account of being picked up by the French gestapo one evening in February 1942 and narrowly avoiding detention is one of the few family stories Patrick has. Now it begins to seem likely to him that Dora might be the young woman his father mentioned, who was one of the other passengers in that same police van. ‘Perhaps I wanted the two to cross paths, my father and her, during that winter of 1942’, Modiano admits. This is, after all, the strategy that is continually deployed—Modiano’s memories bring him closer to Dora, and the thought that Dora’s life has touched his, even at a generational remove, adds depth and meaning to the paucity of Modiano’s family history.

Where lives touch across time, in Modiano’s reckoning, there is a spark, an illumination. A process of osmosis occurs, which Modiano describes with extraordinary transparency. Whilst we see it as a function of the talented writer, who reanimates a lost Jewish woman from meagre details, we are aware that he also writes as a private individual trying to make sense of his sparse personal history. For how much of our understanding relies on our ability to occupy the same emotional space as another person? This is how we identify, this is how we relate, and yet this is also how we use our imaginations and how we create fiction.

Modiano remains ever-vigilant to the limits of his knowledge. By the end of the book, Dora’s life remains mostly obscure, and he acknowleges some gladness that Dora retains ‘her secret’, an essential privacy that even the death camps could not take away. Some of the most heart-rending parts of the book are the fragments of letters of enquiry which Modiano came across in his researches, sent to the authorities in the wake of other disappearances. Painfully polite and carefully worded, family members risked their own safety by appealing for information about their missing loved ones in the black days of 1941-2, when the deportations of the Jews were at their height. Dora Bruder becomes special to us over the course of the book; we begin to think we know her and understand her story, and the impact is significant when we realise she was one among thousands. Yet such is Modiano’s ability to create concentric circles from the personal to the general to the universal, every fragment he reproduces sings with its own specific life and every lost soul touches us deeply.

Patrick Modiano’s books are essentially about loss and abandonment. They are about the difficulties we experience in creating and maintaining identities when the past is obscure and our personal history has been crushed under the bloodied wheels of History itself. In the majority of his books, he wrote unflinchingly about the legacy of the Occupation. He never wrote about war itself; the reality of battle lies the other side of the fracture in time, consigned to the distant and unknowable past. Instead, his work is a careful enumeration of the intolerable losses of war that persist for decades, and which we should perhaps consider closely in our contemporary times, when the desire for sabre-rattling seems as strong as ever and the idea of occupying forces is considered a harmless one. Not only do those caught up in war lose the people they love, and the right to satisfy hunger and protect the property they own; it is not just the desire to live without fear that is forcibly removed. War requires those who survive it to do so at the loss of their innocence, their dignity and sometimes even their humanity. And these are losses that have heavy consequences for the next generation, who must deal with the legacy of shame, guilt and humiliation. The violence of war is not the end of a story, but the breeding ground of many other kinds of violence—emotional, psychic, existential—that poison the lives of generations to come. It takes writers like Patrick Modiano to bring the reality of this alive.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best small photox

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Nathalie Rachlin, ‘The Modiano Syndrome: 1968-1997’ in Paradigms of Memory; The Occupation and Other Hi/stories in the Novels of Patrick Modiano, ed by Guyot-Bender, Martine and VanderWolk, William (Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 121-135. Specific quote from p. 130.
Jun 072016
 

George Szirtes

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A Bomb at the Book Launch

Nothing
much happened then.
We vanished and the streets
filled up with others. Then there were
more books

and more
to read them. Books
were breath. Books were just air
in motion, words broken into
spaces.

Why then
the stillness? Why
the silence after us?
Didn’t we deserve accolades
of breath?

Nothing
had happened. Things
broke. Matter exploded.
We were fragment and fire and air.
We launched

our books
into the sky.
We were our own book launch,
We ourselves were the explosion.
The bomb.

It was
as imagined,
ourselves exploding, blown
like soot into corroded air,
like breath.

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Natural

He had everything
and felt entitled to it.
Entitled is good.

The taxes he paid
were not the taxes he paid,
why should anyone?

People try to save.
It is natural to save.
Everyone does it.

The moon does not yield
all the sun’s light. It must save
some for its own use.

The sea’s energy
belongs to the sea. Why should
the sea not prosper?

It is natural
for the sea to salt away
salt for its own use.

Far away islands
are a natural resource.
They are resourceful.

Far away is good.
Islands that are far away
are good for business.

Wealth is natural.
The way things are is nature
being natural.

We are far away
and natural. Nature is
just and generous.

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Patriarchs

You see them perched in a row on a beam
high above the city. They have no harness,
no safety rail. They are munching sandwiches
prepared by their wives sixty storeys below
or bought at an early morning stall. From there
they survey the world like gods without power,
like flightless sparrows or shreds of windblown paper.
At school, when asked about careers, they answered:
this, this girder, this vertiginous height, this pay,
this beer, these sandwiches, are what we aspire to,
life being short, and frequently shorter,
occasionally abrupt and always dangerous. This pride
is what we master, this mustering of self and air,
this, and fatherhood or livelihood, the fight
in the bar or the alley, the triumph or disaster
of a joke told to gods on the same high beam.
We’re born for this, to this, it is our station
and pride, our working principle. The foreman
strides among us, the boss approves the plans,
the food appears on our plates. It is our domain.
It is the urban wind that blows between streets
that are yet to rise to their full stature. We hang
between floors like decorations, a rank of medals
strung to a ragged chest. It is our choice. We make it.

Then they descend, one by one, along more beams,
down steps, resisting gravity, as they’re obliged to.

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Boy

The boy
I was is not
the man I am, he said,
his brow darkening with effort,
then laughed.

The boy
I was is not
anything special now.
I don’t even remember him,
he said.

You know
what you want but
something gets in the way,
he said and laughed again, then took
a drag.

It is
not just yourself.
It is some other thing
you must deny and so you do,
he said.

I knew
it from the start.
I was the bad thing there
just waiting to happen, he said
and drank.

I kept
my hands where they
could be seen. My eyes were
open and smoking. I was clean,
he said.

Sometimes
it gets too much,
he said, but you have to.
Speaking is useless, as are tears
and fists.

Your moods
are frightening.
You are impossible
and guilty and it’s the guilt that
frightens.

Some days
I think of harm.
It’s my business I think.
At least it’s me that’s doing it,
he said.

The boy
is dead. My death
is born out of his. But
this is not death. This is just me,
he said.

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Four Notes after Felicia Glowacka

1
They lean towards each other as if
life had bent them out of true.
Is it love? It is the very fog they breathe
and stumble through.

2
Weighed down by their own
lack of gravity. It’s late.
It’s there in the twisted bone.
Night’s unutterable weight.

3
There are people one bows to. To others
one bows lower still, averting eyes.
Few of us are born to be brothers.
One is of a moderate size.

4
Three drunks
emerge from a stray
thought into frozen air
then bawl and sway
and vanish into day.

—George Szirtes

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George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry and a roughly equal number of translations from the Hungarian. His New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in The Independent. The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013) were both short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize which he had won earlier with Reel (2004).

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Jun 062016
 

thomas_bernhard

Far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. —Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Goethe Dies
Thomas Bernhard
Translated by James Reidel
Seagull Books,  2016
87 pages, $21.00

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Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

A prolific poet, playwright and novelist who so often placed himself at the heart of his writing, Bernhard, the man behind the work, has remained somewhat of an elusive character. In interviews he could be as contradictory and misanthropic as one of his own narrators, or thoughtfully philosophical, depending on his mood.[1] Born to an unwed mother in 1931, Bernhard lived with his grandparents in Vienna until he moved with his mother and stepfather to Traunstein, Bavaria, in 1937. He never knew his natural father who had died under suspicious circumstances, but he was very close to his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, an author of some local renown who insisted that his grandson have a firm grounding in the arts. Bernhard’s great love was, and would remain, music. However, tuberculosis contracted in his youth left him with chronic lung disease and made his desired career as an opera singer impossible. Once he turned his attention to writing full-time, he would bequeath his illness to many of his protagonists. He never married, but spent almost thirty-five years in a close relationship with a woman thirty-seven years his senior, personally caring for her at the end of her life. The exact nature of their relationship is not known, but Bernhard managed to project the image of the socially uncomfortable loner until his own death in 1989 at the age of fifty-eight.

Over the course of his career, Bernhard developed a unique and distinctive style and form. His major novels are conceived and elaborated within a structural framework that exploits repetition as an essential and insistent narrative device. His stories revisit the same themes again and again; key phrases, words and ideas are repeatedly invoked, dismantled and reworked; and the narrator often stands to the side of the story, or plays a secondary role, reporting what has been told to him by the protagonist or first-hand observers. At times, as in the novel Concrete, the formal narrator has receded so far into the background that he exists only to bookend the ostensible first person narrative, a letter written by the doomed musicologist at the heart of the story.

With Bernhard’s tendency to return to the same themes repeatedly, a reader encountering almost any of his prose pieces, long or short, will have some sense of entering familiar terrain. But far from fostering monotony, Bernhard’s sardonic wit and sensitivity to the musical rhythms of language seem to fuel endless variations on his favourite obsessions. These include madness, suicide, stifling family environments, and strained, sometimes near incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters. His narrators tend to come from or aspire to the arts and sciences. They are typically self-absorbed and internally focused, often to the point that they become paralyzed by their own thought processes, with perseveration replacing action. His protagonists often suffer from chronic diseases, are preoccupied by their own physical well being, burdened with serious persecution complexes, and prone to excessive, often vitriolic rants targeted at people or places. Austria fares particularly poorly in this regard. Bernhard paints his native country as corrupt, its citizens as facile. But, in the end, every treasured institution or art form, city or country is a fair target.

The pieces in Goethe Dies, first released together in Germany in 2010, offer an indication of Bernhard’s maturity and confidence as a writer at this point in his career. Written during the period that would see the publication of Concrete, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, and The Loser, his creative energy is closely focused to fit within the smaller format. And although this is, after all, an author accustomed to a much longer runway, nothing is sacrificed in spirit.

The title story, written to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Goethe’s death in 1982 is possibly the most elaborate piece, structurally and thematically. It opens, significantly, on the 22nd of March, as the narrator, presumably Bernhard himself, is being prepared for an impending meeting with Goethe who is by this time, confined to bed, subject to moments of apparent absence, and stone deaf in one ear. The end is near. The narrator’s mediator and primary source of information is the German scholar and historian Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer, a factotum to Goethe who jealously guards his closeness to the great man against two of Goethe’s secretaries who also feature in this tale, Friedrich Kräuter and Johann Eckermann. And then, there is the one man whom Goethe himself longs to meet before he dies, the thinker whose small volume he believes has superseded everything that he, Goethe, produced in his entire lifetime, the philosopher whose dictum, as Bernhard imagines it, The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing has come to obsess the German writer in his final months—Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the span of 19 pages, Bernhard skillfully constructs and unwraps a conceit as absurd, elaborate and thoroughly entertaining as that contained in any of his novels. Temporal continuity is tossed to the wind as Bernhard conducts the intellectual intersection of two great minds and allows himself a supporting role as reporter and assistant in the effort to facilitate a meeting in person. Mind you, it is never really clear that away in “Oxford or Cambridge”, Wittgenstein has any knowledge of or interest in Goethe, but elaborate plans are made to send Kräuter to invite the philosopher to visit his ailing admirer and stay at his home. True to form, repetition is key to the story’s structural framework, one that, even in this small format, is multi-dimensional. Wittgenstein’s skeptical philosophy is echoed in Goethe’s preoccupations and obsessions that are in turn channeled through and expanded in the possessive attentions of Riemer, which are ultimately shared with and reported by Bernhard as narrator. It might even be argued that the rhythm of the prose calls to mind the flow of the systematic logical expositions that form the core of the argument laid out in Wittgenstein’s most famous text:

When I am with him again this evening, thus said Riemer in respect to Goethe, I will ask him to expound further about The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing. We will organize the topic and, thus said Goethe always, attack and destroy it. Everything he has read and thought until now is either nothing or almost nothing when compared to the Wittgensteinian. He no longer knows who or what brought him to Wittgenstein. Perhaps that small booklet bound in a red cover from the Suhrkamp Library, Goethe once told Riemer, thus said Riemer, I can’t say any more to it than that. But it was my lifesaver. Hopefully, as Goethe said to Riemer, thus said Riemer, Kräuter will come through in Oxford or Cambridge and soon Wittgenstein will come. Allegedly Goethe spent all day in his bedchamber and, as Riemer thinks, simply waited for Wittegenstein. And that is what happened, he simply waited for Wittgenstein, who is to him the one man and thing highest, thus said Riemer. He had slipped the Tractatus under his pillow. The tautology has no truth conditions, for it is unconditionally true; and the contradiction is on no condition true, so he, Goethe, often said trembling in these days.

The fact that the story is staged around the day of the anticipated visit from Wittgenstein which also happens to be the actual date of Goethe’s death allows Bernhard a delicious opportunity to illuminate the “truth” of his famed last words: “More light.” And will a certain Austrian philosopher be present? In a fitting end to the game, Bernhard plays out his absurd hand beyond its logical extreme—Wittgenstein, it is learned, has died before the invitation can be extended, but it is decided by his attendants that is best that Goethe, still waiting, not be told.

Invoking Wittgenstein to honour Goethe is at once a contrary and appropriate gesture. Wittgenstein was one of the many models Bernhard drew inspiration from and quoted regularly in his work. But unlike Schopenhauer, Montaigne, or Pascal, for example, his relationship with the philosopher was more complicated—not only did their timelines overlap by twenty-years, but his grand-nephew Paul had been good friend, the tragedy of their relationship immortalized in the autobiographical novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew which appeared the same year as this story. One might wonder if, in imagining Goethe in awe of Wittgenstein, he is not reflecting himself:

Bernhard had memorably expressed the potentially destructive effect of the encounter between the admired master and his disciple when he described his problematic relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The question is whether I can write even for a moment about Wittgenstein without destroying either him (Wittgenstein) or myself (Bernhard). . . . Wittgenstein is a summons to which I cannot respond. . . . Thus, I do not write about Wittgenstein not because I cannot, but rather because I cannot respond to him.” [2]

The second story in this collection also involves, in a different manner, another of Bernhard’s heroes. “Montaigne: A Story in Twenty-Two Installments” first appeared in Die Zeit in October of 1982 to inaugurate a series of “miniature serial novels”. As translator James Reidel informs us in his generous endnotes, in keeping with his reputation for breathless, single paragraph narratives, Bernhard playfully supplied the first novel in miniature form as one continuous text marked up into twenty-two paragraphs or “installments.” The theme is a common one, a narrator with chronic lung disease retreats to a tower to read his precious Montaigne, but rather than reading he launches into a tirade against his family and the injustices they continually inflict upon him.

The crippling effects of a suffocating family environment are similarly central to the narrative that drives the third and longest piece, “Reunion.” Here the narrator carries out an intense, one-sided conversation with a childhood friend he has chanced to meet, calling to mind their parents’ soul destroying cruelty, exercised explicitly by forcing them to endure endless Alpine holidays (“And your parents always had on bright green caps in their bright green stockings, I said, mine bright red.”). Again, hallmark Bernhard themes are on display here, pushed within the narrow focus of the story, about as far as they can go. It is a perfect illustration of the way that he can take a few key concepts, build them up by running them them back and forth against each other, employing contradiction and counterpoint to create tension and drive the narrative forward to an ultimate climactic moment. At its most basic, as in this instance, it’s a solo dance—one self-obsessed character cataloging the litany of indecencies perpetrated against him, continually framing and reframing his experiences against others, empathy turning caustic as the rant builds.

Within the limited scope of the stories in Goethe Dies, some of the intensity of Bernhard’s longer works is necessarily dialed back a notch. However, that is not to imply that in short form he becomes complacent. There is always room for a little hyperbolic vitriol. In the fourth and shortest story, “Going up in Flames: A Travelogue to an Erstwhile Friend” Bernhard manages to unleash a vision worthy of Revelations in a mere eight pages.

For the Bernhard fan, Goethe Dies is a welcome addition to any serious collection. It is unlikely to disappoint. And for those who have been a little anxious to dive straight into a longer work, it may even be an ideal place to become acquainted with one of the most original and engaging prose stylists of the 20th century. Kolkata based Seagull Books, a publisher with a very strong list of German translations and a particular fondness for Bernhard, never fails to produce well-crafted, beautiful books and this little gem is no exception.

—Joseph Schreiber

N5

Joe Schreiber

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A selection of interviews can be found here.
  2. Thomas Cousineau, “Thomas Bernhard: an introductory essay”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 21, No.2 (2001), reproduced with permission at www.thomasbernhard.org
Jun 052016
 

Capture

elle7

The Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver has announced its 2016/17 season, and Elle, the play adapted from dg’s novel by Severn Thompson, will be there.

From Toronto, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Dora Moore Award nominated ELLE, adapted from Douglas Glover’s award-winning novel, tells the story of a French noblewoman abandoned on the Isle of Demons (off the coast of Newfoundland) in 1542.

Capture

Jun 052016
 

Sharon McCartney

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Susan appears agonal and preterminal.

From a neurological consult report dated September 18, 1979,
11 days before she dies.

I have to look up agonal.
Of or related to great pain.
As in the agony of death.

She was in pain.
I never thought about her being in pain.

Her long hospital records indicate her primary problem began with seizures in 1961.

A malignant glioma in the left temporal area, excised
surgically in January 1961 at the Mayo Clinic.
Rochester, Minnesota. Then, radiation. She is 11 years old,
my big sister by 10 years. I am the baby of the family.

Mother calls it “cobalt treatment.” Old black and white
zig-zag-edged photos from Rochester, before the treatment,
show Susie, grinning maniacally from behind a monstrous
snowbank and lobbing snowballs toward the camera.

We live in a small ivy-green bungalow in a new subdivision
in Sunny San Diego. Three white birchbark willows
congregate in a curved brick bed by the driveway.
I pedal my purple stingray with its glittery banana seat
and tassels to May Scott Marcy Elementary School.
Except for Susie, we are like everyone else.

She has grand mal seizures. We call them spells.
When she has a spell, we say, “Mother, Susie!”
Mother comes and strokes Susie’s brow
until the seizure passes. She kneels
and cradles Susie’s head in her lap.
This happens daily and everywhere.

In the checkout line at FedMart,
while Mother is waiting to pay, Susie
careens sideways and crumples. Fat faces
stare and I stare back until they look away.

Susie is unpredictable and often violent.
Plates and glasses are thrown. Squad cars
in the driveway are not uncommon.
Sedatives and syringes sleep in the fridge.
Mrs. Foster, the nurse who lives up the street,
comes to stick Susie when necessary.
Mother bakes a German chocolate cake for her
and dispatches me up Mott Street with it.

Rose Canyon slumps behind the house
with its iceplant, tumbleweeds and wild mustard.
While I’m in the backyard, playing horses,
there’s a ruckus indoors.
Susie is howling something
that sounds like “kill me, kill me.”
She is held down on the bed
by Mother, Daddy, Stephanie, Doug,
each with a limb.
This scene does not involve me.
I’m not even sure that I actually see it.

In private, Stephanie and I play a game
of making fun of Susie. I pretend to be Susie.
I knock on the bedroom door and say,
“Stephanie, Mother says you have to come
and get into the … dog.” I pretend that I can’t
remember the word for car. This makes us roar.

Sister Stephanie and Sharon, 4 and 7

1969, Mesa Vista hospital for “acute psychosis.”
Hydrocephalus. Pressure on the brain.

Susie is rolled in an old green army blanket
to immobilize her during one of her rages.
She is deposited on the Chevy wagon’s
middle seat to be driven to the hospital.
Daddy stands in the garage beside the car
and he is weeping.

1972, a low pressure ventricularperitoneal
shunt to drain the fluid. An infection.
The shunt requires replacement later that year.

1973, a neurilemmoma. Craniotomy.
After that, she is mute. A “neurologic cripple.”

We have a van with an hydraulic lift.
Mother ties Susie into the wheelchair
and drives to Del Taco where Mother
has a floury quesadilla and coffee with cream
in a styrofoam cup, which she drinks
in the parking lot next to the Subaru dealership.
The ridiculous sun is always shining.

Past history. Refer to old chart.

Permanent tracheostomy and gastrostomy.
Mother pumps formula into the stomach tube.

1976, Susie is hospitalized yet again
for “abdominal distention and regurgitation.”

Mother pumps food into Susie
and then Susie vomits it.

Medications: Diamox, Dilantin, Mysoline, Potassium Chloride and other medications as per her mother’s attached list. Family History: Noncontributory. Review of Systems: Noncontributory.

Agonal. She is in pain.
For years and years, pain.

Strapped upright in the wheelchair,
parked in front of the living room’s
console TV for The Wheel of Fortune,
eyes lolling, she is in pain.

She has been cared for at home by her mother, with some occasional assistance from night nurses. This admission was prompted when she seemed to be “going downhill,” according to the mother. She has had temperature, been less responsive, and has not urinated normally. In addition, she has been agitated and combative.

Her inhuman utterances,
the mouth crooked, saliva stringing.
Urine in the sofa, in the wheelchair,
in the canopied princess bed in the bedroom
across the hall from my room
where I stay up late late to watch
Johnny Carson, Tom Snyder.

The suction machine thumps and squalls.
If the trach tube is not cleared, Susie will suffocate.
Imagine a metallic hole in your trachea.
Now, a thin plastic tube going in, sucking.
I only think about how noisy it is.

The patient is unable to aid in any self-care.

Mother sleeps with her. Twin beds.
Daddy sleeps in the den as he always has.

Mother naps in the afternoon, when she can.
I see her sitting on the bed’s edge, as if
she has just woken up, her head hanging.

The house smells like pee and shit.
The floral sofa is particularly redolent.
Sometimes there’s an ambulance
in the driveway, red lights strobing.

I never think about her being in pain.

Mother bends Susie’s arms and legs twice
daily in the room with the mirrored closet doors.
Sometimes Susie makes noises.
I do not think of them as moans.
It’s just Susie.

The patient has always been in the same mental state, virtually comatose, since I have been seeing her. However, the mother continues to notice changes in the level of consciousness, noting that sometimes for periods of weeks to months she will respond, watch television, smile, and Mrs. McCartney notes that Susan has actually said several short sentences. Nonetheless, none of those have ever been witnessed by any of the medical profession and there is some question as to whether the changes are perceived to be greater by the mother than they are.

 

Sharon McCartney's motherMother

Mother will not put Susie in a nursing home.
Mother says, “She would be dead in a day!”

No one ever talks about it,
what has happened to our family.

She has urinary tract infections,
pneumonia, low grade fevers.
Eventually, an indwelling catheter.

I never think about her pain,
her real physical pain.

For years I have regarded her as being in a persistent akinetic, mute or vegetative state secondary to her multiple brain tumors, shunt and general debility…. It would appear to this examiner that the combination of nonreactive pupils and absent doll’s eyes, unresponsiveness, and respiratory depression can all be related to progressive central nervous system deterioration because of the effects of the numerous central nervous system insults to this poor girl.

This poor girl. No one in the family says that.

When I run away from home,
to the beach, and am returned
24 hours later by the police,
Mother chooses to converse with me
about my tribulations while washing
Susie. Arms, legs, genitalia.
I stare into the closet’s mirrored doors.
I can see Susie behind me, naked and inert.
I realize that Mother is making A Point,
but I will not bow down.

We are stubborn.

1961, the doctors say Susie will not last
another six months, but she does.

1994, Mother, in mortal pain herself,
on a morphine pump, refuses to die
until Lupe, the hospice nurse, scolds her:
“Gladys, it’s time for you to go.
Susan is waiting for you.” Mother dies.

Is there any value in exploring this?
Whatever you deny grows stronger.

Go there. Stop avoiding it.
Stop pretending it didn’t happen.

Her prostration, slack hair, flaccid arms.
Mother heaving that thin, collapsed body
onto a fresh Chux. The cyanotic limbs.

She was in pain. Imagine any one
of your children in pain. For years.

Diagnoses:
1. Occlusion distal valve of ventriculoperitoneal shunt.
2. Normal pressure hydrocephalus, controlled.
3. Grand mal epilepsy, controlled.
4. Status postoperative posterior fossa brain tumor, neurilemmoma (1973).
5. Status postoperative left temporal glioma (1961).
6. Feeding gastrostomy tube in place (1973).
7. Permanent tracheotomy in place (1973).
8. Status postoperative laparotomy for bowel obstruction (4-3-76).
9. Status postoperative scalp debridement for wound dehiscence over shunt tube (4-8-76).

Mother is a martyr, but she’s not a hero.
She gets tired and bitter and morose.
When Daddy buys a motorboat (his business
is doing well) and names it the Susie-Q,
Mother sneers, “He would buy her anything.
He would put a pool in the yard if she wanted it.”

I want a pool. I would love to have a pool.

It was Dr. DeBolt’s feeling, with which I concur, that there has been progressive CNS deterioration, from her already low level function over the past several months and that it was not unlikely that this was a central fever. In any event, it seems clear that no further medical work-up is likely to be helpful…. There was a long discussion with both Mr. and Mrs. McCartney by myself as well as by Dr. DeBolt regarding heroic measures and it was felt that because of Susan’s general condition, resuscitation should not be undertaken.

Susie dies on September 29, 1979.

Daddy is with her when it happens. After,
he waits at the hospital’s front doors to tell Mother.
Mother says, “Thank God it’s over.”
And walks back to her car.

I am away at college, but Daddy phones me
with the news. My knees goes weak.
I have to sit down. I’m thinking,
“Wow, that actually happens.”
I thought it was just a cliché.

There is a funeral, but Mother does not attend.

I come home for a visit at Christmas,
the first Christmas after Susie’s death.
I bring my laundry and Mother does it for me.
When the dryer is finished, she dumps
the clean clothes in Susie’s wheelchair
and trudges it down the hallway
to the mirrored bedroom where she irons
and folds and irons and folds.

—Sharon McCartney

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Sharon McCartney is the author of Metanoia (Biblioasis, 2016), which appeared originally in its entirety in Numéro Cinq, and five other collections of poetry: Hard Ass (Palimpsest, 2013), For and Against (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Nightwood, 2007), Karenin Sings the Blues (Goose Lane Editions, 2003), and Under the Abdominal Wall (Anvil Press, 1999). She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law, and Pomona College.

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Jun 042016
 
Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Tirukkural encodes the cultural intelligence of the Tamil people in its 1,330 couplets (called kurals), written sometime between the third and first centuries BCE in south India by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises on right living, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama). (More about Tirukkural can be found in my earlier essay, here on NC.)

Though ancient in origin, these verses are still alive in Tamil culture. My mother tells me that the local Indian cultural association where she lives in rural Ohio has just started a kural-memorization competition for the kids. Each participant has to start from the beginning of Tirukkural, the very first couplet, and recite as much as he or she can remember. The prizes are awarded to the top memorizers, one dollar per kural. I laughed, thinking of how much money a kid could make if she made it all the way to the section on wealth (that’s $380 for getting there).

The following couplets are from the first and third sections (virtue and love).

 —A. Anupama

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Chapter 8: On possessing love

In love, what lock? Heartache
gleams on the tear tracks left in its wake.

The loveless take all for themselves, but those who love own
not even their bones.

Love unites thought and action in pure life—
a consummation to the very marrow.

Love’s thrill leads to
friendship—boundless bliss.

Love’s possessors manufacture this world’s joy,
and, by possessing joy, win glory.

Pure virtue is love’s sole fruit according to the ignorant, oblivious
that pure valor ripens alongside.

Boneless worms in sunlight burn,
as do loveless people in moral virtue.

Loveless hearts bloom in an arid waste
on parched trees, withering.

What use are the outer limbs of the body
without the inner limb?

A love-filled path is the soul,
without which the body is only bones covered over with skin.

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Chapter 122: On night visions

My love’s messenger came to me: a dream.
What feast of thanks can I offer it?

Of my eyes, shaped like darting fish, I beg sleep. Then for my love
truth will pour from my suffering heart.

Awake, he never came to me, but, asleep,
seeing him preserves my life.

In dreams, I seek that fierce pleasure, which in my waking life
avoids me: I find him.

Awake, my vision and its dream
met in one sweet moment.

If waking life would cease and only sleep persist
my love would never leave my mind.

Awake, he never came near. What cruelty takes, in my sleep,
its right to torture me?

I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.

In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes.

Every day they will gossip about us and my forsakenness. But my dream
they didn’t glimpse, thankfully, these villagers.

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from Chapter 123: An evening lament

Budding in early morning and unfurling all day,
the evening blooms, like this ache.

—Translated by A. Anupama

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A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org) and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Jun 042016
 
Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

Alex Brown Church/Sea Wolf

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Alex Brown Church  is Sea Wolf, and Sea Wolf is usually a band, except when it’s just Alex in his Los Angeles studio, writing songs.  He lives in a compound that once was a Masonic Lodge, now divided into loft units, right on Eagle Rock Boulevard, a highway that runs through the Glassell Park district in northeast L.A. A sort of urban oasis, the compound features a garden courtyard with a BBQ and picnic bench and plenty of room for his  young son to scamper around.  Being Los Angeles, the days are usually sunny and lately it’s been scary-dry, socked into a drought. A taco truck is conveniently parked a stone’s throw away.

 Sea Wolf is known for his mix of folk/rock/ genres and a propensity for inventive melodies and smart lyrics. On stage he plays with intensity, usually with a band, but sometimes solo. There is a definite California tinge to his music, perhaps in its lack of irony. The listener feels she is hearing a message straight from the heart, and there is an intimacy in the way he puts across a song, the sense that his voice is going directly into your ear.

Alex Brown Church was raised in an outdoorsy family, with lots of hiking and camping in the picture, and he likes to escape into the Sierras with his wife and son in the summer. Early life was spent in a gold rush town in Northern California, followed by a stint in France where he went to school as a child, then adolescence in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement. He claims his was not an especially musical household, and he didn’t get around to playing guitar until he was a young man, living in New York City and going to Film School. He’s a visual writer, fashioned by those years studying film structure, paying attention to creating a vivid setting and dramatic structure in his songs.

These days he’s spending countless hours in the recording studio putting together his sixth album. Let’s check in and see how it’s going:

Ann: Can you tell us about your early musical influences?

Alex: I started writing songs in the late 90’s, so the Indie-rock giants of that time were a big influence – Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith, Yo La Tengo. Those kinds of bands mixed with a lot of Beatles. A lot of the Beatles. Also Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, Rolling Stones , The Velvet Underground, The Smiths and The Cure.

Ann: I sense from your lyrics that you are a reader. What do you read and how does what you read inspire or stir up your language?

Alex: I’ll probably never tackle Ulysses, but I do read, and I do like to read and I always have. I read mostly fiction, novels and occasionally, non-fiction. I might pull imagery from what I read, or sometimes (though probably less often), a kind of prose style that strikes me. Usually that influence comes out in a couple of lines, rather than a whole song.

Ann: Would you say that you have an overall project in your music, a project that all the songs and albums are somehow part of? If so, what might that be?

Alex: Sea Wolf isn’t a conceptual exploration of a particular thing, or something with a preconceived story arc, if that’s what you’re getting at. Sea Wolf sprang from an epiphany of sorts about what it was that I wanted to do and express musically. What it is, has developed and evolved over time and I expect it to continue like that. I tend to be attracted by certain themes and imagery and sounds, so maybe that comes through on all the albums in a way that connects them.

Ann: What is your discipline/process of writing the songs? Do you write in intense bursts, or do you sit down every day, hell or high water?

Alex: Intense bursts definitely happen, but I also need to sit down every day because you never know when something good will come out. I block out a chunk of time to write, because it takes a while to get in a groove, and once you are in that groove you don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t write when touring or promoting an album, so once the touring cycle for an album ends, I sit down and clear my calendar for a year to write and make another record.

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Ann: Do you have a sense of where the songs come from?

Alex: Hard to say. Often, when a song comes, it’ll feel like the most natural and easy and obvious thing in the world. But that feeling, that sense of it all being so clear, is always fleeting. So you just have to be ready to get as much down as you can while you are in that space.

Ann: You have a gift for melody. This is relatively rare. What other melodic artists do you admire?

Alex:  Thank you! This is difficult to narrow down because my favorite music is all melodic. Of contemporary acts, I think Vampire Weekend is the first name that comes to mind as being melodically great. I was a big studier of the Beatles when I first began writing songs, and they still hold sway over me in that area and remain the gold standard. I also appreciate the melodies in songs from the golden age of musicals and early jazz standards.

Ann: How have the songs changed from first album to current work? What remains consistent in your vision?

Alex: Well, I’m older (he’s 40) and in a different place in my  life now, so lyrically I’m probably singing about different kinds of things, or at least from a different perspective. Musically, each album has sounded a bit different from the one that preceded it, because I’m always wanting to do something new and explore new territory, discovering new sounds and ideas and outgrowing old ones. I’ve come to a place now where I’m wanting to embrace all the stuff I like, as disparate as it may be, and find a way to get it all to fit together.

Ann: How do you stir up habits of writing, so that you don’t fall into rhythms that have become too familiar to you?

Alex:  Anytime I’m bored it’s a sign to do something else. Sometimes just picking up a different guitar, or creating a beat on the computer, or coming up with an interesting keyboard sound, or even doing something like rearranging the studio will open up a new door for me and switch things around in my head. But more often than not, taking a break, going on a trip, getting out of the routine and out into the world is the best thing to do.

Ann: If you had to categorize your music by genre, what term would you use?

Alex: Indie would be the genre you’d find Sea Wolf under in iTunes, and I’m cool with that.

Ann: You’ve said that you are not a ‘singer-songwriter’. I’m curious as to why you shirk that label.

Alex: I think it depends on what someone has in mind when they say ‘singer-songwriter’, because I don’t identify with the ‘sensitive guy with acoustic guitar’ genre, which is what I think of when I think of ‘singer-songwriter’, and I generally dislike that kind of music. On the other hand, guys like Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty could probably fall under the ‘singer-songwriter’ label, and I’d be fine with being in whatever category they are in, because, like myself, those guys do a lot more than stand there with an acoustic guitar singing sad love songs. But maybe I’m not doing myself any favors in shirking that label, because I know that people who listen to that kind of music do like Sea Wolf, and after all, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Elliot smith are all ‘singer-songwriters’ and they’re pretty badass.

Ann: For many years, you played/wrote with the Indie-rock band, Irving, in California. Did you get restless and want to make a different kind of music? What led you to forming the persona of Sea Wolf?

Alex: Irving was the first band I was in, and I learned to write songs, sing, and play while I was in that band. It was so much fun, and having other guys to collaborate with and share the excitement of being in a band together was incredible. But I eventually grew into myself as a songwriter and singer and realized I wanted to do different music, and I didn’t want to have to compromise any more. Sea Wolf, especially at the beginning, was very much about getting to the core of what it was that I wanted to do, and finding empowerment in that experience.

Ann: Any words on the business side of music?

Alex: Unless you are Radiohead I do think that record labels are still very valuable. These days anyone can release their own music, globally, but whether or not it will get any attention still comes down to the network of people who are working the record. Putting out records requires a ton of work and artists should be spending their time making records and playing shows.

Ann: You’ve had tasty success in having your songs picked up for commercials, movie soundtracks etc. This seems pretty great, cash in hand, and musicians need to earn a living. Yet at the same time, your personal work is being used to ‘sell’ a product. Thoughts on this process and how you feel about it?

Alex: I come from the 1990’s indie rock school of thought which was very much that licensing songs to commercials was a form of selling out. All of that’s changed now, and I’m thankful to have mostly gotten over that notion, and thankful that most listeners have, too. People discover music in lots of different ways now, even from commercials and movies, and it’s known that we artists have to pay our bills given that people don’t buy records anymore. I do still cringe a little when I hear my music in a commercial, because it’s so personal to me, but most Sea Wolf fans’ response is ‘Hey, that’s Sea Wolf! Cool!’

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Ann: What music do you pay attention to and how has this changed over the years?

Alex:  The landscape of popular music has changed, and so has the music that I’ve paid attention to. I do keep up on what’s happening and new, as I always have, though I’m less likely to spend a significant amount of time with an album or artist that doesn’t grab me right away. I think that’s due to the way we listen to music nowadays, through streaming sites like Spotify. There’s so much music at your fingertips now, and you’re not paying for it individually, so there’s no sense of commitment that goes along with buying an album. If you don’t like something the first time, rather than give it a week, listening to it in your car, you just never listen to it again.

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Ann: What’s new in the process of writing and recording the new album currently in the works?

Alex: I took a lot more time developing this record than usual. The writing took the longest (compared to albums in the past) and I think it’s because I was feeling more ambitious for this record and (thus) had a higher bar to contend with. Whether or not it will show, who knows, because a lot of times you are just satisfying yourself, and listeners often would’ve been cool with, or even preferred, the stuff that didn’t make the cut. This album is less smoothed out than the last (Old World Romance) and I think that was partially due to Cedarsmoke’s influence (a crowd-funded non-official Sea Wolf record). That record was done very quickly and I liked how human and rough it feels. I want to bring some of that into this album, and yet to also have a bit of the more polished and grand touches of Old World Romance.

—Ann Ireland

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

 

 

Jun 032016
 

Helwig photo

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Couplets

The morning kitchen catches sunlight.
Stare out past the bare branches

into the strangeness of a November day
that cold as it is, grows colder.

The air is hung with yellow,
the darkness of red roses

living on and being almost human
and wrong, the sky as bleak as a man

seeking only himself, observing light,
hungry among the dying trees.

Can you hear me thinking?

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By the Clay Road

The complicated turbulence of sky
catches itself in the shining silver
mirror of a rainpool. If, only if
I bend at a perfect angle
of torso to leg and head to neck,
a delicate background of tall stems
will frame in this water the bright
circle of filtered sun, the white
unlikeliness of reflected cloud. Only if
I bend to the luminous event.

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Perspectives

Unexpected, astonishing, as if to enlighten or reward us,
they have come
at a slow walk, three horses far off and moving toward us
as winds thrum

as hoofs crush fallen leaves. Horses, mute riders sway,
prepare to vanish
again, fading slowly far down the tall aspen perspective in sunglow
which will burnish

the present with its tint of light and shadow at the angle
particular to beast, rock, this
hour of day, then dissolve into diminished after-events as plans entangle,
miss and dismiss.

The trail of those horses speaks the locked nature of sequence,
of the past,
each horse and silent rider diminished to a notion of perfect absence,
lost,

beyond recall, restored to the space
of possible skies,
which might define some other order, precision to attain peace
and grow wise.

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Meditation

The chalk-blue walls shape
this afternoon of favoured ghosts,
mysterious harmonies of the heartbeat,
the many years, day by day
from the astonishment of birth
to the astonishment of death.

The man who sings will call
remembrance into time,
the personal, the vivid
hover in a nowhere, a where,
a possible now, closely
present at the end, behind glass,
the known, seen through
the mysterious rooms, the house
remembered, the house
forgotten. Keepsakes, capture
of a moment, Dickens, Tennyson
bound in green, a platter,
the Wedgwood teapot,
shaving mug from the barber’s shelf,
in an Atwood rarity, a joke
inscribed long since.

An empty vase: the elegant curve
of clay spins the click of perfect
consonance, its rhyme
the music of its being:
not will but the accord of grace.

—David Helwig

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David Helwig is the author of more than 35 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction including, most recently, About Love, 3 Stories by Chekhov (Biblioasis) and The Year One (Gaspereau Press), Duet and his autobiography The Name of Things (Porcupine’s Quill). The founder of the Best Canadian Short Story Series, he has edited more than 25 books for Oberon Press. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His avocation, however, is not writing but vocal music. After abandoning this for some years, he returned to it in his forties and has sung with a number of choirs in Kingston, Montreal and Charlottetown. He has appeared as bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Mozart’s Requiem. He currently lives in an old house in the village of Eldon in Prince Edward Island.

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Jun 032016
 

LMB-11Dilasa is ten years old. She was born in a Nepali refugee camp and came to the United States when she was five. Her parents are Bhutanese refugees.

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The white gray rubble light blinds me, wait, I just thought—what if this is not visible, what if all this is not visible.
—Juan Felipe Herrera, United States Poetry Laureate
I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph

Lynne Browne is a workaholic. She is the web coordinator at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She has a straightforward manner of speaking and a brilliant wit. People like her. People like her instantly. Largely because they know they can trust her. They can trust her because she does not bullshit them. She does not have time in her fast-paced world for such nonsense. She thrives in this fast-paced world. She is a leader and a go-getter. When she does something, she does it to the N-th degree. And her passion is photography.

The combination of Lynne’s approachability and her amazing technical skill with the camera and computer results in portraiture of unequalled intensity. In hectic settings, she is able to capture the lyric moment. Intimacy is achieved quickly, even in situations where there is a language barrier. I find this quite magical. The seduction of her candid friendliness and competence leave little room for even the thought of a “no.” And in response to Herrera’s poem, yes, one can certainly see the wound — coupled with hope — in the eyes of the children and youths Lynne photographs. In the worn faces of the aged, where one would expect only the “rubble,” Lynne is able to find also the underlying joy and pride.

I’ve asked Lynne to speak of the evolution of her personal ongoing project photographing refugees in her hometown region, Utica, NY (“The Town That Loves Refugees”), where she is making a difference with the images she creates. Herrera recently encouraged an audience at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs to “use their own natural and sincere voice to become who they fully are,” and just so, both the artist and the muse reveal themselves in these stunning photographs.

Lynne M. Browne at two.

LMB: It was by chance that I began a long-term project of photographing international refugees who live in the Mohawk Valley. In 2012 my anthropologist colleague, Dr. Kathryn Stam asked me to take photographs of her refugee friends who were performing at a local music festival. I’m so glad I agreed; I didn’t realize that event would lead to many more exciting experiences.

LMB-2Guman is Bhutanese-Nepali

I have loved images since I was a child, as seen in attached snapshot of me at the tender age of two. The twinkle in my eye and the big grin foretell my future as an image-maker. On my 13th birthday I received my very own camera – a Kodak Trimlite Instamatic. I could see what it was through the wrapping paper and couldn’t contain my excitement. There was an attempt to limit the number of photos I could take based on the roll of film, but that didn’t stop me. I babysat until I saved enough money to buy in bulk and then mailed multiple rolls away for developing.

I progressed to a 35mm camera in my senior year of high school as one of the yearbook photographers, documenting all the critically important activities of student life. In college I took my required photography class with a Pentax K1000 borrowed from my grandfather. I now shoot digital: DSLRs; mirrorless; point and shoot; and phone; and have a love/hate relationship with the limitless number of photos I can take!

My images tend toward photojournalism with elements of portraiture. In most cases, I’m shooting photographs at events where many, many things are happening at once. Dr. Stam and friends from the Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC) showcase their different cultures through performances at Fort Stanwix, the Utica Zoo, Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), SUNY Polytechnic Institute and other venues. I think the largest event that I’ve attended was the Karen New Year celebration at MVCC this past January where the Utica Don Dancers performed as one of several groups from across New York State. They practice many hours at the MUCC to get their routine as close to perfect as possible.

LMB500-3Members of the Utica Don Dancers go to many cultural events in the area and perform the traditional Karen New Year dance. KuSay (pictured) is Karen, from Burma.

LMB-4More from the traditional Karen New Year dance.
Tun Tun Win (pictured) is Karen, from Burma.

At these events, there are various groups of performers, some on stage, those who are waiting in the wings, and those who have just finished their performances. With so many performers and audience members present, I wander around the venue to see who might be willing to let me take their photograph. I feel that I am recognized as a friend now, and I have a unique opportunity, even when there is a language barrier. I love it when a younger person interprets for an elder.

In most cases we are right near all the action of the festivities, including dancers whirling around and musicians playing. By cropping in-camera, I’m able to capture what I think is an intimate moment between my subject and me. I don’t have a lot of time with each person, just a couple of minutes at most. Because my background is in public relations, I feel the portrait should remain as close to reality as possible, and believe in making minimal edits.

People wonder what I do with the many photographs that I take, and for the most part, I share them with the group I’ve photographedon social media for example, so they in turn can share them with their friends and families. There have also been a few public projects where we have used the photos. One major undertaking recently completed was a group of large banners featuring my photos along with information about refugees as part of Dr. Stam’s Refugees Starting Over project.

The banners were created to be easily transported to various functions and to help foster relationships between the refugees and local communities. One of their first appearances was at an event held at the Utica Zoo. Everyone from the refugee community was so excited to search the banners for images of themselves and their friends! The banners include text from the United Nations, defining a refugee: “Any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Born in the U.S., Shayal is Bhutanese-Nepali.
He has a tikka on his forehead, which is a Hindu blessing in Nepal.

LMB500-7Monisha came to the United States in 2014 from a refugee camp in Jhapa, Nepal. Her family occupied one of the lower social groups in the Hindu caste system, but converting to Christianity and coming to the U.S. freed her family from the discrimination of their former position. Monisha is a high school student and loves traditional Nepali and contemporary Hindi-style dance. This photograph was taken only a few days after her arrival.

The most significant exhibition of my work, titled Portraits of Hope: The faces of refugee resettlement in CNY, will take place in June 2016 at Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY. This exhibit is a collaboration with Dr. Stam, using my photos along with her narrative about those featured in the portraits. The combination of the two will help viewers better understand each person’s story, and hopefully appreciate what some refugees endure before coming to the US.

While I am extremely excited about this opportunity, it really is a companion piece to the main attraction at MWAPI, featuring the work by internationally renowned National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry.

When I was growing up I loved to look at all of the exotic places featured in National Geographic, and thought it would be such an amazing job to travel the world taking photos of the things I encountered. Imagine my joy when I was introduced to people from around the world who now live in my own backyard and are willing to let me photograph them. And to top it all off, have my photographs tell this local story in one of my favorite places!

This ongoing project has opened my eyes to the Mohawk Valley’s refugee population. Approximately one in five people living in Utica today is a refugee. And, more than 15,000 refugees have come through the Refugee Center since 1982. Utica is a true melting pot with the fourth largest concentration of refugees in the United States and close to 40 languages spoken in the Utica school district.

LMB500-8Layla is a teenager from Somali-Bantu who has a quick wit and wants to be a model some day; she commands a room when she is present.

LMB-9Amina (L) and Zeinabu (R) are Somali-Bantu refugees who were resettled to Utica from one of the largest and most dangerous refugee camps in the world, Daadab in Kenya. They have been in the U.S. for approximately 14 years and are now high school students and fans of Korean drama and K-pop, Korean popular music.

I realize that I have only scratched the surface, and I look forward to future opportunities to photograph people who have found a home where they can feel safe enough to share their cultures with others. This is such a timely subject, seen almost daily in national and international news stories, including this one from the PBS NewsHour featuring Utica, How refugee resettlement became a revival strategy for this struggling town, and I am thrilled that I have had the opportunity to share their stories.

LMB-10This portrait was taken while three generations of women were enjoying cultural performances and visiting exhibits at the Utica Zoo.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski & Lynne M. Browne

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LynneBrowne-crop

Lynne Browne is the web coordinator and a photographer at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She has an AAS degree in Advertising Design from Cazenovia College, a BS degree in Professional and Technical Communication and an MS degree in Information Design and Technology, from SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lynne Browne Designs website

MaryKathrynJablonski2015-500

A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Jun 022016
 

Bydlowska BluePhoto by Jowita Bydlowska

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Before

WHEN I COULD finally stand up, my husband ushered me out of that room.

I was wearing bloody pads. I was numb. Anesthetic: mind, body.

I wanted to turn around and come and get her. A mistake has been made.

“You’re just in shock,” he kept saying.

I walked like an elderly person. He grabbed my upper arm gently but firmly, walked me faster.

The hospital was no longer the good place where we used to go, waiting to see her again, growing inside me. In the blurry ultrasound pictures, she was already baby-shaped; her heartbeat was like a techno track; it seemed to go too fast but the OB-GYN assured us that this was normal.

I loved the feeling of cold gel spreading on my belly as they looked for her. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling but I loved it anyway.

Back then, when I would leave the hospital I’d look at it with affection. There were monitors and birthing beds inside and skilled doctor hands that would get her to out of me and I would get to hold her and kiss her tiny, scrunched up face.

*

I kissed her tiny, scrunched up face.

I did get to hold her. Then she was gone.

*

Afterwards, the hospital looked like prison to me, like Alcatraz.

*

In the six-level parking lot my husband wandered around trying to find our car. I sat on concrete steps and waited for his text letting me know he’d found the car.

I shivered but it wasn’t cold. I couldn’t stop shivering.

When he walked me to the car, I cried; it felt safe to finally cry, locked in the metal can that drove us away from Alcatraz. I saw it disappear in the rear-view mirror and I blamed it for what had happened inside.

My husband’s mouth was a tight line; he was concentrating on driving. He sped and passed cars as if we were late for an appointment.

We got home and I went to bed, covered myself in blankets and waited for nothing. Waited for sleep, which came eventually, mercifully, and I didn’t have to deal with the sudden vacancy inside my body.

My husband didn’t check on me. He woke me up in the evening. He cooked dinner—blobs of food matter in different colours. I put the food in my mouth like a machine.

He was silent the whole time.

It’s a crazy thing to despise someone for how they deal with death but there you have it.

*

After days, weeks or years in bed, he ordered me to get up. He said I looked like death. He was right: my cheekbones were like knives and the lines around my mouth were deep ridges.

“I don’t know how to help you,” he said.

“I don’t know how to help me.”

He said, “Let’s go shopping. It’ll distract you.”

He bought me dresses and stockings.

He bought me shoes.

He dragged me to see a movie about something; I can’t remember what and afterwards we went to eat something. I can’t remember what. We sat in the restaurant and he said I looked beautiful. Tired but beautiful. I should start wearing more make-up.

“I’m in so much pain,” I remember saying.

“Life goes on,” he said.

He held my hand and I felt nothing.

“You need to take better care of yourself. You’re too beautiful to waste away like that.”

I laughed in that restaurant and it wasn’t a nice laughter. I laughed like a hysteric. I was a thing he couldn’t fix.

On his computer he had a folder with hundreds of pictures of me in different underwear and dresses and shoes he had purchased for me. I was a thing, a doll, and I had to behave like a doll, otherwise he didn’t know what to do with me.

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Before Before

It wasn’t always like that.

After we got married, we flew to Europe where we rented a small Cinquecento to drive from Denmark all the way to Greece. After hours of driving, we’d stop at hotels in cities we wanted to spend some time in. Mostly small cities with small hotels with small rooms with big beds. We’d have sex and shower and change and go out to eat. There was always a pretty town square in each city, a restaurant with tiny tables and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalks, where we’d drink sparkly wine and eat a dish of the local interpretation of carbs, and the local cheese and fruit for dessert. If this was lunch, we’d stroll around the city following no specific direction, going inside buildings and churches that were open, taking an occasional photo of things that impressed us: a fading fresco, a gargoyle head, weird vegetables, scrawny kittens, dark-haired children running in the streets, backs of other tourist couples holding hands.

Back then my husband wasn’t a planner—I was never a planner—and this mutually agreed-on freedom made us feel free; made me feel free. We would walk around holding hands and not talk or we would talk but I don’t remember any of the conversations; I just remember the mood and it was light, lots of laughter.

If it was evening, and the city was bigger, we’d try to find a venue that played music. We would get drunk and dance and kiss as if we had just met. Sometimes we’d talk to locals or other tourists but sometimes we wouldn’t—we wouldn’t even talk to each other. This kind of thing is not an uncommon experience—I’d read books about lovers not having to talk to each other—that’s how deep their connection was—and it was happening to us, in real life.

We would go back to our hotel, my hair curling from the moisture that seemed to be ever present the closer we would get to the Adriatic. We smelled of sweat and smoke and alcohol and perfume and we would intertwine our legs and arms, our snaking snake bodies between sheets, which would end up on the floor after many rounds of passionate fucking.

The mornings would be pleasantly hungover, two-dimensional with lazy breakfast in bed, always eggs and orange juice. The hotels catered to dumb, careful tourists; you had to go out to get the local food.

We usually didn’t stay for more than one night and we would get back into our Cinquecento and drive through smaller country roads—we avoided highways—and stop sometimes to have sex or check out a falling-apart church or eat a meal.

We agreed on the stops; there were never any arguments about not following the plan because there was no plan. There was just point A—Denmark—and B—Greece—and after that a plane back to Canada.

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Now

Maggie, Sarah, Lucy, Olive. Helen. Names I like.

(I never named her.)

Olive. I like Olive best. Olive, an actual name, a usual name for a regular girl who would’ve been alive to begin with and who would inhabit a name as live girls do, give it personality: Maggie loves horses. Lucy is really peculiar about her hair. Sarah hates apples.

Salty and bitter olives—like the ones my husband and I gorged on in Greece—for Olive.

Sometimes I see her in little girls on playgrounds and she’s mine—she has dark hair like my husband’s, my big brown eyes—until she squeaks and calls some other woman,” Mom!” and runs towards her.

I shouldn’t be bringing it up with my husband any more. If I bring it up, he’ll probably say, as he always does, that his company has good insurance. Fifteen hundred dollars in psychological services, Babe. Fifteen sessions at least maybe more if I can find someone who charges less.

*

“Olive,” I say and he rolls his eyes.

“I’m not crazy.”

He says, “Please. You must stop. You can’t go on like this.”

“You mean you can’t go on like this.”

“I can’t go on like this, you’re right,” he says and we don’t talk about it any more because now it’s a Sunday morning and it’s warm outside; it’s quiet and beautiful outside, and we are still together because I still remember Greece when I look at him.

*

After lunch, we go out to the newly opened outdoor market in our neighbourhood where you can buy everything—from weird mushrooms to old medals.

We pass stalls like we’re in a museum.

In a vegetable stand I buy beets and multicoloured carrots. The carrots and the beets inspire me; they could become a minor creative project. Not a novel but perhaps a stew.

My husband puts his arm around my shoulder, pulls me close to him.  When he turns to me his eyes are half moons, happy. I love him in this moment, deeply, fiercely like I used to. It’s a flash of light, a promise of summer perhaps, maybe another Greece.

I grab and hold his hand.

His hand is polite in mine, not particularly interested.

I squeeze his hand harder.

People pass us by and look at us and see us. We must be a reassuring image, a manifestation of everything working out in the end.

We let go of each other’s hands after my husband sees a stall with hats. He stops at it and picks out an ugly hat and puts it on his head.

It looks awful on him, a disk of straw like a dinner plate someone threw at his head.

“It looks silly. What about your other hats. There are other hats in the basement.”

“They don’t fit,” he says and adjusts the dinner plate but it won’t stay adjusted; it moves and pops up as if it was planning to fly off.

I try not to comment on his clothing, his fashion choices that upset me, try not to be the bitch laughing at her husband’s fumbly attempts at dressing himself. He’s not so bad at it anyway, no polyester shirts, no Khaki pants. My mother used to do it to my father, used to berate him for his Khaki pants, his terrible Khakiness.

It was inevitable that he had rediscovered his self-esteem between the legs of a clear-eyed girl who was quiet and didn’t give two shits about Khaki pants.

My husband blinks at me, “A dinner plate. Funny.” He pulls the brim of the hat down, tries to jam it further onto his head. It makes no difference, the hat pops right up.

I say, “Let’s see if they have other hats over there—“

My husband takes out his wallet and gives the hat seller a twenty.

Is this is going to be the deciding moment that I will talk about in the future? Will it be me saying to a Sangria-drunk table of newly acquainted divorcee girlfriends: “It was when he bought this dweeby little hat.”

I’ve read of people walking out on their spouses over burnt pasta dishes, missing toothpaste caps.

It is never just that, never just an ugly hat, just a missing toothpaste cap.

“No, it looks great,” I say but he walks ahead of me and he rests one hand on the hat; holds it down.

It is never just an ugly hat.

He speeds up but I don’t catch up to him.

(Olive.) I walk behind him rolling my daughter’s beautiful bitter and salty name in my mouth.

—Jowita Bydlowska

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Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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Jun 012016
 

Osu

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Bodyslide

kill a dance & enjoy
your body stands
like candlelight

because this is a bag of echoes—come on,
now that you have drunk too
much silence, book

a forest, days
as recent as breath is
the only person that can carry

to your shadow. A lot
is not seawater, a lot is my journey
from birthday to languages—a

sound comes by
midnight & you say mid
night is for self, up

there, only a raven
knows my first
name; to get that

song out………………..song out
…………of black nylons
………………….out
……………….schools

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Tales

are roads
following broken
spider legs?

because her
voice no longer
enters their shoes

is the light through
with seeing inside
a raw egg? or

have the people
planted apple eyes in
their prison yards?

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Skydiving

………….there are different colours
………….when we go out
………….of our eyes near
……………………………………………………………a
guitargirl: non
……………………………………….dit is a field in
………………………………time with moon
……………………light—when a tree is
…………drunk, we can
…………………………………………………………….find
another
……………………………………………………place for
father
………………………………earth—when
……….there are no
…………………………………………………………….ghosts
inside
……………………………………………………his suitcase,
you
……………………………………….know he wore
………………………………moonlights

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Languages

i do not chew fruits
that i cannot pronounce

garden

whoever made
my body, first
drank a moon

revival

it is open & close
to fire, it will body
along midnight’s
circles—next
time you will
cry, she replied

material 

it is written on bodies
that clocks will
not age nor
listen

flying

& shadows
in the attic
are sisters

because

sleeping
changes every
body from

lines to
a quiet family

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—David Ishaya Osu

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David Ishaya Osu (b. 1991) is an Afo native from Onda. His poetry appears in: Vinyl, Chiron Review, Cutbank, The Lampeter Review, The Nottingham Review, Spillway, Juked, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. David is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and was selected for the 2016 USA Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He was poetry editor for The James Franco Review. David is currently polishing his debut poetry book.

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Jun 012016
 

Diamanta1 2Diamanta in the English Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, Florence.

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It’s almost 11:30 at night here. I just walked into my apartment and turned on the TV to find Philadelphia Story dubbed in Italian, which is pretty entertaining. I’ve been in Venice all day, which sounds lovely, and I’m probably just getting spoiled from my Italian adventures, but I found it gloomy and alien and too self-consciously beautiful.

So I really don’t write much these days. Most of the time, I’m with the students, escorting them from museum to train station, worrying about their homesickness, their illnesses, their inability to use paper maps. They are incapable of functioning without constant cell phone use but equally incapable of operating their Italian cell phones.

EBBTomb2Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave.

When I am alone, I am afflicted with restlessness and I wander around the streets, rather than writing diligently. I visit Sister Julia, a British nun who lives in a tiny apartment in the archway over the English cemetery (where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried, among others) and I try to converse, in my truly terrible Italian, with the Roma who gather there. I understand more than I can communicate. Their lives are dramatic, on the edge. Desperation, tears, and wailing. They are also amazingly international. They travel back and forth to Romania frequently–I don’t understand where they get the money for bus fare. A good day of begging yields about ten euros.

Sister Julia2Sister Julia in the English Cemetery.

There is a young Roma man named Mihai who can probably speak the best English. He is somewhat of a visionary, I think. He is about twenty, but has been married since he was fourteen and already has three children. He is resolutely against such young marriages, as he says it’s too hard on the women’s bodies. He wants to start a school for Roma children in his village in Romania. Roma parents rarely send their children to the regular school. I’ve heard a variety of reasons—they prefer single-sex education, they don’t want the girls to wear the uniform slacks, and the books and clothes are too expensive. Mainly they worry that the Gadjo (non-Roma) teachers will be cruel to their children.

Mihai, as well as his twin brother George (the two warrior saints, they both told me proudly—Michael and George) his older brother Ionel, and Ionel’s wife Diamanta, work diligently on their alphabet sheets under the archway of the English cemetery. Sister Julia has created these xeroxed worksheets for them with spaces to copy out the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, along with their names and ages.

lunchFrom left to right: Mihai, Sister Julia, Ionel, Laura Michele Diener, and Diamanta eating under the arch at the English Cemetery in Florence.

One of the women who is on the fringes of this group, Jova, begs at the Ospedale del’ Innocenti, where many of them sleep at night. She is a cousin of the core family. Mihai calls her, his familia, but seems confused about how she is actually related. Jova resembles most of the old beggar women in Europe–wizened. tiny, and brightly clad. She shakes a tiny cup and I can’t imagine she gets very much. Apparently, though, she has a college degree and is one of the only Roma I’ve met who is actually literate. She begs for the money to pay off the debt for her husband’s funeral. Although, like all the Roma I’ve met, she is hazy about dates and times, she remembers the concentration camp in Transnistria from her childhood.

Maria, her daughter, is the most aggressive of the Roma, and the only one that actually frightens me. If I caught her alone at night, I feel sure she would have no qualms about robbing me or possibly slitting my throat. Whenever she sees me, she comes running, calling out, “Amica, amica,” and kisses me, and then immediately demands money. I haven’t given her any in weeks, but she never gives up. At Mihai’s suggestion I’ve started carrying bags of rolls or peaches to offer her instead, and she gets angry and refuses to take one. Then she comes running after me and demands the entire bag. If I only give her one, she breaks it in half and then throws it away. Although she is Jova’s daughter, she is completely illiterate–apparently, her father forbade her to learn. I imagine she has had a very difficult life.

—Laura Michele Diener

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Laura Michele Diener 2

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.

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