Aug 032015
 

Liz Howard

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
Liz Howard
McClelland & Stewart
98 pages, Paperback $18.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-0-7710-3836-5

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LIZ HOWARD”S DEBUT COLLECTION of poems, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is astonishingly capacious: It is an extended metaphor for the mind. It is a fiery, radiant rollick through language. It is a meditation on Indigenous lineage and muted origins. It is the type of hard, crystalline speech which illuminates the social-scape from its gutters, a song gifted by an absolute Other, eerily coalescing at the junction of race, class, and gender. The poems which make it up celebrate the natural world while simultaneously attuning themselves to the toxicity of its rivers.

The collection could be described as a supernatural invocation. It could be described as a science of Wonder, a discourse on Wonder with a neuro-scientific diction. It channels scientific language as if it were part and parcel of its mother tongue. It speaks Anishinaabemowin also. It is an appropriation of various giants: Plath and Wittgenstein, many others. It is a neural riot. It is emotionally prodigious. Like the infinite citizen it is named for, the text, too, is startled by some big thing which rattles its stars; it, too, stands with a gaping maw, gobsmacked and in love, reaching beyond itself, fearlessly.

The Shaking Tent rite, in various Indigenous traditions, is carried out by a spiritual healer for the sake of procuring knowledge from the great abyss of the beyond. The healer, the shaman, is enclosed in a tent, whose quaking movements, observed from without, signal the presence of supernatural entities presumed to assist with the mediumistic enterprise. The shaking tent, in the context of this collection, is a metaphor which rebuffs the figure of the solipsistic, self-made self: Howard’s speaker proclaims that her guiding desire is “to not be / inside my own head perpetually / not simply Wittgenstein’s girl / but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent.” Within the metaphorical tent, she is thus positioned so as to be open to a variety of ‘others’: A temporal other in the form of events which have not yet occurred (hence she can “receive / the call that comes / down the barrel / of the future”) and a human Other (an Autrui): “I know myself to be a guest / in your mind a grand lodge / of everything I long to know and hold / within this potlatch we call / the present / moment.”

These others are, of course, not quite amenable to being grasped. If they are grasped at all, they are never grasped fully. The speaker’s desire for knowledge is, as the title of the collection suggests, infinite: inexhaustible, but also asymptotic (“this is my delta my neural asymptote”). That is, the speaker approaches, verges on, that which she reveres and longs for, but never reaches it. Only desire which is asymptotic can be, along with the pleasure which accompanies desire, indefinitely sustained. Only desire which is asymptotic, moreover, is compatible with wonder: it is an active curiosity which cannot conquer, and which is thus at the same time a non-violent ‘leaving be.’ The beyond, the remainder which is never colonized but which touches these poems, at times lends the collection something like a religious quality: The text nods its head to something sacred and inhuman, almost god-like (“What auspice will lend me a sacred belt?”), and possibly imperilling (“What little there is beyond impermanence / conspires with half a mind on the original / to sew us closed”).

The poems are riddled with references to time, to standard time, to time ephemeral (“the time zone of some desperate hour”) and to time unending (“O creek, bleeding hills, census inveterate / let me sleep five more minutes just five / minutes more before we default on / eternity”). How these references fit together, or fit into their respective poems, is occasionally mysterious. This is because Howard’s lines at times defy conventional sense: “I have as much stake / in speaking this / as the water / which also / discloses futurity / in a little black dress.” Lines carve out logics which exceed those of everyday communication. Many (not all) of Howard’s poems run on semantic discontinuity, on the imaginative leap: “I remove my belt / and snap it / at the stakeholders of the commonplace / at a crucifix / at the tariff of longing / at the dawn / at my own name.”

The experimental poet Charles Bernstein has observed that sense is irreducible to connotation and denotation, that meaning’s reach is total: acoustic sense (the sense, for example, Howard’s lines make to the ear, if not to the schooled mind, which is trained to unpack propositions and carry out theme-based exegesis) is still sense,[1] even though—because at a remove from reference—it is more difficult to theorize about. The infinite citizen herself insists that “our only limit / will be of language”; “feral,” she tells us, “I enter / the court of words,” where “tangents come to take you away.” It would be wrong, then, to reduce the time-related mentions so ubiquitous in Howard’s book to anything like a series of genuinely-intended claims—which is not to say that they are never genuinely intended—and to hold their enigmatic character against them. Still, we can say that temporality exists as part of the book’s conceptual-scape. It is a conspicuous motif:

The speaker casts a casual eye toward an apocalyptic future (“we’re just friends / hanging out / in my apartment / until the world ends”). At times the world, the “whole earth,” seems to have ended already, seems to have already “retired from intimacy.” Elsewhere, the speaker is preoccupied with the present, “LOLing / in the middle / of mere existence.” Several of the poems included in the collection (e.g., “Look Book,” “Boreal Swing,” “1992,” and “Bildungsroman”) are essentially portraits of the speaker’s past, glimpses of poverty, records of the sensory impressions and memorable communications of the speaker’s youth (“This is our welfare half / a duplex with mint green / siding shrugged between / rail yard and main street”; “when I was / small and somewhere my / birthfather is drunk and / homeless, half-mad when / the cops ask him for his name / he’ll say, December”). These poems are, to a certain extent, set apart from the other poems in the collection in that they participate in a slightly different aesthetic; still, they exhibit continuity with the other poems insofar as they participate in the temporal triptych (past, present, future) Infinite Citizen is, elsewhere, constantly alluding to.

The colonial critique Infinite Citizen is carrying out is subtle. For the most part, it is not effected by explicit statements; rather, it is evoked by the politically charged vocabulary, or diction, Howard has incorporated in surprising ways into the poetry, a diction which, so-embedded, has become ambiguous without fully shedding its political resonances: Line sequences like “into the puffed metastatic coal became the water / into the affirmative action embryonic mortality / of the loon summit,” and “bioaccumulation became us Athabasca / sweet reconciliation spoke in / mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium” prime us, politically, without saying any one thing in particular. Isolated, creatively contextualized words in this way function as constant reminders; their associations haunt, invade, the text. We are not allowed to forget. The text refuses to be blatant, but it has found a way to do this, quite ingeniously, while simultaneously refusing compulsory silence. Even the text’s more positive incorporation of, for example, Anishinaabemowin concepts—such as the Shaking Tent—is a making-present, a kind of metaphysical assertion of a culture covered-over, if not outright killed, and of a portion of the speaker’s subjectivity which has been culturally minimized, or suppressed.

Infinite Citizen exhibits feminist preoccupations as well; the speaker, it seems, is a feminine subject; the colloquial language which, at times, erupts into what, at other times, seems like a specialist’s text (“hey, self / are you lovely yet?”; “with red needles I will ask you again / where is my good / gloss?”) calls to mind the work of writers like Margaret Christakos and Lisa Robertson, two of Howard’s former mentors. Wasn’t it Lisa Robertson, who, taking on the dead male poetry giants of the epic tradition, trying to outdo, or amp up, even their classical pomp, irreverently wrote “Hey Virgil / I think your clocked ardour is stuck…”? Both Lisa Robertson and Gail Scott, moreover, in different ways in their respective writings, have preoccupied themselves with ‘ornamentation’ and ‘surface,’ conceptions traditionally associated with femininity; they have made something out of these notions aesthetically as part of a feminist re-appropriation of writing itself (with Gail Scott producing texts which abandon plot in favour of imagistic and linguistic tangents, or, in other words, in favour of ‘ornaments’ which make up the text’s ‘surface’). Howard’s colloquial expressions, her speaker’s good gloss (deemed, by dint of inclusion, an appropriate subject for poetry), and the “punk psalms” she, at other times, refers to, elaborate and affirm a form of feminine subjectivity, as well as a politicized, dissident aesthetic which admits of only a recent history.

Throughout the text, Howard blurs the border between the subject’s cognition and the world which is external to it. The infinite citizen’s psychic geography is physical; it is made up of veins, blood paths, as much as it is populated with creatures and stones. A hare goes “to rut in the reverb / of precognition.” “The total psychic economy shimmers / a latent mouthpiece of maple.” The infinite citizen thus stands in relation to the environment as absolutely porous; the highway is ‘venous’; the snow is ‘hemodynamic.’ The mind and the body likewise reserve nothing from one another, extend into one another, become conflated with one another. In this text, there is only fluidity, never dualism; the spiritual is a good dirt; the spiritual is chemical.

At a technical level, Infinite Citizen is appropriative; the work, then, not only dismisses the boundary between the objective and the subjective, it does away with the territory lines gouged between texts. The poems in the collection help themselves to each other, as in the procedural poem “Ring Sample: Addendum,” which is made up of lines which occur in the book’s earlier poems.The words and rhythms of many other writers have made it into Infinite Citizen as well. Where Plath, for example, writes “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should fly open,” Howard writes “could our late mouths ever know such a green word / as vertigo.” Where Plath writes “In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers,” Howard writes “in a daffodil chorus of posthumous laughter / this clapboard passport.” In one poem, Plath remarks: “All morning the / Morning has been blackening, / A flower left out”; in another, she speaks of a father figure at whom she cannot look much, since his “form suffers / Some strange injury / And seems to die.” Howard, who, seemingly moved by Plath, nevertheless refrains from embracing her totalizing bleakness, in a single poem, informs the reader: “All night the blood moon measures the dilation / of your pupil, pinprick or dinner plate / in this plenum where our attention fails to die.”

It is the plenum, nothing short of the plenum, which is, I think, the source of these new poems, as well as their resplendent infiltrator. Liz Howard has managed something extraordinary here, has managed, in fact, a number of extraordinary things: She has composed an incredibly thought-provoking, intelligent text and she has pulled this off in an impeccable, beautiful language. She has registered—expressed rather than turned from—life in its most gritty, sad, anxiety-producing manifestations. And she has managed to excite. And she has managed, also, ferociously, to marvel.

—Natalie Helberg

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Liz Howard is a Toronto-based poet. She works as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree with High Distinction from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals (The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine). Her chapbook Skullambiant (Ferno House) was a finalist for bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is her first full-length collection.

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helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption”
Aug 022015
 

Amber Homeniuk

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Raccoon

1.  the one who takes everything in its hands[1]

fat and downy, wee washer-bear descends head-
first, back feet backwards, bushy-ringed
champion omnivore, incognito i.d.,
tactile thinker in the night,
haunchy smartypants
unlocking memory,
destroyer
douser
thief

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2.fmy brother’s kits

our uncle shot their mother,
gave us three chimney cubs
with needle teeth, teddy ears,
and bottle-gripping hands

milk-whiskered, growing,
they tumbled in a row
after Tom, marching barefoot in pyjamas,
his grinning jammy mouth

imprinted

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3.fmascot

stuck in Scarberia, I hated campus on sight—
dank concrete bunker hulked over dim valley
up the creek, too many trees, and posters
plastered every door: missing, Elizabeth Bain
staring, dark-eyed

Rocky Raccoon, the ubiquitous totem,
charmless hail-fellow in a stuffed suit,
handsy caricature, button-nosed buffoon,
his big-headed bump and grind

tie-dyed frosh, the Purple Jesus party, packed
picnic tables, Tanya playing Three Man with fuzzy dice,
bedsheets strung from crowded dens, there was Jodi
her frizzies and braces and I drank eight beer!
and Ramona always barfing, needed carrying upstairs

skeevers from The ‘Shwa, pedophiles of Pickering,
rapists in the Guild, so bushy-tailed
and boys who saw me only halfway home—
we all wore shoes we could run in

our grads Bernardo, Williams
years too late unmasked:
who else did that asshole Rocky cheer
with his eerie plush leer?

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4.ffoaming at the mouth

on the grounds crew in the valley, 1993
clearing winter-damaged trees, notching trunks and
chipping limbs, still looking for Liz in the forest

the skull was in a stand of cedar,
bottom of Old Kingston Road
near Highland Creek—
a young raccoon, smooth cap of yellow bone,
all of her biters and elegant arches
cupped in my hands

that morning in the parking lot
a masked mother, fierce and frantic,
her babies trapped in a dumpster
’til from the safety of the truck bed
we slid a long branch in

at break, we read in the paper over bagels
how Karla and Dirty Debbie went dancing
when Karly Curls met her Paul—
in the photo, dark roots and frosted tips
feathered stiff, framed bludgeoned black eyes,
the horrors inside her drooping disguise

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5.froadkill

late for work again, I flew the near-empty concessions,
burned past farms behind a cherry SUV I couldn’t pass,
dogs lolling out both its rear windows, sweltering
coats flat black against back window decal,
a baby on board

noon, three raccoons hopped out of the deep ditch
gallumphed across the road, day-blind
tangled with those fat tires up ahead, terrible timing
thump rolling chaos I braked hard, swerved clear
and two bandits ran from disaster
but striped fur whipped circles in my rear-view
while the road hog with the dogs drove on,
turned a corner beyond the stop

shimmers hovered above hot pavement
I reversed fast, braced myself, missed
last bits of life ticked, I worked the transmission
and long back feet kicked, clenched and spread little toes,
black velvet pads in thick cream
paddling the air like an infant’s
offered up, soft belly,
that helicopter tail

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6.  mentor

Oh old boy

you’ve taught me all you can,
your dousing days are done.

Lie down with your snout at the stream
to rest in woods behind my brother’s house.

Let season’s green weave through your nest of sticks,
set age along the top of your white brow
with sutures fused, full sagittal crest

and quiet
those sore worn teeth.

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Them Apples

1.  Pick

among the ghosts of September
are days emphatic as egg-calling hens
tilting on their pegs like cotton candy

I stretch to haul the red-cheeked harvest down
and smears of mealy rot and crumbled bark-
stained fingers poke through

your old gloves: with how many holes
can they still be good?
which rungs do ladders need?

lips grip curves and woodsmoke
suck the sour near the core
green stems slide, catch between uneven teeth—

I cast off the not-worth-its, the stingy and gnarled
save the bird-bitten and the bug-holed
with their healed-over tough-skinned hearts

truth rolls under my ankle
fills buckets
its roundnesses bobbing in water

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2. Cut

slice and cone
dig for twisting brown tracks
free jagged curls of skin

grinding knuckles wrap the knife
work wet wood, erode bone
brass tacks emerging

think of swords

notch out the cores
open them like mouths
break their silence

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3. Stir

bruises surface from the rosy deeps,
flesh wounds seep, sticky black grains in wrinkles,
peelings divine a cidery stink

my mill churns all afternoon, spits out pith
into steam: blisters, jars, rings, lids
counted by feather-layered light

arms loaded, feet worm into moccasins
heated by back room sun,
another half-wheelbarrow

I also carry your knotted fist, a spot
just here at the back of my hip
folded like a wing

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4.  Keep

afterwards, heart-queasy and acidic,
my hands are wizened little mummies
helpless as when our girl stopped eating

last pot off the stove and cooling,
joints squeak like dry flakes of paint
jarred by every lid-popping echo

sealing up sauce in glass like myths, in this
odd season of double yolks, northern lights
and doorknobs falling off, mixed in with rattling

stars, fruit still dropping from the branches,
the thuds of celestial shot putt
tremor loose small yelps and toads

I’ve gathered the burrs and the catkins of you
caught in my clothes with memory and cinnamon
pockets full of seeds

at the edge of the field
deer pause, chewing,
bone chips hiding in their meat

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Late Bloomer

1.  Born Late

I am past due
the days already gone to seed
know it in the bass-heavy pulsing of myself
all throbbing aorta

this old jacket shrunk and wilted to the touch
me and last year’s apples and the quiet ground
and shine-worn split trousers—lived hard in, discarded
I have outgrown even my shoes
done with these thrift store threads

I will ease grief from my throat

heat calls me up from the earth
grave-risen all the way through the rotting roots
come to moult
I hook myself on and haul away at the tendons
braced against light, working

all the doors from their hinges
cracked open, oh my frail and soggy new self
herniating out through the tender razor-scraping edges

I will shed my skin, busting raw and wet
climb right out of my hide and fly away, drop it
gently as cicada shells from bark

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2.  Cicada

diving head-first and backward into deep air
my eyes without their lenses
I am sawn in half, kicking my legs out
shoulders up around my head

I will breathe open glass-paned wings to the next life
leaving behind gravity
and my clawed digging arms

just one entomological Rapture
your deserted hands
pinching crisp brown casings

trees all heaving and veiny lungs, my work half-done
distension rocking the sky
with songs of rods, reels, and muted brass
cooking, casting, and resonant monks rattling distant joy

I will bring warm and sticky life from my humming pockets

you think it won’t end—the pain or the singing—then it does
borne late into the season
my belly tympanic in the empty
our whole selves arched, hairy with need and
fast unhooking days from the year

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3.  The Singing Season

with each wing-click, I flip this mirror
trading dark packed dirt for dusty leaves

these vibrating voices turn tall cliffs to liquid
richer than sap from the source

when sound soars shaking so far
over creaking crevices and lines of vicious little ants
I will remember that I could be somewhere else

you may yet hear me keening in the branches
or hollering downhill with my feet lifting off the pedals
back-slit like coffin clothes, the living gone on from here

—Amber Homeniuk

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Amber Homeniuk works as an expressive arts therapist and sustains a variety of individual and collaborative arts practices. Her writing appears in The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, and here at Numéro Cinq, as well as in Windsor Review’s tribute to Alice Munro. Amber’s poems are anthologized in Beyond the Seventh Morning (SandCrab, 2013) and Window Fishing: The night we caught Beatlemania (Hidden Brook, 2013). Her first chapbook is Product of Eden: Field of Mice (Norfolk Arts Centre, 2013). So far this year, she’s been a finalist in the PRISM International poetry contest and shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2015 Poem of the Year. Amber lives in rural southwestern Ontario, blogs groovy outfits at Butane Anvil, and is kept by a small flock of hens.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Holmgren, Virginia C. (1990). Raccoons: In Folklore, History & Today’s Backyards. Capra Press. p. 157.
Aug 012015
 

FK Interview

I live by the salt water, and look out every day on a rock where seals sunbathe; my distance vision is impressionistic, the bodies lounging where rock meets wave might as well be mermaids.   Traditionally half-fish, half-woman, and drop-dead gorgeous, mermaids, at some point, got confused with the traditionally half-bird, half-woman sirens, whose singing voices were notoriously beautiful. Both animal-woman forms caused shipwrecks, or brought bad luck, although some could bestow boons, as well. In today’s popular imagination, the mermaid/siren is commonly thought of as possessing great physical beauty and an irresistible soprano, and she seems to have lost her danger along the way. Weeki Wachee Springs, in Florida, has been featuring professional mermaids in an underwater stage with glass walls since 1947. There are now mermaid schools in Los Angeles, Montreal, Colorado, and the Philippines, among others. Students pick out a colorful monofin and dive in. Mermaiding is now a verb, a hobby, a job. It seems all fantasy, fetish, and sparkle. But I was interested in a mermaid’s interior life. And now, my friend has become one. A mermaid. So I thought I’d ask her.

Fides Krucker is an internationally acclaimed singer specializing in contemporary vocal repertoire. Based in Toronto, she is also a teacher, writer, and vocal composer.  Her current role is the Mermaid in DIVE, a work she co-created with writer Richard Sanger and composer Nik Beeson.

— Julie Trimingham

 

Fides Krucker singing “The Pearls” from DIVE.

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Fides Krucker singing “Lyghea’s Idyll” from DIVE.

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Julie Trimingham (JT): Before you were a mermaid, you were a girl in baker’s whites. You’ve told me about arpeggiating in front of your first singing teacher, an Italian soprano who would clasp her left breast, squeeze it, and demand,  at the end of your run, Another one for baby Jesus! I love this image. Can you please elaborate?

Fides Krucker (FK): When I was young, hardly twenty, I ran my father’s bakery. This was industrial baking, we made thousands of croissants an hour… flaky, buttery, high-end ones… but it was not glamorous or romantic in any way. Lots of flour in the air and in my hair (which was big and curly at that time). I’d show up for singing lessons still in my baker’s whites…a short sleeved dress, apron, little socks and safety shoes…practical! Maria would actually do what you describe as she taught…the squeeze, the ‘baby Jesus’… What I wish I had done in those first lessons was just imitate the way she sang…not her sound… but her healthy vocal process. She had been taught in Italy and came to Canada as a teenager. She had such an opulent voice, and the real ‘bel canto’ approach. I was only with her a few years as she did not seem ‘intellectual’ enough for my tastes. Silly me! If only I had been ready to understand how healthy she was in her animal body, embodying a sustainable singing technique due to a pure and uninterrupted line of operatic training. She would have been a great mermaid.

JT: The Pastry Chef in DIVE, is she drawn from your life?

FK: There is a pastry chef in the original story, but he is male. Even though the scene is not from my life, when I sing the vowels of all those Italian and French pastries, I take them quite personally! The words taste good! Panettone, tiramisu, cream puffs and eclairs I used to bake and brioches , cannoli and palm-leaves, I simply love to eat…I’m a bit sweet and flaky myself.

I ended up marrying too young (the first time) thanks to a cheesecake I had made and given to a cousin, who gave it to a Sicilian friend…who proposed. I think agreeing to that marriage was how I got myself out of the bakery. I did not know how to say ‘no’ to my father, so accidentally said ‘yes’ to another man. I wasn’t raised by a feminist, you know! I was impulsive and unconscious at that time. It has taken a lifetime to try and change that!

JT: DIVE is based on The Professor and the Siren, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/the-siren/). The story follows the lovelorn narrator as he walks into a bar and strikes up a conversation with an old professor. The Professor tells a story of how he once fell in love with a mermaid. He did not follow his love, and he now regrets the dry life he’s lived. The narrator later learns that the Professor has subsequently jumped into the drink, presumably to chase some fishy tail. You are the mermaid, yes?  

FK: Oh yes I am! And just at the right time in my life! I am undoing so many things that no longer serve me, and she is part of the undoing.

The mermaid I play in DIVE is amoral. (With the exception of Disney’s Ariel I imagine all sirens and silkies live somewhere outside of human rights and wrongs). She is fun to inhabit, she gets to break all sorts of vocal rules, and she will have a great costume. In the script she tells us that she is Lighea, the daughter of Calliope. No little mermaid here…she is descended from the biggest muse of all.

You know, a mermaid is utterly undomesticated. She is not domiciled. She inhabits the ocean. She lives far beyond of my idea of ‘house’. To bring her to life I have to use this house, my body.

Mermaid

JT: How did you become her?

FK: The mermaid’s songs were a real collaboration between Nik, the composer, and myself. I improvised, singing with wolves and with whales. I imitated their sounds and I let myself be wild…I ululated, howled and shrieked. The mermaid is a stand-in for the parts of me not yet fully present…for the parts of me I have learned to hide because they seem dangerous or threatening to society, to men, to other women. This is not because the sounds I am making are inherently rough or aggressive or damaging…it is because they’re real…and unfettered.

JT: What is the hardest thing about being a mermaid?

FK: Getting past predictable behaviour. I realize how conditioned and patterned I can be. Sometimes I overreact, sometimes I repress. These are not part of the mermaid’s repertoire. She is animal and divine. An extra challenge is that this mermaid appears as jilted girlfriend, pastry shop waitress, barmaid and house keeper, as well as her elemental self. I play them all, and in each of these assigned female roles, there needs to be a little of her pointy teeth and fishy scent.

One thing I dearly love about this mermaid is that when she asks Rosario to come with her under the sea and he says he can’t, she simply slips back into the water and goes about her business. I can feel her sadness, but still, she lets go and returns to her element…swims in what is current.

JT: Are you worried about ocean acidification, or is it only the crustaceans that are complaining?

Yes, I am worried. When I was at college, I took Marine Biology. I thought for a few years that this would be my career. Embodying this big mermaid reminds me of that early passion, takes me out of Toronto, and plunks me back into the ocean. I remember scuba diving at Race Rocks, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. We were in the water at least twice a week swimming with the extraordinary invertebrate life….colours and shapes galore…sensitive anemones, prickly sea urchins, sluggish sea cucumbers, and masses of bull kelp. Acidification absolutely affects any sea creature that makes a shell. It upsets other processes in virtually all varieties of sea life…reducing an organism’s ability to reproduce, heal, grow and respond to stress. Sea life is sensitive life! We need to listen.

Dive

JT: DIVE is set in Mussolini’s Italy.  What’s the relationship between fascism and your mermaid?

FK: That’s a great question. Fascism refers to a bundling together in order to find strength. This is a good idea. But the fascism or ‘bundling together of peasants’ in Italy at that time was under the dictatorship of Mussolini.

The mermaid is elemental. She is as wild and powerful as a storm, she has an intrinsic violence. In the way she uses her voice, we can tell that she knows how to reign that violence in. Mussolini just rages and roars. I suggested to the composer that we stretch out his voice to really explore the sounds within his yelled speeches. This made them more musical and more animal all at once. Nik did beautiful work with this stretched vocal material, and I respond as the mermaid to it through my own stretched, nonconforming sounds. Mermaid and Mussolini go toe to toe, howl to howl.

JT: Mermaids can’t spread their legs. What do you make of this?

FK: Heaven! Peace of mind! Power! A different type of intimacy…and maybe a little loneliness?

In ancient Greece a woman’s voice was equated to a woman’s vagina. A physician from that time would say that you could hear when a woman was menstruating, thanks to the sound of her voice. Women were also expected to speak in pleasing tones within the city walls of Athens. Women did not have the vote, could not own property. They were not full citizens. To make loud sound they had to leave civic space. Out in nature or in the suburbs they could engage with the ritualistic female sound called the Ololyga. This high piercing cry would have functioned cathartically, a communal blowing off of steam.

So a mermaid making any sound she pleases…dangerous sound to boot…and not spreading her legs, seems logical and useful to me. Very undomesticated. It makes me want to re-read the Lysistrata. The women in Aristophanes’ play withhold sex as a way to try and secure peace and end the Peloponnesian War. That’s a whole society of women closing one mouth with the hope that the words coming out of the other will be heard and heeded. This strategy has been used in modern times to protest violence and corruption and effect change…Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, South Sudan, Liberia, The Philippines and Colombia.

JT: Mermaids don’t wear clothes.

FK: My voice is an intimate thing. It is my familiar. It knows me and my job is to be naked with it and let it be naked. And then know where I left my clothes!

JT: Your mermaid screams and groans as well as sings. 

FK: Screaming is a human survival tool. It sounds alarm. Growling, shrieking, sobbing, whining, these non-verbal sounds express exactly what is going on for us.

JT: When you are singing, where does the song come from?

FK: The place that aches behind my chest. Maybe this is my heart! But it feels more like soul or even a very specific intelligence. It is not always listened to or respected…by me, by others.

The ache is is a disciple of the emotions, learning all of their curves, no matter how painful, or how riskily bright and optimistic.  It is devoted to the spaces between the notes on the page.

JT: Diving into the ocean is deep work. What do you think, Mermaid?

FK: This morning, that sentence makes me tired. I am too aware of all the work that needs to be done…in relationships within the family, within society, with the planet itself. For me, a woman with two legs, I am glad that I can go for a vigorous walk and let go of worry for a while.

The mermaid in our piece takes on big things, she represents big things, and even though I try to house her when singing…and many of us are housing these big thoughts and feelings every day…there is only so much any one person can do.

I am so grateful for art…for its ability to point things out and its audacity to imagine…and if that can inspire truthful and hopeful conversation within community, well, that is even better. That’s what I am interested in now…imagining a more expansive and flexible and integrated existence for us all.

— Fides Krucker & Julie Trimingham

Watch a bit of DIVE at http://www.nikbeeson.com/dive/

CDs available at http://www.nikbeeson.com/merch/

Sonic Theatre Performance
July 30 – August 9
Array Music Studio
155 Walnut Avenue, Toronto

For more information on the upcoming performances go to  http://bit.ly/1KrirH0 or http://www.fideskrucker.com/DIVE/

Trimingham_Julie

Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer.  Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.

Jul 262015
 
Dive

Click on the image for more information

Fides Krucker

Fides Krucker

It’s NC’s diva issue, named in honour of Julie Trimingham’s luscious, bumptious, delightful interview with vocalist Fides Krucker who plays a mermaid in  DIVE, a work she co-created with writer Richard Sanger and composer Nik Beeson, based on The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. DIVE will be performed in Toronto July 30-August 9. Don’t miss it, but read the interview, too.

The mermaid I play in DIVE is amoral. (With the exception of Disney’s Ariel I imagine all sirens and silkies live somewhere outside of human rights and wrongs). She is fun to inhabit, she gets to break all sorts of vocal rules, and she will have a great costume. In the script she tells us that she is Lighea, the daughter of Calliope. No little mermaid here…she is descended from the biggest muse of all.

You know, a mermaid is utterly undomesticated. She is not domiciled. She inhabits the ocean. She lives far beyond of my idea of ‘house’. To bring her to life I have to use this house, my body. —Fides Krucker

Janice Galloway via The Scotsman

Janice Galloway via The Scotsman

We also have Victoria Best’s wonderful profile of the great Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, whom I interviewed when I had a radio show back in the mid-1990s (before most of you were born). So Janice and I go way back (not that we kept in touch). Victoria Best is a newcomer to Numéro Cinq and will shortly be joining the masthead. We’re looking forward to some fantastic pieces from her.

Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ —Victoria Best

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Greg Mulcahy

Jason Lucarelli, from the wilds of Pennsylvania, makes a return to NC with an insightful and provocative interview with Greg Mulcahy, whose first story collection came out with Knopf in 1993, the same year my novel The Life and Times of Captain N came out with Knopf. Gordon Lish was the editor for both books; Lish sent me a copy of Mulcahy’s book at the time and I have always kept it in my library. (See, it’s a small world and people keep reconnecting in odd ways.)

Mulcahy’s fiction is, as Noy Holland says, “funny, in the way that wisdom, plainly spoken, is funny.” Through his characters’ agonies he reveals the ruse of our surrounding world, and their rock bottom falls propel each consecutive sentence—the content carried through fictive syntax. His sentences slide, stop on a dime, fragment, run on without punctuation, run over you, leave you breathless, bewildered. Sam Lipsyte says, “Reading Greg Mulcahy’s sentences is like watching the best slalom skiers in the world dare the universe a crazy millimeter at a time,” and it’s a ride that leaves you on the other side, as brave and as dangerous, but with new truth. — Jason Lucarelli

Liz Howard

Liz Howard

Natalie Helberg takes a break from the arduous vicissitudes of her doctoral program to review Liz Howard’s first collection of poems.

Liz Howard’s debut collection of poems, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is astonishingly capacious: It is an extended metaphor for the mind. It is a fiery, radiant rollick through language. It is a meditation on Indigenous lineage and muted origins. It is the type of hard, crystalline speech which illuminates the social-scape from its gutters, a song gifted by an absolute Other, eerily coalescing at the junction of race, class, and gender. The poems which make it up celebrate the natural world while simultaneously attuning themselves to the toxicity of its rivers. —Natalie Helberg

Louise Bak

Louise Bak

And the Toronto poet and provocateur (also radio personality) Louise Bak has poems in this issue, dense, cumulative, innovative, mesmerizing.

…marquise galloons on card, with longdashed globe. pouter’s
heta uma at weight of breath near to bangle’s ballchain and
adhesive streaked, a cut more inside the edge of a glass tile
over wicking of donut bail’s not fabricated to be repeatedly
opened and closed on below ear hair, in press on square of
agloe, made-up map trap. adjustment of centring hold with
town labels, route lines, to pleated details on shoulder of a
shirt, lain in a used hide-a-bed’s straightening of three way
zip through crotch, in who else was looking and what was
being seen, smooths of agglomerated cork, willable sound —Louise Bak

Jeremy

Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger, in his second essay for the magazine (and there will be more), has the unmitigated gall to start a disquisition on Nietzsche by mentioning the great one’s small ears.

For a man with such little ears, Friedrich Nietzsche heard a multitude of deep pulses within the heart of European culture. The great despiser of liberalism and humanitarianism was also no less than the great despiser of conservatism and capitalism. As is the case with many important thinkers in the Western canon, Nietzsche’s dislikes greatly outnumbered his likes, just as the contradictions in his thought served to develop them all the better. Adoring power, he hated the powerful of his time for their unearned privileges. Adoring culture, he hated the cultured milieu of his time for their abiding philistinism. Adoring the sanguine bigotry of nineteenth-century society, he hated anti-Semites and the Darwinian biology that Herbert Spencer would later develop into a lethal social philosophy. His reputation in the popular consciousness is inaccurate as often as it is unflattering. —Jeremy Brunger

Amber Homeniuk

Amber Homeniuk

Amber Homeniuk is a modest chicken rancher (she recently adopted my mother’s last hen—more on this another time), also an up-and-coming poet (we published some of her tobacco-farming poems earlier) with a wry wit and a talent for close observation of the southern Ontario countryside where she lives.

Oh old boy

you’ve taught me all you can,
your dousing days are done.

Lie down with your snout at the stream
to rest in woods behind my brother’s house.

Let season’s green weave through your nest of sticks,
set age along the top of your white brow
with sutures fused, full sagittal crest

and quiet
those sore worn teeth. —Amber Homeniuk

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Brianna Berbenuik

Brianna Berbenuik used to be a contributor the to the magazine, then took a hiatus, wandered in the wilderness, worked in a police department, and now has returned from the outer dark with amazing, dark, violent fiction.

There are two cameras in the interview room and you are a voyeur. Face view. Full view.

Face view shows only the face of a young man, twenty-something, who killed a woman by beating her, and then throwing her in the trunk of an old car and lighting it on fire after dousing her and the car with gasoline. Before he closed the hood to the trunk, he took one last long look at the girl.

Full view. The girl’s mother is brought into a room to face her daughter’s killer. —Brianna Berbenuik

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Louis Armand

Louis Armand contributes an excerpt from his new novel Abacus, evoking a childhood in this native Australia, brash, funny, and real.

The teachers were all standing out the front singing the nation’s praises while all the kids just mumbled along not knowing the words, they’d only ever heard it on the tellie when someone on the swimming team won a medal at the Commonwealth Games. “Australia’s suns let us rejoice,” what was that supposed to mean? But when the spastic girl did her thing everybody suddenly went silent. Three hundred kids sweating under the hot sky in turd-brown uniforms, waiting to see what Old Cricket Bat’d do next.—Louise Armand

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Sunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

Paul Pines continues his  exploration of the nexus of myth, psychology, and poetry with a masterful look at the legend of the Fisher King and Charles Olson’s great poem “King Fishers”.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King! —Paul Pines

Pines_Paul

Paul Pines

Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale has sent another terse, realistic short story. This one tackles of the difficult subject of race and immigration.

The black man exploded. “I will not sit down. I have been sitting down. I’m finished sitting down. This country must not sit down!” He pointed at the father. “You will not infiltrate.” And then he pointed at the women on the chairs. “And you, you will not breed.” He turned and sauntered away in dignified pique.—Timothy Dugdale

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Spring: watercolor/oil pastel/graphite on paper 11”x15”.

Kate Fetherson, ambidextrous, as it were, has a hybrid poetry and painting piece in this issue (she sings, too, but not in this issue — literally, a diva. Does that mean she is tri-dextrous or just a multitalented renaissance woman?).

…out of myself, a stranger to the usual
conflagrations, and dream we muscle

through buoyant water as seals slapping
backsides. Our flippers splash each

other’s whiskery snouts as we loll
in sunlight we didn’t earn. When I open

my eyes, there’s music again. I stroke your stubbly
beard and dream of the Sargasso sea. —Kate Fetherston

Kate Fetherston

Kate Fetherston

And, as always, there is more! For sure, we’ll have a new Numéro Cinq at the Movies from the inimitable R. W. Gray and a new Uimhir a Cúig, featuring writing from Ireland curated by the equally inimitable Gerard Beirne.

Jul 152015
 
Elle at Theatre Passe Muraille

Click on the images for more information.

I checked the Theatre Passe Muraille website this morning and found the 2015-2016 season announcement. And at the top of the announcement page there is this lovely poster announcing Severn Thompson’s adaptation of my novel Elle, which, as you all know, won the Governor-General’s Award and was a finalist for the Dublin IMPAC Award.

This isn’t a surprise, of course. I saw a tiny workshop preview of an opening to the play at a festival in Toronto in August, 2013, and Severn Thompson has been in touch all along. But it is lovely to see the announcement up and the dates set.

Book the date!

dg

 

Severn Thompson

Severn Thompson

Elle by Douglas Glover

Jul 142015
 
YouTube Preview Image

For their fourth album, Tales of Us, British group Goldfrapp produced five music videos before the album’s release that they subsequently screened as part of a live event. The five films are meant to be part of a larger “film anthology” also titled Tales of Us.

All five films are black and white, establishing a noir-ish old Hollywood feel; they span various genres, from realism, to thriller, to what might be best described as romance. The resulting anthology film complements the storytelling the band does with this album. More to the point, the anthology  haunts the viewer into tracing connections between the songs on the album, an aesthetic choice that is antithetical to the music industry’s current culture of the ‘single.’

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Tales of Us, the anthology, is made up of the music videos for five songs from the album: “Stranger,” “Laurel,” “Jo,” “Drew,” and “Annabel.” The videos extend the album’s character studies taking us past the lyrics and music into cinematic expressions of the characters. Given this, and that the album is titled “Tales of Us,” it would have been strange for the band to release singles and videos one by one, the current music industry standard practice.

Goldfrapp

This anthology develops a sense of the first person plural “us” and also frees the band up to take a different approach to the individual music videos themselves. This is particularly relevant and significant for a song like “Annabel,” based on the novel with the same name by Kathleen Winter, both of which tell the story of an intersexed child. Goldfrapp notes that “if you just listen to the song, maybe you’d think it was just about a little girl . . . So it felt really important to make that film.” The song and the video provide both poetic and visual complements to Annabel’s struggle which is correspondingly both emotional and physical.

annabel

The third film in the anthology, “Drew,” is a peculiarly loose narrative that Dan Reilly for Spin Magazine describes as “Alison Goldfrapp wandering around a sprawling country estate, with a trio of nude friends following her and occasionally flying remote-control planes.”

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The short film and the other four in the anthology are dream-like, cinematic, and shaped to psychologically offer more than just a sense of character and action. Kory Grow for MTV Hive describes the film as “shots of her loneliness intertwining with the threesome’s threesoming (pillow fights, entwined limbs, forest frolics, and so on), sometimes intersecting with the singer acting as a voyeur.”

“Drew” could be a simple music video with nudity if it were not for two interesting choices: the choice of three naked figures and the juxtaposition of past and present. Gunning chooses to include three naked figures, two men and a woman where a more conventional choice would have been two figures or a clear love triangle. Choosing three has the narrative of the film resist easy readings of what the three represent: are they past lovers, aspects of the protagonist, ghosts in the countryside mansion? Or do they represent more of an age or time in the character’s past, nostalgia passing over the mansion or by her as she rides her bike down the country lane?

Further, there are moments when these naked figures interact with her: the woman takes her hand and the man shows her how to fly the model plane, yet there are other moments where they run right through her as they do on the stairwell, ascending as she descends, rushing through the past as she steps down to the present. All told we never find out why she rides through the countryside alone, why these naked ghosts haunt her, and where they might be running off to together, a frolicking, haunting threesome. Nostalgia, though, seems the persistent point.

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All five films are directed by Lisa Gunning in her first time director effort. Gunning is a film editor known for such films as Seven Pyschopaths, Nowhere Boy, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and she is the real life partner of the band’s lead singer Alison Goldfrapp. In a behind the scenes documentary, they describe how Gunning was around during the recording of the album and generated ideas rather organically alongside the album’s creation. They then shot the films on a limited budget all at once.

Gunning links the films through subtle repetitions: the various films locations repeat (the seaside, the woods, the large country mansion), two characters ride bikes along a country road, even the figure of Allison Goldfrapp herself repeats and links the tales. Also the black and white aesthetic, the simple narratives, and the choice to focus on one central character in each, connect these five films in the anthology into a larger whole.

The anthology music video concept has been around for a while, one of the earliest examples provided by iamamiwhoami who released all their videos in series, starting in December 2009.

More recently, this anthology concept found a different use in the mainstream with Beyonce’s album where she made music videos for each of the songs, a grand total of seventeen full music videos, and dropped them all at once, without releasing singles or doing any marketing campaign prior to the release. Lily Rothman in Time Magazine points out that “it used to be that fans heard one or two songs on the radio and had to purchase an album to check out the rest of it. These days it’s common for fans to have heard every song before deciding to buy.” The anthology of videos accompanying the album release were initially only available with the exclusive digital download of the album and these levels of exclusivity all draw a listening audience to experience the whole album rather than taste it single by single over time.

Gunning’s haunting visual tales avoid the literal and respond to the Goldfrapp songs and lyrics in a way that sublimates the traditional music video conventions. For the five characters in this anthology of music videos, this permits a more narrative and visual exploration of each of the characters and draws the five arguably marginalized individuals into a connected “us.”

–R W Gray

Jul 132015
 

Fernando Sdrigotti

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To Steve McQueen, who was that sort of guy

THE CAT HAS BEEN DYING for two days and two nights when Eleanor finally drops the Steve bomb. She says the cat’s suffering, someone needs to do something and we can’t afford a vet. Steve in my place would work things out — he’s that sort of guy. Now it’s either the cat or her: I never got over that thing with Steve.

“OK, I’ll sort Toto out,” I say and she opens her eyes wide.

“What do you mean you’ll sort him out?”

“I mean I’ll sort him out! Do you want to do it yourself?”
“Are you going to kill Toto?”

“Yes!” I say and she starts crying.

“Oh my God, poor Toto! He’s like the son I never had…”

“Eleanor: Toto’s suffering. We need to put him to sleep. It’s the only decent thing to do.”

“How will you do it?”

“I don’t know yet. But I’ll Google something.”

“Make it something painless,” she says and suddenly she isn’t crying anymore.

“I will. Give me a while and I’ll have him meet his cat god.”

“I hate it when you want to sound tough,” she says and goes back into the room where Toto is dying and the telly is on showing a rerun of The Antiques Roadshow.

*

Online I come across thousands of links discussing how to kill a cat. I click on the first result, a page titled “7 Things You Probably Have at Home That Could Kill Your Neighbour’s Pets”. Broken-glass stuffed meatballs: slow and painful and a hassle. Poisoning the cat with anti-freeze liquid: I don’t drive. Bleached milk: barbaric, for some reason. I search once more, filtering the results with words like merciful, nice, happy, practical, cheap and I end up in someone’s minimalist blog –– apparently the latest thing is decluttering and living a frugal life. The post discusses how to put suffering animals to sleep, humanely and without paying through the nose –– there’s a minimalist approach to everything. The methods discussed are: shooting the cat in the head, drugging and drowning it, or taking it to a shelter where they’ll do it for free. The shelter seems the best idea: we aren’t far from Battersea. But is this something Steve would do?

*

“I’ll drown Toto,” I say to Eleanor.

“You’ll drown him?”

“Yes, I found a way to drown him fast and without pain.”

“How?”

“I’ll feed him some of your Valium and then drown him in the river when he’s asleep.”

“Can’t you drown him in a bucket over here?”

“I don’t want you around.”

“That fucking river is rotten,” she says.

“I’m supposed to kill him…”

“I’m not sure… What will you do with the body?”

“Listen: I’ll take the bus to Richmond, where I can drown and bury Toto in a nice spot overlooking a garden or a stream or a mansion. By the way, did you know that Ronnie Wood lives in Richmond?”

“Do you really have to do this now?”

“You’ve asked me to do something! What else can be done?”

“What does Ronnie Wood has to do with this? Do you think this is funny? You’re so immature!”

“Chill out, honey. I’m trying to let off some steam… Let me handle this,” I say.

“No! You’ll fuck it up. You always do!” she says and slams the door shut in my face.

“Eleonor, open the door, please! We can’t let Toto suffer any more!”

“Fuck off!” she shouts from the other side.

“Come on, Els…”

“I’ll sort this out myself! WHY DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING ALONE!”

A minute later she comes through the door crying with the cat in his cage. I lock myself in the toilet and feed Toto four 5mg crushed Valium mixed with milk in a syringe. He swallows every drop without moaning. I almost feel sad for him.

*

It’s cold and it’ll snow any moment. Toto seems to like it: he’s quiet — the cold must ease his pain. My hands are freezing, my whole body is freezing. I walk fast, changing the cage from hand to hand, and in ten minutes I reach Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The place smells of wet dog and cat shit, even from the door. I go in: dogs barking, cats meowing, and other unrecognisable animal howls coming from who knows where. I check the signs and get to the reception. I stop at the front desk and tell the security guard I need to put Toto down. He says he’ll get me to see a vet and tells me to wait. No questions are asked –– I guess many people turn up nowadays, because of this minimalist fad and the Tories, to get rid of their pets. Five minutes later a fat guy with a thick double chin, wearing a white apron, turns up.

“Come into my office,” he says.

I explain to him that Toto has been dying for days on end and that he’s almost twenty years old. Animal euthanasia, heavy doors, antifreeze, Richmond, decluttering, Steve, I keep thinking but I just say that I’ve found out that here we can put him down for free.

“It’s a terrible decision to make, but we can’t let him suffer anymore, you know what I mean…” I say and he nods.

“I know what you mean,” he says, “let me see the cat.”

“Sure.”

I open the cage and gently shake Toto but he doesn’t wake up. I pull him out onto the examination table and he doesn’t move. The vet looks at me with a blank face and then takes his stethoscope to the cat’s body and listens for a few seconds.

“Too late: the cat is dead,” he says.

“Is he?”

“Yes.”

“…”

“I’m sorry.”

“He was like the son Eleanor never had,” I say. He looks at me with compassion and I look at dead Toto, pensively, for like three seconds, to make up for very likely OD’ing him. Then I ask if they might be able to get rid of the body themselves and if it’s free. He says yes and that it’s free and what do I want to do with the cage? “You can keep the cage too,” I say and leave quickly after thanking him for not killing Toto.

It must still be early to go back home — I’m supposed to be on my way to Richmond. I check the time on my phone, and realise that I’ve missed eight calls. Before I can listen to my voicemail the phone rings again.

“DON’T DO IT,” Eleanor shouts.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t drown Toto,” she says, “I’ve changed my mind!” I stay quiet for a moment. “WHERE ARE YOU?” she asks. I don’t know what to say. “WHERE AAAARRRREEEE YOUUUUUU?” I hang up.

The phone starts ringing once more but I don’t answer. There’s nothing to say and there’s no coming back from hanging up. Now she’ll keep calling and leaving increasingly violent voicemails. Until she ends up bringing up that thing with her cousin and me. She never got over that thing with her cousin Anna.

It finally starts snowing and I cross the road and walk into a pub with my pocket vibrating. Perhaps after a few drinks I’ll be able to answer. Or not. Maybe it’s better if I never answer the phone again.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

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Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and Numéro Cinq and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Jul 132015
 

The Brooklyn Rail

Here’s another dyspeptic comedy, a cracked romance (there is a dark, dark love angle), from the hand of Douglas Glover, just published in the July-August issue of The Brooklyn Rail. What to expect? Well, the protagonist’s name is Drebel, a combination of dreadful and rebel. Click on the link below the teaser or the cover image above to read the entire piece.

Drebel started when he was fourteen organizing a grocery shopping service for the elderly in his neighborhood. He charged a flat rate per bag, accepted gratuities, and handled the cash exchange between the grocery store and the old people. Once he gained a customer’s trust, he would skim a percentage off the change, especially when the old man or woman couldn’t see that well. He would smile winningly while counting out the money; the old folks loved having a young person to socialize with. Seeing themselves reflected in his eyes, they thought they were smart, plucky oldtimers. Later, he was able to arrange a small quid pro quo from the supermarket manager’s petty cash to steer his customers away from competitors. He never bought bulk or generic. When an elderly party insisted on cheaper brands, Drebel would shrug and say the store was out. He watched for customers whose memory was failing and preyed on them, lifting a hundred dollar bill from the open purse or pocketing an expensive watch from the sideboard. Once he swiped a handful of silver cutlery from a drawer, sweeping it into his courier bag and clanking out the door. But he had trouble fencing the forks and spoons, and he was really only interested in the cash. He couldn’t help becoming fond of the old woman who said she would put him in her will, though he knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t take any offer of warmth or affection personally. He knew the old people were wrapped tight in their narrow lives, narrower and narrower as they grew older. They could be just as devious and mean as the next person. Drebel noticed how the codgers took a perverse pride in trying to shortchange him, arguing over the receipts, shaving the tip. “Here’s another quarter, son. Oh, drat. I thought I had another quarter. Next time?” He didn’t care. All he wanted was his cut, the skim.

Read the rest at The Brooklyn Rail.

Jul 122015
 

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“I went to the house but did not enter. Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard. I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement.” Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day

Kevin’s story about the nightclub once again propelled Lucy into a world of doubt about her recent return to Ireland. It was a sort of panic attack – and it had not been the first. The attacks had caused her to book her return flight three times since her arrival, yet she had not actually left.

‘Shambles? Not a great name for a nightclub, is it? Can’t imagine what made them call it that,’ her father said to Kevin, who was now getting fat in his twenty-fifth year.

‘It’s just a place to drink and dance,’ Kevin said. Her father’s pupil’s latest tale, about his peers openly having sex in the town’s most popular nightspot, confirmed to Lucy that the generation that had come after hers (and which was already leaving the country for work as hers had done) pretty much got straight to the point when it came to meeting someone in a club, and that they had no need for the foreplay suggested, perhaps, by the monikers of the nightclubs that had been in the town when she’d grown up in it, such as Whispers or Amber.

‘What did you get up to on the weekend, then, Lucy?’ Kevin asked, as he moved a chess piece across the board.

‘Went up to Dublin to a play,’ she replied. Kevin did not ask Lucy which play, nor with whom she’d seen it. It occurred to her then that she’d been living something of a double life since returning. There was her domestic life – taking care of her father, the house and garden; some writing (letters, emails, half-hearted attempts at applying for jobs), and her cultural life, which consisted mostly of lone visits to Dublin’s theatres and galleries.

‘Find nothing like that in this town, ‘the arts’,’ her father said, as if to say, I told you so. And in a way he had told Lucy so, for her parents, after sixteen years away themselves had also returned to the town, which they’d found to be largely as she found it now, many years (including those of the Celtic Tiger) later: dull, inartistic, beautifully scenic, a pleasant-enough place in which to await death. Yet, in London, Lucy had found herself pining for the place; real melancholic pining; had put aside its borderland small-mindedness and could not remove from her mind the swathes of persimmon-coloured heather that would appear each June on the hills outside the town, nor the late-summer hikes to those hills – where she might see a hawk or fieldfare dart out from the bog, nor her walks along Shelling Hill in winter where the sea could be as wild as the Atlantic Ocean. No, these memories, which all seemed less vivid to Lucy now that she was actually home, had been pivotal in her decision to leave London. And the longing for them, as well as the inability to inure herself to this longing, had, she believed, brought about her eventual incompetence at her job (over time she found herself unable to make the calculated decisions required of her to fulfill her initial promise). This yearning for the town in which she was born and reared was, then, finally, Lucy’s Achilles’ heel, and not, as her friends believed, Arthur Hackett.

Lucy had reached a point in her career where the fact she’d made no substantive mark upon it had become something of an embarrassment – to herself and to her work colleagues. The Gallery tried to avoid this by promoting her. Lucy was experienced enough to know that promotion in such instances is often a sort of skewed version of the Peter Principle, applied, in the Gallery at least, particularly to female employees, whereby the employee is ‘promoted’ to a job with an impressive brief but which has no real power. In other words, Lucy had been put where she could do no harm, either to the Gallery nor to block the way of more exciting newcomers. So, it had come as a terrible realisation to her that after eighteen years of devotion to Modern Art she was not the high-flier of her university years, but, rather, a bit of a deadweight, an earnest plodder, with an over-developed sense of fair-play, and that if one’s career could be measured like a degree, she would probably get a third, at best a 2:2. (It was, Lucy thought, as if the pastoral backdrop of her upbringing needed to be erased for any kind of progress in London to occur. As if Modern Art itself could sniff her out; needed her to stamp out the tone of nature she must have carried always about her before it would let her come close and trust her with its frosty cleverness. As if it could smell the heather and tawny hawks off her, the salt of Shelling Hill, and no matter how much Lucy wanted it – it clearly did not want her.)

Of course, the whole business with Arthur had not helped. He’d been her mentor (he was the Gallery’s first owner and, after selling, remained as Chief Consultant), and in her second year in the job she had moved in with him, into his superb flat in Brondesbury Park. She knew that at first she’d been indispensable to him; she was acquainted with most of the YBAs, had (as a student) attended Damien Hirst’s Freeze and been on intimate terms with a couple of friends of the Chapman brothers. Arthur had a nose for the new and cutting-edge but he was not young, and so was known to use young women as spies into the habits and trends of the youthful. He was also a shark, and had often said to Lucy, and not in jest, that in the business of Art one should always have friends in ‘low places’. He certainly had contacts with dubious people, and Lucy knew for a fact that he had more than once brokered deals for stolen artworks.

‘You should go to Ice House Hill next weekend,’ Kevin said, as Lucy slotted the plates into the dishwasher.

‘Why, what’s out that way?’ she asked.

‘Shakespeare. In the open air. Saw something about it in The Leader.’

‘There’ll be none at it,’ her father said, emphatically, his face aflame now with annoyance at Kevin’s inattentiveness to the game (as a result of speaking to Lucy).

‘Well, if everyone took that attitude,’ Lucy said, and enquired as to which of Shakespeare’s plays was being performed.

‘King something,’ Kevin replied.

‘They do take that attitude, isn’t that the problem?’ her father continued, cutting across Kevin who was still trying to remember the name of the play being staged on Ice House Hill. Lucy had always considered that her father rather relished the cultural poverty of the town, for it had let him off the hook all these years: the lack of any significant artistic activity (in his mind, all the ‘arts’ were grouped together) had become the perfect dumping ground for his many failures. For it was tangible enough evidence, for all to see (surely), that he had just been too ‘advanced’ for the people he found himself living among, hence their rejection of him and his inability to succeed in anything other than board games upon his own return. So when something ‘artsy’ did occur, especially something exciting or innovative, Lucy knew he would most likely shoot it down.

King Lear?

‘That’s it,’ Kevin said, without looking up, ‘we done (sic) it at school.’

‘It’ll be the usual am-dram shit they have on here,’ her father said.

All the same, she had isolated herself, had not made friends upon her return, had certainly not linked up with her former school friends. The thought of having to explain her sabbatical from a flat-lining career to ‘the girls’, now middle-aged women, filled Lucy with horror. For ‘the girls’ would also want to know about her personal life. Hence, a scenario began to play out in Lucy’s mind, in which she would meet said girlfriends and they would judge her for her material lack and she in turn (as if defensively) would judge them for their lack of culture. (Prior to 2008 and the country’s financial collapse Lucy had observed the spread of what had become known as ‘status anxiety’ to a town once hinterland enough to have been referred to as ‘El Paso’ by the writers of The Rough Guide to Ireland (1989), and, despite the recent recession, she did not feel relaxed enough to accept her comparatively lowly ‘status’ amongst these ex-friends who in her absence had become doctors or lawyers or prominent business people or the wives of such people.) The reigniting of such friendships was therefore doomed and, Lucy considered, best avoided. Plus, she dreaded that awful question asked of every returning émigré to the town: when are you going back? Because she simply didn’t know when she was going back nor if she would ‘go back’ at all.

Lucy had done well at first, moving to London for her Masters, landing at twenty-two an assistant position (with the Gallery) while ‘the girls’ were still struggling at home in the remainder of the earlier recession of the 1980s. It’s just that after the acrimonious break-up with Arthur she remained in the assistant position (or some version of it, a fact that her various promotions failed to disguise), running out of ingénue years, never making a real mark, finding her instincts were not the market’s, and for one reason or another (most likely, she believed, as a result of Arthur’s malign influence) she had not found the right conditions in which to bloom. At forty-one, Lucy was, she considered, very much a thing unbloomed. She could easily have left the Gallery, and had been encouraged to by well-meaning friends, but was determined not to let Arthur Hackett think he held any power over her. Suddenly, as she pressed the dishwasher tablet into the plastic pocket of the machine, she remembered something she’d read.

‘Ice House Hill? Wasn’t that near the house where that woman was killed?’ she said, as she searched for a sharp knife with which to dig at the cuds of caked sugar now stuck to the worktop after her father’s slovenly attempt at making tea.

‘Aye,’ Kevin said, ‘the Ice House. They say the husband done (sic) that.’

‘They always say it was the husband, Kevin. Sometimes it isn’t you know.’ Of course Lucy knew quite well that (at least in the crime movies she’d seen) more often than not it was the husband, but she wanted to make a point.

‘Hadn’t he an alibi? He was at work in Dublin, in the bank,’ her father said.

Some of the details of the Imelda Woods’ murder returned in a flash to Lucy’s mind. It had been a gruesome act, which, she recalled, had seemed at the time to capture the town’s imagination (of all the other gruesome acts of the border region), perhaps, as it had come at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger and the beginning of the more recent recession, and was rumoured to have been connected to a property dispute. The town had gone quiet for months afterwards, as if the crime was the apex of something – perhaps that whole torrid period between two recessions that saw a simple house in a not-particularly-thriving part of the country valued at over a million euro.

‘Never mind that alibi. Supposed to have got three fellas to have done it for him,’ Kevin said. ‘The Doyles. From the Demesne Road. Hard fellas, them Doyles. Border heads. Father’s a Provo, has half his face missing from a beating. One of them Doyles was going out with Imelda’s daughter, battered her once with an iron bar. They done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.’ Lucy’s jaw dropped at Kevin’s elaborate new theory on the Ice House Hill murder. She felt that Kevin could easily have yammered on all day about the hard men that lived around the Demesne Road. For in a way he was a ‘hard man’ himself, and only that he’d developed a talent for strategy, for board games, chess in particular, at which her father fancied himself an expert and teacher, he may well have got caught up in town violence himself. She wondered how he was able to tell such stories while making his winning moves on the board. She made her excuses and left.

*

Lucy stood with her bike on the pavement. The Ice House did not look from the outside as if such a heinous crime could possibly have been committed within. It was an unfussy building with its name scored in white paint on a large rock set slantwise in the front garden. But despite the house’s cheerful new yellow paintwork (Kevin had told Lucy it had been painted by the victim’s family in an attempt to put behind them the horror of what had taken place inside), and the trimmed speckled laurel hedge, Lucy sensed something strangely knowing about it, something prescient and dark. Within, it seemed to her, as if represented by the two top-floor windows, were a pair of judgemental eyes looking out onto Demesne Road, to the back of the busy town. The house seemed to call out to passers-by, relaying the message that one of the town’s biggest secrets remained locked within its walls – and desperately required solving. It is possible in a small town not to know the slightest thing about some people, including those as apparently popular as Imelda Woods. Lucy, nor her father, had ever met the middle-aged aromatherapist. But, Lucy vividly remembered reading about the Woods’ murder, the twenty-seven punctures to the upper back, the image of which had haunted her mind because it was so brutal. She’d cycled down Demesne Road the year before and then there had been Garda cars everywhere. Now, with the white and blue tape gone from around the house, the longer Lucy stared and noted its ordinariness, its deceptive quietness, the more she saw that something was dreadful about the property. An atmosphere of pain engulfed the place, as if the unresolved nature of the crime had become a palpable thing, had entered the atoms of the freshly painted yellow bricks. What had happened to Imelda Woods seemed to sit there, still and heavy, stubbornly unhidden by the new paintwork, as if it sat also on the conscience of the whole town.

The fact that the house, at the end of a row of similarly square-topped Art Deco properties, cut into the edge of Ice House Hill gave it an added gloom. The Hill had once been a fort, beneath which, hundreds of years ago, people had supposedly hidden from marauding Vikings. The ancient forest on top descended to the edge of the house’s back garden. Lucy recalled reading that a couple of men had been seen running from the garden into those very woods on the morning of the murder. Something, too, about peaked caps. A shiver ran down her spine as she glanced up at the trees: black-green cedar, a few sally, some rowan and alder, all packed together on a heath that blocked the sun from entering the back of Imelda Woods’ now empty and silent home, but which, Lucy realised, would nonetheless make a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s moodiest play.

*

In the Tourist Office she came upon a leaflet advertising Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s tour of the northeast. There were to be two shows in Monaghan, one in Newry and one on Ice House Hill. The image of a castle, visible in the distance from the heath on Ice House Hill, featured on the front of the leaflet and was overlaid with an image of a woman cutting into a deep meat pie. (King Lear was in repertory with Titus Andronicus.) A few details on the reverse of the leaflet revealed the company to be local.

‘Have they been around long?’ Lucy asked the fair-haired man behind the counter in the Tourist Office’s modern wood-panelled foyer.

‘Sure,’ he said, in a local accent. ‘They won an award last year. I saw their Tempest in Stephen’s Green.’

‘Any good?’

‘Aye, they are,’ he replied. ‘A real physical company. Visual and intelligent. Are you thinking of going?’

‘Shakespeare here in the town? Doesn’t happen every day.’

‘Oh, there’s lots of stuff happening now. Oh yeah. Lots of bands, too, and exhibitions.’ The fair-haired man got up and walked to the front of the desk. He was lean and smelled of patchouli. He pulled a postcard from a carousel of postcards that stood in the centre of the foyer and handed it to her. The image on the card was of a voluptuous naked woman coiled around a tree. Lucy was embarrassed. Not by the naked woman but because she thought the work was terrible. She hoped the young man was not about to tell her that the picture was one of his. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he continued, and flicked through the cards to see if there were any more examples of his work in postcard form. ‘I’m in a group, you see. In Carlingford. You missed the exhibition in the Town Hall, but I’ve another coming up.’ Lucy nodded and said she’d love to see his next exhibition (while simultaneously feeling the enormous effort of lying course through her body). She noted the man’s name on the back of the card: Larry Doyle. She’d heard that surname once already that day (the family of psychos from Demesne Road). She pumped up her enthusiasm and left. On the way out she berated herself: Why did she have to know that the lad’s work was bad? Why couldn’t she think it good? Why did she have to be such a bloody expert?

Still thinking about her encounter in the Tourist Office, Lucy decided that twenty years in London, however difficult some of them had been, had, overall, spoiled her for anywhere other than big cities. She could not help but feel that everything at home was substandard; the theatre seemed amateurish, the visual art derivative and idea-less. What poets there were published themselves and went about local pubs selling glossy chapbooks of their rhyming quatrains. She’d been home two months – two months in the very same country it seemed the entire world believed was bursting with artistic talent, and still she felt starved of real, meaningful stimulus. She either needed to go back to London, fast, or move to Dublin or Belfast. Or, perhaps she needed to dig deeper; surely she had dismissed the place too soon. If she was to survive in this town at all she certainly had to stop coming across like a one-woman art Gestapo. Artistic mediocrity was not a crime: stabbing a woman in the back twenty-seven times as she washed the dishes was a crime.

As she cycled home, Lucy looked out at the streets once so familiar to her. There she had climbed a wall to pilfer apples, there she had stamped out her first (mint-flavoured) cigarette, there she had walked with her then best friend – hair slicked back, hands in cream Macintoshes with collars upturned, eyes heavily lined, faces pale as dolls – while loudly singing Ultravox’s Vienna. No, she would not, could not change her view. Artistic mediocrity was, she reasoned, very much a crime. Perhaps it was no coincidence, she considered, that when a town had no real art gallery, when the most popular theatrical performances were the local musical society productions of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, when the Tourist Officer himself had a penchant for lurid Celtic designs, the benchmark was somehow lowered, and so this was why, in this town, murders, particularly of quiet aromatherapists, seemed somehow less horrific than they should be, and, as in the case of Imelda Woods, one year on remained unsolved. After all, Lucy reasoned, lows are really only perceived as such against highs, otherwise they can be tolerated. This town, she concluded (though she fancied she’d absorbed something of its grit and obduracy), seriously needed to raise its own personal bar.

Passing the Ice House on her way home, its dusty white nets hanging in dense creases so as to permit no view inside, for some reason Lucy thought of Arthur. Perhaps he missed her. Perhaps now that she was away, no longer part of the proverbial office furniture, he would realise the full extent of what he’d lost: a lover, a loyal employee. Or perhaps not. However bad this sabbatical thing was proving, that cold, empty life in London could not be rekindled in a hurry, she reminded herself.

She parked her bike outside the Centra shop her father frequented and went inside. She saw the headline in the local newspaper immediately: Woods’ Husband Declares Innocence. Lucy picked up the paper, turned the pages. Imelda Woods’ husband’s letter to the editor had been given pride of place. It read: Dear Editor, I would like to put an end to the terrible rumour that has been circulating through this town about my involvement in my wife’s murder. I am devastated at the level of hostility shown to me by the people here, some of whom I believed were my friends. The letter continued to the effect that Mr Woods’ life had been destroyed by the kind of remark Kevin liked to dish out casually in her father’s kitchen. The writer seemed a far more sensitive type than the money-hungry fiend Kevin had described. In fact, this letter suggested that Mr Woods was quite heartbroken. She felt distraught reading the man’s plea to the town’s gossipmongers to leave him alone. She brought the paper, along with a carton of milk and a small loaf of bread, to the counter, and paid.

‘Poor fella,’ Dympna, the young You’re a Star contender remarked, as she placed Lucy’s purchases into a bag.

‘People thought he killed her, right?’ Lucy said.

‘Only the fools. And there are fools every place,’ Dympna replied. ‘What would be his motive? Sure they’d been split for years and he still won’t get the house.’

‘How do you know?’ Lucy asked.

‘Because she sold it a month before she died. To the council. She sold it for a song, too, so they’d let her live in it till they were ready.’

‘Really?’ Lucy replied, ‘ready for what?’

‘Aren’t they going turning it into an arts centre? About time we got something like that. You’d swear we’d nothing going for us here only The Corrs.’ Lucy took her change. An arts centre in the home of a murdered woman: was that not a little weird, grotesque even? Surely there would be something still there – a residue, a ghost, a revenant of some sort? But then she thought of Drury Lane and other such theatres in London that were supposed to have resident ghosts, often carrying their own heads. She was glad then that something good was coming to the town at last and that Imelda Woods had had the foresight to sell her home for such an excellent cause.

That night, Lucy got a text from Cindy, the Gallery’s junior assistant:

Lucy, ffs the grad intern covering u is now shacked up with Arthur. I thought u should know! Cx to which Lucy replied:

Who’s Arthur?

She began to worry that she’d mentioned Arthur’s name a bit too often in the office – and that she’d been too keen to share (with Cindy – and therefore the whole office) not only her anger over how he’d treated her over the years but also her pain in knowing he’d moved on while she hadn’t, her ongoing sense of loss. She should have kept such things to herself. But the break-up had felt like grief, had followed the same key stages, and she had needed to talk to someone. That night she felt much more than a renewed determination to make a go of her new life at home; she felt that Arthur Hackett had pretty much brought her to her knees, and began to feel again her former intense grief-like rage, for he had, effectively, with his charm and promises and eloquent mentorship, robbed her of her future. And that night she not only passionately wished him a swift demise but began to think of what Kevin had said about the hard men from the Demesne Road, the Doyles, the ‘scumbag assassins’ who would kill for hire and at a cheap rate, too.

*

Neither Kevin or her father could come to Ice House Hill to see the play. But a large crowd attended nonetheless. Around seventy people laughed and cried (and screeched at the blinding of Gloucester). The company was, as Larry Doyle had said, very physical and it put on a good show. Then, just as Lucy was about to depart the spectral darkness of Ice House Hill, she spotted Larry Doyle – chatting to the heavy-chested actress who had played Cordelia. He saw Lucy and beckoned her over. Lucy congratulated the actress and within minutes was being swept up in a buzzing horde of people, actors from the theatre company, local artists like Larry, and a few others, all heading for a bar in town. Excitement crackled in the air. A few hours into the drinking session in the bar on Park Street it occurred to Lucy how talkative and cheery she was being, and that a slight trace of her former accent was returning to her voice. She felt ever so slightly happy – and was enjoying herself.

Larry introduced her to Don Shields, the town’s arts officer. Shields was very keen to know about Lucy’s work in London though she neglected to mention her lengthy sabbatical. As the evening went on it became apparent that it was Shields who had been responsible for the purchase of the Ice House and that he would be at the helm of the project that would transform it. He was full of ideas. The house would have a small cinema, he said. He had in mind already the first season: rotating weeks of Italian neorealism, German expressionism, weekends devoted to David Lynch, Tarkovsky. Lucy sounded her approval. She didn’t want to appear to know too much about the gory details of what had occurred inside the house, to which Shields referred only once. The man had a strange way about him; he spoke hurriedly, with a trace of hostility, and looked beyond the person to whom he spoke as if he expected a row of people waiting to speak to him. He made Lucy feel as if time with him was precious, valuable. He was also loud, strident even and managed to down an entire packet of cashews in one go while he spoke to her – making him seem more clinically efficient than rude. The crowd with whom she had gone into the bar seemed to hang on Shields’ every word. It was Shields, too, she learned, who had suggested the performance on Ice House Hill to Chapterhouse Theatre Company. His boundless confidence recalled to Lucy, one Arthur Hackett, and because of this she was not quite as impressed with him as she thought he thought she should be. But her slight disdain towards him gave her the courage to speak frankly. So when she mentioned that surely the murder of Imelda Woods would need to be resolved before the arts centre was established and a cinema set up inside, Shields became sharp and defensive.

‘We’ve been as cooperative as we can with the family,’ he said, ‘but the house is our property now. Besides, the town should really just move the fuck on.’ Even deep in the sticks, Lucy thought to herself, the arts world had its stonehearted men of ambition.

A few hours later, Lucy walked home, merrily drunk, from the bar (alone). She went into a restaurant with a busy takeaway section to buy chips, something greasy. True to the town’s reputation for violence, a fight broke out as she waited in the disorderly queue. Two men emerged from the back of the dining area and dragged one of the men who’d been in the fight out onto the street. Through the glass, Lucy could see the two men screaming at the younger man as they slapped him about the head. The young man’s slate-blue eyes were wild, as if he wanted nothing more than to burst back into the restaurant and continue the fight from which he’d been dragged. She guessed that he was brother to the other two as all were tall, long-legged, had the same chalky pockmarked skin, the same crazed unfocused look – and there seemed to be a kind of understanding between them. The owner of the restaurant, a little Italian woman, banged on the window for the three to move on, but the younger one, still full of bluster and rage, ignored her and the two men rebuking him and continued his attempts to re-enter the place. It began to rain then, a light summer rain, and the young man calmed, and Lucy watched as he and the other two took similar-looking black peaked caps from their pockets and fitted them snugly onto their heads before moving off.

Done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.

‘Fucking Doyles,’ she heard the man behind her say, ‘bad bastards, the lot of them.’ Lucy paid for her order and set off home on the balmy night with her oily chips and onion rings. She did not go home via the back of the town and so did not pass the Ice House, but walked along Park Street towards home. The Doyle brothers walked animatedly ahead, their dark round heads bobbing before her like a group of seals. As she observed their loud playfulness, at once humorous and violent, she became overwhelmed with a deep sense of belonging, of rootedness. Something inside her had finally relaxed. She wondered, how – when she would eventually catch up with the Doyles, as she was resolved to do – she would go about striking up a conversation with them (at least before they made the turn for Demesne Road). She wondered, too, if any of them had ever been as far a-field as London.

—Jaki McCarrick

.

Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It recently premiered in Chicago to much critical acclaim. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel. Represented by AM Heath. Her blog, CloudNine, can be read here.

Jul 122015
 

chance_frontcover

Robert Day

Numéro Cinq is always an adventure, a game of firsts. The first this, the first that. Now Robert Day‘s essay series Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind is being published (the end of the month) by Serving House Books and that is a first of a high order, the first ever book composed entirely of work that appeared in Numéro Cinq first (you can see I am obsessing on the word “first”). This is a proud moment for the whole community and an inspiration to the many who have contributed regularly and brilliantly to the magazine. I foresee more such NC-inspired books. (Actually, Robert Day’s novel, Let Us Imagine Lose Love, first serialized on NC, will be published in the fall as well, but I will do a separate announcement about that at the appropriate moment. The man is on a roll!)

I wrote an introduction — entitled “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” — for the Serving House Books edition, an honour and a pleasure (he opines) that you all get to share right now.

§

Exit, pursued by a bear

Robert Day and I met something like 35 years ago in a University of Iowa classroom. He was the teacher, I was a student. He strode into the room and proceeded to the blackboard where he wrote, in large capital letters, from one side of the room to the other: REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. Outside of class we got to know each other a bit. He once said, pressing the elevator button instead of climbing one slight of stairs, that if God had meant us to use stairs he would not have invented elevators. I was on the cusp of a truly disastrous relationship just then. Day said to me, “Get out of there. For every day you spend with her now, it’ll take you another year to get out of it.” Ask me if I listened to him. One afternoon we spent kicking tires at a Jeep dealership. And one day he talked to me about the novel I was working on, a conference that must have lasted all of 20 minutes but somehow managed to open up the novel and show me its hot, beating heart, which hitherto had failed to reveal itself to me. That was a lesson I did listen to.

Now, many, many, many years later we have congregated again through the magical intervention of the Internet and the online magazine I materialized Numéro Cinq. We hadn’t been in touch in years; we still haven’t actually seen each other since 1981. But we continue to exert gravitational force upon each other’s lives in ways that are astonishing and delightful. The long and short of it is that I began to publish Robert Day. A short story first. Later the story became a novel. I published the entire novel. Then I published a memoir about his mother, a tender, sweet essay about her suspicion of the French, Day’s love of Montaigne, and the summer she died while he was traveling in France.

Then Day invented a new form, the Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind essays, brief, whimsical, sometimes touching, reminiscences about his brushes (often friendships) with literary greatness. The first one he wrote and tried out on me was about the poets John Ashbery and Tadeusz Rozewicz. He didn’t meet them; they met in his mind, and in a conversation with a friend over a kitchen table in Kansas. But the collision was sparkling in its reverent irreverence and the insights spawned in the erotics of juxtaposition. But it was also airy, gossamer-thin, a playful and informal thing, a little jeu d’esprit that took itself not very seriously, yet with flashes of seriousness and wit. Day asked me if I wanted more of these. He projected a series. He made a list. He wrote: “I’d like to keep the “Chance encounters” real–that is, what I stumble into or on to as I lead my literary life; there should be x of them the rest of the year because I poke around in these matters often these days, and, like any fiction writer, stories (and chance literary encounters) happen to me.

I have my favorite moments. Day and Raymond Carver quoting Jack London back and forth to each other. Day’s sweet evocation of the life-philosophy of poet William Stafford, who once advised his young daughter, “Talk to strangers.” This is in an essay that goes on to ponder our current Age of Fear, the prevalence of surveillance, and our willingness to submit to precautions that cheat us of human relations.

I also adore Day’s piece on screenwriter Walter Bernstein, especially Day’s expert interventions in an early script for the movie The Electric Horseman. Day being from Kansas, Bernstein considered him the expert on cowboys and horses. “Somehow Walter had learned the word hackamore (probably from an East Coast riding friend) and so I had to take the hackamore off all horses and put bridles and bits back in their mouths.” And, of course, the “Exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction from The Winter’s Tale that pops up unbidden and like fireworks in Day’s essay on Sarah Palin and going to see a production of Coriolanus.

The buzzword these days for someone who wanders about poking idly into things (and being brilliant and witty about them) is flâneur. But when I read Day’s essays I think, not of Walter Benjamin, but of the waggish early 18th century essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and the journals they published, The Tatler and The Spectator, whose purpose it was “to enliven morality with wit; and to temper wit with morality.” Day’s essays are intelligent, literate conversation at its best—all too rare these days—written with aplomb in the author’s trademark amiable and self-ironic style.

     —Douglas Glover

Jul 112015
 

Jeff Parker

At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. — Benjamin Woodard

Where Bears

Where Bears Roam the Streets
Jeff Parker
Harper Perennial
368 pages($16.99)
ISBN 978-1554683826

 

As an American child of the 1980s, three well-known figures essentially forged my understanding of Soviet Russia: Odessa-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff (“Why don’t they have baseball in Soviet Union? In Soviet Union, no one is safe!”); Ivan “I must break you” Drago, the fictional pugilist from the cinematic travesty Rocky IV; and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though, to be honest, most of my interest here surrounded the various jokes about his birthmark).

To say that I grew up in a non-political household would be an understatement. I was a child living in blissful ignorance of the outside world, and the U.S.S.R. was simply a place with funny rules, mean boxers the size of horses, and a leader as strange as our own Ronald Reagan.

Jeff Parker, in his energetic new journal/travelogue/memoir, Where Bears Roam the Streets, admits to a somewhat different childhood. Raised in north Florida, he writes that, while his family wasn’t “tuned in” politically during his childhood, he developed a fear of the U.S.S.R. thanks to nuclear attack drills during school hours, coupled with the 1983 TV movie The Day After:

After seeing the movie The Day After, which solidified in me the understanding that Russians were my enemy, I asked my mom if we could put in a below-ground fallout shelter.

Of course, Parker expanded his worldview as he aged. A budding writer, he found appreciation in Russian literature—Gogol, in particular—and in 1999, while in graduate school, he began visiting the nation regularly to work at the St. Petersburg Summer Literary Seminars. During his first summer abroad, he bonded with Igor, a walking tall tale of a young man, and their friendship bloomed. Until the Literary Seminars shuttered in 2008, Parker and Igor spent summers together, and when Parker was back home, the pair kept in contact via Skype. Then, in the summer of 2009, as Parker’s marriage slowly deteriorated and Igor found himself suddenly unemployed thanks to an economic collapse caused by Russia’s armed conflict in Georgia, the duo decided to spend the summer traveling. The point of the trek was twofold: to unwind, firstly, but also so Parker could write about the land that scared him so in his youth. The result—Where Bears Roam the Streets—is a fascinating volume, equal parts examination of Russia culture and rowdy road trip, that rarely stumbles in its bid to illuminate the highs and lows of modern Russian life.

The book oscillates in time and location, with chapters chronicling Parker and Igor’s travels (first to the Black Sea coast, then to Siberia to visit Parker’s estranged wife) interspersed with sections devoted to a wide variety of Russian curiosities—from matchmakers to political activists—as well as Igor’s wild past. These shifts occasionally feel abrupt, derailing some narrative flow, yet all are important to understand the actions taken by those Parker encounters. Tales from Igor’s history, especially his time in England, working for pittance while being “trained” as a manager for a British muesli plant set to open in St. Petersburg, establish the man’s skepticism. Further, a brief account of Igor’s multiple comical attempts (and eventual success) to evade military service in 1999 permit the persuasive, suave Igor of 2009 to seem all the more fathomable. This story of draft dodging also resonates in the larger world when juxtaposed with Parker’s visit with writer Denis Burov and Ilya Plekhanov, both former soldiers who fought in Chechnya. When Burov, who suffered from poverty and intense PTSD following his service, tells Parker, “Service is not a noble thing here in Russia, unfortunately…Now the common point of view is a real man has to buy his way out of the service,” it’s hard not to look at Igor’s charm and persistence with a bit of disgust. Through these somewhat unrelated incidents, his character rounds out, so that as his journey continues, we feel for his triumphs and defeats.

Likewise, such encounters also bring to light some of Parker’s own unease, serving to expand his persona:

I always felt guilty around guys my age who had gone to Iraq while I prowled bars and wrote my stories. And unlike Igor, I hadn’t swindled my way out of fate…Put in the same situation [as Igor], I’d have done everything in my power—I’d have paid much more than Igor for an X-ray showing a non-existent crack in my spine.

Here, another heartbeat of Where Bears Roam the Streets is exposed, for while Parker claims his book’s overall agenda is to further comprehend Russian life, time and again his explorations prove he’s also searching for a greater understanding of his own nature. After Igor tells Parker of his own psycholinguistic method of working out problems, the author finds himself testing the technique on his own woes. Likewise, Parker chastises Igor’s treatment of women, claiming his friend suffers from a “‘man is first’ mantra,” yet the author sometimes describe the females he encounters with a touch of male gaze (it should be noted, however, that Parker does devote large chunks of his book exposing some of the horrible injustices faced by many Russian women: unforgiving romantic expectations, physical and sexual abuse). It’s in moments like these that Where Bears Roam the Streets chronicles Parker’s psyche as much as that of the world around him, a general feeling echoed about halfway through the book when Parker writes, “I wondered at the Igor part of me. And the me-part of him…” As the two roll across the land, consuming vodka, sweating in banyas, and mulling life, there are certainly times when these “parts” blur.

Gary Shteyngart, in a blurb that appears on the back cover of Where Bears Roam the Streets, calls the book “A kind of Fear and Loathing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and while such a catchy quote will certainly help move paper copies, it ultimately sells Parker’s ambition short. Yes, the total amount of alcohol consumed during the author’s escapades with Igor would leave lesser writers dead, and scenes of hosting celebrations full of fellow travelers while staying in Listvyanka contain a fair share of combustible energy, but to paint Jeff Parker’s latest as a Hunter S. Thompson imitation would be a massive disservice. At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. As Parker speaks to his subjects, both casually and in more formal interviews, he does so with the interest of a man who truly wants to learn, who truly hopes to grow from each experience, and as readers along for the ride, we are all richer for having experienced the world via his curious nature.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews and criticisms have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Jul 112015
 

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As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest. —Jeff Bursey

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Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
David Winters
Zero Books
Paper, 210 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 9781782798033

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Introduction

Readers of new writing increasingly get a fair sense of what is out there, and how it’s viewed, by going to Internet journals or blogs run by reputable, trusted figures, and less and less from the review sections of newspapers that appear dedicated to safe choices. Occasionally an individual’s contributions to book reviewing warrant publication, as was the case last year, with Dzanc bringing out John Domini’s zesty collection that showcased familiar (Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth) and less familiar authors (Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel), drawn from over three decades of critical thought. It’s the work of a mature writer who is also a novelist.

David Winters is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, an Internet journal relied on for news about literary matters, and he is, according to his website, also “…a literary critic, currently based at Cambridge University, where I’m researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction from 1960 to the present. Alongside modern and contemporary literature, I’m also interested in continental philosophy and metaphilosophy, the history of concepts, and the sociology of ideas and intellectuals.” A current book title containing the word infinite brings to mind not endless expanses but defined territories, either because the use of the word here has to be ironic or not serious, or because a contrarian approach rises up inside or is expected to be found in the pages. The three-part division of Winters’ book—“Introduction,” “On Literature,” and “On Theory”—indicates that theory, apart from its, well, apartness or maybe alien(n)ation (so to say) from literature, is an equally circumscribed and vast fiction. Hence, immense space can be conceived, but that thought often crumbles into thoughts of the continent lived on, the country inhabited, the city that hosts the seat of higher learning where metaphilosophy can be studied, or the neighbourhood lived in. In Infinite Fictions, tension exists from the outset.

I.

A banker once asked a group to help define his occupation. “What do you call a parasite that lives on parasites?” Metaparasite sprang to mind. David Markson, in Reader’s Block, wrote: “Horseflies that keep the horse from plowing, Chekhov called critics.” A review of any fellow reviewer’s collection could contain this old verse: “Big fleas have little fleas,/Upon their backs to bite ’em,/And little fleas have lesser fleas,/And so, ad infinitum.” Despite the personal nature of a large amount of literary criticism—at times the confessional tone topples over into the ridiculous—it’s useful to keep in mind that Infinite Fictions is the object in the world that’s under consideration, though imbued with some of its subject’s nature—critics don’t have, or else aren’t granted, the same elasticity with regards to creating personas as fiction writers—but while it may be impossible to divorce one’s own obsessions from the obsessions of the subject, it is also, to a degree, impractical. A literary work of any meaning—and “literary” means anything that uses words, from flyers to a high-flyer like Foucault—engages with its contemporaries, its predecessors, and future writings not yet dreamed of. Or, to speak with, against, alongside, and over fellow fleas.

Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory frame the section “On Theory.” This is neat bookending in the sounds, in the event closed off by a lament for the dead genre, and the seeming capitulation of theory to literature. From Eagleton’s work, as quoted, mediated, and commandeered by Winters—don’t hold that word against him, or rather, hold it against most reviewers who try, in Domini’s words, to “honor my elders,” since inhabitation of a text is at times irresistible in order to winkle something out of it and make it a fixture in the armature of personal thought—the report arrives that literary theory had its best days in the 1970s and 1980s, and its energies, approaches, and concepts, unsurprisingly, have been subsumed by cultures small and large and integrated into general discourse (such as the way your eye just passed over the word discourse without a mental blink). Eagleton “attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity” by calling on theory; “…Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory… To theorize in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture.’” Free of humility, Eagleton’s view retains its savior complex, that theory is again able and ready, even from its recumbent position, to help literature go wild.

Discussing Rodowick’s book, which “excavate[s] the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ it,” Winters writes that “academic disciplines… [are] increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared ‘dead,’ and we assume that we’re safely ‘after theory.’” He sees hope in Elegy for Theory: “…perhaps [theory’s] historical closure leaves it newly illuminated, in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.” (Oppressively omnipresent might be another way to put it.) In this review Winters seems more comfortable, and he is more persuaded, than in his review of Eagleton—whose work he ends by judging as somewhat “diffuse” (129)—hence his writing picks up a bit and the sentences flow better.

At certain times in this section bias overcomes the usually even-handed treatment of the book at hand. Winters’s review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, an insider’s look at Oulipo by one of its two American members (inexplicably, Harry Mathews goes unmentioned), is slightly condescending to the efforts of this group—encapsulated in “even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in” (140)—that may be understandable on its own (not everyone likes restrictions and games). However, when explaining the content of Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America—a “‘reception history’” on how the philosopher’s ideas permeated the thinking of U.S. academic institutions—Winters stays mum on Heidegger’s Nazism, though Woessner doesn’t, and the omission looks selective.

Generally, however, throughout this section of the book Winters appears knowledgeable about a variety of theoretical approaches, and writes with confidence. His appraisals of Franco Moretti and Cathy Caruth are good introductions to the ideas of both, and he has some interesting things to say about Robert Musil when examining Robert Musil and the NonModern by Mark Freed.

II.

Winters is not a writer one quotes for the loveliness of his phrasing. There are no witty expressions and few surprising word choices, or viewpoints that catch one off guard, though there is the occasional alliteration. His sentences lack a firm enough individualistic rhythm, and this may be due to frequent quotations from others, such as when he quotes Derek Attridge using one word, “singularity.” Like environmentalists spike trees with metal, Winters deploys quotations and critics as a defence and bulwark for his opinions. In “On Theory” that habit of thinking or writing choice fits in with the topics, but “On Literature” covers 21 fiction writers who possess styles that leave the quotations from Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, and others jutting out in ungainly ways.

“On Literature” opens with a review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes and closes with a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. It is worth quoting lines from the first paragraphs of each to demonstrate that, as in “On Theory,” Winters has chosen carefully his frame works.

Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our ‘ordinary’ discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review—any act of writing about—could run the risk of redundancy.

I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, I’ll say nothing. This text doesn’t need to be contextualized. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Perhaps the words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.

This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature…. Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.

It is unclear what that “shining” background comprises and difficult to condense poetic prose in fresh words. A looming deadline and a waiting editor, as well as the irrepressible urge to provide a partial (in more than one sense) description of what a book does to the mind, in the hope that not too much damage will be done in the rendering, often combine to push scruples out the window. Winters spends several pages on two books he is reluctant to trap, as Domini put its, in “a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” As a professor of mine liked to say, we must eff the ineffable; it’s a compulsion.

In the review of Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division Winters offers a view of publishing as well as one of many encomiums to the Great White Wizard whose shadow stretches across this section of Infinite Fictions:

Between 1977 and 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to the legendary (and controversial) career of Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades Lish was uniquely placed to, as he put it, “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a large corporation.” … From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Rudy Wilson to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form.

Raffel “is an author associated with what some have called the ‘School of Lish.’ Yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often… strikingly singular writers and works.” Crude it may be, but the generality is enforced by Winters’s frequent evocations of his acquaintance and references to Lish’s literary invention, consecution, which Winters makes clear, while reviewing Lish’s Peru, can be defined as “less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world.” From potential savior and midwife (a mix of Eagleton and Ezra Pound)—in the mini-history above the authors are subordinate to their discoverer—to the mind behind “a miraculating agent”—if readers are not persuaded by this near-hagiography of Lish, then that will affect their opinions on Winters’s collection.

As with most review collections, there are ones that are successful and ones that are not. The virtues of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories excite Winters as he explores a text that “…is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces…,” and his admiration leaps off the page in an infectious way. “Fictive forms preserved in infinite space,” says Winters of Vladislavić’s novel; it’s a remark that also evokes his own book.

Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, a novel that deserves to be much better known, is a well-told sad story about the predicament of its lead character, Mathea. Her state, as well as the calm tenor of the prose, encourages Winters to enter more emotional terrain. Mathea “longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique…” This neatly captures the yo-yoing Mathea feels, and is respectful of her movement from one thought to another.

Some reviews fail to convince. Winters declares: “Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion… Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship’s end retrospectively alters its memory.” This review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, a home for unconventional works reviewed by unconventional writers for  unconventional readers. (Regrettably, there is no clear indication exactly when and where reviews originally appeared nor is there an index.) After reading the preceding paragraphs Winters provides on the risks Marcom takes, it’s unclear what review reader would be so wedded to “narrative convention” or find Marcom so radical.

Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends, and another Lish protégé, is the subject of a review that founders on a misunderstanding. Isabel tells Ned she’s “‘depressed’” and that she likes “‘melancholy,’” and it becomes clear that she treats these two terms as if they are the same. Instead of interrogating this word choice (it could be appropriate for the character) or outlining the differences, Winters leaves untouched psychology and neurological advances on the make-up of depression, turning to a literary theorist for instruction: “In this, [Isabel’s] condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of ‘melancholia.’” Summarizing more of Kristeva on this matter, Winters says that in her view “there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, perhaps depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making… One way of recovering,” Winters continues, “from melancholia is to craft an ‘independent symbolic object’—a work of art.” He has adopted Schutt’s interchangeable use of depression and melancholy. It’s a flawed review that never recovers.

As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest.

III.

“Introduction” speaks about the reasons behind this book’s existence, and Winters’s experience as a reviewer. On the cusp of inviting the world to dive into a collection of his writing, he is less sure of himself than is illustrated in the attitudes and knowledge found in the pages ahead. Speaking on how reviewing can contain aspects of oneself, he make the good point (though few will agree with it) that “literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.” It’s doubtful that “perfect” is any more accurate than “stranger,” unless Winters’s personality changes so uncontrollably it’s beyond his grasp. He elaborates: “Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle—my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature.” If something isn’t uncommon then it’s not abnormal; it can be odd, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and even normal. Not to speak harshly or dismissively, but he must have his pose, as do other reviewers (though see above regarding the restrictions). “I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love.” He’s left most of his life outside the reviews, then—or to quote him, “About Poland, I’ll say nothing.” Yet if he’s a perfect stranger who doesn’t know himself, how does he know this, and what trust can be placed in his ideas? In one review he states that “personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us.” Why, then has he assembled this book written by other David Winters, and what value does it have? He can’t be speaking from any position of grounded authority, although the reviews themselves carry a greater assurance.

The key to this work may rest in this line from the introduction: “I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” (Theory has a special place in his world: it is a “totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.”) Solace is a comfort one offers to others, in a positive way, as if to say, “Since art (or religion, or sex, or Pop-Tarts) has been a balm, for me, then maybe it can be the same for you.” This may be the impulse behind the collection. However, considering the role Lish played in getting people published—that is, in making commodities of artists’ utterances—and in furthering the careers of other writers who have gone on to earn money through publishing and/or teaching, it’s unusual that Winters regards books solely as artistic creations. He’s aware that part of a reviewer’s task is to bring notice of novels, poems, essays and such to readers so they’ll purchase them, and many are delighted when their words are placed on a book jacket. (His expression recalls a totally contrary belief voiced by Gilbert Sorrentino in The Moon in Its Flight: “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.”) Hence (a word Winters frequently uses), the question of whether he has a blind spot here is an open one.

In the introduction’s closing paragraph, Winters talks about the “triviality” of reviews, and about “the vanity of assembling this kind of collection…. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism.” In contrast, the last line quotes Bourdieu (a touchstone in this book) referring to “‘a collection of unstrung pearls…’” Wealth and trivia; there’s one more tension. The reviews themselves have little of this nervous throat-clearing, and show, more fully, that David Winters wants to be included in conversations around ideas, letters, and figures that are heard throughout the republic of letters. There’s no need for modesty, real or false, and no need to apologize. “In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Or to jump on the back of others—like a flea—and draw sustenance and courage from them.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), 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.

Jul 092015
 

 

It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?

Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.

In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.

I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.

Chicago, he said.  Chicago? He said nothing more.

Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”

This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.

The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.

At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.

In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.

At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.

We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”

It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.

It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.

Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).

After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.

What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.

The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.

In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?

I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.

Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.

Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….

Before I could finish, Ray took over:

This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

He had been there before.

It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.

—Robert Day

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Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Jul 082015
 

AUSSTELLUNG: DIE ERNST JANDL SHOWErnst Jandl  1925-2000

This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light

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Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:

reihe

eis
zweig
dreist
vieh
füllf
ächz
silben
ach
neu
zinc

The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:

series

won
toot
treat
for
fife
sex
several
ate
nylon
tense

It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:

hide
wine
dry
for
fun
except
seepin’
out
‘nuf
said

Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:

madrigal

sadly
sadly
………full

wholly undone

madrigal

sadly
sadly
……..full

wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

….o
fr   sch
….i

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||    str..ng   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
:
lieber…..:    tee
:
:
[egal]…..:
ich……….:   tee
:
:
fragt……:
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:

My…….:….T

:
liber…..:….tea
:
[fr]…….:
eterni:….tee
:
[equ]….:
all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios

 

May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

Jul 072015
 

Robert MusilRobert Musil

Robert Musil translated by Genese Grill

Thought Flights: Stories, Glosses, Literary Fragments of Robert Musil
Translated and with an introduction by Genese Grill
Contra Mundum Press, 348pp.
ISBN 9781940625102

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T

here are writers who draw readers into their magnetic fields so that everything they write is of interest—because the author’s dreams, thoughts, questions, do not simply mirror the reader’s but take him or her through the looking glass into a secret world. Literature in this sense is not an entertainment, but an initiation. The writer may be dead, but the words still hold life and in the case of Robert Musil, whom I know only in translation, it is the electric current of thought that seems to pass from his pages to me—teasing, taunting at times; asking me to accompany him into a zone of danger. There are other great novelists at the end of whose books or stories I have found myself changed, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, come to mind, but I confess that none have exercised the continual hold on me that Musil does. And yet, Musil remains for all his frankness, elusive, perhaps because he often found his own existence and mind so.

If I begin with my own experience of Musil’s hypnotism, it is to explain why Thought Flights, the most recent publication of Musil’s work is such a valuable addition to his published work. The handsome edition of Contra Mundum Press has a long, thoughtful introduction by Genese Grill. She speaks both to the complexity of translating Musil and to the psychology of his prose, particularly in the feullitons, short pieces which make up a significant number of the pieces in this collection. They may seem at first glance as Grill remarks, using a critical phrase of Musil’s like “soap bubbles,” or “shenanigans,” Spielerei, but in fact like his major opus, The Man without Qualities, they attempt to explore “the other condition.” She defines Spielerei in her introduction as, “timeless states hovering between decision and act, like Kafka’s.” I have to admit that as a storyteller it is the short narratives that fix themselves most in my imagination. Musil with a few short strokes gives, a portrait of young girl hovering between childhood and womanhood in the stare of a man fascinated by her; the tale of a young man who lures an older woman, married woman to a room in a country inn, where his game of eroticism turns dizzily from poetry to clichés, to a final madness. The method of the short essays where the unexpected jumps out at us like a jack in the box is operating in these fictions. One can witness Musil setting up the spring of his plots for the longer stories and his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. I have read several of these short narratives before (published in the magazine I edit, Fiction), but joined to others not available before in English they come into a further focus. Thought Flights by bringing together a number of these short pieces makes clear what is not so evident when one reads in isolation a story like “Susanna’s Letter” about a woman watching a man on a train watch her through his monocle—that Musil, the writer as scientist, is deliberately experimenting with what happens as you shift the lens of narrative. So in the brief pages where the author watches the fourteen year old, for a few moments on a streetcar, “Robert Musil to an Unknown Little Girl” and imagines her as a child then as a woman; or the man who sees a pony and begins to tells the story of boys who steal a wagon and pony and in doing so finds a way to glimpse something of what he defines as his soul. We follow what are both narratives and investigations. What Musil is trying to do in these brief stories, reflections, essays, is to question the nature of reality. Like the other important writers of the Twentieth Century who absorbed the idea of Relativity, fiction and the essay are tools to try to understand, or see into a universe that is apprehended as forever shifting. The bantering laughing voice of the “shenanigan,” masks the serious intent of the attempt.

Genese GrillTranslator Genese Grill

There is of course another way to view Musil’s insights—and writers who have pledged their vision to right the wrongs of this world will relish the political edge of Thought Flights or the sharp eye for Viennese social manners and smugly ignore Robert Musil’s curiosity about “the other” world. Genese Grill’s critical volume on Musil, The World as Metaphor, challenged the conventional portrait of Musil as merely a social realist and detailed the mystical and philosophical influences on his fiction. Thought Flights exemplifies an intuition she articulated in The World as Metaphor, “Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relation through human action, thought, artistic creation, and the real physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks, affects and even co-creates a shifting reality.” Whether it is language as in “Talking Steel,” fashion in “There Where You Are Not,” or the taboos of murder and cannibalism, we can observe Robert Musil in this collection searching for clues to his own elusive persona.

The translation has many happy moments when Musil’s laughter is revealed. Among my favorites, is the characterization of an out of work theater director, met accidently in the street, “Human sorrow can collect in the worn-out knees of a pair of pants. His face looked like a cornfield cut with a sickle.” And I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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Jul 072015
 

3888_10151372608740801_1424313639_n

R.W. Gray’s fiction reexamines expectations of storytelling. His characters dwell in both strange and familiar places, often at the same time. Where paradox proves incompatible with reality, Gray reorders reality to accommodate, making room for delightful exploration. Questions, Gray says.  He is not looking for answers when he writes, but he’s always asking questions.

Entropic, Gray’s second short story collection, has just been published by NeWest Press. Themes of hope, redemption, condemnation, and love swirl into a mesmerizing journey through deserts, parks, and cities, transforming ordinary landscapes into mythical, re-imagined worlds.

Gray is a filmmaker, poet, critic, teacher, and world traveler, and his stories are infused with elements of his life. He is also the editor of the incredibly popular Numéro Cinq at the Movies. We exchange a series of emails over the course of two months, building a conversation in which we discuss mad teachers, sleep disorders, and Gray’s uncanny ability to reimagine reality, invent unforgettable characters, and tell damn good stories.

crisplaunch-41

Richard Farrell (RF): What were some of your earliest influences growing up?  Did you always want to be an artist or did other passions grip you as a child?

R.W. Gray (RWG): For a few formative years, with a single mother living up on the northwest coast of Canada, we didn’t have a lot. Of course, I’ve seen far greater poverty in the world now, but we were poor enough that we were left to our imaginations more often than not. This, coupled with growing up in a place that was a little terrifying as a kid (bears, wilderness, swamp, ocean), kind of pushed me and some of the other kids who were more introverted into storytelling games. But I also grew up surrounded by tall tale tellers. Even my little brother has inherited this.

Reading didn’t come easy to me apparently. In the early grades I struggled.  I am not sure where that flipped over. I had a draconian teacher in grade five and she probably scared me into it. But I also had a rather mad woman for grades one and three, Miss Neufeldt. The mad teachers were always the best I think. In grade three she explained to us how men in the trenches would urinate on rags and cover their faces to fend off chlorine gas attacks. As an eight year old that kind of stays with you. I don’t think she had a lot of filters and I still love her for that. I’d like to think that Miss Neufeldt’s storytelling encouraged me.

RF: At some point, many writers can describe a singular experience that set them on the path.  Can you identify a single experience?

RWG: I think I was always surrounded by storytellers in my weird Irish family. But there was a moment of sort of condensation when I was ten, I had a rather epic dream one night, and the next day at school I felt compelled to write the whole thing down. I remember being frustrated at how I couldn’t get it all down fast enough, how the dream story changed as I tried to put it into language, closing off complexity, losing three dimensions, becoming a more two dimensional version of itself. The disparity between the dream and the story on the page was painful. Guess it still is. But I think there was a sense of wonder for me, how the dream had come out of nowhere, out of nothing, and then became a story on the page. It felt like a calling in that moment. When it was probably the fault of eating ice cream right before bed or watching that show Space 1999 that always gave me nightmares. The cause isn’t important I guess so much that I was born of storytellers and at last found the way I could tell stories in a less loud and less extroverted way.

RF: You mention a dream at age 10 and this teacher in grade 5.  Would you care to talk more about this teacher?

RWG: Well, Miss Bautista was a ruthless dictator. Even the parents were frightened of her. She had this thing where she would shame you until your head would drop to you chest with the weight of it and then she would, pinching your chin, yank it back up insisting you look at her as she admonished you. I developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome where another student and I made her an entire painted ceramic nativity scene that we worked on for months and presented her with it at the end of the school year. I’d never been to a church a day in my life, and I painted a baby Jesus, wise men and camels for this woman.

I can’t recall fairly, but I would guess that the watershed sort of moment when I first wrote a creative story might be a product of opposites: first knowing the unbridled mad imagination of Miss Neufeldt followed by moving to a new school and falling under Miss Bautista’s ruthless rule. Simple recipe to make a writer. Now try it on your children.

RF:  Not to delve into your personal life, but how do you sleep?  I ask this because at least two of your stories in Entropic deal pretty directly with sleep issues.  A number of other stories use dream imagery.  I suppose I’m wondering what so fascinates you about sleep?

RWG: That’s hilarious. Yes, I think the stories seem to imply I am addicted to coffee and have a fetish for sleep. I think I was wondering that too as the collection came together: why does sleep keep coming back, run through the stories. This book more than the first one seemed to be about adult relationships and, for me, that’s where sleep becomes really apparent. Milan Kundera, in Unbearable Lightness Being connects the desire for shared sleep as indicative of love. Yet I think relationships and sleep for me just draw out how strange a behavior this sleep is, this space where we are unconscious, vulnerable to those around us, like children again really. None of the sleep in the book is about dreaming.

I am on planes all the time, all my family in other cities, and I have become a finely tuned sleeping machine. I haven’t had a beverage on a flight in years: I fall asleep before the plane takes off and wake just before it lands. It’s uncharacteristic, since in every other way I seem to care what people think, but am willing to drool, snore, whatever it is I do in front of them on these flights. I can do it but I willfully suspend my worry about what happens when I am not conscious and in control. I think several of the stories play out that curiosity.

RF:  A theme that comes up is erasure.  Sometimes it feels like your stories are attempting to correct, rewrite or even obliterate history in some way.  Thoughts on this?

RWG: I do think that’s kind of fascinating, the way we walk around as these little non-reality bubbles, editing out the parts we don’t want, seeing people the way we want to, forgetting history to protect ourselves.

On the other hand, it’s how we create memories cognitively, condensing and erasing unnecessary details. In a world full of so many people and so many details, it becomes a necessary short hand too. Most of us have to gist the world around us to hold onto it I think, and this is an error-prone process.

RF:  What do you think is the function of writing, of telling stories, to make sense of reality?  Given that many of your stories are interrogating reality (or the limits of reality), does narrative have a power to reshape the way we understand the world?

RWG: Increasingly, I think reality doesn’t need our sense. I keep thinking all our suffering, our struggles come from us trying to paint over, alter, make the world the way we want to see it, instead of the way it is. My sense of some of my characters is that they are coming to terms with how limited their perspectives are. Sometimes unavoidably. What happens when you can’t see and master all? What do you do with that and how do you shape meaning then?

RF:  Can you talk about your reading habits?  Not just what you’re reading (though I’d love to know that) but perhaps also how you read.

RWG: Well, thanks to the various careers (professoring, filmmaking, reviewing) I generally feel like I don’t read. This year I have been on sabbatical though and it’s been an anomaly where I am blasting through books, remembering the pleasure of these imaginary spaces, that communion of the self through reading. I read Anna Karenina in a cabin on Prince Edward Island, Wuthering Heights for the second time in an apartment in Montevideo, returned to the Alexandria Quartet in Hanoi. And a smattering of Marquez’s short stories while I was in South America as well. I find myself rereading I guess, lately. I remember some writer once saying at a certain age we stop seeking new pleasures and grow increasingly nostalgic for the old ones. I fear I am falling into that camp.

RF:  Is there a confluence of other forms on your work? You are a filmmaker, a critic, an academic and a poet. How does a careful study of various media effect your fiction?

RWG: I think teaching and criticism are major ways I both educate and reeducate myself. Teach to learn, that old adage. It’s pretty obvious in my writing about film for Numero Cinq at the Movies that I am exploring films I admire and trying to see how they did that admirable thing.

As for how it affects my prose, I think for writers like me one has to become a better reader to become a better writer.

Well, film done right, rigorously demands the externalization of the internal, a sense of meaning and structure. It’s kind of a haiku exercise in my books. And when I get lost in developing a story I often fall back on screenplay writing questions.

RF:  Would you be willing to share some of those questions?  I’m thinking of David Mamet’s wonderful “three rules for writing a scene.”  Do you have touchstones when you get lost? Writers hate to think in terms of rules, but are there are signposts? What gets you back on the right road?

RWG:  I think any of those “rules” are just questions, or…

I bounce around a lot. If I am struggling with character, I turn to Dara Marks Inside Story. If I want to back up and look at plot I look at Joseph Campbell or Christopher Vogler. In any event, none of these can be rules, they just pose questions. And when I am in the swamps, I just need questions.

RF:  I’m always curious about process for writers. So maybe take me back to your earliest writings.  Has your process evolved?

RWG: I guess my process was initially a lack of process. Something would provoke or inspire me and I would write about it. And then wait to see if it would happen again or try to provoke it by listening to too much Depeche Mode.

I think it’s only recently I have really defined for myself a daily practice, where I write for a minimum amount of time each day and have a small stable of exercises I do each day. I think I went through a stage of being quite prideful about not needing to learn things. Slow to the realization that I want to be a writer who is ninety and still learning new things.

RF:  At a point in many of the stories in Entropic, you shift into away from a simple portrayal of reality and into something more mythical.  Lazarus comes to life, a woman who seems to have a magical power, even medical re-enactors.  Reality in your stories is slipper, at best a tenuous construct.  I’m wondering where you might place this type of storytelling in the literary tradition.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Magic Realism, but I confess the thought crossed my mind more than once.

RWG:  I think the first collection, Crisp, was more strongly “magic realist” than this one. Impossible things still happen here but they are perhaps less gothic and grandiose. I really respect realist writers, but I think I am always a little more interested in what is unspeakable, unrepresentable, except by defying the laws of reality. Maybe for me what is interesting in myself and others is the more shadow aspect, the part we fight to keep from the outside world, that place outside our brain pan.

Also, I think it’s easier to see these subtle emotional states, griefs, joys, when mythologized a little. Like pulling focus with a microscope and projecting the image on the side of a building. Harder to pretend away or erase that aspect of ourselves.

RF:  I was mesmerized by your story “Sinai.” You seem to imply that Lazarus and Jesus may have been romantically entangled. You basically show that being brought from the dead was no gift. But I was also drawn to the notion of how Lazarus as a character in the Bible is sort of thrown away after his purpose was served.  I guess I’m fishing for what inspired you to finish his story.

RWG: I wrestled with that story a long time, initially thinking it would be a play, then coming around to prose with it. Initially, what intrigued me most was just the question of what would unrequired desire would be like after centuries of waiting. Lazarus’s story is peculiar: raised from the dead and then left in a sort of ellipses. What then? What would it be like to live a life in the ellipses? Then, I think, in the writing of it I became more curious about how we bury our beloveds in mythology.

Under it all, too, was my experience of traveling in Egypt on the Sinai when I was twenty-one, how disturbed I was by the landscape where Bible stories were set, now covered in burnt out tanks and traversed by cruddy taxis and travelers like me. There was something absurd and contradictory in that experience I wanted to capture.

RF: What are you working on now?

RWG: I have been working on a novel for a couple of years now and just spent three months in an apartment in Uruguay making headway with that. But I also seem to be experiencing this odd surge that I also experienced at the end of writing Crisp. There’s been a sudden rush of stories and maybe even a title for the next book of short stories. All very rough, but I’ve been basically rushing to get them down.

RF:  Do you want to see any of your fiction writing turned into movies?  I ask because you work in these two fields.  More and more, short stories are being turned into full-length movies.  Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Ken Kalfus’ “PU-239” jump to my mind.  I’m curious about your thoughts on this.

RWG: Adaptation is intriguing for sure. Generally I am more intrigued by what other people come up with when adapting my stories and feel less of an urge to do it myself. Almost all my screenplays have been original material. At the start, when I have the germ of an idea, there’s a process of trying it out and seeing what form seems to suit what I am curious about. Once a story has become a short story, I am not really curious to test that in another form. Though I am excited to see what someone else would reinvision.

I have had two short stories turned into short films: “Blink,” and then a friend is in preproduction on an adaptation of the “Beautifully Drowned.” I enjoy the process of seeing how people change and make the stories their own generally. I’ve found I feel less attached to the details, really, than to the thematic elements of the stories. If someone takes a story I intended to be about compassion and it becomes about abuse, then I am not so keen.

—R.W. Gray & Richard Farrell

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R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

Jul 062015
 

R W Gray

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. —Richard Farrell

Entropic FC

Entropic
R.W. Gray
NeWest Press
200 pages, $18.95

 

The principle of entropy quantifies disorder in a system. The study of entropy is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express the ineffable, to measure the un-measurable. Entropy isn’t chaos per se, but rather is an interrogation of the forces where chaos reigns, where ordered intentions and organized actions hold less sway. Much like dreams or poetry or love, entropy dwells in numinous spaces, pressing beyond the workaday din, spreading into territories where mystery and possibility still exist. Outside the well-ordered, rational world we often mistake as reality, another more resplendent, magnificent world exits. What a wonderful place for a talented writer to cast his net.

“The bodies of fishermen all wash up on this beach eventually,” R.W. Gray writes, an apt image for the ten stories in Entropic. Inside, Gray explores characters, ideas, and emotions all washed up on various strange shores. A massage therapist’s magical touch causes her clients to burst into tears. A son searches for his missing father on the grainy images of a VHS porn tape. A woman edits her flaws by erasing them from videos. Two former lovers stalk and then seduce a younger version of themselves. Gray’s characters occupy liminal spaces, teetering on the brink of transformation, or salvation, or damnation.

This is Gray’s second story collection, just out with Edmonton’s NeWest Press. Gray—a Canadian author, filmmaker, professor, and poet—leans on these varied disciplines to craft his work. The resulting stories are cinematic, lyrical, tightly structured affairs, carefully infused with intelligence, imagination, and meaning. Gray often repurposes myths, or re-imagines canonical texts with archetypal characters to tell his tales. And yet his characters are thoroughly original. They are recognizable men and women trapped in modern dilemmas, filled with desires and longings. Under Gray’s steady hand, we penetrate the unsteady scrim of ordinary reality and emerge far better for the journey.

In “The Beautiful Drowned,” two ostracized women, Lilly and Cora, wander the remote shores of a British Columbia fishing village. Lilly is searching for her inveterate, philandering, drunkard excuse of a husband. She dodges the stares and bitter gossip of the cannery women, the very same women who once burned Cora’s home and drove her to the grisly beach. The mixed-race progeny of a Japanese father and Tlingit mother, “Cora, they say, like all monstrous woman, had been a threatening beauty once.” Now she is a ghoulish shadow of her former self. Nightly she gathers the jetsam and flotsam on the shore, along with the dead bodies of local fisherman thrown back from the ruthless sea.

After a week of searching, Lilly finally stumbles upon her husband with a local girl, in flagrante delicto. Lilly reaches for a rock while the lovers reach for their britches.

And there he is, his white naked ass a grotesque mushroom in among the tree roots, rising and thrusting, a woman’s legs spread awkward shaking branches either side of him. Scramble of legs, her bare feet on gravel as she pushes out from under him and stumbles, falls to grab clothes, covering herself before the second rock hits the gravel next to them, Lilly reaching down for a larger one. She’d so expected she was going to be a widow, but instead she’s just a stupid girl with this skinny white assed, stray dog, poor lay of a man wailing, blurry drunk with his little erection, angry red rhubarb nub in spring.

Gray tempers the shock of the moment with a pastoral beauty. His flirtatious and fecund metaphors—coupling a naked ass with a mushroom, an erection with a spring rhubarb—simultaneously conjure high drama, humor, and ecstasy. By the story’s end, Cora and Lilly have ascended into mythical status, latter-day versions of Demeter and Persephone.

The story works by pitting these two women in parallel but reversed narratives. A wonderful inevitability guides to their twinned fates, laden with powerful sexual overtones and themes of exclusion. Through shifts in point of view, Lilly’s story moves forward in chronological time, while Cora’s story is told mostly in flashback. The effect is a dazzling meander, with the two plot lines winding their way toward a dramatic intersection.

In “Sinai,” a much longer story at forty pages, three travelers break down on the road into Cairo. The protagonist, Eric, clambers up a nearby hill to take a piss and then spots “a red cloth billowing in the wind.” Inexplicably, he sets out across the open desert. Cut off from the road and his companions, he loses his way back. The red cloth turns out to be a mysterious woman, who lures him further from the road.

The flag is not a flag at all. He stops in his tracks, face white, as the woman turns, wraps the billowing venous red cloth around her shoulder once and then again, drawing in the slack, then ascends the ridge and falls away from him. She must have stood there, still as a caryatid in the desert, for half an hour. She must have seen him. So why did she quit him now? And what could she be doing out here in the desert?

Who is this mysterious woman? What is her allure? Why does he keep going? Gray sprinkles in a few clues. Eric has been reading The Odyssey. The story’s epigraph comes from Joyce’s “The Dead.” And so we think we are onto the gist of the plot: Eric recast as the latter-day Ulysses.

But then this strange story descends (or ascends) into the surreal when a first-person narrator interrupts the on-going scene. The narrator, we soon learn, is no less than Lazarus himself, brought back from the dead but condemned to an eternal, sand-blasted decay, a hardening of body and soul but not consciousness. “A delirium of days passes over my face like flies.”

The two points of view continue to alternate, but eventually the Lazarus story takes over, as Eric wanders further into oblivion. The mysterious and elusive woman appears to be Mary Magdalene. “She is ellipses too, like me, an open-ended story, bleeding.”

For Lazarus, resurrection represents a cruel and unending fate, a story with a hell of a beginning but no ending. “It seems I can’t die. There isn’t even that to wait for.” But this story turns out to be about ancient grudges, when Gray creates one of the most compelling love triangles ever. Lazarus and Mary both harbored romantic feelings for the unnamed savior (the Christ figure is only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ throughout). And two millennia do little to heal broken hearts.

The man we loved, his hands were soft, tiny. You wouldn’t know he worked with them. I remember his hands in his lap as he sat across from me in my mother’s yard. He was not disgusted, not sickened by my rotted flesh, the disease about me, and this somehow made my condition worse. I could have borne him not looking at me, eyes averted, but he looked right at me, right into my eyes, so I averted mine.

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. He reexamines form, whether taking the conventional love story and twisting it into a macabre meditation on Christ, or turning the Odyssey into a journey with no end. You will walk away shaken, unsteady, but absolutely enthralled.

In the title story, “Entropic,” a man, M, is cursed with great beauty. “Strangers passing on sidewalks gaze up the length of him, in cafés and grocery stores they caress his back, his forearms, press into him on buses, the sighs of women inhaling against him on the subway and in elevators.”

M enlists the help of his more ordinary friend, the story’s narrator, to challenge notions of what beauty means. M has conceived a plan. He will rent a warehouse. The narrator will drug M unconscious. Guests have been invited. They will have forty minutes exactly to come and do as they wish while he sleeps. The narrator’s job is to wait outside the room and ensure that the guests are never alone. When their time is up, the narrator will wash M’s skin, check his pulse, and prepare for the next visitor.

There are echoes of Marina Ambrović here, and Matthew Akers’ award-winning documentary, The Artist is Present. In the film, Ambrović waits at an empty table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while patrons arrive and sit across from her. Subject and object begin to merge, opening a strangely intimate, disturbing, mesmerizing space. A similar transference occurs in Gray’s story as well, as one guest after another arrives to gain a tangible experience of beauty.

They are allowed to touch him. To even hit him if they need to. But nothing that will damage or alter his body. I police this. A baseball bat leans in the corner in case I need it. But he’s asked me to hang back, appear invisible if I can. He wants each of these people to feel alone with him.

Gray has mined deeply into the human psyche. Our fascination with beauty. Our covetous nature. Our objectification of the flesh. Behind this story stands a rhetorical inquiry—what would you do? Some cry, some masturbate, some sit frozen in awe. The implication is that the gap between our dreams and our reality remains forever unbridgeable, the finger of God eternally reaching toward the finger of man. Such longing, such indescribable curiosity, has plagued man forever.

In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. And through it all, Gray still tells a damn good tale.

—Richard Farell

NC

Farrell2

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

Jul 052015
 

Lynn Crosbie by Laura MeyerAuthor photo by Laura Meyer

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Where Are My Teeth

Ou est mes dents? my father—whom I have never heard speak French, asks.
He is fluent, it turns out: he and Sofi, the blonde orderly, talk and listen to the same

50s hits CD: she holds his hand and spins around his chair.

His teeth go missing for two days.

I have his spare set, and send them express in a quilted jewelry box.

These are the ones he had made for him in Curacao, that turned out to be absurdly tiny, as if he had a necklace of seed pearls in his mouth.

He grew a mustache until he was able to replace them.

“Where did you put them, Dad?”

“I threw them under the railroad tracks.”

They turned up with the dirty sheets and towels.

In 1955, Elvis sings, “Train, train.”

He sings about a sixteen-coach monster that takes away his beloved.

And never will again.

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Horticultural Savage

Is what my father calls Lily, whose roses are returned to me because “she will eat them.”

Every day in bright lime green, and beaming: we have all been called here, after he fell and would not wake up—

“His breathing is bad,” the nurse said, handing over the keys to the palliative room.

I made it there in a few hours, calling to him, “Don’t go, don’t go” and somewhere in mid-litany he sat straight up and asked for water.

We arrived on our mother’s birthday after all,

She looks wrung out and small as she opens card after card,

Holds up her sponge cake after the candles have been lighted.

The night I arrive, Jim has to get Mary and I clamber over the bars of his bed
And lie beside him.

Comme une singe, I later explain to the amused orderly.

I put on Motown hits and we talked as the sky changed from dead blue to
A rush of black,

And we talked about feeling badly for not doing enough; about little Michael being like an angel on loan and seeing the Temptations on a sunny day;

We talked until the others came back and Mary, so relieved, spun like a top and
Made up a song called “Papadoo,”

And we planned what we would do the next day, after tucking him under the fuzzy blankets he likes, with the snowflakes and stars.

We will get him 7-Up and a peanut butter sandwich, clean clothes and a board game.

And open the door a little nervously.

Still stuck between our shoulder blades the knife that says “Your father is almost dead,”

That holds in the blood of remorse and guilt, the vast stream comprised of all of the little losings so far and the red ocean to come.

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Easter

Dad can see the grid of streets from his window, a slice of the Oratory.

Sometimes he sees my mother, on the balcony in just a light sweater, and worries.

Falling golf balls: they are birds, I tell him, and he is embarrassed.
“I’m just trying to figure things out,” he says.

What and when he sees is a mystery to us: suddenly, the bed screws are buttons that the cats might choke on;

The restraint on his wheelchair is one of his torturer’s devices.

One night, he must have spotted the enormous Laura Secord Easter egg my mom
Left on top of his closet.

She came at lunch and, seeing the empty box, asked if it was good.
“Yes,” he said, and smiled.

At Easter he would hide tiny foil-wrapped eggs everywhere.

For months I would find them in hampers and drawers; once, in the slot behind the telephone.

I dragged a chair to reach in the cupboard above the fridge and found one there.

This was proof to me of an Easter miracle. “My dad can’t reach that high,” I told one of my friends.

I had some problems with logic and magical thinking when I was a kid.

I ate paint chips, hearing only chips when my mother complained about the damaged ceiling.

I also slept lightly and cannot imagine how the big Bunny managed to hide so many eggs in our little apartment,

How the Bunny reached the top of that closet, how he stood up without help,

How his silken ears twitch, as he remembers the rush of yellow yolk then the sacred sweetness of the shell.

—Lynn Crosbie

 

Lynn Crosbie, father and brotherDouglas Crosbie, Lynn’s father, reading to her and her baby brother James.

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These poems are from the collection The Corpses of the Future, which is being published by the House of Anansi in 2017. Lynn Crosbie‘s most recent novel, a post-punk mystery featuring Kurt Cobain, is called Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

Jul 042015
 

Matt Jakubowski

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AT WORK ON THE thirty-first floor Anna would stand up at different times during the day to stretch her back and face the long bank of windows. A few steps from the industrial glass she could look beyond the silvery condo building and see the northern half of Philadelphia far below, the streets and rivers branching away toward the dark green ridges of the Poconos.

When the light was right Anna could shift focus and see her reflection in the thick, sealed glass, a fairly tall woman standing among the cubes as a few other people walked around. In that spot, if she focused below on a taxi driving along the parkway, the road corresponded to an aisle in the office behind her. If she focused on the reflection of a co-worker walking down that aisle, he also appeared to be strolling along the parkway, a giant in ghostly form, an apparition only Anna could see in that moment, in that light.

Anna called this office game the overlap. She enjoyed it. Though once when it happened the space in the immediate foreground between her body and the windows seemed like a sun catcher that had fused with her consciousness. That space contained her and she imagined it had compressed into a transparent object on the other side of the glass that she was forced to look back through. Her days and her body had been placed on the window a long time ago, projecting weak colors onto the shapes and shadows of the office space, always present but visible only at certain moments, like an eclipse, the same way she could look across at that great height and sometimes see workers in other buildings who may have been looking back at her.

She’d had this particular office job for almost five years. Beyond the glass there was always the open air. Old towers or new, it didn’t matter. Anna felt she could live forever in such places. She had been laid off and rehired by different companies eight times in twenty-five years. She was good at finding work and had listened to the buildings, knew the meaning of their sounds and vulnerabilities. She liked how the towers swayed and creaked a little in high winds, like old ships rocking the crew to sleep. She liked believing that somehow the green hills weren’t giving in, they were surging back toward the city from the horizon.

She knew that the different industries she’d worked in, like so many others across the world, were a dead end. Talking over the years to certain people about this, some had agreed and could admit it. Others smiled, but politely ignored her afterwards. Smart people around them in the air thirty stories off the ground must have known it was true, too, Anna thought.

Knowing something larger like this made it pleasant to feel somewhat invisible in the office. The pay was regular, the commute was a breeze. Why feign ambition? Be safe and smart about things. Stand up and take a few deep quiet breaths each day and let the week go by. Paint a scene now and then. Put it up at one of the little galleries. Raise a glass when one sells on first Fridays. Walking back to her desk Monday morning, passing the other cubes where people clicked keyboards or swiped at their screens, it felt good telling no one about her hobby and pretending life was the same as before that first stroke ever touched the surface.

Of course the whole place was terrible. People played along because it was important to have a job and money. Old towers went into the shadow of bigger ones every decade. After half of them went bankrupt, whole blocks stood vacant again. Everyone would grumble about the losses. Few believed that anything could be done about it that might matter.

Surviving depended so much on your ability to truly see and hear, Anna liked to think. Even in the office towers certain moments can contain everything or nothing. They could sustain or ruin her happiness for a long while if she let them. After a meeting one summer, for instance, Anna had walked back to her cube and anticipated the overlap, seeing herself getting closer in the window. She looked at the horizon first and smiled until the city appeared far below her. She saw a red, double-decker tour bus full of people traveling along the parkway at the perfect moment and deliberately stayed beside her cube to let it crush right through the middle of her reflection. Someone else might have seen the bus coming and moved or looked away out of superstition. High above, though, Anna stood her ground and watched, imagining her heart taking in all those tourists, holding them, expelling them later on, or not, whoever they were.

During moments like those there was always someone around who’d sneeze from behind the cube walls or laugh at something on their phone. It was Anna’s cue from the environment to get back to work. Who knew how many more towers she’d work in before it was over? She looked outside proudly once more before settling back down in her rigid, expensive chair.

Trying to distract herself by reading an email, she thought of how she’d never gone over and put her palm flat against one of the large windows. She figured the glass this high up would be cold, even on a sunny day. It was bad enough when someone noticed her staring outside for too long. People needed things to smirk and whisper about. Why risk getting caught by actually touching the glass? She thought about doing it and imagined it probably wouldn’t feel as good as those times at home when she watched the snow through the back window on the second floor. There the sting in her palm felt nice, with warm air from the heating vent rippling the hems of her pajama legs. It eased the memory of touching the window the first time she took the bus to school, leaving home for someplace worse. She’d held so much back then and on so many other days since. She was wise enough to know what would happen at the office. If she went up close to put her hand to the glass and saw her handprint evaporating after she took it down, she’d feel she was just standing alone with nothing to lose on the edge of yet another steel platform high above the earth.

—Matthew Jakubowski

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Matthew Jakubowski‘s writing appears regularly in publications such as gorse, Kenyon Review Online, 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, and The Paris Review Daily. He has served as a fiction panelist for the Best Translated Book Award and section editor for the translation journal Asymptote. He lives in West Philadelphia and blogs at truce. @matt_jakubowski

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Jul 032015
 

IMG_2289

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My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six.  At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali.  They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.

I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years.  Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe.  The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak.  He rose slowly and deliberately.  One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness.  But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”

Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006

My crying came hard. I was inconsolable.  Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed.  The world became bleary.  After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak.  I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people.  When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone.  He’s in no shape to give a speech.”  I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.

IMG_1752BK and his aunt, Bunyien Prak, who had her head shaved to become an honorary nun (in honor of BK’s grandmother) in front of grandmother’s picture. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

I am a writer.  I use words to tell stories.  And I love writing.  It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world.  But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.

Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers.  But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most.  I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day.  All I did was sob like a child.  On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone.  I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal.  They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.

IMG_1870BK’s uncle, Bunyonn Tuon, and his cousin Bunpak Tuon becoming honorary monks.  This was their way of honoring his grandmother. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.

When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories.  I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father.  So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder.  Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.

According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together.  To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations.  But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying.  I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me.  It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night.  It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world.  His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name.  After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.

On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive.  It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left.  My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up.  I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party.  For some reason, the subject of survival came up.  Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime.  During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders.  Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger.  It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother.  As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed.  But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law.   She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.

My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you.  If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’  That’s how much she loves you.”

“I didn’t know any of this.”  I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”

My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this?  It’s better than chicken curry.’”

Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution.  I only remember my grandmother’s love.

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During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital.  When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened.  Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine.  Everything’s fine.  How’s your job?  Are the students and professors treating you well?  Are you done with your book yet?”  He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream.  It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital.  Liquid in her heart.  Come home if you can take time off.”  At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult.  Treat him like one.  He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.”  My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth.  But they need to trust us.  We know about America more than them.  They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.”  Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes.  My department is extremely understanding and supportive.  Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy.  Do you understand what I mean?”

There was a long silence on the other end.  Then he said, “Okay, boy.”

Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences.   I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital.  My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan.  “She can’t have surgery at her age.  It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said.  “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live.  At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal.  They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.”  When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room.  My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.”  Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?”  “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed.  Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.

What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate?  Was it history?  Was it a combination of the two?  I don’t know.  An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits.  “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.”  He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.

Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”

“I don’t know.  I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”

My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her?  Was it because my father had taken another wife?  Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman?  Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father?  And what did my father say to her?  What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him?  Why didn’t he come after me sooner?  Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia?  Did he talk to his new wife about it?  What did she tell him?

Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother?  Did I remind her of her oldest daughter?  Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes?  By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared.  No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital.  Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found.  Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness.  She saw pus oozing from her open wounds.  Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?

I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey.  Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide.  It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.

I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness.  Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back.  We walked in single file.  My uncles and aunts were ahead of us.  Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated.  I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery.  A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell.  When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud.  All I could see were the whites of her eyes.  From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed.  Vanna was fuming, angry at me.  Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us.  But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay.  People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle.  I think they are right.

In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs.  After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts.  Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way.  While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all,  her grandchildren.  She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us.  She woke us up for school.  In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school.  I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions?  But how was that possible?  She spoke very little English.  All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying.  That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.

But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.

Family 1980 in refugee camp in ThailandFamily 1980 in refugee camp in Thailand

At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me.  I couldn’t go out at night.  No boys whatsoever.  We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”

I didn’t say anything.  I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.

Vanna continued, “You know what?  Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good.  Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  She was like a mother to me.”  Then she sobbed.

Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us.  While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.

When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays.  She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together.  That was her lesson for all of us.  But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother.  She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day.  When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun.  For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening.  She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation.  She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married.  When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them.  She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.

Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.”  But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical.  When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones.  And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.

We were all loved by Lok-Yiey.  For her, nothing was more important than family.  When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral.  She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help.  She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates.  After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land.  By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work.  When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border.  One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.

Lok-Yiey put her children above everything.  The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love.  In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police.  In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business.  Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter.  And she did it all in the name of family.

Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States.  She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang.  She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world.  That is her lesson for all of us: family love.

Grandma and her family todayGrandmother and the family picture taken recently. Note the contrast with the picture taken in Thailand.

It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us.  I am still sad.  We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words.  She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life.  How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?

I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion.  At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash.  “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?”  I asked my students.  They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on.  Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them.  For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished.  For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends.  More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends.  It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system.  No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build.  We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.

To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives.  We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems.  We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent.  The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them.  It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things.  It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.

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On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart.  If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly.  But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs.  So let me speak from the heart.  Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey.  We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you.  Thank you for everything.  I love you.”

—Bunkong Tuon

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Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books: http://books.nyq.org/title/gruel