Apr 052014

I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out. —Summar West

Progress on the Subject of Immensity
Leslie Ullman
University of New Mexico Press
Papeback, Online Price $13.27


Iam writing from the edge of winter, from a landscape where the weather has refused release despite the seconds ticking toward spring. The cold and the expanses of snow in Vermont have set me pondering questions that arise when a person repeatedly confronts forms of vastness. I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out.

Ullman explains her subject of immensity in some detail on her website; the poems began during a leave-of-absence from teaching, and she says they

…found themselves questioning, lightly at first, the efficacy of the human mind…this spirit of inquiry nudged subsequent poems into larger questions—an exploration of spaces inside us as well as outside us: the rhythms of seasons, the earth suspended in its matrix of space, the life of the body, the limitations of conventional Western religion, the nature of desire, and the pleasure—often the sensuous pleasures—of inquiry itself.

We should not be surprised by the ambitious nature of this subject matter, the level of skilled craftsmanship and the depth of feeling in the individual poems; this collection marks the fourth book (previous collections include Slow Work through Sand, Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Natural Histories) by this poet, teacher, and artist whose writing career spans over thirty years. Ullman has much to say, and to those poets, writers, readers, and daydreamers—anyone who goes out to the edge—we would do well to take heed to a directive in one of the poems at the heart of this book:

at dawn, a telegraphy that fills the morning
too full for one pair of ears—
one might as well listen with the whole body.

Progress begins with the poem, “Abrupt at Dawn,” where the speaker is awakened by a sound.

I was sure the sound
of engines came from
inside me, thrum of labors
that had driven me
in and out of sleep.
And then coyotes, scores
of them, sent out
ribbons of sound strangely
close to the house—something
disembodied, metallic,
the high, shrill gears
adding to whatever the sun
was using to ratchet itself up.

Later, we hear this sound of the machinery of the mind in “the cogs and wheels of dreams” in the poem “Night Opens the Foothills,” and in the poem “The Guises of the Mind” the relentless mind that “pounds and pounds…running on fumes.” But in these short, rhythm-pumping lines above, the words sonically wrap around us (a technique used in many of the poems where the poet relies on short-syllable lines and the pleasing sound devices of alliteration, euphony and sibilance; this is notable in the poem “A Visible Life” that begins, “The mind is a small city / whose street signs show me / what I already know” and in the poem “Mudra” where we hear “How was I like the pinecone / that outlived me? / Shingled, yes, with / aspects of a singular life— / certain wounds and the impulse / to cover them, a preference / for winter…”); the sound the speaker hears and questions is both external and internal.

This type of juxtaposition is seen throughout the book in poems where we go in and out of our speakers’ bodies and minds, the past and the present, silence and noise, realities and dreamscapes. In “Zone by Zone,” for example, we experience noise as light in the technological and the natural, where “coffeepots blinked on, small eyes, / as each day arranged itself into blocks” and where “…the new leaf / on a begonia cutting unfolded visibly / in a cubicle window…”; one of the most compelling examples of Ullman’s use of juxtaposition and doubling of meaning is in the poem “Ice Apples” where the apples that are “locked in ice” remind the speaker of her own memories of love, both the falling in and out of it as seen in these haunting lines: “…We drift in and out / of memory that is less event / than atmosphere—the alertness, / a pastel wash with bold strokes / of umber when love first arrives, / and the greater alertness—burnished / gold behind the eyes, dark grooves / celebrating the texture—when it leaves / yet again, innocence and experience.”

One of the recurring images that Ullman uses to achieve movement through these spaces is the wind. In the last stanza of this first poem, the speaker tells us:

Now, winter sage outside my window
trembles, bends and springs back
and bends again, and I realize
the first sound I heard was wind
blowing in a front. The machinery
of real weather. And I am simply
in its path like any creature,
not wrongly placed,
though the day, like a boat
in hard sea, churns
so fiercely beneath me.

The wind here is not pretty nor delicate nor is this just another nature poem. When the wind and other elements occur, as they do so throughout the book, they are always as forces that command attention. In a poem like “And My Life Wandered On,” “a strong wind has found / its way into these woods, where it / rarely goes,” and transports the speaker into a memory of another life and landscape in Bolivia; equally important, the wind as seen in the concluding lines of the poem “Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present” is the essential element that moves through us all as we’re told, “…Your body, now / clothed thinly  / in skin, filling with / holes—only something / porous like this can feel / what has always been wind.”

Feel the way light enters in the poem “Equinox”:

Water, black water
has turned to ice and lulled
the long valley into a doze—soon
we’ll all sprout gills, drifting
in a sleep beyond memory,
beyond the residual lung,
beyond the spent coals.

of desire. But that first
drop of juice—so
sweet-startling—a sacrament—
light in a throat from which
song has nearly faded—
could it guide me back
to shore? An orange, small sun
dawning from the inside
to resurrect the mammal body

Light as sacrament, as resurrection—Ullman’s metaphors are big, and in her small lines they startle us into awareness of how and where they live inside us.

As an important footnote to the book, this poem begins with the question,

Who will buy me an orange
 to console me now?

The lines are from a translation of José Garostiza’s poem “Who Will Buy Me an Orange?” and Ullman borrows these and other lines from several Latin American poets, giving us still further spaces of entrance in the collection.

We also go inside the subject of the mind in Progress in a series of poems scattered throughout the three sections. The poet excels in her use of personification with these poems and uses it to question the mind’s constructs, limitations, patterns, quirks and eccentricities, and experiences both harrowing and profound. My favorite poem of the mind series falls into this latter category. Listen to these heart-wrenching lines in the last stanza from “Guises of the Mind”:

How they clomp through the wild flowers and thick
grasses of August—they might as well be crossing
hot asphalt against traffic. They can’t remain
still enough to feel the slow ripening that could
be theirs—the nectar turning, beneath a thickened
rind, its stored sugars to the late October sun.
They’ve never let grief spear them and have its way
before moving on; every one of them pounds
and pounds at the door of the one house
that won’t accept them, the one heart, the one
indifferent ear—willful, running on fumes,
they throw themselves against that hardness.

While we may leave that poem feeling powerfully slammed against the pavement or door, we have the contrast of a poem like “Water Music” where a more pleasurable and surprising form of movement emerges. The poem begins with the speaker telling us,

I have fashioned a miniature fountain
from scraps of dream…

Those two lines alone could be enough to carry the rest of a poem that might simply describe the dream or the fountain or both in an aesthetically pleasing way, but as with so many other poems in the collection, it turns toward something larger; we go to the past through

a sound
that makes me long to be touched by upheaval. History
bearing me somewhere I haven’t been.

In second stanza, we’ve made it to the realm of a perceived separation and barrier between the sexes, a realm where the speaker tells us

                       Yet when I read the great
poems written by men who lived
before me, I find myself peering through
museum glass, waiting to be allowed
inside. Then outside. Against the rigors
that might forge and pound into shape
a significant life, there is something else
I crave—maybe grace, a sense of my feet
caressing the ground…

By the third stanza, the speaker who began by looking at her fountain made “from scraps of dream” imagines men and women joining to dance in a form where the weight of the past has been let go, where the body gives way to music, and we’re left with this question:

when their hips give in to the music
and I can see in their faces the world’s business
has loosened its hold, how can I not love them,
how can I think my minor note

In this poem where the speaker has imagined, speculated, and dreamed her way to this question-as-conclusion, we arrive at a place of love and gratitude; whatever the method of movement—and prepare yourself for a multitude of forms—in Progress, that is often the place of arrival though it is not the only one.

With a book of this scope, it seems reasonable to ask where we arrive by the end, what answers Ullman ultimately gives to her questions. Here’s a hint: the final poem involves subjects as large as absence and the sky, what we lose and what we find. This poem, like so many in the collection, turns in a way that is both surprising and down right breathtaking. I urge you to take the journey with this book; maybe you’ll start with that last poem and find your way to what the poet as companion and guide has been telling us to do all along, “Consider Desire.”[1]

—Summar West

 Summar shot

Summar West was born and raised in East Tennessee. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, including Tar River Poetry, Ellipsis, Appalachian Heritage, and Appalachian Journal. She currently resides in Montpelier, Vermont.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See a selection of Leslie Ullman poems, including “Consider Desire” earlier published in the magazine here.
Apr 042014


What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why are we so hell-bent on love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. –Richard Farrell


Lorrie Moore
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 192 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-59413-6


The landscape of love, booby-trapped with the broken-hearted and littered with deteriorating destinies, is familiar territory for Lorrie Moore. Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark, explores the underbelly of Eros with wit, wisdom and unflinching honesty. Each of the eight stories in Bark, her first story collection since the wildly successful Birds of America, contends with romantic relationships, most in some state of decline, a few in outright freefall. But lest this all sound too heavy, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about Lorrie Moore here, a writer who delights in the uncanny juxtapositions of humor and pathos to tug a story along. Her verbal pyrotechnics and structural harmonies can always make you smile, even amidst the bleakest affair of the heart.

“I can’t live without love in my life,” says Ira—the protagonist in the opening story, “Debarking.” Ira, recently divorced, has reached an existential conclusion: even bad love is better than no love at all. A middle-aged Jewish man thrust back into the dating scene, Ira skips Passover Seder in order to meet a woman at a Lenten dinner with his Christian friends. To mask his nervousness, Ira cracks resurrection jokes. “Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the Crucifixion. ‘We really didn’t intend it,’ he murmured, ‘not really, not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away’” Ira seems hell-bent on his own comic demise until he meets Zora, another divorcee, who laughs at his oddball jokes, sparking off their bizarre coupling.

Over the course of this 46-page story (the first of two very long stories in Bark), Ira and Zora contend with families, dating rituals and sex, and in most cases, without much success. After the aforementioned dinner, Ira sends Zora a short note and his phone number on a postcard with a picture of “newlyweds dragging empty Spam cans from the bumper of their car.” Moore makes the vivid image of this postcard resonate with irony and meaning. The postcard is funny, but also loaded. Are the newlyweds destined for unhappiness? Is all love like a string of empty Spam cans? And why a postcard? For Ira, the hapless and hopeless romantic, a postcard represents the “geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip Van Winkle.” Desperate but cautious, Ira tries to make all the right moves. But Moore wants us to remember that there is nothing rational about human desire, and she constantly pricks at every attempt to make it so.

A few days later, Zora replies in kind, also sending Ira a postcard, but her message copies the very words he wrote. “Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no too, no emphasized you, just the exact same words thrown back at him like some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was crazy or stupid or he was being too hard on her.”

Zora’s strange mimicry hints at what might be a profound emptiness behind the ritual. Maybe all the moves a lover makes are for naught. Maybe the palace is only a façade. Moore’s exploration of zany relationships (few are zanier than Ira and Zora’s) reveals much confusion about the nature of love. What’s happening here? Why is everyone acting, playing a part in a carefully orchestrated dance without music or steps? To mix the metaphor a bit, if love is a mirror, a reflection of the lover cast back upon himself, then the expected response is one of the familiar, some ting of recognition. But Moore’s mirrors belong in funhouses. The reflections they send back distort, and the images are grotesque parodies of any romantic ideal. Rather than recognition, Ira finds perversions, warped emotions, and confusion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wonderful scene when Ira finally calls Zora to ask her out on a date.

He phoned Zora four days later, so as not to seem discouragingly eager. He summoned up his most confident acting. ‘Hi, Zora?’ This is Ira,’ and then waited—narcissistically perhaps, but what else was there to say?—for her response.
‘Yes. Ira Milkins.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. “I don’t know who you are.’

In this story about acting, about seeming, about playing games with the heart, misapprehension shatters hope. This reversal, Zora’s failure to recognize Ira, underscores not only the narcissism of falling in love (don’t we all expect to be loved back?) but also the more desperate need to be noticed, to be seen and heard by another human being. We can’t be loved without first being visible, but if all we present is a mask, then when are we ever truly seen?

Moore takes the idea of invisibility to a much higher level in “Paper Losses,” a shorter story (at 12 pages) than “Debarking,” and one that deals with the end of love, rather than its beginning. Kit and Rafe are a married couple in the process of splitting up. They’ve stopped having sex, stopped talking, and even stopped caring about these things. Rafe descends nightly into the family basement to assemble model rockets, and the lonely house fills up with fumes of paint and glue.

She seldom saw him anymore when he got up in the morning and left for his office. And when he came home from work, he would disappear down the basement stairs. Nightly, in the anxious conjugal dusk that was now their only life together, after the kids went to bed, the house would fill up with fumes. When she called down to him about this he never answered. He seemed to have turned into some sort of space alien. Of course later she would understand that all this meant he was involved with another woman, but at the time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypotheses only: brain tumor or space alien.

The epitome of dissolution is not fighting. When couples argue, they are still holding on to something. But when silence prevails, when a person stops answering, when muted apathy fills the home, there isn’t much to be done. The lover turns into a space alien, a creature so utterly foreign as to be unrecognizable.

Rafe serves Kit with divorce papers while he’s still living in their home. “‘Honey,’ she said trembling, ‘something very interesting came in the mail today.’” But before Kit and Rafe can call it quits, they must decide what to do about a previously-planned family vacation. Kit decides she wants to go. “What bimbo did he want to give her ticket to? (Only later would she find out.)” This is vintage Lorrie Moore. Circumstance beats down her characters, but never defeats them.

The vacation, naturally, is a disaster. Kit loses her luggage and must wear gift shop clothes. Rafe continues to ignore her, even in the bright sunshine of the Caribbean. With characteristic humor, Moore takes a few shots at the notion of the idyllic family vacation: “They all slept in the same room, in separate beds, and saw other families squalling and squabbling, so that, by comparison theirs—a family about to break apart for ever—didn’t look so bad.” This subversion—the divorced family appearing more normal than the happy family—reiterates the theme: love is a confusing mess.

At one point, Kit thinks, “This at last was what all those high school drama classes had been for: acting.” Appearances can be contradictory at best, outright lies at worst. And everything about their vacation (no less their marriage) involves keeping up appearances, about pretending, even at the bitter end. Miserable families pretend to be happy and disintegrating families pretend to be intact.

When they left La Caribe, its crab claws of land extending into the blue bay, she was glad. Staying there she had begun to hate the world. In the airports and on the planes home, she did not even try to act natural; natural was a felony. She spoke to her children calmly, from a script, with dialogue and stage directions of utter neutrality. Back home in Beersboro she unpacked the condoms and candles, her little love sack, completely unused, and threw it all in the trash. What had she been thinking? Later, when she learned to tell this story, as a story, she would construct a final lovemaking scene of sentimental vengeance that would contain the inviolable center of their love, the sweet animal safety of night after night, the still-beating tender heart of marriage. But for now she would become like her unruinable daughters, and even her son, who as he aged stoically and carried on regardless would come scarcely to recall—was it past even imagining—that she and Rafe had been together at all.

If natural was a felony, it’s no wonder that Kit began to hate the world. She will invent a story to contain the mystery, the inviolable center of love. Perhaps this is the best we can do, but Moore shows us that it’s nowhere near good enough. Love, ever elusive, can only be glimpsed in our messy, fumbling pursuits of it, or in the way we ruin it.

What remains, then, is a high-stakes quest for companionship. Kit, Ira, maybe the rest of us too, are all trying to stave off the cold loneliness of the world. What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why do we continue to seek out love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. In Bark, the closer the characters get to the unbridgeable chasm, the more desperately they chase, and the more certain their own isolation becomes. Love proves almost impossible, so everyone wears a mask, which defeats the very purpose, in almost solipsistic logic. The manifestation of the act—the eventual coupling between Ira and Zora, the decoupling of Kit and Rafe—verges on the farcical. Luggage is lost, empty Spam cans are tied to bumpers. Lovers remain forever strangers.

Still, it would be an over-simplification to say that all of the stories are strictly love stories. Moore is too sharp a writer to be so easily categorized. In “Foes” and “Subject to Search,” Moore dabbles overtly in contemporary politics. In “Juniper Tree,” she summons her inner Dickens and tells a delightful ghost story. “Wings,” the other novella-length story in the book, is about a washed-up musician who befriends an elderly philosopher. It is probably my favorite in the book. Of course, the friendship goes wrong when the geezer philosopher tries to stick his tongue down the woman’s throat. We just can’t seem to get this stuff right.

Bark contains heartbreaking, hilarious, and honest stories. It is a wise meditation on the human struggle for affection, for identity, and for meaning. Less transcendent than Whitman’s barbaric yawp, more restrained than Ginsburg’s howl, Moore’s bark sounds a weary note. Like a dog tied to a tree, we bark, hoping only to be heard, to be released from the ties that bind. Or perhaps bark refers to the tree itself, to the hard outer core which protects the inner pulp, the life force flowing through each of us, so fragile, so hidden beneath an impenetrable shell. “The end of love was one big zombie movie,” Moore writes. Perhaps. But in every zombie movie, a human or two always survives, someone to wander through the chaos and squalor, seeking, holding out, carrying on. Whatever holds us back, whatever constrains us, also reminds us that there is something more out there, something worthwhile beyond the chain, inside the bark. Despite the misery, despite the empty-Spam-can destiny that surely awaits the seeker, the pursuit continues unabated. We bark, or we die. Moore puts it more eloquently, if not a bit more bleakly:

Living did not mean joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game. One could hold the cards for oneself or not: they would land the same regardless. Tenderness did not enter except in a damaged way and by luck.

—Richard Farrell

Rich Gun-001

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior 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, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.


Apr 022014

Robert Coover by Dave Pape viPhoto by Dave Pape via Wikipedia

 The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings… —Natalie Helberg

Day  of Wrath Cover Pic

The Brunist Day of Wrath
Robert Coover
Dzanc Books
1100 pages, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1938604386


Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath is a boisterous, bloody, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring—for any writer, humbling—sometimes painfully, but always expertly, protracted ride. Countless characters and their countless voices well up out of its thousand pages, mingling as subplots crisscross and ramify: Cultists clash with the local and power-laden in a high-profile scrimmage for property; cult benefactors drain joint bank-accounts, screwing local, power-laden husbands out of their underpinning monies; skeptics balk, hoot, and forewarn; believers pray, persist together, at odds, or else, defecting, wail for reckoning; trailer-brats rapture cats; fathers disown sons and sons abandon fathers; signs are deciphered, then, ad hoc, re-deciphered; God is named, variously; musically-inclined yokels hit it big; an aspiring saint is gang-raped; demons are conceived, and, on a rooftop in the midst of a bloodbath to end bloodbaths, a murderous, evangelical biker is volatized by choppers.

The book before the book, The Origin of the Brunists, like the fictive doomsday cult whose origin it catalogues, begins with light. An explosion. Confused prose conveys its confused wake: ‘There was light and / post drill leaped smashed the/turned over the whole goddamn car kicking / felt it in his ears, grabbed his bucket, and turned from the face.’ Light: Two shadows, miners, duck out of sight; a cigarette in a small earthen chamber disintegrates the next instant. Gas. Light. Flame feeding flame. Black smoke furling into shafts, tunnels. Blocked passageways and rubble. The sentient shadows die. Or live. Many die. Most. Laboriously, for lack of oxygen. Singly and in groups. A message wrapped in a preacher’s fingers—stiff fingers—makes it to the surface. It prophesies the coming of light, the end of the world.

The accident at Deepwater No. 9 Coalmine, the essence of West Condon, ushers in the town’s demise, its economic and spiritual ruin. It gives rise to the Brunists, who inaugurate and so-name themselves so as to better await an end that, as livelihoods are lost and reputations are ruined, as sermons bubble forth alongside bar talk and smack talk, as lechers skulk to their lovers, and as poseurs pose to achieve base purposes, is endlessly deferred.

The Brunist Day of Wrath picks up here: Five years later, not much has changed. Those who lost everything in the first novel have lost or are in the process of losing more. The Brunists, having dispersed, gather once more in anticipation of the End’s anniversary (puzzling, they know). Only this time there are hellions: The children of the tyrannical Reverend Baxter—wife-beater, child-beater, convert but erstwhile Brunist nemesis #1—a man as fiery as the Book of Revelations itself—have grown up. Once friendly, neighbourhood terrorizers flaunting a charred human hand, eldest and youngest son are now cold-blooded gangsters. They bow to a ferocious god akin to that of the Old Testament (‘the Big One’) and, with a clutch of armed bikers—not Brunist-endorsed, though their tats are Brunist—not to mention with Nitro foraged from the abandoned mine site, plan to rev up, rip through and blitz West Condon.

Thus The Brunist Day of Wrath, like some horrible ouroboros, curls back to touch its origin: The mine explodes, ejecting prophecy—‘the Coming of the Light’—which, moving through a complicated chain of human intercessors, begets further explosion.     

And yet there is a day beyond this day of wrath, an end beyond the end: an epilogue in which the novel becomes fully self-reflexive; this is a text about a writer, writing. It reminds us that The Brunist Day of Wrath, like most of Coover’s work, is largely preoccupied with signs and symbols, stories, story-forms and tropes. It is a book about the power they have over us, about the fact that they are human-generated, the fact that they rigidify around us in deleterious ways (or become crusty, as Coover says), and the even more momentous fact that they are tractable to invention: they can be appropriated and rejiggered; they can be wildly embellished upon.  

Coover has devoted his art to shifting and embellishing upon them, partly by creating work that is self-interrogating (he is called a fabulist for this reason): In books like Briar Rose, in which an old crone subjects a sleeping beauty to innumerable variations on the eponymous tale, he creates the tale anew as a series of its own novel versions, and this despite the princess’s unremitting protestation (perhaps representative of a culture’s) that this is not how stories are told. But these stories, repeated, are both the dreams the child (culture) dreams and her waking reality; to not refashion them, to merely accept what has—for whatever corresponds, in real time, to Beauty’s 100-year slumber—been handed down, would be, for the crone, to risk sinking into ‘a sleep as deep’ as the princess inhabits: a dangerous, unnecessary, and even laughable automatism.

In Pricksongs and Descants, Coover uses a similar technique to refresh the short-story form; in, for example, “The Babysitter” from that collection, he varies a handful of scenarios across a series of short, disconnected paragraphs. The story is ‘modular’ in Madison Smartt Bell’s sense of the term: Key details are altered or swapped for reasonable facsimiles in corresponding paragraphs (text blocks): in one, the baby has asphyxiated on a diaper pin; in another, it is screaming; in another, she, the babysitter, strangles it; in still another, it is at the bottom of the bathtub, ‘not swimming or anything.’ Text blocks can corroborate or contradict one another; they ‘mean’ together paratactically, or resonate with more than follow from one another. Thus tone can shift from block to block, as can point of view; in fact anything, as Bell says, can happen.[1] Variation, as a technique, is reflective of what Coover has called his wish to unpack a piece’s full range of possibilities, of an effort, as he puts it, ‘to explore the whole.’  

Though The Brunist Day of Wrath has a realist quality uncharacteristic of some of Coover’s other work, it nevertheless preserves a drive toward narrative playfulness and the absurd. That being said, the book’s flights of fancy, unlike those in a work like Pricksongs and Descants, remain at all times recuperable by something like realism: It is not the case that anything can happen from, say, one free-floating text block to another: In fact, in both The Origin of the Brunists and The Brunist Day of Wrath, if we encounter something disjoined or surreal, this is likely because we are reading a character’s letter or journal entry. Similarly, Jesus, in the latter narrative, who has taken up residence in an apostate, cannot disappear into thin air; his presence, not to mention his bantering sacrilege, his fun, off-colour reasoning, can be explained using the real-world term ‘alter-ego’; he both is and isn’t a mere voice in a mind—a fact which doesn’t preclude carnal baptisms with members of his ex-congregation:

‘I’m ready to do anything for you,’ Prissy whispers, peeling down her leotards…She steps into the tub and kneels between his feet and commences to wash them, one at a time. And then she lifts them and kisses them. ‘You are so beautiful,’ she says. ‘You are the most beautiful man I have ever known.’ When she says this, she is gazing affectionately past his feet at his middle parts, which are beginning to stir as though in enactment of the day’s [Easter] legend. It is not hard to prophecy what will happen next. Is he being tested? Be anxious for nothing, Jesus says. As it is written, no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. She has a car, she can be helpful to us. I, too, have known the company of helpful women of dubious morals.

What is notable on a stylistic level about The Brunist Day of Wrath is the sheer excess of Coover’s prose (the paragraphs in this work sprawl), and, relatedly, the amount of detail packed into nearly every character imagined: These characters are full-bodied, notably unique—unique as any of us are, perhaps more—and very far from the stock figures that dominate so many of his other pieces: princesses and private eyes, dames and woodsmen, characters whose respective profiles are, understandably and likely intentionally, blank as a trope’s. In some ways, the work is working realism through excess—conventional realism, anyway, since, as a character points out, ‘The conventional way of telling stories is a kind of religion,’ of course ‘the true realists are the lens-breakers’; ‘[t]ight-assed little paragraphs laid out like snapshots in a photo album are not for me.’ If the project, then, does, to a certain extent, locate itself within, and limit itself to, realism, it does so in order re-locate, or push, realism’s very mode of telling. Perhaps this pushing of realism is the reason Jesus, in the text, remains at all times plausible (certifiable). Perhaps it is also the reason characters, not Coover, pen the work’s zaniest digressions.

The text’s catalogue of kinds of signs and symbols—its interest in how ideas, experiences and phenomena are encoded and translated—is another point of excess; it is likely not unrelated to Coover’s commitment to the text’s full (and, in this case, metaphoric) potential: Dreams, dances and gypsy cards pepper these pages; if they are interpretations themselves, they must again be interpreted. Mute stroke victims blink eyes as visitors suss out their communications. Two bible college drop-outs even attempt to reconstruct the history of the Brunist cult’s formation; they use newspapers, stories, pornographic photographs and tape-recordings—versions, in short, to create a newer version. The Origin of the Brunists itself is more or less translated into the sequel, where it is mediated by the other characters’ acts of retrospection: We get it a second time in mosaic form, each pane perspectival.

Though The Origin of the Brunists shares some of the above preoccupations, musing on similar themes, specifically on ‘messages’—there are messages everywhere: ambiguous messages which are therefore as meaningful as they are meaningless: ‘the spirits never [say] things plain’ and ‘sometimes, well, words can mean two things, that’s all’—it nevertheless refrains from insisting on a message. This is perhaps less true (but not untrue) of The Brunist Day of Wrath. While in true postmodern fashion, The Origin of the Brunists mobilizes contradictory voices, allowing perceptive renderings of devout thought-processes and those of the incredulous, mocking, opportunistic newspaper editor (and perhaps absurdist), Miller, to exist on par, The Brunist Day of Wrath cedes itself to Sally:

Sally is Miller—one of the few central characters not carried over into the sequel—re-envisioned. She is a skeptic, a wit and a writer, and, in the epilogue it is she who, self-taxed, writes a version of the apocalypse, as it was manifest in West Condon. This book within the book, mentioned in a chapter written so as to seem to reference—so as to riff off the existence of—The Brunist Day of Wrath, institutes, within the text, the spectre of the author (for one thing, Sally is advised to try her hand writing from a male perspective—she uses some biographical details, though changes others). In some ways, she seems to channel Coover, who was inspired to complete his novel after George W. Bush was elected: the fundamentalists rose up and terror with them (Coover says ‘Young Bush,’ writes ‘Young Baxter’). As Sally says, ‘It’s like people are caught up in a dangerously insane story and they don’t know how to get out of it…’

This is why Sally, like Coover, in her capacity as a writer, aspires to shred story, to mutate the domain of the interpreted and the interpretable, to maintain its fluidity, or eat dreams (so she puts it). For in her text-world, truth is no more than a mode of rendering; lies expressed in the correct mode become true and effective, while truths expressed as opinions are dismissed in court. Even beyond the courtroom, a slick simpleton garbles facts to tenderly manipulate the dying and a West Condon reprobate lies to himself long enough, and elaborately enough, to confect sweet, false memories. Perhaps the only thing Coover’s book insists upon is story’s ontological potency. The work teems with real-world significance precisely because it is a story about story.

The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings: ‘What’s the toll now from all this madness?’ Sally asks, answering, ‘You might say a story has killed them all.’[2]

Natalie Helberg

  Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Joel Katelnikoff quotes Bell’s Narrative Design in his dissertation SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK: A Poetics of ASCII Literature (1983-1989). He also suggests that Coover’s stories in Pricksongs and Descants are modular in design, though without discussing particular examples
  2. See also an interview with Robert Coover on Numéro Cinq and readings and interviews at the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsound.
Mar 142014

Donna Tartt
This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so. —Steven Axelrod


The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co.
771 pages, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-316-05543-7


Describing a book you love is like describing a woman you’re in love with. Adoration turns anodyne; genuflection, generic. Of course she’s “beautiful and smart and funny.” Naturally, the book is thrilling and immersive. Words feel puny in the face of experience, tied to reality by a slender filament of connotation.

Better to just introduce the woman to your friends – or put the book into their hands.

For a reviewer it’s a daunting challenge, but an intriguing one: convey the book’s delights without tarnishing them, share the book’s story without squandering its surprises, celebrate its complexities without overwhelming the reader.

One friend of mine finished The Goldfinch and instantly started it again from page one. There was too much to absorb in one reading and she didn’t want the experience to end. One writer friend said simply “I wish I’d written it”; another said, “I feel like I did.”

For my wife it was like all the books she loved in her childhood, rolled into one: Ivanhoe and Hans Christian Andersen, David Copperfield, Nighthawks of Nantucket, Narnia and The Secret Garden and Treasure Island and more.

Donna Tartt has mentioned during interviews that Robert Louis Stevenson was a special favorite of hers, growing up, and that she loved the feeling his books gave her – the rush of story, the thrill of cascading events. The heroine of Tartt’s previous novel The Little Friend (2002) shares these predilections. The inimitable, indefatigable (and occasionally insufferable) Harriet Cleve loves Treasure Island, and maintains its spirit of adventure when she launches into some frightening adventures of her own.

For me, The Goldfinch recapitulates an even larger trove of literary tradition, from Tom Jones to Huckleberry Finn, from Pride and Prejudice to Catcher in the Rye, from Tolstoy to Capote, from Jules Verne to Elmore Leonard. Yes, along with being a Romance and a Picaresque, a novel of manners, an old-fashioned bildungsroman and a classic Hero’s Journey, The Goldfinch by the end, becomes, along with everything else, a surprisingly hard-boiled and suspenseful piece of all-American crime fiction.

For Theodore Decker the journey and the crime begin on a rainy autumn afternoon in Manhattan, when he ducks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, taking shelter from a rain storm.

They wander up the grand stairway and through the upper galleries, pausing by Carel Fabritius’s small masterpiece, which lends its title to the novel it haunts, inspires and animates. The 32-year old Delft artist Fabritius was killed, and his studio leveled, by a gunpowder magazine explosion in October of 1654. The Goldfinch was one of the few of his paintings to survive the blast.

It survives another explosion, more than three hundred and fifty years later, a fictional one this time, the result of the terrorist bombing that sets Donna Tartt’s story in motion. Theo’s mother Audrey is killed, having strolled into the gift shop – ground zero for the blast. Theo had lingered behind in the Dutch Masters exhibit tracking a fascinating old man and his companion, a lovely red haired girl with whom Theo sensed an instant wordless connection.

Theo wakes up in the smoking wreckage, the girl and his mother nowhere to be seen. Staggering through the rubble, he comes upon the old man. Delirious and dying, he instructs Theo to rescue the Fabritius painting, which has been blown off the wall, a “tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.”

The old man, his name is Welty Blackwell, pulls a heavy gold ring with a carved stone off his own hand and thrusts it into Theo’s with the words, “Hobart and Blackwell”  and the instruction, “Ring the green bell.” The old man dies in Theo’s arms. Then Theo takes the painting and the ring and flees through the shattered labyrinth of the museum, and out a side door to the street. He goes home, chased away by the first responders, hoping to find his mother waiting for him. Of course she’s not there and his life as he once knew it is over.

We are drawn into this vacuum by the precise beauty of Tartt’s prose. She has called herself “a minimalist, painting a wall-sized mural with a brush the size of an eyelash.” To understand the power of the book you have study the brush strokes themselves:

According to the clock on the stove, which I could see from where I sat, it was two-forty-five in the morning. Never had I been alone and awake at such an hour. The living room — normally so airy and open, buoyant with my mother’s presence – had shrunk to a paler cold discomfort, like a vacation house in winter: fragile fabrics, scratchy sisal rug, paper lamp shades from Chinatown and the chairs too little and light. All the furniture seemed spindly, poised at a tiptoe nervousness. I could feel my heart beating, hear the click and ticks and hisses of the large elderly building slumbering around me…And what would I do? Part of me was immobile, stunned with despair, like those rats in laboratory experiments that lie down in the maze to starve.

I tried to pull my thoughts together. For a while it had almost seemed that if I sat still enough, and waited, things might straighten themselves out somehow. Objects in the apartment wobbled with my fatigue, halos shimmered around the table lamp; the stripe of the wall seemed to vibrate.

Theo eventually makes his way to Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques store in the West Village. This is the first of many hidden worlds in the book. The store is dark, apparently closed; the green bell marks an unobtrusive side door.

When Mr. Hobart – Hobie – comes to answer the bell, Welty’s ring grants Theo admittance, and a roof over his head another glimpse of the little girl, Pippa, now recuperating from the explosion in Hobie’s townhouse. For Theo their bond is affirmed, even amplified by their joint survival, but Pippa is still too dazed to fully reciprocate his inchoate feelings.

Theo gradually drifts into the center of Hobie’s life, becoming an apprentice in antique furniture restoration.

After school amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents – “sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff” – spicy mahogany, dusty smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Downstairs – weak light wood shavings on the floor—there was something of the feel of a stable, great beasts standing patiently in the dim. Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture, in how he talked of pieces as “he” and “she”, in the muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces from their stiff, boxy more mannered peers, and in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets.

But it can’t last. Soon Theo is taken out of Hobie’s world by the bureaucracy that controls the lives of orphans (Theo’s father has been AWOL for years), and placed in the posh home of his school friend, Andy Barbour. This is another hidden world, a dark grotto of privilege, barricaded behind doormen and a long dark lobbies, gated elevators and heavy oak doors. The life inside the Barbour’s vast, gloomy pre-war apartment evokes Cheever and Chekhov – dwindling money, gin-soaked father, busy socialite mother; and a Salinger-like Glass family of squabbling siblings – the younger kids Kitsey and Toddy, older brother Pratt. It’s tricky at first. “Though nothing was required of me, still the effort to blend into their polished and complicated household was an immense strain. I was desperate to vanish into the background – to slip invisibly among the Chinoiserie patterns like a fish in a coral reef.”

All of this comes to an end when Theo’s father shows up, cheesy girlfriend Xandra in tow, and sweeps Theo away from everything he knows into a very different hidden kingdom: the deserted outer suburbs of Las Vegas, where abandoned McMansions bake in the heat beyond the range of bus lines and even fast food deliveries. Arid and bleak outside, sterile and over-air-conditioned inside, this new life would be lethal if not for the one friendship Theo strikes up at school, with renegade Ukrainian teen-age con artist Boris, who gleefully name-checks himself with every namesake from Yeltsin to Drubetskoy to Badenov.

If Hobie is the Protector in this journey, Boris is the Trickster, whose role is to disrupt, and he does a splendid job of it, right from the start, introducing Theo to pornography, drugs, and petty crime, while regaling him with the tales of his father’s oil wildcatting across Asia and South America, in several different languages.

The only stable thing in Theo’s life remains the Goldfinch, which he has carried with him to Las Vegas, wrapped and taped and now attached to the back of his bed’s headboard. Theo is terrified that Boris or his father might discover it, so he only takes it out on rare occasions when he’s sure he’s alone. But the picture haunts him, as it obviously haunts Donna Tartt and anyone else who has ever seen it. The lovely little bird is held to its perch by a delicate chain that seems to signify all the tragedy of life as well as the essence of life itself, the breath that leaves the body only to be pulled back again, over and over.

At one point Theo reads an Interpol report in the newspaper, detailing the value of the paintings stolen from the museum after the terrorist attack. A Rembrandt worth forty million was taken, but the Fabritius Goldfinch, clumsily hidden in a Las Vegas boy’s bedroom, is “unique in the annals of art and therefore priceless.”

Priceless! He had to get the priceless one. The little boy getting drunk on stolen whiskey in a desert suburb has somehow become an art thief of impossible global proportions, hunted by the FBI and Interpol. His father is a crook, too, though on a much smaller scale: a low-rent gambler heading for trouble. Eventually, Theo’s father encounters an unfixable string of bad luck. Genteel men with baseball bats appear at the front door, and his father dies in a car crash, speeding to escape his lethal creditors. Theo grabs the Goldfinch, some loose cash, and a handful of drugs to sell, and flees the city.

He winds up back in New York with Hobie, and the narrative jumps eight years into the future.

Clearly they were uneventful years: the soft fizzing of a long fuse. A chance encounter draws Theo back into the Barbour’s world, where he learns that Andy and Mr. Barbour have died in a boating accident off the coast of Long Island. He falls into a love affair with Andy’s sister Kitsey, and a trip to Hobie’s storage space in the Brooklyn Navy yards reveals a whole other side of the artisan’s art: a warehouse crammed with fake antiques. Hobie creates them for his own amusement, and he’s been doing it for decades. They are extraordinary pieces, and Theo starts selling them to the very collectors who have had such a difficult time getting into Hobie’s shop to buy the authentic articles. The deception, rather like his father’s gambling, starts out well. Theo sells many hutches and chairs and escritoires, showing a salesman’s skill and verve not unlike that which Welty built the business thirty years before. Soon Hobie’s business is in the black again. Hobie is too otherworldly to ask many questions about this financial miracle. But the truth is closing in on Theo fast.

It arrives in the person of one Lucius Reeve. Reeve’s curiosity was spiked by one of Theo’s fakes; a year of research later he’s tracked all of them down, and threatens to turn his evidence over to the police. But it’s blackmail, not moral outrage that motivates Reeve. He wants something.

“I know about the museum,” he says. “Here’s what I wonder. Why did James Hobart go about repeating that tale to everyone in town? You turning up at his doorstep with his partner’s ring? Because if he’d just kept his mouth shut, no one would have ever made the connection.”

Theo pleads ignorance, but it’s no use. Reeve is relentless. “You want me to spell it out? Right here? All right, I will. You were with Welton Blackwell and his niece, you were all three of you in gallery 32 and you were the only person to walk out of there. And we know what else walked out gallery 32, don’t we?”

The rest of Reeve’s story just sounds crazy – Theo and Hobie working together, using the painting to broker deals and raise money with thieves and terrorists all over the world. Actually, the painting is stowed safely in an East Side storage space with a load of camping equipment. Clearly someone has been hawking a forgery. Reeve offers a million dollars for the picture – against the threat of police prosecution for the furniture fakes. Theo has no idea what Reeve is talking about or what he can do.

Then Boris shows up.

At this point the plot, which has been cracking and creaking like a giant snowfield in an early spring, fissures into an avalanche and it would be unkind to reveal the events that follow in any detail. Suffice it to say that Theo is swept into the criminal world of Europe and winds up after a harrowing journey, cleaning his bloody clothes in an Amsterdam hotel room.

That moment leads us back to the very beginning of the novel, set in that same Dutch hideout. Turning to the front of the book, I wanted to see how exactly Tartt had whisked me fourteen years and thirty six hundred miles back to that rainy afternoon in Manhattan where everything started.

Deconstructing the transition brought back many of my old feelings about the author. When The Secret History came out in 1992 I read it in one frenzied gluttonous sitting, broken only for work and sleep. I loved the book but the author irritated me, as she no doubt irritated many other forty-something struggling writers who couldn’t get arrested with their work unless they happened to be carrying it in a valise when they were stopped for J-walking in Los Angeles. Tartt was 28 when the book came out, but she’d been working on it for years and must have begun it just out of college. How was that possible? Some childish part of me screamed: Me first! I have seniority! The world tilted into a grotesque carnival injustice thinking about all the languages Tartt’s book had been translated into, and all the money she was making. Of course, someone with actual seniority would have taken the whole affair with more aplomb. Well, five and then six and then seven years passed, and no new book came out and I (together with my grubby consort of the petty and bitter – which included quite a few critics and academics) began to feel better about Donna Tartt. The Secret History had been a fluke, a one-off. She was now suffering from epic writer’s block, crushed by the old sophomore slump, paying her dues belatedly but double or triple, with interest. Then, exactly ten years after the first novel, Tartt published The Little Friend. It seemed like an over-heated mixture of Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet, the Spy, written not in Tartt’s dry allusive first person but in an purple pastiche third. A failure! This was getting better and better. I was actually starting to like Donna Tartt. I never read beyond the first ten pages of The Little Friend until I finished the new novel … eleven years later. Then, like Theo, I began to realize the exact nature of the situation. A Google search revealed numerous rave reviews for Tartt’s southern gothic, as well as sales figures and translation statistics that proved beyond a doubt the second novel I had dismissed was in fact another massive success. So I read the book and I loved it and resigned myself: This brilliant woman was going to write a book every ten years, and it was going to be a masterpiece and the best I could do about that ineluctable fact was wait and re-read and pre-order.  And, perhaps, write an occasional essay to express my chastised and belated awe.

To begin at the beginning, then: it starts with Theo dreaming about his dead mother, the glamorous Audrey who remade herself in the big city after a Midwestern childhood; the evocation of Holly Golightly, one of so many allusions that tie the novel into our cultural history, could not be an accident. Pippa evokes everyone from Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes:

Is she wronged?–To the rescue of her honour,/ My heart! /Is she poor?–What costs it to be styled a donor? /Merely an earth to cleave, a sea to part. /But that fortune should have thrust all this upon her!

Hobie evokes echoes of Gepetto and Fagin and Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mrs. Barbour takes on the aspect of Miss Havisham as she ages; and of course Theo is Holden Caulfield, as well as Tom Sawyer and that other Pip, the much put-upon hero of Great Expectations.

And the dream of Theo’s mother opens into the memory of his last day with her, on the hinge of a single sentence: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” He describes her briefly and the next crucial sentence slips in page and a half later: “Her death was my fault.” The final stroke happens after a one more short paragraph: “It happened in New York, April 10th, fourteen years ago.”

And we are there, with the Amsterdam hotel where we started lost in the Manhattan rain, a fading dream of the future. So we dismantle the machinery of narrative, but the mystery remains. Tartt identifies this duality when she deploys an art critic to discuss the title painting:

“But Fabritius, he’s making a pun  on the genre … a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l’oeil …  because in other passages of the work – the head? the wing? – not creaturely or literal in the slightest, he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and hand-worked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract. Which is what makes him a genius less of his time than our own. There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird …It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but step closer. It falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.”


And this is Tartt’s joke, too beyond the wry humor of her character’s voice, the sublime prank of all great writing: to take this jumble of twenty-six letters, arrange them into words and sentences and paragraphs, to leave you with memories more vivid than the ones you made yourself from the crude materials of your actual life, peopled with characters more vivid than the acquaintances you see every day. This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so.

                                                                                                                                           — Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and Salon.com. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.


Mar 132014


Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath. — A. Anupama


Gillian Conoley
Omnidawn Publishing
112 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-890650-95-7


Peace quietly lends two quarters for a coffee in the hospital lounge while I wait, reading. White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath.

Conoley is founder and editor of VOLT, the literary magazine of Sonoma State University, where she currently works as professor and Poet-in-Residence. A book of her poetry translations, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, is expected out later this year (City Lights Pocket Poets Series). Previous collections include The Plot Genie (Omnidawn Publishing), Profane Halo (Wave Books), and Tall Stranger (Carnegie Mellon University Press), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Other honors include the Jerome J. Shestack Award from The American Poetry Review, the Fund for Poetry Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was born in 1955, in Austin, Texas, where her parents owned and operated a rural radio station. Her father fought in Guam during WWII and was honored with a Silver Star for bravery and three Purple Hearts.

In an interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley comments on her process of poetic inquiry: “In the longer sequence poems, “Begins” and “Peace” I found a formal construct that seemed to me to work well with the question or notion of whether or not peace and war could co-exist on an experiential plane, if we are to have any peace at all. So the short lines began to press against one another line to line, oppositionally, in a paratactic way. I love that parataxis is Greek for ‘placing side by side,’ because I called this short lyric form I started to work in “Sapphic paratactic”—that was my private name for it.”

Parataxis, according to the OED, is a grammar term for “the placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them, as in Tell me, how are you?” In the poem “The Patient,” Conoley cunningly plays this unhinged element of poetic craft against firmly attached biological and material elements.

I am the patient. That is my mineral fact.

I have long term storage in double helixes

my two long polymers of nucleotides

my backbone made of sugars and phosphate groups

joined by ester bonds. I see imagist pears dissolving down

golden arms I hear needle-less the sleep aid cd’s

real violins, then float blue-black

at the eventide, injure

of the taut to and fro, cut-back

asphalt road, a path of greening twigs nourishing

nothing personal…

The poem continues for five pages, shaking loose any false adhesions. In Conoley’s paratactic tactics, the phrases are often balanced in length and only separated by the line break, not punctuation. Another five-page poem, “My Mother Moved My Architect,” takes the inquiry deeper, this time plying parataxis with the grain of the physical disconnections.

My mother moved
my architect
cutting out newspaper clippings
making the life-long collage
had I sense
I would have
papered the hallways with
instead it is an ephemeral art

a flaxen gene
her left shoulder
out of its socket

The end of the poem continues the line of inquiry through doubling of images (echoes, heads, tail lights, gloves), and then turns quietly to become an ars poetica.

My mother moved my architect
bade fair
she slipped the bolt
like the great sea chest
none of us
had ever seen open

My mother moved my architect
she made it pump and eat

She made this lake
where I come to

over-identify with the dead and call

Dear Echo to my echo,

She made me nude —sheer— and nude again
She made it interesting right up to the end

So that
I have to think what is with

these two heads blurred and blended, this veil
not seen back through

Tail lights,
white gloves with the green stain

as you entered the sunless woods
best to keep the road a little feral where the color is

and your world part dust
fed and unkilled            I am not through
being a poet or a being

What fallen ash
is the power to live

what pituitary
is the grace to keep
doing so

and what good
is temporary measure—

did you say thank you                   and were you                   thanking

The shorter poems in the sequence titled Peace use parataxis in tandem with opposites (descend v. ascend, vision v. blind, vagina v. cock, peace v. war). But in the sixth part of this sequence, the oppositional forces dissolve a bit, and the caesurae (by which I mean the spaces within the lines indicating pause) reveal time working up through the lines while the breath slips down deep.

one mystery of the breath: it does not hover

in the body but spirals

and up to two hours            in the less known

mammalian diving reflex            water must be

ice-cold            some people survive

if time began we would do it again

the lungs two oars in the middle of the ocean

Conoley envisions specific people and events in her inquiry, too, as in “Opened,” which includes references to both the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. From the second page of this six-page poem—

so that’s where

the two bullets went through.

What sphinx pushes up out of the fog in the parking lot

turning each

upon each

our moral imaginations. If it’s a gun law,

this tragedy will pull through.

And what was there to                        and did she

see, gritty blue sink of desert night sky            with her

off to the side like a wonder, or

your basic hospital room, sleep,

a solitary male nurse, a husband.

 In her interview with Rusty Morrison, Conoley explains some of her inquiry into peace and nonviolence in the process of writing this collection: “I was initially concerned that some might read the title as a call to action, or a promise of peace, somehow. The book contains neither, but is really more of an extended meditation/inquiry of the notion…. Once I began to realize what I was writing about, I started to read about the lineage of nonviolence that runs through Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (nonviolence) dates back to the Upanishads, 8th or 7th century BCE, which bars violence against all creatures (sarva-bhuta). I began to think about these historical figures who wrote about peace and how to get it, and how they may still operate in or haunt our lives.” In the poem “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the speaker moves between abstract reflection and the concrete actions of doing laundry and looking outside at the garden. Without shying away from the great leader’s failings, Conoley’s poem seeks balanced footing on a field of percolating magma.

Why think
God doesn’t like

pussies, cocks, girls, Gandhis           all together

well, you’d have to ask the girls,
and later

It’s a subrosa geological planet, with shifting hot mantels of tectonics,
someone should tell Einstein—
even though it’s too late—who said,
“Future generations will hardly grasp that
such a man as this walked upon the earth.”

Conoley attempts a glimpse of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Toughness of the Serpent,” which ends this way—

MLK really tired at this point.

Wonder what he’s got on his mental sky.

Moon yellow scorch of the morning iron, serene, serene

The 12-part poem that ends the collection is titled “Begins,” and it does exactly that, offering no conclusions, offering instead to launch you in a dozen different trajectories with the caffeine hidden in the parataxis—

for one eye, a small Mesopotamian figure

for one eye, a big abstract

I look, and your face is like a part of speech not spoken

a tragedy so near its comic ash

one eye is my future, one eye, my mausoleum

the divine in what is seen

in which we view only the shade of

possibility: a semi-reluctant scribe I read her book trembling

Peace holds some beautifully revealing poems in the middle of the collection, especially “A hatchet with which to chop at the frozen seas inside us” and “Plath and Sexton,” which deserve their places at the center. In these, the duality is stripped away—from the first: “what if paradise was only lifting the veil to flirt.” And from the beginning of “Plath and Sexton”:

there should have been a third
my friends and I

to not feel so incomprehensible
we were carrying your dead books

we were washed in the blood of them
but we were wanting one more

The collection’s overall organization seems to concentrate these central poems at the heart. Though Conoley claims to offer no answers, she insists on the energy of inquiry throughout her lyric. Peace lends us the price of using the percolator, even as the K-cups in the vending machine are steep.

—A. Anupama

A. Anupama

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



Mar 122014

William Gassvia This Recording

The first blue words of this book seem to form “a soft quality in the air, a color, a flutter: permanent in their passage.” Like starling murmurations on cold winter mornings, for Gass, blue is a thought without a centre; meaning softly gathers around the word the way lint collects and, at the turn of a forgotten page, takes flight. In this sense of the word, Gass writes in blue with the language of birds… —Sebastian Ennis

On Being Blue
New York Review of Books
Softcover, 91 Pages, US $14.00 / CAN $17.00 / UK £7.99


In spite of its philosophical dressing, On Being Blue is really a long essay on language written with elegant exaggeration and a self-mocking pretentiousness. First published in 1976, it reads like a flight of fancy. Gass is noticeably freer with his prose here than in his earlier fiction and he uses that freedom to explore language in its broadest sense as a way of forming meaning in the world (a recurring theme in his later literary essays). Michael Gorra, in his introduction to its republication this month, places On Being Blue within the linguistic turn of that period’s academic criticism, at a time when written English had grown ever closer to the spoken tongue. Now we’re used to taking liberties with the written word to make it sound more like speech. So I suspect few people will sympathize with Gass’s highbrow defense of the art of language, what is best described as his French aestheticism, which he masks with American grit. That being said, I’m one of those people. I believe language is more than its uses, more than the way we commonly speak. It’s figurative, too. So take a word like blue—it’s straightforward, you can point to its correlative in physical experience, it’s there. When we say it we think we know exactly what we mean. But then follow Gass from cover to cover and you may begin to see and say things differently.

First, ignore the philosophy that says there’s any strict or arbitrary relationship between words and things. Gass was a philosophy professor at Washington University, but he avoids theory here and so should we. Let’s just talk blue: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear.” Gass begins with this list, which he returns to over and over again.

Read it out-loud for all to hear! (No, really…give it a try.) The first blue words of this book seem to form “a soft quality in the air, a color, a flutter: permanent in their passage.” Like starling murmurations on cold winter mornings, for Gass, blue is a thought without a centre; meaning softly gathers around the word the way lint collects and, at the turn of a forgotten page, takes flight. In this sense of the word, Gass writes in blue with the language of birds—but I’ll return to this.

Now listen. Blue. Sound it out slowly. I hear a stone dropped in water as someone blows dust off a book jacket; it’s a wet syllable caught in flight between the lips that the stumbling tongue elbows. When we speak we seem to spit blue. While ink fills blank spaces with form and meaning between nouns and verbs, the physicality of the word, Gass reminds us, with tumbling breath over pursed lips, comes from the heart of language and is released into the world.

Yet of all the colours worth the ink and all the words of breath’s embrace, why choose blue? Let’s not mix words here . . . or let’s, Gass certainly does: “Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet thick dark soft smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling.” The country of blue that Gass takes us to is an inner world, unfolding in language: flung past milky tooth and watered sanguine gum, dragged behind dripping nib, and tossed by battered key.

If Gass offers us a lesson here it’s that feelings, like colours, do exist; and not entirely without words, which flock and swarm and come to rest upon the world. Blue is spoken seen felt read and thought, in the world and the heart and the mind, and in all the places in-between where words collect.

Gass, a writer’s writer, chronicles this pursuit of language, which seems to dwell everywhere and nowhere and in-between the two in that place he calls blue. It’s the in-between he’s after. Just as the sky touches the ground, but only in the distance and only on clear days: it’s a shade of blue he can’t quite put his finger on. Thankfully, many writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers seem to have journeyed there or thereabouts, and some appear in Gass’s thick, dark prose.

Yet it’s the blue-hue of his own writing that caught my eye. He writes blue lists that transcend nowhere: “blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese.” Tongue-in-cheek, his rambling voice follows the booming, brazen blue smear his hand drags across the page, painting a vivid picture of all the blues that fill the world. Other times, he wrestles with language for sheer sport, producing a fearless literary slapstick between the covers. And as for the blue we find there, well . . . it’s “appropriate that blow and blue should be—at our earliest convenience—utterly confused.” It takes an author like Gass to tackle words with such rough wit and yet embrace the very sound of writing as if it were a lover’s howl.

It’s the literary equivalent of a wink and a nod, but he makes his point. Reading Gass, words get mixed up with each other and with the things they describe. But Gass is unapologetic. On Being Blue is no guide for the perplexed. Language is not so cut and dried; it’s wet and torn, coffee-stained, beaten, broken, and scorned, twisted and crumpled, contorted, thrown away, and then forgotten, lost near the tip of tongue, found by index finger and thumb, and set flying with a flick of the wrist. That is, for Gass, it takes a great deal of confusion to say or write anything that truly means something. And that’s not a criticism. Nor does it imply that great writing must be complex. It celebrates the way language sets things in relation to one another and utterly confuses words, feelings, thoughts, colours, and things.

So Gass doesn’t hold too tightly to words, but lets them fly: “blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies . . . dumps, mopes, Mondays . . . watered twilight, sour sea.” They’re all blue when spoken in the language of birds. On Being Blue will have you coughing up feathers, picking words from your teeth that don’t stick to your tongue, and, by the end, chirping like a madman until you’re blue in the face.

—Sebastian Ennis


Sebastian Ennis
Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He has a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.


Mar 082014

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. —Adam Segal


A Novel
Mircea Cărtărescu
Translated by Sean Cotter
Archipelago Books
Paperback; 380 Pages; $22 US/$24 CAN


There is an extinct volcanic cinder cone a few blocks from my house, named Mount Tabor after the mountain in Israel where Christ, according to tradition, experienced transfiguration. At 636 feet, less than one third the elevation of its Holy Land namesake – dwarfed in the daylight by Mount Hood, which looms white-peaked in the distance like an imprisoned moon – the average hiker can hardly expect to undergo a divine metamorphosis on Tabor’s summit, crowned as it is by westward-pointing statue of newspaperman Harvey W. Scott. But the view sure is fine. Fine enough that some nights ago a friend and I stole up to the summit to sit on a bench and observe.

Through a deltoid clearing in the pines we watched a slice of Portland: the flickering boulevards, the nigrescent scar of the Willamette, the glowing city, the softly lit clusters in the hills beyond. Suddenly the focus broke, the wind died, and we were overtaken for that moment by some otherworldly turbulence. If I were a believer I might have called it a communion with God. But, mind tempered by a book I’d been reading, I supposed instead that it might have been an intimation of Something Else, a fleeting whiff of a world beyond human perception.

That book is Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing. Originally published in Romanian in 1996 as Orbitor: Aripa StângăBlinding takes place – nominally, anyway – in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. This is where narrator-protagonist Mircea (Cărtărescu) lives in a dark apartment and writes; this is where most of Mircea’s characters hail from or eventually find themselves.

But the novel’s true setting is hardly a physical one: Blinding occupies a liminal space between lucid “reality” and the imagined. It is a subjective empire built of memory, nostalgia, and absurdity; as well as the crushing anxiety that results from imagining all that may exist beyond the grasp of human sensory organs. Though where Blinding really exists, as Cărtărescu is keen to remind us, is simply in words on a page, words bled from the mind of one lonely man. In a passage that haunts the rest of the novel, Mircea – for it is the fictional stand-in who allegedly writes the book – concludes an early chapter chronicling the fabulous origin story of his grandfather’s rural village thus:

The bar was a place to toast the Devil, the Lord’s little brother… to kill each other with tomato stakes over a woman, to hold vigils over old men in agony, so that they wouldn’t have to die without a candle on their chests, and to look for rainclouds in the sky, all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a grey speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.

Cărtărescu’s prolific and continuing career as a poet, novelist, and essayist began in the late 1970s. He carries the torch of Onirism, a Romanian surrealist literary movement that flourished in the 1960s but was soon quelled by government censorship. “Oneiric,” a charismatic little word signifying something dream-like, is a frequent guest throughout Blinding’s multitudinous pages.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to refer to the novel as Blinding, although The Left Wing is actually the first book in the Orbitor trilogy, followed in 2002 by Corpul, (“The Body”) and concluded in 2007 by Aripa Dreaptă, or “The Right Wing.” I find myself wishing the title had not been translated; Orbitor is a gorgeous word, stately and majestic. In an interview with Bookforum, Cărtărescu explains, “Orbitor is a special word in Romanian, it signifies both a dazzling light and a mystical light, and I wanted to do something mystical, something without any similarity to any other book in the world.”

“You do not describe the past by writing about old things,” Mircea muses in the novel’s introductory sequence, “but by writing about the haze that exists between you and the past.” If this is true, then Mircea’s haze is unlike any I’ve yet to encounter. It is a concealing mist, at once luminous and opaque, out of which nearly anything might emerge. Cărtărescu’s vast imaginative potential is essentially unhindered by the fact that Blinding is loosely framed as memoir. “I try to avoid changing historical facts and instead fill the gaps in my memory with fantasies,” says Cărtărescu in an interview for The Quarterly Conversation, adding, “When information is hard to come by, I let my pen do the work.”

So it should hardly surprise that Blinding struggles like a proud and cautious beast against traditional summary. We learn of Mircea’s mother Maria and her life as a young woman brought from the countryside to work with her sister in a Bucharest factory before and after the Allied bombings during the Second World War. We learn of Ion Stănilă, the state-employed statue-cleaner and onetime admirer of Maria who soon finds himself an agent of the Romanian secret police. And of course we learn, in dizzying, anxiety-ridden bursts, about Mircea: his multiple hospitalizations, his dreams and writings, his struggles to make sense of his own life as it relates to all human life and to all incomprehensible existence. These storylines, along with dozens of others, drift into and rise out of one another freely and without warning.

The novel’s binding element is thus not an ordered chronology but a fascinating system of concepts and images. Early on Mircea introduces an idea that soon emerges as one of the novel’s central conceits, that humans “exist between the past and future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.” However, like a butterfly with just one wing, “we all have memories of the past, but none of us can remember the future.” The strange, spectral energy driving Blinding is a desire for that symmetry denied to us as mortals, the memory of both past and future. This symmetry would offer us a heightened consciousness and make us all prophets, or angels, or gods. “Yes, we are neural embryos, tadpoles caught in atavistic organs… How strange we will be when, like cetaceans, we complete our departure from the firm earth of inert flesh and adapt to the new kingdom, where we will bathe in the mental fluid of enormous knowing…” Blinding is a psychedelic dream of transfiguration.

So keen is Cărtărescu to remind his reader of the butterfly’s symbolic power that the insects appear in almost every scene, not as saccharine representations of sunny summertime innocence but as winged behemoths trapped under vaults of ice, as loyal children fed on human milk, as subterranean monstrosities whose piercing proboscises bore into brains and deposit eggs straight into the victim’s mind. But Blinding is a gallery full of recurring images. Nipples and vulvae are frequent visitors (“All around the walls of the granite vagina where we traveled”), alongside machines wrought of bone and blood, and organic bodies composed of concrete, rebar, marble, steel. Towering statues of disfigured humans stand as reminders of our imperfections, monuments to the blindness we don’t even realize we suffer from.

Mircea’s revelries, though they hinge on familiar images, know few limits. “There were ghost towns there,” he says of his mental space, “villas with crystal columns, and torture chambers with instruments of gold. There were crematoria with violet smoke coming from their chimneys. There were Flemish houses lining canals where cephalorachidian fluid flowed lazily.” Cărtărescu has a vocabulary that seems to press against the very limits of human knowledge. “Three quarters of the books I read are scientific books,” he admits in the Bookforum interview. “I’m very fond of the poetry you find in science. I read a lot about subatomic physics, biology, entomology, the physiology of the brain, and so on.

And it shows. Human knowledge drips from the pages, it seasons every sentence, one’s hands get sticky with it. Exploring the wreckage of a bombed-out factory elevator, Mircea’s mother “held out her hand with such grace that it seemed to cascade from her body, like a pseudopodium full of florescent corpuscles.” This is a rather concentrated sampling, but it is hardly a misleading one. Cărtărescu weaves together a massive interdisciplinary lexicon and uses it to build marvelous structures of text. While reading I often felt that were I to earn a degree in biology, or medicine, or pure mathematics, I might gain something new from the novel each time I returned to it with fuller understanding.

Yet just as Cărtărescu masters the protean majesty of the dream world, he also faithfully recreates its almost claustrophobic sense of unknowability. Blinding is a difficult text, one I predict some readers – those partial to conventional storytelling and a more cohesive narrative – might find alienating. No one is more aware of this fact than Cărtărescu himself, whose narrator-persona “Mircea (which Mircea?)” sees himself “writing a demented, endless book, in his little room,” and elsewhere ponders “my senseless and endless manuscript, this illegible book, this book…” Is this a genuinely apologetic aside, and does the author truly find his work to be unworthy, or is it part of the game Blinding is playing with identity and self-reflection? I suspect these options might not be mutually exclusive.

The novel’s finale takes place in an unspeakably large hall with a mirrored floor, billions of doors leading to everywhere on Earth, and a central light source that is “a column of pure, liquid flame.” It is, on one hand, an exposition of technical brilliance. With unapologetic prose, Cărtărescu crafts a hellscape that – in terms of utter visual insanity – rivals Bosch’s depiction of the underworld in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And yet, after all the hallucinatory voyages of the first few hundred pages, the novel’s culmination left me oddly underwhelmed. The horrific butterflies, the rhetorical inclination toward duality, and the constant transmutation of organic bodies; after so many encounters these images begin to lose some of their wonder.

In an early scene, Mircea visits a woman whose scalp is adorned with arcane tattoos. He loses himself in the tattoos. In a segment that mirrors the way one might approach this very novel, Cărtărescu writes, “exploring any detail meant you had to choose one branch, ignore the rest of the design, and concentrate on just one detail of the original detail, and then a detail of the detail of the detail. This plunge into the heart of the design could be deadly for one’s mind to even attempt.” Mircea, scouring the scalp for hours, massaging it and entreating it, eventually sees “Everything, and everything had my face. Looking directly at the middle of the fontanel, I saw my face in a convex reflection.” Spend some time with Blinding. Search its pages, approach it from new angles, get lost in it. Then please, tell me what you see.

—Adam Segal


Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.


Mar 052014

LydiaDavisPhoto by Theo Cote

122 stories make up the volume, broken into 5 sections, and throughout, pockets of theme gradually surface—travel, loss, subconscious thought—and ostensibly unrelated pieces lock together to form intriguing puzzles that call into question life, happiness, and memory. — Benjamin Woodard


Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
256 pages ($23.00)
ISBN 978-0-374-11858-7


he stories of Lydia Davis tend to challenge the general notion of what most consider “story,” rarely following a recognizable structure—rising action, climax, dénouement—and instead focusing on brief moments and recollections, some of which take up no more than a single line of text. Because of this, Davis’s narratives hew closer to that of vignette or prose poem than fiction, lyrical interludes designed to impact without the fuss of narrative webbing. But while this argument holds weight visually, it falters in that it constrains the idea of fiction to that of firm rules and chartered courses, muffling the elasticity and wonder of storytelling. In a 2008 interview with The Believer, Davis defined “story” as any writing with “a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader.” This classification is a fine way of looking at the oeuvre of the author herself, for though her stories always contain some form of protagonist—even if said protagonist is the speaker of the story’s lone sentence—they purposefully dodge other expectations, shuttling the reader into an unfettered territory of language and verbal exploration. In Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s fifth collection, due out next month, the author continues to push the boundaries of narrative. The book is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision. 122 stories make up the volume, broken into 5 sections, and throughout, pockets of theme gradually surface—travel, loss, subconscious thought—and ostensibly unrelated pieces lock together to form intriguing puzzles that call into question life, happiness, and memory.

Two story cycles, peppered throughout the text, anchor Can’t and Won’t. Both are quite strong, and in each, Davis plays with the concept of preserving the past. In the first, “dream pieces,” snippet narratives recall the nocturnal fantasies of Davis and her family and friends. These are, as one might expect, odd, but they permit Davis, so often clinging to the tangible, the opportunity to stray from reality, to bend the “regular” world. In “At the Bank,” patrons win cheap arcade prizes for guessing the correct amount of change in their deposits (“…I choose what I think is the best of them, a handsome Frisbee with its own carrying case.”). “The Piano Lesson” concerns a woman wishing to learn piano from her friend. She is given the assignment of learning several pieces, with the plan of meeting in one year’s time for the actual lesson. And “Swimming in Egypt” explores deep-sea tunnels that lead to the Mediterranean. What’s so very interesting about these stories is that, like all dreams, they contain unspoken meaning and do not follow logic. Still, Davis meets all moments of absurdity with complete seriousness, presenting each vision with little embellishment, acting as agent between the cerebral and the page, refusing to attach meaning, or to shape each discharge into a clear picture. As a result, these pieces float as if engulfed in haze, clues to an unknown psyche, snapshots of moments originally intended to not live on, but to evaporate with wakefulness.

Conversely, “Stories from Flaubert,” a 14 story sequence composed of material culled from letters between Gustave Flaubert and his lover, Louise Colet, sees Davis again seizing upon past events, but using these junctures to create parallels between old and new, breathing life into moments of universal emotion. Translated, modified, and arranged by the author, these works both capture the language of Flaubert and remain complimentary to Davis’s modern narratives. Narrative echoes between the two allow Davis to reach across 160 years and demonstrate how little human thought and reaction have matured, how, regardless of advancement, there are many questions—particularly those of the mind, of life and death—that endure, haunting the human condition. One striking example of this comes in “The Visit to the Dentist,” in which Flaubert, after travelling to have a tooth pulled, passing through a former execution ground, is haunted by his subconscious, which fills his head with images of the guillotine. This same process of storytelling—building through subconscious connection—flourishes in Davis’s non-Flaubert story, “The Force of the Subliminal,” where a conversation about birthdays sparks a series of triggers, leading the protagonist to interrogate the path in which she processes thought.

A beautiful illustration of Davis’s writing at its sharpest, and perhaps most accessible, comes in the story “The Language of Things in the House.” Here, funny, playful translations of the noises produced by household items (“Pots and dishes rattling in the sink: ‘Tobacco, tobacco.’”) find juxtaposition with italicized passages of narration trying to make sense of each translation:

Maybe the words we hear spoken by the things in our house are words already in our brain from our reading; or from what we have been hearing on the radio or talking about to each other; or from what we often read out the car window, as for instance the sign of Cumberland Farms; or they are simply words we have always liked, such as Roanoke (as in Virginia).

The result is a story with equal parts humor and gravity, one that introduces ideas of language and compels the reader to acknowledge and consider the way in which we as a people go about daily routine. Again, the concept of subconscious thought returns, creating another narrative echo, but the piece also, and this is something Davis is extraordinary at, paints a story within the blankness of the overall narrative, for the lack of information concerning the narrator (is it Davis? someone else?) creates a vacuum that requires the reader to mentally construct the life of the speaker. The point of the narrative is less that of the written text—though the written text is quite intriguing—and more that of the person writing.

Can’t and Won’t’s numerous fictional complaint letters—at 6, there are nearly enough to qualify as a third story cycle—continue to exploit the concept of “the writer” behind the story. In all but one—“The Letter to the Foundation,” at 28 pages, fills in most narrative gaps—the intention is not to present the reader with a list of why, say, a vegetable manufacturer should redesign its packaging (“Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer”), or to submit to a confectionary company evidence of weight shaving in its products (“Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company”), but rather to create curiosity in who exactly would write such letters, as in “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.,” where “Lydia Davis” takes umbrage with a company peddling a paid-inclusion vanity compendium:

You said that in researching my qualifications, you were assisted by a Board of Advisors consisting of 10,000 “influential” people living in seventy-five countries. Yet even after this extensive research, you have made a basic factual mistake and addressed your letter, not to Lydia Davis, which is my name, but to Lydia Danj.

The passage is deadpan comic, yet it further raises questions as to the motivations of the writer. Why, exactly, would someone take the time to write such a missive? What does this say about “Lydia Davis,” the character? Why enshrine this particular sliver of history through word? When examining these narratives with such a thought in place, each letter gains an enormous amount of dramatic heft, shaking away any coldness presented in the calculated, measured physical text. This abutment grants an immense amount of pleasure, and a slight case of uneasiness, for the unknown writer—mysterious, eccentric—lingers long after the story has completed.

At the center of Can’t and Won’t is a long story called “The Seals.” Like a distant cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, the story covers a very short amount of present time—in this case, a portion of a train ride down the East Coast—yet delves deep into memories, constructing for the reader a solid, palpable relationship between a woman and her deceased family members. As Davis’s protagonist, entombed in a train car, periodically moves or looks out the window, she recalls her sister and father, and the combination of real-time experience and remembrance is highly effective, providing Davis a showcase to meditate on the idea of bereavement. At one point, her character proclaims to the reader:

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by—but now it’s time for you to come back. You have been away long enough.

This decree, both heartbreaking and selfish, cuts to the bone and drives the narrative, yet the sentiment acts as an umbrella shading the entirety of the collection. For with Can’t and Won’t, Davis deftly hones the art of looking backward, of calling the dead to life, of retaining the moments in life intended to remain fleeting. The result is a tapestry of method, style, and structure, all with the same objective: to possess that which has passed, to capture the lost and the unidentifiable.

Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and interviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.



Mar 012014

Robin Oliveira

Passion may be the very essence of romantic love, as it is of art, thus Berthe and Mary’s torment becomes as vital to their overall happiness as pleasure. The lyricism with which Oliveira conveys this fact – in particular, through dialogue and narration – illustrates the dual nature of love, for instance when Mary and Degas share an intimate moment and she notices that “he smelled of graphite and oil and turpentine; he smelled of work, of Paris, of all of art, everything she wanted.” —Laura K. Warrell

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You
A Novel
Robin Oliveira
Penguin, $27.95


In a literary culture where explorations of romance are often relegated to lightweight, Hollywood–ready love stories with contrived happy endings, Robin Oliveira distinguishes herself.  Her latest novel, I Always Loved You, is romantic in the truest, most intellectually compelling sense of the word. The narrative travels elegantly across the topography of love while simultaneously exploring the agony and exultation of the human experience as it manifests in life and art.  The relationship between artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas sits at the center of this novel set amongst the salons and exhibition halls of Belle Époque Paris, which means Oliveira has given herself a challenge unique to writers of historical fiction: faithfully representing a time and cast of characters readers know well while also telling a story that is fresh and contemporary. Oliveira meets this challenge masterfully while also creating an air of romance too often missing in modern fiction.

This is Oliveira’s second novel. Her first, My Name is Mary Sutter, won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, while she was writing it, and the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction after it was published. I Always Loved You is a story about another strong-willed Mary forced to find her way in male-dominated society. Oliveira considers women’s struggles among men as “one of the unifying conflicts across cultures,” one which she likes to showcase in her work.

Indeed, Mary Cassatt was a quintessential woman of courage.  Not only did the young American painter uproot her life in Philadelphia to relocate to Paris alone, but she also managed to become one of the only women to exhibit alongside the likes of Degas, Manet, Monet and Pissarro.  In I Always Loved You, Cassatt is presented as a headstrong female who bends to no man’s will and even overwhelms her male counterparts with her pluck. After Degas introduces her to the impressionists at a salon, Mary realizes “what it was to be a woman at a party in Paris.  One either fed the men or was consulted about the time, but was not expected to speak beyond pleasantries.” She asserts herself by openly disagreeing with Émile Zola’s views on literature versus art, suggesting the writer’s work is “less vivid” than Degas’ paintings, then watches as Zola’s “wine-flushed face blushed an even deeper shade of vermillion.”

But it is her friendship with Degas that constitutes the greatest conflict of Mary’s life. Though the true nature of the artists’ relationship remains a mystery to this day – Cassatt burned all of their correspondence – Oliveira places them in a will-they-or-won’t-they love affair in which Mary’s desire for Degas occasionally surpasses her desire to create art, while Degas’ obsession with his work drives the lovers together and apart for years.

The novel begins in 1926 after Degas has died and Mary is sorting through boxes of old letters made up of “so many pages, you would think they had been in love.”  The narrative then steps back to 1887 after Mary has returned to Paris to build a life having studied briefly in the city the year before.  She attends a salon with her friend Abigail Alcott, sister of Louisa May, where unbeknownst to her, she is ogled by Edgar Degas. Unbeknownst to Degas, this attractive woman is Mary Cassatt whose painting he admired weeks before at an exhibition.

Later, an introduction by a mutual friend seals their shared destiny. Mary asks Degas, whose work she also admires, whether he believes art is a gift, to which he replies, “Art does not arise from a well of imaginary skill, obtained by dint of native ability…Art is earned by hard work, by the study of form, by obsessive revision. Only then are you set free. Only then can you see.”

This is the first in a lifetime of conversations about craft, and most interestingly the notion of “seeing,” in which the lovers engage, grow intimate and fight.  Degas proves to be an unpredictable, argumentative cynic and wayward friend who nonetheless adores Mary and her work. He brings her into his circle of artist colleagues where Mary cuts through “the clannish nature of Parisians” with her challenge to Zola. Though her path to acceptance by the circle is bumpy, she eventually becomes an integral part of one of the most celebrated communities of artists and thinkers in Western history.

Through the course of the novel, Mary struggles with her muse and attempts to mold her art to the conventions of the time until Degas inspires her to stay true to her singular vision. In her creative life, she experiences great successes and humiliating failures, while in her personal life she struggles with her family, including a sick sister and disapproving father, who come to live with her in Paris. All the while, Degas flits in and out of her life, fawning over her one moment then maintaining his distance the next.

A subplot between Édouard Manet and painter Berthe Morisot, the wife of Manet’s brother Eugene, reinforces the novel’s overarching theme of elusive love. Manet and Morisot spend the novel stealing glances, sneaking away for trysts, smiting one another with jealous jabs and suffering the consequences of choosing fidelity to family over true love.

I Always Loved You is not romantic simply because it deals with matters of the heart, but because Oliveira adheres to many of the attitudes and aesthetic qualities of romanticism: an emphasis on the self and creative freedom, the elevation of the human soul and pursuit of wonder, the use of extravagant language to reflect the poetry of life and an acceptance, even glorification, of the agony of existence. The characters exemplify the romantic notion that pleasure, beauty, love, even artistic achievement requires pain to be meaningful and real.

Oliveira develops the romantic soul of the novel through the ideas and choices her characters make, and the lyricism with which she tells their stories. Degas acts as a champion for the self and the struggle for art over commerce. Several times during the course of the novel, he withdraws his work from exhibitions, even if it puts Mary and his friends in difficult positions, because he prioritizes the private experience of creation.

“Nothing public matters,” he tells Mary. “What matters is what happens inside the studio. Your work. That is where genius lies, where it is born…It is not born on the walls of an exhibition.”

Mary begins the novel striving for recognition outside of her studio but only discovers her individual style, and consequently finds success, once she heeds Degas’ wisdom, abandons the “academic values” set by the establishment and “renders a portrait she knew the Salon would undoubtedly reject.” Mary is blissful whenever inspiration strikes, but in true romantic fashion, also feels “a wash of sadness, for that sensation happened rarely for an artist, and was in turn fleeting.” Her work becomes as rewarding as it is “punishing,” just like her love for Degas.

Of course, love is at the heart of the novel, especially the love emotionally faithful women feel toward emotionally faithless men like Degas who is too egotistical to love. After a frustrated Mary asks him, “Do you love anyone, Edgar?  Anyone at all?” Degas ponders the question; “Why not love her? Why not say it? What had quickened when he had kissed her had at least been lust. But he was not a romantic man.”

Meanwhile, Manet is simply a cad, parading his lovers in front of not only his loyal wife but Berthe, the woman he loves. Berthe is torn between a tempestuous affair with Manet and a dependable marriage to a devoted husband, who just happens to be Manet’s brother; “I have found a good man who will forgive me anything, even the gossip of others. Even the truth.  What, then, was love? The incessant whisper of passion, or the tedious murmur of caring? The ragged tear at your heart, or the gentle caress that rendered you safe? Perhaps there was no one thing that was love.”

Passion may be the very essence of romantic love, as it is of art, thus Berthe and Mary’s torment becomes as vital to their overall happiness as pleasure. The lyricism with which Oliveira conveys this fact – in particular, through dialogue and narration – illustrates the dual nature of love, for instance when Mary and Degas share an intimate moment and she notices that “he smelled of graphite and oil and turpentine; he smelled of work, of Paris, of all of art, everything she wanted.” The exalted feeling with which the romantic lover relates to her mate is exemplified by such hyperbolic language: Degas does not simply smell like a man she loves but he smells like the world and everything in it Mary cherishes. When he disappears in the weeks following their intimacy, she thinks, “all things she would abandon at the slightest encouragement if he would only grasp her wrist or whisper, I missed you.” Oliveira’s novel lays bare the inherently romantic nature of elusive love, which makes lovers experience the ecstasy of union and the torment of loss again and again.

Likewise, the tragedy of unfulfilled love has greater consequence in a well-lived life than love fulfilled as suffering makes life meaningful. Mary, still smarting from the cruelty Degas has inflicted upon her, asks Berthe whether her relationship with Manet has been worth the pain. “Live without having loved?” Berthe answers.  “I don’t know if I would have wanted that…I can’t help that I love him.  I wish that I could, but no amount of wishing has made it so.’”

This romantic spirit is further accentuated by the presence of light, and by extension vision, as a recurring image in the novel.  Light plays a major role in the evolution of the plot as these artists are inspired by, work by, covet and capture light, thus, it features heavily in their interactions with one another and their work.  “‘I’ve visited your country,’” Degas tells Mary when they first meet. “‘The light was horrid.’” Later, the lovers see the light hitting the Seine a certain way and “longed for a brush to record it before it slipped away.”

Oliveira uses light to symbolize the characters’ internal experiences and artistic impulses. When Berthe’s father dies she agrees to marry Eugene because “all the light had gone out of the world” while a character in the midst of dying feels “the light trickling away.” Light finds its way into the novel through other words: glimmer, shimmer, glare, flickering, brilliant, luminous, reflect, brighten, candle, sunlight.

But Oliveira’s most stunning handling of light is how she uses it to tell her story the way her characters use it to paint. She manipulates the light in the rooms and streets to give texture to the scenes, for instance when Manet confesses to Berthe that he has contracted syphilis and the “dull light” outside the window makes “pale marble of his hands.” Oliveira uses light to signal changes in mood as well, like when Degas breaks the news to Mary that he has called off the publication of a journal they created together and “a cloud passed over the sun, casting a cool shadow over the lake, dulling the reflection of the trees in the water.”

In yet another scene, Mary has been weakened once again by Degas’ cruelty as “the glimmer of the candle [in the room] fading now, and with it all her vague dreams of a life lived beside this man…The flame trembled in its puddle of molten wax and went out, rendering the studio a place of shadows and depth.”  These scenes are as provocative and beautifully rendered as the paintings the characters create.

Certainly, light enables one to see and when, in the beginning of the novel, Degas tells Mary she must learn to “see” in order to create great art, she becomes obsessed with clarifying her vision. Oliveira uses sight as powerfully as she uses light: Mary wonders if she “would she ever truly see” and later realizes in order to do so she must “unsee” everything she has known before, from her creative habits to her view of herself and the world.

“Paint what you see, paint what you love,” Degas tells her, suggesting that artistic vision and love are one in the same or are at least rooted in the same place in the human soul.  Perhaps then it is no coincidence when Mary finally finds her way that Degas tells her, “You’ve painted love…You must never paint anything else. You have found it. Your obsession is love.” How ironic that Mary is able to paint love and Degas is able to see it in her work, yet they are unable to experience it together.

Even more ironic is the fact that both artists are going blind. In the beginning of the novel, Degas is being fitted for special eyeglasses because there is a hole in his vision casting dark shadows. Blindness has stolen from him “the mass of things, their shape-ness, their roundness, their solidity. Edges wavered and blurred and doubled until forms became hallucinating shape-shifters, liquid impersonators of what had once been reliable, immutable matter.” Once again, the richness of Oliveira’s narration paints a vivid picture of the world seen through the eyes of an artist.

Certainly, there is no way to know whether Oliveira’s portrayal of her characters and their relationships are completely faithful to history but in the end it doesn’t matter. I Always Loved You is an engaging read because the author has recreated a world of romance and color populated by characters whose challenges mirror those of modern times. But for all the characters’ musings about artistic integrity and creative freedom, perhaps the words spoken by Manet best capture the novel’s enduring message: “It is love, my frightened ones.  Love.”

—Laura K. Warrell


Laura K. Warrell

Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and the University of Massachusetts Boston and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.


Feb 052014


Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English. — Natalie Helberg


Cunt Norton
Dodie Bellamy, with a foreword by Adriana Reines
Les Figues Press
75 pages, $15.00
ISBN 978-1-934254-49-3


Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton is wide open, a bliss text, pulsating. It is as open as a text can be, maximally excited, welling into hot, rank, sticky meanings.[1] Alarming meanings. Tender meanings. Its lovers fuck, staining the page with Medusian laughter—Cixous, that French gorgon’s—such that even eroticized aggression—that cultural cage, that check on our sexual imaginaries—becomes risible, linguistic (so not less erotic). Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English.

Cunt Norton is a conceptual project: It is the sequel to Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups (2001) and, like Cunt-Ups, the fruit of a feminist deployment (and salubrious denaturing) of the Dadaistic ‘cut-up’ technique William Burroughs was busy plugging in the 1950s and 60s. For Cunt-Norton, Bellamy used canonical sources—poems from the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry—fusing them, smearing Chaucer through Hughes, with her own pornographic text. Like ‘cut-ups,’ the pieces in Bellamy’s “anthology” are the quickened, crystalline remains of a ludic encounter between language and itself. (‘You lie gently down and cut through my skin; you shower me with mica on the side of small rivers…’)

Like cut-ups, they speak to the idea that the speaking voice, and all writing, is an amalgamation, a patchwork of texts, a conflation of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ of ‘mine’ and ‘yours,’ ‘me’ and ‘you,’ ‘culture’ and ‘self.’[2]Even Bellamy’s original pornographic material belongs to another, in this case, another poet: its lines are transplants, carry-overs from an e-mail collaboration. This source text, moreover, is active as a partial base in both Cunt Norton and Cunt-Ups, and so lines from one re-erupt in the other, seeming only slightly altered. Taken together, these books are reminiscent of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which locks the same re-contextualizing tactic between two covers; as a pair, they are Marco Polo, radically echoic, co-constitutive, incorporated into one another.

Irigaray, then, is particularly apt when she turns up in Cunt Norton’s epigraph: ‘Between us, the movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside, knows no limits.’ In this vein, the text, too, begins, appropriately but never properly—there is nothing ‘proper’ about it—with a kiss: ‘So I take the tape off your mouth, no dance, and there is only the dance, and we tongue huge gobs of spit.’

The work’s fluid, gender-shifting speaker is the effect of this dance, or is made up of multiple voices which emerge and recede. There is no need to read a unified subject across Cunt Norton’s pages, and there is no need not to: disjunction and consistency exist there simultaneously. ‘The speaker’ is thus (rather magically) able to inscribe its own lover as a presence (Bellamy herself thinks of the text not in terms of a unified speaker, but in terms of two lovers): One “letter” reads ‘Love’s not while I jerked off, thinking of thee covertly…I slide between thy lips red: if snow be white, why then walls. I stick thy cock stone inside my cunt for at least fifteen minutes.’

Most of Bellamy’s work ruptures membranes, gushing through kinds of language, polluting, if not gender, consistently, then genre. The Letters of Mina Harker, for example, incorporates found poetic language into “original” prose, appropriates fiction and TV text (e.g., Stephen King’s Carrie; I Love Lucy), merges fiction and autobiography (read: becomes meta-textual ascension), and of course lodges itself loosely in the narrative framework that constitutes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which it warps lovingly and re-hammers. As Kathy Acker, one of Bellamy’s aesthetic touchstones, speaking of one of her own pieces, claimed: “I placed the second text on top of the first text, crudely. You do what you have to…”

Even as a writer with narrative impulses, Bellamy’s interests lie less in narrative itself than in linguistic play and formal innovation, less in representation than in language that reminds us it is language, that orchestrates, as she puts this in an interview, ‘a romance’ with the reader. To borrow a phrase from Cunt Norton, it seems that for Bellamy ‘all is permitted, as long as we come.’ Pleasure and a fast-paced, libidinal sort of energy guide her writing, which often wreaks the loveliest havoc on conventional grammar as it shoots along impulsively and associatively, subsisting as pure, all-encompassing flow.

Bellamy, like Cunt Norton’s ambiguous, ever-shifting addressee, ‘wets everything’ she touches; she blasts the normalizing strictures that fuel Creative Writing (the institution) and desiccate it in practice, writing  about these with a hatred that is as flagrant as it is delectably subdued.[3]Cunt Norton, by virtue of its title, section titles (‘Cunt Whitman,’ ‘Cunt Lowell,’ etc.) and esteemed source texts, exists as a critique of these strictures in a way that Cunt-Ups cannot:

It exists as an extension of the culture wars Bill Readings locates in the 1990s, when the corollary of the rise of interdisciplinary studies seemed to be canonical erosion: All of culture, too much to anthologize, was suddenly too legitimate to leave out (ambassadors from the margins were railing at the doors; the guardians of Culture, guarding their own authority, wrote some of them up). Cunt Norton, then, pays homage—facetiously, of course—to the form of denigrating tokenism that often buttressed and continues to buttress the English canon’s—perhaps any canon’s—claim to political correctness and inclusivity: Emulating Norton minimalism, it includes one woman writer and one black writer (‘Cunt Dickinson’ and ‘Cunt (Langston) Hughes’).

More than this, though, and as others have noted, it engages with the philosophical question of whether those existing on the fringe or beyond the borders of a hegemonic system can speak through and within it. This is the question Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses in her famous essay on ‘the subaltern.’ Spivak answers in the negative. Audre Lorde was answering a similar question (answering it similarly) when she wrote ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ The Language poets thought differently, suggesting that language itself—read: ‘the master’s house’—can render itself strange to itself. Rendered strange—rearranged, syntactically fractured—language, the suggestion ran, could reveal and transform the oppressive logics of the day, which it otherwise consolidated.

Bellamy, in Cunt-Norton, is in some ways embracing a Language strategy, is choosing to dwell in the master’s house, is pissing in it, using its materials while soiling them with others while leaching through the walls. This is why the text’s language is often so cunningly beautiful: ‘I hear spirits sob in each blood-on,’ the stone made stony (made strange, though not unrecognizable), the dead text (‘the graveyard under my tongue’) renewed. And yet Cunt Norton has no master, or rejects various masters, or defaces various homes:

Bellamy has her own version of the subaltern: the feraltern, a mythic, unruly, improper, ravenously expansive form of energy, a figure that represents her own negotiations with what she describes as a brutal, vulgar, working-class childhood, and with different forms of aesthetic pressure she encountered in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1978, Bellamy moved to San Francisco, where she of course found herself at the confluence of various hot writing scenes: feminist writing groups rejected her impulse to write about sex and violence (queer writing communities embraced it); the Language movement’s cachet and ubiquity made it difficult to pursue narrative as poetry (she had to pursue it as ‘New Narrative’). The feraltern is in part a response to that matrix: it is both powerful and vulnerable; it is every gesture that flies in the face of naysaying forces, that both yearns to shit and shits on censorship.

Cunt Norton, like Cunt-Ups, is an attempt to explore, source and ultimately spew forth feraltern energies. It is too feral, then, too dirty, for a master—again, whatever master: It borrows what it can from whatever dominant movements (‘Language poetry’; ‘conceptual writing’), while exceeding their bounds. It is too close to being syntactically and narratively coherent to be conventional Language poetry. This is slightly less true of Cunt-Ups, which, as a ride that is a rhythm, is, compared to Cunt Norton—whose secretions sound seamless and seem effortless—bumpy, more jarring, littered with halts:

You’re my third victim and we’re standing up fucking kept the skulls kept the skulls slowly like a wave at Ocean City. I wiggle around and shiver…It’s such a thrill to have something you actually touched, I stuck the tape between my legs and tried to hump it, a diffuse feeling over-came me like my cunt had expanded and you’re floating. (Cunt-Ups)

That thing which everybody feels, when their ravenous ghosts stream out disturbing meals or love, saying fuck me, thy cunt is so huge—we all know that—yet here thou art, begging for “security” from my body, my glassy brooks, thinking unutterable things. (Cunt Norton)

Even Cunt Norton’s conceptualism—since Bellamy has edited, has sculpted these cunt-ups—is baroque (impure).[4] It also wears its idea:

Vanessa Place writes ‘I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page.’ Against this, the oral/aural sex motif that runs through Cunt Norton codes the feral subaltern’s predicament: The cock in the mouth (the cock/tongue in the ear) is language itself, is the master’s house, ramming its violence, rendering speech impossible, or enabling its colonized forms. (‘I would die if thou put thy tongue in mine ear, thy salamander, thy divine child in mine oven’; ‘the Tongue is not made for Speech as I bang my Cock against the back of thy throat.’) The mouth, conversely, which risks violence, figures the idea that the tongue brutal words, brutal logics and institutions sit on might offer them back metamorphosed: ‘Slobber all over my Cock until Eternity. Tell all the Truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.’

But if Cunt Norton is, like the heathen poetics it enacts, an ‘upheaval born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ.,’[5]and if it explicitly inscribes this idea, blowing blow jobs like molten glass into a theme for its pages, it is nevertheless not reducible to this idea. It truly barfs. In her Barf Manifesto, Bellamy explains that The Barf—which, arguably, names an approach to writing, an aesthetic, as well as writing with certain qualities—‘says so much…says too much’; its meaning is ‘so surplus it decimates form,’ its form ‘so vicious it beats the fucking pony[-piñata] of content to bits.’

Cunt Norton, then, is a fickle renegade, forever changing its mind as to whether language is stymieing or generous, as to whether the master’s house is or is not the master’s house. It is a plexus of affective complexity. If it fucks, fucks up and fucks over its linguistic forebears, it loves them and lapses into them too (‘Each time I open my mouth—though assaulted and battered by the wind—when I close my lips around you, I enjoy it’). Cunt Norton speaks; it is spoken. It thinks, and its thinking is perverse. And beautiful. It is as beautiful as the word pulchritude is ugly. It is immaculate filth.

—Natalie Helberg

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.

Helberg reviewer pic

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In “The Rejection of Closure,” Lyn Hejinian writes ‘We can say that a ‘closed text’ is one in which all elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the ‘open text,’ meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited…’
  2. ‘All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard.’ (William Burroughs in “The Cut Up Method”)
  3. See, for example, her chapbook-length Barf Manifesto as well as her essays collected as Academonia.
  4. ‘Adding on to and/or editing the source material is more a strategy of post-conceptualism [baroque, or impure conceptualism]; so is reneging on the faithful execution of the initial concept…Do these broken promises point to a failure in a conceptual writing text?… Failure is the goal of conceptual writing.’ (From Notes on Conceptualisms by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place)
  5. This line is from Barf Manifesto.
Feb 022014

Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. — K. Thomas Kahn



When the Time Comes
Josef Winkler
tr. by Adrian West
(Winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, 2008)
Contra Mundum Press, 2013
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
ISBN 978-1-940625-01-0.

Natura Morta: A Roman Novella
Josef Winkler
tr. by Adrian West
(Alfred Döblin Prize, 2001)
Contra Mundum Press, 2014
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
ISBN 978-1-940625-03-4.


Until recently, Anglophone readers wanting to investigate the fiction of Austrian writer Josef Winkler faced only one option: the exacting and elliptical novel The Serf (1987/1997; trans. Michael Mitchell). Published in English by Ariadne Press, The Serf joined Winkler’s Flowers for Jean Genet (1992/1997; trans. Michael Roloff), his biographical and readerly homage to the French writer Jean Genet, whose influence is felt throughout Winkler’s own fiction, as the only works available in English.[1]

But the reader requires an immersive education in Winkler before undertaking The Serf. And even Flowers for Jean Genet, while critical to comprehending Winkler’s aesthetic—his queer appropriation of high camp, religious and perverse imagery; and his homoeroticism (I would suggest, from Ronald Firbank as well)—fails to give the reader a cogent glimpse into his creative output,  an oeuvre for which Winkler has garnered many accolades including the Alfred Döblin Award in 2001, the Grand Austrian State Prize in 2007, and the Georg Büchner Prize in 2008.

Luckily, two additional fictions by Winkler were published in the past year by Contra Mundum, When the Time Comes (1998/2013) and Natura Morta: A Roman Novella (2001/2014), both translated assiduously by Adrian West, who, to use his own words (as applied to Winkler’s prose), is able to render the “painstaking … visual detail” and “attention to the musicality of phrases” found in the original German texts with a skill that honors Winkler’s writing as a “writing-against.”

Winkler eschews a traditional plot; instead, narrative fragments work together by means of repetition to complicate his vision of modern life. But single scenes can also be understood on their own terms, if one considers the images and their relation to the overall thematics of the text.

Subtitled “A Roman Novella,” Natura Morta is less a novella than a series of poetic vignettes, a succession of glimpses of life around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Rome where various figures appear, disappear, and then reappear: people “festooned” with commodified and locally popular “colorful plastic pacifiers”; “two teenaged Moroccan rent boys”; and a man whose “eyelids and eyelashes [are] painted black with mascara” and who is taunted with the homophobic “Sida!” There are plenty of “bloody chicken heads and yellow chicken feet” in the marketplace juxtaposed with iconographic images like “a doll of the Christ child” parked in  bowl surrounded by “dried pineapples, dates, and figs” and “the Virgin Mary … look[ing] over the fingertips of her clasped hands toward a box of Mon Chéri chocolates.” These images constitute a fixed yet fluid tableau, a natura morta, a still life echoing its literal translation: dead nature.

Winkler is primarily concerned with the fig vendor’s son Piccoletto, “[a] black-haired boy, around sixteen years old, whose long eyelashes nearly grazed his freckle-studded cheeks.” Piccoletto’s function is to join the seemingly disparate images of the city and its inhabitants in a way that allows Winkler to explore the religious history of Rome, particularly as it deviates from contemporary vice and greed. “Sacred kitsch” litters the city; the text works by juxtaposing religious iconography and a marketplace saturated with “one crucified Lord after another,” juxtapositions that in turn inform and reflect the distorted sexualities, the myriad “perversions” and vices paraded before the reader and the young, impressionable Piccoletto: from “[t]wo nuns … lick[ing] the chocolate toes of an ice cream bar shaped like a child’s foot” to Michelangelo’s Pietà, “framed with bulletproof glass,” an icon fetishized by “[a] toothless Pole” with the desire “to clasp the mother of God in her fingers.”

Winkler’s imagistic prose shows debts to the cinema. In one scene, Piccoletto spies a videocassette of “the film Sciuscià by Vittorio de Sica” “[a]top the apricots and white peaches” carried in a plastic bag by an anonymous woman on a streetcar. This mention of de Sica’s first major work as a director—filmed in 1946 and translated in English as Shoeshine—reveals how images in Winkler function similarly to those in a neorealist film; not only do many of the series of images contain potent mixtures of the sacred and the profane, but they overvalue the image itself (in its repetition and in its recurrence) in ways also reminiscent of auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni.

Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera[2]: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. Consider the following two passages:

A dog on its hind legs with a protuberant member snapped over and over at the small crucifix hanging from the wrist of an exhausted woman leaning with her eyes closed against the wall. A kneeling girl bumped her forearm against the thigh of a young monk holding a clear plastic bag of freshly watered cherries.


Aroused, staring into the girl’s leg holes and sniffing at her map, the boy [Piccoletto] bit down on his tongue, coated in bits of fruit bar, then stopped as he became aware of the taste of blood filling his mouth and glanced self-consciously as the mincing red feet of the pigeons. Piccoletto stood, daubed his lip with a handkerchief, passed the city map of Rome to the girl with the words “Mille grazie!” and looked for the toilet.

Winkler wants us to regard a teenaged boy—who is always “playing with his sex”—as a Christ for our times, in a world comprised of tourists, clergy, tradespeople, sex workers, and drug addicts. The fragmentary glimpses of city life in Natura Morta are refracted through the sexualized consciousness of Piccoletto whose observation of two other boys “gnawing on a fig, fresh and purple” is followed up immediately by “[t]he two boys huddl[ing] together, whispering and giggling, eyeing Piccoletto’s broad buttocks.”

Even more crucial to Winkler’s sexual vision of modernity is Piccoletto’s interest in soliciting both male and female gazes, and how he can arouse and also express sexual interest across the gulf of gender. Winkler’s aesthetic construction of modern-day Rome conjoins sex and the city, forcing individuals to confront the past in a present whose greed, lusts, and sensual pleasures—e.g., “Frocio wrapped fistfuls of ice chips in tin foil, pressing them into the form of a phallus, held the cold fetish at his hips, and squeezed the ice chips out of the tin foil in front of the fig vendor’s son, as though releasing kilos of ejaculate”—contrast with the iconographic and architectural reminders of latter days: “a stone phallus” in the Piazza San Vittorio the scene where an ambulance “pick[s] up a young drug addict, passed out and foaming at the mouth”; “the exit of the papal tombs” of Saint Peter’s Cathedral “leaking blood in the filthy streets,” streets littered with pages of the Cronaco vera, “in which tragedies from throughout Italy—illustrated with hearses, eyewitnesses, chesty women, and Mafiosi…—are reported every week.”

In contrast with Natura Morta’s portraits of city life, Winkler’s When the Time Comes takes rural Austria as its focus (Winkler’s native Carinthia). But like Natura Morta, When the Time Comes centers on a young boy whose intellectual and sexual maturation are influenced by his attempts to compile the stories of those who have come before him. In When the Time Comes, the storyteller is “the bone collector” Maximilian, whose “black bone stock … smell[s] of decay” and yet, because it contains the bones of the dead, has within it a history to decipher, record, fathom. Maximilian is Winkler’s anchor point; other characters’ stories are woven into his “clay vessel” of bones, creating a portrait of life in rural Austria spanning generations.

The town’s pastor has erected a terrifying painting representing God’s judgment at the town center, an icon that oversees the lives and deaths of the townspeople in a “town built in the form of a cross.” It depicts a man “who dragged a life-sized statue of Jesus through the forest before the Second World War and threw it over a waterfall,” causing Jesus to lose both arms; the painting shows the man’s retribution in life, since he “lost his own arms in Hitler’s war,” and after, in the fires of Hell. The often vindictive Old Testament God’s relationship with his flock, one built on fear as much as veneration, is a paradigm that repeats at the secular and personal levels. One is never free from one’s history, and even rewriting history, placing bones upon bones—as is the bone collector’s iterative, inscriptive task—cannot pry the individual from his or her community and the repressive social and religious structures of the past.

Winkler inverts the famous “begat” passages in the book of Genesis, opening the sections of When the Time Comes with his characters’ often tragicomic deaths rather than with their births; because of this, their lives seem to take on a more purposeful and even allegorical meaning. For example,

Willibald, who had worked for decades in the Heraklith factory on the other bank of the Drava, was dead from long cancer. His hands in the air and his pants around his ankles, he stepped out of the bathroom and called [to his wife]: Hilde! Hilde! Help me! then fell over and died on the spot.

“Death is my life’s theme,” Winkler has stated, and its presence—impending or otherwise—is felt on every page of When the Time Comes.

Most of the narrative in When the Time Comes, however, is taken up with the story of two boys, Jonathan and Leopold, names that allude to religious and popular examples of queerness—the first, a reference to Jonathan’s homoerotic relationship with David in the book of Samuel, and the second recalling Leopold of the Leopold and Loeb murder scandal in 1920s Chicago. It is typical of Winkler to fuse extremes: love alongside fear, pleasure alongside pain, and loyalty alongside greed: in this case, Jonathan and Leopold achieve an extreme jouissance combining  pleasure (mutual masturbation) with pain (autoerotic asphyxiation):

The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards… With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin…

Neither the bone collector Maximilian nor the townspeople condemn the boys for their homosexuality; instead, the townspeople grumble about the senseless act itself, not its queer connotations (“those two idiots who did away with themselves together!” in “this godless village”), and Jonathan’s mother Katharina grants her dead child unearthly powers, certain that he will return like the resurrected Christ to be again among his family. Whereas “[i]n death they were separable,” the intermingling of “their tears, their urine, and their sperm” in life had rendered them inseparable: they can now be mourned as individuals, despite the fact that, curiously, “Leopold was buried in Jonathan’s death mask.”

W. G. Sebald notes that Winkler’s use of repetition points to something personal in his work, an act of self-definition that requires sifting through and making sense of one’s origins: “Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre … is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.” If repetition is the sole way to work through trauma, as Freud has suggested, the rural portraits in When the Time Comes suggest that trauma is as endemic to everyday life as is a kind of quiet joy, and the ways in which collective and personal traumas are eventually reconciled with one another are mediations intrinsically bound to the storyteller’s sociocultural function.

Sebald’s remarks on Winkler’s work also point to a moral complicity that individuals need to recognize, one that carries the weight of the past and also points toward a future—though, just what that future constitutes is bleakly uncertain. The teleological aim of the future, as Winkler sees, points only toward death. Thus, the reader meets each character in When the Time Comes at the moment of his or her death, the narrative then working backward through the character’s life. Winkler’s vision privileges the figure of the artist as conduit between past origins and present traumas, interpreting “the flood of recollected images [as it] begins,” but just what the artist or storyteller figure does with these “bones” is undefined, as is who will replace Maximilian when his own time comes.

Like Sebald and like his own Austrian compatriots Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, and Thomas Bernhard, Winkler flags memory and history—collective and individual—as inescapable traps that affect present experience. Winkler is concerned with the individual’s role in history, how it is necessary to acknowledge complicity with the past, and how one must grapple with the external forces of inhumanity, greed, and immorality and ultimately reconcile with that past. And yet, while it is essential to remember the stories of the dead, sadly, we erase all memory of them before we have had time to absorb all that they can offer us:

Tomorrow morning or the day after, they will scrape it [candlewax] off with a kitchen knife and sweep it up with the leftover flowers strewn about, then there will be no more traces of a dead man in the house, the mourning house will smell no more of rotten flowers, burnt spruce twigs, and wax candles.

—K. Thomas Kahn

K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Music & Literature, Berfrois, and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @proustitute.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I would like to thank Kristine Rabberman for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this piece.
  2. “Among the first instances in Winkler’s fictional works alluding to his role as human camera—one with a “camera-head” (Filmkamerakopf) occurs in his third novel, Muttersprache (1982), yet to be translated into English. I am grateful to translator Adrian West for this insight.”
Jan 162014


Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? — Adam Segal



The Graveyard
Marek Hłasko
Translated by Norbert Guterman
Melville House Books
Paperback, 140 Pages, $15.95 US/CAN


What happens when a man is set against a narrative? There is a curious moment in the book of Job in which Eliphaz the Temanite – one of the four men with whom Job passionately argues about God’s justice – seems to tell a heinous lie for the sole purpose of maintaining his understanding of the world. Job, once the wealthiest and most righteous man in the land of Uz, has seen his livestock slaughtered and stolen, his family obliterated by heavenly fire and crushed under the weight of his crumbling house, and now sits on a pile of ash, his skin crawling with boils and filth, his every breath a burden. The only comforting thought is the infinite rest of Sheol: “My Spirit is crushed, my days run out;/ The graveyard waits for me.”

Job knows that God has wronged him, while Eliphaz knows that God can do no wrong. Only the wicked are punished, the Temanite insists, therefore Job must be a wicked man. “You know that your wickedness is great,/ And your iniquities have no limit./ You exact pledges from your fellows without reason, /And leave them naked, stripped of their clothes.” This is a lie, but it is a lie fervidly expressed, because it is his only means for conforming Job’s pain to his perception of reality.

Marek Hłasko’s 1956 novel Cmentarze, republished as The Graveyard this past December by Melville House, is full of such harrowing brushes with the dogmatic. Set in Warsaw in the wake of the Second World War, the world Hłasko presents is one of Stalinist media control and pervasive police presence. “Do you like it or don’t you,” is the officers’ constant refrain. That is: are you content, or are you the enemy? After spending the night in jail for a rare bout of public drunkenness, left overnight in a cell alongside drunkards and discouraged men – themselves locked up for singing the wrong songs and listening to the wrong radio stations: broadcasts from Madrid, the Vatican, or (god forbid) New York – Franciszek Kowalski is informed by the police that while “one would say you’re decent, quite probably a good comrade… You’ve unmasked yourself” as an enemy of the state.

This is news to Kowalski, a hardworking and contented forty-eight-year-old “assistant technical director” at a car repair plant, a single father of two exceptional adult children. He is, further, a veteran of the Polish anti-Nazi resistance. Shot through the lungs during the war, the then-young partisan fighter joined the communist party so that he might have something worthwhile for which to die. He cannot remember what he shouted, though by all accounts it must have been rather seditious. “You have insulted the People’s Poland,” says the officer at the station, “You abused the party and the People’s government in such language that I’m ashamed to repeat it… By this token you have shown what you really are.” So what is Franciszek Kowalski, really?

“Here I sit behind my desk,” muses Kowalski’s boss, the First Secretary, “everything seems to be all right; but wherever you look – the enemy is vigilant…” Kowalski survived the war, only to learn all these years later that he has may just be one such vigilant subversive.

Marek Hłasko’s cynical treatment of authoritarian censorship and paranoia carries extra weight when one considers that Cmentarze was rejected by Polish censors, and had to be published abroad by Kultura, a Polish-émigré magazine then printed in Paris. Hłasko was born in Warsaw in 1934, became a celebrated author in Poland in his early twenties, only to become a reviled public figure for his Kultura writings. In 1958 he fled Poland, beginning an eleven-year nation-hopping exile ending in his death by drug overdose in 1969. He was thirty-three years old; some call it a suicide. In photographs Hłasko always sports the same cigarette hanging off his lip; sports the same dour expression, as if he’d eaten something truly unpleasant as a child and the bitter taste had never left him.

So it’s appropriate that the Warsaw Franciszek Kowalski navigates is dismal, unwelcoming, and at times downright nightmarish. Kowalski stumbles “over empty milk bottles and pieces of junk that had lain there for years; he trampled on innumerable dogs and cats and groped in the darkness and clouds of dust.” He encounters bottomless holes in the street, hurries past posters of American soldiers spearing Korean infants on their bayonets, meets children chained to banisters by overworked mothers, looks in the puddles of dirty streets and sees that even the stars reflected from above “swam like fat worms.” The legacy of the war, during which eighty-five percent of all buildings in Warsaw were destroyed, is painfully evident. But Kowalski’s observations are also a matter of perspective: the more loss he experiences, the bleaker the city becomes. And Kowalski’s life falls apart almost immediately after his arrest.

At a party meeting, in a room so choked with smoke that “the open, smiling faces of the dignitaries in the portraits on the wall were scarcely visible,” Kowalski hopes to prove to his comrades that he is not the enemy. But first, in a darkly comic monologue showing the necessity of hewing closely to the empty rhetoric of a party narrative, Kowalski must sit through the “self-criticism” of Comrade Jablonka:

“And I went off the deep end, comrades. When I was little, I tore wings from beetles, and from flies; and I did things with cats and frogs that – well, to put it bluntly – I had fun that wasn’t our kind, the workers’ kind. Once a man died under my window… There was starvation, and misery, and capitalism; until a man named Lenin came along.”

The crowd of course erupts in cheering and applause. But Kowalski, unable to invoke the savior Lenin in such a way, finds no support. Instead, he is kicked out of the party.

“Who is right,” asks Kowalski’s son Mikołaj, “you or the party?” Kowalski insists on his rightness, but the son is unimpressed. “Whom shall I believe – you, an individual, you who shout something you don’t feel, something you can’t account for – or the party?” Kowalski tepidly agrees, “We must believe in the party.”

Why is it so essential to believe in the party? Because there is little else to have faith in, evidently. In a flashback to the day he first joined, Kowalski recalls a conversation with his partisan commander, Jerzy, who sees communism as the only bulwark against innate human badness. “People are nothing but a herd of swine wallowing in a sea of shit… [Man] is infinitely beastly; he is capable of everything; he’ll believe everything and befoul everything. Courage in the truest sense is the ability to find a man’s upper, ultimate limits… That is how I understand Communism.” Mikołaj, in the present, echoes this sentiment: “If they tore the fronts off the houses, we’d see pigsties. I can’t afford to believe any individual. I can only believe the party.” Mikołaj disowns his father and moves out, promising only to return if Kowalski can clear his name. A test of faith, thinks Kowalski. He sets out to find his comrades from the war, certain they will help to redeem him.

Kowalski enters those houses, finding behind the façades not swine but phantoms; mere projections of men. Hłasko’s Warsaw is a junkyard of a city, but the men who occupy it are themselves derelicts, broken down and hollowed out by Soviet oppression. “Bear” is so fearful of informants that he ceaselessly plays music lest neighbors equate silence with conspiracy. Warding off suspicions now by forcing his son to recite vapid Soviet poetry, the hamstrung Bear insists Kowalski give up his fight and make way for “something beside which we mean nothing at all,” asking “can’t you die like a strong animal, alone and in silence?” “Birch” has chosen another route, securing his safety as an interrogator, a communist lecturer, and a propagandist. Birch despises the working class and has no real faith in the narrative he is perpetuating – the man makes Kowalski listen to a speech of his while simultaneously admitting to its outright falsity – but he is happy to keep the myth alive so long as it keeps him comfortable.

The novel’s second half sheds the chitinous outer shell of cynical humor that characterizes its earlier scenes. Gone are the drunk tank pranks and the hypocritical concerns of workingmen in smoky chambers. Humor, in Hłasko’s Warsaw, is a product of the crowd, and here Kowalski finds himself alone with his former comrades, alone but for the looming specter of the repressive state. Granted, the final sequence – Kowalski engaging his former comrades sequentially, driving inevitably toward an encounter with Jerzy – does feel a bit predictable and hurried. But it’s also the novel’s most exhilarating portion. Hłasko expertly narrates the verbal skirmishes between these damaged men. And Hłasko’s chronicling of Kowalski’s ideological development is likewise impressive, particularly considering The Graveyard’s brevity.

Hłasko uses his protagonist’s drunken outcry to great narrative effect. The original complaint – recall that Kowalski has no actual memory of it – was initially denied, then justified to Mikolaj as something he did not mean. But soon he is explaining to Birch “I said that I didn’t believe that… it was possible to build anything valuable by means of crimes and lies, by destroying human dignity, by transforming Communist loyalty into slavery.” By imposing his newly discovered oppositional politics on the earlier complaint, Kowalski is suggesting that he really has been the enemy all along.

So, do you like it? Or don’t you? The embattled protagonist is soon challenging the preposterous binary those questions suggest.  “Ah, my friend,” says Kowalski to the arresting officer in a later encounter, “if you had gone through what I have, you’d realize that it isn’t enough: you like it, you don’t like it.” Kowalski’s concerns soon extend far beyond the abuses of the current regime, which only hint at the greater problems facing mankind. “I raised my hand against things which neither conscience nor reason can grasp, which are beyond human understanding.”

Return, for a moment, to the book of Job. The man’s complaints are full of blasphemy against God, but there is one particularly subversive passage about the powerlessness of mankind against the unknown. God is so powerful that “though I were innocent,/ My mouth would condemn me;/ Though I were blameless, He would prove me crooked.” To Job, God transcends questions of right and wrong merely by being a superior entity. This is a fairly accurate prediction of what occurs when God finally appears to settle the debate. God’s argument is less about proving his point through reason than it is about establishing superiority and unquestionable power. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations,” the deity asks, “Speak if you have understanding.” Job capitulates, and is rewarded.

Franciszek Kowalski is the more compelling character. Do you like it? Or don’t you? “No,” he finally admits. “I really don’t.”

—Adam Segal

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

Adam Segal


Jan 102014


The Lost Letters
Catherine Greenwood
Brick Books
88pp; $20

Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain
Russell Thornton
Harbour Publishing
80pp; $16.95

For Display Purposes Only
David Seymour
Coach House Books
80pp; $17.95

I’ve known for most of my life that Americans are woefully ignorant of our great neighbor to the north. I try hard not to be, in part because I live within an easy drive of the Québec border. But I have no real right to be sanctimonious, even with regard to my own calling. Having just (pinch me) turned 71, I find it increasingly hard to keep up with U.S. poetry; some recent Canadian visits, however, have reminded me of my deeper ignorance of Canadian verse, beyond that, say, of my friend John B. Lee and of Don Mckay (two men I admire deeply) and of Anne Carson (a woman who, I admit, mostly baffles me).

The Lost Letters coverThe three books I’ll consider here suggest how much I may be missing. Each is greatly distinct from the others– and each of a very high order.  I marvel, for instance, at The Lost Letters (Brick Books) by Catherine Greenwood, whose pivotal section, “Dear Peter,” is prompted by such correspondence between Heloise and Abelard as survives. Many have tried Greenwood’s strategy, but few to my mind have succeeded: she “updates” aspects of an old story, here, so to speak, putting the legendary lovers’ relationship into modern dress.

This story is famous: Abelard, renowned twelfth-century logician, seduced and impregnated  his brilliant student Heloise, whom he spirited away to live with relatives of his. She bore a male child, after which, infuriated by her teacher’s behavior, Heloise’s uncle hired thugs to castrate the scholar. Soon, however recalcitrantly, Heloise became a nun.

So richly detailed and so narratively compelling are these poems that to excerpt from them seems almost an impertinence. But consider this from “Astrolabe,” titled with that bastard son’s name, in which Greenwood conjures a mother lying in her grown boy’s room after he has left her with an empty nest. “Sentimental music,” she testifies, “makes my nipples itch”:

With the clarity peculiar
to us oxygen tipplers I recall
the infamous homemade astrolabe
at our son’s grade eight science fair–
two cardboard circles pinned together
with a grommet, sights drawn
with banana-scented marker
the ensuing kafuffle
when he taught the other children
how to calculate the angles
of Venus and Mars tumbling
in their star-besmirched

Her evocation’s sheer sensory accuracy is enviable, but her rendering of motherly love, mixed with anxiety, amusement, frustration, and protectiveness, however obliquely rendered, is more than that– it’s stirring. Whether Greenwood has children or not I can’t say; but she keenly understands, when it comes to one’s offspring, what complexities underlie a parent’s urgent wish that her child have the very best.

The entire Heloise-Abelard portion of The Lost Letters shows Greenwood as above all a supreme chronicler of longings, often as not unfulfilled. In “Same Story, Different Day,” for instance, having cited a fragment of an Abelard letter, including the phrase, “You know what my uncontrollable desire did to you,” Greenwood speaks from the perspective of a young woman whose beloved is in jail. On visiting day, she writes, “We fuck/ each other quickly with our eyes,” and then

The bare plywood table, my guy
holds my wrists and sneaks
the balloon full of contraband dreams
I smuggled in up my sleeve.

Greenwood’s depiction of the pain of desire– from her opening poem, “Monk’s Blues,” an hilarious and funky monologue by a young woman with a crush, precisely, on an unresponsive monk, through the final section, “Lost Letters,” which presumably derives from her time as a clerk in a thrift store: that sense of unrequited yearning, in a word of loss, is masterful. In “Lost Letters,” say, the speaker of “Charity” recognizes a customer, who may or may not recognize her: “In our grade six pageant I’d played mother/to his pauper.” Real pauper now,

stepped from decades of gleaning gutters,
he’d returned to what was possible, a man
grown into his fate like a foot into a boot…

he’d returned –still short, spunky–to visit
his mom, he said, and hadn’t brought a coat.

To see this derelict, resilient despite his own foiled promise, leads the clerk to recognize that

…my own life had been driven
by small-heeled struggle, the leather scuffed
but snug, and that for a long while I’d been
walking the wrong way in a costume slowly
going out of style.

That last passage, in which the speaker recognizes vulnerabilities far greater than her own, may suggest what makes The Lost Letters such a triumph. Whether she is considering “The Natural History of the Hamster,” the late night wishes breathed into a “Rotary Dial Telephone” (“Double cheese pizza./Something, anything to fill the gap…”), or the profound and balked passions of Heloise and her lover, Greenwood has the heart and humility to see yearning from the inside.

 Russell Thornton cover

For us humans, it is –is it not?– always a matter of hope and/or its betrayal, love and/or its absence. The first-person narrator of Russell Thornton’s Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain often makes clear that the missing ingredient in his  story is the love of a father who deserted him early. He means to compensate that lack by lavishing love on his own children, a daughter and a newborn son. As he says of the latter, “I want this infant/to fight my father for me.”

The sense of betrayal, anger, and loneliness occasioned by his male parent’s leaving is sharp unto excruciating in Thornton’s work. The writer would leave all that behind if he could. But when the noises of a storm sound to the adult like knocks at the door, he says,

………………………….…father, if I let you in,

I would crush your skull the way some men will
an intruder’s, some an enemy’s, some a boy’s.
The blinds, the wind and rain, are actual

banging blinds and wind and rain– before I fall
more asleep, I know it. Still, I want with all my heart,
whatever my heart is, to go the door.
……………………………………………………….(“The Envelope”)

Similarly, when he recalls his father fabricating “Aluminum Beds” and installing them in his sons’ room just before running off, Thornton recalls that

Nightly I allow not one of my brothers
to speak or even audibly breathe. I know
that the sound of any of our young voices
will distract the light trying to make its way
through the fitted substance of the metal. I know
at the same time that this light is my father
searching for his sons.

The desperate wishfulness suggested by the repeated “I know” in that passage is laden for me with pathos, as is the later moment when the poet’s childhood bed seems “a skeleton,”

unending silver, pure and cold, and I become it,
the light of my father’s love arrived at last.

The boy’s delusion is heartbreaking– and yet it turns out in due course to be less than entirely illusory. Again, fatherly love does indeed enter the very being of the poet as he exerts it upon his children.

The moments in which that love manifests itself are so many in this volume that to quote one is to slight others; but for any parent to note this passage from “River Rainbow,” in which the speaker stands at riverside with his two-year-old, who cries boohewun

Looking back at me
with the grey-blue of the river heron,
one of its feathers fallen into her eyes.
She looks back to the water. Throws a stone
And adds circles within widening circles.
Throws another stone and her irises
halo the river flow. Throws another
and in her pupils the heron opens
its wings and lifts to arc through the blackness
lit blue–

For a parent to note the world’s freshness and sheer availability in the eyes of a child is a poignant experience:

……………………any name
she utters is a rainbow, any bird
she sees is a boohewun, a messenger
carrying to her a name for rainbow,
a heron, and bringing her a heron’s blue.

By focusing on parent-child thematics, I scandalously overlook Thornton’s other significant accomplishments in Birds, Metal, Stones & Rain, not least his spot-on representations of the natural world. Yet because I too am a doting father (and now grandfather, I can’t seem to help myself. Though I was never scarred by a parent’s desertion, I do know the ineffable and unbreachable bond a committed elder feels toward his progeny; and at my age, having watched five children grow and go, I am moved by this much younger author’s sense of time’s velocity, and how it impinges on that bond. In “My Daughter and The Geometry of Time,” he stands with the same child on a beach where he buried the ashes of his grandparents:

I think I will be here at her margins
when I am gone in the same way those two
are now at my own margins, receding
to the beginning…

This  is, I think, as much prayer as speculation, the poet keenly aware that, all too soon,

I will see my small daughter gazing back
at me for a moment from where she stands
collecting and pouring the sand, moving
into the future at the speed of light.

Surely that’s one thing that makes parental love so precious, our awareness of how little time we have to offer it in its originative state, primal and primary.

 David Seymour cover

In general, the poems in David Seymour’s For Display Purposes Only are more edgy than others I’ve considered here. I was unsurprised to learn that the poet works in the film industry, because –as his very title may imply– the perceptions he records are somewhat like “takes” in a film shoot. One of the epigraphs of his collection, in fact, is from fellow poet Jay Hopler: “From being to being an idea, nothing comes through that intact.”

In short, this volume emphasizes that our representations (or “ideas”) are inevitably provisory, are, precisely, for display purposes only. There may be some solid ground of being –the opening lines of the first poem are “The best design survives/ a narrative compulsion”– but successfully to figure it in words seems largely beyond us.

To that extent, the identity of the “I” in these poems is obscure, even to the I himself. The cinematic perspective dominates: we are usually acting even when we think we are at our most genuine. Here is a passage from “The Photo Double”:

The cameras, correctly aligned, produce a seamless
Waterline between the shooting tank and the Pacific
Ocean behind it. Cloudy skies are ideal for this illusion.

Study the dailies, learn his moves, I am the mirror left
After the actor has used the mirrors up.

Seymour’s response to the inevitable facticity (as the theorists, on whom  more directly, would say) of personality and perception is, however, seldom daunted. It is more likely to be jaunty, even when the material at hand might be shocking or dismaying. “Eyewitness Testimony,” for instance, recounts a murder in a parking lot from the perspectives of various onlookers. But that “The man who was killed died,” as the poem avers at the outset, seems the one unequivocal “fact” in the whole incident.

Consider “The woman at the scene sporting leopard-skin/spandex.” She was

…way too realistic. She lacked
conspicuous panty lines. Her description,
though relevant, was weapon focused.


The report from the shots fired was heard variably
As a calendar sliding off a kitchen wall and the after-
vacuum of implosion.


The passing cab driver had the largest
hippocampus among the onlookers, being
the least lost.  This was scientifically proven
though need not be mentioned in the final.


Others were directionless– what they saw
They now knew had never not happened.

By poem’s end, we cannot even be certain of the incident’s physical details. “(T)estimonials/ hardened into notebook fact,” and yet “Plausible rival hypotheses/ will arise in court.”

Just as everything we do or observe is hypothesis, so is the doer/observer: “That’s me,” the poet writes in the tellingly entitled “The Clones’ Brief Tenure,”, “immortal matter, a smattering of universe made/ coherent by reason.”

There are several clones in the poem just quoted. The third at one point reads the first, who’s apparently a poet:

When I read anaemic verge of yews lamping wiry shade
along the urban growth boundary  I read
stand of trees casting shadows on the edge of town

and think I have reduced his thoughts, insulted him,
or oversimplified the yews, but no,
……they have only grown

more complex since he laid eyes on them,
if he saw them at all and they weren’t fabricated
……for the line to convey meaning of
………….another order entirely,

and now I’m stalled on the words, trying to uncover
a clue to the yews’ reality, a stark hint of certitude…

As it turns out, it is not only what, elsewhere in the poem, Seymour calls his “suppositious self” that is endlessly clone-able but also the world that we wrongly imagine to be intact and, as we like to say, factual. As my dear friend, the superb poet Fleda Brown, has written,

Poets/fictionists are liars. They make things up as they go along. So? Language can never  tell the “truth.” So?  I’m reminded of the French critics of the past 20 years, who very accurately noted (in ridiculously convoluted language) that language has no intrinsic meaning. That the author is dead. The reader makes up the stories in a negotiation between mind and page.  So?

I have also long felt that, once one penetrates the explorations of the theorists, one arrives, as Brown implies, at conclusions that the average writer will have discovered within a few months of applied authorship. How much more fun it is to find these “truths” enacted by a poet of David Seymour’s manifest talent than to find them emphasized in studiously and gracelessly unreadable prose.

I challenge you: Search the theoretical pantheon, from Heidegger to Derrida to Lacan to Lyotard and on and on, and find me something as delightful as this:

When I tell you I love you
you smile like

our old television advertising
a clearer HD television.

Ms. Greenwood and Messrs. Thornton and Seymour present us, variously, with persona poems, impassioned “realist” testimony, and postmodern (brilliant) japery. Let us Americans jettison our odd provincialism. If we look north of the border, we’ll find a little –or in fact a lot– of something for each of us.

 —Sydney Lea


sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications recently released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

Jan 052014



Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler
150 pages, $15.95
ISBN 978-1-927428-37-5

In Mauricio Segura’s third novel, Eucalyptus, a middle-aged man returns to his homeland for his father’s funeral. This, in and of itself, does not make for a unique narrative: countless books, films, and songs have forged similar paths. But what’s arresting about Segura’s vision of this well-worn trope is that he undermines the expected—the revelation of past discretions, the outsider element of “the arrival” after time away—to remark on far greater themes of identity and place. As the slender volume shuttles along with breathtaking execution, eventually taking the form of an existential whodunit, one gleans that Segura isn’t quite interested in “you can’t go home again” platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.

Alberto Ventura, the novel’s protagonist, is a character not unlike Segura: a Chilean writer who, as a child, migrated to Canada with his family after the 1973 coup-d’état, avoiding the long and violent Pinochet régime. As the narrative opens, Alberto and his young son, Marco, travel from Montreal to Temuco in southern Chile to bury Alberto’s father, the bombastic Roberto, a former political force and current farmer of eucalyptus trees, whose passing comes as an unexpected shock. Over several whirlwind days, Alberto—who remained in Canada after his parents and brother returned to Chile in 1990—is greeted by family and friends and is educated on his father’s shadowy final years: his murder of a young indigenous employee, his love affair with the daughter of an indigenous chief, his separation from those he once loved, his flashbacks to his brief time in prison during the coup. And as Roberto’s history unravels, through declarations both remorseful and bitter, distraught and frustrated, Alberto questions the nature of the man’s passing. Though theoretically killed by an untreated internal hemorrhage, after Alberto discovers a long, puzzling scar on Roberto’s body—“like a snake, zigzagging from waist to chest” (63)—he is convinced that treachery is afoot.

Armed with nothing but his own convictions (“Why waste your time looking into the death of a man who spent his whole life humiliating you?” his uncle Pedro asks at one point [108]), Alberto strikes out to cull information on his father, and as he ping-pongs from homes to police stations to Roberto’s abandoned compound, Segura’s writing adopts strong cinematic elements that spark a narrative rhythm. Here, recollections of characters seamlessly segue, à la a film dissolve, into representative scenes: we hear Roberto’s business partner recollect a moment, for example, only to then submerge into that moment, seeing the world as Roberto sees it, hearing his voice as he speaks. These transitions occur regularly, one or two per chapter, and create a strong structure for Alberto to explore. They are also quietly understated, luring the reader and resulting in a ghostlike journey: passing through bodies, into minds, and then back again. And as Alberto assembles these memories, he is forced to decide which version of his father is genuine. Is he the brute? The egomaniac? The quiet hero? Does it matter?

Thematically, Segura patterns Eucalyptus with constant nods to the idea of invasion and to the fragility of the place one calls home. These themes provide not only additional narrative rhythm, but they also elevate the story, convincing the attentive reader that learning the cause of Roberto’s death is far less important than the exploration of what we all consider ownership. The argument is introduced on page one. Alberto, driving into southern Chile, passes over a bridge:

That’s it, he thought, I’m here. He lowered the window to savour the elusive, vaguely clinical odour of the eucalyptus bordering the Pan-American Highway, and told himself that even his knowledge of the southern flora, he owed to his father. (1)

Not only does Segura deliver Alberto, the stranger, to Chile in these opening lines, but he also offers here the first taste of the eucalyptus, a non-native tree. Farmed on large plantations by Roberto, the eucalyptus peppers the remainder of the manuscript and becomes an analogy for invasiveness and destruction as the novel progresses. “This tree, with its phenomenal growth and undeniable qualities, has…done irreparable damage in some parts of the region,” Alberto is told (130), yet these charges also pervade the thoughts of those Alberto encounters: to some, Roberto has destroyed; to the indigenous Mapuche, Alberto’s entire family is part of the problem. Relationships between Roberto and the Mapuche fluctuate wildly. And while Alberto himself feels misplaced throughout Eucalyptus, paranoid of his foreignness, of his own impact, he recalls his own family lineage, the ancestors who arrived in Chile after a long journey from Andalusia. The Ventura name, like the eucalyptus tree, settled in this country for reasons of prosperity.

And yet, towering over all of Segura’s characters is the Llaima Volcano, the true possessor of Chile. An omnipresent hulk ready to wipe the slate clean, Segura employs Llaima to, again, continue the thread of place and invasion: the volcano threatens to erupt and swallow the region, rendering moot all of the questions provoked by Alberto’s quest. Llaima even taunts Alberto at one point, as Segura writes:

And so Alberto feasted his eyes, as his father had so often done, on the dramatic glow of the sunset, and when he raised them he saw (God in heaven, was he hallucinating?) Lliama emitting a delicate wisp of grey smoke in the form of a question mark. (112)

In this moment, it is as if the gods are looking down on Alberto with not a beacon of hope, but with a shrug. And conceivably that’s the ultimate goal of Segura’s Eucalyptus, for while the case of Roberto’s peculiar death, stuffed with contradictions and unusual characters, spryly marches forward, there is a certain sense, by novel’s end, that the real mystery to be solved skews closer to the experiential: why we end up in the lives we live.

Benjamin Woodard


Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and interviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Jan 032014



Woman Without Umbrella
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
88 pages, $15.95
ISBN-13: 978-1-935536-24-6

Woman Without Umbrella slips out the door barefoot in spite of flash flood warnings. Without interruption is my recommendation when reading this, Victoria Redel’s third collection of poetry.

Redel is also the author of four books of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Make Me Do Things, from Four Way Books. Her award-winning novel, Loverboy, was adapted to film in 2004. A native New Yorker, Redel earned her MFA at Columbia University and was a student of Gordon Lish: as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Lish published her first book. In an interview with Leah Umansky, Redel reflects “I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot.”

The first poem in this collection is titled “The Way It Began,” and the second one is “The End.” These two poems are separated by two blank pages and a page with an ampersand, an indication of Redel’s skill in measuring and compressing time and space in the length of the collection, in the space and interaction between poems, and within single stanzas.

From this energetic opening, the collection would seem to explode outward, way beyond structures. In fact, the next poem begins with “The roof collapses.” David Orr, in his most recent article “On Poetry” in the NYTimes Book Review, concludes “poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.” Here, poetry loves a wall but for different reasons entirely, as Redel shows in “Woman Without Umbrella, Unseasonable.”

All month her city sweats and sticks,
women and men stripped down to a snarl, it’s too fucking hot.

These are steamy low-key days, south of the border,
hot-to-the-touch afternoons,

burning cement walls built for pressing him up against.

The poem next is “Suddenly,” which begins “A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body / is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.” And it goes on, describing the woman at the crosswalk, warning off any nearby men. The next poem, “Woman Without Umbrella,” begins with “Thus she waited at the corner / for the light to change.” The manipulation of time between month and month is exhilarating, as is the way Redel focuses the space, from the wide-angle view of the city to the particular woman standing on a corner.

The poems “Upgrade” and “Bottom Line,” which are a little before the halfway point in the collection, is a glorious reflection on the nature of the heart and our relationship to it, which seems sometimes strange to say, as though we could remove ourselves from it enough to say “to it.” But in Redel’s hands, this manipulation of the view through time and space is masterful. In “Upgrade,” Redel shows us the “I want,” incessantly asking, clawing-for-something heart, the font of all desire. Apart from the heart, in the wonderment of considering it—

I don’t want a refund to say it didn’t fit, never worked, or worked at first,
then in fits and starts, the switches useless, gears stripped. No, I don’t want

Customer Service, a Claims Department, complaint letters, an exchange
or credit toward the latest model, an upgrade or Lifetime Parts Replacement.

Even now, broken, chipped, in pieces, pieces lost, worn out, the original
gone—there are times, still, it comes back to me whole and I am amazed

by what is beyond fragile, by how elaborately and generously, wrecked
and beyond repair, we made use of our hearts all those years. And then.

The way her lists topple into other lists here is the glory of it. The first stanza’s list repeats the words “fit” and “worked,” and uses the assonance of the short i sound for intense energy from the start. And we don’t know what she’s talking about yet, as the second stanza takes us into Customer Service for this broken or defective thing. Third stanza, and this list parallels the first with the short-i sound in “chipped” and the repetition of “pieces.” Then in the beginning of the third stanza, “even now” starts to shift the poem away from its initial “I don’t want” and into the amazement of “and then.”

“And then” is a force in this collection. I found myself following it, catching it hiding here and there, and finding its inverse flying around in certain dark corners. For example, we move from “And then” at the end of the poem “Upgrade,” to the beginning of “Bottom Line”: “As when my father goes back under / and the doctor comes out to tell us he’s put a window in my father’s heart.” Perhaps this is the most extreme example of the way “and then” propels the reader through this collection. Or maybe it’s in the poem “Later Still, Then,” where Redel begins, “What if I told the husband everything. / How I leaned against a shoulder on the raft. Later, still. Or years earlier. And then.” In the poem on the facing page, two of the lines begin with “then.” The poem titled “And Then” precedes a page with an ampersand, which precedes the three-and-a-half-page “Kissing.” That is followed by another page with an ampersand, followed by “Holy” which begins “Then I went to a party and danced like no tomorrow.” And next comes “And, Finally,” and then “Gorgeous Present.” And this is still nowhere near the end of the book.

So, back to “Kissing.” The poem begins with a potent first line, “The first surprise of your mouth on mine.” Then it steams up quickly with a glorious list of the places where:

On streets, on staircases, in bathrooms, in the backs of cabs, in a field, against that wall and that wall and that wall, down on the floor, my hair caught in it, in hotel beds, in a borrowed bed, and in the same bed night after night after year after night, through an open window, under pines, under water, on a raft, in rain, salty with ocean, a peck at the door, a have a good day.

Our mouths, prepositional.

From this point, the poem delves beautifully into every aspect of that description, “prepositional.” Mouths act as prepositions indicating another place, “like there is another room inside and then another room inside.” Alternatively, kissing mouths are prepositional to each other, introducing the irresistible action of offering and taking: “suddenly you are turning me saying, / ‘Give me your mouth,’ and I am giving you my mouth.” The poem takes the grammar reference further with these lines: “A fluency, accented, each vowel and consonant exactly formed. / Sudden native speakers.” Later in the poem, we consider “A private syntax. / Pun and slang, slip of tongue, intentional.” The reader wonders whether kissing is a metaphor for language or if it’s the other way around.

Redel’s list of mostly prepositional phrases uses alliteration and assonance in tight sequence at the beginning of the run, and then repetition of “wall,” “bed,” “night,” “under,” “on,” and especially “in.” There’s that wall again. And that raft. Within single lines of the poem, the repetition of a word strikes the right notes of sound and insistence. In “Kissing,” this doubling of words within the line occurs with “eyes,” “mouth,” “room,” “taste,” and “drifting,” which is in itself an enticing list.

Paired with this virtuosity of metaphor and pattern is Redel’s exquisite attention to imagery and sensory detail.

Like something windy, like good weather. In winter, our mouths the
warmest place in the city.

Kissing like nobody’s business.

A lower lip flicked by teeth, pulling back just a little to breathe

 And, then, all twitch and pull and ache.

If this were a review of a novel, I’d have to stop here to avoid spoilers. In her interview with Leah Umansky, Redel said “I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.” A couple of stanzas toward the end of the collection stand out as fine examples of Redel’s repetitions and resulting conversion of these materials into something sublime. In “Smoking Cigarettes with Brodsky,” the last stanza evokes “and then” with the surprise of “and yet.”

I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
Joseph smokes another cigarette.

The first half of “Monet’s Umbrella” gives it away, too.

I didn’t have to kneel down by the roadside lilacs
and I didn’t have to go walking this dawn in Riverside

with the dog sniffing wet dirt and the red tail hawks
nesting over the Westside highway on-ramp

to know that without even trying Sweetness returns
without a Monet umbrella or a proper scarf around its neck

and that when I rush to bring Possibility indoors for a hot tea
it gathers me in for a dirty-minded kiss.

Redel’s “and then” has become “and that when” here. And there’s that kiss again, suggesting with its capitalized “Possibility” an Emily Dickinson poem, which begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer house than Prose –”.

Redel leaves us in a cozier place at the end of the collection—in a theater after the show, considering the “riveting” special effects, as you might after reading this book without intermission. The deluge of brilliance in this collection could turn manhole covers into geyser spouts, recycling bins into white-water rafts, and then—who needs an umbrella?

—A. Anupama


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

Jan 012014
Herbert Read

Hulton Getty Archives

The Green Child is a triptych of allegories…
The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato,
strung together with the expertise of Barthelme.


The Green Child
Herbert Read
New Directions, October 2013
208 pages, $15.95

What do you do when the stream of time—which has always, in your memory, flowed forward, or at least in a certain, unwavering direction—one day appears to have taken upon itself to reverse course and headed in the opposite direction? Do you follow the current as it traces its way back to its source?

This is just one of the various mythopoetic—not semantic—possibilities that puzzle the Quixotic hero of Herbert Read’s The Green Child, an entrancing fairy tale of the highest order. The British critic’s only novel, it was originally published in 1935 by Heinemann, then introduced to the American public by New Directions in 1948, with a lovely afterword by Kenneth Rexroth. Now New Directions has reissued it with an introduction by Eliot Weinberger.

Once a renowned Marxist-cum-anarchist literary critic, Read has faded out of the fickle canonizing history books—but those he influenced have not. A Bunny Wilson of his time, Read counted T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Stravinsky, and Picasso as friends. He died in 1968 remembered as a knighted anarchist and mediocre poet, but he was first and foremost a prolific critic who celebrated (and in some cases, helped launch) Eliot, Barbara Hepworth, the British Romantics, the early Surrealists, Carl Jung, and Jean-Paul Sartre in equal measure.

The Green Child is a triptych of allegories. After faking his own assassination, General Olivero—a.k.a. Schoolmaster Oliver, in his native England—returns to his homeland out of existential angst and curious boredom. While walking along a favorite path of his, he notices that the stream no longer runs from, but rather towards, the old church. Heraclitus knew that one can not step into the same river twice and Olivero does dip his hand into the stream,  perplexed as he is into a dualist examination of his own senses, his memory, his existence.

“For something like an hour Olivero remained as if transfixed to the white railing; for the whole structure of his memory was challenged.” A few pages later the small quest continues: “He was now quite certain that his memory had not deceived him, and that the direciton of the current had actually changed. The reason was still to seek. He recrossed the culvert and took the path which led round to the back of the mill, to the dam and the weir.”

In this first of three parts, he follows the stream until he discovers the green child, a waif-like woman of verdant tint, held captive and forced to drink lamb’s blood by what turns out to be her husband, Kneeshaw—who, as a boy, wound his teacher Mr. Oliver’s model train too tight and broke its spring, leading to the schoolmaster’s early-life crisis and departure[1]. When he sees this tortured woman, Olivero’s revolutionary instincts kick in and he frees her.

The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato, strung together with the expertise of Barthelme. Though the largest section of the book (Part II) tells the story of how Olivero became, rather passively, the president of a Latin American colony, The Green Child is not strictly speaking a satire, but rather more celebratory—like an ode to form and tradition. That middle section, which switches to Olivero’s point of view, plays with the inspiring ideas and military improvisations of a good revolution. The narrative is complete with its own hybrid Declaration of Independence and Constitution, geared toward the Marxist language of Historical Materialism. We see here Read’s skepticism of bourgeois liberal revolutions, of the ease with which the “display of intellectual arrogance” of one leader can quell the spirit and judgment of a people. In his introduction Weinberger notes Read’s cynicism about American democracy:

One of the most curious characteristics of this people is their complete misunderstanding of democracy. They do not believe in equality, but in “equality of opportunity.” They confess that again and again, with pride, without realizing that “equality of opportunity” is merely the law of the jungle, that they are not egalitarians, but opportunists…

Olivero’s conquest of the fictitious Roncador colony comes down to a matter of necessity. Self-assured, European, he is mistaken for a revolutionary when he steps off the boat from Cadiz: “Though oppression had engendered the spirit of rebellion, yet the agents necessary to organise and lead such a popular movement were completely lacking.” After twenty-five years of rule, Olivero has his little republic running like a well-oiled machine. Bored and devoid of existential meaning, he plans his escape—because, indeed, he must escape, cannot simply walk away from the machine he has helped erect.

But this political adventure is sandwiched between a myth—a reimagined story of the green children of Woolpit, which Read had praised as “ideal fantasy” in his 1931 English Prose Style.  And just who is this green child?

Feeling infinitely tender towards such a helpless victim of man’s malice, Olivero lifted one arm and began to chafe the bruised wrist. It was then that he noticed a peculiarity in her flesh which explained her strange pallor. The skin was not white, but a faint green shade, the color of a duck’s egg. It was, moreover, an unusually transparent tegument, and through its pallor the branches of her veins and arteries spread, not blue and scarlet, but vivid green and golden.

In one margin I noted, “she’s a fucking mood ring.” At another I marked, “E.T.?” She is passive—like Olivero in his rise to dictatorship—and turning yellow, dying in the domestic prison her husband has created. She only lights up when she can spend time by the stream, in the woods. Kneeshaw had found her so compelling in part because of her lack of sexuality: “He could not conceive that anything so feminine (and therefore so strongly attractive to his masculinity) could be without what we in the learned world call sexual characteristics, and the blind motive of all the attention he devoted to the Green Child had no other origin. It was a research into the mystery of the Green Child’s heart. But pursued in a dumb instinctive fashion.”

The story begins and ends with Olivero and his perplexed existence in a vacuum of time. The book is thoroughly existential, every sentence infused with Olivero’s psyche, the story resembling a dreamlike escape from Plato’s cave, in which Olivero accompanies the green child back to her home under the water basin from which his stream originates (and now ends), his eventual Socratic mausoleum. When Olivero rescues her, he first becomes maître to her sauvage, until she leads him to the end of this stream. Once they descend, in Part III, under the water, they do not die but instead enter a new world, the one the green children came from (an ideal). The green child has returned to her people, indicating that Olivero would like to live among them. Then Olivero separates from his alien guide and moves deeper into the grotto-like world, alone, in search of the highest of existential meaning.

The village sign showing the children.  Photo by Rod Bacon

The village sign showing the children. Photo by Rod Bacon

Can a critic, well, create? It’s a fallacious question[2] that The Green Child will fail to answer. Without a doubt the first part is superior to the later ones—scholars suspect he might have penned it in a single sitting. The novel is at least an exquisite illustration of what one can do with a mastery of language. As Rexroth wrote, “certainly the book is one of the most sustained products of conscious rapture in our literature.”[3] The writing is economical yet expansive, imbued with a diction that cannot but purposely invoke other writers’ narratives. Perhaps it takes the mind of a critic to craft such different textures as:

He sat listening to intimate sounds—voices in the soft dialect he had spoken, the click of a raised latch, the rattle of a milk-pail, the chiming of clocks in the houses; and underneath all these occasional sounds, the persistent lapping of the stream in its pebbly bed. A white railing opposite him ran along the edge of the stream, and presently he got up and went across to this railing, and leant against it as he gazed down into the rippling water.


Kneeshaw had lived a life of isolation. He was unread and almost inarticulate, facing the problems of life with direct instincts, acting from day to day as these instincts dictated. He was now faced by a man who obviously belonged to another world—a world of easy speech, of ideas and sentiments, of complicated experience. There was no natural impulse to communicate with such a man. But tragedy drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule.


I answered blindly, at first with the desire to be complaisant. But I had not taken these three steps before I perceived that I had entered on a strange path, which led I knew not whither. Never had I been more conscious of my destiny, that obscure force which drives us to impersonal action, to the surrender of the self to the event.

The heavy presence of Read’s influences and interests lends the allegory an openness to very different interpretations—Freudian, Platonic, anarchist—that bear the mark of either quiet genius or a lack of control. I cannot presume to know. What I know is that Read’s writing and the world he creates carry such crystalline purity that the story, in its own fabulous way, works. I’ve certainly never read anything like it. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Here’s one for the lovers of nature, myth, and the finally solitary individual’s quiet, fatal search for wisdom.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. My favorite passage of the novel, a brutal and not uncaring articulation of the teacher’s despair: “‘It was a little thing, but it broke a tension in me. My mother was dead; I disliked my father. I had never planned to spend my life as a village schoolmaster, a calling for which I had neither the physical nor the mental aptitude. I thought I might become a poet, but my poetry was gloomy and obscure, and nobody would publish it. I felt impotent and defeated, and longed for external circumstances to force action upon me. I struggled feebly with the ignorance and stupidity of you and your companions, but as I had no faith in knowledge, my only desire was to leave you in possession of innocence and happiness.”
  2. Then why ask it? As Weinberger’s introduction explains, the question of whether Read could or should write fiction is a pertinent one. Ford Madox Ford had recommended he become a novelist so “as to avoid turning your soul into a squirrel in a revolving cage.” Read went literally to the woodshed (in his garden) and turned out the retooled myth in about six weeks. The book was very well received by some, deemed inscrutable or boring by others.
  3. Rexroth writes: “The sheer perfection of the writing is very rare in English since the loosening of standards in nineteenth-century fiction […] Landor wrote this way, and Bagehot, and Mill, and Clerk Maxwell, and various explorers and scientists, but the novelists mostly have forgotten how.” Later, Rexroth throws down the gauntlet: “I am not going to tell you the meaning of Read’s allegory—the secret of his myth. […] All myth, all deep insight, means the same as and no more than the falling of the solar system on its long parabola through space.”
Dec 102013

American author Jonathan Littell gives a


The Fata Morgana Books
Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Two Lines Press
208 pp., $10.46

A Fata Morgana is a mirage visible just above the horizon line. The name is a hybrid term, with the Latin word for “fairy” combined with a reference to Morgan le Fay, the sinister witch from the legends of King Arthur. It makes sense: These optical illusions could easily be mistaken for sorcery, as light refraction distorts the image of a ship or an island from just beyond the horizon line, piling doubles and doppelgangers on top of each other, stretching or compressing them until they become almost unrecognizable.

Fata Morgana is also the name of the French publisher who brought out the original edition of Jonathan Littell’s new book of novellas, called in English The Fata Morgana Books, apparently as gesture of respect to the house that first issued them. If so, the coincidence is as surreal and bizarre as the stories in this strange short book, which rise like the faux castles and continents that baffled sailors in the Straits of Messina four hundred years ago, shimmering inexplicably at the far edge of the visible world.

Those who come to these tales expecting the standard protocols of narrative fiction, perhaps having just finished The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes), Littell’s perverse epic Nazi confessional masterpiece (and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2006), will find themselves adapting to a very different type of fiction. If as Umberto Eco suggests, any text molds its “model reader,” recalibrating the expectations of the audience from the first sentences, then Littell makes you over into a sensual voyeur of cryptic often displaced, deferred or interrupted erotic events unfolding among lovely but anonymous people who for all their couplings remain distant and alone.

“Études,” the first of the four novellas that make up the book, is itself written in four parts, or études, and describes the sporadic romance between the writer and B., his girlfriend. In the section called “A summer Sunday,” they are stuck with a group of friends in a city emptied by the war raging nearby. The writer longs for B., contemplates kissing her, but fails to act, “crucified by desire and fear.” Later he chides himself for obsessing over the incident: “You should learn to grow yourself a skin before you play at scraping it with a razor of such poor quality.”

In “The Wait,” the writer returns to Paris, the only named city in all of the interlocking stories, and waits – for a government posting, for word from the writer, for his life to begin. He entertains himself with a brief homosexual fling and then subsides into a waking coma of impatience and dissatisfaction.

As “Between Planes,” the third étude, begins, the war is back on center stage, disrupting civilian life without ever coming into focus. We read about “rioters” passing by in “commandeered trucks, waving green branches and chanting slogans against the new authorities,” whoever they may be. The narrator has a new girlfriend, C. who is traveling between an alphabet soup of anonymous cities, G____, K____ and M____ on various military transport planes, somehow never quite available for a meeting.

On one occasion the writer scores a job moving freight from the city, allowing him a layover with C. But a set of Kafka-esque bureaucratic entanglements, never described in detail, leave him standing on the tarmac, refused boarding privileges, clutching a yellow flower his hand. The situation is muddled, but the image lingers in the mind. The relationship with C. stutters forward, with shared insomnia and occasional revelations (she has a child, for instance, whom she had never mentioned and whom we never see). The writer never gets a clear view of her and neither does the reader; only the writer’s emotions remain clear. He is “distraught” at her aloof demeanor, “Mad with suffering,” but always “something very strong prevented me from pushing, from provoking her to a rejection that would at least have the merit of being clear.”

Littell salts these elusive events with striking images that shine brightly for a moment, revealing their emotional truth, car headlights glinting off the reflectors that mark a sharp curve on a dark road.

I was sitting in the lobby of the office where she was with the administrator when a little black and white bird flew in. It began walking around with disjointed but calm little steps, surprised at the closed door. Then it turned on a little moth that was sleeping there and attacked it with its beak. The moth struggled, but in vain and the bird swallowed it in a cloud of scales, a fine white dust of torn-off wings forming a luminous halo around its head.

This moment seems to define the power relationships in the entire story, both political and personal. At the end we are left with one more rejection and another cancelled flight.

The fourth étude, “Fait Accompli,” the most impressive text in the entire collection, features a leap into third person and an attempt at pure emotional abstraction. We have two characters – unnamed, of course, undescribed, virtually undifferentiated – thinking about the process of thinking about each other. Are these two people the characters from the earlier études? It must be, but it’s hard to be sure, because we have plunged from a satellite view of their actions to a close-up so extreme that we’re studying the pores on their faces, unable to see the larger features. This works because of the repetition of certain phrases, the obsessive recycling of language that perfectly captures to futile spin of the mind coping with jealousy and rejection. The narrative is abstract the way ballet is abstract. It’s a a dance of despair. The reader provides the music:

For him then, two questions, that is question 1 the other or not the other, and question 2 her or not her, To these two questions four solutions, that is solution 1 him without her without the other, solution 2 him with her without the other, solution 3 him without her with the other, solution 4 him with her with the other. Now for him at this stage with the other out of the question and hence out of the question solutions 3 and 4, remain numbers I and 2, without the other or without her, hence why not with, it wasn’t so bad, and it would be almost like before, except that in the meantime there would have been that. But here precisely is the problem, since for him with the other out of the question, for her without the other out of the question, of this he is certain, even without asking her I mean. So if for her, without the other out of the question, then out of the question solutions 1 and 2, remain thus numbers 3 and 4, already out of the question. So start again.

And he does.

The lover imagines various scenes with various settings – a Moscow subway station, a park at night, a restaurant, scenes with them walking or sitting, talking or silent or just exchanging letters, the phrases recurring — “the cage the locked window the key thrown in the pond”;  “eating your cake and having it too” — the options divided by the chanted “or else.” Or else, or else, or else, with no solution, no conclusion, just an unfiltered, eventually unpunctuated down-spiral of despair with an unnerving intimation of violence: “Love in the garbage can, blood everywhere,” and the sudden possibility that all the time he has talking about not another lover but a child, not a three-way affair but a family, not a break up but an abortion. So the story becomes not simply the wild gyrating thoughts of a lover trapped by circumstance, but a plea for mercy. One can only hope that the woman will take his advice have the child, live happily ever, eat her cake and have it too.

But the chances are slim.

The remaining novellas feel connected, and Littell clarifies their subject, theme and purpose early in the first one, “Story about Nothing”:

…I didn’t really know if I was driving, or if, stretched out in this vast heat on the sheetless rectangle of my mattress, I was dreaming that I was driving, or even if I was having this sleeping-driver dream in the midst of driving, my hands inert on the black leather hoop of the steering wheel. Sleeping, I said to myself: one should write about this and nothing else, not about people, not about me, not about absence or about presence, not about life or about death, not about things seen or heard, not about love, not about time. Already it had taken shape.

We watch while it happens. The narrative devolves into reverie. The narrator drives to the beach, swims far out to sea, hears a woman’s voice calling him back – but from the dream of swimming not the swim itself; but the woman is only another dream, one more fata morgana mirage piling up on the horizon line.

He visits a friend’s house and the first thing he sees is a mirror, which will become the defining image for the remainder of this story and the final texts in the collection, “In Quarters” and “An Old Story.” Mirrors proliferate, cracked mirrors that evoke vaginas, black mirrors that threaten to swallow the narrator, mirrors on every wall and above every bed, reflecting every sexual act. And the sexual acts proliferate, to the edge of pornography, ever more perverse, from simple adultery to cross-dressing and three-ways and orgies.

At one point, the narrator is the only male at a lesbian pool party, though he’s dressed as a woman and many of the other woman seem to be hermaphrodites. Consciousness refracted through this hormonal haze creates its own stacked mirages: at one point he watches a porn film under a mirror that watches him watching the actors and seems to watch us watching all of them. You reel, amused, appalled, dizzy, from one surreal incident to the next. The narrator attends bull fights, nibbles lime sorbet beside swimming pools, enjoys affairs with interchangeable lovers, and somehow in the rush of action and memory, images or insights glint:

I had never received anything from her, either good or bad, she had never granted me any rights or down me any wrongs; what she had given me she had given freely, just as she had taken it back from me, and there was nothing to say to that, even though I was burning from head to foot in a fire of ice that left no ash. At the same time, I couldn’t have cared less about her.

Who is she? It doesn’t matter. The dream is moving on, in this case into the next novella, “In Quarters,” which amplifies and deepens the dream imagery, with an even more delicate filament of reality holding the scenes together. The story starts and ends in a large communal house with the narrator surrounded by busy adults and swarms of children, none of whom seem to notice him. One of the children, a blond boy who keeps turning up, may or may not be the narrator’s biological child.

Eventually he leaves this exclusionary idyll and returns to his own apartment, shadowed by mysterious men in black overcoats, a sinister surveillance that contrasts sharply with the way he moves through the big house like a ghost. He meets a woman at his apartment, they have sex, examine brutal war photographs, and before we can discern what their actual relationship might be, he’s on a train. It arrives at the destination and we watch the dreamer wandering around the town, looking for his friends, amid a tense atmosphere of unspecified political unrest.

Soldiers, overheard ominously talking about some faction “going too far” and “provoking” us, recall the early sections of the first novella “Études,” — the characters enjoying an eerie holiday atmosphere of a town cut off by war. And everywhere, shapes float on other shapes, pools against lawns, coverlets on beds, even the Rothko like squares in a painting that seems to watch the author as he moves around the room, evoking mirrors. Then the narrator finds some handwritten pages, a story in his own hand, which he doesn’t recognize, though it describes the events that began this narrative: wandering unseen through the densely populated mansion. “In any case it has nothing to do with me.”

The reflections and mirages continue to pile up. Eventually he returns to the mansion to find that the blond boy who might be his son has fallen ill. He sits by the boy’s bedside. “He raised his hand and placed it over my own, it was light as a cat’s paw, dry and burning.”

Everyone else still ignores the narrator — except the doctor, who eventually pays a house call. When he walks the doctor to his car in the street outside the mansion, the men in black close in, presumably to arrest him. For what crime? We can only hope he’ll awaken before he finds out.

And then we come to “An Old Story,” the final novella, which begins and ends with a man breaking the surface of a swimming pool from below, stroking up into the recycled air of the health club, or mansion basement, or prison exercise area, or … well, in fact the location of the pool doesn’t really matter. It’s too deeply buried in the unconscious mind of the narrator to need a geographical tag. By now it’s a familiar spot anyway, filled with strangers, surrounded by mirrors, the gateway to another cycle of dreams.

In this case the circular nature of the sequences become explicit. The narrator dons a track suit and starts jogging along a circular corridor, opening various doors, going inside for a surreal experience, then leaving and jogging on. In the first room he seems to be married, with a son much like the one in the previous story. There are problems with the electrical service, another theme that will recur through all the following vignettes, along with the plaintive excuse that the narrator called the electrician twice to have all the wiring overhauled. There are paintings that seem to observe the action and mirrors that reflect them, and a sense of menace and war in the background, and sex, always plenty of sex. In this case the child catches the narrator and the woman in the act. He runs off and the woman goes to find him. Night has turned to day, and the narrator steps outside into a lovely garden, feeling “a strong morning heat that clung to the skin.” Once again, a crystalline, perfectly observed image anchors the floating world for us.

Soon the narrator is running along the corridor again. Soon he finds another room, with another bed and another woman and another set of mirrors, the bed like all of them covered in “a heavy golden cloth, embroidered with long green grass” that evokes the chaise lounge on the lush lawn of a previous story. Here windows facing into the night (it’s night again) take on the looking-glass chores. And the sex grows funkier, with the woman using a dildo on the narrator in a prolonged scene rescued from the prurient and the salacious by the eerie detachment of the narrator himself.

He wakes up into another dream, another room, another bed with the same coverlet, and another woman, Here again the exotic raunch, escalates, with the narrator cross dressing and finding himself attending the lesbian pool party mentioned earlier. The pool itself functions as another mirror. And it goes on: he becomes by turns a child slave, the murderer victor in a conflict with a gay male prostitute, a voyeur, a sex-starved  scavenger roams a surreal gay bathhouse, once again caught by the child in an even more compromising position and finally the leader of some barbaric Medieval army engaged in a war vague enough to echo the peripheral battles that began the collection. The woman in this story he rapes and murders, as the increasing  perversity of these linked dreams starts to spiral out of control.

Then, when it seems like nothing more could possibly happen, the narrator is emerging from the water, breaking the surface of the pool, back where he started, at the beginning of the novella, and seemingly cued up to begin again, launched into a sequence of dreams perpetually eating its own tail, a nightmare of recurrence from which he can never wake up.

Littell’s message remains constant in these shifting tableaux: life may be largely meaningless, but is nevertheless redeemed by isolated moments of pure beauty We are hopelessly self-conscious, yet tragically incapable of real self-awareness, doomed to repeat both our pleasures and our mistakes until we learn to distinguish between them.

It’s a gorgeous tour through a world of human excess and futility, exhilarating and exhausting, a world, yes, ruled by repetition, doubling and displacement, a world in which the mind cannot escape the mind. After a couple of hundred pages squinting at the fabulous fata morganas of a refracted continent, I longed to make landfall and feel the actual sand between my toes. But I suspect that was at least part of Littell’s intent. Like many deep water ocean voyages, this one had passages of fear and boredom, but also exalted spikes of strangeness and beauty you could never encounter closer to shore.

                                                                                                                                                                             —Steven Axelrod


Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and Salon.com. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.

Dec 052013



Irmgard Keun
Translated by Geoff Wilkes
Melville House Books
Paperback; 229 pages; $16.00 US/CAN

In the spring of 2011, Melville House published as part of their Neversink Library a compact but tremendously potent little novel by German author Irmgard Keun called After Midnight. First published in 1937 as Nacht Mitternacht, After Midnight is Keun’s third novel, written in exile after the Nazis banned her books and effectively prevented her from further publishing. A tale of censorship and acquiescence, of nationalistic fervor and vile human pettiness, of disappeared persons, of vengeful murders and polite suicides, After Midnight contemplates above all the moral obligations of a writer in times of government oppression and blind patriotism.

Keun secreted herself back into Germany in 1940, protected by rumors of her demise, and lived long enough to see her novels receive renewed critical attention in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her life is easily romanticized (defying the Nazis, wandering in exile, staging her own suicide), but Keun’s time away was no holiday. As an aging writer explains to the protagonist during the party scene that is After Midnight’s climax, “You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs you see are not built for you… And the language you hear is not spoken for you.”

Now Meville House has released Keun’s debut novel, the 1931 bestselling Gilgi, ein von uns. Translated by Geoff Wilkes (and conspicuously missing the “one of us” subtitle), this is the first time Gilgi has been fully published in English. The eponymous Gisela – she prefers the name Gilgi because “the two i’s are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s” – inhabits a seemingly free Germany, a Cologne that is worlds away from the party demonstrations and concentration camps spoke of in After Midnight. Still, a painful recession is bankrupting whole companies and ruining personal fortunes, the Weimar government is clamping down on individual freedoms, and all the while gangs of communists and Nazis are beating each other up in the streets. Keun shows complete awareness that something terrible was about to happen, even if Gilgi, not much interested in politics, doesn’t seem to care.

What does interest Gilgi is ambition. Aged only twenty years at the novel’s outset, Gilgi works as a typist by day, studies in a rented room by night, and only ever allows herself some fun when she feels she’s earned it. Any activity she deems unproductive or unenjoyable is simply “a pointless waste of time, and completely incompatible with Gilgi’s character and her conscience.” She is quite sure, furthermore, that all her successes are a direct result of such diligent work; that the unemployed and the poor, “these people who don’t work, ambling so idiotically, frivolously, dozily through their lives,” simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Gilgi’s work ethic, her independence, and even her boyish-but-alluring body are all indicative of Gilgi’s life as a New Woman, a concept popularized by Henry James but prevalent in German society in the wake of the First World War. The German New Woman of the Weimar era was – according to popular magazines of the time like Die Dame and Uhu – intelligent and athletic, sociable and sexually liberated, while still being beautiful and refined.

Gilgi’s (perceived) firm grip on her life’s trajectory begins to fall away on the morning of her 21st birthday, when her mother informs her she was adopted as a baby from a poor seamstress named Frau Täschler. Täschler, a “faceless” old woman whose poverty Gilgi finds repulsive, reveals that Gilgi is in truth the daughter of the enormously wealthy Frau Kreil, though the birth was hidden away to avoid a scandal. But before Gilgi can dissolve into an absurd melodrama of confused identity and lineage, the protagonist is distracted by that most unrelentingly force of destruction: love.

Enter Martin Bruck, world-traveling writer and romantic adventurer; a man of forty-three years who scorns money and finds steady employment far too quotidian for his taste. Gilgi of course falls desperately for Martin, in a fit of passion that rips her away from her work, from her ambitions, and ultimately from her once-firm sense of self. Gilgi’s lover, alternately worshipful and condescending, wastes no time in imposing upon her his image of an ideal woman.

While she’s no stranger to flirtation or male attention, Gilgi learns for the first time what an absolute chore it is to care deeply for another human being. “The hours of happiness come at a high price. The bill is presented promptly,” she muses. “Pay it! With what? With fear and twinges of pain. No, I don’t think the price is too high, I just find the currency strange.” Gilgi wants her love to fit into a rational economic system, a scheme she can control or at least plan for, but finds sorely that one cannot make a budget of one’s desires.

Martin comes across as a bit of a type, the Writer, what with his penchant for swapping drunken stories with old sailors, dreaming up romantic narratives for backstreet curio shops, and punctuating long periods of inactivity with furious, flittering frenzies of writing. (Gilgi, desperate to justify the relationship to herself, lies to friends about the frequency of these frenzies, “then she believes it, because she wants to believe it.”) Keun is expert at charting of his and Gilgi’s relationship – as the currents of euphoria flow alongside terror and anxiety and self-doubt.

In fact, many of Gilgi’s supporting cast bear resemblance to common character tropes. From the beautiful and carefree artist Olga, to the brooding and sexually frustrated off-brand Raskolnikov named Pit, to Gilgi’s three mothers (working-class, bourgeois, and wealthy), Keun’s characters feel oddly familiar. But this is precisely the point. Just as Gilgi is a (fictional) living product of New Woman ideals, so the other characters may be seen as reproductions of tropes from other serialized popular novels. The connection is explicit: all the characters, most evidently the three mothers, read the very magazines they’re being pulled from. “My beautiful love shouldn’t turn into a kind of Strindberg play,” opines Gilgi, and Keun here knows exactly what sort of joke she’s making.

Of course it’s nothing new to have fictional characters read and reference fiction. Any believable facsimile of the world will include its own references to novels and films, and the rather fun irony here is that nothing is more life-like than a human being comparing her life to a work of fiction. But Keun’s efforts are particularly pointed. When Gilgi finally meets the true mother, locked away behind her wealth in labyrinth of chambers and antechambers, she is described dismissively as a “title character in a mediocre magazine serial.” Gilgi insists that Frau Kreil explain herself, “so that you become a living being for me.” Kreil, shocked into silence by the meeting, says nothing. So Gilgi constructs Kreil’s narrative herself, and a “magazine-lady” she remains.

Gilgi herself is a remarkably complex protagonist, occasionally naïve but also fiendishly clever, particularly in her understanding what it means to be a young woman in a male-dominated society: “the shape of Gilgi’s little breasts is clearly visible under her blue-gray velvet dress, convincing Herr Reuter that Gilgi is ‘the’ woman who understands him.” Even when she is overtaken by desire for Martin, she never ceases being cognizant of what love is costing her: “What I see in the mirror is what someone else has made out of me.” Martin rarely allows Gilgi to have her say, casting doubt as to whether Martin can really see her as “a living being.”

The novel is told in a fluid third person, but so close is the narrator to Gilgi’s thoughts that “she” and “I” are used almost interchangeably. Certain of her thoughts and actions are described from without, others as if Gilgi herself were the narrator (a version of free indirect discourse), and – increasingly so as she becomes more disconnected from her firm concept of self – the action is described even with the universal “you.” Some of Gilgi’s most profound revelations about what fierce desire can bring upon a human animal (“…and deep down you sense the purpose of pain and inevitable loss…”) are directed as much at the reader as they are at Gilgi herself.

Keun brilliantly depicts every change in Gilgi’s constantly evolving understanding of her love for Martin; the narratives by which she justifies her actions, the cynical resignations to self-loathing. Gilgi can casually joke to a friend in one moment that she has “been stung by a wild hormone,” and spend a sleepless, tormented night waiting for Martin to come home in the next. Keun here hints at something her protagonist slowly begins to suspect. Gilgi, though she believes as we all do that she is a cohesive, self-motivated individual with a consistent identity, may actually be something far more fragmented.

Beneath her athletic figure and her daily routines, Gilgi is an absolute mess of warring desires. “There are two layers in me,” she realizes, “and the upper one, it dictates – everyday words, everyday actions-little girl, little machine girl, little clockwork girl- the lower layer underneath it-always wanting, always searching, always longing…” She asks, finally, “WhatamIreally?” This, then, is the real horror of love: not that it weakens our resolve or compels us to compromise our individual interests and ideals, but that it forces us to reconsider the commonplace notion that we are firm, consistent entities. The concept of a singular Gilgi, a young woman who is the same from day to day, or even from moment to moment, is revealed to be an illusion.

All the while, Gilgi undergoes a second curious transformation, one that parallels her growing dependence on Martin. She begins to stray from a Randian self-importance and acquires a slightly more liberal, sympathetic view of her fellow man. Having lost a concrete knowledge of her origins, Gilgi considers that her successes stem as much from her bourgeois upbringing as they do from sheer hard work. As a result of the hemorrhaging economy (and of love-induced slothfulness), Gilgi also comes face to face with real poverty. The poor continue to repulse her, but it’s more out of a subconscious understanding of belonging to poverty than a feeling of being above it. And finally, the protagonist’s weakening selfhood makes her more likely to experience her life not as Gilgi, but as a universal you. It’s worth noting that while the socialist Pit is arguably more interested in the welfare of the common man, Gilgi makes the firm distinction between “people” as an abstract intellectual concept and “human beings,” real knowable entities with thoughts, feelings, desires, and pains.

Crisis strikes, and Gilgi is shocked into abandoning Martin and reasserting her independence. On a train platform waiting to depart for Berlin, Gilgi assures Pit that she will inevitably prevail. “There’s a whole heap of people I can beat,” she says, “because my will is stronger and more durable.” And yet she’s also learned humility, “because you belong in the overall structure, you’re not created to stand outside it.” This final conflict – between a human sense of belonging to the crowd while simultaneously feeling that she alone stands above and apart – perhaps confirms more than anything that Gilgi really is ein von uns.

—Adam Segal



Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

Nov 152013

Adrian N Bravi

The Combover pic 

The Combover
Adrián N. Bravi, translated by Richard Dixon
Frisch & Co.
137 pages, (eBook) $7.49
ISBN 978-0-9891267-4-8

Adrián Bravi insists you look over your shoulder and squint until your eyes bleed. His most recent novel, The Combover, originally published in Italian as Il riporto (2011), is a swamp—its narrative at once as rich, as eldritch, as pedestrian and unspectacular—whose subtle, insidious suck will have you half-metabolized before you recognize it for what it is. Its gutters, its digressions, are quick, bright black, flaring, and, like a mix of flies and charading fireflies clustering over a corpse, if not easily missed, then perhaps too easily dis-missed: They are the crux of this work’s mesmerism, mechanism and generosity.

In The Combover, a compromised hairdo is enough to catalyze damnation. The work is ironic, hyperbolic, and asymptotic in its reach for the absurd. In fact, several of Bravi’s protagonists have a knack for fixating on minutiae, for blowing what most would consider inconsequential out of proportion, for getting hung up, in fact, emotionally strung up, on bagatelles. In La Pelusa (2007), a librarian’s unremitting perseveration on the dust that accosts his library lays the ground—or the patina—for all-out psychic chaos; in Restituiscimi il cappotto (2004), a would-be suicide begrudgingly defers his departure because someone—how audacious?—has borrowed his coat, thereby spoiling everything. Arduino Gherarducci, The Combover’s bitter, neurotic anti-hero, exhibits a logic that is sometimes equally difficult to sympathize with and understand.

In the character of Arduino, Bravi mobilizes a psychic world premised on complicated forms of hostility, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and pent-up rage, a world which, for all that, remains fixed on hair: on ‘lack of hair’ and ‘styles of lacking hair’ as moral categories, and on the fact that Arduino’s preferred style of lacking hair, a comb-over, has been skewed: One of Arduino’s side-burned-yet-serious students approaches him inexplicably one day during a lecture (Arduino is an expert on bibliographic data-exchange formats), and, with a gesture exuding both grace and necessity, exposes his pate. A prank? Or perhaps—as Arduino thinks, toting about Spinoza’s Ethics, pursuing his own half-baked, deliriously caustic line of reasoning—this student came into being for the exclusive purpose of bringing him to shame. The text leaves the imagined impetus for the act as ambiguous and incomprehensible as Arduino’s response to it: fugue. He quits civilization. Intending to make it to Lapland, he finds himself instead in northern Italy, dwelling in a cave.

Though he believes he is removing himself from a world of potential hair-rufflers, Arduino is in fact only exchanging one set of hair rufflers for another, for the wilderness, with its winds, rains and branches, is itself an antagonist, and, beyond this, its woods are teeming with ‘the sick and infirm’: a band of elderly and other aspiring convalescents who flock to the anchorite Arduino, much to his snowballing chagrin and horror. They bring jams and lasagna, tribute in the form of munitions; they perform, as Arduino cowers, cornered, a paradoxical form of apotheosis, executing ritual violations (stroking his head from back to front) so as to better exploit his comb-over, which, is (treacherously, he thinks) curative.

Arduino’s exploitation reaches nearly corporate extremes: he is buffeted about like an inadvertent pop-sensation: The old, cloyingly virtuous, formerly ailing Giuseppina takes it upon herself to manage his client-base and make his schedule, all the while in the vexing, metaphysical thick of Bravi’s wilderness, home of the red roe-buck, entwined snakes, locus of apparitions, staged evasions and disembodiments, Arduino cedes to the idea that he might learn to live “without getting too fucked up about [his] hair and those [data] formats.” That or else, spurred by his burgeoning hatred for the sick and infirm, might end up adding circles to a Dante-esque hell.

There are many caves in this story: wells imbued with spectral, melancholy voices, empty, naked centers, glabrous, or glabrating heads. It is clear that, within Arduino’s male-centric reality, baldness is a state laden with significance: it is a wound, a void: “every man in the world has a bald patch hidden within him”; it is, like the more explicit skull, a memento mori: bald men “reconstruct on [their] scalps the landscape which all men, sooner or later, will see snatched from them.” Arduino casts his combover with an additional moral valence as well: it is a way of being honest, a way of emphasizing by concealing baldness and thus implies that he is far more virtuous than the deplorable ‘shorn head,’ Costantino Toldini, who, by shaving his scalp conceals the fact of what it lacks naturally. Arduino’s comb-over is, additionally, a way of situating himself with respect to his paternal line, a homage to his deceased father (his best friend and the subsequent hub the novel’s nostalgic lucubrations), and a defiant, even proud recapitulation of his father’s suffering: he, too, was tormented because bald.

The father’s suffering is only alluded to, and, like Arduino’s suffering, which, in the game of show versus tell, is stated more than textured, lends itself to allegorical reading. Perhaps because of the seemingly trifling nature of its purported source (baldness), and because of the strange mesh Bravi has managed to confect with the text, using strands of humour which are variously light, ironic, wicked and dark, it becomes possible to reconfigure baldness and whatever social ridicule is directed towards it as viable stand-ins for deeper sources of anxiety, or for alienation itself. The various meanings with which Arduino invests baldness and comb-overs put him at odds with the social world: The text’s ‘barber’, its ‘janitor,’ its ‘barroom habitué,’ each of these characters is simply a version of the Joe Schmo who would insist, over and against Arduino, that he would look good shaved.

These characters place him in the same position as any person consciously practicing a ‘style’ (construed broadly) against the norms of the day: Arduino sees the outside world as “a constant series of traps”; he feels that he has spent a lifetime locked in a fight against those who would invalidate his enterprise, a lifetime like his father, sheltering his comb-over, dueling with metaphorical winds. These winds, in turn: the barber, the janitor, even Arduino’s wife, encounter him with blank bemusement: they cannot digest him. Arduino has clearly, though, to some extent internalized the social pressures that afflict him: he feels real shame when his comb-over is lifted, despite the fact that he is proud it emphasizes his baldness by concealing it, and despite the fact that a lifted comb-over would presumably be even more effective in accomplishing this emphasis.

Arduino’s obsession with his hair floats on the rest of his conscious experience like a cataract, shifting around, sometimes allowing a reality beyond what we are given access to (despite the fact that the work is written in the first person) to come into sight, though more often occluding it. His seizures, his nightmares, his depressed wife, his marital troubles, a lingering memory of a father warped by filial brutality (by Arduino’s brother, the bully), these are never dwelt on as extensively as the comb-over issue, unless they are auxiliary to it; instead they pepper his ruminations as a series of asides. As a result, the book has a kind of writhing unconscious, a peripheral vision that sees in colour as Arduino’s mind strays to his past (distant and recent), often alighting on its most violent or lugubrious details:

We lived in a first floor apartment close to the main square in Recanati. Below it was a take-away shop that gave out a terrible stink of grilled meat. The owner was a man who smoked a cigar that he always kept in one corner of his mouth. He roasted pork by the shovelful, and as time passed, he began to develop pig-like features, as if the spirit of the pig had left its body just as he was putting its flesh on the grill and had gone and attached itself to the first bastard it happened to come across…I couldn’t open the window without breathing in a stink of putrefaction.

These digressions lend an emotional depth to the novel that would otherwise be lacking. If Arduino’s physical and other outbursts at times seem mysterious, or seem insufficiently motivated, it is at least possible to suspect that there are valid causes for his rage strewn about the novel’s obstructed depths. After a seemingly benign phone call devolves into a cruel attack on his wife—really just a misdirected attack on his mother-in-law, who has, apparently outrageously, borrowed a book—Arduino states: “I don’t know what she said in reply. Once I’d put the phone down I felt much relieved. There was not much else I could say. If she couldn’t understand, it was hardly her fault.”

The cataract hovering over the text as Arduino streamlines his vision toward matters of hair places a reader of his overreactions in essentially the same position as his wife. For some readers at least, desire (wanting to know the ‘why’ of an outburst) and pleasure (wanting an answer to exist, but not wanting it: in truth wanting only the sense of textual depth that is its insinuated existence) might issue from the confusion.

Arduino’s escape from civilization, combined with his repeated insistence that one cause leads to another, that his student could have done nothing other than humiliate him, and that escaping civilization is his only viable response to humiliation, makes The Combover a variation on themes in Bravi’s earlier work, namely ‘displacement’ and ‘determinism’ as nested concerns. ‘Displacement’—specifically in the form of expatriation—has a privileged place in Bravi’s imaginary, perhaps because the native Argentinian has opted to base himself in Italy, and perhaps because he is one of those writers who chooses to move, always with incomplete comfort, between linguistic bases as well (he works in Spanish and Italian). ‘Determinism,’ in his work, lurks forever behind the will, a nag that assumes various narrative forms in order to better harass it:

In Río Sauce, Bravi’s protagonist abandons his birthplace because it is besieged by flood-waters, an act that is both impelled and willed: the fact of the flood impels it, but some of his relatives remain behind, carrying on with their lives as much as possible (the need to leave, then, was never absolute). In The Combover, alternately, as Arduino makes his way north, he becomes increasingly callous, in spite of several moments that smack of redemption, that nearly insinuate he has a choice in the matter of his own becoming.

Redemption, in this book, is a tease. Cruelty is reality, and Arduino’s trajectory—the line that connects early Arduino, the hostile, but merely petulant melancholic, to Arduino, the crazed assaulter of later pages (oh yes, the mother-in-law gets it, but only because Arduino would like to prove himself a healer)—seems, perhaps because it is too baffling, too absurd to admit of alternative explanations, fated, inexorable.

It is difficult to put your finger on just what The Combover is. The work has one foot in what is not quite the banal and another in what is not quite the metaphysical. Some of its tropes seem drawn from a twisted fairy-tale, as when Arduino severs his pigtail-like comb-over with a hunting knife. It is funny. It is not slapstick. It seems to vacillate between darkness and a lightness which some readers might equate with superficiality and which still other readers might simply insist is aesthetically valid entertainment (‘Why should it all be grim and heartbreaking?’).

Bravi’s book is quizzical in the best sense of the word; its intrigue as a novel lies in its un-decidability: it is both light and grim. Its sheer neuroticism and darkness are sometimes masked by its humour, but if they are behind trees on your first read, they will surely trail you out of it, loop back, snarl, and stalk you brazenly in the second.

—Natalie Helberg


 Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.


Nov 142013
Photo by Hank Lazer

Photo by Hank Lazer

Urban Tumbleweed

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary
Harryette Mullen
Graywolf Press
120 pages, $15
ISBN: 978-1-55597-656-9

Walk, don’t run, or you’ll miss it—Harryette Mullen’s feat of taking to her feet to capture the hum of bees in the botanical garden, droning of news headlines, and blare of vuvuzelas, all within 31 syllables. In Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, Mullen’s daily discipline of walking and writing tanka poems blossoms page-by-page into this reflection on nature and human nature.

Born in Alabama, Mullen grew up in Texas, and received degrees from University of Texas and University of California at Santa Cruz. She published her first book, Tree Tall Woman, in 1981 and went on to write several more including Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995) (Graywolf collected these three books in Recyclopedia in 2006). She is a language poet, influenced by Gertrude Stein among others, also known for her wit and humor and her interest in social activism. Mullen is now an English professor at UCLA, teaching creative writing and African-American literature. A decade has passed since her collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

In the introduction to this new work, Mullen claims to be engaged with merely taking walks and writing poems, on a mission of personal health, mind-body alignment, and closer observation of human-versus-nature duality. This book doesn’t flaunt her wondrous powers of poetic play, punning, and language games, which are showcased in her previous collections. The real accomplishment of this collection occurred to me while I spent a couple of days without my car, walking my usual school-home-work circuit after hitting a high-bouncing soccer ball on a six-lane highway. Urban Tumbleweed offers up the beautiful heartbreaks of encounters in an urban ecosystem. Mullen’s skillful subversion of stereotypical thinking has merely taken on a stealthier strategy in her diary of 366 days of walking and writing.

In Urban Tumbleweed, Mullen uses her own variation on tanka, which is a Japanese form traditionally written in a single line with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. When translated or written in English, the poems usually take line-breaks at the end of each syllabic unit. Mullen’s variation adheres to the 31-syllable limit but uses a three-line format. Throughout the book, a consistent layout of three poems per page promotes a sense of conversational tension across the gutter of every page-spread. An example from early in the collection of two poems directly facing each other:

Flowers of evergreen tree called bottlebrush,
not stiff bristles but velvety filaments,
leave fingers brushed with yellow pollen.

Flame tree, I must have missed your season
of fire. All I see are your ashy knees, your kindling
limbs, branches of extinguished blossoms.

The images of pollen-dusted fingers and ashy knees overlap subtly across the page, bringing into focus the conversation between human and nature. In other instances, poems contrast sharply with each other, as in this example of facing-page poems from near the middle of the book:

These colorful little stucco houses in
Sunkist Park don’t look so bright today
beneath this overcast sky of cloudy gray.

We’re jerked awake as helicopter blades beat air.
Light glares from above. An amplified shout
orders a fleeing suspect to halt.

Darkness in the middle of an ordinary day versus blinding brightness in the middle of the night sets up the scene for the two poems beneath each of them, which push and pull against each other with complaint, image, and specific observations.

A shivering dog left out in the rain,
dripping wet and cold as a miserable
werewolf, each raindrop a silver bullet.

My usual half-hour ride to work took
two hours today because the president
returned for another fundraiser.

Expressions of complaint and keenly observed natural detail define Japanese poetic diaries, including classics as Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road through the Provinces and Masaoka Shiki’s A Verse Record of My Peonies. Ki no Tsurayuki, an acknowledged master of the tanka form and one of the compilers of the first imperial anthology of tanka poetry, invented the Japanese poetic diary with The Tosa Diary (935 CE), a fictional account from a female protagonist’s point-of-view based on his own travel experience with a group returning to Kyoto from a distant province. The discomfort of travel by boat, unfavorable weather, and her recent loss of her young daughter set the scene for many poems of longing, hope and sorrow. Different characters compose and recite tanka poems, which Tsurayuki varies according to their roles and personalities in the story. The overlaps and contrasts seen in Mullen’s collection are abundant in this and other Japanese poetic diaries. A short excerpt from Earl Miner’s translation of The Tosa Diary:

The 4th

The captain said, “The condition of the wind and the sky is extremely unfavorable,” so that it has not been possible to put out the boat. All the same, neither the wind nor the waves rose so high. This captain really seems unable to tell anything about the weather. On the shore of this harbor there are many beautiful little shells and pebbles. For all their beauty, because they are just the sort of thing she would have liked to gather, they remind me of my little girl who has passed away. I made a poem.

Beating upon the shore,
O waves, I wish that you would bring
Shells of forgetfulness
That I might pick a shell of comfort
From the heavy thoughts of her I love.

When I spoke the poem, there was one with us who was unable to remain silent and made a poem on the sufferings of our voyage.

Shells of forgetfulness—
Not they the things I shall take up,
But pretty pebbles
To remind me of a precious child,
To be a souvenir of her I loved.

Mullen also shares a little of this collaborative effect of writing tanka:

After hearing that poem from my tanka diary,
you handed me a smooth and pleasing stone
shaped like a lopsided heart.

A kind friend sent me a hastily scribbled note,
inquiring about my “tanka dairy.”
I wrote back to say, “I’m milking it.”

Because her poetic has tussled directly with identity politics throughout her work, I was surprised to find so little obvious sign of it in her approach in this collection. From her poetic statement in American Women Poets in the 21st Century:

My desires as a poet are contradictory. I aspire to write poetry that would leave no insurmountable obstacle to comprehension and pleasure other than the ultimate limits of the reader’s interest and linguistic competence. However, I do not necessarily approach this goal by employing a beautiful, pure, simple, or accessible literary language, or by maintaining a clear, consistent, recognizable, or authentic voice in my work. At this point in my life, I am more interested in working with language per se than in developing or maintaining my own particular voice or style of writing, although I am aware that my poems may constitute a peculiar idiolect that can be identified as mine. I think of writing as a process that is synthetic rather than organic, artificial rather than natural, human rather than divine. My inclination is to pursue what is minor, marginal, idiosyncratic, trivial, debased, or aberrant in the language I speak and write. I desire that my work appeal to an audience that is diverse and inclusive, at the same time that I wonder if human beings will ever learn how to be inclusive without repressing human diversity through cultural and linguistic imperialism.

The following consecutive poems veer toward explanation of Urban Tumbleweed’s method:

This curly cloud don’t grow straight or need
straightening. It takes rough wind to wreck the ‘do.
To some, when brushed and combed it still looks tangled.

You could say I am borrowing light
from the moon when I write my tanka
after reading translations of Princess Shikishi.

Toward the end of the collection, the cross-talk between tanka poems increases as does the musicality of the individual poems. These two poems across the middle of their pages speak of “head” versus “heart”:

At first, the dog walker mistook it for a horror-
movie prop—that severed head found in the park,
beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign.

The heart of a saint, stolen from a church
in Dublin. Thieves leave golden chalices,
costly art, choosing this most priceless relic.

Some of my favorites from the collection accomplish together the inclusiveness that Mullen strives for with a touch of humor, especially where nature turns around and examines the poet. In one a hummingbird momentarily mistakes the poet in her red dress for a giant flower. And much later in the collection:

“Who do you think I am? Tippi Hedren
in an Alfred Hitchcock film?” I wondered,
when that flying object pecked me on the head.

Another represents Mullen’s intent throughout the collection with this:

TUMBLEWEED, name in black letters
on the side of a bright yellow bus
delivering students to open gates of Windward School.

Mullen mentions in her introduction that she leads students on tanka walks in the botanical garden where she teaches. This glorious discipline of the mind and body moving through poetry is better experienced than explained, and Urban Tumbleweed offers a moving invitation.


—A. Anupama

Final photograph of the New York Botanical Garden’s 2013 exhibition, Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden, including the drummers from Taiko Masala, and poetry displays co-presented by the Poetry Society of America and curated by Jane Hirshfield.


Rankine, Claudia, and Juliana Spahr, eds. American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Miner, Earl. Japanese Poetic Diaries. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969.


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