Sep 102014

WInterbach by Leanne StanderAuthor Photo: Leanne Stander

The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts. — Benjamin Woodard


The Elusive Moth
Ingrid Winterbach
Translated from the Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter
198 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-1-934824-77-1


Often, we travel for the same reasons we read stories: escape, insight, knowledge, adventure. Stepping off of an airplane in a new environment offers the same opportunity for internal charge (or recharge) as the mental submersion provided by a great narrative. In both cases, home is far away—if only sometimes in the reader’s mind—and endless opportunities await engagement. So it’s no surprise that Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, originally published in 1994 but now translated for English-speaking audiences, succeeds as both a novel and literary expedition, for as Winterbach ushers her protagonist, lepidopterist Karolina Ferreira, from her urban home to the small community of Voorspoed in the Free State—a town full of singing lawyers, seductive economists, and corrupt officials—so too does the reader feel the pull of investigation. This land functions as setting and as a character, with its intense heat and unpaved roads, providing an ideal stomping grounds for Karolina and her associates. And while the novel lingers in a period two decades removed from our own, never does it read as a dated volume of yesteryear. Rather, Winterbach’s clever, fascinating meditation on gender and power echoes societal flaws still present around the world, making the volume vital and timely.

As The Elusive Moth opens, Karolina spends her days in the veldt outside Voorspoed with Basil, a part-time resident of the town who she picked up during her travels. Here, she studies moths, specifically the “distribution and breeding patterns of the moth species Hebdomophruda crenilinea,” while Basil, himself a pupil under a local herbalist, scours the land for unusual vegetation and natural remedies. In the evenings, back with society, the duo loiters at the nearby hotel bar, playing games of snooker, drinking whiskey, and observing the locals. As in the scrub fields, their critical eyes work overtime in town to separate the wheat from the chaff, finding focus on those that make the community’s ecosystem function. They make fun of some, like the sullen magistrate, or the lawyer Pol, and question the political tactics of others, particularly Lieutenant Kieliemann, who sexually harasses Karolina nightly, pressing against her until she forces him off, and his boss, Captain Gert Els. There are also the many fleeting groups that interact with Karolina and Basil: a theatre troupe secretly organizing the residents to rise against the town’s authorities, a man trying to escape his captors, and a pair of travelers who befriend Karolina while passing through the area. As these characters and engagements slowly stack up, Karolina devotes far more time to the community of Voorspoed than its desolate outskirts, dancing on Saturday evenings, striking up a romance with a man named Jess, looking for a pair of mysterious lovers in the cemetery, and investigating the men who run the small town with inordinate amounts of power. Her research shifts from moths to men.

And yet, much like the long, lazy days that it paints on every page, The Elusive Moth refuses to latch onto Karolina’s suspicions in the same way a lesser novel would. Instead of using her wariness to sprint forward in a series of action set pieces, Winterbach lets her characters meander. While Karolina supposes Gert Els of nefarious doings, she never acts quickly to call in the cavalry. Instead, she goes on long walks with Jess, or picnics with Basil. And this is one reason the novel works so well: it establishes a firm rhythm for Karolina early—some combination of research, drinking, snooker, investigation, repeat—and then rarely strays from this framework. As such, there’s an authenticity, not to mention a relatability, to this routine and the way Karolina approaches her actions. Instead of molding the generic Hollywood heroine who instantly transforms into a superhero the moment she doubts an individual, the author constructs characters that experience life as it comes, fitting in cries disbelief between rounds of snooker. Karolina does not see herself as the hero, therefore, she does not act as the leader to right wrongs.

This is not to say that Winterbach crafts a novel of little consequence. Far from it, for nestled firmly within The Elusive Moth’s brisk 198 pages are several shrewd musings on gender and power. For example, there is a certain reasoning argued by Winterbach for Karolina’s lack of heroics. Throughout the novel, Karolina’s interactions with the opposite sex tend to materialize in two forms: from those who view her as an intellectual equal; and from those who view her as a sexual conquest, complete with lustful, unwanted advances. These second encounters frequently come from men of certain high regard in the township and help reinforce Karolina’s distrust of authority. And though she never finds a way to articulate the feeling of this emotion and confusion verbally, an artist friend composes a strong definition in a letter written to Karolina, which appears about halfway through the novel:

“In her paintings she was trying to portray herself as a hero, but it seemed it was not easy for women to be heroes, she said. One could not portray a woman in the heroic style in the same way as one could a man. Anything experienced by a man—however deviant—is immediately regarded as an extension of human experience, whereas the experience of a woman remained deviant, eccentric, idiosyncratic.”

When examining The Elusive Moth with these words in mind, Karolina’s languid advancement toward the evil of Voorspoed reads less like a conscious decision of the character and more as a commentary on South African culture in the early 1990s, one filtered through the pen of a wise female, South African author. There is a suppression and degradation of women at play, one, in other words, that makes it difficult for Karolina to be taken seriously by most, and even harder to lead the charge, even within her own story, a hindrance that continues to bare its teeth in many corners of the world today.

In addition, Winterbach uses these same ideas to speak of peaceful protest in the face of abusive power. Eventually, the power hungry are confronted, and though Karolina does not head the group of townsfolk who bind together in an effort to remove Gert Els from command, she is present for their final confrontation:

“’We have come once more to bring the charge that the captain would not receive this morning,’ the man said calmly.

‘I am not accepting it,’ Els said. (His tongue heavy and cold.)

Philemon Mhlambi stepped forward suddenly. ‘You have to accept it!’ he said, and held out a piece of paper to Gert Els.

Els stepped forward too, and slapped Mhlambi’s face with the side of his hand, causing him to stagger to one side and fall down.”

The confrontation quickly heightens in intensity: Els trains his pistol on the unarmed group, and as he threatens their lives, Karolina hears an explosion from the snooker room nearby. The building goes up in flames, causing the protesters to scatter, and turning the attempt at damnation, at justice, into a bloodbath consuming not just those involved, but several innocent bystanders, as well. The scene eerily echoes recent, similar real-life protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and though Winterbach does ultimately bring righteousness down upon the villains of The Elusive Moth, she does so at the expense of the justice-seekers, as well, calling into question the true value of their efforts, perhaps, and placing the virtuous in a camp similar to that of women in South African culture: Regardless of effort, of desire, the truly powerful will always find a way to strike, even when facing the ultimate downfall.

In the end, The Elusive Moth succeeds thanks to Ingrid Winterbach’s fearlessness, both in penning a work unafraid to relish in the minutiae of life as well as one willing to speak to the abuse of societal power found in South Africa. The novel is wise, funny, and playful, and through its slow amble toward an enlightened conclusion, the reader is able to see reflections of today in a world twenty years old.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at and on Twitter.

Aug 112014

author pic Shane JonesShane Jones

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. —Sebastian Ennis

Crystal Eaters cover

Crystal Eaters
Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio (June, 2014)
Paperback; 183 Pages; $16.00

Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters crossed my email with no more description than “tight prose, reckless imagination.” Basically: take note. This is the real thing. His debut novel, Light Boxes, was about a town that wages war against February. Jones followed that with The Six Failure, a “sick little fairy tale” set in a town where speech filters through a dream-machine of recycled bureaucracy and shuffles through stacks of papers so tall they touch the sky. That one’s about a group of messengers tasked with telling the life story of an amnesiac. It’s a novella of rhythmic variations and the unbecoming of memory. Then came Daniel Fights a Hurricane, which Jones described as “a novel of hallucinations.” This one popped up on our radar at Numéro Cinq. “[Daniel Fights a Hurricane] is a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics,” writes Jason DeYoung:

but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.

DeYoung, plenty risqué on his own to be sure, was actually quoting Jones there, from an interview with BOMB Magazine:

Beauty in novels is important to me. I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.

(I’ll come back to this.)

And now there’s Crystal Eaters, published by Two Dollar Radio, a family-run outfit you should keep an eye on. It’s about a village where people believe they’re born with 100 crystals inside their bodies (probably in their stomachs), and as they age, as they get hurt, their count goes down. It’s also a family saga and a coming of age story; it touches on modern life, rituals, myths, and bygone days; it’s hallucinatory, dreamlike, lapsing into memory, collapsing landscapes and dreamscapes and mental states in drug-induced sensory overloads; it’s about a city that grows on its own like a fungus in the night spreading a quarter-inch further across the horizon each day; it’s about a mother dying; it’s about the sun colliding with the Earth; it’s one of those stories that seems familiar yet not, sci-fi but not really, poetic but only just, even _________ (but I can’t write “Kafkaesque” here; however apt, it’s a dull and overused adjective).

Here’s the thing about Jones and Kafka though: they both know how to do “fucked-up and beautiful.” Not only that, but their writing does something to us; it suspends fear and beauty in a complex and inescapable space of mundane human struggle, and by no more than presenting it thus, without overnaming the anxiety we feel when we realize the paradox of our situation, it creates a terrible effect (terrible because it’s impossible to place, impossible to trace back to an origin; it shouldn’t be and yet it is everywhere). Ben Marcus’ recent article on Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” pinpoints these feelings and their transformative effect:

The kind of feeling that Kafka traffics in I find especially appealing because of its contradictions and conflicts, and because of the mixture of fear and beauty, the seemingly incompatible sensations are suspended and held aloft and presented to us . . . An individual sentence can be penetrating, almost like a drug when it gets into me. I read, and as I read I find myself rearranged and transported and moved, as if I’ve swallowed a little pill. I love sentences that instantly hit my bloodstream and derange me.

The pills might look different, but the effect that Jones and Kafka produce when they’re at their best is the same: it’s what Marcus calls “defamiliarization”—it’s the sort of word that crawls out of your mouth one leg at a time, like some nasty academic thing. Describing the effect of Kafka’s intimate prose, the way it drags you in deep and shakes you off in a familiar place before spitting you out the other side of elsewhere, Marcus writes:

This is a stunning feat of defamiliarization—we’re not in the real world, and yet the world is entirely familiar to us—from stories, from myths, from legends. It’s dreamlike. It’s not invented to the degree where you have to suspend disbelief—there’s a feeling of plain normalcy, this banal particularity that is our world, at the same time it’s otherworldly.

Marcus doesn’t mention “the uncanny” here, which, given its proximity to what he’s describing, seems odd. Maybe because “uncanny” is as hard to define as “Kafkaesque”; as Freud put it, the word “uncanny” is not always used in a clearly definable way, but we expect that it implies some intrinsic quality which justifies the use of a special name. Of course, then Freud went and famously defined the uncanny as: “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Something uncanny seems unfamiliar at first and then all too familiar; it syncopates between the two. So the uncanny produces an effect that can also be called “defamiliarization.” And yet, while the uncanny uncovers a banal strangeness we’re used to, it goes about it in a different way than what’s going on in Kafka and Jones, who aren’t particularly terrifying. Instead, they use the fucked-up, the odd, the out of place in a way that’s just familiar enough to affect not a gestalt shift but the feeling of a putting in question, digging at our beliefs from the edge of a precipice.

The world of Crystal Eaters, from its myths to its inhabitants’ futile struggles (to be remembered, to avoid death), mirrors so closely our plain old world, and all the more in its dissimilarities, the bits that simply seem out of place, because what it exposes is the movement of our beliefs, no matter what we believe in, as a movement beyond ourselves—and perhaps towards nothing. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, when asked about the layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters, Jones said: “The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death.” Belief moves the soul outside itself, and it’s going on all around us—this form of transcendence—in a very mundane sort of way that might not mean anything. For Jones, the absurd beauty of belief isn’t reserved for the dirt dwellers, who, here, believe they have a number of crystals inside them; but a myth like this shows us something of our own beautiful distractions, our everyday beliefs and all we take for granted that’s odd and out of place in our lives while seeming unremarkable. Of course, it’s all absurd in the face of death and maybe it’s a bit fucked-up, but, hell, if it isn’t beautiful all the same.

— Sebastian Ennis


Sebastian Ennis

Sebastian Ennis is a future law student living in Vancouver. He is a graduate of the University of King’s College in Halifax with a background in Classics and contemporary French and German philosophy.


Aug 102014

Harvey imageMatthea Harvey

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions,  and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. —A. Anupama

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press
160 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 978-1-55597-684-2


In If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? Matthea Harvey packs the scissors and mercury thermometer in your suitcase and imagines the security x-rays in full color. This hybrid poetry and visual art collection encompasses prose poems with intriguing and crystalline photographs for titles, embroidered models of imagined inventions, and mermaid silhouettes with tools for tails, including a Swiss Army knife and a hole-punch. And if that’s not enough, the list of collaborations and co-inspired projects at the end of the book adds audio, film, and even more poetry and visual art to the experience.

Matthea Harvey is the author of four collections of poetry and two children’s books. Born in Germany in 1973, she lived in Marnhull, England, until age eight, when she moved with her family to Milwaukee. She earned a BA in literature from Harvard, then an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third poetry collection, Modern Life (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was also a New York Times Notable Book.

A silhouette of a mermaid with a hand-saw for a tail greets us on the first page of this new collection. And the mermaids tie back to that earlier collection. In an interview about Modern Life, Harvey said, “My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.” The strikingly beautiful sequence of mermaid poems that opens her new book could have leaped right out of “You Know This Too” in Modern Life:

…through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffiti—Long Live the Berlin…. The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

As Harvey scissors back into the subject, various types of mermaids sing their grievances in brief prose poems. “The Backyard Mermaid” suffers namelessness as well as persecution by the neighborhood cat, and “The Straightforward Mermaid” has learned through experience to avoid hooks and sailors. The lament of “The Objectified Mermaid” reveals that:

The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it!’ He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine. Without asking, the assistant resprays her with glycerine…. After an hour under the studio spotlights, she’s starting to smell pretty fishy. Can’t blame it (as she has before) on her standard seaweed bra because this fool of a photographer has her holding two clear fishbowls in front of her breasts so it looks like goldfish are swimming past her nipples. She’s supposed to pretend it tickles. She wants to ask if he’s heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’ which she recently learned at Land Berlitz. When asked if she’s tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.

Objectified Mermaid

In another brilliant sequence, this one titled “Inside the Glass Factory,” Harvey pretends to invent a new type of mythic creature: girl factory workers who live entirely within glass walls and glass ceiling.

Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.

When they make a girl out of glass, the creative process anneals to reveal that their kiln-born invention is an accomplice in escape:

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
about their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.

Rhyme slides like reflections across glass throughout this sequence and the collection as a whole. Harvey creates special effects with slant rhymes, like “cross-legged” and “fogged,” or various styles of non-end-line rhymes, like “she,” “see,” and “key” in the middles of lines 6, 7, and 8 in this poem. Often Harvey uses one end word and one internal word as a rhymed pair, as with “lead” and “heads,” or she flattens the poetic line with placement of one word in the middle and the other at the end, as in “smeared the sky. At break they lie….” In the three lines beginning with “Once a stag,” Harvey’s combination of slant rhyme (scraped / gasped), end word with internal word rhyme (wall / all), and assonance with alliteration (glass / gasped) and consonance (stag / past / gasped) reveals the dimensions of kaleidoscopic reality. At the end of the sequence, Harvey remarkably renovates one of the most clichéd rhymes in English poetry: trees / breeze.

Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.

Harvey - glass factory image

The titles of the poems in this sequence are photographs of glass bottles, which distill space, color, and light in a dazzling movement. The images and texts scissor past each other, raising the highest temperatures of sensory attention. My review copy offered only black-and-white reproductions, completely unlike the full-color experience, which I was happy to find available online at the American Public Media website along with an interview and audio performance. This set of poems and their photograph titles were commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between the Poetry Foundation, American Public Media’s Performance Today, and the White Pine Festival, as a multidisciplinary performance of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 5” with the Miro Quartet.

Before I snip loose threads and sew up this review with glories from the substantial final sequence, let me add a few poems from the middle of the collection that reveal some of Harvey’s poetic tone. “When the Water Is at Our Ankles” devastates with its calm, dark voice cutting through to reality in the form of global warming.

Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two…

“Last Stop Dreamland” prefaces a string of post-apocalyptic poems, most of which are titled by photographs and which I marked as little marvels, beautifully imagined and individually distinct. In this particular poem, the robot–beverage cart on a train “is careful about feet / so careful about feet. Once someone slapped / it, and the cart thought, ‘this will serve me a lesson / to look where I step’….” Later in the poem, Harvey observes this—

…Through the window,
a flash of horse nodding in the field (nose to
the hay, nose to the sky) and the chorus
of sugar maples above singing almost there, nary
a care, as the passengers gather their reflections
from the windows and slap them back onto
their faces and chests, flex their feet, and
arch their backs to erase the shape of their sitting.
The ice cubes are all melted, the books are
stowed away, and as the people exit the train,
they look dazed, hazier, as if their bits aren’t
quite put back together. The Treatzcart hums
along happily—soon it will start over, chugging
down the aisles offering bagels, coffee, juice.
It loves to watch the faces waver as they choose.

The passengers’ staring into glass for a semblance of themselves echoes the action in the sequence “Inside the Glass Factory.” Harvey manages this evolving repetition masterfully throughout this collection. Another example: the ice cubes melting in this poem echo an earlier sequence of photographs of objects embedded in effervescent ice.

The last sequence, “Telettrofono,” echoes the mermaids in the form of Esterre Meucci, wife of the inventor Antonio Meucci, who is credited by some with creating the first telephone. The dramatic scene-by-scene text reads like an instruction manual or patent application, with scientific figures illustrated in embroidery. The first of these figures is a cross-section of Meucci’s telettrofono, featuring a double-helix in periwinkle thread next to a microphone stitched in chartreuse. The first instruction reads: “Hello? Please turn off all twenty-first-century gadgets, as they will interfere with the delicate instrument you are holding in your hand.”

The delicate instrument could be the long poetic sequence itself, measuring the precise length of a love of sound:

Esterre wants her ears closer to the clouds,
wants them to stretch over the water
so she can hear the opposite shore.
You give her one thing, she wants more.
I bring her a hare after a long day of hunting
and she cries and strokes its long ears.

and the density of a love affair:

…She gave me scraps
of white cotton and muslin for my snow cradle—
we suspended the bag above the stage and a man
in each wing shook the strings gently, gently
so the snow-cloth sifted through the holes
in the bag and drifted down onto the singers.
That snow scene was the only silent thing that
ever made her smile.

Some of the segments of text are framed as stage directions for an opera, dramatic monologues, math problems, or fairy tale. The sequence takes up the last quarter of the collection—a significant portion of the work. Harvey created the sequence as a soundwalk with sound artist Justin Bennett, and the hour-long audio is available on the Poetry Foundation’s Soundcloud []. The full text and images are also on the Poetry Foundation’s website. If I could snip a couple of favorite images from this sequence, they would be the bone xylophone and the marine telephone—beautifully close to seeing Harvey’s poetic language and imagining the sound she had in mind.

harvey_bone xylophone

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? contains worlds and collections, which spill intimately, like your suitcase probably would upon security inspection, and pronounces what you already know: you’ll never get that thermometer back.

 —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


Aug 042014


 This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring. —Richard Farrell


La Grande
Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books
497 Pages, $16.95


Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.

In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Paraná River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel.

An important subplot follows, involving two characters, Soldi and Gabriella. They are writing a literary history of “precisionism,” a suspicious, possibly fascist-friendly art movement founded by Mario Brando in the 1960’s. Brando is long dead, but Saer always entangles, so that the Brando story parallels but contrasts with many aspects of Gutiérrez’s story. Then there is Nula himself, whose friendships and vibrant sex life constitute the connective tissue of the novel. Nula moves through the seven days of novel-time, bedding women, selling wine, jotting notes down on philosophy. There are also many subplots, twists, anecdotes and memories, so that when these various characters gather at Gutierrez’s house in the final chapter, we know them intimately, like old friends.

La Grande is Saer’s final novel. An afterword from the book’s translator Steve Dolph tells us that Saer was still working on the novel when he died in 2005. Though nothing about La Grande feels unfinished, and the familiar subjects of Saer’s earlier novels—time, movement, philosophical speculation mixed with pragmatism and politics—return in full force here.

Argentina’s turbid political history in the aftermath of World War II is the backdrop for the narrative action of La Grande. Because the nation remained neutral during both world wars, Argentina’s economy, culture, and literacy rates positioned it to be a world power. But Argentina was slow to industrialize. Much of its labor economy faltered as post-war rebuilding set a new pace for world markets. When Juan Perón became president in 1946, he rode to power as a populist leader, touting a labor-friendly brand of ‘right-wing socialism’. In time, however, his over-reaching social agenda began to bankrupt the economy. Perón also drew the suspicions of many powerful anti-communist nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain.

Perón’s ouster by coup in 1955 ushered in a new wave of instability and violence. What followed were two decades of reactionary bloodshed and political upheaval, as Argentina worked out its schizophrenic feelings toward Perón. When he died in 1974 (after again serving as President), Argentina descended into its most violent period, the now infamous “Dirty War.” Military dictators clashed with leftist guerillas. Up to thirty-thousand citizens were either killed or became desaparecidos, the disappeared, men and women snatched off Argentina’s streets never to be seen again. It was during this violent era when Gutiérrez flew to his European exile (like Saer himself) and when Nula’s father was murdered outside the pizza restaurant. The repressive military governments met their demise in 1983, after the British military retook the Falkland Islands and a more moderate government replaced the dictatorship.

Against this backdrop we descend, to the Santa Fe region of Argentina, Saer’s favorite choice for his novel settings. Gutiérrez, the exile-come-home, survivor, enigma, left Argentina as a young man “in search of three chimeras: worldwide revolution, sexual liberation and auteur cinema.” Of course the reader knows that Gutiérrez also fled Argentina’s political turmoil. Gutiérrez rants about the way European commercial interests are misguided. “He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car.” At first blush, it might be easy to dismiss this character as a type, the craggy grouch railing against the system, but Saer rarely paints with simple brush strokes. A paragraph later, he broadens out the description:

The vitriol in the sentiment contrasts with the composure of his face each time he looks over his left shoulder, with the calm vigor of his movements, and with the monotone neutrality of a voice that seems to be reciting, not a violent diatribe, but rather, in a friendly, paternal way, a set of practical recommendation for a traveler preparing to confront an unfamiliar continent.

Many aspects of this character description equally mirror the experience of reading the novel. There is a distinct neutrality to the way events unfold. A paternal coolness—friendly but formal, polite and pragmatic—directs the action. The further we read, the more prepared we are to confront the unfamiliar continent. Saer leaves little to chance, so that even a simple character description can recapitulate and reflect on the larger themes of the novel itself. This marks the high mastery of a brilliant writer.

Though in one sense Gutiérrez functions as the novel’s hub, he actually doesn’t do much. He throws the party, and the others come. And though most of the novel’s momentum surges toward this party (which occurs in-scene in the final chapter) we never really grasp who Gutiérrez is. He remains, purposefully, enigmatic. Too much time has passed since he left his homeland. The real story grows in the countryside, its history and the people who endured the misery of Argentina’s tumultuous wars, coups, and dictatorships. The novel’s other characters seem drawn to Gutiérrez out of curiosity. Who is this man? What might they have become had they too left? What destinies did they abandon or inherit? Gutiérrez embodies aborted memories, memories that never grew, never played out. And because his participation in most of the actual events was lacking, Gutiérrez is oddly detached from what for the others are familiar experiences, shared so intimately.

In a gorgeously dense passage, Gutiérrez gazes at the Paraná River and meditates:

Gutiérrez’s senses perceive the rain across the deserted expanse that surrounds them, while his imagination projects it over the contiguous and distant spaces they have crossed and that, despite their imaginary provenance, are complemented by and confused with the empirical plane that surrounds them. What he perceives from the point in the verdant space where they find themselves, his imagination likewise assigns to the entire region, where, for the past year or so, after more than thirty years away, he has been living. And he thinks he can see, in the leaves that shudder silently as the drops fall, in their impacts with the yellow earth, and, especially, in the agitation that the drops cause as they cover the rippled surface of the river over an infinite number of simultaneous points, the intimate cipher of the empirical world, each fragment, as distant and distinct from the present as it might seem—the most distant star, for example—having the exact value as this, the one he occupies, and that if he could disentangle himself from the grasp of this apparently insignificant present, the rest of the universe—time, space, inert or living matter—would reveal all its secrets.

The “intimate cipher of the empirical world” will forever elude Gutiérrez. The novel attempts to reveal life’s secrets, unlocking meaning and rendering their beauty, but not for him. Gutiérrez walks through the world as a time traveler, who has passed through three decades unscathed. His memories are detached, cut-off from the land, less intimate, perhaps more innocent, because history, age, the passage of seasons, have exacted no toll. In many ways, Gutiérrez remains a ghost, the intimate cipher, encrypted by absence, forever a stranger in a familiar land.

For Nula Anoch—raconteur, wine salesman, part-time philosopher, full-time philanderer—memory comes at a great cost. If Gutiérrez is the still center of La Grande, Nula is the story’s bent rim, frenetic, wobbly, navigating the world with a notebook in his pocket for jotting down philosophical points that strike him (as they often do). Nula rarely rests. Imbued with an intellectual spark mixed with a salesman’s charisma, he is the primary point-of-view character (though Saer is never above dropping into omniscient narration). Despite a penchant for seducing women, Nula wonderfully remains in love with his wife, the beautiful but disfigured Diana. “Nula cheated on her often, telling himself each time that he really loved her but was incapable of establishing a direct correlation between love and fidelity.” Rarely are Saer’s characters one dimensional.

Two primary events have shaped Nula’s life: the first was the murder of his father years earlier in the political firestorms that ravaged Argentina. Nula’s journey might well be seen as a quest for lost paternity. The other event, and the one that occupies a good deal of the second half of La Grande, is an affair that took place five years before the party with an exotic couple, Lucía and Riera. This libidinous husband and wife seduced Nula into a strange love triangle (one that never achieved sexual fruition). When Nula encounters Lucía again, at Gutiérrez’s house (in the pool, in fact), the themes of betrayal, mistaken identity, paternity, grief, and recovery all come together.

In many ways, Nula’s role in the novel is a simple one. Nula delivers the wine. He acts impulsively, without restraint. But he also forges the connections between the various characters, which will allow their significant histories to be told. If this works as the dramatic device, so be it, because a traditional plot is something Saer eschews. Instead, we get movement. Characters are always moving, across the littoral region of Argentina, through city streets, across rivers, across time, across space. This churning creates the story. Through choppy cadences, false starts, and carefully timed pauses, Saer creates narrative and meaning.

In a pivotal scene, Gabriella and Soldi, two of the peripheral point of view characters who appear in an important subplot representing the history of Argentina’s literary avant garde, are crossing a bridge over the Paraná River (note the motif of movement again). They pause and simultaneously observe two boys also standing on the bridge:

Suddenly the tallest one, the one who’s most calm and most patient, without warning but nevertheless gently, asks, What is the novel? And the other one, who’s slightly younger, without even looking up from the whirlpool, says, The decomposition of continuous movement.

Movement is essential to understanding Saer. Like an orchestral piece of music, each instrument plays a part. Various sounds form, often in a disharmonic state, until each note begins to register, until a melody emerges. The sophistication of voice, the ease with which Saer switches point of view, time, even story lines, points not to erratic or jumbled narrative, not to jazz, but to a deeply sophisticated harmony, something that forces us to pay attention, to admire, and, eventually, to understand.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.

Suddenly, in a spark of clairvoyance, he realizes why they are together, gathered around the table, relaxed and happy, because, he thinks, no one among them believes that the world belongs to them. They all know that they are apart from the human swarm deluded into thinking that it knows where it’s going, and that separation does not paralyze them, just the opposite, it actually seems to satisfy them. Every one of them, not to mention the owner of the house, who guards an impenetrable mystery behind his forehead, insists on being something other than what’s expected of them.

—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.


Jul 132014

 CaptureSakutarō Hagiwara (1886-1942)

Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, and full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is made overt in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is not shy about telling you his reasons. —Patrick O’Reilly


The Iceland
Sakutarō Hagiwara
Translated by Hiroaki Sato
New Directions, Paperback
ISBN 9780811221603


Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was as self-referential as anything written in the 20th century; Yeats was prone to naming the men and women he had known among Dublin’s “grey 18th century houses”; The prose works of HD are almost completely in the realm of roman à clef. Nonetheless, T.S. Eliot writes “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” and Modernism gains a reputation for impersonality. Perhaps impersonality was an ideal, a better idea in theory than in practice; perhaps the personal lives of the Modernist poets remained too integral to their conception of the world to be completely divorced from their art; perhaps a certain amount of leeway is afforded to canonical names.

At any rate, such ideals of impersonality seem not to have reached Japan, where a simultaneous and comparable Modernist movement sought to break away from centuries of Japanese formal tradition through the use of free verse and colloquial diction. Among these Japanese Modernists, who appeared alongside several recent translations of western literature and philosophy, a standout was Sakutarō Hagiwara. No poet, east or west, used his personal life so frankly as Hagiwara did in his 1934 book The Iceland (Hyōtō), newly translated by Hiroaki Sato as part of New Directions’ Poetry Pamphlet series.

It is impossible to separate The Iceland from the context in which it was written. Sato begins his preface with the story: in 1929, five years before the publication of The Iceland, Hagiwara was abandoned by his wife; for whatever reason, he chose to leave the literary centre of Tokyo and return, two young daughters in tow, to his hometown of Maebashi, a small city in Gumman province. To the self-consciously cosmopolitan Hagiwara, Maebashi was an artistically barren backwater, “a shore of despair”. Hagiwara only alludes to the story with the epigraph to the poem “Returning to My Hometown,” where he states blandly “The winter of the fourth year of Shōwa, I separated from my wife and went back to my hometown with my two children.”

Nowhere else does Hagiwara show such restraint: the poems which follow present a complete picture of frustration, humiliation, and bitterness.

The opening poem, “A Drifter’s Song,” is a monologue of admonishment directed at the speaker himself. The speaker (and we might dare to say Hagiwara himself, for the poems are so obviously self-referential, and this poem in particular so alike in imagery and diction to Hagiwara’s preface) is full of melodrama, describing himself “chasing an everlasting nostalgia… more forlorn than Satan,” and accusing himself in a lengthy series of parallel statements:

Never once believing in anything
in what you believed you knew fury.
Never once knowing denial of lust
what you lusted for you indicted…
You’ve never once loved anyone
and no one in turn would have ever loved you.

Constantly inverting his lines, Hagiwara creates a literary mirror, a literal reflection of the speaker’s own angst. The parallel structure culminates with the final lines “but there shouldn’t be any hometown anywhere./ There shouldn’t be any hometown for you!” That closing exclamation only adds to the over-exaggerated emotionality of the poem, but once familiar with Hagiwara’s personal struggles, the reader cannot miss the double meaning: for the returning poet, the traditional connotations of home as a haven and a place of comfort now clash with the idea of home as a place of exile.

“A Drifter’s Song” is both an accusation and a plea, condemnation and self-pity for one who feels no great affection for society, but also feels he does to deserve to be banished from it. Hagiwara takes the idea of pitiable inhumanity even further in poems like “The Nogizaka Club,” “The Tiger,” and “In the Zoo,” where the speaker likens himself to animals, and especially “barn beasts,” a casually brief phrase which reappears throughout the book. In “The Nogizaka Club,” the speaker contrasts his present life with his past, the last year when he “lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building/ in the western-style room.” Now, he states “I’m starved as a barn beast,” and returning to the already familiar pattern declares,  “I haven’t lost anything / and also have lost everything.” In the punk-like“Kill Me! Kill Me!,” the masochistic speaker insists he is “an ugly beast… a barn beast, a slave…I want you to raise your hand with a whip and kill me.”

Throughout the book, Hagiwara’s speaker suffers a too-great empathy with animals, certain he is becoming one himself. This empathy reaches its height with “In the Zoo,” in which every line contains some word which connotes loneliness or suffering or desolation. It begins

Pressed by loneliness as if scorched
I come alone and walk through the trees in the garden
dead leaves all fallen on the ground
ferocious beasts are melancholy asleep in their cages.

Inevitably, he compares his heart to a cage – a facile metaphor which could only work because of the great lengths Hagiwara has gone to turn his speaker into an animal – and announces “A hundred times I’ve gnashed my fangs/ bit into that which I lust after/ battled lonely vengeances!” Having tempered  his human-animal hybridism with a sense of de-socialized confinement, Hagiwara limits the mobility of his speaker even further. The speaker identifies with most animals, especially beasts of burden, but is deprived comparison with birds, universal symbols of freedom, lamenting as the poem ends “but ah still like a bird / I shan’t fly through the boundless desolation.”

The bird, the cage, the sense of confinement all reappear in “The Stand of Trees Behind the Prison,” the penultimate poem in the book and spiritual sequel to “In The Zoo.” Again the speaker is walking, this time watching prisoners. In a sudden moment the perspective changes. For the first time the observer becomes the observed as the prisoners “look at [the speaker] hatefully and walk past.” It is the final moment of the speaker’s humanity and of course he declares “I’d rip and discard my torn clothes/ and sorrow like a beast.” The speaker’s humanity removed totally, he is left a naked animal figure shivering in the cold, fierce wind.

The continuous animal imagery, and the frequent use of parallel structures like those in “A Drifter’s Song” are just examples of the way the poems gesture towards a more formal structure. Sometimes these forms are traditional Japanese (in his preface, seemingly against Japanese Modernist convention, Hagiwara champions haiku and tanka as the future of Japanese poetry), other times they seem eerily western, as in “Fire,” which has the length, address, and characteristic broadening strophe of a sonnet. For the most part, though, these structures appear (in translation) to be entirely original to Hagiwara.

The Iceland does not necessarily contain poems with many forms, but instead may be a single form spreading like kudzu across many poems. Hagiwara frequently relies on repetition, and achieves a variety of effects: the same repetition which gives “Kill Me! Kill Me!” an urgent, insistent energy is also used to create a sense of slow contemplation in the concluding poem,“My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday.” The repetition even crosses poems: the final line of “A Crow of Nihility” also serves as the title and opening line to the poem which follows it, “What I Do Not Have Is Everything,” creating a relationship between the two most stylistically and tonally dissimilar poems in the entire book. The former is a brief flash of a poem which takes advantage of the recurring animal imagery to offer one of the book’s best images; the latter is The latter works as a collage of previously used images and phrases from throughout the book: beggars, animals, stolen pennies. Coming near the end of the collection, the summation prepares the reader for “My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday,” which concludes the book.

All this repetition – the fixation on certain images or phrases – certainly conveys a sense of frustration, of confusion, of walking and walking but not getting anywhere. It also gives the impression of a tonal limitation, a shortage of vocabulary. Any translation, be it better or worse than the original source text, is necessarily different from the original. The Iceland, in essence, is twice-translated, written originally by Hagiwara in kanbun-cho style, the literal translation of Chinese texts, using “as many Chinese words and phrases as is feasible” (Sato, 8). This, and probably not Sato’s translation, accounts for the directness, bluntness of the poems in The Iceland, but it remains a very literal work. I take the philosophy that something is always lost in translation, and that something might be vital to The Iceland, might lift it above distraction and directness and cliche.

Hagiwara works openly with literary diction for the first time in The Iceland, and this might well deepen the sense of retreat, of abandonment, of a rejection from and of the artistic metropolis. In translation this particular advantage is lost, especially since Hagiwara did not expand his efforts to incorporating traditional natural imagery. As it is, The poems lack “the little more that makes the difference,” the nuance that elevates a work from good to great. Even in colloquial poetry, this interplay most often comes from the interplay of the words themselves. This is impossible to reproduce precisely in a second language; no doubt the full effect of the form is lost. The poem “Late Autumn,” for example, is specifically noted as “for recitation.” In English, and perhaps very literal English, it is hard to see just what differentiates this poem from the others, and what would make it more satisfying to read aloud. One must go to Sato’s notes to see that it was written in a 7-5 syllable pattern, the traditional form for Japanese popular poetry.

A confession: I do not speak Japanese. I have had to consider The Iceland twice over, as a text and as a translation. I have no doubt Sato’s translation is skillful, even expert, and I am thankful for it. In his preface, Sato mentions the pains he has taken to maintain Hagiwara’s idiosyncratic punctuation as closely as possible (there is evidence of this in the way certain sentences seem to run together, not separated by punctuation or even, sometimes, by line breaks), and to explain where Hagiwara’s own wordplay is sometimes so awkward Hagiwara himself deemed it necessary to annotate it in the original publication (i.e. the kobito – koibito-o pun of “At the Subway”). It may be because of the translation that The Iceland‘s most surprising, inventive moments appear in the form of similes and metaphors: “melancholy as a clock” (15), “wide and vague as an elephant” (34), “roar like a weathervane” (36), connections which are not immediately clear in English, but nevertheless evoke the sensation of reaching for an ideal and failing.

The Iceland struggles to transcend the skillful weaving and repetition it accomplishes. The criticism that Modern Japanese lyric style was too literal, too similar to prose was one levelled even by Hagiwara’s traditionalist contemporaries.[1] The traditionalists were vexed by Hagiwara’s total departure from more traditional Japanese forms, failing to acknowledge the more adventurous forms attempted in The Iceland, but the accusation that the poetry is overly direct is no less accurate today.

Even among his less-traditional contemporaries, poets like Miki Rofū or Kitahara Hokushū, Hagiwara’s style is distinctly modern, a definite departure. Aside from the aforementioned literalness, and the imperceptible distance between Hagiwara and his speaker, Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, preferring instead to describe buildings, battleships, railways. They continue, however, to be full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is blatant in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is never afraid to say why.

—Patrick O’Reilly




Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite. 1970, London: Penguin Books. p.lxxi.
Jul 032014


Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret succeeds both through its deconstruction of the adventure story and in its full embrace of the genre … one can only hope that more of Ondjaki’s work finds its way through the translation process. His is a voice the entire world should have the pleasure to experience. — Benjamin Woodard


Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret
Translated from Portuguese by Stephen Henighan
192 pages ($18.95)
ISBN 978-1927428658


Angolan author Ndalu de Almeida, who writes under the mononymous pen name, Ondjaki, is something of a literary wunderkind: at 36 years of age, he has already published 20 books, won the José Saramago Prize for Literature, and been named one of Africa’s best writers by The Guardian. And yet, though celebrated throughout his homeland, Europe, and South America, he remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. This is unfortunate, for the newly released Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, a devilishly simple-yet-sturdy tale of childhood and revolution (and just the third work of Ondjaki’s to appear in English), proves how behind the curve we English-speakers are: so often doused by literature hampered by the overly serious, Ondjaki’s writing, full of humanity, vivacity, and character, is a whimsical breath of fresh air.

Skillfully translated by Stephen Henighan, Granma Nineteen is set in Luanda, Angola in the 1980s, years after Angola’s independence from Portugal, but firmly entrenched in the country’s long civil war (which mostly occurs off-screen), and follows the daily lives of the residents of Bishop’s Beach, a community of mostly children and grandmothers. The story is told through the eyes of a young, nameless boy, as he and his friends (in particular Pi, or 3.14) wander the neighborhood and mingle with a menagerie of delightfully nicknamed locals—Comrade Gas Jockey, Crazy Sea Foam, Dr. KnockKnock—and equally interesting Soviet troops, who occupy the land in an effort to support the ruling political party. The troops are also overseeing the construction of a massive, rocket-shaped mausoleum to house the corpse of fallen President Agostinho Neto, and it’s this structure that sparks the novel’s conflict: rumors arise that the Soviets plan on dynamiting, or “dexploding,” several homes in the beachside community to expand the tomb. Hearing these whispers, the children decide to take on the Soviets, planning a secret attack on the mausoleum in hopes of driving the invaders away before their land is destroyed.

The novel opens in medias res: there is an explosion in Bishop’s Beach, and as the dust begins to settle, it appears as if the neighborhood’s giant mausoleum has started to crumble. From here, Ondjaki leaps backward in time to tell the story leading up to this moment. It’s a well-worn trick, the flashback, one often used in action films, where the viewer is immediately dropped into the action, only to then step back and learn about the situation. Adding to this, Granma Nineteen’s premise certainly reads as if it lifted elements from the plots of many children’s adventure films from the 1980s (think The Goonies, or Explorers, or Red Dawn). But what’s intriguing about Ondjaki’s story is how fully aware it is of these familiar tropes. Rather than existing as a paint-by-numbers adventure, the novels functions as almost a commentary on the formula, with Ondjaki’s narrator constantly referring to the films he and his friends take in at the local cinema as they plan their attack. These children know how movies work, and apply this knowledge to create an adventure. For example, the first time the gossip of dynamite being smuggled in by the Soviets is raised, 3.14 says, “In cowboy movies dynamite is for blowing up trains, houses or even caves, to find gold” (18). This reference to cinema continues two pages later, when the narrator spies on the mausoleum from his bathroom. He turns off the light to remain invisible to the outside world. “I’d learned this from a war movie,” he says (20).

By constantly having his characters live out and reference moments from their favorite films, Ondjaki’s narrative succeeds on two fronts: first, a steady verbal rhythm is created. The word “movie” appears 26 times throughout the thin volume, and with each mention, the reader is simultaneously transported back to the previous mentions (a flashback-within-a-flashback, if you will) while also propelled forward within the narrative. This creates a wonderful looping rhythm to both the piece and the language within. Secondly, these moments reinforce to the reader the fantasy that is the novel: Only in a film would a ragtag group of youngsters take on a military force with nothing but their wits and courage. And this is where Ondjaki’s flashback structure also helps cleverly underline the narrative as that of playful, rambunctious popcorn. Knowing the mausoleum will be ruined at the beginning of the story allows the reader to fully embrace the events that lead up to the explosion.

In using a child’s perspective, Ondjaki writes a political rally cry of a novel without ever having to dedicate space to heavy political rhetoric. Angola in the 1980s was a cog in the Cold War, but these ideas mean nothing to a child. As such, while Ronald Reagan is mentioned, it is through the beak of a parrot as the children launch their attack:

We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with Amer-ican imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.” (143)

Instead of talking politics, then, Ondjaki’s protagonist and his friends stumble through their adventure chatting about the things that ring true to children: cheating in games, the proper way to make fun of a superior, and the queasiness of the fairer sex. These are children who threaten to “smash your face in” (36) one moment, and then barter the next, as in when 3.14 and our hero attempt to procure a pair of pliers from Madalena, another child:

“You guys…You talk and talk and you don’t say anything.”
“You’re the one who’s not replying.”
“What was the question?”
“The question was about the pliers.”
“There must be a pair in the toolbox.”
“You can’t just lend them to us?”
“‘Just lend them’? Just how?”
“Just like that.”
“And if they catch me in Granma’s stuff. Aren’t they ‘just’ going to give me a thrashing?”
“No, Granma will only give you a kind of thrashing.”
“I can go see if they’re there.”
“Thank you, Madalena.”
“What’s this thank-you stuff? Thank you is what you say to the Comrade Teacher in school. Here there’s going to have to be salt for us to eat with green mangoes.”
“But haven’t you got the key to the pantry?”
“No. It’s in the display cabinet.”
“And the key to the display cabinet?”
“It’s in Granma’s room.”
It was agreed: salt in exchange for the pliers. Later she showed us a huge pair of pliers with a plastic grip that would be great for cutting an electric cable. We had already seen this in movies and everybody knew that to cut electric cables you had to be wearing shoes, wrap the pliers in a piece of cloth and not have wet hands or feet. (39)

Ondjaki rarely employs dialogue tags in exchanges like this, which adds to the chaotic nature of the moment. This chaos highlights an interesting concept: The reader doesn’t really need to know when 3.14 or the narrator or Madalena is speaking, for in the land of children, it’s less about who is speaking, and more about the end result of the conversation. Want conquers all. And here, Ondjaki also returns to the motif of cinema, lending the dialogue an association with the rapid-fire tête-à-têtes found in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Again, the escapism of the children influences their lives.

In the end, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret succeeds both through its deconstruction of the adventure story and in its full embrace of the genre. Added to this are Ondjaki’s quirks—the children wonder if Crazy Sea Foam has a pet alligator, the titular grandmother earns her moniker after losing a toe—and his uses of magical realism—one of the grandmothers turns out to be a ghost—which combine to build a story unique in its straightforwardness. In finishing Granma Nineteen, one can only hope that more of Ondjaki’s work finds its way through the translation process. His is a voice the entire world should have the pleasure to experience.

 — Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Jul 012014


The book’s narrative structure is more diegesis than conventional plot. The journeys upon which these three friends embark is more psychological than physical. Loss figures heavily in I’ll Be Right There, particularly death. Jung Yoon is haunted by her mother’s death, the professor keeps a collection of books written by people who died before the age of thirty-three – “the age at which Jesus was crucified and Alexander the Great created his empire and died” – and Miru has named her cat after Emily Dickinson whose death-themed poetry all of the characters admire. —Laura K. Warrell


08^883618 1Shin060814.jpg

I’ll Be Right There
Kyung-sook Shin
Other Press
Paperback, 336 pages, $15.95


The day I finished reading Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, three people died in a string of shootings in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a mere twenty-four hours after six students were killed by a classmate at a college in Santa Barbara, California. Perhaps a root cause of the spiritual crises currently roiling in so many American bellies is the inability to contain in the same intellectual space a culture in which inexplicable violence like this occurs alongside such privilege and enlightenment. But May 2014 was hardly a peak in the horrifying human activity we call world news as much as a continuation of the kinds of events that compel us to ask why things are as they are.

The characters in I’ll Be Right There live in a different part of the world (South Korea) during a different period in history (1980s) but pose the same questions: who am I and what is this life all about? What makes Shin’s novel such a gratifying and ultimately cathartic read is the answers it provides to these monumental questions, answers that may not fit the sunny, New Age thinking of the day. As the author explains in an interview on her publisher’s website, “we may be the protagonists of tragedy [but] we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling moments.”

An acclaimed novelist in her native South Korea, Kyung-sook Shin has published seventeen works and is known for her rich explorations of the inner worlds of her characters as they attempt to navigate the constantly shifting terrain of their lives. Her previous novel, Please Look After Mom, was an international bestseller and won the Man Asian Literary prize in 2012. I’ll Be Right There, her second book to appear in English, draws on Shin’s experiences as a student in Seoul during the military dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan whose autocratic rule triggered pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s. In May 1980, at least 150 people were murdered in the Gwangju massacre, an event the author told The UK Guardian was even more harrowing to her generation than the Korean War.

The novel opens with a prologue: the narrator, Jung Yoon, receives a call from an ex-boyfriend Myungsuh telling her their beloved college professor is dying. Jung Yoon’s memories immediately coalesce around one central question the dying professor’s teachings once inspired: “What are you doing with your life?” Finding an answer to that question becomes the desire every character in the novel wants to fulfill.

After the prologue, we flashback eight years; Jung Yoon is sitting in the professor’s class, watching her new classmates Myungsuh and Miru acting “like each other’s shadow”; later, the three meet at a demonstration (Myungsuh  rescues Jung Yoon after she’s knocked unconscious in the ruckus), become friends, walk around the city, talk endlessly, think about moving in together but don’t, meanwhile Jung Yoon and Myungsuh become involved only to split up when the intensity of their relationship becomes unbearable. In the second half of the book, Miru, who happens to be in love with the professor, tells the story of her sister, who killed herself after her boyfriend went missing (an interest in politics seems linked to disappearances). Miru feels responsible for her sister’s unhappy life. She takes up her sister’s quest to find the missing boyfriend,  a quest that ends in her death.

In the final chapter, Jung Yoon finds the courage to face her painful past by visiting her dying professor, where her suffering and the suffering of her friends gains meaning and beauty.

The main mystery of the book (the engine of the novel) is the mystery of Miru’s sister and the way she’s tied to the pro-democracy demonstrations. Before her disappearance, she passes on to Miru an envelope filled with clues she’s collected about her boyfriend — “some men came looking for him,” she says. Taking up her sister’s search for her lost lover is Miru’s answer, her existential choice, as it were, to the novel’s central question – “What are you doing with your life?”

The book’s narrative structure is more diegesis than conventional plot. The journeys upon which these three friends embark is more psychological than physical. Loss figures heavily in I’ll Be Right There, particularly death. Jung Yoon is haunted by her mother’s death, the professor keeps a collection of books written by people who died before the age of thirty-three – “the age at which Jesus was crucified and Alexander the Great created his empire and died” – and Miru has named her cat after Emily Dickinson whose death-themed poetry all of the characters admire. Several of the people who enter the narrative will not survive to its end, which contributes both to the book’s somber mood and to the ultimately uplifting spirit of its message.

But before Shin leads her characters to enlightenment, she lingers in their anguish. After Jung Yoon and Myungsuh first meet at the demonstration, he talks to her about his own disenchantment with the circumstances of life.

“‘They can’t stand it,’” he says of the protesters. “And that’s why they form barricades, throw paving bricks, and run away only to get caught and arrested. What they can’t stand is the fact that nothing ever gets better. Nothing has changed since last year…if I hadn’t met you…I might not be able to tell the difference between this day last year and today.’”

This is the first hint at Shin’s larger premise – that love and friendship are central to human existence because they rescue us from alienation and liberate us from despair. Inherent in Myungsuh’s words is the notion that social conflict is inevitable and constant, and so protest is ultimately futile. What is fresh and vital in life comes through our connections with other people.

The demonstrations insistently interrupt the three friends’ lives; bomb blasts and the scent of tear gas infect their personal moments; they stroll through riot zones; strangers telephone them begging for news of missing friends or relatives. The endless churning of political violence is both a literal and metaphorical representation of their existential crisis.

The old professor’s philosophy sustains his students and give the book its philosophical spine. Early in the novel, he tells the story of Saint Christopher, the medieval saint who wanted to spend his life serving the strongest man in the world and finally found him when he was told in a dream to carry a child on his shoulders across a river. When he gets to the other side, the child transforms into a man and tells him, “‘It was I, Christ. When you crossed that river, you were carrying the world on your shoulders.’”

“It is your fate to brave the swollen waters,” he says. “Though the waters may rise you must not stop before the child reaches the other side. So, how do we cross this river…you must treasure yourselves and hold one another dear.”

Shin uses folk tales and anecdotes like this to convey the underlying themes of the novel. She devotes pages and pages to the many stories the characters tell each other. A key bit of folklore, told by Miru, for example, is the tale of a cat who guides the dying to a salt lake while listening to them tell the stories of their lives, a tale, in fact, that seems to reflect the structure of the novel itself.

Miru’s search for her sister’s boyfriend does not have a happy ending, and the love affair between Jung Yoon and Myungsuh fails to last — they are exes by the time he telephones Jung Yoon in the novel’s first pages. But instead of a happy ending, perhaps what Shin wants for her readers is what their professor wants for his students: a life of examination that is not overcome by despair.

“Living does not mean passing through a void of nothingness but rather through a web of relationships among beings,” the professor writes in a letter. “Insofar as everything is always changing, so our sense of hope shall never die out…until you are down to your final breath, love and fight and rage and grieve and live.”

—Laura K. Warrell

LW sexy headshot white wall

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.

Jun 162014

But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this. —David Wojahn



Desktop4-002Lorine Niedecker

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge —David Wojahn


Lorine Niedecker was once called the Emily Dickinson of the Twentieth Century, and Robert Lax was known as the hermit poet. David Wojahn, who himself was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and, in an earlier time, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his book of poems Icehouse Lights, pens here a special guest review essay, which begins as a paen to Wave Books, fast aligning itself with the great old independent presses like New Directions and Grove, and then considers the lives and works Lax and Niedecker. Wojahn has read long and thought deeply; it’s terrifically bracing to absorb his fluency with poets and traditions, the ease with which he epitomizes lives, works and influences. Such brevity and compression only comes with the profound familiarity and respect. I don’t think it takes a poet to read a poet, but Wojahn makes a good case.



Poems 1962-1997
Robert Lax
Edited by John Beer
Wave Books
Paper, 400 pp., $25.00

Lake Superior
Lorine Niedecker
Wave Books
Paper, 91 pp., $16.00


Over the past several years, Wave Books has carved out a special niche for itself among independent presses, one that brings to mind—on a smaller scale—the role played by the great vanguard presses of the ‘50s and ‘60s, New Directions and Grove. These presses not only published some of the finest “non-mainstream” writers of the era—New Directions’ list included, among others, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Stevie Smith, and George Oppen—but they were also adamant in their desire to introduce American readers to important modernist writers in translation, and unjustly neglected works (sometimes semi-scandalous ones) by figures in the tradition. Thus Grove’s list included all of Beckett’s important drama and fiction, the first credible English translation of Garcia-Lorca’s surrealist masterwork, Poet in New York, the 18th century’s wonderfully campy and salacious proto-Gothic novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (this with an introduction by John Berryman), and Frank O’Hara’s legendary Meditations in an Emergency.

It was not just their discerning eclecticism that made New Directions and Grove great publishing houses; it was also the fact that the offerings of both presses had a look. New Directions titles favored eerily murky covers—the jacket descriptions as often as not printed in white ink against black backgrounds—and photos of often unrecognizable objects that looked vaguely cubist. When you looked at the cover of a book such as the New Direction translation of Sartre’s Nausea—with its badly superimposed photos of two hipster-ish men who seemed to be suffering from the effects of arsenic poisoning—even the uninitiated reader could tell that angst and dread were likely to ooze from every page. New Directions books seemed designed for two purposes—they wanted to make you take the book very seriously, and they wanted you to know that if the book didn’t look depressing, then it clearly wasn’t serious. The Grove titles were a little more colorful and lively, and were often illustrated with drawings that has a vaguely De Stijl look. They screamed modernity, much in the way the covers those classic Be-Bop albums from Prestige and other labels did.

Well, Wave publications have a signature appearance too. Like the classic New Directions and Grove covers, Wave’s dust jackets and covers are very adamant about projecting That Serious Look. The book designs are as minimalist as they come—there are apt to have no cover illustrations: we get a title, the author’s name, the book’s price, and most astonishingly of all, no blurbs. Yet there’s certain elegance to a Wave collection; the pages and covers are printed on high quality cream paper, and many are hardcovers. When you take off the book jacket, you find that the boards are colored with the same quite luscious shade of ivory.

But Wave has a list to match its Look, and its titles are almost as eclectic and discerning as those issued by Grove and New Directions during their heyday. They publish a good many poets of considerable reputation, among them Mary Ruefle and Eileen Myles, but also work by promising younger poets such as Geoffrey O’Brien. They’ve also done some exciting works in translation—Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have recently issued a revelatory selection of the German poet Ernst Meister, a contemporary of Celan who seems to me almost as good as that great master. And last, but surely not least, Wave has started to issue new editions of neglected twentieth century American poets. The most recent titles in this series are both quite exemplary—the first is an exquisite selection of the vastly eccentric and utterly original Robert Lax; the second is Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, a book that reprints one of Niedecker’s most ambitious poems. And, like one of those multi-disk box set reissues of a classic rock or jazz album, the book contains all sorts of secondary and related material—essays on Niedecker, a travel journal the poet kept in preparation for writing the poem, and historical documents she consults and borrows from in its final text. It’s a most engaging volume, almost sui generis.


Let me first discuss John Beer’s edition of Robert Lax’s Poems 1962-1997. Lax, who was born in 1915 and died in 2000, was a prolific writer, but many of his books are hard to obtain. He was also a somewhat uneven poet, and did not arrive at his mature phase—the one that Beer draws from—until relatively late in life. Even that work is rather hard to classify. Although the modernist era saw its share of poets who combined non-academic careers with poetry—doctor poets such as Williams and Benn; lawyer poets like Stevens and MacLeish—few other figures among the modernists who could be labeled a “hermit poet.” But such was Robert Lax, who spent most of the last four decades of his life in self-imposed retreat from the world, living in sometimes abject poverty on various Greek Islands, among them Patmos, where tradition has it that another hermit poet, John the Apostle, composed the book of Revelation.

Before getting to the islands, Lax’s career took many twists and turns and it’s a pity that he has yet to be the subject of a readable biography. As a student at Columbia in the ‘30s, Lax was mentored by the then-quite influential poet and critic Mark Van Doren, and began a lifelong friendship with his classmate, Thomas Merton. Both were Roman Catholics, and political progressives with literary aspirations. These concerns eventually led Merton to join the Trappists, and with the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain—a surprise bestseller in 1948—Merton became the most famous monk of the past century. Lax did not settle down quite as quickly. He succeeded James Agee as the movie critic for Time, published a number of Auden-derived poems in the New Yorker, and eventually became a staff writer there. He taught at the University of North Carolina, and for a brief time was a script-doctor in Hollywood. He also became obsessed with circus life, and traveled through Canada with the Christiani Family Circus. This experience provided the material for Lax’s first published collection, The Circus of the Sun, a highly peculiar work in which the big top becomes the stuff of Christian allegory.

But in the early ‘60s, around the time Lax moves to Greece, his work changes dramatically. It furthermore becomes very hard to classify, although many critics have tried. As Beer observes in a lucid introduction to the volume, Lax now seems to compose not in lines as much as in columns, and the lines grow so short as to make even those of a poet such as Robert Creeley seem positively corpulent. There not much room in the poems for content, save for a kind of koan-like repetition. Here’s a piece from 1962’s New Poems:









Taken from the context of a larger body of work, this sort of hyper-minimalist method seems unintentionally comic—this is Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” without even the rainwater or the chickens; Lax’s one-time mentor Van Doren scoffed at pieces such as this, calling them “raindrop poems.” And for better or for worse, Lax arrived at his late style around the time that “concrete” poetry, with its concern for shaped poems and picture poems, had its brief vogue, and Lax’s name invariably became associated with this school. But Lax, as Beers very nimbly point out, is neither a concrete poet nor a “minimalist” in the mode of composer Philip glass or visual artist Donald Judd. Something else is at play in his work.

I think it’s best to see Lax as extending a tradition of devotional poetry that in the West begins with the Homeric Hymns, continues through Metaphysical poets such as Henry Vaughn and George Herbert–Herbert also penned shaped poems, “Easter Wings” being the most notable example—reaches the threshold of modernism with Hopkins, and continues through figures such as Paul Celan. Lax is of course much more whimsical than these writers, but no less earnestly devout. The book-length sequence Sea and Sky, published in 1965, is Lax’s masterwork, and is best seen as an impish set of spiritual exercises. The verticality of the lines, the drone-like repetitions–sometimes reiterated exactly for several pages, sometimes containing very subtle variations in wording or stanza formation—are highly incantatory. But this effect is achieved through nothing resembling meter or traditional concepts of free verse lineation. It’s instead the mantra-like recurrence combined with the visual effect of Lax’s “columns” that makes the sequence memorable. To prove this I’d have to quote at least ten or twelve pages from the sequence, since it is clearly designed to have a cumulative effect on the reader that can’t be suggested through brief quotation. But here’s a representative passage, drawn from the sixth section:


as o





















Lax wrote other sorts of poems in his mature phase. In collections such as Two Fables he employs his column method to offer some very oddball parables, but these are much less satisfying than efforts such as Sea and Sky.  Lax was often also in the habit including in some of his collections prose pieces drawn from his notebooks. These pieces are improvisational, seemingly unrevised, and filled with Cummings-esque linguistic and punctuation mannerisms that give them a tone of preciousness, a quality that also afflicts the many letters he wrote to Thomas Merton. (Their letters to one another are collected in an interesting but exasperating volume entitled When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.) Beer’s selection—wisely—reprints only a smattering of the parable poems, and none of the notebook entries.

It goes without saying that the work of Robert Lax is not for everyone. But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this.


William Carlos Williams reportedly called Lorine Niedecker the Emily Dickinson of Twentieth Century poetry.  This comparison is only partly apt and is in some respects simply more evidence of the good doctor’s penchant for hyperbole. But, like Dickinson, Niedecker labored for much of her writing life in obscurity—a couple of small collections appeared during her lifetime, and the literary luminaries who championed her work, most notably Louis Zukofsky, also managed to be quite condescending toward it, much in the way that the boneheaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson was toward the Belle of Amherst. Also like Dickinson, Niedecker strove for poetry of the utmost precision and brevity.

But here the similarities end. Dickinson lived a life of entitlement and privilege, and the Amherst of her day was a hotbed of intellectual activity. Niedecker lived a singularly unprivileged life of rural poverty, and Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin—where she lived for years in a shack without plumbing, built on a floodplain—was as far out into the sticks as you can get. Niedecker tried in various ways to escape Fort Atkinson, but these efforts usually ended in failure. She left Beloit College after only two years—thanks to the depression, her parents could no longer pay the tuition. And a very brief move to New York City in 1933 ended miserably. After being knocked up by her literary mentor Louis Zukofsky, she aborted their child and went back to Wisconsin, where she subsisted for decades at various bad-paying jobs, one of them being a cleaning lady at a local hospital. When Niedecker died of heart failure 1970, at the age of 67, the prospects for any sort of posthumous reputation looked bleak. But thanks mainly to Jenny Penberthy’s edition of her Complete Writings, which was issued by the University of California Press in 2002, Niedecker has now taken her rightful place among the essential modernist poets. Her work has at last been featured in anthologies, most notably the third edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (for better or for worse the industry standard). She’s been the subject of a decent full-length biography by Margot Peters; collections of critical writings about her have appeared, and someone has made a rather schmaltzy documentary film on her life.

Although it is a gross oversimplification to say it, Niedecker wrote two kinds of poems, and mastered both sorts exceptionally well. The first is an imagist lyric as it was reinterpreted and refined by the Objectivist poets with whom she is often grouped. Short, presentational, wary of both statement and of elaborate metaphors, Niedecker’s efforts in the mode are vivid but over almost as soon as they begin. They are also laconic in a way that is quintessentially Midwestern. The most representative poem in this vein is a terse ars poetica:

advised me:
……Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
……and condense

No layoffs
from this

Sometimes the poems in this manner, especially those which appeared in her 1948 collection, New Goose, employ end rhyme in a kind of misanthropic homage to Mother Goose and jump rope ditties. The poems make you understand why Williams, who worked toward a similar sort of self-conscious primitivism, so admired Niedecker.

But in the final decade of her life Niedecker’s writing changed. She began to experiment with longer poems—longer for her, at least. These efforts, which run to several pages, often make use of found historical material, much in the way that the writings of her fellow Objectivists George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff do. “Jefferson,” for example—the final poem Niedecker completed before her death—draws from extensively from the third president’s letters and other writing, another poem applies a similar collage method to the writings of Darwin. The new approach which Niedecker undertook in these longer and more meditative works may be partially explained by a change in her circumstances—she finally escaped Fort Atkinson, thanks to a late marriage to one Al Millen, a factory worker with a drinking problem, and a move to an apartment in Milwaukee. The marriage seems to have been less than blissful, but it allowed the poet to quit her menial jobs and devote sustained periods to her writing. Matrimony even enabled Niedecker to travel, though her late-life equivalent of the Grand Tour was a trip by car with Al around Lake Superior.

It is this journey which inspires “Lake Superior,” the poem to which the Wave volume is devoted. The poem itself occupies the first six pages in the volume; it is surely not a piece of epic proportion, but it arguably falls within the rubric of the sort of modernist long(er) poem which John Matthias has termed a “pocket epic”—not The Cantos or Paterson, but rangy and fluent enough to seem much grander than a mere six-page poem. It reckons with nothing less than the entire history, human and geological, of the Lake Superior region—its flora, fauna, and minerals; its Native American tribes and French and American explorers; the vast lake and its many river tributaries, among them the Chocolate River, the Laughing Fish River, and the River of the Dead.  This history is a fraught one—we’re introduced to the French explorer Radisson, his “Fingernails/pulled out by Mohawks,” and the Jesuit proselytizer Father Marquette, whose bones were ”sun and birch bark floated to the straits.” There are passenger pigeon flocks, croppings of “Wave cut pre-Cambrian rock” and the mammoth cargo ships that carry iron ore from Minnesota’s Masabi Range to points east—in Niedecker’s time the ore deposits had yet to be depleted.

The poem confronts what Douglas Crase, in a masterly essay included in in the volume, labels  “the evolutionary sublime.” Yet it is also about human ruthlessness and a kind of ecological terrorism. The Mohawks, passenger pigeons, French Canadian “voyageurs” with their schooner-sized canoes, and the vast fields of iron ore all are returned to the earth. The poem refuses to rhapsodize nature or human history, but in geology Niedecker sees a metaphor for endurance and timelessness. For Niedecker, “Ruby of corundum/lapis lazuli/from changing limestone” is equivalent to what daffodils were to Wordsworth.  Minimalist as it at first might seem, “Lake Superior” is a poem of cranky grandiosity. Still, like all of Niedecker’s best work, the poem is never full of itself. The poem ends on a wonderfully deadpan note:

I’m sorry to have missed
…..Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
…..We did not
We watched a gopher there.

But is a poem of only six pages, “pocket epic” though it may be, significant enough to warrant an additional eighty-two pages of supplemental material, including not only the Crase essay, but the travel journal Niedecker kept as she made notes for the poem, writings by the explorers Radisson and Schoolcraft, a section of Basho’s Back Road to Far Towns (a possible inspiration for Niedecker’s travel journal), letters to her fellow poet Cid Corman that were composed shortly after Niedecker’s road trip, and a mediation on the extinction of the passenger pigeon drawn from Aldo Leopold’s classic volume of lyrical  nature writing, A Sand County Almanac? My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. Niedecker’s travel journal is a delight—observant, wryly witty even when pedantic, and further enlivened by its many shifts in diction and approach. Thus a passage such as this, describing Schoolcraft’s journey to the headwaters of the Mississippi–

A lake in or near the St. Louis River turned out to be remarkable for its fine carnelians and agates—they named it Carnelian Lake. Over the scrub oak prairies they spent a day and a half hunting buffalo—“The buffalo meat is rather inferior to that of the bear.” On one of the gravelly banks as they went on into the Minnesota River Valley (then called St. Peter’s) Schoolcraft found a piece of agate-ised wood. It was noted that white sandstone overlaid with secondary limestone appears at St. Anthony’s Falls—the first time since Lake Superior.

comingles with this:

We stayed last night in Little Falls, Minnesota, Lindbergh’s old home town. Here All bought some salami. Restaurant living is beginning to pall:
I: Good. It even shines a little.
AL: That’s from horse’s hooves. Horesemeat, maybe?

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge. Niedecker says this much better than I can. At the end of a letter to Cid Corman, almost as an aside, she writes:  “Strange—we are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.”

In Lake Superior, Wave has compiled something much more compelling than simply a poem, a journal, and what the book’s title page terms “other sources, documents, and readings.” The book is instead a kind of primer on the process of imaginative composition—an eccentric one, perhaps, but no less important because of that. And the book’s foray into the mysteries of poetic composition is accompanied by a further mystery. This slyly and scrupulously edited volume bears the name of no editor. There is a certain chutzpah to the publisher’s decision to issue the book in this fashion, but I hope that in subsequent printings of the volume-and let’s also hope it remains in print for a long while—that its editor will come forth, for that person has done a commendable service, both to Niedecker and to modern poetry in general.

—David Wojahn

Copy of Wojahn Pub photo Noelle

David Wojahn was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 for Interrogation Palace, also winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his first collection Icehouse Lights. His eighth collection of poetry, World Tree, was issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets; Lenore Marshall Prize, The Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry, and the Poets’ Prize. His collection of essays, From the Valley of Making: Essays on the Craft of Poetry, will be issued next year by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Jun 142014


 At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting. It’s also a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?). It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves. — Julie Larios

Image 2 - Mirror Gazing

Mirror Gazing
Warren Motte
Dalkey Archive
Softcover, 295 pages, $35.00 U.S. / £ 24.00  UK
ISBN 978-1-62897-014-2


Warren Motte admits early on in his strange and thought-provoking new book Mirror Gazing that his habit of collecting mirror scenes in literature is a little obsessive. “For a very long time now,” he says, “I have been fascinated by the way that characters in fiction encounter mirrors, and by the different things they see when they gaze into those mirrors. That fascination looms exceedingly large in my mind, grossly out of proportion with the many other fascinations that literature exerts on me. It is irrational and largely inexplicable, but there it is.”

There it is, indeed – that’s his book in a nutshell. It’s a gathering of mirror scenes culled from a collection of 12,000+ examples, all of which Motte jotted down on index cards over several decades of reading. He has rules for his burgeoning collection (“admittedly arbitrary and extremely quirky,” is how he characterizes those rules): First, he has to encounter the scenes spontaneously while engaged in otherwise “undirected readings”; second, he has to find the scenes in books he has in his own personal library. In other words, Motte, who is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, doesn’t go looking for mirror scenes. He doesn’t take suggestions from colleagues, family, friends or helpful acquaintances who hear of his interest, nor does he find these scenes in books he cannot pull down and refer to later – nothing from university or city lending libraries, nothing borrowed. He doesn’t cast a wide net on social media, begging for examples to be sent to him like someone less well-read might do, someone with a narrower frame of reference. All the examples he comes up with (and there are many, many examples) arrived via his own reading of his own books.

When reading non-fiction, I usually look for precise explanations of why authors are interested enough in their subjects to begin the long journey of writing it all down in a book and sharing it. I look for the passion to shine through, even if the origins of that passion are “inexplicable,” and Motte doesn’t disappoint:

The notion that we might actually have not one, but two selves (or more!), and that the mirror might put that duplicity (multiplicity!) upon display, is reason enough for us to tread lightly when in the presence of that object. Because in many cases, specularity escapes from our control. It ramifies instantly and inevitably, duplicating as it does so, and positing thus a fundamental question of authenticity that cannot fail to trouble us. What is “real“ in a reflection of the real, and what is not? Or, in other terms, what is it that a mirror reflects?….My own sense is that problems such as that one do not bear too much thought. Like the paradox of the Cretan liar, or like certain Zen koans, one could wander into it and never find one’s way out….I myself have been caught for a very long time, I confess. Perhaps not by the mirror itself, but by these mirror scenes. I’m counting on this project, you will understand, to help me find my way out. But I’m not particularly sanguine about my prospects.”

What fun to read a book that tackles an obsession and confesses to it being mysterious and labyrinthine and slightly out of control. How exciting to find a book where the author doesn’t pull back despite his own confusions. As we watch, Motte works to construct a reasonable narrative from his collection, almost as if he were both personal tour guide and curator of a large natural history museum. Motte’s observations about these mirror scenes put me in mind of an old-fashioned wonder cabinet, filled with a few familiar objects but even more unfamiliar objects, brought back from Terra Incognita. And Warren Motte is the slightly grizzled explorer, willing to share his journey with us, sea serpents and all.

kane37Orson Welles, reflected in multiple mirrors in Citizen Kane.
(Photos of artists/authors in this post are not from Mirror Gazing.)

I found myself wishing that I could see even one photo of the author with his collection of 12,000 index cards. I imagined the cards organized in multiple shoe boxes – a little disheveled – with labels on the outside for easy identification: “Implicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes” and “Explicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes.” How does one organize such a collection? Much of what is delightful about this book is not its surface subject matter but its subterranean one; we read between the lines to see how Motte himself reads these mirror scenes and conducts the art of classification. At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting— it’s a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?) It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves.

Motte is a born taxonomist; he enjoys categories. That the examples he presents are a little fuzzy around the edges (fuzziness usually impedes categorization) was not a problem for me. I get the feeling many of his examples could slip easily into and out their categories, according to Motte’s changing perspectives. Readers like me who can relax and go with a little disorder during the classification process will be happiest with this book. In the almost seventy pages of examples that are not true mirror scenes the author offers up his thinking about the following distinctions (and remember, these are only the NON-mirror-scene categories):

  • Definitely Not
  • Probably Not
  • Me, Me, Me
  • Self-Knowledge
  • Reassurance
  • Avoidance
  • Unavoidability
  • Close Shave [Yes – a collection of scenes of shaving in a mirror]
  • Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters
  • On the Other Hand
  • Banalaties
  • Virtualities
  • Implicit Mirror Scenes
  • Metaphorical Mirrors
  • Conscience
  • The Eyes of Others
  • Skepticism
  • Fools and Churls
  • Writing as Mirror
  • Fictions
  • Whys and Wherefores (in which, about a third of the way into the book, we discover some things that might have imposed more order on the material at the opening of the book.)

It’s clear from this list, I think, how elaborately Motte studies the nuances of any scene in literature that includes a mirror (actual, implied or metaphorical) and makes his decision about which shoebox (my own metaphor) to put his index card into. What’s not quite as clear is why the book itself is organized the way it is. Motte shoots for a system of classification for his mirror scenes, but he does not appear to be particularly wedded to the idea of orderliness in his own writing. In the middle of the section about non-mirror scenes, he offers one example and then says, “The temptation to call this a mirror scene is very real. And indeed we must give in to it, because this is in fact a mirror scene, and a fairly mainstream one at that.” Let’s just say some drifting occurs, organizationally. It’s unsettling, but not uninteresting. Motte speaks often of trying to get his explanations under control and to get back, amid the decision-making about yes-true-mirror-scene vs. no-not-true-mirror scene examples, to a more regulated presentation of his material. He calls his thoughts “scattered,” which they occasionally are (charmingly, I think, though some might be annoyed), and he says, in the section titled Fictions, “Let us re-visit together, briefly and on tiptoe, but nonetheless a bit more systematically, the terrain which that notion occupies, bearing in mind how uneven and slippery that terrain is.” A given reader’s tolerance for slippage (mine is high) will determine whether Motte’s book is appreciated.

Robert Capa and John SteinbeckPhotographer Robert Capa catches his own mirrored reflection
along with that of author John Steinbeck.

I did find myself wondering one thing consistently: Could Motte have been persuaded to offer up the definition of a true mirror scene before the nearly seventy pages of definitions of what it is not? The opening chapter is a speech presented at Johns Hopkins University which makes a stab at summary but feels a little tacked on (even the font is different.) Would it have been possible to integrate the speech into the text more smoothly and present a more concise version of the non-mirror-scene rules, holding off on elaborations of those until after we understood true mirror scenes a bit more? The author’s trust that we can fill in the gaps and understand, via negative space, what really constitutes a mirror scene by understanding what one is not is a little out of whack. The book could just as comfortably – and less confusingly – have started with the brilliant lines that open the section titled “Imagine My Emotion,” which go like this: “Imagine my emotion when I learned, a few years ago, that elephants are self-aware! A team of scientists had just discovered (so it was reported in my morning newspaper) that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror.” What immediately precedes these lines (the Whys and Wherefores section) and follows them (a fairly precise presentation of what true mirror scenes do) helps steady the boat. Mirror scene shows characters looking for themselves, Motte says, and recognizing themselves or not. That might just be the goal of all stories (again, the adage Motte referes to several times: “Know yourself”…gnothi seauton.) We – and a few other species, including elephants – engage with our self-images either seriously or playfully. If the book opened there, readers might get a firmer grasp on the idea of a true mirror scene (and its nuanced shadings) before the boat got rocked. On steadier ground then, readers could look at the non-mirror scene examples and discern the differences more easily.

vivianmaier_selfportraits7Self-portrait of  the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier

That reservation aside, I come back to the strengths of this book, not the least of which is Motte’s ability to make a work of scholarship un-fusty and conversational. He talks directly to his readers as if his thoughts were being delivered to friends around the dinner table. He recounts being baffled by the word “heresay” via a personal story about pedaling uphill (literally, not metaphorically) on his bicycle and being “misperceived” by bicyclists riding downhill (perception of ourselves by others being part of what Motte terms “specular encounters.”) We feel like we know Motte personally, because of his chatty delivery – in fact, by the end of the book, I concluded Motte was bright, compulsive, amiable, confused, and just silly enough (dolphins, he jokes, look at themselves “on porpoise”) to wish he were a friend. “Oof! There. That’s better,” he says at the end of the section about non-mirror scenes. “So much for that,” he says at the end of another section, “for the time being at least.” And after his quick dismissal of anything television has to offer (maybe he hasn’t seen some of the good writing television offers up lately?) he says, “But there. My prejudices are showing. Not for the first time, certainly, but still.” Every once in awhile we see self-mockery; that’s rare in an academic. And what’s not to love about a writer who can say at the end of his book, in a completely relaxed way, “…things have not turned out exactly as planned. The categories that I postulated have broken down under close inspection….I can live with that, quite happily, in fact.”

As for Motte’s intelligence, that’s made clear in the 32-page, single-spaced list of works cited. A more well-read author is hard to imagine, especially given those rules I mentioned previously (all examples came from his personal library of books and were found during “undirected” reading.) The list of books cited is deep and wide. It includes work by pop-culture authors (Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Archer, James Lee Burke, Agatha Christie), science fiction and fantasy writers (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs), poets (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery) and even writers for children (Kenneth Grahame, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown.) Translated authors are well represented – Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, the list goes on; they include many writers of the Oulipo school (Motte’s book Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is a fine guide to that movement.) He includes songwriters (Bob Dylan), critics (Harold Bloom), philosophers (Johan Huizinga) psychologists (Sigmund Freud) and even politicians (Barack Obama.) I am leaving out many dozens of writers, especially contemporary American and British, who made it onto those index cards and into the book. It’s not everyone who can refer to both Yahweh and Popeye in the same sentence (“That’s the best and most reassuring lesson of the mirror: like Yahweh and Popeye, we are what we are.”)  One of the loveliest passages Motte offers us of a true mirror scene (subcategory: what Motte calls “doubling”; that is, “a recognition of one’s own alterity”) is this quotation from Andre Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt:

The desire to seem exactly what I felt I was, what I wanted to be, that is, an artist, actually prevented me from simply being, and made of me what people call a poseur. In the mirror of a small writing desk that I had inherited from Anna, and that my mother had put in my room, and which I used for writing, I contemplated my facial features tirelessly, studying them, training them like an actor does, seeking out on my lips, in my gaze, the expression of the passions that I longed to feel. Above all I would have liked to make myself loved; I would have given my soul for that. During that period, I could not write (I almost said think), it seems to me, elsewhere than in front of that mirror. In order to understand my own thoughts, I felt that I had first to read them in my eyes. Like Narcissus, I was bent over my own image; because of that, each sentence that I wrote in those days remains a bit curved.

Motte ends Mirror Gazing in a self-effacing way and leaves me convinced he is the kind of scholar I would love to work alongside (and have as a dinner guest) and whose books I will continue to seek out. He describes what he sees in his own mirror: “A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play. I confess that I’m more attached to the latter sort of image, for reasons that will be, by this time, massively apparent.”

Maurits-Escher-Self-Portrait-in-a-Globe-1M.C. Escher’s Self-Portrait with a Globe

Of course, the down side to this fascinating book is that Motte ruins things for us – we can never encounter a literary mirror scene again and just speed past it without slowing down and pausing to reflect (pun intended.) I’m satisfied with that sacrifice. Slowing down is not a bad idea when what we’re doing is complicated, and Motte manages to make us feel the complications of self-knowledge. One moment we’re over on the dark side of the mirror: “The things that we fear the most may be those that lurk right inside us, for goodness sake. An encounter with the mirror and the introspection that it entails present the very real danger of recognizing that tough truth.” The next moment, we’re having a fine time at a little road-trip game called “Mirrors.” We’re not sure what the rules are, exactly, but we’ll learn them as we go. If the ride gets bumpy, well, the bumps keep us alert, and a smooth road, as often as not, puts us to sleep. The thoughts I had as I came to to the end of Mirror Gazing were these: Reflection – as in a mirror – is pervasive, and reading itself is an act of reflection. Motte’s journey into reflection is an on-going process, he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s having fun on this road trip, and for several days I rolled down the window, got a little windblown, and had fun alongside him.

—Julie Larios


Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children. Her unpublished collection for adults, A Quiet Day in the Arm and Leg Shop, awaits acceptance by some discerning editor. She contributes to the blog Books Around the Table, as well as writing for her own blog, The Drift Record. The photo above, with her grandson, was taken at the Ochoa Brothers diner (best carnitas north of the border) while visiting Hillsboro, Oregon.  Highly recommended.

Jun 102014


Meditative and passionate, Shadow Play works its way toward an approximate answer to the question it opens with, a quotation from Roland Barthes: “How does a love end? —Then it does end?”
—Jason DeYoung


Shadow Play
Jody Bolz
Turning Point Books, 2014
$16.20, 77 pages
ISBN: 978-1625490575



o imagine talking to a former lover about shared history is ordinary, but in Jody Bolz’s new book, Shadow Play, she takes this common lover’s discourse a step further when her narrator conjures the voice of her ex-husband to the page to recount the exhilaration and eventual dissolution of their all-too-young marriage. In this examination of estrangement, through the scrim of memory in lyric and fragmented narrative, its characters perform a complex and, at times, spectral dance, rich in emotional immediacy.

A novella in verse, the first poem in Shadow Play gives the impression that what is to come will be a standard book of poems. Brightly drawn, untitled, it’s a story of a train trip through Asia, where the narrator and her husband “slept in a knot” for “two hundred miles.” In these sensuous and vivid lines, their love and marriage is secure, a “common life, flown / above another Asian city.” Yet happiness is short-lived, and the second poem drops us from this nimbus of young love as the narrator lays bare her intentions, which portend more vexing complexities:

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

Reflective, this second poem rummages through a mixture of images of beauty and death (“rotting marigolds,” “sludge-gray” river waters “blossoming with saris,” a “bloated ox, stiff legs up, / slips by under sail”) and ends with the lines: “What corpse am I / scavenging for you?” The person addressed is the former husband.

Careless interrogation perhaps, but it becomes the catalyst that sets this book on its path. This insult summons the voice of the husband to challenge the narrator’s memory and aim: “You’re offering me a metaphor?” he asks.

The second voice, which Bolz says in the interview below “ambushed” her because it “wasn’t a conscious choice,” is a commanding presence in the book, at times refusing the narrator’s remembrances, reminding her that they “have other lives now,” and that she might not know what she is doing combing through their past. The unbidden voice of the living ghost (as it were) of the ex-lover propels Shadow Play into a multi-layered conversation between past and present, as it alternates poems in dialogue form with the narrative staple of the book’s beginning.

Artifice arguing with artifice, the made-up voice of the husband isn’t the narrator’s puppet. He is actively resistant, perceptive, and mature, so unlike the “giddy” boy he was in Asia. But he is still a voice, one the narrator has created, and acknowledges as a creation. Shadow Play is aware of itself, taking as its primary device wayang kulit, Indonesian shadow theatre, where puppets are manipulated behind a white screen on which their shadows are cast. As Shadow Play progresses, it becomes a kind of theatre, the narrator’s voice modulated and thrown in an effort to see “what’s true.”

Our story’s over
despite what we remember
[the husband says]

So forget it—or revise it.
But what if it survives us?

Meditative and passionate, Shadow Play works its way toward an approximate answer to the question it opens with, a quotation from Roland Barthes: “How does a love end? —Then it does end?” For even in present day, happily married in Maryland, the narrator finds her heart in the East, longing to remember:

I turn away
from hearth and garden,
marriage bed and childbed—
I turn back

to lean over a map
of the country where I’m young,
my parents strong,
my luck untried.

I’m looking for a route
through time…

She retraces her past, falls deeper into memory, until returning to Asia:

Everywhere the terraced fields,
tropical and prosperous:
the moon is coming back,
rice is ripening.

But still the voice of the former husband won’t let her have her sweetest reminiscences, and often undercuts the beauty of her narratives: “How like you to contend with Time— / no challenge too absurd.” In denying her craft, he denies her philosophy. Indeed, by the middle of the book, he is drumming up scenes for their wayang, asking to revisit episodes from their year in Asia, and then asking her to speak of Ithaca, New York, where they met, and of other men and of the narrator’s betrayal. Invigorating and intricate, Shadow Play refreshes once again Sartre’s conclusion that “the order of the past is the order of heart.”

Although the proximity and urgency of two voices in Shadow Play dominate the text, to pay too much attention to their recitative dialogue would be at a loss of the music in the poems about Asia, lyrics that rise from the book with gorgeous images and insight:

I’ve never heard a sound
as sad and as sure,
though this is my voice
chanting for Shiva:

a big stone shape
enshrined at Prambanan.
Whoever carved the face
must have been surprised to see

how gracefully, implacably,
it registers each death
and stands accountable—
how smooth the lips and eyelids,

how lovely the look
of all that besets us.

Shadow Play ends with a poem originally published with the title “False Summit.” Yes, the book ends offering metaphor—“One minute we were climbing, / next minute we looked up // and the world had changed / ….another summit.” Carrying us close to the sky once more, the book’s attempts at reckoning ask us to recognize the lover’s discourse as the translated affair it is: a “trick of perspective,” light and shadow. A book of dreams, Shadow Play organizes itself within the wisdom of experience, knowing that despite impermanence and suffering, longings are what move us through our lives and how we remember.

—Jason DeYoung



Over the last few weeks, Jody Bolz and I exchanged a few emails regarding Shadow Play, its origins, its road to publication, and what compels us to read something that is imagined. Jody is a wise and generous poet, teacher, and editor, and her story of studying with A. R. Ammons and her insights on editing the poetry journal Poet Lore are not to be missed.

Jason DeYoung (JD) Can you talk about the origins of Shadow Play? It’s a very different sort of poetry book with a secondary voice coming on the scene to challenge the primary voice’s narrative authority.

Jody Bolz (JB) Years ago, I had a semester off from teaching college and was writing in the “quiet room” of the local library, hoping to draft some new poems.  I began working on the opening pages of Shadow Play (a narrative about riding a night train in Java) without knowing that the poem was a point of entry into a book-length manuscript.  What startled me was the way the poem opened out at the end into a broader view of a longer journey, both literal and psychological. I felt unsettled, as if I’d started to explore something beyond my reach.

In the days that followed, I wrote about another emblematic moment from that journey in Asia—an afternoon along the Hooghli River in Calcutta, during which a dead ox floated by with a vulture on its belly. Again, the poem made a sharp turn at the end, posing an emotionally charged question: “What corpse am I scavenging for you?”  It was clear to me then that I was writing some kind of sequence—that the second poem had followed from the first, and that its ending demanded some kind of response. I didn’t know where I was going with any of this, but I was eager to find out.

The next day, something unforeseen (unforeseeable?) happened as I was writing in the library. Having revised the poem about the Hooghli River, I was struggling to move forward from its confrontational finale, and I turned the page and stared at it for a minute or two before writing a single line:

“You’re offering me a metaphor?”

It was a question in response to a question, a question in another voice. It ambushed me, which is to say it wasn’t a conscious choice. Is there such a thing as a subconscious choice?  In any case, that was when I began to see how I might continue this exploration. I had no idea, then, that the manuscript I was starting would have two intertwined “through lines”—the arc of a narrative (the story of a journey in Asia) and the arc of an argument (the shadow dialogue between the two people who took that journey)—but I was all in.

Narrative time

JD: At your reading at Politics & Prose, you mentioned that you were working on this book before your previous book, A Lesson in Narrative Time, was published.  Why do you think Shadow Play took longer to finish?

JB: It didn’t take very long to write, but it took forever to publish. I finished the first draft within six months, and after a year or two of revising, I felt ready to send it out. Without my knowledge, a couple of writers to whom I’d shown it nominated it for an award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and I was lucky enough to receive a grant. This was way back in 1998 (the last century…the last millennium, in fact!), and the recognition gave me hope the book would find its way into print.

I submitted it over and over in those early years, and though it was picked out a number of times in contests (as a semi-finalist or finalist) and often received encouraging comments from small-press publishers, no one said “yes.” Those who said “almost” praised the lyricism of the narrative portions but found the passages of dialogue baffling. One editor suggested I write a play instead. The general advice was: cut the dialogue, and then we’ll see.

By that time—well, maybe all along—I was committed to the book’s form. I saw it as integral to the story. Maybe the whole project was a failed experiment, but I wasn’t going to pull it apart. Writers I respected, novelists and poets alike, had found it inventive and engaging. They’d said it was the kind of book that teaches a reader how to read it. Disappointed that no publisher had taken it, though heartened that sections were appearing in literary magazines as stand-alone poems, I stopped sending it around. I wrote and published A Lesson in Narrative Time—another book-length sequence, but one without the genre-muddling issues that the Asia book presented.

In recent years I resurrected the manuscript, changed the typography a bit, gave it a new title (there had been three or four others), and put it in the mail again. When I discovered Turning Point Books, an imprint that focuses on narrative poetry, I thought it might be a good fit—and it was.


JD: The secondary voice in Shadow Play (which is a voice the narrator conjures) says at one point “this whole episode is pure pretense,” yet we keep reading, we keep reading this narrator who is essentially talking to herself about lost love.  In one of your emails to me you wrote that “the notion of speaking ‘as if’ to the other person, while realizing you are talking to yourself, was significant.”  Why is this significant?

JB: I think that’s the most important question one might ask about this book—or, perhaps, about literature in general.  What compels us to read something that was merely imagined?  In Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford talks about the nature of authority in poetry (as opposed to the nature of authority in the sciences, for example) and suggests that whatever authority you have as a poet “builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build.” If a line or an image or a posture feels false, we close the book.

From the earliest exchanges in Shadow Play, the reader knows the second speaker is a projection. He accuses the narrator of making him up, saying, “This voice is another trick” (she disagrees and calls it “artifice”)—but what matters is the authenticity of the argument, however internal. As the book progresses, the dialogue becomes more forceful and eventually dominates the story line. In a way, the shadow conversation enacts a partial answer to the book’s opening question: “How does a love end?”

If you’re asking why the ventriloquism is significant to me, I’d say it’s significant because it enabled me to write a book about the mystery of estrangement. It offered immediacy and intimacy while admitting that immediacy and intimacy no longer exist. A friend who’s studied Jungian psychology recently told me about the concept of “active imagination”—and from what I’ve read about the practice, it sounds like wide-awake dreaming in an effort to understand oneself or resolve problems. I think the imagined dialogue in Shadow Play has a kinship to that process.

AR_AmmonsA. R. Ammons

JD: In every bio of yours I’ve read you mention that you studied with A. R. Ammons. He must have had a profound influence on your poetry (perhaps your life). Could you talk a little about his influence on you?

JB: I met Archie Ammons when I was a sophomore in college. If I hadn’t studied with him and learned from his example, I’m not sure how my writing life would have evolved. I’d always loved literature and had written poems and stories since childhood, but at 19 (in the Age of Aquarius…) I was open to so many things—and I might well have followed interests in other fields (anthropology, psychology). His relationship to poetry was something I responded to immediately. He didn’t posture, and he had no patience with those who did. He was an unconventional creative-writing teacher, more Zen master than editor-coach. He’d guide us by pointing us toward our best work, even if that meant nothing more than placing a check mark beside the one successful line in a poem. Archie taught by example, showing us what a life in poetry looked like—revealing its out-of-the-way beauty.  To hear him read your poem aloud was an astonishing, and sometimes humbling, experience. He didn’t sing, of course, but his voice was melodic and slow and had a beguiling lilt (he was from North Carolina). You could hear what was right with the poem, and you could hear what was wrong. He always listened to us read our own poems aloud twice: first for the music and then for the meaning.

Late in my junior year, I began to find a few students in our workshop unbearable. I thought they were posing as world-weary geniuses though they were clearly rank beginners. I went to talk to Archie one afternoon to say I’d be missing class the next day, though I can’t remember whether I made an excuse or admitted I was going nuts and needed a break. In any case, he got the message. He spoke in general about teaching writing workshops and said he found it reassuring to view every poem—however weak, however false—as revealing of character and, in that sense, true. I wasn’t sure I understood the claim well enough to agree with it, but I stopped fretting about authenticity in the classroom and almost enjoyed regarding puffed-up poems as “true” expressions of phoniness.

I stayed on at Cornell for graduate school, and at some point during those two years, I began to feel I didn’t have the discipline or the drive to be a poet. I wondered out loud what it all meant (writing poems)—what it could mean to me in my life. He listened and nodded, but there was something in his demeanor, however gentle, that suggested I was over-complicating the question. And then he answered with a question of his own:

​“Isn’t poetry just a matter of paying attention?”

I felt something shift in my chest. I knew he was using the idiom “paying attention” in a new way, and though I couldn’t take it all in at once, I recognized myself in its message. Being a poet wasn’t a career choice or even a choice.  It was a way of being in the world.

JD: One of my favorite questions to ask writers is what is their definition of the “job” of writer, because they each have their own.  What’s yours?

JB: What Ammons said about “paying attention” comes very close to my definition of the job. Writing, for me, is a way of moving through my own bafflement, of making connections and attempting to make sense of my experience—or, at least, to give my confusion a meaningful shape. Henry James wrote that a writer should be someone “on whom nothing is lost.” That’s the job description as I see it.

As I’ve often said in connection with my work as an editor of Poet Lore, poetry provides us with a record of human feeling, while history provides us with a record of events. Everything we’ve ever felt, everything we’ve loved and struggled to protect, everything that’s thrown us down or allowed us to recover will eventually be lost—but poetry can hold all of it and more.


JD: You co-edit Poet Lore with the poet and teacher E. Ethelbert Miller, and have been doing so for more than 12 years. How’s Poet Lore doing? And does editing a poetry magazine influence your own writing?

JB: Poet Lore’s doing well. Maybe someday we’ll manage to break even!  No, really—our readership is growing steadily, and we’ve been receiving welcome attention recently as we celebrate the journal’s 125th anniversary in print. There was an article in The Writer’s Chronicle early in the year, and this spring book critic Ron Charles wrote a wonderful piece in The Washington Post about Poet Lore’s history and the challenges of editing a poetry journal. That kind of media interest has given us a big boost. And we’ve been encouraged by the many poets who’ve become ambassadors for the cause and are helping us spread the word.

I don’t know whether reading 1,000 yet-to-be-published poems each month, looking for the few we’ll take, has changed my own writing in terms of subject matter or style; but that discipline has given me a broader, deeper education about what’s possible in poetry. I’m a closer reader after 12 years as a journal editor—a more patient reader—and I feel lucky to have a role within in a community of engaged and engaging writers, hundreds of whom I’ve corresponded with over the years.

Ethelbert and I have joked that we’d probably reject our own work if it showed up on our desks—but it’s truer to say that we’re careful to read poem by poem, rather than poet by poet, and that we do our best to make choices without regard to reputation. We’re proud to have published many gifted young poets for the very first time. Among those is Reginald Dwayne Betts, who sent us poems while he was serving time in prison for a juvenile offense. How did we manage to pick him out? We read his work with the respect it deserved.

That sense of discovery keeps us going—as does our partnership as co-editors, which is an invigorating delight. Despite the necessary scut work (the copyediting and proofreading and subscription-pitching and fundraising), keeping Poet Lore going in its second century is a fascinating job—and I’m grateful to be doing it.

—Jody Bolz & Jason DeYoung

Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, most recently in Corium, The Los Angles Review, TheNewerYork, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

Jun 072014


 Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean.     —Patrick J. Keane


Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature
Samantha C. Harvey
Edinburgh, 2013,
218 pages, $120
ISBN: 978-0748681365


By 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, though by then largely disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution, were still considered dangerous radicals by the Pitt government, which had set spies on them. In that year, hopping a looming draft into the militia, the two poets and Dorothy Wordsworth sailed to Germany. The Wordsworths hunkered down in Goslar during the coldest winter of the century, where William began work on what would eventually become his great autobiographical epic, posthumously published a half-century later as The Prelude. In contrast, the gregarious and convivial Coleridge travelled to university towns, omnivorously ingesting German philosophy and German beer. Once back in England, armed with his own version of the thought of Immanuel Kant and of other German Idealists, Coleridge was uniquely positioned to shape the philosophy behind British Romanticism, and to become the principal transatlantic conduit of these ideas to America.

To let the cat out of the bag right off, the book under review is a remarkable study. Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean. It also provides Samantha Harvey with her main theme and organizing principle in tracing the transformative impact of the philosophic, theological, and critical thought of Coleridge on his American disciples—principally Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also James Marsh, who introduced Coleridge to New England, then (a development of special interest to many connected with Numéro Cinq) restructured the University of Vermont on Coleridgean principles.

Harvey’s study of the Coleridge-Emerson connection is the most recent volume in the “Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures” series (a study of Emily Dickinson and British Victorian poets is forthcoming). The sixteen books in the series range widely in subject, but all are globally oriented, exploring ideas and texts unconfined by temporal or national boundaries. One crucial example of an overarching Romantic and Transatlantic subject is the one that matters here: Coleridge’s committed and pivotal mediation of the categories of nature, spirit, and humanity. Harvey’s book is in fact organized on the basis of this Romantic triad. Following a general introduction, and flanked by two historical chapters tracing Coleridge’s impact on Transcendentalism in Boston (Chapter 2) and Vermont (Chapter 8), Harvey devotes one chapter (beginning with “Nature”) to each category of the triad, with a pause midway. That chapter, “The Landing Place,” alludes to Coleridge’s description of a spiral staircase, with its various “landing-places” analogous to the perspective-gaining pause before continued cognitive mounting. Here, Harvey surveys Coleridge’s “method” and practice of “distinguishing without dividing,” before moving on to chapters on “Humanity” (5) and “Spirit” (6). The penultimate chapter focuses on Emerson’s seminal book Nature (1836), a text structured on Coleridge’s distinctions, “method,” and the categories of the Romantic triad. Despite this culmination, the final chapter, on Coleridge’s influence on curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, is anything but anticlimactic.

A primary emphasis in the Edinburgh series is the dialectic between “affinity and contrast,” and this study is no exception. “Coleridge’s influence on Emerson reveals a complex blend of the categories of contrast and affinity, particularly the way in which key ideas endured and yet were substantially modified as they crossed the Atlantic” (12). Harvey traces not only Emerson’s immense indebtedness to Coleridge, but the ways in which the American Transcendentalist’s appropriation and assimilation of his benefactor stimulated his own creativity: the sine qua non for an apostle of self-reliance and originality. In Harvey’s wonderfully well-chosen lead epigraph, Emerson advises us to “take thankfully and heartily all” our succession of teachers “can give.” Eventually the “dismay” that attends an “excess of influence” will be withdrawn, and the benefactor “will be no longer an alarming meteor, but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven, and blending its light with all your day” (1).

That last phrase is a transparent allusion to Emerson’s favorite line in his favorite poem, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality…,” a poem that haunted the American Transcendentalists as much as it did Coleridge. But often, most obviously in Nature, Emerson went out of his way to cover his tracks. Nevertheless, as Harvey notes, some contemporaries “recognized his massive and largely unacknowledged debt to transatlantic sources” (3). Recent studies have tracked these debts—to Carlyle, to Wordsworth, and, above all, to Coleridge, both as original thinker and (even more than Carlyle and Victor Cousin) as Emerson’s principal filtering conduit to German philosophic thought. Harvey is perfectly aware of Emerson’s re-filtering, his “selective assimilation” of his principal benefactor. “Coleridge’s eclectic amalgamation of Christian, Platonic, and German idealist concepts fundamentally shaped Emerson and the development of Transatlantic Transcendentalism.” But “key ideas” of Coleridge were “appropriated” by Emerson and other liberal American thinkers, who separated those ideas from Coleridge’s Anglican conservatism, while “discarding many metaphysical subtleties and secularizing his theological language” (96). Though Emerson’s splendid essay-lecture, “Quotation and Originality,” is almost the last word on the fascinating and paradoxical subject of thankful inheritance and creative innovation, I’m delighted to be in accord with Samantha Harvey when she writes, “I agree with Patrick Keane that Emerson could very well be the best example of Thomas McFarland’s ‘originality paradox’ in which a profound indebtedness can enable, and even enhance, the originality of a writer” (3).

This raises the issue of Harvey’s own originality. The Edinburgh promotional literature describes Transatlantic Transcendentalism as “the first book devoted to Coleridge’s influence on Emerson and the development of American Transcendentalism.” And Harvey herself twice repeats the verb “devoted” in claiming that “to date no book has devoted itself to elaborating Coleridge’s vital role for Emerson and Transatlantic Transcendentalism, a lacuna which this book endeavors to remedy”; and, again, that, however well-known to Romantic scholars the “connection between Coleridge and Emerson,… surprisingly there is no single monograph devoted entirely to the subject” (19). With those caveats registered, I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey’s and Edinburgh’s claim. And not only is this the first book-length monograph devoted solely to the connection, it’s one that I suspect (despite Harvey’s modest anticipation of fuller studies to come) will prove hard to improve upon.

When it comes to transatlantic studies in general, and even to the Romantic triad in particular, Samantha Harvey is, as a good Emersonian, “thankfully” generous to her co-workers in the field. She praises such transatlantic “pioneers” as Robert Weisbuch, Leon Chai, and Richard Brantley; notes the work of James Engells and others on Emerson’s adoption of Coleridge’s creative misreading of Kant; acknowledges that her formulation of the Romantic triad itself is “beholden to scholarship by M. H. Abrams, Thomas McFarland, Seamus Perry, and John Beer”; and remarks on the “deep influence” on her book, especially her chapter on “Spirit,” of Abrams’s landmark Natural Supernaturalism (1971) with its “elaboration of the underlying spiritual paradigms” adapted, altered, and, generally and most dramatically, secularized by the Romantics (16).

I was happy to be included in such distinguished company when it came, specifically, to the galvanizing impact of Coleridge on Emerson: “Patrick Keane has done the most work on the pair in Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason [2005]. I agree fundamentally with Keane’s approach, which he describes as ‘an exploration of elective affinities, family resemblances, and analogies binding together [many creative individuals] in a visionary company.” But, she adds, by including Milton, Wordsworth, and others, I “obscured Coleridge’s crucial impact on Emerson in a profuse tangle of interrelations” (19). Guilty as charged. Of course, I was writing a different book than hers; but the result is indeed a “profuse” comparative study. More to the immediate point: for those seeking an informed, illuminating, carefully laid-out analysis focused on the Coleridge-Emerson relation, the one indispensable book to read, for now and the foreseeable future, is not mine but Samantha Harvey’s.


How does Harvey go about her project? With good reason, she attends closely to the familiar Coleridgean distinctions inherited by Emerson (between Reason and “mere” Understanding; between active, creative natura naturans and passive, static natura naturata, between Genius and “mere” Talent, as well as between the “primary” and “secondary” Imagination). But she rightly devotes even more attention to Coleridge’s “method.” This orchestrated mode of inquiry permanently shaped Emerson’s own cognitive processes, and was to have a pervasive influence among the Vermont Transcendentalists led by James Marsh, and thus (158-59) on the subsequent pragmatism of John Dewey. Emerson enthusiastically concurred in Coleridge’s high valuation of his “Essays on the Principles of Method” in The Friend. There he presents, as the indispensable introduction and “basis of my future philosophical and theological writings,” a “method” of thinking (at once intellectual, spiritual, and literary) that was coherent, progressive, and ever-ascending: a dynamic mode of inquiry immensely appealing to Emerson for those very reasons. Method commenced “with the most familiar truths…gradually winning its way to positions the most comprehensive and sublime.” Nothing will “more aptly prepare the mind for the reception of specific knowledge” than “the full exposition of a principle which is the condition of all intellectual progress, and which may be said to even constitute the science of education, alike in the narrowest and in the most extensive sense of the word” (67-68, citing The Friend 1:445-46).

Samantha Harvey has her own “method” when it comes to elucidating difficult texts. Coleridge and Emerson can be obscure, even self-contradictory—whether exhilaratingly or maddeningly. Though also true of Emerson, for whom consistency was famously the hobgoblin of mediocre minds, Coleridge’s dense and sinuously dialectical thought, always moving (sometimes staggering) toward a projected synthesis, can be confusing in the course of enacting that process. Opposites are reconciled only to generate yet more opposites, to be reconciled in turn at a higher level. Yeats spoke of “images that yet/ Fresh images beget,” and Coleridge, more exuberantly than apologetically, said his thoughts “bustle along like a Surinam toad, sprouting out of back, side, and belly,” elsewhere describing the prose in which these thoughts were conveyed as spawning parentheses resembling Surinam toadlings. Coleridge’s organic Dynamic Philosophy is both reflected in, and often made more difficult by, the sheer length and complexity of many of his progressive and digressive sentences. In the Dedication to Don Juan, Byron, no man for toads, depicted the author of Biographia Literaria as “a hawk encumbered by his hood,” expounding in darkness “metaphysics to the nation—/ I wish he would explain his Explanation.”

Leaving Byron’s delightful irreverence aside, there is no question that in reading Coleridge, there are syntactical nettles that need to be grasped and worked through before “Explanation,” let alone evaluation, can begin. Enter Samantha Harvey, whose characteristic pattern, or “method,” is to cite a passage of Coleridge (or of Emerson) at some length, then paraphrase and unpack it. Emulating Coleridge and Emerson, Harvey has an enviable gift for apt quotation; and, like Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism, she eschews glib and “knowing” citation. She always quotes sufficiently, reproducing enough of a passage not only to preserve its context but to generously invite the reader to work and learn along with her. Her explanations can come at a cost. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson famously reminds us; and Harvey’s repeated rhythm of quotation followed by explication leads to some redundancy. Yet it is a cost more than offset by the resulting clarification. Her careful and informed explications and synopses are invariably models of astute comprehension conveyed with lucidity.

Having just mentioned explication, I have to add that it seems a shame that a close reader as astute as Harvey, in the commitment to her major focus, has denied herself, and us, much attention to poetry, though she knows (84-89) that the “Poet-Prophet” is the most elevated figure in the Romantic pantheon. Emerson’s best poetry was in prose; but there are no better embodiments of the reconciliation of nature, spirit, and humanity than the major poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Wordsworth is the master-poet of the ultimate unity of nature, spirit, and humanity, but that unity was distilled in a single exclamation— “O! the one Life within us and abroad”—by Coleridge, Harvey’s chief celebrant of the Romantic triad, who added that line in 1817 to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem originally written in 1795.

In the one exception to this neglect of the poetry, Harvey connects Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” with Emerson’s comparison of our changing “moods” to “many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue,” so that “we animate what we can,” and see “only what we animate,” since “all depends on the mood of the man.” Though she doesn’t cite the lines about “that inanimate cold world” unilluminated by the inner light issuing “from the soul itself,” Harvey does note Coleridge’s insistence, later in this same stanza of the Ode, that “we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” (89). Wordsworth also insisted on the epistemological and emotional reciprocity of giving and receiving and (continuing the adaptation of Kant he inherited from Coleridge) asserted the ultimate subordination of external nature to the sovereign mind and imagination: “The kingdom of man over nature,” as Emerson puts it in the finale of the book paradoxically, even misleadingly, named Nature.

Harvey’s citation of the Dejection Ode occurs in the course of her discussion of Emerson’s adherence to Coleridge’s fruitful misreading of Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding. Like Coleridge, Emerson privileges intuitive Reason, making it synonymous with the Romantic creative Imagination (an equation puzzling to inexperienced readers of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson). Thus interpreted, Coleridgean Imagination “placed the poet-prophet at the center of the Romantic triad, gazing out at the natural world, reading it for spiritual meaning, embodying those perceptions in literary form,” and transmitting those perceptions to the rest of us. For Emerson, this imagination acts as a “lens through which nature is viewed, depending on “the special abilities of the poet-prophet.” (89)

I am not suggesting that Samantha Harvey should join me in the ranks of the diffuse by putting at risk her thematic focus. But that very focus, by her own account, is best exemplified in the work of the “Poet-Bard.” However we judge his poetry, Emerson considered himself “a poet in the sense of a perceiver & dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul & in matter, & especially of [their] correspondences” (65-66, quoting from an Emerson letter). Harvey’s comment—“Literature would prove the best medium for reconciling the Romantic triad poetically, rather than systematically”—is reinforced in the following chapter, “Humanity,” in which the “Reconciliator” is specified as “Art”: “If philosophic and metaphysical resolutions of the Romantic triad were hard to resolve systematically,” then it was up to “the poet’s imaginative powers” to evoke the “spirit of unity” (76, 82, italics added)

Though something of a lacuna, the inattention to poetry is finally a quibble considered in the full context of what Harvey so brilliantly does attend to: the crucial role of Coleridge’s distinctions and dynamic “method” in “galvanizing Emerson’s thought at a critical moment in his intellectual maturation” (141). Indeed, the extraordinary impact of Coleridge’s thinking on the whole of New England can hardly be overstated. Along with the curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, that thought simultaneously shaped Concord and Boston Transcendentalism. Since Samantha Harvey deals rigorously and clearly with concepts that are difficult but central to an understanding of the development of American philosophy and literature, her book deserves a wide audience. Specialists will appreciate it. But, precisely because she is so good at elucidating passages that initially may seem opaque, paradoxical, occasionally even incoherent, Transatlantic Transcendentalism should appeal to newcomers seeking entrance to what Coleridge brought to America. What he introduced and clarified for his disciples on the other side of the Atlantic were the often mysterious but always intriguing interactions among the three permanent but dynamically fluid elements in the Romantic triad. The result was not only New England Transcendentalism, but an American Renaissance.

 —Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Jun 062014


Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer. —John Stout


Memento Mori
Muriel Spark
New Directions
224 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 9780811223041


I say, Grandpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said–“

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No one’s heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article–“

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped…

—from Memento Mori

New Directions is just now reissuing several of Muriel Spark’s novels as well as a new collection of her essays, The Informed Air. It’s been only eight years since Spark’s death, and only ten years since her last novel (The Finishing School, 2004), but the revival feels necessary.  While it would be a mistake to call Spark “forgotten,” she is certainly, and quite unjustly, under-read.  I can still usually find a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) in most larger bookstores, but if I’m looking for anything else by Spark, I have to visit the library. The inherent promise of reintroducing Spark to the public consciousness is that some of her lesser-known novels will now enjoy a renewed appraisal, as well as a fresh chance of making an impression upon readers perhaps only vaguely familiar with her formidable body of work.

Although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may be Spark’s most widely admired novel (and, by consensus, her masterpiece), the novels being reissued by New Directions each exhibit the authorial qualities that made Spark such a fascinating writer: the confident distance of her prose; the simultaneous ruthlessness and wit with which she directed her creations, exposing human nature with a documentarian’s eye while reveling in artifice of fiction as only a novelist of her caliber can. It’s all there in Spark’s novels.

And it was all there from the very beginning of her career. Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957 to critical acclaim. Inspired in part by the amphetamine-induced paranoia she experienced after taking diet pills to cut down on food costs (money was especially tight for her in those days), the novel centers around a woman who becomes aware of her own status as a character in a novel, and who, try as she might, cannot escape the fate the god-like author has in store for her. Spark brought the same intense authority to each of her successive novels, which rank among the greatest of the twentieth-century—classics like The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Driver’s Seat (1970—and nominated, forty years later, for the “Lost Booker Prize” of that year).

Memento Mori is another one of Spark’s greatest hits. First published in 1959, it can be roughly described as revolving around a set of senior citizens engaged against each other in blackmail, extortion, and secrecy—all while a mysterious caller informs nearly all of them: “Remember you must die.”

Dame Lettie Colston is the first to receive the anonymous calls. The police seem unable (or unwilling) to help her. Her brother, Godfrey, has problems of his own seeing to the care of his demented wife, the once-popular novelist, Charmian. Charmian’s caretaker, Mrs. Anthony, will soon be seventy. Godfrey and Dame Lettie want to find someone younger to look after Charmian, and when Lisa Brooke, a mutual friend (and former lover of Godfrey’s), dies, they poach her now-free housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew (who, it turns out, is really seventy-three).

But there’s something off about Mrs. Pettigrew. Her late employer’s family wants to know why she was named heir apparent to the deceased’s entire fortune. Their suspicions, however, don’t stop Godfrey and Dame Lettie from hiring Mrs. Pettigrew on to take care of Charmian while Lisa’s will is being sorted out. Guy Leet, another member of the Colston’s circle (and, Godfrey suspects, Charmian’s would-be lover), has reappeared, presenting himself as Lisa’s (last, living) husband and heir by law.

Once installed in the Colston household, Mrs. Pettigrew sets herself to work on Godfrey, breaking into his papers and tailing him on his regular visits to Chelsea, trying to uncover something she can use to blackmail him. Godfrey has a standing appointment going on three years with Olive Mannering, the granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering (another of Godfrey’s acquaintances, and another of Lisa Brooke’s lovers), for tea and to let Godfrey ogle her stockings and garter (for a fee). Afterward, Olive always reports on her interactions with Godfrey to Alec Warner, an elderly sociologist (once engaged to Dame Lettie) who has dedicated is remaining years to studying gerontology, using his friends and acquaintances as subjects.

The phone calls continue, no longer targeting Dame Lettie alone, but each member of the aged group. Secrets are revealed. There is a murder. It’s all good fun.

But the mystery surrounding the phone calls isn’t central to the novel. Indeed, the novel contains no straightforward resolution to the puzzle of the caller’s identity. The ultimate source and meaning of the message—“Remember you must die”—should, however, be clear by the end. Late in the novel, the group calls upon a retired Chief Inspector to investigate the calls. He muses:

If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

The main appeal of Memento Mori lies in Spark’s deft handling of character. There’s another plotline in the novel, involving Charmian’s former caretaker, Jean Taylor, who resides in a public nursing home. Relatively untouched by the drama of the outside world, the residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward have their own crises to deal with. Here, no one’s menaced by a mysterious caller, but by an overworked ward sister. Death isn’t a vague threat or an obituary in the newspaper, it’s happening in a bed a few feet away. The “will-games,” affairs, and intrigue of the upper class elderly seem like amusements compared to the stark reality of life in the Maud Long Ward, where the patients live in fear of being thrown out into the streets when winter comes. Although it would be a stretch to call Spark a novelist of social realism, the juxtaposition between the two plotlines presents an astute commentary on class tension. For example:

Two years ago, when [Jean] first came to the ward, she had longed for the private nursing home in Surrey about which there had been too much talk. Godfrey had made a fuss about the cost, he had expostulated in her presence, and had quoted a number their friends of the progressive set on the subject of the new free hospitals, how superior they were to the private affairs. Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

“If only,” he said, “because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.”

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in Surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” Miss Taylor had replied, “I prefer to go to hospital, certainly.” She had made her own arrangements and had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal.

Social division does manage to creep into the novel’s primary storyline at times, particularly in the character of Mrs. Pettigrew. Take, for instance, this passage, which follows an eventful morning in the Colston house:

Mrs. Pettigrew went in search of Godfrey who was, however, out. She went by way of the front door round to the french windows, and through them. She saw that the doctor had left and Charmian was reading a book. She was filled with a furious envy at the thought that, if she herself were to take the vapours, there would not be any expensive doctor to come and give her a kind talk and an injection no doubt, and calm her down so that she could sit and read a book after turning the household upside down.

Yet, despite the book’s dark undercurrent of social unrest, there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in Spark’s prose. For a novel steeped in desperation, dementia, and death, Memento Mori is frequently funny. For example:

Lisa Brooke died in her seventy-third year, after her second stroke. She had taken nine months to die, and in fact it was only a year before her death that, feeling rather ill, she had decided to reform her life, and reminding herself how attractive she still was, offered up the new idea, her celibacy to the Lord to whom no gift whatsoever is unacceptable.

It did not occur to Godfrey as he marched into a pew in the crematorium chapel that anyone else had been Lisa’s lover except himself. It did not even come to mind that he had been Lisa’s lover, for he had never been her lover in any part of England, only Spain and Belgium…”

Here’s another:

Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny. Miss or Mrs. Reewes-Duncan threatened for a whole week to report anyone who called her Granny Duncan. She threatened to cut them out of her will and to write to her M.P. The nurses provided writing-paper and a pencil at her urgent request. However, she changed her mind about informing her M.P. when they promised not to call her Granny any more. “But,” she said, “you shall never go back into my will.”

“In the name of God that’s real awful of you,” said the ward sister as she bustled about. “I thought you was going to leave us all a packet.”

“Not now,” said Granny Duncan. “Not now, I won’t. You don’t catch me for a fool.”

Tough Granny Barnacle, she who had sold the evening paper for forty-eight years at Holborn Circus, and who always said “Actions speak louder than words, would send out to Woolworth’s for a will-form about once a week; this would occupy her for two or three days. She would ask the nurse how to spell words like “hundred” and “ermine.”

Here’s one more, from a conversation between Olive Mannering and her grandfather, Percy:

“I say Granpa, did you ever read any books by Charmian Piper?”

“Oh rather, we knew all her books. She was a fine-looking woman. You should have heard her read poetry from a platform in the days of Poetry. Harold Munro always said—”

“Her son, Eric, has told me there’s talk of her novels being reprinted. There’s a revival of interest in her novels. There’s been an article written, Eric says. But he says the novels all consist of people saying ‘touché’ to each other, and it’s all an affectation, the revival of interest, just because his mother is so old and still alive and was famous once.”

“She’s still famous. Always has been. Your trouble is, you know nothing, Olive. Everyone knows Charmian Piper.”

“Oh no they don’t. No ones heard of her except a few old people, but there’s going to be a revival. I say there’s been an article—”

“You know nothing about literature.”

“Touché” she snapped, for Percy himself was always pretending that nobody had forgotten his poetry, really. Then she gave him three pounds to make up for her cruelty, which in fact he had not noticed; he simply did not acknowledge the idea of revival in any case, since he did not recognise the interim death.

The renewed interest in Charmian’s novels is a relatively minor aspect of the novel, only referred to in a handful of scenes, but it’s a striking coincidence to read a reissued novel that addresses, if briefly, the literary revival of one of its characters. To be sure, Spark’s literary reputation is far more secure than Charmian’s (though Eric’s criticism may be influenced by jealousy—his own novel, concerning, in Godfrey’s summation, “a motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in a hotel with [a] communist librarian,” has failed to match the success Charmian’s work enjoyed). Indeed, at first it seems like Spark is setting Charmian up as a figure of fun, a stand-in for “popular” novelists.

Readers of literary fiction will find themselves laughing at Spark’s description of Charmian’s novel, The Seventh Child, a melodrama that Guy Leet recalls fondly to its author in a conversation toward the end of Memento Mori (“I love particularly that scene at the end with Edna in her mackintosh standing at the cliff’s edge on that Hebridean coast being drenched by the spray, and her hair blown about her face. And then turning to find Karl by her side. One thing about your lovers, Charmian, they never required any preliminary discussions. They simply looked at each other and knew.”). And Charmian notes that, when writing her novels, “the characters… seemed to take control of [the] pen after a while”—a sentiment it’s hard to imagine Spark would endorse.

But there is one important similarity between Charmian and her creator, and that’s a willingness to entertain the reader. After all, the plot of Memento Mori, with its mystery and intrigue, doesn’t sound too different from the sort of novel Charmian would have written. There’s a reason for this—one that, for Spark, exceeded literary preference.

In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Alice Munro hit upon a succinct explanation for Spark’s willingness for her fiction to be so playful, so fun:

I’ve been reading Muriel Spark’s autobiography. She thinks, because she is a Christian, a Catholic, that God is the real author. And it behooves us not to try to take over that authority, not to try to write fiction that is about the meaning of life, that tries to grasp what only God can grasp. So one writes entertainments.

Now compare that with what Charmian says about her writing process during her conversation with Guy Leet:

“I used to say to myself, ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!’  because,” she said, “the art of fiction is very like the practise of deception.”

“And in life,” he said, “is the practise of deception in life an art too?”

“In life,” she said, “everything is different. Everything is in the Providence of God.”

And within the pages of a novel as good as Memento Mori, the reader is in the Providence of Spark—a figure perhaps slightly less divine, though worthy of veneration in her own right. With this latest effort by New Directions, she just may get it.

Muriel Spark possessed a talent for prose like almost no author before or since. Line for line, her writing—the quirks of diction, the bolts of wry wit—holds its own against the best the twentieth-century had to offer. The reader can put absolute faith in her sense of style. With every word she wrote, Spark knew exactly what she was doing. And that’s the highest compliment that can be paid any writer.

—John Stout


John Stout

John Stout received his MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.



Jun 022014


Harlequin’s Millions is the long recollection of Bohumil Hrabal, the last of three novels from the late Czech writer that bear witness to the unrecounted histories of a family, a people, and the passage of time, illusory and elegiac in form, it is a momento mori of unbroken, dreamlike prose that captures in remembrances the reticent waiting of old age, set to Riccardo Drigo’s airy, Pucciniesque serenade, from which the title derives, with all the rhythm and repose of a forgotten love song, wistful and nostalgic. —Sebastian Ennis


Harlequin’s Millions
(Harlekýnovy Milióny by Mladá Fronta, 1981)
By Bohumil Hrabal
Translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht
Archipelago Books, 2014


Harlequin’s Millions is the long recollection of Bohumil Hrabal, the last of three novels from the late Czech writer that bear witness to the unrecounted histories of a family, a people, and the passage of time, illusory and elegiac in form, it is a momento mori of unbroken, dreamlike prose that captures in remembrances the reticent waiting of old age, set to Riccardo Drigo’s airy, Pucciniesque serenade, from which the title derives, with all the rhythm and repose of a forgotten love song, wistful and nostalgic.

YouTube Preview Image

Originally published in 1981 and translated for the first time into English with this 2014 Archipelago Books edition, Hrabal’s requiem for the temps perdu concludes the interwoven story he started in Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. Yet Harlequin’s Millions officially made it to print some years before these earlier works, which were banned under the communist regime after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops from the Warsaw Pact. Hrabal chopped up and edited bits of text from The Little Town, which was not published in its “unedited” form in Prague until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, disfiguring the tone and, to a great extent, the meaning of the text, and leaving intact only the human face of the times. But it is the very humanity of the text that makes Harlequin’s Millions so powerful. Josef Škvorecký, the celebrated Czech-Canadian writer, said of Hrabal’s entire oeuvre that, by its miraculous existence alone, it was a critique of the social categories of his day because his characters were “triumphantly alive, they displayed the politically incorrect classlessness of raconteurism.”[1] This is no less true of Harlequin’s Millions, which is essentially a dirge for “old times,” but which receives its dissident quality from Hrabal’s timeless portrayal of the human spirit in all its eccentricity.

Harlequin’s Millions is set in a small castle that is now a retirement home, an edifice of crumbling plaster and exposed masonry ravaged by time, the façade of which belies the aura of any past decadence, changing shape within labyrinthine blocks of prose—Hrabal does not break up his chapters into paragraphs and he favours the comma over the period—to resemble the “the faces of each and every elderly pensioner” in their weary likeness, silent and motionless, to the bare, ruinous exterior. Inside lies a broken wrought-iron clock with limp, crossed hands, forever stuck at twenty-five past seven, a reminder to those waiting for the bell toll of the middle hour that their lives are stuck in the interval between life and death, because, as the unnamed female narrator tells us, everyone here knows that “most old people die in the evening, at just about half past seven.” And within this darkly comic lapse of time the soft melody of “Harlequin’s Millions” unravels and winds its way around the castle’s uncanny grounds, pouring out of rediffusion boxes that are hung not only in the corridors of the castle, where each note trails after wisps of cheap perfume, but also in the trees in the park, trickling down leaves like morning dew, and everywhere it casts its spell upon the pensioners, who are witnesses to the old times of the inescapable serenade.

As the music plays on and on, the story of an ex-brewery manager’s wife unfolds, her toothless, wrinkled face recalling little of her former beauty as she wanders through the castle grounds, distant and reproachful, looking back upon her life in the little town “where time stood still,” which can be seen from the windows of the retirement home. The unnamed woman bears the unremarkable qualities of old age and is defined only by her past, which the other pensioners guiltily acknowledge, gaining a certain pleasure in seeing her come to such an end. In her reverie for the old times, we learn of her unfaithfulness to the little town where time stood still, leading up to her escape, a sojourn in Prague where she bought a perfumery beyond her stature, only to return, broken spirited, with unsold cases of those sweet-smelling bottles and soaps that ward off old age, souvenirs of her failure. “[L]ike a severed cord whose ends had been tied together again,” her time in the little town now seemed endless. After the war, the workers took control of the brewery and fired her husband, and that once severed rope grew taut around the little town that was now part of an endless cycle of progress, hopelessly longing to return to a better time.

In the retirement home, there are three other “witnesses to old times,” who, for the brief moments that they share in the laughter and forgetting of their own histories, become the young men of their pasts once more, while other times, with the faintest trace of life left in their voices, they chronicle the old folk tales and the daily eccentricities of their long forgotten neighbours. And always they tell their stories to the unnamed woman, a narrator of true invention, as if speaking unto memory itself, so that, under the spell of the narrator’s toothless voice, the castle becomes a place of memory and fantasy, isolated from the changing times. Stories of bacchic ecstasy erupt from a poverty of spirit reserved for the elderly alone, or perhaps it is the narrator’s own boredom, her sad triviality, that causes her to bring to life in the half-lives of the pensioners the scenes of erotic love and violence that are portrayed in the castle’s fresco-lined ceilings.

Reality sets in, however, as the past is made manifest and the old graveyard of black marble gravestones and golden crosses that the castle overlooks is unearthed. The pensioners with the strongest nerves watch with tears in their eyes, reminded of all they were torn away from when they entered the retirement home, their houses, their homes, their front yards and flower beds, as the granite tombstones are pulled from the clay “with the perseverance of a dentist trying to pull a molar with crooked roots out of swollen gums,” for the roots of the trees had grown deep within the ground and wrapped around the coffins. “I myself had the feeling that, once again, all my teeth were being pulled out,” the narrator reflects, “slowly, one after another, in the morning my teeth had grown back and it started all over again.” I return constantly to this image. An endless cycle of having your teeth pulled, all that is lost in life and in death forgotten, and memory’s soft melody plays on without us.

“What is life?” the narrator asks. “Everything that once was, everything an old person thinks back on and tells you stories about, everything that no longer matters and is gone for good.” It’s fake teeth and the ones that get pulled, the past we leave behind and the stories that take its place. Reality and fiction are woven together in Harlequin’s Millions to tell a beautiful story of the unequal battle waged between life and death, and the human spirit that remains in the remembrance of the past.

—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.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Škvorecký, Josef. “Introduction” of Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. London: Abacus, 1993, x.
May 112014


Running Through Beijing ought to be profoundly depressing. And yet it isn’t. Just the opposite: it’s uplifting, thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text: the fact that you are reading the book at all, the fact that the book was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. The novel itself, with its sharp, detailed prose and vivid storytelling creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share. —Steven Axelrod


Running Through Beijing
Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen
Two Lines Press, 2014
161 pages, $14,00
ISBN: 978-1-931883-30-8


Dystopian novels and films based on them crowd bookstores and multiplexes. These grim fictional futures, and hardy young people who struggle against contaminated environments and corrupt totalitarian governments that define our ruined future have become a favorite brand of escapism in an uncertain world. Things may be bad, these works seem to be saying, but they’re going to get worse. Partly a call to action but mainly an invitation to a cozy fatalistic complacency, novels and movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent want to lull us to sleep.

The novels written about actual dystopian societies, like Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing, have a different purpose: to wake us up.

From the moment that Dunhuang, the hero of Xu Zechen’s remarkable picaresque, returns to a Beijing sandstorm after a stint in jail for selling fake IDs, we know we have entered an ominously different world. The streets are buried in yellow dust — Dunhaung casually mentions boiling the tap water (it’s undrinkable otherwise) — and the police are so corrupt that bribes (of money or just cigarettes) are viewed as “fees,” standard as sales tax. As to the larger government, and the social structures of a civilized society, whatever light they shed they doesn’t penetrate the depths of Beijing’s street life as Xu Zechen describes it. These hustlers, prostitutes and con artists scuttle and scheme on the urban sea floor in the dark.

Dunhuang’s goals are simple: to make enough money selling pirated DVDs to bribe his friend Bao Ding out of jail and to find Qibao, Bao Ding’s girlfriend, and take care of her until the couple can be reunited. He knows nothing about Qibao but her name, and he’s only seen her from the back. It was a memorable view but not much to go on while searching through a city of almost twenty million people.

He’s not totally alone though. The first day in the city he meets a girl selling DVDs and buys a few, just to keep the conversation going. One of them happens to be Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief, the first of many film references that play in subtle counterpoint to the story. Rome stands in for Beijing, and the quest of Lamberto Maggiorani’s character for his stolen bike, essential for the job he needs to feed his family, resonates quietly with Dunhuang’s efforts to free Bao Ding from jail. In the underworld of Italy after World War II, just as in today’s China, the only real value is personal loyalty. Bao Ding let the police catch him so that Dunhaung could escape, and Dunhuang never questions or tries to shirk the obligation Bao Ding’s sacrifice imposes on him.

The DVDs these characters sell are more than an easy illicit commodity. They have expanded into a plastic jewel box philosophy, a code of ethics and aesthetics, illegally downloaded from America along with the movies themselves. Dunhaung echoes Hollywood con men from Paper Moon to The Grifters when he goes to dinner with the DVD girl, Xia Xiaorong, and claims that someone in the restaurant has stolen his money and his cellphone. The apologetic and embarrassed manager covers the meal and insists on buying them a few more rounds of beer. They emerge from the restaurant tipsy and triumphant.

It’s an awkward situation, because Xiaorong has an on-and-off boyfriend called Kuang Shan, who supplies her DVDs from his video store. But Dunhuang fits himself in somehow as part of the team. Hawking movies at the gate of the Agricultural University, Dunhuang recalls his earlier days selling fake IDs, revealing that world’s mundane anarchy and social dislocation:

Students needed fake IDs just like the rest of society. When it came time for the job hunt, in particular, they showed up in droves wanting fake transcripts and certificates of honor, the gutsy ones even asking for fake diplomas or degrees: polytech students wanting to be BAs, BAs wanting to be MAs, MAs wanting to be PhDs. It went the other way, too: older doctoral students wanting undergraduate student IDs for the half-price tickets to public parks.

Duhuang is cast out into that world again when Kuang Shan moves back in with Xia Xiaorong.  No arrangement is stable in this world for very long.  Dunhuang puts his head down and goes back to work. He moves from squatter’s digs in a disused diner to student lodgings near the university to a one room shack that at least offers privacy, building his clientele, dodging the police and occasionally sleeping with Xia Xiaorong, their stolen moments together unfolding “leisurely, like  silent film from the twenties or thirties.”

Even their romantic moments conjure the astringent snap of Hollywood.

Dunhuang says, “What’s wrong with me saying you’re young, beautiful, graceful and refined?” (And Jack Lemmon says, “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you!”)

To which Xia Xiaorong replies, “A whole bowl of noodles can’t shut you up. Do the dishes!” (Like Shirley MacLaine’s four-word rejoinder that memorably ended Billy Wilder’s The Apartment: “Shut up and deal.”)

Eventually Kuang Shan and Dunhuang come to blows over Xia Xiaorong, but they wind up getting  drunk together and wind up at the beginning of a wary friendship.

Xia Xiaorong suggests another familiar movie trope: the corrupt city girl longing to return to the country and a more innocent life. But that’s an expensive proposition. For the moment she’s stuck in the big city, caught between two men. When she gets pregnant, we never know for sure if Dunhuang is the father or not. In any case it’s hard to imagine raising a child in  the chaotic world of Beijing street hustlers.

It feels like “a year of bad omens” to Dunhuang:

…he could see how the streets and the low residential buildings had all turned to the same dirt yellow color overnight, the way winter snows might blanket the earth. But the feeling was completely different; it made the dust covered buildings and streets look like ancient ruins, silent and deathly.

After a particularly nightmarish dust storm, Dunhuang starts scrawling advertisements for his business on the powdered windshields of parked cars. The trick works and he starts to notice other guerrilla advertisements stuck to hoardings and brick walls, mostly for fake ID sellers. Qibao sold fake IDs, or so Bao Ding had told him. Dunhuang makes the connection: all he has to do is call the numbers on these advertising stickers and keep asking for her.

It’s a long tedious process and in the meanwhile he keeps building his customer base. One girl lives so far away he has to buy a (stolen) bicycle, which itself gets stolen, doubling down on De Sica. Dunhuang winds up running everywhere (“They can’t steal my legs”), and soon he’s in marathon shape, which helps when the short-winded police give chase, though one of the scariest cops turns out to be a fake also, with his own counterfeit ID, just looking for an angle like everyone else.

And then, after more than three hundred phone calls, Dunhuang’s strategy for finding Qibao finally pays off. She turns out to be gorgeous from the front, also, a classic “bad girl” who smokes because she’d “die of boredom” if she quit.

“I barely remember what that jerk Bao Ding looks like,” she says.

“He remembers you.”

“Fuck, plenty of men remember me, Wouldn’t you remember me?”

Soon they are making love, mocking and copying the porn films they both sell on the street.

“You’re my girlfriend,” Dunhaung gushes.

“Whooo! Lucky me.”

But ominous events continue to pursue Dunhuang. When he and Qibao run together to the far district where the girl who buys his movies lives, she’s gone. The apartment is sealed and no one in the building has any idea what happened. People just disappear. No one is quite what they seem, even Dunhuang’s landlady, who turns out to be a Communist Party Secretary and threatens to turn him in when she discovers his cache of DVDs. Of course, she settles for raising the rent. “Stingy bitch,” Dunhuang mutters.

“What did you say?”

“I said, I’ll soon be rich.”

That joke is a small grace note of translation; one can’t help wondering how the rhyme worked in Chinese.

Qibao has little interest in her old boyfriend. Getting Bao Ding out of jail would take connections and Dunhuang doesn’t have any. “You’re not going to meet Buddha just by lighting incense,” she says. Instead of trying to buy Bao Ding out of jail, Dunhuang should save up his money and give it to his friend when he’s out of jail. “He’ll need it more then,” she points out, ruthlessly practical as always.

When Dunhuang visits Bao Ding, he agrees with Qibao. “Don’t even think about it, don’t kill yourself on my account, either way it’s cool. Just bring me a carton of smokes from time to time.” Bao Ding’s sense of loyalty is more impulsive – getting arrested so that Dunhuang could escape, or jumping in to defend a friend who was getting beaten up in jail.

Their world isn’t kind to long range plans.

When Dunhuang returns to Beijing he goes directly to Qibao’s house, but she’s not there. He waits outside for her through most of the night and when she finally shows up, startled to see him, he’s furious. She claims to have been out with friends. He knows she’s lying but he doesn’t have the heart to dig for the truth. Instead, he stalks off. She follows him.

They walk for hours, Dunhuang smoking compulsively and flicking the butts into the street, Qibao following him, picking them up. It’s a bizarre interlude, a hieratic ritual of improvised self-abasement: a concubine, serving the emperor. Her gesture simultaneously evokes the formalities of a bygone era and mocks them. Or perhaps she is just mocking herself and Dunhuang and the very possibility of a structured rational society, however oppressive. In any case, the final offering, the handful of spent cigarettes, is enough to defuse Dunhuang’s anger and win him back.

Spring comes to Beijing and fortunes change: Kuang Chan’s video store is closed by the police, and Dunhuang has to find a new supplier. The pal Bao Ding rescued in jail turns out to have political connections. A few phone calls, and Bao Ding is back out on the streets. When Bao Ding goes to a whorehouse, one of the prostitutes turns out of be Qibao. He tells Dunhuang the truth, and after a screaming, slapping match in the street, Dunhuang breaks up with her.

But when Qibao is busted, Dunhuang bails her out. Loyalty comes before every other emotion. They wind up together, as do Xia Xiaorong – now pregnant — and Kuang Shan. But Beijing doesn’t allow for happy endings, and these characters take “ever after” ten minutes at a time.

The last moments of the novel sum up its theme and story in a single heartbreaking image, a visual jueju poem that seems to encapsulate the past and the future of these trapped, doomed children of the street.

The set up is simple and familiar, echoing the events that first landed Bao Ding and Dunhuang in jail. Kuang Shan and Xia Xiaorong are selling DVDs in the street, now reduced to competing with Dunhuang for sales. A police raid explodes and Dunhuang draws the cops away from his friends. We know his running skills by now. He loses the police but when he returns Kuang Shan is gone and Xia Xiaorong is sprawled on the sidewalk in a puddle of blood. In the violence of the raid she has lost the baby, and her DVDs – brightly colored plastic squares showing the life these kids have aspired to and emulated – are scattered across the dirty pavements: gaudy, mendacious trash.

This is how authentic dystopian novels end, from We to A Clockwork Orange to Oryx and Crake: the characters defeated, the revolution a chimera, all hope lost. No warrior princess or cunning hero is going to save the day. The day was lost before it began.

Running Through Beijing ought to be profoundly depressing. And yet it isn’t.  Just the opposite: it’s uplifting, thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text: the fact that you are reading the book at all, the fact that the book was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. The novel itself, with its sharp, detailed prose and vivid storytelling, creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share.

And so does Xu Zechen’s life. Born in 1978, he got a master’s degree in literature, and edits a prominent literary magazine, People’s Literature. He has won prizes and traveled abroad, serving as a writer in residence at Creighton University in Nebraska and distinguishing himself in the  University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. And now Xu Zechen’s tough, unsentimental novel has been translated into numerous languages, including this elegant English version by Eric Abrahamsen.

It might cheer Dunhuang to know, as he moves beyond the last page, picking up Xia Xiaorong’s DVDs and helping her to the hospital, looking out for the ever present, ever-corruptible cops, taking care of himself and his friends as best he can, with no hope for the future beyond the Hollywood vision, the pirated movie playing in his head, that his humble, anonymous story has finally been told, and that the whole world is listening.

They might even make a film out of it someday.

And if they do, you can be sure Dunhuang will be selling pirated copies of it on the street.

— 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 kicked 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 this summer, with Gutter Books. An excerpt from that novel appeared in a recent issue of “BigPulp” magazine, which will feature his post-modern horror satire The Risen in its upcoming “All Zombieissue. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and 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.


May 092014


 Where would I have gone? one character asks. Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference? We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone? — Adam Segal

Selected Stories Cover

Selected Stories
Kjell Askildsen
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, May 2014
Paperback, 100 Pages, $11.95.


When Ameir discovered that I was a nonbeliever, he was incensed. We worked in a kitchen in downtown Iowa City; it was mid July and sweat was plentiful. What began as a jocular conversation about the benefits of certain religious dietary rules had become an expression of more radical thought: the most just society, argued Ameir, would be a total theocracy populated only by faithful adherents. He was a master provocateur, somehow believing this sincerely while simultaneously saying it simply to goad me. What about atheists, I said. They don’t belong in any society, he said. So I began to make my case.

The ensuing debate was lengthy and passionate but likely unremarkable, having been played out by young students for centuries. But one of Ameir’s more compelling barbs connected, and has stayed with me for years. If you’re so certain there’s no God to judge you, he says, and no afterlife to reward or punish you for your deeds, then why are you still here? Here, in Iowa City, in the July heat, in a restaurant kitchen. The mundane Here and not the seductive Elsewhere. His challenge presupposed questionably that the forces holding me in this Midwestern college town (close friends, need for financial stability, general contentment, crippling postgraduate uncertainty, etc.) were moral obligations as opposed to practical ones. But the challenge stung, and the challenge lingered, because in truth I’d been contemplating escape. In truth I’d been wondering just what ties were holding me in place.

This May, Dalkey Archive Press is publishing a taut little collection of fictions by the Norwegian author Kjell Askildsen.  Askildsen has been writing consistently since the 1950s, though these Selected Stories have been gathered from four collections published in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Askildsen is currently in his eighties. His writing has not yet been widely translated into English.

I think of this encounter with Ameir when I think of Askildsen. Selected Stories is a meditation on individual freedom, a book fraught with the day-to-day pressures of human life.

The nine brief stories collected within can all be described in terms of absences. The absence, for example, of experimental or ornate, “flowery,” prose. The absence of unnecessary characters. The absence of exotic or alien locales, or of complicated plot arcs. The emotional landscape is barren, bleak. The stories, on first glance, exhibit such stark similarity that it’s almost alarming. The first four take place prominently in suburban gardens and on the overlooking verandas. Very few of the protagonists mention work, none of them are seen working, and only one, in the three-page “The Nail in the Cherry Tree,” has a named profession. He is a poet. Only in the opening story, “Martin Hansen’s Outing,” is a young child involved or even mentioned. Parents are aging, ailing, or freshly dead. One senses that Askildsen is delicately, deliberately seeking answers to a particular set of nagging questions, and is never quite satisfied with what he uncovers.

Askildsen’s stories are thus constrained, quiet, and at times they even feel polite. But they are not simple.

It does at first seem odd, the overwhelming lack of employment. Where, after all, is this idle world in which one’s primary concerns consist of caring for guests and tending to the vegetable patch, a world in which several stories can begin with some variation of, “We drank morning coffee in the garden”? But it is precisely in this idleness that Askildsen is able to pursue his obsessions. He is fascinated by human pettiness. His characters lie in hundreds of small ways, grow unfairly annoyed with one another, expect much and offer little. They refuse to forgive, and never apologize.

“Martin Hansen’s Outing” sees the titular protagonist lie to his wife about having to meet his brother, just so he will be able to spend his evening drinking alone on the town. Elsewhere characters pretend not to hear their wives, berate grieving relatives for not having enough ashtrays, empty bottles of wine down the drain to create the illusion they got drunker than they did, and stand around in the middle of an upstairs room, simply to “let time pass.”

These antics are variously sad, cruel, and uncomfortably relatable. But Selected Stories is not just a comedy of minor indiscretions. Martin Hansen’s lie about his brother, for example, hints at further lies, and deeper infidelity. Martin comes clean and is asked by his wife “what’s the point of all this sudden honesty?” a question that keeps him up all night, wondering, “what does she know about me that I don’t know that she knows?” Askildsen convincingly plays out the multifaceted tensions and aggressions that arise between siblings and lovers alike. These stories, with very few words, evoke whole years or even decades of family history.

The peaceful, almost pastoral setting in which these stories take place does very little to abate the characters’ strife. Askildsen avoids lingering in his descriptions of nature. In “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” the protagonist casually takes stock of what is perhaps the collection’s most vivid depiction of Norway’s natural splendor: “I had the fjord and the distant, wooded hillsides in front of me. The murmur of hushed conversation and the gentle gurgle of the water by the shore put me in a drowsy, absentminded state.” Otherwise one gardens in order to ignore one’s family, walks in the woods as a means of hiding from one’s spouse, discusses the weather to cover up all the things one ought to say but refuses to, or can’t. “A Lovely Spot,” a story about a married couple visiting the family summer home, repeatedly employs the title phrase as a sickening joke to illustrate just how incapable the couple is of genuine communication.

—Isn’t this a lovely spot, she said.

—Certainly is, he said.

One of Askildsen’s more acute concerns in these stories is the nature of adult male sexuality, which to him contains subtle underlying elements of violence, rapaciousness, and exploitation. Martin Hansen stares out the window at his daughter’s 15-year-old friend and finds that “it wasn’t difficult” to close his eyes and picture himself “taking her.” Another character reads a “rape-like scene” in a novel, and “felt [himself] aroused.” He develops an intense sexual interest in his new sister-in-law, commenting several times on “how easy it would be to lift her up.” None of the male characters act on these darker urges. But the urges are there, contributing to the sense that the thoughts and actions bubbling up to the surface in Askildsen’s stories–the lies, evasions, and little betrayals–are just superficial manifestations of the forces really at play.

In fact the depictions of male desire reminded me often of the work of J.M. Coetzee, whose aging, overeducated protagonists are often disgusted by and at odds with the power their lust still holds over them. But where Coetzee’s protagonist philosophizes and self-interrogates, reining in the influence of his phallus as if it were an excitable beast on a chain, Martin Hansen and his compatriots are much less interested in self-study. There is very little guilt or shame to be found within these pages. Defending his curious, evasive behavior while home for his father’s funeral, Bernhard, the protagonist of “The Unseen” declares, “I can’t help the way that I am. If I were to kill a person, for instance, I couldn’t help it, but I’m not about to kill anyone, that’s not how I am. Everything that I do, I do because that’s how I am, and it’s not my fault that I’m the way that I am.” Only in “The Unseen” is this idea so explicit, but a soft fatalism envelops every one of Askildsen’s stories.

I have, on several occasions, attempted to comfort myself and close friends in the wake of a breakup with the observation that, individual human desires being as they are so fleeting and disparate, it’s really something of a miracle that any romantic relationship manages to last at all. I acknowledge that the verity of this observation, as well as its usefulness as a soothing agent, are open to debate. But it strikes me now that if youthful romance is “miraculous,” then a lifelong committed marriage must be an exercise in impossibility. Two unlike and unlikely lives, welded together by tradition, eros, child-rearing, desire for fiscal responsibility.

At very least, this might be the thought of many of Askildsen’s characters, who view marriage as a form of oppression in direct opposition to their freedom. Martin Hansen (who, it seems, makes for the perfect prototypical Askilsenian protagonist) wonders for some time just why it is he lies to his wife, and eventually lights upon the realization that “my non-disclosure and falsehoods were prerequisites for my freedom.” Another character lies about visiting his sick father in order to get away from his wife for a few hours. He, too, is attempting to reassert control over his life: “Later on, as he was driving out of town in the direction of R, he felt almost cocky, and he thought: I do as I please.”

“Do you remember the dogs of Thessaloniki,” asks the protagonist’s wife Beate in the story of the same name, “that got stuck together after they mated… All the old men outside the café shouting and screaming… and the dogs howling and struggling to get free from one another.” This unsubtle little allegory makes it clear that all parties feel equally choked by the marital bond, and also brilliantly depicts the overwhelming agitation – the howling and the struggling – hiding beneath all this small talk over coffee in the garden. But how to break free? Beate’s husband, out for a walk earlier in the story, confides: “I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.”

What, exactly, is this sort of freedom that manifests itself in such childish, petty ways? Why is it so important to establish one’s autonomy through minor deceptions, just so that one can go smoke cigarettes down by the fjord? It turns out that marriage isn’t the real culprit. What these characters want, more than anything, is to be free of all obligations, to be owed nothing and owe nothing in return.

It’s no coincidence that friendship is almost completely missing from these stories. The closest thing any protagonist has to a friend is described as “a man my own age who lives in the area, with whom I have a somewhat forced relationship, because he once saved my life.” This same character explains to his sister that he has no girlfriend because “I prefer women who don’t make any demands of me, but who give, take, and go.” In “The Unseen,” Bernhard is shown contentedly allowing his sister and her fiancé to carry on a conversation without him: “It had grown darker, their faces weren’t completely distinct, he felt almost unseen. Almost free.”

So it’s appropriate that so many of these stories are about family visits and homecomings: the homecoming is the time when one’s current self is weighed against old expectations and aspirations, when weddings and funerals shake up or reify the accepted family dynamics. Longtime conflicts, neglected or forgotten, seethe and push against expectations of civility. In an environment of increased pressure, it’s hard not to dream of escape.

But Askildsen’s stories don’t ever build to a level of tragic, operatic family collapse. The conclusions are anticlimactic, the conflict is rarely resolved. There is generally a return, or a resignation. There is an uneasy acceptance of the fact that one is trapped in the same situation as before. “The Grasshopper,” a story of admirable subtlety and palpable sadness, ends with the husband finding his wife–with whom he has of course had some quarrel–alone and afraid in their bedroom. “I thought you had gone, she said. Where would I have gone, he said.”

Where would I have gone?

Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference?

Askildsen’s Selected Stories present a world in which one can never truly escape from one’s obligations. There is one character who gets close. His wife is dead and he is ambivalent; he speaks with her father and feels “something approaching satisfaction thinking about how, now that Helen was dead, he was no longer my father-in-law, and Helen’s sisters were no longer my in-laws either.” In all this loss of ties he seems to lose his humanity as well. Contemplating life alone on a large, empty estate, he closes his eyes and sees “that great deserted landscape, that’s painful to see, it’s far too big, and far too desolate, and in a way it’s both within me and around me.” There’s only one place we’re certain to be freed from our debt: the grave.

We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone?

— Adam Segal


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.


Read “A Great Deserted Landscape” on Electric Literature

May 032014


Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word. —Tom Faure


This Is the Garden
Giulio Mozzi
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 121 pages, $13.95


What is a garden? For Adam and Eve, it is the warm kingdom of innocence from which they have fallen. For Candide, it is the final plot he must dedicate his life to cultivating. For Giulio Mozzi, the garden resembles a Borgesian labyrinth—a mysterious, perplexing place in which people constantly write, read, and rewrite the ever-shifting planes of some elusive salvation. Mozzi’s garden is both the sandbox of the imagination and also an idyll his sad, thoughtful characters can never seem to achieve.

Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is easily the most rewarding book I’ve read this year. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris for Open Letter Books, these short stories each explore a combination of metaphors that plague and sanctify the human experience: the word, the letter, the sheltering garden, and the postlapsarian dream of succor.

The first piece in this brief, eight-story collection gives us a petty thief writing to his most recent victim. He is returning two letters he found in the purse he snatched. While detailing the thought process of a criminal observing potential victims, he digresses into disclosures such as that letter-writing seems more honest than the ephemeral, blunt honesty of direct conversation: “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies.” Such an existentially conscious and narcissistic character offers his victim enough gems about the letters that perhaps she’ll even forget her material suffering:

“Anyway, since your friend’s descriptions were completely unreal, I took to them at once. Children view reality this way, too, and I’m not sure if it’s instinct or habit that makes adults tell fairytales and stories to reinforce this idea of the world as somehow magical, or if adults are too lazy to explain the way things really work.”

A perfect opening to a story collection, “Cover Letter” tells us what to expect: very fine sentences, outcast characters, tacit ruminations on everything from first impressions to deontology and consequentialism, all held in check by a steady hand. Control is the order of the day and it is mesmerizing to see how much Mozzi packs into just under 120 pages.

His Kafkaesque characters—old, young, male, female, adroit, spacey—do not know what plagues them, necessarily. The second story, “The Apprentice,” tells of a young man who wishes to be more than just a delivery boy, but rather a true apprentice who might grow in time into “a man, a worker.” He experiences the joys and pitfalls of laboring for an uninterested boss who might hold, not only the keys, but the existential manual, to his future. He suffers the futility and anomie of his work, furiously certain that “he’s certainly much more than nothing, even if he doesn’t know what.” The boy haplessly considers the merits of punishment as biblical path to salvation, recalling the garden in which men first foolishly attempted to be like gods.

Each of these stories does indeed evoke or otherwise explicitly depict a garden, but the collection is not purely religious in nature. It’s thoroughly human, it’s Kafka, it’s experience of love and the puzzles of human connection and communication.

“To Mario, the dreams you can’t remember are the most important kind—they protect your vital secrets.” Mario is whiling the time on a five-hour train ride that reminded me in its style of Venedikt Erofeev’s masterful fugue Moscow to the End of the Line.  “Today, Mario is headed to Rome where, perhaps, a woman is waiting for him. A few days ago, he got a letter from her saying: ‘I miss you’ and ‘I wish you were here.’ But the letter didn’t say: ‘Please come.’”

“What he thought were her dreams turned out to be his instead.” What a line—and Mozzi offers many like this. “Trains” is my favorite for its relentless burrowing—again, a Kafka reference of Mozzi’s—into the seismic trepidations of the romantic experience.

Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word.

“You might say that in some letters, maybe all letters, the important thing is only said after the final sentence, in the silence that follows.”

Or: “I ask myself what compels all this to hurl itself headlong into something so precise and defined as a story that has a beginning and an end. I think there must be some kind of grudge against reality in all this.”

But fear not—Mozzi does not stake his claim to meta-narrative navel-gazing. The experience that fascinates him most seems to be more primal, more guttural: a person’s simple search for how to speak to another, for how to begin, for how to end: “There’s something I keep trying to say, that grammar won’t permit, won’t allow.”

“I’ll never forget this pain. I beg you, all of you here, and I think I’ve finally managed to say what I had to, after all this hemming and hawing that was more from fear than anything else, because just bringing up certain things is scary, I beg you, please, try and understand my pain even a little, or at least try to accept it as something that could happen and could be true. The books I’ve read have taught me many things, but above all, they’ve taught me to preserve my life and to tuck my voice away inside my life and keep it safe—my voice, unique and private: my unique treasure and my health. I love you all.”

This is not easily digestible and forgotten. Mozzi’s is a European sentence—meandering, introspective, borderline Proustian at times. It is a sentence that demands its place on the page, that, without meaning to, reminds us of how many sentences don’t merit the space we give them. His words breathe in the vastness of their own possibilities, do not want to waste their breath.

“There have been many times, during intense conversations full of affection and emotion, with people I loved very much or at least wanted to love very much, that my words slowly disappeared, until all I had left in my head was one tiny phrase, or a few phrases, incongruous, but full of meaning, mysterious phrases, impossible to say. And in those moments, you can almost hear your brain creaking, straining to raise too great a weight. To say these words, to transform their mystery into a simple sequence, compressions and decompressions of air, to hear them disperse, scattered, useless, this would have been too much. As I stop writing this letter, I apologize to you that I can’t even sign it. Good luck.”

But to rave about the maestro’s sentences is insufficient—what of plot, drama, explosions? There is plenty of that here, in Mozzi’s dream garden. The conflict is buried deep in and burrows deep into the psyche of these perturbingly mundane characters. Mozzi’s little gem is not called This is the Garden, but rather This Is the Garden. The first thought upon finishing the last story of the collection is: ah, yes—there—I must return.

—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.



May 022014

Helen Oyeyemi

With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon. But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story. The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents. —Laura K. Warrell


Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books
Hardcover, 320 pages, $27.95


Fairy tales may communicate the universal principals of life but a good story told from a villain’s perspective is often a more delectable read.  Certainly, there is much to learn about the human psyche through contemplating the souls of the wicked; thus we have a tradition of novels, like John Gardner’s Grendel, that retell time-honored tales from the points-of-view of monsters. British novelist Helen Oyeyemi adds her voice to this ever-expanding catalogue, offering her own series of fabulistic novels that weave yarns as bewitching as the classics.

For her fifth book, Oyeyemi wanted to write a wicked stepmother story.  In an interview with Canada’s National Post, she said, “I wanted to rescue the wicked queen from Snow White, because she seemed to find being a villain a bit of a hassle in a lot of ways.”  In Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi reimagines the tale of the girl “with skin as white as snow” and the jealous stepmother who banishes her. Oyeyemi artfully explores the same themes of beauty, vanity and motherhood as the Brothers Grimm did in the source material, but adds other enticing layers of meaning.  The story takes place in a small Massachusetts town in the 1950s when the American South was fully segregated and magazines predicted the “End of [the] Negro race by 1980.”  But even more intriguing is the secret the characters’ family has kept hidden away for generations: they are black people who have been passing for white. Thus, the novel becomes not only an exploration of the worship of beauty, but an elegantly twisted tale about race and identity.

A writer who has been compared to both Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson, and who bristles at the “magic realism” label often affixed to her work, Oyeyemi seems fascinated by the mystical and macabre. Whether the Bluebeard-inspired story of an author’s muse coming to life in Mr. Fox or the eerie tale of a troubled child’s relationship with a ghostly new friend in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s novels straddle the real and unreal. She published The Icarus Girl, her first novel, at the age of nineteen and since then has become one of the youngest writers to be added to Granta’s list of “Best Young British Novelists” and won the Somerset Maugham and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards.

Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in South London where she spent most of her childhood in libraries rewriting classic stories. “I had so many problems with [Little Women]” she said in a National Public Radio interview. “I was so upset with Beth dying, with Jo and Laurie not getting married.  So I just crossed out all those things and wrote new endings. Then I went from there to writing my own things and never really looked back.”

Boy, Snow, Bird begins in New York City where Boy Novak, a beautiful white girl with blonde hair, lives with an abusive father who catches rats for work.  Such a horrifying set of circumstances – “the rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim” – prompts a twenty-year-old Boy to run away to a sleepy New England town called Flax Hill. There, she meets Arturo Whitman, a jewelry maker and widower, and his mesmerizingly beautiful daughter Snow, “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost.”

Arturo eventually proposes to Boy with a handmade bracelet instead of a ring; “a white-gold snake that curled its tail around my wrist and pressed its tongue against the veins in the crook of my elbow…All I could think was: I will fear no evil…That snake was what he’d made for me…was maybe even what he thought I was, deep down.”  Boy’s fate as a wicked stepmother is sealed.  When she gives birth to her daughter Bird, a nurse tells her, “‘That little girl is a Negro’” thus prompting Arturo to reveal his black family’s history of “passing.”

In his mind he was no more colored than I was…his parents were the only ones from their families who’d decided to move north from Louisiana and see if anyone called them out on their ancestry.  His father had stood in line behind a colored man at the front desk of the Flax Hill Country club and eavesdropped as the colored man tried and failed to gain membership…Gerald liked golf and didn’t see why he shouldn’t play it in those surroundings if he could get away with it.  Gerald had thought: Well, what if I just don’t say…what if I never say?  He’d passed that down to Arturo, the idea that there was no need to ever say, that if you knew who you were then that was enough, that not saying was not the same as lying.  

Arturo’s mother Olivia has also passed for white and so refuses to accept her black grandchild, suggesting Boy send Bird to live with Clara, the daughter Olivia sent away for being “dark.”  Instead, Boy sends Snow to Clara, thus alleviating her growing jealousy of the beautiful girl “everybody adored.”

The novel is divided into three parts and the second is told through Bird’s point of view.  It begins with the adolescent girl turning to writing as a way of coping with a family she embarrasses while also trying to connect with her mother who is unashamed of her but cold.  Snow is a regular topic of conversation among the Whitmans who recall the girl’s mythic beauty and grace.

“I have a letter to Snow that I have never sent,” Oyeyemi writes in Bird’s voice.  “Dear Snow, Have you really got to be everywhere?

After Bird discovers a box of letters written to her from Snow, letters her mother has kept from her, the sisters develop a correspondence and more secrets are uncovered.  The third section of the novel returns the narrative to Boy’s point of view as the older, more reflective woman contemplates her choices.  One last secret is revealed in the book’s final chapters, a shocking turn that further underscores the novel’s exploration of the dualistic nature of identity.

Oyeyemi is faithful to much of the Snow White tale: the dead wife Boy replaces in the Whitman family is presented as saintly and “good,” Snow is described as a girl who “looks like a friend to woodland creatures,” and of course, the innocent young beauty is banished.

“Snow is not the fairest of them all,” Oyeyemi writes in Boy’s voice, echoing the Brothers Grimm’s tale.  “And the sooner she and Olivia and all the rest of them understand that, the better.”

But Oyeyemi is also faithful to the literary qualities of fairy tales as she infuses the narrative with supernatural elements.  When Boy arrives in Flat Hill, “insects dropped onto my shoulders, tentatively, as if wondering whether we’d met before.”  Later, she becomes aware of a ghostly presence “on the other side of the saplings” as she takes a walk.  Bird fears that trolls live in her bedroom and believes she can talk to the swarm of spiders she thinks are congregating in her room.

Such moments in the story suggest a curiosity on Oyeyemi’s part to explore what is “real,” but the author seems uninterested in drawing clear lines between these natural and supernatural planes.  The two co-exist in her work, creating an enchanting continuity between the spirit world, the real world and the characters’ imaginations.  There are as many allusions to the fabulistic – Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, genies and poisons in bottles – as there are to the painfully concrete – black boys teaching a parrot to say “Fuck Whitey,” references to the Black Panthers, Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy beaten to death in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Within this context, the contemplation of beauty becomes profoundly more loaded.  In The Guardian, Oyeyemi stated that in Boy, Snow, Bird she wanted to explore the feminine gaze, the ways women seek approval and “who gets to be deemed the fairest of them all.”  Perhaps in no work of literature is the supremacy of white beauty made more explicit than in the tale of Snow White, in which a mother yearns for a child “with skin as white as snow.”  Boy’s white loveliness contrasted with what the Whitman family considers Bird’s unappealing blackness is only the first layer of the author’s exploration.  It is the Whitman family’s passing, in particular Snow’s apparently white beauty, that gives the novel its philosophical spine and its evil queen her dimension.

“Snow’s beauty is all the more precious…because it’s a trick,” says Boy.  “When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl – we don’t see a colored girl standing there.  The joke’s on us…From this I can only…begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow.  What can I do for my daughter?  One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

One way to read Snow’s expulsion from the Whitman home is as an attempt by Boy to protect herself from the threat of the girl’s beauty, this from a woman who has been presented throughout the novel as obsessed with her appearance.  However, another way to read Boy’s decision is as an attempt to protect her black daughter from Snow, who otherwise would act as a constant reminder of the adoration and social inclusion Bird will undoubtedly be denied.

Oyeyemi includes a lengthy but beautifully written series of letters the sisters send to one another, which she uses to dig deeper into the notion of passing.  Snow lets Bird know that their family has been practicing “calculated breeding” for generations, monitoring the skin tone and hair texture of family members and lamenting the birth of dark children like Clara and Bird.  Living in a more racially diverse town, Snow has experienced racism in a way Bird has not, and describes how she avoids racist taunts yet feels unable to defend her black friends against them.  She also describes how her political awareness has evolved having spent most of her life with the exiled black members of the family.

“You can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this,” she writes to Bird.

Bird repeatedly asks Snow to describe how she experiences her immense beauty, a request Snow mostly denies until finally she admits, “I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes.  I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow.”

The sisters bond over many things but nothing connects them more than their shared inability to see themselves in mirrors.  Oyeyemi uses mirrors in the novel more than any other image or symbol, in fact, it is the backbone to the plot, much like her original source.  In “Reading Snow White: The Mother’s Story,” scholar Shuli Barzilai discusses Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage in human development and suggests that the magic mirror in Snow White is central to the evil queen’s connection to and separation from herself, her daughter and the world around her.

“The queen’s confrontations with her magic mirror,” Barzilai writes, “set and keep the plot of ‘Snow White’ in motion.”

Mirrors perform the same function in Boy, Snow, Bird.  All three of the main characters, and some of the minor characters, interact intimately with mirrors, which reveals the internal conflicts that push the story forward.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” says Boy in the first line of the novel.  “So for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  To Boy, everything becomes a mirror; she ogles herself in picture frames, brass pitchers and dessert spoons.  Mirrors are a way for Boy to come to “familiar terms” with herself as she communicates with and understands her identity through viewing her own reflection, for instance, when she tells her reflection “look what I got you” after finding a husband in Arturo.

“Mirrors see so much,” she says, a concept that supports a Jungian interpretation of the Snow White myth put forth by Barzilai, which suggests that Snow White is not a separate person whose presence threatens the queen but the queen’s shadow side, i.e., the “Snow White in herself.”  Such an interpretation seems even more viable after Boy becomes pregnant and is unable to see her reflection clearly in the mirror.

“When I stood in front of the mirror,” Oyeyemi writes, “the icy blonde was there, but I couldn’t swear to the fact of her being me.  She was no clearer to me than my shadow was.  I came to prefer my shadow.”

Bird’s interactions with mirrors are the opposite of her mother’s.

“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me,” she says.  “I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.”  Bird decides that the reason she is unable to see herself is because she is either not human or “someone [was] wishing and willing me out of sight.”

Snow also fails to show up in mirrors but she has a different explanation than her sister’s.

“My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there,” Oyeyemi writes.  “But I am, so maybe she’s not really me.”

Mirrors, which also feature in the surprise twist in the plot’s final chapters, are only one of the elements working within the stratums of meaning Oyeyemi layers into this piece.  With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon.  But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story.  The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents.

—Laura K. Warrell

.Laura K Warrell
Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University 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.


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 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.