Oct 092016


Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. —Frank Richardson


The Angel of History
Rabih Alameddine
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.00

What if you were Satan’s chief delight? How chilling, how disturbing, how psychosis-inducing would it be to discover Satan—yes, the actual devil, Mephistopheles, the Morning Star, Lucifer—said that you rejuvenated his jaded heart? Who would want to know that? In The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine’s newest novel, we learn the answer to this question, for Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, is Satan’s delight, and the fallen angel makes it his mission to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past.

The Angel of History is Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book and fifth novel. Born in Amman, Jordan, he spent his youth in Kuwait and Lebanon. After moving to the United States, he first pursued an engineering career, but gave that up for painting, and then writing. In 1998 he published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Koolaids, a blistering indictment of war and a harrowing examination of the ravages of AIDS. His other novels include the experimental I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (2001), The Hakawati (2008), which draws on the tradition of Arabian fables, and the bibliophile’s delight, the sublime An Unnecessary Woman (2014), which won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now fifty-six, Alameddine spends his time between San Francisco and Beirut. Once again exploring the subjects of AIDS and war in the Middle East, with The Angel of History, Alameddine gives us provocative storytelling at its finest, a fabulist tale that explores how we grieve and how we succeed and fail in confronting our most painful memories.

Jacob’s Elegy

Ya‘qub, the protagonist and narrator of two-thirds of The Angel of History, arrives one rainy night at a crisis psychiatric clinic in San Francisco determined to be admitted. The fifty-something Ya‘qub has used the Americanized ‘Jacob’ since moving to San Francisco in the 1980s as a young man. Jacob explains to the triage nurse that he has been suffering from hallucinations again and is depressed. His employer had suggested he seek counseling, but it wasn’t until Jacob saw a report of another U.S. drone-strike on a Yemeni village, this time his mother’s hometown, perhaps the one where he was born, that he finally broke down. He needs an emotional holiday, and his ideal version would be three days in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Hospital with a nice Haldol-Ativan cocktail served with a chaser of Lexapro—after all, drugs had helped before—something to quiet the voices, something to deaden the pain, something to turn out the light of memory.

The majority of the 300-page novel is arranged in three titled sections—“Satan’s Interviews,” “Jacob’s Journals,” and “At the Clinic”—each of which is divided into twelve chapters, many with titled subchapters. Alternating in sequence, the three major sections present three parallel plots from multiple points of view providing a nonlinear reconstruction of Jacob’s history.

A poet who earns a living as a word processor for a law firm, Jacob lives alone in his San Francisco apartment except for his large black cat, Behemoth, whom he named specifically after the infernal feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—another novel featuring a well-tailored Satan. Jacob suffers survivor’s guilt. All of his friends, including his beloved partner Doc, died from AIDS-related diseases twenty years ago during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s. Overcome with anguish for his lost friends, Jacob hasn’t been able to write poetry for some time, but his old muse, his “angel of remembrance,” Satan, has returned.

The primary plot of the novel, set in the notional present and narrated by Jacob in the “At the Clinic” chapters, covers his breakdown the night he seeks admission to the hospital. Jacob’s narration is often in a stream of consciousness style, mimicking thought, as in this example where he explains the reappearance of Satan in his life:

It has been getting worse, Doc, I don’t seem to be able to cut him off, I am all wound with adders who with cloven tongues do hiss me into madness, it wasn’t always this bad, I went along for years doing rather well, didn’t hear his voice, but then one day he reappeared, and he’s been getting more demanding, more irksome, hissing, hissing, and I get headaches, I fear the return of the great migraine storms, I need a break, Doc, I need a break.

Devastated when his friends died, Jacob spent time as an inpatient in the same hospital to which he is once again applying. He had thought he was stable, he had thought he had escaped the trauma of history: of losing his friends and his mother and the memories of his childhood. As he writes in his journal, always addressing Doc:

While my mind processed the chaos that passes for thought in the early morning, I had cracked five eggs by the time I realized I was about to make you an omelet as well. Decades may have passed and sometimes it feels like only yesterday that we had our breakfast together. . . . I’d had a life since you left . . . I did yoga . . . I went to art openings . . . I watched bad television shows . . . I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy. I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.

Moments such as these reveal Jacob’s deep grief and give the impression of a hollowed out life. Jacob’s tender admission evokes the tone of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, another novel that addresses living day-to-day with heartache for a lost partner.

“Jacob’s Journal” is part requiem, part confession, and it is also where we learn what Jacob remembers about his mother, a teenage Yemeni maid who became pregnant by the equally young son of her wealthy employers in Beirut. Kicked out, she becomes a homeless wanderer through squalid desert villages where she is forced into prostitution. Mother and child finally settle in a Cairo whorehouse for the most stable and in many ways happiest time of Jacob’s childhood. But these memories have been repressed, or lost, or ignored for too long. Jacob writes about his childhood:

You, Doc, wait, I need someone to hear this, listen to me. . . . I don’t know why I tell you all this about me, I need to, I guess, but with this need to tell comes the concomitant desire to forget everything . . .

An assiduous Satan has been working against Jacob’s “desire to forget,” and Jacob’s journal and ensuing breakdown have been the result. In an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, Jacob tells a bartender, “I am your angel of history”; namely, a being who sees the past as a single, unalterable catastrophe.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

Angels and Ministers of Grace

The most significant subplot of The Angel of History unfolds in “Satan’s Interviews” and involves Satan’s attempt to rescue Jacob from forgetting his past. One of the most entertaining, often hilarious, and clever parts of the novel, “Satan’s Interviews” features third-person omniscient narration, usually limited to Satan’s locus of perception.

Being supernatural, Satan simultaneously coaxes Jacob to leave the clinic and hosts interviews with his son, Death, and a group of Catholic saints at Jacob’s apartment. The devil has a long tradition in literature, with some of the most memorable and most human versions found in Milton, Goethe, and Bulgakov. Alameddine’s Satan is eerily human with a voice as beguiling as one might expect from the personification of temptation. Jacob does a fine job describing Alameddine’s Satan (in a sly metafictional stroke) when he writes in his journal how Doc “endowed the devil with wickedness and perseverance, you made him fun, witty, intelligent, frisky, lively, ironic, and above all, petty, all too human, like us.” But for Jacob Satan is Iblis, Islam’s whispering jinn, a sulking, lonely creature with nothing better to do than torment him.

Satan is a fully realized character, complete with his own conflicts and a clear desire: he wants Jacob back. During Jacob’s first hospitalization he was drugged to near catatonia, and after leaving the hospital he spent many years on antidepressants and a variety of pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise. Satan doesn’t want his favorite whipping boy tumbling down that rabbit hole again.

In the first of “Satan’s Interviews” Death—whimsical, mocking, irreverent—asks his father why he is intervening in Jacob’s life now; Satan replies: “Because he has been sleepwalking through life since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories.” However, it could be worse, Satan concludes, horror of horrors, Jacob “could write a novel.” Satan’s motivation, ostensibly for the benefit of Jacob’s art, is, not surprisingly, purely selfish: Jacob “rejuvenates my jaded heart” Satan confesses to Saint Blaise. Furthermore, Satan tells Jacob that it was him, not the saints, who saved Jacob from AIDS:

funny you should credit the silly saints with healing you, and not me, Death came for you and I intervened . . . I sat him down, told him your soul was mine, a long time ago I claimed you, you child of pestilence, you squashable worm . . .

And this is part of Satan’s interest in Jacob, namely Jacob’s squashability—most clearly reflected in his sexual history. Jacob’s experience with sex begins violently when a customer of the Cairo whorehouse demands that the ten-year-old paint henna on his penis. In his Lebanese boarding school Jacob is beaten and repeatedly humiliated by bullies. As an adult in San Francisco, jealous of Doc picking up another man, Jacob visits an S&M club where he is whipped—and it will not be his last indulgence in masochism.

Death asks Satan if he is going to interview “the others”—meaning the saints that Jacob prayed to as a child and as an adult until AIDS took everyone from him. In a Catholic tradition dating to the Black Plague, there are a group of fourteen saints—known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers—who are prayed to for specific maladies. Satan doesn’t interview all fourteen, but he does call upon them, remarkably, for assistance. It seems that Satan has done his job all too well in helping Jacob remember and now he needs help in keeping Jacob sane and off memory-impairing medication. Death, whose job is to offer the cup of forgetting, the waters of Lethe, expects Jacob will choose him, and so the dance between remembrance and oblivion begins.

In his depiction of the saints, Alameddine shows us compassionate but weary caregivers, for eternity is long and people exasperating. The interviews also offer humorous, welcomed breaks from Jacob’s somber memories. For example, Satan is unnerved by Saint Denis holding his decapitated head in his lap and insists he return it atop his neck, and Saint Margaret mocks Satan by holding a balloon of a baby dragon, for according to legend, Satan, in the form of a dragon, swallowed her but then choked on her cross. It is Saint Margaret who asks Satan to bring Jacob back to poetry: “A poet is tormented by the horrors of this world, as well as its beauty, but he can be refreshed, reborn even; he can take to the sky once more.” Saint Catherine sympathizes with Jacob’s past choices, she feels he only “did what he had to do during the time of sunder, he girded himself against the dirge,” but in the present she agrees with Satan’s assessment: “We must wake him and hazard the consequence. We must offer the apple.”

14-helpersTilman Riemenschneider workshop, The Fourteen Holy Helpers, c. 1520

War All the Time

In addition to the three major divisions of the novel, there are three sections labeled “Jacob’s Stories,” each containing a single short story independent of (but harmonizing with) the novel’s plot. The elegiac tone of Jacob’s journal changes to bitter resentment when he thinks of the humiliating final stages of his friends’ suffering, and his anger, inflamed by the interminable carnage he witnesses in the land of his birth, is vented in his stories.

Alameddine displays a formidable gift for satire in “Drone” and “A Cage in the Penthouse.” The latter, reminiscent of George Saunders’s equally acerbic “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” features a wealthy couple who keep a caged Arab as a pet in their Manhattan penthouse. In “Drone” we see U.S. drone strikes through the point of view of a sentient, self-righteous attack drone named Ezekiel.

 Through Jacob’s thoughts and his stories, Alameddine reminds us how easily wars are forgotten. Indeed, one of the epigraphs is from Milan Kundera (a writer who has had much to say about war and memory): “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” War tears through the countries of the Middle East daily, and for Alameddine—who grew up in Lebanon and spends much of his time there—this subject runs through his fiction like a scar.

Finding Time Again

The Angel of History shares more than a few characteristics with that paragon of memory novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Jacob’s past is what Satan and the saints are there to help him find and keep. Alameddine’s talent for nonlinear narrative—evident in Koolaids where the Lebanese civil war is starkly juxtaposed with the AIDS epidemic—shines brightest in The Angel of History with its exquisitely interlaced chronology, multiple plots, and points of view.

“Jacob’s Journals” presents a conventional memoir: Jacob thinking about his past. “At the Clinic” is more complex; here Jacob is thinking about his present, past, and future, but the narration feels like an extension of his journal, as if the events of his night at the clinic are added to his journal in the future. Satan’s interviews take place concurrently with Jacob’s night at the clinic but tell the story of Jacob’s mother and his childhood through the saints’ recollections. Satan’s imperative to the Fourteen Holy Helpers is clear: “What I hear he remembers . . . Remind him of himself.” Each interviewee recalls different parts of Jacob’s history which Satan then channels to Jacob. The ingenious conceit of the interview chapters is that, given the supernatural nature of the interlocutors, time is irrelevant and all the interviews can be simultaneous in an eternal moment. Furthermore, in these chapters Alameddine uses third-person, taking advantage of a wider range of point of view. These shifting times and points of view reveal Jacob’s memories in manner much like the actual process of remembering, a process during which we often take two steps back for every step forward.

Alameddine leaves little doubt about his admiration for Proust’s fiction in An Unnecessary Woman. Here as well, Proust informs Alameddine’s novel, from the simple homage—naming Jacob’s roommate Odette—to more direct references. For example, Jacob has moments of involuntary memory, such as in a grocery store where “the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory. Proust had his mnemonic madeleine, but bleach was all ours, Doc, all ours.” Note, Alameddine doesn’t miss an opportunity to layer his images, here alluding to Mephistopheles. But to emphasize such references, as fun as they are, would be to neglect the genuine beauty of how Alameddine uses the structure of his novel—as Proust did—to recreate the impression of memory. The Angel of History, with its fragmented, alternating, multiple points of view and multiple plots is a structural triumph, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them.


In An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya pleads with writers to “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” Rabih Alameddine is not a fan of epiphanic endings, and you won’t find one here. The Angel of History asks questions and raising issues for which there are no simple answers. Is ignorance bliss? Can we deny our past? Should we try? The Angel of History tasks us with the necessity of facing our memories, even the most painful ones, for to neglect them is to surrender to Death, to drink from the river Lethe, to become complacent drones (pun intended). Alameddine’s book is a statement on memory, on surviving loss, on war and disease and how we cope with them, and finally on art; and that poetry, or any art, cannot exist in a memoryless (and thus painless) vacuum.

On his walk home from the clinic through the nighttime streets of San Francisco, Jacob stops to write impromptu poems and statements on storefronts he remembers from happier times; on a No Parking sign he writes:

You all dead
I still walk
Therefore I am
I know it is so
For I long
I long for solace
How does one find such
Among so many ashes?

Jacob’s question cannot be resolved in a single moment of enlightenment, and like him, we too must confront our losses, for there is no solution to grief other than learning how to live with a shadow of hell.

—Frank Richarson



Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Oct 072016


It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson


The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson


Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Oct 032016


Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. —Patrick O’Reilly


Contradictions in the Design
Matthew Olzmann
Alice James Books, 2016
100 pages, $15.95

Early in Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection of poetry, Contradictions in the Design, we are introduced to a young boy. For his birthday, the boy has been given a box of hand-me-down tools. “Immediately, he sets out to discover / how the world was made / by unmaking everything the world has made” (“Consider All The Things You’ve Known But Now Know Differently”, 9). The boy may serve as a stand-in for Olzmann himself, who excels at finding connections between the broken, the incomplete, and the obsolete, and who eyes every artificial thing with skepticism. As he claims in one interview, he is “the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side.”

With his award-winning debut Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), the Michigan-born poet earned a reputation for his humour and accessibility, and his talent for juxtaposing seemingly incongruous images. Now residing in North Carolina, and armed with the confidence a well-received debut brings, Olzmann continues to explore his sometimes-jarring narrative style in Contradictions in the Design.

One stand-out poem is “The Millihelen”, named for “the amount of beauty that will launch exactly one ship.” Olzmann discovers such overlooked poetic sources with ease, and elaborates them masterfully. “The Millihelen” revisits the Trojan War, and considers a single ship leaving the entire fleet. Is this a ship carrying a disillusioned soldier away from the beachhead of Troy to a love he left behind? That’s not entirely clear, though it certainly seems that way. In any case, this ship is given more importance than the thousand Greek frigates sailing towards battle, a part bigger than the sum.

In “The Millihelen,” beauty is a destination. But that raises a possibility: perhaps this ship is the one which carries Paris and Helen away to Troy. That would be more consistent with the rest of the collection, where beauty and art are positioned as false virtues, traps which an audience could fall prey to. Certainly Paris’s own overly-enthusiastic pursuit of beauty had disastrous consequences.

The idea of beauty presents challenges for the artist as well. “Femur by mandible, I know what it means / to watch your good fortune change its mind,” Olzmann writes in “The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur”. That’s every poet’s pain, no doubt. But the poem itself depicts a dinosaur skeleton made up of mislabeled and mismanaged parts, the product of misguided creative labour, and exposes the blind faith and false assumptions required to not only appreciate, but to create art.

How Olzmann himself struggles for or against this artificial beauty is not always clear. There is little to suggest the kind of painstaking editing necessary to more intricate or experimental verse. Throughout, Olzmann relies on a prosaic first-person style, rhyme-less, rhythm-less, too indifferent to metre to even be properly considered free verse. Many, many poets today employ a similar style. What recommends Olzmann above them is the sense of cohesion in these poems: while most poets of a similar style still go in fear of literalness and overstatement, often to the point that their poems devolve into non-sequitur, Olzmann spares no effort to ensure that the reader follows every step of his associative process.

Olzmann’s talent lies not in his simple situational observations, but his observation of the whole metaphor, his observation of actors in a metaphor. He pursues the metaphor from its superficial meaning down to its pulp, showing the reader just where and why that metaphor is so poetically resonant. Think of him as a miner with a silver hammer, tapping the vein all the way to the motherlode. Oddly, Olzmann’s gift for drawing connections does not extend to other forms of comparative language. His similes, for instance, are usually duds: houses go “dark / like condemned buildings”, hair unfurls “like a flag”. These suit Olzmann’s unfussy, conversational style, but add nothing.

Olzmann is a noticer, rather than a craftsman. Coincidences and contradictions occur to him, and he draws them into the right perspective, but he never shapes them. This usually works. While not “formal poetry” in any traditional sense, nearly every poem in Contradictions in the Design operates under a particular formal apparatus wherein the poem is set up as a meditation on some single object or situation, then veers off in a completely unforeseeable direction, before returning to its thesis. This strategy, which I’m calling the “Olzmannian diversion,” makes it nearly impossible to quote from one of these poems and do justice to the whole poem, but it allows Olzmann to consider his subject from every angle, as though walking around a statue rather than merely looking at one face-on. As such, most poems in Contradictions in the Design have a satisfying sense of completeness.

Take, for example, “The Man Who Was Mistaken”, about a man who reconnects with his own sincerity thanks to a drug-addled roommate. The poem begins by mentioning the speaker is often mistaken for another professor at his university, who in turn is often mistaken for Moby, the electronica artist beloved by the speaker’s roommate. Then the turn:

Once he thought our furnace was talking to him.

Which is when I said, Why don’t you tell me
what the furnace was trying to say?

Which is when he said, It said
that me and it would always be enemies.

Which is when I said, Son, that’s a fight you can never win.

Which is when he said, Okay, and then went outside
to dance on the hood of his car.

Which is when the cops came.

Perhaps he was right. Jesus was inside the music.
And that music was inside my roommate.

And the state could not tolerate it.

I should note that this is just one small part of a long chain of events; “The Man Who Was Mistaken” follows Olzmann’s typical form: an opening gambit, a turn into shaggy dog territory, and then a return to the original theme in the third act, sort of like a sitcom. And the poem, already a page and a half long when this anecdote begins, goes on for another fifteen lines. The final line in the excerpt serves as that second turn, bringing the poem back to its original line of thought. While it acts as a punchline, dripping with false indignation toward “the Man,” it is also filled with genuine dismay that such harmless enthusiasm should lead to police intervention. The line rests precisely between the cynical and the sincere, which is where much of Olzmann’s best work happens.

But Olzmann’s competence can be its own trap. This is not a book one should read cover to cover. Taken at random, and with few exceptions, any one poem in this collection would be considered very good. The imagery is evocative, the humour charmingly ironic. But this one jarring, book-ended form would be more effective if used more sparingly. Reading Contradictions in the Design comes with a sense of degradation: inevitably some poems don’t seem to hit as hard as those which came before, and add nothing that earlier poems didn’t imply to greater effect. The Olzmannian diversion can lend a poem a sense of efficiency that it does not usually deserve.

This is a limitation to Olzmann’s style, as well. While the hyper-colloquial first-person narration affords him a degree of freedom not found in other poetry, it can also lead him to strain for importance. Such is the case with “Still Life With Heart Extracted From The Body Of A Horse” (16), a clearly personal, pointed poem, which devolves into bromides and clichés and eventually ends with a thud. When Olzmann gets political, as he does with this poem or “Imaginary Shotguns” (14), his politics are unthreateningly liberal[1], more bumper sticker than rallying cry.

What does one look for in a poetry? How can one define it? Olzmann himself might view even the question with suspicion. The poems which make up Contradictions in the Design are not challenging in any sense, but some might assert that “not challenging” is not necessarily the same as “not good.” I find myself, admittedly to my own surprise, in this camp. Olzmann draws insightful, even profound, connections between object and meaning. An artful poem, where several components work together in harmonious efficiency, such that you cannot replace a single mark for fear of breaking it, offers a kind of wonder. Here is a thing that shouldn’t exist, yet can’t possibly exist any other way, a made thing that feels innate. Olzmann’s poems are robbed of this wonder. But if the poems are without wonder, they still provide something like relief: that thing you noticed about the photocopier? Matthew Olzmann noticed, too, and he’s found some meaning in it that you hadn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

—Patrick O’Reilly


Patrick OReilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick. 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. Be advised: this is the opinion a Canadian critic. Issues like gun control and same-sex marriage, more or less settled here, may demand a less daring or incisive take in the United States.
Sep 142016

di Benedetto

Di Benedetto precisely evokes themes of alienation and absurdity through Zama’s futile supplications for promotion and the humiliations…. Evocative of history without being a historical novel, Zama shares in a rich tradition of existentialist fiction. — Frank Richardson


Antonio di Benedetto
Translated by Ester Allen
New York Review Books Classics, 2016
224 pg, $15.95

Adead monkey, drowned but undecomposed, washes against a pier where a man stands, alone, separated from his family by half a continent of jungle, desperate to escape, dreading the suspicion he will share the same fate as the corpse drifting in the water. And so we meet Don Diego de Zama, the eponymous antihero of Antonio Di Benedetto’s most celebrated novel. First published in Argentina more than sixty years ago, Zama—extolled by Julio Cortázar, Roberto Bolaño, and Juan José Saer—is now available for the first time in English courtesy of NYRB Classics and master translator Ester Allen.

Born in 1922 in Mendoza, Argentina, to parents of Italian descent, Antonio Di Benedetto studied law before turning to journalism. In 1953 his first short story collection, Mundo animal, was awarded a prize by the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores, juried in part by Jorge Luis Borges. His first novel, Zama, appeared in 1956 and was followed by the novels El silenciero (1964) and Los suicidas (1969; made into a film in 2005). A collection of his selected stories is forthcoming in English from Archipelago Books and a film adaptation of Zama is due out in 2017.

Antonio Di Benedetto traveled the world and lived a life as incredible as any fictional character, including, unfortunately, the horrors he suffered under the Videla dictatorship. For reasons unknown, he was imprisoned after the 1976 military coup d’état and held for eighteen months, during which time he was tortured and stood in front of a firing squad four times (a terrifying experience to have in common with Dostoyevsky, his literary role model). Ester Allen’s insightful preface includes the remarkable story of Di Benedetto’s release, in part due to efforts by Heinrich Böll and Ernesto Sábato. A testament to his spirit, Di Benedetto continued to write stories in prison, stories he published as the collection Absurdos in 1978 while living in exile in Spain. He wouldn’t return to Argentina until 1984 and died in 1986 in Buenos Aires.


Don Diego de Zama, the protagonist-narrator of this first-person tale of existential descent, is a castaway in the midst of a crowd. Appointed by the Spanish Crown as a court councilor in the remote colonial outpost of Asunción, Paraguay, Zama’s greatest desire is escape—preferably by promotion. Zama reports to the provincial governor (Gobernador), but despite his high rank, the Gobernador treats him with disrespect since Zama is an americano, a criollo—of Spanish descent, but born in South America—unlike the other Spanish-born officers living in the small community. Ironically, the fact that Zama works for the Spanish government alienates him from the americanos. Isolated from his family, isolated within his own community by prejudice, and given his own admitted “nonexistent capacity for making friends,” his hope for escape becomes for him a “long soliloquy,” a record of his frustration and fear and anger and pain as the years tick by and he falls farther and farther away from his expectations and dreams. He sums up his situation:

Here I was, in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs. America existed for no one if not for me, but it existed only in my needs, my desires, and my fears.

Di Benedetto precisely evokes themes of alienation and absurdity through Zama’s futile supplications for promotion and the humiliations he endures at his bureaucratic job—themes similarly explored by Kafka, to whom Di Benedetto is frequently compared. Called to the Gobernador’s office, Zama is “condemned” to wait in the antechamber, “writhing with impotence,” “humiliated” at being of “apparent equality of status” with a group of locals waiting for an audience with the governor. The irony of the situation becomes clear when the Gobernador tells Zama that he has summoned him to deal with the troublesome old man and young woman with whom he has been waiting. When told, he storms out past the petitioners and into his own office where he broods:

First they would have to grow weary of waiting for their audience with the governor. They would bestir themselves and approach the secretary, only to be informed that it was the learned councillor they should see. Then they would wait another long while before they were received at last and came to the realization that the learned councillor was none other than myself, that is, the very man in whose presence they had already wasted an irrecoverable half hour.

Zama will reap what he sows, for he too will “grow weary of waiting,” he too will “bestir” himself (and to the point of madness), he too will dwell on “irrecoverable” time. The 198-page novel comprises 50 numbered chapters distributed in a 3:2:1 ratio across three sections labeled by date: 1790, 1794, and 1799. These sections represent discrete states of mind for Zama and the dwindling ratio mimics Zama’s psychological dissolution as he spirals toward destruction.

Terribly alone, Zama’s only preoccupation besides leaving is sex. The 1790 period of the narrative is dominated by his almost hysterical lasciviousness for any woman, and his pursuit of conjugal relations is simultaneously pathetic and comical. Zama does miss his wife, but he also convinces himself that “No man . . . disdains the prospect of illicit love.” His primary would-be paramour, Luciana (the wife of a colleague), when she realizes his interest in her, strings him along, teasing him with promises, then kisses, then the hope of a midnight assignation. She deliberately fuels Zama’s expectations with no intention of ever consenting to his desires. When Luciana won’t have him, he tries Rita, the daughter of his host, despite a growing paranoia that people are laughing at him behind his back over his overt concupiscence. One night, in passing a random woman in the street, he is convinced she’s attracted to him and follows her home. A comically absurd moment ensues when the woman’s dogs emerge to defend her and Zama, believing himself her deliverer, attacks them with his sword in a seizure of quixotic lunacy.

Zama’s conflicts drive him to constant contradiction. The episode of anger at work distracts him from the aid he promised an injured native woman. When he learns that the help he finally sends is in vain, he feels “so disoriented that my unease and remorse were visible, my guilt at neglecting a human being . . . .” He sees himself as a faithful husband, yet behaves lecherously. He sees himself as a good Samaritan, yet neglects the ones he would help. He sees himself as dignified, but behaves pettily. While we can assume he began his exile with some of the character traits that define him, his isolation exacerbates some and creates others and all are amplified as months turn to years. Don Diego de Zama is no hero, but he is a complex, vibrant character through which Di Benedetto ingeniously illustrates the contradictions and flaws that make us human.

paraguayNicolaus Bellin, Carte du Paraguay et des Pays voisins Pour servir a l’Historie Generale des Voyages, 1760


By the end of the first part, almost all of the people Zama knows have left Asunción. Four years pass and 1794 opens with Zama in the same town with the same job, but living with a Spanish widow, Emilia, with whom he has a son, born “sickly.” But Don Diego has only changed for the worse, and his namesake becomes symbolic as neglect reduces him to an animal-like state:

Propelled by his knees and his filthy little hands, the child moved about on the dirt floor. With no one to clean them, his nostrils dripped, and the two streams of snot had reached the upper lip . . . The little one rubbed his face, smearing the snot around with a dirty hand . . . His viscous little fingers then dug back into the dirt, which made a revolting mud. . . .

My son. On all fours and so filthy that in the twilight he was indistinguishable from the earth itself: a kind of camouflage. At least—like an animal—he had that defense.

When Zama’s wages are overdue from Spain he must sell almost everything including his sword. He soon abandons Emilia and his son and moves to the cheapest lodgings he can find where he exists in the fog of his own expectations; thinking only of the future, the present decays into hallucination. Neurotic and at times feverish, he is alternately lucid and confused, lost in fantasy. Zama’s oneiric narration during this period is similar (though not nearly as stream of consciousness in style) to the surreal “Report on the Blind” section of Ernesto Sábato’s 1961 novel On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato’s character Fernando, obsessed with a conspiracy of the blind, plunges into the depths of his unconscious, metaphorically represented by the sewers of Buenos Aires; Di Benedetto’s Zama, plagued by an interminable isolation created by forces both without and within, loses himself in fantasies of women. The internal forces prove most destructive, a fact Zama will eventually realize when he reflects that “the search for freedom . . . is not out there but within each one” (Di Benedetto’s italics). In an essay on Sábato’s novel, William H. Gass wrote that Sábato “believes deeply in the reality of evil, in the hell that each man is . . . whereas for the kingdom of heaven, or the reality of the good, he has only hope.” In his isolation, Zama creates his own hell and the possibility of a heavenly future remains only a hope.

Leaves of Existentialism

Zama shares many of the themes associated with existentialism, including, but not limited to estrangement, anxiety, despair, and the absurd. His alienation from family, colleagues, and community is self-evident, and although Zama’s “soliloquy” gives the reader a sense of his anxiety and despair, Di Benedetto doesn’t rely on Zama’s exposition alone. In his afterword to Di Benedetto’s Animal World, Jorge García-Gómez notes the parallels between Di Benedetto’s fiction and Kafka’s in their use of animal imagery to elucidate a character’s existential state. For example, while Zama contemplates the drowned monkey—a striking image itself—a fellow officer joins him on the pier and tells him of a fish that “the river spurns, and the fish . . . must wage continual battle against the ebb and flow that seek to cast it upon dry land.” Disturbed by his colleague’s story, Zama walks into the jungle where, minutes prior to spying on a group of bathing women, he imagines a puma and reflects “on games that were terrible or that could turn terrible.” In another example, while adjudicating the case of a murderer, Zama discovers the man believed he had grown a bat wing and in a frantic attempt to cut it off, had, in reality, stabbed his wife to death.

And, there are insects.

Zama the predator (puma) becomes symbolic prey when Luciana tells him of the pompilid wasp nest she found in her room; female pompilids prey on spiders, paralyzing them with venom so that the wasp’s young, when they hatch, will have something fresh to eat.

waspPompilid Wasp

Another layer of Di Benedetto’s representation of Zama’s psyche is his prose style. Allen wrote that that recreating Di Benedetto’s prose was a great challenge, that the style of Zama is “sui generis: choppy, oblique, veering and jolting from sentence to sentence, often rather opaque, a bit mad.” All the more perfect for this novel, for capturing the nature of this character’s consciousness. For Zama is oblique, he does veer from thought to thought, from plan to plan, and he is certainly more than a bit mad.

When his psychological state is most strained, sentences are separated by line breaks as if to punctuate the manner in which Zama experiences his world—through curt, dour moments, isolated inside his own mind:

I slept very late.
I did not leave the room until I sensed an absence of light outside.
I perceived the moon, like a woman seated on the horizon, naked and fat.
I went to the rear yards.
I searched for something to chew on in the kitchen garden but it was much neglected and had no fruit trees.
I drank maté in the kitchen.
I was not thinking of the dead girl. By now she was far away. I remembered the blond boy. He had reappeared now, with four years gone by, under incomprehensible circumstances. I did not devote much thought to him. . . .
I was isolated, besieged, defenseless.

In the final part, 1799, Zama joins a company of soldiers sent to apprehend a local bandit, Vicuña Porto, and as the company rides deeper into a heart-of-darkness jungle, the prose becomes even terser:

The wind would topple the cross. Later, someone would carry off the stone.
Bare earth.
No one.
I shuddered, without moving.
This could not be. This could not be for me.
I must go back, expose myself to this no further.
Give up the search.

With all the white space on the page and the pauses between lines, you can almost hear Zama taking deep breaths between each thought.

In style, Zama is similar to Camus’s L’Étranger. Camus’s novel also features a disturbed first-person narrator, and although Meursault and Zama have different stories, characters, and motivations, nevertheless they assume a similarly abrupt tone, and what both characters do not say often echoes as loudly as what they do.


Evocative of history without being a historical novel, Zama shares in a rich tradition of existentialist fiction. For much of his life Antonio Di Benedetto lived in Mendoza, a self-imposed outsider apart from the literary scene of Buenos Aires. Through Zama he gives us a glimpse into the human condition that is alienated, absurd, comical, desperate, afraid, and yet, hopeful. Zama’s life is one of unfulfilled expectations, one of waiting, reflected in Di Benedetto’s epigraph: “A las víctimas de la espera / To the victims of expectation.” At the end, during a moment of clarity, Zama thinks:

. . . that uncertain though I was as to our goal, I became possessed of the certainty that my fate would be the same anywhere.

I asked myself not why I was alive but why I had lived. Out of expectation, I supposed, and wondered whether I still expected anything. It seemed I did.

Something more is always expected.

Something more is always expected. But isn’t this one of our greatest strengths? Unfulfilled hope is not hope in vain. One thing is certain, we can be grateful that Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel will now reach generations of new and eager readers all replete with their own great expectations.

— Frank Richardson



Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Sep 132016


W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning —Allan Cooper

garden time

Garden Time
W. S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
96 pages, $24.00


We seem to live many lives before we die. One of the great joys of growing older is when one of those accumulated moments comes back with sudden clarity, when we least expect it. We are young and old, male and female, and sometimes even two redstarts perched on a plum twig return to find us:

…in the dusk
two redstarts
close together before winter
lit on a plum twig
near my hand
and stayed to watch me


W. S. Merwin’s Garden Time is a book about aging, about the practice of trying to live one’s life in the present. The recurring themes are loss and old love, memory and forgetting, and a kind of precognition that the whole of what we are was with us from the beginning:


Summer has come to the trees reaching up for it
it has come in daylight without a sound
it arrived when the trees were dark in sleep
they dreamed it and woke knowing it was there
but I am an autumn child and my first
summer I was here but was not yet born
I heard the leaves whisper on their branches
and the cicadas growing in their song
I listened to all the language of summer
in which the time was talking to itself
I was born in autumn knowing the sound of summer

There are many questions in this book, questions about life, death, and the passage of time. The opening poem repeats the phrase “would I love it” several times like a mantra:


Would I love it this way if it could last
would I love it this way if it
were the whole sky the one heaven
or if I could believe that it belonged to me
a possession that was mine alone
or if I imagined that it noticed me
recognized me and may have come to see me
out of all the mornings that I never knew
and all those that I have forgotten
would I love it this way if I were somewhere else
or if I were younger for the first time
or if these very birds were not singing
or I could not hear them or see their trees
would I love it this way if I were in pain
red torment of body or gray void of grief
would I love it this way if I knew
that I would remember anything that is
here now anything anything

Memory is a major theme in “Black Cherries”– how we store the past, those moments of clarity and understanding and carry them forward. In this poem a synergy is created between the goldfinches “flutter (ing) down through the day” and Merwin eating black cherries:

Late in May as the light lengthens
toward summer the young goldfinches
flutter down through the day for the first time
to find themselves among fallen petals
cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows
of the garden beside the old house
after a cold spring with no rain
not a sound comes from the empty village
as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

A small poem called “Rain at Daybreak” is about living firmly in the present. It ends with a Zen-like koan: “there is no other voice or other time.” W. S. Merwin first came to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism with Robert Aitken in 1976. Merwin doesn’t wish to chat about Buddhism in a casual way, and I respect that. But in an interview with Ed Rampell of The Progressive (October 25, 2010) Merwin talks a bit about this, and the connection between Buddhism and Christianity:

Certain things, if one pays attention and is concerned about them, in one’s temperament, in one’s outlook on the world, in one’s attempt to understand something about the world, certain things confirm what one is groping one’s way towards. I didn’t have the words for that, but there it is… For me, there are various places where one can find things like that. Blake, or Daoism, there are even things in the New Testament. I’m not a Christian but I think Jesus was an amazing occurrence on the planet and I think we’ve made of him something that he never was or ever wanted to be. But there are incredible things that he said. I heard a Japanese teacher say where Christianity and Buddhism are very close is when Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” If it’s not there, it’s nowhere.

Merwin also understands that at this time, many of us have less and less knowledge of the natural world. In this excerpt from “After the Dragonflies” he begins:

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing

Rather than being stewards of this planet, we have literally lost touch. Merwin seems to imply that what we do not know, or do not want to know diminishes us. The poem ends with “there will be no one to remember us.”

And yet there are ways to reconnect with the world. Thoreau built his small cabin, ten feet by fifteen feet near the shores of Walden Pond as part of his mission to live in a closer relationship with the land. For Merwin it was Maui, where he bought three acres of land depleted by erosion, logging and pesticides. Over the years, he and his wife Paula built a house there and began restoring the land. The Merwin Conservancy is now 19 acres and contains over 800 varieties of palm trees. It is “one of the most comprehensive palm forests in the world.” (Merwin Conservancy, biography.) Merwin doesn’t speak of meditation as such in his poems, specifically Zen sitting or zazen, but it seems that his translations, his own poetry, and his work as a gardener in his palm forest are all a personal form of meditation. We could say there is a connection between his creative life, his gardening life, and what we might call his spiritual life. They flow into one another and form a kind of third consciousness. When we spend more time in the natural world, our reservoir of fear, which is immense in this century, tends to lessen. Then there can be commerce between the human world, the natural world, and the invisible world where the old gods – if we’re lucky – step out to meet us. In “Voices Over Water”, Merwin says “There are spirits that come back to us…some of them come from the bodies of birds.”


There are moving, heartbreaking poems about childhood in Garden Time. As a friend said to me recently, when we hear the right words that express our loss and our grief, our visceral response is to weep. “Loss” is about his stillborn brother and how his mother tried to come to terms with it. Merwin understands loss; he also understands how our attempts to dismiss it rarely work. In this poem Merwin faces it head on, naming it in the opening stanza:

Loss was my brother
is my brother
but I have no image of him

his name which was never used
was Hanson
it had been the name
of my mother’s father
who had died as a young man

her child had been taken away
from my mother before
she ever saw him

to be bathed I suppose

they came and told her
that he was perfect in every way
and said they had never
seen such a beautiful child
and then they told her that he was dead

she sustained herself by believing
that he must have been dropped
somewhere just out of her sight
and out of her reach
and had fallen out of his empty name

all my life he has been near me
but I cannot tell you anything
about him

In the second poem Merwin becomes his mother’s way to find her life again – the laughing child. Nowhere in this collection is the sense of the past as extant in the present more evident. It is one of the finest poems of the last 60 years.


When she looked down from the kitchen window
into the back yard and the brown wicker
baby carriage in which she had tucked me
three months old to lie out in the fresh air
of my first January the carriage
was shaking she said and went on shaking
and she saw I was lying there laughing
she told me about it later it was
something that reassured her in a life
in which she had lost everyone she loved
before I was born and she had just begun
to believe that she might be able to
keep me as I lay there in the winter
laughing it was what she was thinking of
later when she told me that I had been
a happy child and she must have kept that
through the gray cloud of all her days and now
out of the horn of dreams of my own life
I wake again into the laughing child

The Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said we experience these moments somewhere “between tears and laughter.”


Many of us would agree that poetry is one of our oldest and most poignant forms of expression. The poem is a container for those things that move us profoundly but which many of us can’t quite put into words. The poet names things, gathering them in images which centre and focus our experience. Here are a few of Merwin’s ideas about the uniqueness of poetry, again from The Progressive interview:

Poetry uses the same words as prose but it’s physical. It was that way – poetry may be the oldest of the arts. Because it’s probably as old as language itself. Its closest relation would probably be music and dance. Those three things together; before the visual arts, the first Paleolithic paintings, and things like that. Anyway, it’s very, very old, and theories about the origins of language suggest a different source for it, very close to poetry, in the origins of language itself. A number of theorists think it comes out of an inexpressible emotion, something that was just so, so urgent that the forms of expressing it weren’t adequate to it.

The final poem in Garden Time is called “The Present.” We don’t know for sure if Merwin means the present, the now, or a gift which has been given. Coleman Barks in one his poems says “mountain laurel overhanging the water, letting blossoms go to keep us constantly in the same thought with the falling rain: the gift is going by.” Merwin says:

As they were leaving the garden
one of the angels bent down to them and whispered

I am to give you this
as you are leaving the garden

I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it

you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able

to keep anything
yet they both reached at once

for the present
and when their hands met

they laughed

Hands touching, then laughter: W. S. Merwin catches those urgent, inexpressible moments in his poems. Like Han Shan, the Chinese recluse poet, he faithfully tends the garden of compassion and sudden awareness that is inside all of us.

—Allan Cooper

allan cooper

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.


Sep 112016


They challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. —Joseph Schreiber


Black Bread
Emili Teixidor
Translated by Peter Bush
Biblioasis,  2016
400 pgs,  $14.95


.There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.

In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

The recent release of Black Bread as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, in a wonderful rendering by Peter Bush, brings one of the major novels of modern Catalan literature and its author to an English language audience for the first time. Born in 1933 in Roda de Ter, a small town halfway between Barcelona and the French border, Emili Teixidor was a writer, teacher and journalist. He began to write fiction for children and young adults in the late 1960’s as restrictions against publishing in the Catalan language were gradually relaxed. In a short essay written in 1998 when he was still best known as a children’s author, he addresses the satisfaction of writing for young readers and the value of the imaginary worlds we encounter in our formative years:

. . . I think that there is a mystery or secret that concerns us all, old and young, such as an inkling of the immense possibilities regarding the future that these years hold, so that the seriousness and even the sadness of adults would be nothing more than the awareness of loss or the wasting of this original force. These images, these books, also have a liberating function. They have the capacity to help us to escape from specific situations that overwhelm us. There is nothing more frustrating than the impossibility of escaping, of fleeing. . . . The dramatic urge to live and the ferociousness of existence would seem to pose a threat to the wealth of wonders that we accumulated during our early years. But the reserve of these possibilities and the indestructible trust in the achievement of the desires expressed by these images or sentences, situations or characters, is probably the only thing that can keep us solely hopeful and strong during the difficult years – if not the only thing that can keep us truly alive.

There is something telling in this observation, it illuminates a concern that grounds the larger story that Teixidor sets out to tell about life during these tumultuous years of Catalonian history. By building on the delicate tension between the child self’s desire to hold on to the world of the imagination and the adult self’s disillusionment, he creates the compelling narrative voice that drives his most famous literary work.

Black Bread derives its title from the dark bread rationed to the poor throughout Spain during the 1940’s, the so-called “hungry years.” The early post-Civil War period was marked by widespread deprivation, the growth of a black market, and the persistent efforts of the Franco regime to root out suspected political agitators of all stripes. As the story opens, eleven year-old Andreu is living with relatives. His father has been imprisoned on suspicion of ties to political activism, while his mother works long hours in a textile factory. Her free time is consumed with gathering paperwork and support for her husband’s defense. Yet out on the tenant farm with his indomitable paternal Grandmother Mercè, he is not the only “refugee. His younger cousin Nuria, nick-named “Cry-Baby,” doesn’t even know the whereabouts of her parents who were forced to escape to France following the war. Together with their brash and confident older cousin Quinze, they spend long summer days lounging on branches high up in the plum tree. From this secret vantage point they can monitor the comings and goings of the adults to and from the farmhouse, and peek over the wall of the nearby monastery. If they want to get closer look they stand right by wall so they can observe with morbid fascination the naked bodies of the tubercular young men who lie languishing in the garden, drawing whatever faint benefits the sun can offer their ailing bodies.

Teixidor makes skillful use of his adolescent narrator’s limited retrospective stance, allowing his understanding to swell in response to the different circumstances he encounters. One has the sense that Andreu is aware that the fragile innocence of childhood can be easily threatened. His relationship with his parents, for instance, is already tinged with a bitterness and resentment that only grows stronger over time. After his father is arrested and their home is turned upside down by officials, he immediately finds himself emotionally estranged from his mother. His memories of the time he spends in town contain little child-like wonder:

She now spoke to me as if I had suddenly grown up. She spoke to me as you speak to adults. And that, rather than the brutal police raid, made me understand how serious the situation was. Suddenly, that despondent woman had no warmth of feeling left to see me as the child I still was; overnight she stopped holding my hand, that she put elsewhere, and no longer carried me around her neck so I had to walk by myself; now there was no time for singing and hugging because all her attention was required for someone in a much more fragile state than I was, and at a stroke I felt exposed and unprotected. I understood in a vague, confused way that she was simply feeling a new, acute pain, that the wife now predominated over the mother, and a wife’s harshness and tension overrode a mother’s loving inclination.

By contrast, the farm with its fields and orchards and forests, provides a refuge, a place where Andreu can still be one of the “young-un’s” as he puts it. Here mystery still exists. Efforts are made by the many adults around him—Grandmother Mercè, his aunts Ció and Enriqueta, “Dad” Qunize, the farmhands, and Father Tafalla from the nearby monastery—all try to protect the children from the very real threats that exist around them. This is, after all, a time when the slightest provocation could bring the authorities to the door. People were very careful to conceal their thoughts and communicate indirectly rather than risk speaking openly.

Andreu does not imagine himself a good student, or a bookish type, but he is acutely aware that the language the adults use is doubly charged with meanings that he can only guess at and he is alert to the fact that there are things that are not discussed in his presence. He and his cousins struggle to figure out the moral location of the words they hear bandied about so much. They are eager to know what makes someone a “bastard” or a “bugger” and what defines the difference between “our folk” and “others.” Yet they are enraptured by Grandmother Mercè’s stories, the funny and scary tales she regales them with, especially at night. Her tales are a comfort and an entertainment, but the stories of the goblins who run up and down the stairs provide a cover for the maquis, or guerillas, who still pass through the farmhouse seeking food and shelter on their way to France.

Although they live in a time of much subterfuge and unspoken tension, the children work out much of their own anxieties and excitement through the games they play in the forest. Here, together with “Oak-Leaf,” a girl Quinze’s age, they challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. There is a raw enthusiasm to their attempts to figure out the “facts of life,” and their desire to make sense of the more arcane truths of the world.

Doubts do begin to work into Andreu’s conscience as time passes. With the hormonal stirrings of adolescence, he and his young cousin begin to tentatively explore each other’s bodies but, for some reason that he can’t quite fathom, his thoughts tend to be preoccupied with an image of a particular young man lying among the ill and dying in the monastery garden. He cannot reason why the sight of this one youth commands his passions so completely. But, by this point he has noticed that some adults manage to hide dark secret lives, so he assumes that this is simply a hint of the double existence all grownups lead, something he will come to understand in due course. His more serious doubts begin to extend into the realm of religion, social class, and the limitations imposed by society. A cynicism, borne of what he has witnessed with his own parents, sets in. He vows to avoid being tied to a life on the land or on the factory floor, the fate awaiting most of his peers:

I didn’t consider myself to be either strong or courageous enough to be like them, but I had learned that the providential, orderly universe that my agricultural-labourer or factory-worker schoolmates intended to inhabit was an illusion, and that if I wanted to survive, I should trust only in myself, that my strength lay in my powers of dissimulation, my inner struggle, my partial, oblique adaptation to the moment and the concealment of my true intentions; my weapons were treachery, sleight-of-hand and deceit, if need be.

However, when he is offered an opportunity to escape, with the means to continue his schooling and create his own future, Andreu is caught off guard and isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do.

The true power of Black Bread lies in the author’s ability to capture the nuances of adolescent experience in a time of turmoil and change. A cast of memorable characters, interpreted through the memories of his sensitive young narrator allow Teixidor to create a world with true emotional depth. Although this novel only covers about three years of Andreu’s life, it has an epic feel. As elements of sadness, grief, and anger slowly begin to work their way into our hero’s voice, it easy, as a reader, to feel a sense of loss; it is as if we have allowed ourselves to grow up again alongside him. Here one can’t help but feel that Teixidor’s experience writing for children and young adults has been parlayed into a narrative that rings true to remembered childhood experience, but is clearly aimed at the adult reader. In the end, we are reminded how important the “wealth of wonders” that we accumulate through the imaginary worlds we encounter in literature are to our ability to understand and survive challenges in our own lives. For Andreu who has been nourished on the stories that his Grandmother, his teacher, and his friends tell, we are left to wonder whether it will be enough to provide him with the strength he is likely to need in the years that lie ahead.

—Joseph Schreiber


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


Sep 042016


The most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. — Jason Lucarelli

Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
124 pages, $15.00


.Some couples are always breaking up and getting back together. Their love says no, says yes, sometimes in the same breath. Every apparent end is punctuated by a flash of renewal.

Take the unnamed narrator and Marie in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy—Making Love, Running Away, The Truth About Marie, and Naked—who spend all four novels (mostly) breaking up. “But breaking up, I was beginning to realize, was more a state of being than an action, more a period of mourning than a death agony,” says the narrator in Making Love. While each novel in the tetralogy follows Making Love, events do not always follow in chronological order.

In Making Love, Marie invites the narrator to accompany her during one of her exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, and they spend most of the trip “separating for good.” Running Away occurs the summer before the breakup when the narrator travels to China on an errand for Marie, and later joins her on the island of Elba for her father’s funeral. The Truth About Marie, occurring the spring-summer after Making Love, concerns events surrounding Marie’s other lover Jean-Christophe de G. (Marie accompanying Jean-Christophe the day after her exhibition as he transports a racehorse, Marie watching Jean-Christophe have a heart attack in her apartment), and a few summer days on Elba where Marie and the narrator grow closer over crisis (a great fire burns over a section of the island). All of this is just what happens, the succession of incidents, plot stuff.

But the most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. Describing Toussaint’s fiction, Tom McCarthy writes, “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.”

Jean-Philippe Toussaint—Belgian-born writer, filmmaker, and photographer—is the author of nine novels, originally published in French by Les Éditions de Minuit, and published in English by E.P. Dutton, The New Press, and Dalkey Archive Press. He is the winner of the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth About Marie). Early critics were quick to classify his work as part of the ‘nouveau Nouveau Roman.’ Toussaint prefers the term “infinitesimal,” which, he says, “evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small…the two extremes that should always be found in my books.” He refers to Samuel Beckett as “the most important reading experience of my life” and “my only model.” While Toussaint’s earlier works contained loopy but concise narratives, detached yet analytic narrators, and plot opportunities offered but rarely exploited, his newer works give a little more, and build upon these earlier facets in exquisite and scrupulous detail. His authorial concerns for “energy,” “rhythm,” “dynamics,” and “the standards of the form” are on peak display in Naked, the conclusion to his magnum opus, translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

From the beginning of Naked onward, Toussaint reaches back into the narrative, to previous novels, to reference events, and revisits them with variation in a cyclical, dizzying effect. Take for instance the beginning of Naked’s first half, as the narrator and Marie return to Paris after making love on their last night on Elba. Before separating, they share an extended exchange in the taxi. They hesitate to part. The narrator says, “…I was unable to tell Marie how I felt about her—but had I ever been able to?” It’s a sentence that recalls one from Making Love: “…I had not made the slightest declaration of love to her—but have I ever made her any declaration of love?” On the level of plot, the narrator’s passiveness is one of his primary traits. In some ways, it’s to blame for him staying on the wrong side of the breakup for so long. On the level of form, the two phrases showcase Toussaint’s signature parallel structuring of incidents.

The narrator spends the next two months waiting for Marie’s call. At his window, looking out at Paris, his mind goes back to the time they spent in Japan: “That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up…” Eventually he reveals that he was present during the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa and not, as Marie might have suspected, on his way back to Paris:

It was only now, more than seven months later in Paris…that I had gained the necessary distance to apprehend all the elements of the scene then underway…So where was I? Where—if not in the limbo of my own consciousness, freed from the contingencies of space and time, still and forever invoking the figure of Marie?

The narrator, “in memories or the resurrected past,” makes his way across the museum grounds as he did in Making Love, but this time on opening night as opposed to the night prior. As he tries to gain entry to the museum, a guard takes special notice of him (the same guard who caught him at the conclusion of Making Love looking for Marie), and the narrator climbs the roof to escape confrontation. On the roof, he peers through a porthole looking for Marie amongst the attendees. Searching the crowd, he sees a guest look up at the ceiling, and leans back to avoid being seen. At this point he realizes that this was the evening Marie met Jean-Christophe de G. and that he had likely been an “eyewitness to their encounter.”

In a perspective shift typical of the tetralogy—Toussaint turning first person perspective into a kind of speculative third person—the narrator describes how Jean-Christophe de G. found himself at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, how he decided to leave with Marie on his arm (a woman he had never met before), how he mistook another woman named Marie for fashion-designer Marie, and how he gazed up at the porthole to spot the narrator’s figure in the dark. Jean-Christophe, bewildered at having chosen the wrong Marie, considers:

an excuse to ditch everyone and slip out of the museum or even, if possible, to vanish from this story altogether, return to nothingness, from which it seemed he’d been plucked for a brief moment to beget, at his own expense, an evanescent ribbon of life, airborne, twirling, futile, and fleeting.

The narrator abandons Jean-Christophe and recalls the moment he finally spotted Marie through the porthole. He watches her: “I love you, Marie, I told her, but no sound came from my mouth, I couldn’t even hear myself say it, maybe I hadn’t even opened my mouth, maybe I’d only thought it…” He reveals his true feelings to no one but himself.

The flashback ends and the second half of Naked picks up back in Paris, when the narrator receives Marie’s phone call two months after returning from Elba. She says she has something to tell him and they should meet. The narrator recalls that every time Marie called him “out of the blue” was to inform him of a death: her father’s (in Running Away) and Jean-Christophe de G.’s (in The Truth About Marie). The narrator meets Marie at a cafe (he finds her looking “different”) and she informs him that Maurizio, the caretaker of her father’s house in Elba, has died (“when all was said and done, she only called me up in the event of a death,” he says), and that it would be good if they attended his funeral together. The narrator agrees, but holds on to the premonition that Marie held back what she really wanted to tell him.

Traveling to Elba by ferry, approaching shore, the narrator and Marie are greeted by the familiar sight of smoke: “It was so striking that it seemed to me the same fire as last summer, even if that was no doubt impossible, the same forest fire now finally winding down but still burning, and pursuing us, awaiting our return.” Always in the mind of the narrator the present parallels the past, every event mirrors another.

The narrator and Marie are greeted by Maurizio’s son, Giuseppe, who has been keeping watch over Marie’s father’s house. He tells them about the source of the smoke on the island, the burning chocolate factory. Instead of going directly to the house, they stop at the factory and the narrator observes Giuseppe (“…he seemed instead to know the place like the back of his hand…”). During the drive back to the house, Giuseppe explains everything he knows about the fire, “unable to hide a dark, grim satisfaction, the morbid pleasure that comes from announcing bad news when circumstances allow it.” An element of vague danger brought on by the arrival of Giuseppe’s character hovers over the second half of the novel, which chronicles the couple’s stay on Elba, Maurizio’s funeral and Marie’s withheld secret. But Toussaint is not one to tie up loose ends. A few plot options are left unresolved.

Naked is filled with constant ruminations on lost love, memory, absence, fantasy, loyalty, art. Sticking solely to its structure is to downplay its music, pacing, comedy, drama; its ability to captivate, to surprise. Take the prologue where the narrator, before addressing his relationship with Marie, depicts Marie the artist by describing her most ambitious dress design, a dress made entirely of honey:

Developing a theoretical reflection on the very idea of haute couture, she had returned to the original meaning of the word couture as the sewing of cloth using different techniques, stitching, tacking, hooking, binding, which allow fabrics to be combined on models’ bodies, twinned to the skin, and joined together, to present this year in Tokyo a haute-couture dress without a single stitch.

Later, he mixes his musings on “artistic creation” with those of love:

[A]ny true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.

It’s fair to say that in order to feel fully immersed in Naked is to have in mind the other books in the tetralogy. (Read at least Making Love and The Truth About Marie before proceeding.) The narrative in Naked constantly reinforces the “superimposition of simultaneous presents,” a concept spanning the entire tetralogy (see the opening of The Truth About Marie when both the narrator and Marie are “making love in Paris in two apartments” at the same time). In Naked, no passage balances this duality better than the final paragraph where Marie pulls the narrator into the guest room of her father’s house, the same room where they made love last summer (“The place was the same, the people the same, our feelings the same, only the season had changed”). They kiss and hold each other “tightly, madly,” and, in the final line, Marie says, “Then you love me?” It’s a phrase that points back to Making Love, to when Marie first accused the narrator of not loving her. The phrase creates the feeling the passage describes: being in two places at once. Now, in the present, the narrator is challenged with providing an actual answer—instead of whispering it on a rooftop—to the question Marie first posed seven months ago. But readers are left answerless, and one almost sees the entire breakup replaying, beginning all over again.

— Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.


Aug 122016

moya_nina_subinAuthor Photo: Nina Subin

A blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding
the cynical side of our souls. — Benjamin Woodard


Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein
New Directions
88 pages ($14.95)
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2539-7


Originally staged in 1995, multimedia artist Bill Viola’s “The Greeting” plays over a tall, vertical video screen, and functions like a painting come to life. From the left side of the frame, a visibly pregnant woman in a flowing orange dress approaches a pair of similarly dressed women chatting on a stylized city street, and as their conversation is interrupted, the group acknowledges each other and the woman in orange pulls the woman closest to the viewer in for a hug. The natural flow of the trio’s movements, in real time, takes less than thirty seconds to transpire. But in his installation, Viola slows his footage so that it spreads over ten minutes. Under these specifications, the figures crawl toward each other, and subtleties lost at normal speeds become amplified. The simple gesture of a hug opens itself up to endless nuanced observations. For example, during this embrace, the woman in orange whispers something—it’s impossible to know what—into her friend’s ear, while the woman outside of the caress peers toward the viewer, her face stressing disappointment as a slight breeze wafts her loose clothing. It is a hypnotizing display, and by the end of the sequence, Viola implies to the viewer a narrative much larger than the small moment depicted.

“The Greeting” was inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s painting, The Visitation, yet literature enthusiasts may see a bit of writer Thomas Bernhard floating on the screen, too, for like Viola’s installation, Bernhard’s novels often cover very little present time, instead dwelling on the thoughts and memories of characters as they experience brief physical exchanges: sitting idly at a table, or walking into a remote inn. Regular readers of Numéro Cinq are no doubt familiar with the work of Bernhard (in fact, we recently ran a review of some of his short stories), yet I offer Viola’s artwork as a visual equivalent for those yet to experience one of the late Austrian’s narratives.

Bernhard, through his darkly funny, rambling, oddly italicized, tense shifting, comma splicing, yet verbally thrilling storylines (typically published as one long paragraph), cemented himself as one of the most respected and original literary figures of the 20th century, and his popularity among readers has only risen since his death in 1989. Such celebrity often lends itself to imitation, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a brilliant parody of Bernhard’s stylistic tics, a slim novella that winks with fans of Bernhard while also recounting the hilarious tale of perhaps the least cheerful man in El Salvador. When originally released in 1997, though he had already published several books and worked as a professional journalist throughout Central America, Moya’s rambling story earned him death threats. Prideful residents of El Salvador, the author’s homeland, failed to find his bitter cultural critique funny and Moya avoided the country for two years. Now nearly twenty years later, Moya’s Revulsion (or, as he refers to it in an included author’s note, “the little imitation”) is seen as his signature work, and for the first time, it is available to the English-speaking world, thanks to a superb translation by author Lee Klein and publisher New Directions.

The entirety of Revulsion takes place at a bar in San Salvador between the evening hours of five and seven. The only speaker is Edgardo Vega, who has returned to El Salvador for the first time in eighteen years to bury his mother, and who has coaxed his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya to meet him for a few drinks. Over about 90 pages, Moya sits and listens to Vega’s monologue dedicated to what he really thinks about El Salvador.

As the story opens, Vega greets the fictional version of Moya with a sentence that immediately brings to mind Bernhard’s style:

Glad you could come, Moya, I had my doubts that you would come, so many people in this city don’t like this place, so many people don’t like this place at all, Moya, which is why I wasn’t sure you’d come, said Vega.

Here, Moya exaggerates Bernhard’s penchant for repetition for comedic effect, employing variations on “come” three times, the name Moya twice, and the phrase “don’t like this place” twice. Vega cannot speak with economy. He must find multiple ways to express each thought. This repetition continues as Vega tells Moya that he is the only one he feels comfortable around, and that he must vent his frustrations about El Salvador before they consume him. He says, “I have to chat with you before I leave, I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here.” Again, we see Vega rattle off variations of the same statement, and once more, Moya the author lets these repetitions string themselves together without inserting an expected period, splicing commas instead. The result is a barreling sensation, similar to that of Bernhard’s work, yet one swelling to the point of ludicrousness.

The reader learns that Moya was the only of Vega’s childhood friends to show up at the funeral. “What luck I didn’t run into any of them, except for you, of course, we have nothing in common with them, there isn’t a thing that unites me with one of them,” Vega proclaims. “We’re the exception.” From here, Vega, now a Canadian citizen, begins a verbal assault on El Salvador, which essentially consumes the rest of the text. He complains of the country’s beer (“it’s only good for inducing diarrhea”), its residents (“a putrid race”), its politicians (“so ignorant, so savagely ignorant, so obviously illiterate”) and its cities (“truly vomitous…where only truly sinister people can live”). After spending the previous two weeks living with his brother and his family, waiting to finalize paperwork for his mother, Vega has moved out and checked into a local hotel to escape the household noise:

…I want to make it clear that my brother has three televisions in his house, you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they often turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is, Moya, I’m thankful to have left that house of lunatics this morning, they only spend their time watching television…

In condemning everything he has encountered while back in his birthplace, Vega shouts in a hyperbolic manner that, like his heavy use of repetition, mimics the diction of a Thomas Bernhard protagonist to an extreme. Take, as illustration, the narrator of Bernhard’s The Loser, who readily complains about both Austria and Switzerland about a third of the way through the novel. He calls the sights “nothing but utter tastelessness,” and claims that Switzerland is “where cretinism reigns supreme.” Recalling the city of Chur, Bernhard’s narrator notes, “the taverns…served the worst wine and the most tasteless sausage,” and “the Churians struck me as despicable in their Alpine cretinism.” When placed side by side with Moya’s Vega, these complaints feel comfortably at home, yet the major difference between a Bernhard narrator and Vega is that Bernhard’s narrators drift in and out of hyperbolic rants, whereas Vega’s entire monologue builds itself on a foundation of hyperbole. There is never a time in Revulsion where Moya lets his character slip from this mindset, for even when he shifts to rare moments of offering compliment, he speaks in an exaggerated register. Early, while acknowledging Moya’s various achievements, Vega can’t help but temper his kindness with the query, “how could it occur to you to return to live here in this shithole, to settle in a city that sucks you down more and more into its pit of filth.” Then later, after a long diatribe against local politicians (“they dedicate themselves now to a feast, an orgy, of plundering”), Vega attempts to shift gears again, only to fall back into a hyperbolic rage:

But we should hope, Moya, we don’t want to spoil our reunion thanks to these castrated politicians that each day ruin my meals, appearing on the television that my brother and his wife turn on the minute they sit down at the dining table.

Very deliberately, Moya constructs Vega to be a Bernhard character to the nth degree, and the result is a comical curmudgeon with certainly less intelligence than Bernhard’s fictional counterparts, but one who contains an overabundance of the verbal flair that lovers of Bernhard cherish in his writing.

Moya slips other nods to Bernhard in throughout Revulsion, most prominently Vega’s insistence of listening to various concertos while he and Moya sit at the bar, but perhaps the greatest tribute in the novella comes when Bernhard’s name is actually uttered by Vega himself. This occurs at the end of the story, and though divulging too much here would ruin the conclusion of Moya’s narrative, it’s safe to reveal that, after mentioning Bernhard’s name, Vega claims him as a writer nobody in San Salvador would recognize. It’s one final act of hyperbole on Vega’s part, and yet the real life controversy that surrounded Revulsion in El Salvador upon its first publication seemed to prove Vega right. Where Moya produced a biting parody, albeit one with the intention of challenging San Salvador’s culture and politics, readers saw it simply as an attack on their homeland. With death threats came the idea that Bernhard’s legacy in El Salvador was exactly as Vega claimed. Yet, knowledge of Bernhard only enhances the pleasure that is reading Moya’s Revulsion. Operating as both a parody and a darkly funny, explosive rant of a man who detests his homeland, it’s a blistering novella that satisfies the darkness clouding the cynical side of our souls.

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewVol. 1 Brooklyn, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter..



Aug 102016

Ben Lerner is seen in Brooklyn, New York on Monday September 14, 2015. Adam Lerner / AP Images for Home Front Communications

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” — Ben Lerner


The Hatred of Poetry
Ben Lerner
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016.
Paperback, 86 pages, $12.


Ben Lerner’s monograph, The Hatred of Poetry, is an extended meditation on the nature of poetry (or, Poetry) and its relationship to the reader. Lerner first broached this topic in his 4000-word essay for the London Review of Books in 2015, in which he concludes, “You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”  While much of The Hatred of Poetry is derived from thoughts shared in this essay, the revised version is subtler, cannier, and ultimately claims, if only in passing, “a place for the genuine.”

The essay can be read as a tribute to Lerner’s teacher, Allen Grossman, the late poet and critic, and Grossman’s influence on this writing is found everywhere. Only a few pages in, Lerner recollects Grossman’s retelling of the story of 1st century Caedmon, the earliest known Anglo-Saxon poet. The illiterate cowherd was, according to the account rendered by the Venerable Bede, transformed through a dream into a poet; the poem with which he awoke, however, was never as good as the one in his dream, “for songs, be they never so well made, cannot be turned of one tongue into another, word for word, without loss to their grace and worthiness.” From Bede’s rendition of Caedmon’s dream comes Grossman’s characterization of the poem as “necessarily a mere echo” of the truer poem, the “virtual poem” existing just out of reach for the poet. “In a dream your verses can defeat time,” Lerner writes, “your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.”

From this apocryphal beginning, Lerner deftly sketches a characterization of poetry as a long-beleaguered medium, wearily defended and just as wearily attacked for millennia. Lerner himself, of course, is a poet, author of three volumes of verse. His first collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth Prize; his second, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two novels, both of which feature self-reflexive narrators (the first, Leaving Atocha Station, is told by a successful poet [Adam] abroad on Fellowship money; his second novel, 10:04, is told by Ben, a poet in the wake of a surprisingly successful first novel) have been widely acclaimed. Born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas, Lerner has already been awarded a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has every logical reason in the world to rest comfortably, yet his work brims with self-abnegation, a “self-subverting whisper” which persistently threatens to spill over into self-pity, but never actually does.

The Hatred of Poetry may be Lerner’s answer to his own unspoken questions. Of poetry – “I, too, dislike it,“ he asserts in the well-known words of Marianne Moore –Lerner writes, “Sometimes this refrain (which Lerner has made of Moore’s words) has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.”

The rest of Moore’s poem, quoted on Lerner’s opening page, reads, in its entirety: “Reading it, however, with a perfect/contempt for it, one discovers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In order to reserve such a place, however, a great deal must be cleared away. In Lerner’s telling – harking back to Grossman’s “virtual poem” – poetry itself is used as a means to provoke negative capability, poetry meaning poetry showing what poetry is not, i.e., words on the page. Whether dissecting the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall or Emily Dickenson’s broken lines (“a mixture of virtuosity and willed dissonance”), Lerner suggests that poetry makes “a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal Poem we cannot write in time.”

That negative image of the ideal Poem (that poem that “we cannot write”) is reinforced through poetry critique. From Plato’s provocative (to contemporary readers) banishment of the poet as citizen of the ideal city, through, for example, Mark Edmundson (“The Decline of American Verse) and George Packer (“Presidential Poetry”) who bemoan the current state of poetry as being mired in the particular to the expense of the universal, Lerner’s point is that prose written about poetry upholds the place that poetry provides for the “glimmer of the virtual.” In other words, the “defense itself becomes a kind of virtual poetry – it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.”

Lerner closes with a relatively extended meditation upon the virgule, signifying the slash, the virgula or “little twig” used to indicate line breaks when quoting poetry in the context of prose. He observes that Claudia Rankine, in the pre-publication galleys of Citizen: An American Lyric, used the virgule “where it could be read as a typographical representation of verse’s felt unavailability.” In the final copy, however, these virgules were gone, leaving only what Lerner calls “a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation” behind. Rankine’s Citizen, is named lyric where otherwise that quality would not be likely assumed: the poem is, after all, comprised almost entirely of prose. “What I encounter in Rankine,” he writes, “is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry — and especially as lyric poetry — catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb.”

The seeming divide between poetry and prose is a border that Lerner has blurred before: in his first novel, the narrator (a poet) writes, “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose (…) where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” He quotes this passage twice in the pages of The Hatred of Poetry, before making a final – and, yes, lyrical – segue towards the essay’s coda. The virgule, he writes,

can be heard in Virgula Divina, the divining rod that locates water or other precious substances underground…(It can be heard) in the name of Virgil. Dante’s guide through Hell. And in the meteorological phenomenon known as “virga”… streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth, between the dream and fire; it’s a mark for verse that is not yet, or no longer, or not merely actual; they are phenomena whose failure to become or remain fully real allows them to figure something beyond the phenomenal.

Throughout the book, references to Grossman are made, off-stage as it were, including Lerner’s telephoned conversation with poet/critic Aaron Kunin (“also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s”), or recognitions of Grossman’s influence on this or that observation. Then, abruptly, a few pages from the book’s close, Lerner writes: “Today, June 27, 2014, Allen Grossman died.”

In Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” the poet writes:

(O)ne of its (personism’s) minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

O’Hara’s manifesto is typically read as mocking; Lucky Pierre is a slang term for the middle person in a 3-person sexual encounter. Of course Lerner, with his love for ambivalence, would produce a manifesto of his own, one placed “squarely between the poet and the person.” But which is which? Who is the person, and the poet – is it Lerner? or is it his teacher, Grossman? Who, of course, can no longer be reached by phone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would suggest that perhaps The Hatred of Poetry could be read as a poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” Lerner writes that poetry is, “where relations between people must appear as things.” Its final pages certainly merit such a reading, as it. By the second to the last paragraph, Lerner can assert that poetry “is on the one hand a mundane experience and on the other an experience of the structure behind the mundane, patches of unprimed canvas peeking through the real.” We might not have initially considered the comparison, but Lerner introduces it: “why not speak of it — fucking and getting fucked up was part of it, is, the way sex and substances can liquefy the particulars of perception into an experience of form. The way a person’s stutter can be liquefied by song.” Like sex, like speech itself, poetry is forever seeking purchase in the real, yet exists only in “the glimmer of virtual possibility.”

One of the aspects of Lerner’s writing that I find most compelling is the way he distrusts his own facility with language, his self-conscious working against a fluency that he cannot seem to dismantle (as he writes, in Mean Free Path: “I was tired of my voice, how it stressed / its quality as object with transparent darks / This is a recording.”) If, as he writes, the “closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them,” then the acknowledgment of that distance is itself the truest kind of faith. In The Hatred of Poetry, we find, I think, the truest kind of love.

— Carolyn Ogburn


Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.



Aug 012016

Rikki Ducornet photo

 Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to reveal the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. —Jason DeYoung


Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press, 2016


The prized vision in Brightfellow is that of youth and innocence, where the dream of life is perhaps the purest, strongest, and most vibrant. Over and over we are shown this vision along with how the adult characters long to return to this state, yet they are most twisted by life events: by cruelty, by misunderstanding, by repression, by the denial of the imagination. It is a convincing portrayal by Rikki Ducornet of what she writes about in her slim volume of essays, The Deep Zoo (a skeleton key, if you will, to how she thinks and creates): “The betrayal of infancy is ubiquitous, and its forms are many.” Our main character embodies perhaps the deepest betrayal—the denied childhood.

Brightfellow is a dynamic short novel by one of our most linguistically creative writers. I don’t believe I’ve ever come away from one of Ducornet’s novels uninspired. They are all marked by a fecundity and richness, yet not overwrought. She is the author of nine novels—including most recently Netsuke (2011) and Gazelle (2003)—as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has twice been honored by the Lannan Foundation, and she is a recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. She is also a gifted visual artist and collaborator, which Numéro Cinq was pleased to highlight in July.

Like much of Ducornet’s work, Brightfellow packs multitudes into a small number of pages. The cast of characters is few, but Ducornet’s craft is so practiced that it feels like a larger novel. Brightfellow is divided into two sections. Part one is brief, running only about sixteen pages; part two takes up the rest of the novel. The first part recounts a few particular childhood memories of the main character, Stub[1]. We meet him when he is six years old, in the midst of imaginative play, an adventure he has devised of crossing pitfalls and evading animals he envisions into the linoleum. He is a lonesome boy, but happy. His mother is a local radio personality and his father is a traveling seed salesman. Of this time the narrator writes: “If you could peel him like an orange you would find laughter all the way through.” Yet there is suffering, too. Stub’s mother shakes him when she is angry, and his father, whom he knows will never hit him, is distant. When both parents are home we are told that Stub’s “secret life” is silenced.

Around this time, Stub’s parents hire Jenny, a young woman who has spent some time in a “madhouse,” to be his afterschool nanny. She is strange and vibrant—she easily enters the imaginative worlds Stub creates for them to play in, and she tells the boy of some of her hallucinations. Their play will become so intense one day that Jenny ignores the phone when Stub’s mother calls to check up on them. This becomes the reason, perhaps, for sending Jenny away. But Stub is a child, with a childlike understanding of the world and a limited understanding of how adults operate. All he knows is that his playmate has been sent away, and later, his mother, who will want “more of the world, more of life,” will leave too. “And there they are, Stub and his dad, sitting in silence face to face, the favorite green and white dishes scolding and cold to the touch, the linoleum purged of magic…”

We catch up with Stub years later in Part Two. He is now living in the shadows on the campus of the university nearby. He isn’t a student, but just someone who haunts the university. When asked who he is, he claims to be someone else. In truth, he is there researching Verner Vanderloon, an author Jenny introduced him to years ago. He lives by hook and crook—stealing food, stealing money when he can, going through the garbage at the end of each semester to retrieve the nice things well-off students toss. It’s hard to fix a time in this novel, but it is pre-internet, set after a dimming war, television is in black and white, and the Marx Brothers are still of interest and easily present in conversation.

Two people come into Stub’s life—one by observation, the other by accident. The first is a little girl around eight years old named Asthma, one of the professors’ daughters, who is “my own fairy child,” as Stub writes in his journal. “I hope to know her as well as…I know every pop and snap the library makes in the dark after hours and the taste of canned minestrone when you have spooned it into your mouth for twenty consecutive days.” For Stub she is a marvel to behold—imaginative, innocent, energetic. In Asthma, Stub believes that if “he could play beside her, he would recover all that is lost, all that was taken from him—so long ago now—when Jenny was sent away and all the games they had played together were reduced to the worst feeling of absence.”

The other character Stub meets is Professor Emeritus William Sweetbriar, ‘Billy.’ As with most encounters with professionals on campus, Stub invents a spur-of-the-moment identity for himself. He tells Billy that his name is Charter and that he’s from South Wales, and he affects a slight Australian accent. He tells Billy that he is on a Fullbright, there to study Verner Vanderloon’s archived papers and writings. Billy, a sympathetic and kindly old professor (also gay) takes a shine to the young scholar, and insists that he come by for dinner, which leads to Stub (who is now known in the text as Charter) moving into Billy’s upstairs. Billy lives on the “Circle,” where many of the professors live. Astonishingly, by proximity and angle, the upstairs apartment provides Charter an unobstructed view of Asthma’s room.

What we see between this point and the final (but brief) cat-and-mouse game that culminates the novel, is a kind of doubling of shaded relationships—Asthma is to Stub as Charter is to Billy. These relationships don’t necessary take on an erotic coloring (or if they do, it’s faint and something not necessarily recognizable in a common sense), in fact the erotic is often denied. These relationships are built instead on imaginative play; characters are nourished by other character’s imagination, vision, creativity. Billy is enlivened by Charter’s fanciful tales of Verner Vanderloon’s more esoteric and obscure writings—all of which Charter invents. Charter/Stub is enchanted by the earthiness and wonder of Asthma: “[He] relished the proximity to her skin, her little ears, her impossible eyelashes, a vague smell of piss, of violets. He thinks she is oblivious to her beauty, which is like a flame. He thinks, That is what angers Blackie. This flame. (Blackie is Asthma’s hateful mother.) Despite the intimacy of these details, however, it doesn’t seem to be erotic love Stub feels, but the “child’s promise,” which is described as “immeasurable.”

Running like a dark wave through the novel are quoted passages from Verner Vanderloon’s works. Vanderloon was a reclusive professor at the same university, his coevals being well-known scholars such as Levi-Strauss and Geertz. Known to be eccentric and irascible, his sociological writings describe a “dark” and “cruel” world; campus legend has it that at his retirement supper, he’d asserted “our species is doom to perish cursing its own boundless absurdity.” Some of the works cited by Vanderloon are quite kooky—as this fictionalized academia takes a disrespectful view of his work—but in one quoted section we grasp something at the center of Brightfellow, which offers a philosophical backdrop to the novel:

Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the one who ‘knows how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic—sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming human, just as it is also about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away for the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon’

It is this passage that Charter dwells upon while gazing at Asthma from his window, knowing that he would “never get closer to life,” despite entered the “fabric of things” by creating the fiction of Charter. He laments that his new identity will not get him closer to “true life,” which he wants. Yet what he doesn’t know is that many of the other characters live a fiction. Mirroring Charter’s struggles are the sketched subplots of the other professors living on the “Circle”—each one isolated by desire, circumstances, misunderstanding, and envy. In Brightfellow, a portrait emerges of a lonesome boy surrounded by other lonesome people, their loneliness unbeknownst to one another—not one understanding, as Dr. Santa Fofana puts it toward the end, that the “world is a dream.”

As I mentioned above, Ducornet’s prose is consistently fun to read for it rhythmic qualities and primal exuberance. There is a kind of uplift to her writing, even if it’s dark; and there a potency and passion in its more quite corners too, where she sprinkles in a odd detail or gives a new name to the mundane. It’s somehow elemental and lights the mind. Here’s a lively passage, just as Charter is becoming a little more comfortable in his new skin:

How good it is to smoke a cigarette, one’s back against a solid wall, the breeze playing in the leaves, the Circle silenced, each window the promise of a shadow-puppet play. Pathos and terror, black comedy, tenderness and loss, fire and ice, pleasure and punishment—all this surging and ebbing in those ruthless, wondrous, persistent rooms. Such sweetness! Such menace! He looks on as lives grow stale, are renewed. As kittens grow into cats; as betrayal rustles the sheets, rolls under the crib, and comes to rest there; as Death catches a glimpse of a maiden and cannot turn away.

“Beautiful words are the mind’s animating flame,” Ducornet writes in her essay “The Deep Zoo.” A delicate and airy novel, Brightfellow combusts with beautiful words and sentences. It builds a narrative that burns clean to bare the complexity of our self-made identities and misplaced desires. Albeit a tragic short novel, its scope revals a hopeful glimpse into one of the things that make us human—our ability to imagine.

—Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


[1] You’ll notice the character names in this novel are downright Dickensian: Stub, Pea Pod, Goldie’s Rod, Verner Vanderloon, Jiggs Wiznet, William Sweetbriar, and (my favorite) Dr. Santa Fofana.

Jul 122016


Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. —Joseph Schreiber


Life in the Court of Matane
Eric Dupont
Translated by Peter McCambridge
QC Fiction, July 2016
$20.00, 265 pages


Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.

Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.

Eric Dupont was born in 1970 in Amqui, Québec and, like his protagonist, grew up in Matane, a town on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River some 400 kilometres east of Quebec City. He completed his post-secondary education in Ottawa, Salzburg, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto and presently he lives and works in Montreal. A bright light on the Québec literary landscape, he has been called “one of the province’s most daring and original writers” by La Presse. An eager reader, haunting the town library from an early age, Dupont lists Apollinaire, Anouilh, and the surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues among the writers that first delighted him when he began to study literature in university. He would go on to encounter Calvino, Cortázar and, with particular enthusiasm, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As he confesses: “We each take our secret weapons where we can find them.”

In keeping with its original French title, Life in the Court of Matane takes its structure from the medieval Bestiary, a series of allegorical or moralizing fables based on the appearance and habits of real or mythical creatures. Each chapter is named for and features a different bird or animal. Some take on magical qualities, engaging young Eric in conversations that may or may not be imagined, whereas others have more grounded, albeit symbolic, roles. However, the English title speaks to one of the most provocative features of Dupont’s childhood reality as he presents it—his fragmented family is governed by a skewed reincarnation of a Tudor king and his despotic queen. In this portrait, he invites the reader to imagine his police officer father as a woman-obsessed Henry VIII collecting wives “like others collect cars.” His mother, the fun-loving and playful Micheline Raymond, professional cook, as her children refer to her, is cast as Catherine of Aragon, the first queen who has been deposed by decree of the Family Court system. In her former throne sits wife number two, Anne Boleyn, a woman enamored with science, numbers, and order. In the newly reformed household, she sets the tone:

It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I foresaw the chance to walk toward the future a new man. Memories would be no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before the monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their backs and the day when Henry VIII would come to his senses. I waited and learned.

Our precocious protagonist is but seven years of age when the summer of 1977 brings the Great Upheaval and a life once delicately balanced between the uneven parallel bars of the post-divorce parental gymnastics routine is suddenly disrupted by placing an impossible distance between the two bars. With the impending arrival of an heir apparent, a younger half-brother, the court decides to relocate 300 kilometers to the east from Rivière-du-Loup to Matane. Eric will find himself marooned on the Gaspé Peninsula for nearly a decade, facing a new existence marked by years of relentless school bullying and daring dreams of escape until, at the age of sixteen, he will finally manage to fly the coop.

Lest there be any doubt, the king’s children from his first marriage quickly realize that the past is past. Over the years, new rules of memory are introduced through a series of royal edicts. Edict 101 strictly forbids the utterance of the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Beyond that, along with the expected edicts extolling cleanliness and academic achievement; Cadbury chocolate products are outlawed, all talk of religion is banned, and unconditional support for the sovereignty movement is commanded. Under the reign of Anne Boleyn, the vassals must learn to adapt or, at best, disguise their transgressions.

Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a near photographic memory, Eric Dupont—the author that is, not his narrator alter ego—has a deep and abiding interest in remembering and forgetting in literature. Memory is a theme appears repeatedly throughout this novel. Edicts notwithstanding, the queen can no more force the children to forget their mother than young Eric can fill his theoretically finite mental real estate with facts and figures in an effort to drive his memories of her into the distance. The longing he and his sister feel for their mother is, quite naturally, profound and heartbreaking. But, in the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and Melville’s Bartleby, they embark on their own form of passive resistance. If the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook, cannot be spoken, it can be celebrated through a collaborative effort to reproduce their mother’s infectious idiosyncratic laugh. Memory contained in the joyous eruption of sound becomes remembering as inability to forget.

The corollary of being unable to forget someone you love, is the fear that they will forget you. This concern is echoed in the longest and most magically inclined chapter, “The Dog (1980).” As Eric bonds, however uneasily, with Anne Boleyn by mastering the Rubik’s Cube and sharing her interest in stamp collecting, he invites the reader to imagine a series of late night encounters on the wharf with a stray dog who will talk if one cares to listen and comes well stocked with meatballs to encourage her to engage in conversation. This dog, it turns out is the ghost of Laika, the ill-fated proto-Cosmonaut, somehow rescued miraculously from her doomed Sputnik mission in the late 1950’s to be forever condemned to wander the misty streets of Matane steadfast in her faith that Oleg, her beloved trainer, is searching for her and will soon arrive to take her home to Moscow. She cannot relinquish her memories of the one human she believes ever truly cared for her. Eric’s dreams of Laika, whom he first discovered on a Romanian stamp, will fuel his own fantasies of stealing away aboard a ship bound for the USSR, to heroically sacrifice himself to the Soviet space program. Six years later, when at last he truly makes good his escape, this time to study in Austria, the narrative once again turns to the magical, involving memory and a Baudelaire quoting owl. By that point though, he is fully prepared to move on and, if he is anxious to forget anything, it is his long years of subjugation under Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the succession of erstwhile queens that follow in her wake.

Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. It is rich and intentionally enthusiastic in the bold effort to stuff in everything including the kitchen sink. The ins and outs of a Catholic education, fallout from Québec Referendum, Cold War politics, the reproductive strategies of the brown-headed cowbird, Grimm’s fairytales, Heidi, the economics of egg production, Micmac folklore and much more are all washed down with copious amounts of Château Rancour. However, there are distinct challenges and risks involved in sustaining a consciously comic tone over what can be painful personal terrain, and successfully navigating excursions that extend from exaggerated metaphor to tip into the realm of magical realism then pull back again. Dupont manages all of this with an admirable measure of control. There is the sense that the royal imagery he is playing with, within a structure derived from the Bestiary template, allows him to blur the line between memoir and fiction, and tell a story that may in truth be very close to home. The real sorrow of growing up in a divorce fractured family rings through, and serves to solidly ground the wildly imaginative tales that he delights in spinning.

Voice is also critical. Narrated from the perspective of early mid-life, this novel strikes the just right balance between the adult’s telling and the child’s logic, or the adult’s sarcastic humour and the child’s naiveté. This is wonderfully illustrated in twelve year-old Eric’s long standing confusion around the epitaph “faggot,” as in this scene from a time during which the family lived in a village outside of Matane:

The school yard was a sad place where tensions between the village and rural parents were atoned for on a smaller—albeit no less cruel—scale. I learned all kinds of fascinating things there. Some children’s parents, for instance, were convinced that police officers pocketed the fines they handed out for themselves and that this was how they were paid. And so the day the king came home with a second-hand Volvo, they shouted at me that the car had been basically stolen from the people of Saint-Ulric. Or rather they didn’t shout. They grunted, and the grunting was followed with a shove to the ground. As a narrative epilogue to the violent episode, they shouted “faggot,” a word whose true meaning I was unsure of and that never failed to spark a deep epistemological crisis. For the longest time, I thought that a faggot was someone who knew how to read. I tried to explain that, in point of fact, police officer’s salaries were paid by… But really, what was the point?

Literature is littered with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families aside, unhappy families often have much in common, and their stories can run the risk of falling into a certain routine, with a sameness that blunts the edge of the drama and emotion. Not so with Eric Dupont. His penchant for story telling allows him to create a world that brims with larger-than-life vitality while capturing the tensions of growing up in a family divided by divorce, ideology and distance. The result is a remarkably sensitive and intelligent coming-of-age story told with an irresistible blend of heartache, humour and magic.

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

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


Jun 302016

Asia Talks: Author Jung Young Moon
Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic…the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” —Jason DeYoung


Vaseline Buddha
Jung Young Moon
Translated by Jung Yewon
Deep Vellum, 2016
$ 14.95


What lies at the source of thought, the nameless narrator of Vaseline Buddha asks, what do you finally reach when you cast thought back to its source, “like a fish that swims upstream”? Nothing, he promptly tells us, nothing is to be found at the source of thought. The source of thought is just more empty thoughts, “just as nothing lies at the source of everything.”

Meditative, challenging, narratively haywire and comic, Vaseline Buddha is an enigmatic, time-bending odyssey through one man’s thoughts and memories. But these are the thoughts and memories of a man whose life for some time now “has been a long and difficult and tedious yet pleasant struggle against realism.” Can we trust what he tells us? No, as he often explains at the end of his stories, some things really happened, others didn’t, or perhaps did happen but at a different time, which he manipulates through narrative into happening simultaneously with other events. “How easy is it for such words to be without truth?” This Vaseline Buddha, it’s slippery.

Described as South Korea’s tallest, most handsome author—just look at the introspective guy above, and that hair!—Jung Young Moon was born in 1965. His literary debut was in 1996 with A Man Who Barely Exists, a title that hints at another character staring down the liminal. He has since published several novels and collections of short fiction, and he has translated nearly forty books by such authors as John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. Vaseline Buddha is the first novel of Moon’s to come out in English this year: Dalkey Archive Press will release A Contrived World soon. Dalkey Archive also released a mesmerizing short story collection by Moon called A Most Ambiguous Sunday in 2014. This collection was my first experience with Moon’s work and I remember being beguiled by how uncommonly strict and topographically flat his prose read, and how confidently he wrote about boredom and doing nothing and made it work. Here’s passage from “The Afternoon of the Faun”:

I felt bored, and thought dimly that boredom was saturated in nature and was one of nature’s primary characteristics, and thus what a person would feel when they became a part of nature; I had the vague thought that the boredom of nature was different from the boredom of the city, the streets, or the house, because out of all the various types of boredom, the boredom of nature gives you the most dense and intense feeling.

Vaseline Buddha­, fresh out from Deep Vellum, is also about ennui, as much of Moon’s work is. It opens with the narrator (who is also a professional translator) sitting on his windowsill, thinking about writing a story, when he sees a thief attempting to climb into a window. The thief is startled, falls, and runs off. This incident is the inspiration that starts the meditative text that then runs for 226 pages and begins with: “For some time, I’d been in a constant state of lethargy… But an urge to write was awakened within me as if the thief, who went away without actually doing anything, had done something to me…The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little, and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them.”

His vague form, in the end, is circular. Vaseline Buddha is written presumably over the course of a year, starting in summer and wrapping up in late spring. Images that appear in the beginning reappear at the end, and in between there is always this push toward not making meaning or of writing something without substance. It is these things, those without substance, which “exerts the greatest influence” on narrator’s life, hence he sees no option but “to clumsily write something without substance.”

Parts of Vaseline Buddha read like automatic writing, wandering associatively topic-to-topic, while other parts are clearly designed to feed into the narrator’s intention, such as his mediation on the following line of poetry from John Hollander’s “Coiled Alizarin”—“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The line, we are told, is an example of a grammatically correct sentence “that has a logical form but makes no semantic sense and thus has no intelligible meaning, and can be discussed at different levels.” This idea of something that’s logical in form yet without intelligible meaning is what the narrator of Vaseline Buddha is after.

So what comprises a non-novel novel? The narrator would like for you to think that there’s no structure to this work, a work he would like for you enter and “get lost, like setting foot in a world from which you can’t extricate yourself.” But there are clear repetitions and patterns at play here that, yes, deny the design of the conventional novel, but function as stand-ins for traditional form.

Take for instance the overall plot, which is to write something without substance. He’ll return to make this point in various ways, reiterating it, reflecting on how he’s doing. The subplots of Vaseline Buddha, in turn, are stories meant to demonstrate or exercise this wish for senselessness. They include philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and reality, travelogues that are intentionally pointless and meandering, description of the narrator’s dizziness and the rooms he lies in while trying to recover, asides and fantasies about animals for which the narrator is particularly drawn, various and unsatisfying encounters with women, and the narrator’s fondness for Paul Morrissey’s Trash, a movie that he watches “without an expectation,” and shows him “how powerful saying nothing could be,” and becomes one of the best movie he’s seen.

Trash, Paul Morrissey (NSFW)

Among the eclectic comic tales in the novel which range from Yasser Arafat’s affection for Tom & Jerry, a farting German woman on a trampoline, and a turtle-licking cow is an existential seriousness. “[T]here were no grounds for my existence anywhere,” says the narrator, “the idea that everything in existence existed by accident, that inevitability was only a part of a tremendous accident, was something I could never shake off, and made my life so difficult, and yet so easy.” In addressing this difficulty and ease, he ends up overloading the novel with the “everyday,” with the stuff of his existence, with the banalities of his life, in an effort to show how most of life is fairly pointless. The title itself is part of this spew of life-stuff. Toward the end of the novel, a friend gives the narrator a cheap wooden[1] Buddha statue which the narrator suddenly has the cockamamie thought of covering in bandages and Vaseline, which he then thinks would be a good title for what he has been writing. All these vague little stories and thought about writing, he thinks, could be titled Vaseline Buddha—”the name was something that could be given to something indefinable, something unnamable, and also meant untitled.” It sounds good, but its meaningless, empty, just the sort of things that would go above some vague text.

Vaseline Buddha never gets too deep into Buddhist teachings, or at least not in a direct way like when when the narrator starts going on about Wittgenstein, whom he admires for his gardening. But there is definitely Buddhist thought at play, especially when the narrator writes about accepting all human emotions and the nature of reality, which might be beyond the grasp of our linear vocabulary:

I imagined creating a self-contained world of my own in which communication was impossible and unnecessary. Perhaps the very thing that constitutes a person’s inherent nature is something that can’t be understood by others. Only the thoughts that I couldn’t share in their entirety with another person seemed to be my genuine thoughts. I thought that the emphasis on communication, rampant among people and even forced upon them, was so excessive that, in a way, it kept a man from squarely facing the fact that he was, in the end, alone.

Eastern and Western philosophies merge in this text, and echoes can be heard of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and Dōgen’s admonition “If you want to travel the Way of the Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” What the narrator seems to be saying is that the life is is important, and it isn’t. It’s meaningful, and it isn’t. The novel is important, and it isn’t.  It’s perhaps best to accept these duel natures.[2]

A lot of the publicity materials around Moon’s work call him Korea’s Beckett, and tag his work Kafkaesque, which is true, but the influence of Thomas Bernhard (without all the disgust and aversion) can be felt too. The novel is marked by a hyper-precise language that often wrest the surreal from the weary reality of its narrator, and translator Yewon Jung deserves credit for a masterful translation of what is presumably difficult Korean into English sentences that boldly loop and twist:

I kept on thinking that I should, not submitting to it, in a way, commit an atrocious act of some kind. But it helped to have had my fill of such undesirable thoughts about swans. By having various thoughts about swans, I could keep myself from actually doing something to them. Thinking a lot about something was a great way to keep yourself from carrying your thoughts out into action, although, of course, it depended on the way you thought. By thinking a certain thought, you could think that you’ve carried the thought out in action, or done something more.

Jung Young Moon’s work is remarkable for its eccentric modes of thought and how it tests the limits of the novel and our notions of what fiction can do. It looks beyond the basic form and asks important secondary questions of where fiction is left to go. It also reveals crisply the cryptic nature of everyday life, which if examined with deep seriousness, will inevitably lead to deep absurdity—and that makes its futility somewhat pleasing.

—Jason DeYoung

N5Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not to be confused with a “Vaseline glass Buddha”—although I’m sure Moon delights in the possible confusion.
  2. “Our body and mind are both two and one…our life is not only plural, but also singular.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1987. Page 7.
Jun 132016


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, she saw what he meant.

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

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

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

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

—Mark Sampson

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

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


Jun 092016


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

So Much For Winter

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Alison Kelly, “How nature acts,” Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 2015, No. 5847, 20.
Jun 062016


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

Goethe Dies

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

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



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A selection of interviews can be found here.
  2. Thomas Cousineau, “Thomas Bernhard: an introductory essay”, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 21, No.2 (2001), reproduced with permission at www.thomasbernhard.org
May 132016


Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. —Jason DeYoung

Dyer_border 1

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
Geoff Dyer
Pantheon Books, 2016
256 pages, $25


In his Paris Review interview, Geoff Dyer says this about his travels: “I like—and am on the lookout for—places where time has stood its ground… I like being in new places, having adventures, and examining the point where the place and the self interact or merge.”

Restless, humorous, shamelessly casual, reading Geoff Dyer is somewhat like an after-lunch conversation with a slightly eccentric uncle, a man who has traveled, who has an infectious love of jazz, a headful of ideas, and a preference for tofu over turkey. He is also a man who has a point, but has to arrive at it in his own way, on is own time, lest he never get there at all. And the point that he does get to is never what you expected, and it doesn’t quite live up to the promises or the possibilities of his narrative, because he’s an artist of disappointment and inverted expectations. In some ways, he does it to be funny. It’s part of his British humor to make peace with things less than perfect: “I’m English. Ninety-eight percent of anything always sounds good to me,” he says after being told by a doctor that he might not regain one-hundred percent of his eyesight back after a small stroke. But he also does it as an observant and attentive traveler, as when he describes the ruination of outdoor artwork by fencing.

Disarming, humorous prose aside, Dyer’s writing is multi-layered and complex. He tells us that he wants to understand and apply meaning to what he sees and experiences. Yes, he might be disappointed, but he makes something of it, often reshaping what is clearly a non-experience into something worth experiencing: fully accepting the moss-sheading counsel of Annie Dillard, who supplies one of the opening epigraphs to White Sands:

The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It’s simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.

Geoff Dyer is the author of gobs of books, including novels, essay collections, and book-length works of nonfiction, and it’s his nonfiction for which is his best known. His two most recent books are Zona (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. But White Sands is in some ways a gathering point, a return perhaps, to Dyer’s various interests that he explored in other books such as But Beautiful (on jazz), The Ongoing Moment (on photography), and Out of Seer Rage (a quasi-memoir devoted to Dyer’s own desire to write a “sober academic study” of DH Lawrence —he never does; he just writes a book about wanting to write one). He is not necessarily retreading ground in White Sands, but as he says in the book, he has been feeling things from his youth—such as the music of Pharoah Sanders and Coltrane—gripping him like they haven’t in decades.

Pharoah Sander’s “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” Somehow a song made to accompany Dyer’s work, as he writes in White Sands, “Upper Egypt & Lower Egypt” is “ten minutes of random percussion and bass and plonking around that never seems like getting anywhere.”

It isn’t easy to say what White Sands is—an essay collection or a collection of narratives?—because of a rather confounding Author’s Note. “[T]his book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction,” it reads, “What’s the difference? Well, in fiction stuff can be made up or altered….The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line…it is presumed to stand. In this regard White Sands is both the figure at the center of the carpet and a blank space on the map.”[1] Dyer’s also on record of saying that he doesn’t like the term “travel essay,” and that he has created personas for himself in his “non-fiction” before, notably in Out of Seer Rage, all of which tells me that taxonomies be damned here.

Hence, despite reading like a collection of essays in tone and form, for this review, I’m going to call White Sands a collection of narratives, which ought to be a baggy enough label to hold it. It includes nine large narratives, most around twenty to thirty pages in length, with ten mini chapter narratives framing the larger ones—it kind of reminds you of Hemingway’s In Our Time, with its flash-length chapters wedged between full-length stories. These short chapters act as the through line on which the larger, more in-depth narratives hang, and they give shape to the book. The opening chapter, for instance, is about a “hump” of land that Dyer and his friends played on in school. This hump is part of his “personal landscape”—“if we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmate, this is where we would have done it,” he writes. The following, larger narrative deals tangentially with the landscape of Polynesia, where Dyer glumly retraces the footsteps of Gauguin. These mini narratives have various degrees of connection to the larger ones, but they’re important to White Sands overall structure and focus, because it’s where themes are introduced and patterns of thought are reinforced, most notably is DH Lawrence’s idea of “nodality.”

In an essay on Taos, New Mexico, Lawrence says that there are “choice spots on the earth, where the spirit dwelt,” places that create “nodality,” where “when you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival.” These places form due to some fluke of geomorphology or develop a special quality, generally prehistoric. These are places in olden days where people believed that sterility could be cured or sacrifice could be laid and rain would come. Often, it has been forgotten what makes these places so special, with just its ruins as reminders of their singularity. Stonehenge, in popular imagination, might be something of the sort; for DH Lawrence, it was Taos, New Mexico.

White Sands is Dyer’s travels to find secular “nodalities”—areas that have acquired “the bleak gravity and elemental aura of prehistory,” places where time has perhaps stood its ground. He visits the aforementioned Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—a name that sounds more exciting than the actual artwork. He ventures to far northern Norway to glimpse the Northern Lights, and takes pilgrimages to the Brentwood homes of German philosophers who had fled the Nazis. He spends a day in China’s Forbidden City. And, of course, he visits White Sands, New Mexico, but he’s there for only a single paragraph.


Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970

Compared to Lawrence’s rapturous writing—“[T]he moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul”[2] —Dyer’s accounts of these places are calmer, sedate at times, except for his expression of discomfort, for which there are many. His discomfort, however, is our laughter, and this is when Dyer is at his best. At heart he’s a clever guy with a droll sense of humor, and I want to quote a few choice passages here:

I changed into one of those hospital gowns that tie up at the back, the purpose of which seems to be to enfeeble you, to reduce your capacity for independent action. To walk even few steps risks the ignominy of exposing your bottom to the world. (“Stroke of Luck”)

Nevertheless, we did what you do when you come to a place for a Euro city break: we went for a walk, one of the most horrible walks we had ever embarked on. The Norwegian word for ‘stroll’ is best translated as ‘grim battle for survival…’ (“Northern Lights”)

My heart sank. My heart is prone to sinking, and although few words have the capacity to make it sink as rapidly or deeply as the word ‘guide,’ plenty of others make it sink like a slow stone: words like ‘having to’ or ‘listen to,’ as in having to listen to a guide tell me stuff about the Forbidden City I could read about in a book back home, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without trace. (“Forbidden City”)

Many of Gauguin’s most famous paintings are of Tahitian babes who were young and sexy and ate fruit and looked like they were always happy to go to bed with a syphilitic old letch whose legs were covered in weeping eczema.…. [In truth] the missionaries made them wear something called a Mother Hubbard. (“Where? What? Where”)[3]

Notwithstanding a clear label to put on the works in White Sands (and why the hell should we need one?!) Dyer is a master of smartly structured narrative form. The pieces here range from straight up personal narratives to hybridized works of storytelling, essay, and criticism. He deploys techniques of iteration of conflict, “power of three,” and estrangement, all the while delightfully dipping and diving through jazz lore and the works from academic heavyweights such as Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Robert Hughes. Even his shaggy-dog-ness is carefully structured. “Pilgrimage” is a good example of this, because the narrative flows cosmically through the landscape of a Sunday morning in Los Angles, to the front door of Theodore Adorno’s Brentwood home, then passes into a contemporary reflection on Minima Moralia (text Adorno started in the depths of World War II and finished in sunny LA in 1949, while in exile), before surfacing with the narrator opining on age, acro adagio, Susan Sontag’s own pilgrimage to visit Thomas Mann, and the photography of Antoine Wilson, who calls himself “the slow paparazzo,” taking pictures of places where celebrities were within minutes of their leaving. The piece is really quite something, recharging and recycling the themes and thoughts of the entire book, yet never seeming to repeat the same story, as if turning a multifaceted cut crystal, continually finding new angles.

The Questioner of the SphinxThe Questioner of the Sphinx, Elihu Vedders, 1863

In Chapter Four, Dyer spells out what these broad experiences in the book sum up to be. To illustrate it, he call on a painting by Elihu Vedders called The Questioner of the Sphinx. Dyer writes: “His painting seems emblematic of the experience that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.” Yes, this is there, in the book, but there’s something else too, and that is negative space, and lots of it. In narrative after narrative, we have descriptions of missed opportunities, of the time and space enclosing experiences that weren’t special or didn’t live up to their “marketing,” or of a lifelong desire for an “elsewhere.” In one of the chapter narratives, the narrator, presumably Dyer himself, talks about his rich aunt sending postcards to him a child from the American Southwest which gave the young Geoffery his “first sense of elsewhere; an elsewhere that seemed the opposite of everywhere and everything I knew” in Cheltenham, England.

Finding this “elsewhere,” whether good or bad, is what he strives for in his “experiences from the outside world” (another phrase from DH Lawrence). In this search he finds mostly the mysterious negative space surrounding fulfillment. He struggles to know what to make of it, and White Sands second epigraph, from Kafka, might shed some light on this struggle. It reads:

There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of the substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.

Inexplicable, ineffable, a deep space or inner space, places to lose one self: we see this over and over in Dyer’s work. “I would have liked to spend hours in there, a whole day even,” he writes about an art installation that desensitized its participants with beat-less music and saturating, soft blue lights—it’s a place to escape the chafe of time, perhaps.

White Sands is a remarkably well-thought out work. The more you pull at it the more it reveals to have additional streams of life and layers. In spite of all Dyer’s disappointments, it’s a hopeful and satisfying read, too. It’s a book one can’t help but feel some inspiration from, especially when Dyer writes from his Romantic heritage: “Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around forever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.”

—Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Again from the Paris Review interview: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.”
  2. DH Lawrence, Selected Essays. “Mexico and New Mexico,” Page 182. Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
  3. But the drollest passage I know in Dyer’s work comes from a wonderful book called Otherwise Know as the Human Condition (2011) in an essay called “Sex and Hotels.” Just for chuckles, here it is: “Hotels are synonymous with sex. Sex in a hotel is romantic, daring, unbridled, wild. Sex in a hotel is sexy. If you’ve been having a sexy time at home you’ll have a sexier time in a hotel. And it’s even more fun if there are two of you.”
May 122016


Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. —Joseph Schreiber


Quiet Creature on the Corner
João Gilberto Noll
Translated by Adam Morris
Two Lines Press, May 2016
120 pages; $9.95


We humans tend to fancy ourselves rational beings. We hold to the convention of cause and effect. We imagine that if faced with strange and unusual situations, we would respond with curiosity, anxiety, or alarm and make an effort to act appropriately. We are inclined to believe that we need to understand what is happening to us and around us at all times. But, is that truly the way we actually exist in the world?

João Gilberto Noll is an author who dares to challenge that assumption. His novel, Quiet Creature on the Corner is, on the surface, a spare and modestly surreal tale of a young man who surrenders himself to a life that is inexplicably handed to him without seriously questioning his circumstances until he is deeply absorbed in a situation that is rapidly growing stranger and more uncertain. Newly released from Two Lines Press, in a measured, wonderfully restrained translation by Adam Morris, this novel offers an English language audience an absorbing introduction to this esteemed Brazilian author.

Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1946, Noll began his studies in literature in 1967, but left school two years later to work as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He would eventually return to university, completing his degree in 1979. Participation in the University of Iowa Writer’s Program in 1982 brought him to international attention when one of his stories was included in an anthology of new Brazilian authors published in Germany in 1983. Over the following twenty years he would be invited to teach in Berkley, California; Bellagio, Italy; and London, UK. Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), his fifth novel, was originally published in 1991.

Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. Like many of his Brazilian literary cohorts he was nourished on a “robust” existentialism and reflects that this, combined with his own innate sense of himself as a human being, may have been critical in forming his view of literature as having:

. . . a universal, maybe even atemporal core, to the extent that one can say that . . . for we’re not here to deny the material conditions of time and space. But it’s my impression that there’s something pretty common at the heart of the phenomenon of literary creation, the fact that it’s born out of tremendous unease, a tremendous discomfort, a feeling of enormous insufficiency in the face of what is real.[1]

He describes himself as more interested, more committed to speaking about the impossible than the possible. And, although he is typically considered a postmodern writer, he is not entirely comfortable with that classification, insofar as he sees it as legitimizing cynicism. “I am in no way at all cynical,” he insists, “I’m tragic the whole time, I take everything in strict seriousness, that’s why I don’t consider myself post-modern.”[2]

Written and set during the years marking Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, the surreal atmosphere that filters through the narrative of Quiet Creature on the Corner reflects the shifting and uncertain dynamics of a society in flux. The book opens with the unnamed narrator, a nineteen-year-old living in Porto Alegre, washing from his hands the grease of the job he has just lost. There is the immediate sense that he is relieved to rid himself of this manual labour even if it means joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. He prefers to see himself as a poet, a purveyor of verse. He spends his days wandering around town, and shares a squat with his mother in an unfinished building at night. The streets of his impoverished neighbourhood are littered with signs of decay and economic ruin.

One day, following a back alley sexual encounter with a neighbour, he finds himself arrested and charged with rape. However, our hero does not spend long in jail, the next morning a mysterious German man hands him a package containing poetry books and paper, and informs him that he is going to a psychiatric clinic. No matter how odd this turn of events may be, his reaction is positive: “Wow, . . . my entire life looks like it’s about to change,” he remarks. He is still young but he feels that he has been waiting, impatiently, for his life to get itself sorted out. He gives the impression he almost imagines this is his due.

His time at the clinic appears to be spent in some kind of dream-like state. He describes an idyllic life on a farm with the same girl who had charged him with rape, caring for horses and cows, and becoming a father. When he emerges from this condition he is surprised to find he is still in his room at the clinic, his experiences had seemed so real. However he notices that the German man, whom he will soon learn is named Kurt, appears considerably older than he remembers. He asks to see a mirror and discovers that he himself has grown long hair and a thick beard. He wonders how much time has passed.

From the clinic, rather than returning to his old life, the narrator is pleased to see that he being taken out to a large estate in the country where he will live with Kurt, his wife Gerda, a man named Otávio, and the servant girl, Amália. Again he takes this development in stride. The atmosphere in the household is oddly tense; the dynamic between the residents is strained, pierced with silences and marked by some very strange interactions that our protagonist chances to observe. Nonetheless, he seems quite content to see how this new life will proceed. After all, he has a comfortable place to live, his needs are all taken care of, and the only thing he seems to be expected to do is write poetry. There is an element of passive opportunism in his attitude that is somewhat unnerving—he quickly becomes sexually involved with Amália and studies Kurt for indications of how he might assure his continued patronage.

As time goes on he learns that Gerda has cancer. This brings him into a closer proximity with Kurt, serving to deepen the mystery around this enigmatic man, rather than revealing secrets. After she succumbs to her illness, Kurt’s rapid aging accelerates. It is at this point that our protagonist seriously begins to question how quickly time is passing and realizes that he has lost his ability to judge. He notices that the remaining members of the household are also aging, and that he himself is no longer the young man he was when he arrived. He becomes increasingly troubled by the strange and surreal quality of his existence, and the curious nature of his benefactor. This impassive man seems to exercise a strange hold that keeps Otávio and Amália circling around him like satellites. What is it?

Yet, as much as he is worried about losing whatever potential financial advantage that might still await him, our protagonist still seems to be uncertain just how much he really wants to know, how much he wants to give, and how close he is willing to get to anyone to figure things out. One senses that so much remains unknown, simply because the narrator makes no real effort to understand, to fully engage. And herein lies the heart of the unsettling, haunting power of this novel.

Quiet Creature is a short work, easily read in one or two sittings. The language is spare, measured, with a matter-of-fact tone that holds level throughout. For our narrator, the past is best forgotten, the future uncertain but, with luck, ripe to be exploited. Whether he is recounting experiences that are mundane or extraordinary, his ambivalent, mildly irritated mood rarely wavers:

The late afternoon shadows had already insinuated themselves among the branches of the Protestant cemetery, the discreet headstones engraved almost exclusively with German names. Kurt and I were walking down a path and our steps made a cadence on the flagstones. Ahead of us, a gravedigger was pushing a little cart that carried Gerda’s casket. The wheels could’ve used an oiling, they made an infernal noise. From time to time the vision of an iron cross, stark, made my head pulse. Gerda’s grave just wouldn’t arrive. The gravedigger was really putting an effort into pushing the little cart, steeply bent over, his ass sticking out at us, pants straining at the seam between his enormous buttocks. I noticed it was getting darker. And the gravedigger started down another path.

At that time of day it was hard to discern the bottom of the grave. The gravedigger asked Kurt if he’d like to open the casket one last time. Kurt shook his head no, and nearby a bell began to toll.

I threw a shovelful of earth into the hole.

Time passes in an uneven, disjointed manner; a sensation heightened by the absence of any type of chapter or section breaks. Periodically there are abrupt jumps in time and place from one paragraph to the next, jarring when encountered in the narrative but effectively reminiscent of the shifts between scenes in a movie, lending a distinctly filmic quality to the dream-like, non-rational story. It is not surprising that critics have referenced filmmakers like David Lynch and Werner Herzog in an attempt to describe this book. Noll’s focus on light and dark, sounds and silence, further enhances this effect.

However, I would argue that it is the author’s exploitation of the inherent instability between the ordinary and the exceptional, and the social and the ontological that gives Quiet Creature on the Corner its distinctive, unsettling feel. As readers we have access to no reality outside the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a man who maintains an attitude that is at once entirely self-interested yet emotionally disengaged. Like Camus’ Meursault or Handke’s Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, he demonstrates neither remorse nor regret for his crime. And why should he? It is, as far as he is concerned, the best thing that ever happened to him, lifting him out of a life of poverty and dead end jobs. He states on more than one occasion that he will do whatever is necessary to come out of this to his advantage even if he has no idea what that might entail.

Most disturbing is the startling lack of regard for others that our hero demonstrates. Only Kurt is important because he holds the key to his future security. As political events, blockades and rallies, intrude on his life he reacts with frustration—especially if they threaten something he wants. One is left to wonder at this desire to turn his back on everything he has known, including his mother, and his willingness to submit to such a strange, surreal world that might well exact a high price as his aging benefactor rapidly declines and his country moves on to democratic reform. But then, especially in times of instability and major change, who’s to say where the truth lies and whether denial of reality in the hope of another possibility is not the only sensible response?

—Joseph Schreiber


Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His reviews have also been published at 3:AM and Three Percent. He tweets @roughghosts.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. David Treece, “Interview with João Gilberto Noll,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 6:2 (1997): 123
  2. Ibid., 129
May 092016


When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. —David Wojahn

the road

The Road in is Not the Same as The Road Out
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 104 pp.
Hardcover, $25.00

The Living Option: Selected Poems
Bloodaxe Books, 2014, 160 pp.
Paperback, $9.95


In 2014, upon the British publication of The Living Option, a volume of Karen Solie’s new and selected poems, the poet-critic Michael Hofmann, writing in The London Review of Books, lauded the collection in a manner that surely surpasses any poet’s most delicious fantasies about what constitutes a positive review. Hofmann heaped on the tributes so thickly that a reader unfamiliar with Solie’s work could easily have been lead to wonder if Hofmann had written the piece under the influence of some sort prescription mood enhancer so appealing that you’d love to get your hands on some of it—though perhaps not for the sake of writing about a poetry collection. By the end of the second paragraph of the review Solie was seen by Hofmann as the peer not only of well-regarded contemporary poets such as Frederick Seidel, Les Murray, and Lawrence Joseph, but also Big Shots from the pantheon—Brecht, Brodksy, Whitman, and Stevens got namechecked as well. That Hofmann would lavish such praise on a writer who had published only three collections before her Selected, all from small presses in her native Canada—she was born in on a farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1966, and now resides in Toronto—made the review all the more remarkable. Solie’s nationality also offered Hofmann an opportunity to tartly disparage the chauvinism of the UK and US literary establishments, who tend to regard other Anglophone literatures as what he witheringly characterized as “apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists or pity.” Reviews of such unabashed ardor are exceedingly rare in the world of poetry, particularly when they arise from the subculture of Pavlovian snarkiness that passes for poetry reviewing in the UK. And when such reviews do appear, their claims tend to be hyperbolic or just plain wrong. But about Solie Hofmann was for the most part spot on. I’ll refrain from the Whitman, Brecht, and Stevens comparisons here, but I have no hesitation in saying that Solie is one of the most exciting poets at work today. And with the US publication of The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out, a volume of Solie’s recent work, readers in the States can see something of the breadth of Solie’s accomplishment.

I hasten to add that something, for neither The Road in…. nor the perplexingly skimpy selection of Solie’s poetry included in The Living Option allows a reader to accurately assess the niceties of Solie’s development, nor to appreciate the remarkable consistency of the quality of her work. The Solie of The Road in… is a garrulous and impishly meditative poet. The poems start with oddball but tangible subject matter (with titles such as “Roof Repair and Squirrel Control,” and “A Good Hotel in Rotterdam”), but then immediately grow loopily digressive (or darkly sardonic) and tend to wander about engagingly (or scathingly) for several pages. Solie’s earlier work, however, is somewhat different from this later style: many of the poems are short, acerbic lyrics—and in subject matter they are deeply reflective of the flatness, vastness and desolation of Canada’s prairie provinces. The work is regional in the best, Wordsworthian, sense, always keen to give itself “a local habitation and a name.” In Solie’s case, this fidelity to the local means a preponderance of poems that take place during stultifyingly long car rides, in strip malls, in barely half-star roadside motels, in dive bars, or on those scary puddle-jumper jet flights from one unremarkable city to another, where determining the right mixture of Xanax and vial-sized booze bottles becomes a kind of survival skill. Some of these poems appear in The Living Option, but not enough of them. One really has to seek out her early Canadian collections, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005) and 2009’s magisterial Pigeon to get a complete picture of Solie’s accomplishment.[1]

The only reasonably priced copy of Short Haul Engine I could find on Amazon when I was composing this essay has a very large stamp on its inner cover that reads, “WITHDRAWN FROM THE COLLECTION / WINDSOR PUBLIC LIBRARY BUDIMIR BRANCH.” And in my library copy of Modern and Normal, a reader has used a pink highlighter pen to single out poems that she especially likes, along with handwritten notes in the margins, set down with the careful but shaky penmanship of someone more skilled with keyboards than with writing implements. Still, Ms. Highlighter Pen is some places a fairly astute critic. Here are the margin notes which accompany a characteristic early Solie poem, entitled “Nice”:
fleeting thoughts
calm, shrug

And here is the poem itself, complete with its epigraph from Diane Arbus:


“I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m very ingratiating. It
really annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice. Everything
is Oooo”   –Diane Arbus

Still dark, but just. The alarm
kicks on. A voice like a nice hairdo
squeaks People get ready
for another nice one, Low 20s,
soft breeze, ridge of high pressure
settling nicely. Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,
starting in. Does anyone curse
the winter wren, calling in Christ’s name
for one bloody minute of silence?
Of course not. They sound nice.
I pull away and he asks why I can’t
be nicer to him. Well,
I have work, I say, and wouldn’t it be nice
if someone made some money today?
Very nice, he quavers, rolling
his face to the wall. A nice face.
A nice wall. We agreed on the green
down to hue and shade right away.
That was a very nice day.

Quite an acrid little meditation, this, and not an unfamiliar one if you’re conversant with what we’ve now come to reductively call post-modern style. And Ms. Pink Highlighter Pen has unwittingly listed many of the rudiments of that style, with its discontinuity, its irony, its offhanded critiques of the vapid platitudes of media and consumerist culture (“…get ready/ for another nice one…:” “We agreed on the green/down to hue and shade right away”); its associative slipperiness. And yet, although “Nice” shows us how skillfully Solie can walk the po-mo walk, she shows just as strong an allegiance to more traditional poetic devices. There’s the Hopkinsian linguistic tour de force of “Songbirds swallowing, ruffling,/starting in,” and the Eliotic diction of “Does anyone curse the winter wren?” as well as the loose tetrameter of the poem’s key lines. Furthermore, “Nice” is quite cunningly structured, seeming to free associate in its opening, before ending with an old-fangled narrative description of domestic discord and regret. Although Solie has almost bludgeoned us with her examples of how the word “nice” has been debased in our vernacular, the poem’s final line asks to be read with pathos rather than irony. This realignment does not come without warning. The ambivalence and self-criticism of the Arbus quote has prepared us for it. Like Philip Larkin at his best, Solie here—and in many other poems as well—begins with dyspepsia, but slowly and methodically turns her bile into something bracing. The poem closes not with a calm shrug (or “calm, shrug”), but with a gesture of guarded epiphany.

Solie is, above all, a voice-driven poet. Of course, so are countless numbers of her peers. But she differs from her peers in no small measure because she has found that voice through a hybridization of a very unlikely pairing of masters. She has obviously learned much from John Ashbery, and has cited him as an influence. You see this in her abrupt shifts of tone and diction, in her use of found poetry and goofy titles (among my favorites are “Your Premiums Will Never Increase,” “Self-Portrait in a Series of Professional Evaluations,” and “When Asked Why He Was Talking To Himself, Pryrrho Replied He Was Practicing to be a Nice Fellow”); in the ways in which her whimsy often gives way to dread, and in her delight in mixing high and low culture references. This latter quality is especially appealing. On the one hand she offers us poems with titles such as “Meeting Walter Benjamin” and “Sleeping with Wittgenstein,” while on other she relentlessly samples lyrics and song titles from classic and post-punk rock, sometimes with attribution, but mostly not. There are nods to the Band, John Lee Hooker, X, REM, Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. But Solie also understands that the effete cosmopolitanism of Ashbery doesn’t in the long run speak to her milieu. A poem such as “Medicine Hat Calgary One Way” takes places about as far from New York and the New York School as one can get, both geographically and aesthetically—the speaker is on a bus, passing “Strip malls and big box stores whose/ faces regard with solemn appreciation/the shifting congress of late model vehicles/ who attend them” and a “downtown deserted as the coda/ to a biological disaster.”

You need an entirely different model to describe this sort of landscape and the particular melancholy which attends it. And Solie has found that model in another poet she has cited in an interview as an abiding influence, and evokes in an epigraph to a section of Short Haul Engine. Regrettably, he is a figure who has fallen out of fashion—Richard Hugo, known today, if he is known at all, as the author of a classic creative writing textbook, The Triggering Town. But Hugo is among the most significant poets to have emerged from the North American West. He is also in almost every conceivable way the opposite of Ashbery: he is baldly confessional where Ashbery is self-concealing; he is largely narrative in his approach where Ashbery is militantly non-linear. And his allegiance to the Romantic tradition is a far cry from Ashbery’s Duchampian nihilism. Hugo doggedly adheres to the Wordsworthian notion that nature is a metaphor for the self—and vice versa. But Hugo is also a wounded Romantic: for Hugo, whatever natural grandeur the West once had has been despoiled. It is now a quietly dystopian realm of half-deserted mining towns, crummy roadside bars, long unvarying drives on the Interstates, and unhappy and impoverished childhoods that morph into similarly unhappy (and usually alcoholic) adulthoods. And it often seems as though Hugo is constitutionally (rather than merely aesthetically) unable to distinguish self from landscape, identity from setting. In “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” his best-known poem, after offering a brutal tour of a nearly deserted mining town, Hugo makes the connection unequivocally clear: “Isn’t this your life?…../ Isn’t this defeat/ so accurate the church bell simply seems/ a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?” What saves Hugo’s work from too frequently succumbing to the maudlin—and what saves Solie’s poetry from this as well—is a kind of laconic humor that leavens even his most disconsolate efforts, offhanded observations along the lines of “George played rotten trombone/ Easters when they flew the flag.” I think it’s safe to say that Hugo’s West is strikingly similar to Solie’s West, and her move to Toronto has not significantly diminished her preoccupation with her prairie province upbringing. And her particular command of tone, of a biting wit that barely conceals a deeper distress, derives in no small part from Hugo as well. At the start of a grimly ironic Solie poem entitled “Possibility,” she and Hugo might as well be traveling in the same rental car, and checking into the same Day’s Inn:

A rented late-model car, Strewn gear. Clothes,
books, liquor, one good knife for slicing
limes. Motel the orange of an old rind. Bud green
and remaindered blue for trim. Some schemes

shouldn’t work, but do. A square room
with balcony two floors above the strip. Real
keys. A man sleeping on the bed,
or pretending to. It will be alright. It’s not

too late. We left on the sly and nothing bad

I hasten to add that Solie has been influenced by a number of other figures, though none as profoundly as Ashbery and Hugo. You can detect a debt to Symborska in her use of tone, and one to Transtromer in her approach to imagery. And—although I may be presumptive in thinking she reads, or has needed to read, a great many poets residing south of the 49th Parallel—you can also discern a smidgen of Dean Young and Tony Hoagland in her associative see-sawing, although she never succumbs to Hoagland’s curdled misanthropy.

But I should also hasten to add that no poet as good as Solie is the mere product of her influences. And I must confess that by spending so much time tracing her various aesthetic pedigrees, however interesting that investigation may have been, I’ve been derelict in what should have been my primary intention—of trying to define what makes her an original. So allow me to make a tentative attempt to reach that goal. Canadian poet Jim Johnstone, in an otherwise rather stilted assessment of Solie printed last year in Poetry, astutely praises what he calls her “carefully controlled unpredictability.” Despite her tendency to pursue quirky associative tangents, despite her wise-cracking persona, her poems possess a rich lyric and narrative precision. More importantly, they possess what Adam Zagajewski calls a “moral seriousness,” a stance that both reflects the bewildering complexity of contemporary culture and sternly condemns the ethical lassitude that arises from it. In this respect her poems are much like the work of Auden in his great period of the late 1930s: we are initially so impressed by the technical brilliance and wit of his writing that it takes some time for us to recognize the intensity of its moral outrage. And Solie, subtly but insistently, reminds us that there is plenty to be outraged about. The poems touch upon social injustice, ecological destruction, political chicanery (take a look at a merciless little poem entitled “The Prime Minister” and you can see why Hofmann likens Solie to Brecht), and our ADHD-addled addiction to the web—a realm of limitless data, factoids, and nattering, much of it pernicious and trivial. Solie is not so ideological a poet that she cares to posit solutions to these dilemmas. Her desire is instead to console us, and to allow us to draw some insights from her unflappable example. She is our cultural tour guide, fulfilling the role that Mandelstam tells us Vergil plays in The Inferno, always striving to “amend and redirect the course [of our seeing].” These are high claims, I know, but I make them without hyperbole. If you want evidence, allow me to look more closely at two fairly recent poems. One, “Life Is a Carnival,” is included in The Road in is Not the Same as the Road Out. The second, “Cave Bear,” appeared in the 2009’s Pigeon.

“Life Is a Carnival,” uses as its title another of Solie’s musical samplings—in this case she co-opts the name of a song by the Band, one with lyrics that decidedly belie the title’s apparent breeziness. Life may be a carnival, but for the Band this also means our masters are unscrupulous carnies. (My favorite lines in the song could have come from Solie’s own pen—“We’re all in the same boat ready to float off the edge of the world,” and “Hey buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap?”). The song is not so much about self-deception as it is about our puzzling nonplussed willingness to be conned. The poem commences innocently enough, but the subject of delusion soon becomes its controlling motif:

Dinner finished, wine in hand, in a vaguely competitive spirit
of disclosure, we trail Google Earth’s invisible pervert
through the streets of our hometowns, but find them shabbier, or grossly

contemporized, denuded of childhood’s native flora,
stuccoed or in some other way hostile
to the historical reenactments we expect of or former

settings. What sadness in the disused curling rinks, their illegal
basement bars imploding, in the seed of a Wal-Mart
sprouting in the demographic, in Street View’s perpetual noon. With pale

and bloated production values, hits of AM radio rise
to the surface of a network of social relations long obsolete. We sense
a loss of rapport. But how sweet the persistence

of angle parking!

As dramatic situations go, this one is priceless. “Dinner finished, wine in hand” leads us to suspect that the couple in the poem are readying for a tryst, or at the very least are snuggling up to a night with Netflix, but instead they tour their respective childhoods, courtesy of “Google Earth’s invisible pervert,” a characteristically inventive Solie trope—clever, but at the same time disconcerting. The couple is quickly disbursed of that quintessential human desire to see the past nostalgically. We’re offered “shabby” hometowns “denuded of childhood’s native fauna.” It’s all Wal-Marts and “disused curling rinks.” “Angle parking” may persist unchanged—but nothing else will. Yet the dose of reality which the couple is offered “in Street View’s perpetual noon” is too mediated and abstracted to register as realistic. (I’m also lead to wonder if Solie had Elizabeth Bishop as well as the Band in mind during the composition of this poem: the disconnect between a couple’s idealized wistfulness and an accurate perception of their past is examined in a fashion almost identical to that of Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”) As the poem continues to unfold, the couple’s anxiety only intensifies:

Would we burn those places rather than see them
change? , or simply burn them, the sites of wreckage
from which we staggered from our formative injuries into the rest

of our lives. They cannot be consigned to the fourfold.
Though the age we were belongs to someone else. Like our old
house. Look what they’ve done to it. Who thought this would be fun?

This passage also offers us one of those shifts in diction that are a hallmark of Solie’s style. “The age we were belongs to someone else,” with its precise iambs and charged rhetoric, is immediately undercut by the vernacular (and pyrric-laden) “Who thought this would be fun?” This contrast, with its admixture of abjection and absurdity, is a perfect culmination of what the poem has been working toward all along. A lesser writer would have been tempted to end the poem here—but Solie carries on, and brilliantly. Here’s the conclusion:

A concert then. YouTube from those inconceivable days before
YouTube, an era boarded over like a bankrupt country store,
cans on its shelves, so hastily did we leave it. How beautiful

they are in their pouncey clothes, their youthful higher
registers, fullscreen, two of them dead now. Is this
eternity? Encore, applause, encore; it’s almost like being there.

This ending manages to be both cautionary and revelatory. The web is addictive in no small measure because it allows us to instantaneously dispel discomfort. A couple of clicks, and we can move from uncomfortable reckonings with our pasts to pure escapism. And it goes without saying that the web enables more monstrous segues to take place as well—were you so inclined, you could watch an Isis beheading video and immediately follow it with grainy footage of a pet doing something cute. Solie is canny enough to admit that she is as complicit in this state of affairs as any of the rest of us. But she also knows, as Pound would have said, “that what thou lovest well remains”—remains in this case through majesty of the Band during their final performance in 1976, as captured by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, a film that has been rightly called the best rock documentary of all time. Never mind that this performance is being seen by a disgruntled couple peering into a tiny laptop screen, that the version of the film they are watching is likely a pirated one, that the Band are quaintly dressed in bellbottoms, flouncy shirts, and other cringe-worthy ‘70s regalia, or that two of the figures occupying the Winterland Ballroom stage on which they perform are now in their graves. (Sadly, with the death of Levon Helm, the number now stands at three.) And let’s remember that Solie is not a callow millennial who takes the clutter, benumbing over-stimulation, and maniacal web-surfing of the digital era for granted. No, to witness the abiding art of the past through a medium that the speaker is old enough to find estranging and compromised is not really “almost like being there.” But, on the other hand, it is as close to being there as we can venture. However fractured and debased, an aura persists, a rightness. It’s hard to read Solie’s closure as embittered. The poem’s final gesturer—and forgive me if I keep seeing so many overt literary homages in Solie’s work—is not so far removed from the closing of Frank O’Hara’s great elegy for Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died.” The couple may be sipping cheap chardonnay and watching ghostly figures on a 13-inch Mac, but the moment they experience is one in which, as O’Hara puts it, “everyone and I stopped breathing.”

If “The Last Waltz” is ultimately about what we preserve from the past, against all odds, “Cave Bear” is about extinction and the paucity of historical memory. Yet the poem also insists that nothing is so extinct or so forgotten that it cannot be exploited and commodified. (Tellingly, we eventually discover that the poem is set in Alberta, the site of those behemoth, stygian and ecologically toxic strip mines that turn tar sands into crude: the land not of drill, baby, drill, but of gouge, baby, gouge.) The poem’s opening reads like a send-up of a motivational speaker’s Power Point presentation, but then, in typical Solie fashion, everything soon gets wiggier:

The longer dead, the more expensive.
Extinction adds value.
Value appreciates.
This may demonstrate a complex cultural mechanism
but in any case, buyers get interested.
And nothing’s worth anything without the buyers.
No one knows that better than the United Mine Workers of America.

A hired team catalogued the skeleton,
took it from its cave to put on the open market.
retail bought it, flew it over to reassemble
and sell again. Imagine him
foraging low Croatian mountains in the Pleistocene.
And now he’s flying. Now propped at an aggressive posture
in the foyer of a tourist shop in the Canadian Rockies
and going for roughly forty.

One could hardly imagine a more bizarre journey than that of the skeleton from a cave floor in Eastern Europe to a high-end tourist shop in Alberta. This is cutthroat capitalism at its strangest, and a writer as erudite as Solie would likely know that the commodification of a cave bear skeleton is also a kind of spiritual profanation: mounted cave bear skulls are often found in the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe, among them Chauvet, site of the oldest cave art yet to be discovered.

The poem takes an even weirder and more surprising turn in its final stanza:

The pit extends its undivided attention.
When the gas ignited off the slant at Hillcrest
Old Level One, 93 years ago
June, they were carried out by the hundreds,
alive or dead, the bratticemen, carpenters,
timbermen, rope-riders, hoistmen,
labourers, miners, all but me, Stanley Bainbridge,
the one man never found.

Although the poem has suddenly swerved to a detailed description of a little-known historical disaster—in this case the Hillcrest, Alberta, mine explosion of 1914, which killed 189—I doubt if anyone encountering this passage for the first time would stop reading in order to do a web search on this event. As with Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piemont,” the impact of the description is so acute and visceral that we really don’t care about the historical circumstances—not at first, at least. Nor are we especially puzzled when Solie tells us, in the poem’s very last lines, that its speaker is one of the dead miners. As with “The Last Waltz,” Solie is unafraid to make a radical associative leap just as the poem seems ready to wind down. It is also a perfectly fitting gesture, yoking the Brechtian social satire of the opening to a specific human tragedy, and managing to link the demise the cave bear to the death of Stanley Bainbridge. The latter is an especially risky analogy. But Solie brings it off, and without willfulness or bathos.

When I read Karen Solie, I’m reminded of my first encounters with Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Life Studies, or Vallejo’s posthumously published poetry. The books seemed unrelentingly astonishing, had a skewed but insistent sense of moral gravitas, and demanded a response that was as physical as it was intellectual. Just as importantly, the work immediately prompted a dumbfounded question—how did the writer do that? I look forward to asking that last question about Solie’s work for as long as she continues to write poetry. I see that I have now matched Michael Hofmann in extravagant comparisons, but so be it.

—David Wojahn



David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published 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.”


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Editor’s Note: Solie’s first two collections Short Haul Engine (2001) and Modern and Normal (2005) have always been available since their publication and available through Brick Books and through Amazon – Short Haul Engine is in its 6th printing while Modern and Normal in its 8th printing.
Apr 192016

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024 Sam Savage


It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife. —David Wojahn


Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015) — Sam Savage
Numéro Cinq, Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016


The poems of Sam Savage are quietly revelatory and informed by a certain oddness of perception that derives in some respects from surrealism—but to link his poems to any literary movement does them a disservice. Savage is a party of one, and it is baffling that his poetry has not found the readership that his fiction has enjoyed. His poems have a fictionist’s command of narrative, but his story lines are always implicit, and always compliment an astringent lyric acuity. Above all, his verse reminds me of something Stanley Kunitz observed about the poetry of James Wright, in which “things are capable of changing into their opposites, as suffering into joy, despair into radiance.”

As often as not, Savage’s poems emerge from the experience of uncertainty and pain, of the body in rebellion. Here is a characteristic passage, a description of patient being x-rayed: “Oh yes, says someone/ you don’t know, pointing to a bird-wing-like/ blur behind the white bars,/…………There’s this.” Yet Savage’s pervasive awareness of mortality almost invariably gives way to buoyancy, even to a kind of whimsy. We see this latter quality in especially satisfying fashion in his poems about an alter-ego named Kiffler, a character in the mode of Zbigniew Herbert’s indispensable creation, Mr. Cogito. That Savage can forge a poetry of such emotive complexity within the confines of a decidedly spare and minimalist style is a very significant accomplishment indeed. Witness the epigrammatic concision of the following poem, which I quote in full:   

My Father’s Death

The sun had just come up
when all the light of my father died.

A lizard in its crept place opened one eye.
Ants climbed in spiral motion a stem of tall grass.

In that instant an instant was given.
It was shining as on the first day.

Birds sang brightly from the trees
and nothing was left that was obscure.

God is in the details, quipped LeCorbusier, and that is certainly the case here. I adore the description of the “lizard in its crept place,” and the grimly playful conundrum of “in that instant an instant was given.” And, above all, there’s the exquisite and pained epiphany of the poem’s final line.

Literary reputation, as we all know, is fickle. And to even employ a term such as “literary reputation” in respect to contemporary poetry seems more than a little absurd. Yes, a handful of poets at work today will be remembered, but that handful is not likely to include those figures who are currently at the top of the food chain. It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife.

—David Wojahn



David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry  FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published 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.”




Apr 082016


With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. — Benjamin Woodard


The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga
Two Dollar Radio
174 pages ($15.99)
ISBN 978-1-937512-43-9


Topping 6 million infections, South Africa is home to the largest number of HIV cases in the world, and it’s an understatement to say that the country’s government has paved a rocky road in its reluctant battle against the lentivirus. Though educational programs flourish today, as does a substantial antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment program, ramifications from past decades linger. Without proper identification and care, infection numbers rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the early 2000s saw high-ranking officials, particularly then president Thabo Mbeki, actively engaged in AIDS denialism, claiming tenuous links between HIV and AIDS and chastising aggressive medicinal assistance. During this time, ARVs were scarce, despite offers from international manufacturers to supply patients with inexpensive medication, and those who received such treatments were few and far between.

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. It’s 2003, and Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. When they’re not slumming in an apartment, the trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. Two Dollar Radio, the novel’s American publisher, sells Ntshanga’s narrative on its website as “James Baldwin + Transpotting + Harmony Korine,” and the comparison is apt. More than once, I was reminded of the closing line of “Sonny’s Blues”—“For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling”—while reading. Like the Biblical cup of suffering tenuously hovering over Baldwin’s character, waiting to be acknowledged or shunned, in many ways, Nathi’s life is one of limbo, of both life and death, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.”

The novel’s main antagonist arrives early in part two, when word arrives that a potential new client desires to purchase Nathi’s entire drug stash. The mystery man floods the group’s bank account with a life-changing amount of money and, to show his power and seriousness, he emails information to the three that proves he knows their identities. Though the idea of selling to only one client appeals to the trio, an underlying sense of menace from the man—and the possibility that he’s police—leaves the dealers on edge. With Nathi, Cecelia, and Ruan metaphorically pinned under the client’s thumb, it would be easy at this point for Ntshanga’s novel to devolve into a generic narrative of cat-and-mouse, yet such objectives never surface in The Reactive. Instead, this new assignment subverts expectations, leading to an unexpected, subdued climax, and it allows Nathi to reflect on his own past and come to terms with the death of his brother, Luthando, who expired at the hands of initiation school workers years earlier. As Nathi begins his engagement with his new client, he receives text messages from an estranged uncle, Bhut’ Vuyo, that urge him to return home. These notes, combined with the futility of his current lifestyle, open Nathi to ruminations on those he left behind. A short prologue reveals that Nathi blames himself for Luthando’s death: as teens, the two had planned on stowing away together at an initiation school (a multi-week excursion where each would be circumcised and achieved manhood), but Nathi stayed behind at the last minute, leaving his brother to go it alone. Luthando’s cutting, like many others, was botched, and his death inspired Nathi’s relocation to Cape Town, where he eventually shut his family from his life.

With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. By setting his narrative in the early 2000s, before the widespread availability of ARVs, Ntshanga entrenches his characters in a realm of political denial, which in turn results in physical denial, yet much of Nathi’s own narrative finds root in emotional renouncement: he refuses to consider a return to his family, shuns his uncle’s messages, and despite his own decent upbringing, he sabotages himself in order to reject a potential life of happiness. Early, Nathi admits that he, Cecelia, and Ruan are not stereotypical stoners, but that “each wrote matric in the country’s first batch of Model C” private schools. Ruan is a computer programmer; Cecelia works at a daycare center. Nathi went to university, worked in a lab testing strands of HIV, and was infected while on the job. The life he leads after becoming HIV-positive is chosen precisely because it allows him to deny himself happiness and upward progress. His guilty conscience prevents him from wanting success and promotes his limbo state. Without revealing too much, this same kind of denial eventually surfaces in The Reactive’s mysterious drug client subplot, as well.

Beyond thematic bonds, Ntshanga’s novel succeeds thanks to the author’s gift for language. Characters come to life via precise descriptions. For example, here’s how we meet  Bhut’ Vuyo:

“Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s.”

The economy on display here is enviable, for the reader is able to fully engage and understand Bhut’ Vuyo with only one sentence. And the sentence itself flows with a lyrical quality that continues throughout the novel. As Nathi tries to come down from a glue high, he notes, “The atmosphere feels warm and slippery on my skin, and my mind instructs me to glide, so I push my arms out and try to do that.” When speaking to prostitutes, Nathi mentions “how shattered their faces looked, as if they were the survivors of a protracted battle,” and as the group firsts encounters their severely burned and scarred mystery client, Ntshanga speaks volumes of the man’s physical appearance with Nathi’s unpretentious line, “If he’s smiling, then none of us can tell.”

It’s worth mentioning that this client also occasionally wears a tin mask to hide his true visage, and this literal idea of a man having two faces echoes metaphorically in Nathi’s life. Beyond the fact that he feels as if he’s missing part of himself without his brother, and beyond the multiple lives he has led, the protagonist is named after a girl, and the moniker, the reader is told, means “wait with us.” This definition inserts plurality directly into Lindanathi from birth, and as he struggles with the decision to return to visit his family, his multiple faces emerge.

Writing this review as a thirty-seven year old white male in the United States, I wonder why Nathi’s story strikes so close to my own emotions. And then I realize that, as a child of the 1980s, I grew up under the cowering fear of HIV, convinced in my youth that the infection was inevitable. That any shot or finger prick could spell disaster. I remember Ryan White and Ronald Reagan’s own denial. I was shaken when Freddie Mercury died, dumbfounded by Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement announcement in 1991 and, come 1994, I rocked my No Alternative CD at top volume. In essence, I, like so many of my generation, have matured to the threatening rattle of HIV and AIDS, have seen the way it has been confused and unfairly stigmatized over four decades, and so, despite never having stepped foot on South African soil, there is an immediate recognition of, if not kinship, then memory that comes from engaging a novel like Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive. This is a powerful, compassionate story that refuses to rest or shuffle off into the murk of the mind. It exists so that we never forget.

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, StorychordCorium Magazine, and Maudlin House. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia Review, 5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.