Douglas Glover

Jul 152019
 

Publication of dg’s new essay book The Erotics of Restraint , Essays on Literary Form (Biblioasis, Aug. 2019) is imminent. The Walrus has excerpted a trimmed down version of one of the essays on its web site.  The essay is called “Building Sentences,” and in turn, it is adapted from a series of four columns that appeared in the National Post a while back. Here’s how it begins:

ENGLISH WAS MY worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university, when I stopped taking it. I’d fallen afoul of the empty-rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun I in an essay; don’t begin sentences with but or because; write paragraphs in the topic sentence, body text, conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.

“Vary sentence structure” was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar and syntax to me well enough for me to be able to make useful connections. At first, I thought, Well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards). None of this got me anywhere, because I could not join the spirit of a sentence—what emotional and factual impact I intended—with the idea of sentence structure.

Click here to go to the site and read the rest.

Dec 032018
 

A lovely bit of news and another example of the magic that used to happen around the magazine: Darrel J. McLeod, a Cree writer from Sooke, British Columbia, in October won the Governor-General’s Award for Nonfiction for his autobiographical book Mamaskatch, A Cree Coming of Age. First off, we need to congratulate Darrel, whom I got to know three years ago. He’s a warm, unassuming, humble man with a story burning in his heart.

As it happens, we published Darrel’s first short story in Numéro Cinq in the October, 2015, issue. After the GG announcement, I was reading about Mamaskatch and something clicked. The same names were appearing in both texts. And I remembered that Darrel had told me all the characters and events in the story were based on his family. So I dug around a bit more and found this graceful credit line in an interview Darrel did for the Vancouver Authors Festival in September.

I concluded the story “Hail Mary Full of Grace” at a week-long workshop with Shaena Lambert in the summer of 2014 – you were there Jen, and you were so incredibly helpful. I was thrilled with the final version of the story, and submitted it to Douglas Glover for publication in Numéro Cinq. After helping me to find a better ending, he published it, but I knew I wanted to include it in my memoir as well.” Q&A with Darrel J. McLeod

Shaena Lambert, in fact, brought Darrel to me and the magazine. She had quickly recognized his talent and thought of us. And that’s the story, a circuitous story, a wonderful story, of how Numéro Cinq came to publish the first short story by a Cree writer in Canada and that short story became part of a Governor-General’s Award winning nonfiction book.

The story is called “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” and you can click on the title here and read the entire piece. Or you can buy Darrel’s book and read that. Or you can read both.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.

However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Sweet and innocent by nature, Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes many times, witnessing violence, caring for his younger siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own sexual identity.

The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha’s attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them.

Beautifully written, honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch―named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared―is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.

Here is the ending of Darrel’s sad and yet triumphant story of Bertha’s escape from the residential school:

Bertha, Margaret and their aunts managed to make it home late in the evening the day they escaped from St. Bernard’s. Their sister Agnes wasn’t with them. She had been convinced that it was just a matter of time before the  police would round them up. As they were walking she reminded her sisters and aunts what happened to students who left and were taken back. Convinced she would die if she went back, she continued walking to the junction of the highway to Edmonton and hitchhiked as far as she could go – to land’s end – the Pacific Ocean.

For weeks Bertha slept in her mother’s bed. Her mother even had to take her into the bushes or outhouse to pee. Margaret was more independent but she didn’t go far on her own either. Whenever a policeman or stranger in a uniform or suit showed up – the girls would hide and not come out until they were called by name. Bertha’s mother registered the two sisters for regular school in Slave Lake. They attended for one year – but the daily trip by dogsled became too much. Bertha taught herself and Margaret to read, write and do arithmetic.

Word spread quickly about the escape. A rumor circulated that the nuns were scared of Bertha’s teen-aged aunts and had them expelled. And there had been so many deaths at the school that local police stopped responding to the church’s requests to arrest and return children.

With the exception of Bertha, the girls married young and raised healthy families. Margaret had eighteen children. Agnes married a fisherman on the coast, worked her whole life in a cannery, and raised one son who became a prominent surgeon.

For some reason, perhaps a series of tragic deaths of her most beloved in rapid succession – compounded with childhood separation from her mother and untold abuse at the hands of nuns and priests, Bertha fell apart in her early thirties – became a chronic alcoholic and abandoned her seven children.

—dg

Nov 052018
 

In the mid-1990s I hosted a weekly literary radio interview show at WAMC-Albany (New York). One memorable morning over the studio phone, I interviewed Gordon Lish, whom I knew because he had published stories of mine inThe Quarterly as well as my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993) at Knopf. The interview now appears in Conversations With Gordon Lish, edited by the estimable Cambridge (UK) critic David Winters and Jason Lucarelli, who was once a student of mine and contributing editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine. The book was published earlier this year by University Press of Mississippi in their wonderful “Conversations” series. The cover photo above is, of course, by NC contributor bill hayward.

—dg

Here is the publisher’s book description:

Known as “Captain Fiction,” Gordon Lish (b. 1934) is among the most influential–and controversial–figures in modern American letters. As an editor at Esquire (1969-1977), Alfred A. Knopf (1977-1995), and The Quarterly (1987-1995) and as a teacher both in and outside the university system, he has worked closely with many of the most pioneering writers of recent times, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A prolific author of stories and novels, Lish has also won a cult following for his own fiction, earning comparisons with Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.

Conversations with Gordon Lish collects all of Lish’s major interviews, covering the entire span of his extraordinary career. Ranging from 1965 to 2015, these interviews document his pivotal role in the period’s defining developments: the impact of the Californian counterculture, the rise and decline of so-called literary “minimalism,” dramatic transformations in book and magazine publishing, and the ongoing growth of creative writing instruction. Over time, Lish–a self-described “dynamic conversationalist”– forges an evolving conversation not only with his interviewers, but with the central trends of twentieth-century literary history.

This book will be essential reading not only for students and fans of contemporary fiction, but for writers too: included are several interviews in which Lish discusses his legendary writing classes. Indeed, these pieces themselves amount to a masterclass in Lishian literary language–each is a work of art in its own right.

Oct 162018
 


Click on the image for a bigger version.

I can’t resist this. Cynthia Sample alerted me to the fact that you can pre-order my new book of essays already! (Book not out till next July.) I checked Amazon, just to see, and was, as often happens, charmed by what I saw. There’s my book. Though that’s not the actual cover. This is standard for new books. Publishers put up a placeholder till the real book cover is available. And the subtitle appears different on the cover mockup and in the book description. I probably caused that confusion myself, since have always gone back and forth between the two. (I welcome your input.)

But best of all is the little “#1 New Release” flag followed by the words “in Erotica Fiction Writing Reference.”

No doubt this will do my public image no end of good and make me popular in the B&D crowd. Just to check, I searched the book title only and this is what came up.

Click on the image for a bigger version.

The irony is, of course, as many of you know, that the title essay of the book — “The Erotics of Restraint” — is a long text on Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park.

But let me not deter anyone from buying the book on mistaken (or any other) grounds.

dg

 

Oct 132018
 


.

“Here we rediscover the old truth that repetition is the heart of art”

(Douglas Glover, Attack of the Copula Spiders  94).

 

Introduction

A story, like all artistic work, requires a structure upon which it can sustain itself. Most stories rely upon the arc of the conventional plot: a beginning, middle, and end, with rising tension culminating in climax then denouement; a wave rising from the ocean, peaking close to shore, crashing upon the beach, and dissipating with a hiss of water and foam. There are many ways to describe this classic structure. Douglas Glover calls it a series of repeating conflicts between one character’s desire and a resistance to that desire (24-26). Michael Shaara describes it as the shifting of power back and forth between opposing characters (Burroway 265). Claudia Johnson reframes the dynamic in terms of emotional connection and disconnection (Burroway 267).

Resisted desire, shifting power, emotional disconnection. However you phrase it, these describe inherently interesting plots. But what of the outlier story that eschews the classic plot? How can it be made interesting? Captivating prose carries the reader only so far. What tools are available to the writer who veers away from the conventional, but still hopes to achieve an interesting, resonant story of some depth?

In this essay, I will examine five short stories with unconventional plots: “The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino, “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller, and “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury. In analyzing each story, I will consider whether and how it departs from the conventional plot structure, and what other literary devices are used to engage and hold the reader’s interest.

.

“The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino

“The Distance of the Moon” is a speculative story about a time on earth unknown to us when the moon travelled in an elliptical orbit and, once a month, would come so close to the earth that people could climb upon the moon with ladders. This fourteen-page story has no line breaks or numerations to indicate story sections, but the structure is dual, split in two.

The first half is primarily descriptive, detailing the phases of the moon, its orbit, how the people used rowboats to move under the moon and ladders to climb upon her, the acrobatics used to navigate the gravitational field between the moon and earth when mounting or dismounting the moon from the ladders, the ingredients and formation of moon-milk and how they harvest it from the moon’s scabby surface. It also introduces the story’s characters: the first-person narrator, Qfwfq; the Deaf One, Qfwfq’s cousin who has an affinity with the moon; Captain Vhd Vhd, who commands the boats; Mrs. Vhd Vhd, the Captain’s wife who plays the harp; and Xlthlx, a twelve-year-old girl. Ending the first section is a short pre-story that presages events in the main story. Xlthlx becomes stuck in the ambiguous gravitational field between the moon and the earth. She’s too light to fall into either orb’s influence. She floats between them and eats the shellfish and sea creatures that are also caught between worlds, gaining heft as she eats and as other sea creatures attach to her body, till finally her weight reaches a critical threshold and she splashes to Earth.

It is at this halfway point, after the characters and setting are (thoroughly and delightfully) explained, that Qfwfq tells us outright the nature of the story: “This is how the story of my love for the Captain’s wife began, and my suffering.” He then succinctly describes the situation: the Deaf One loves the Moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd loves the Deaf One, and Qfwfq loves Mrs. Vhd Vhd: the story of unrequited love in triplicate, each loving another in different ways. a conventional desire-resistance plot, but multiplied in three parallel desires. A point of note towards interestingness: the trio of orbs—sun, moon, earth—echo these love triangles.

The second half of the story contains the plot line. One day, Qfwfq decides not to climb the ladder to the moon so that he can remain in the boat with Mrs. Vhd Vhd, but Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the first time decides to climb the ladder and go to the moon. Qfwfq mounts the ladder after her to help push her up to the moon, and starts to follow after her, but Capt. Vhd Vhd grabs his ankle and pulls him back to the boat. Mrs. Vhd Vhd can be seen searching the moon’s surface for the Deaf One, but as usual, he is playing his private games with the moon. Finally, it is time to return to earth, but the moon is suddenly further away than usual. Everyone struggles to dismount. The Deaf One “hurled himself into the air [but] he remained suspended, as little Xlthlx had.” Qfwfq climbs the ladder to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back and lunges into the ambiguous gravitational field to add his mass to hers, but instead of falling to the earth, they fall back to the moon where they remain stranded for a month. After one month when the moon and earth are near again, but quite distant now, the Deaf One constructs a long bamboo pole and rescues Qfwfq, destroying the pole in the process, while Mrs. Vhd Vhd remains permanently upon the moon.

Viewing the second half of the story through the lens of desire and resistance, we find first a summary of the status quo, the default stance of the characters in their three desires. Usually when Qfwfq returns to earth from the moon, “in all the groping, sometimes I ended up by seizing one of Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s breasts,” or “managed…to put my other arm around her hips.” After crashing back into the boat, Captain Vhd Vhd would “throw[] a bucket of water in my face.” The bucket of water suggests momentary resistance, but not from the object of his desire. More telling is the difference between how Mrs. Vhd Vhd assisted him back to earth compared to the Deaf One. For the Deaf One, “Mrs. Vhd Vhd lost all her self-control, doing everything she could to take his weight against her own body.” But for Qfwfq, “her body was soft and kind, but not thrust forward, the way it was with my cousin.” Captain Vhd Vhd also creates a barrier between his wife and the Deaf One. When the boats moved off, the Captain would hand her her harp. “Nothing could separate her more from the Deaf One than the sound of the harp.” As for the Deaf One, he loves the Moon, and the Moon seems to love him in return, without resistance. Qfwfq states: “Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.”

The first desire-resistance episode within the plot-line comes on the pivotal day when the moon is growing more distant to the earth, seemingly unbeknownst to the characters. Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd both act in accordance with their desires. Qfwfq decides to remain on the boat to share the company of Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the day, but she resists him in deciding to climb the ladder to the Moon for the first time (presumably to spend time with the Deaf One). The Captain gives no resistance to his wife, “made no objection.” Interesting to note here that Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s climbing of the ladder functions both as a resistance to Qfwfq and an expression of her desire toward the Deaf One, efficiently accomplishing two plot steps with a single action.

The second desire-resistance episode follows quickly after the first. Qfwfq helps Mrs. Vhd Vhd up the ladder to the Moon, “press[ing] my face and the palms of my hands against her [behind],” but he’s “heartsick” when she goes to the Moon without him and calls out that he’s going, too. However, the Captain holds him back on the boat. Qfwfq is thus resisted twice by two characters: by Mrs. Vhd Vhd who goes to the Moon without him, and by the Captain who prevents him from following her to the Moon. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, though she makes it to the Moon’s surface, experiences resistance to her desire to spend time with the Deaf One. The Deaf One often ventured into “hidden zones” upon the moon. On this day, “[w]e saw her cross the scaly zone various times, length and breadth, then suddenly she stopped, looking at us in the boat, as if about to ask us whether we had seen him.” Both Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are unable to spend the day with the object of their desire. However, the Deaf One does make it to the moon and does spend the day with the object of his desire.

The third and culminating desire-resistance sequence occurs when Qfwfq tries to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back to earth that same day, for the moon is alarmingly distant of a sudden. As presaged by Xlthlx’s pre-story, he leaps and swims through the sky till he can entwine his limbs in hers, add his weight to hers, and bring her back to earth. Though he “enjoyed the fullness of that embrace,” she “show[ed] [him] first her impassive face and then her backside,” rejecting him yet again. And instead of falling to Earth, they fell back to the Moon. Qfwfq finally realizes that Mrs. Vhd Vhd wants nothing to do with him. “I had lost: a hopeless defeat.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd also realizes her defeat: the Deaf One “loved only the moon.”

Their reactions to their mirrored defeats, their resolutions, demonstrate three different forms of love. When the moon next cycles near to the earth, Qfwfq wants desperately to return home, to himself, and abandons Mrs. Vhd Vhd in the process. “[T]he minute the pole touched the lunar crust, I had sprung and grasped it … driven by a natural power that ordered me to return to the Earth.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd, in contrast, chooses to stay on the moon, to abandon herself to the moon, “to be assimilated into the object of that extrahuman love. … She proved her passion … hadn’t been a frivolous whim but an irrevocable vow.” And the Deaf One simply loves and accepts the moon unconditionally: whether she is in close orbit or moving away. “He was unable to conceive desires that went against the Moon’s nature.” He doesn’t change for the moon, nor expect the moon to change for him. With his bamboo pole, “he was driving the moon away … he was helping her departure … want[ing] to show her to her more distant orbit.”

The second half of the story is conventional in its plot structure (repeated desire and resistance), but overall the story takes a different shape: two halves hinged together. Nothing is described in the first half which doesn’t bear upon on the second, resulting in a sense of connection, matching, and pairing. Xlthlx’s free float between the two spheres is repeated by the Deaf One, and with Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd. Additionally, Qfwfq describes in the first half how the Deaf One was “deft and sensitive” with the moon, and “displayed a special gift” for milking the moon, which “seemed to be the height of amusement for him.” Then in the second half during the bamboo-pole rescue, “he was playing his last game with the Moon, one of his tricks…as if he were juggling with her.” Another example: While Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are exiled on the moon for a month, the moon “nourished [them] with its milk,” while the milk and the milking of the moon had been described in detail earlier: “It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey,” and many other odd ingredients. Additionally, the way that the Deaf One milked the moon by touching “gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh,” reflects the later descriptions of Qfwfq fondling Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s body, previously quoted. A final example: in the first half it seems the Deaf One’s movements with the moon “have no clear, practical sense.” And in the second half, “we realized that his virtuosity had no purpose, aimed at no practical result.” There are so many examples of this pairing that one has the sense that if the first and second halves were laid side by side, you could draw lines to nearly every word between the two, creating a matrix of connectivity.

Writers are sometimes admonished to reveal the central conflict of their story as soon as possible, but here, description takes center stage. What if Calvino had woven the description into the second half of the story, instead of front loading it? The plot would have lost its momentum, bogged down in backstory and details. And Qfwfq, in fact, does insert a hint of budding trouble early in the story. The crux of the plot is that the Moon’s orbit is changing, moving away from the earth. It’s first mentioned in an italicized introduction to the story that has the tone of an encyclopedia entry, and is based on an actual historic (though incorrect) theory of the moon: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away…” Next, in a parenthetical aside on the second page, Qfwfq explains that they “had taken the measurements [of the distance to the moon] carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us)…” This colors the introductory statement with a sense of foreboding and raises a question in the reader’s mind. It hints at danger, and danger is always interesting. But Qfwfq doesn’t mention it again during those pages of plotless description, letting it hang in the mind of the reader and build suspense. Finally, Qfwfq raises the issue again when description turns to plot: when Mrs. Vhd Vhd mounts the moon for the first time, leaving him behind in the boat. He wonders if the Captain “had known from the beginning that the Moon’s orbit was widening? None of us could have suspected it. The Deaf One perhaps, but only he…”

The familiar love story is also made fresh through devices of defamiliarization, or enstrangement as Viktor Shklovsky calls it (6). Enstrangement forces the reader to see something known and familiar in a new and foreign way. First, the use of foreign or outlandish language impedes understanding and causes the reader to pause and dwell on the text. In this story, the character names are completely foreign (i.e. of no existing human language) and unpronounceable. Are the characters even human? They seem to have human relationships and emotions, but there is uncertainty, unfamiliarity. Second, familiar objects/images or events/rituals can be described in detail, often without being named in the abstract, to force the reader to see them new and evade “automatized perception.” In this story, the moon, an object we see so often that most have ceased to notice it entirely, is described first in unusual terms regarding its phases, e.g. “when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind.” Later, the moon is described with unrealistic and bizarre details regarding her moon milk (mentioned previously) which makes the familiar satellite completely foreign. Finally, the close orbit of the moon that brings it so near to the earth that “it looked as if she were going to crush us,” and which allows the characters to climb upon her using only ladders, is unusual to say the least. What else is being enstranged in the process? The cliché symbol of the moon for love and romance. It shifts the reader’s perceptions and primes the mind to view the old love story new again.

The protagonist’s voice adds an interesting and unusual element to the story. Qfwfq opens the story, “How well I know! … the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” He speaks directly to the reader, but also seems to have a questioning audience before him. I imagine him surrounded by young space aliens sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the next paragraph, he says, “Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course… Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did.” This question and answer format pulls the reader into the tale, which feels both reminiscent and instructional. “This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it…” The punctuation is also different and unfamiliar, such as the use of sequential colons.

Though it’s seemingly told in the first-person perspective from the point of view (POV) of Qfwfq, it might more accurately be described as a third-person POV as a narrator exists behind Qfwfq. The entire story is Qfwfq orating to an audience, but the narrator reveals itself (I say “it” because it’s unclear if the narrator is human, or some sort of cosmic energy, or some other type of nonhuman being) only at the very beginning of the story via italicized text. First, as mentioned above, there is a brief quasi-scientific description of how the moon’s orbit changed over time, referencing Sir George H. Darwin. Then, in the first sentence, one italicized speech tag exposes the narrator: “How well I know!—old Qfwfq cried,—the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” This hints at a larger mystery or reality behind Qfwfq. The entire book builds on this pattern by beginning stories with an actual scientific theory of space or earth history, then introducing Qfwfq as the narrator who sets the story, based on the scientific theory at issue, into motion.

In conclusion, Calvino in “The Distance of the Moon,” makes the traditional love story new again by defamiliarizing the situation, context, and characters in a wildly imaginative way. He carefully explains everything necessary to understand the story using the engaging voice of Qfwfq, then tells the story. But he triples the plot by repeating it with different sets of character, exploring different facets of romantic love.

.

“Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar

“Axolotl” is a speculative transformation story about a man who becomes an axolotl (a species of salamander native to Mexico). The story is framed at the beginning and end in present tense from the first-person (or first-axolotl if you prefer) POV of the man qua axolotl, with most of the story written in past tense from the POV of the man pre-axolotl transformation. It spans just over six pages with no line breaks.

The plot is perhaps deceptively simple. One spring day, the narrator goes to the Paris zoo to see the lions and panthers, but he ends up at the aquarium instead, a building he’d never before visited, where he “hit it off with the axolotls.” He watches them for an hour and becomes obsessed. He then goes to the library to read about them in a dictionary. The next day and every day thereafter, he visits the aquarium to study to axolotls. Many visits are merged and summarized with much description of the axolotl and interior thoughts of the man as he imagines the conditions in which the axolotls exist in captivity. Then, one day the man leans close to the tank, presses his face to the glass, stares into one axolotl’s eyes, and in an instant, he is looking out from that axolotl’s eyes at himself on the other side of the tank. The POV remains in first person but shifts to the axolotl, who reports that the man continues to visit the aquarium, but less and less often, and finally stops visiting entirely. The axolotl’s only hope is that the man will, perhaps, write a story about them, believing that he’s making it up, which, of course, he does. The ending creates a Möbius Strip, returning the story to the beginning.

In a traditional plot, we would ask what does the protagonist desire and what resistance presents itself against that desire. Viewed through that lens, there are two primary options, though they are simply two sides of the same coin. One is that the man, upon discovering the axolotls, desires to “penetrate [their] mystery.” The words penetrate and mystery are used numerous times within the story. He comes to view the axolotls as “not animals,” but “a mysterious humanity.” The axolotl also states as much at the end of the story, speaking of the man’s “desire to know us better.” The man encounters two forms of resistance, perhaps more accurately described as obstacles within the context of this story. The major obstacle is the simple fact that the man cannot know the axolotl better because he cannot communicate directly with the axolotls because he is not an axolotl. At one point, he imagines that he can hear them say, “Save us, save us,” but axolotls cannot (presumably) speak Spanish (the language in which the story was originally written and presumably the language spoken by the protagonist). The second obstacle comes from the aquarium guard who “coughed fussily” when the man leans too close to the glass tank, but that is of less import. Despite these obstacles, the man succeeds in his desire to know the axolotls by becoming an axolotl himself. He discovers that their thinking is “humanlike … every axolotl thinks like a man.”

The second option is to view the primary desire as that of the axolotl who wants the story of their captivity told. “I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us…” Their obstacle is the same as the man’s: they cannot communicate with him. But the axolotl succeeds as well: the story is written (and the story is written because the man succeeds in his desire to deeply know the axolotls, the circularity of the Möbius Strip).

Because the protagonist and axolotl cannot communicate, different techniques are used to raise tension in the story. The first is repetition. The narrator describes the axolotl at length, their “rosy” bodies, their “golden eyes,” their feet and hands, the “tiny sprigs red as coral” that grow from either side of their stone-like heads. The descriptive words repeat again and again throughout the story so that they become mesmerizing to the reader, as the narrator is mesmerized. Their golden eyes are a particular focal point, referenced at least twenty-three times, and serve to ratchet up the tension of the story as their description morphs. They begin as “eyes of gold,” then “diminutive golden points…burning with…terrible light.” Later they have a “terrifying purity” that “devour[s] [him] in a cannibalism of gold.” Finally he sees that it was “[n]ot possible that such a terrible expression [in their eyes]…should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing.” The story then peaks and he becomes an axolotl.

A second technique used to raise tension is suspense via foretelling. This tension is introduced in the very first paragraph which, in only forty-three words, summarizes the entire story. It begins: “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.” It ends: “Now I am an axolotl.” This immediately raises a fascinating question in the mind of the reader: how has this impossible change occurred? The reader is reminded of the coming transformation a second time approximately half way through the story, twice on the same page but in subsequent paragraphs: “I knew better later…” and “I knew it before this, before becoming an axolotl.” This piques the reader’s interest and heightens the suspense. Finally, on the second to last page, the man is again staring into the golden eyes of an axolotl: “No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.” This telling of the climax at the beginning, the mid-story reminder of the coming climax, and the climax itself, serves as a structure similar to the desire/resistance structure. It is much like Calvino’s mention of the growing distance to the moon at the very beginning, on the second page, and midway through the story. Many short stories use a trio of desire/resistance episodes (resistance, resistance, success/failure), and this foretelling, foretelling, happening mimics that structure.

An additional device that supports this tension is a slippery point of view. As previously mentioned, the story begins in first- axolotl POV as the frame, then switches to first-person POV where it remains with exceptions until the final frame switch back to first-axolotl. However, within the person-narrated sections, there are two instances when it slips into the POV of the axolotls as first plural. When describing the creature, the man says, “I saw a rosy little body…ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body.” At the bottom of that same paragraph, he states, “I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped… The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.” But in the next sentence/paragraph, it shifts back to singular first: “It was their quietness that made me lead toward them…” These shifts are done so smoothly that they may not consciously register on first reading, but they add interest by subtly reminding the reader of the coming transformation.

A final source of interest is the story’s theme. How can we know another’s mind? How can we see through their eyes? How can we experience their life and know it as our own? How can we link to humanity? These are the questions asked of the story. The answer comes directly from the man. Fascination with another. Obsessive observation. Intense curiosity, leading, ultimately, to empathy and sympathy. Then, one day, in an instant, we will be transformed, metamorphosed, and see the world through another’s eyes. Then we will be able to tell their story as our own.

In “Axolotl,” Cortázar utilizes a variety of techniques to keep this story interesting when the bulk of the story action involves many summarized and combined trips to the zoo where a man stares into a glass enclosure. He raises tension by foretelling the unusual ending. He ends the story so it warps and wraps back to the beginning. He shifts the POV within the same character but from man to axolotl. He repeats descriptions again and again, but varies those descriptions in such a way as to rachet up the energy and tension of the story, carrying the reader to the climax.

.

“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter

“The Company of Wolves” is a retelling and revisioning of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. There is a three-page introductory section demarked with a line break before the story begins in earnest, the main story itself comprising just under six pages, for a total of nine pages. The introductory section serves as a cautionary lesson to the reader. The voice is authoritative, omniscient, and directive. It speaks in the present tense, describing the eyes of the wolf, the howl of the wolf. It tells how children always carry knives. It tells the first cautionary pre-story that comprises only half a sentence: “a woman [was] once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni.” It warns: “You are always in danger in the forest… Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems.”

With this mysterious statement, the introduction next tells three more stories. The first story of this trio, comprising two paragraphs (though the second paragraph is only one short sentence), tells how a wolf was trapped in a pit with ducks as a lure, then the hunter fell upon the wolf, slit his throat, and cut off his paws. However, the wolf transforms into “a man, headless, footless, dying, dead.” The second story, one paragraph made up of two sentences, tells of a witch who turned a wedding party into a pack of wolves. The third and final pre-story is a full page and relates how a woman married a man who turned out to be a werewolf. He fled on their wedding night and so she married another man and had children with him. Years later, her first husband returned and, seeing her children, called her “a whore” before “he was chopped up with the hatchet.” She cried and her second husband beat her. The introductory section then concludes with more information on the werewolf, most importantly to beware a naked man in the woods, and that a werewolf’s natural lifespan is seven years, but if you burn his clothes, he’ll be a wolf the rest of his life.

After this lesson, the main story begins in earnest. It is Christmas Eve, the winter solstice, and a virginal girl with budding breasts who has just commenced her menses goes through the forest in her red cloak to deliver oatcakes to her grandmother. She carries her knife. She hears a howl in the woods, but then a clothed man, not a wolf, appears on her path. He is a hunter with a gun. He laughs at her surprise, and he is handsome. They walk together for a time. Then he shows her his compass and says he can get to her grandmother’s in less time than she. They make a bet of it, a game, so that he’ll receive a kiss if he wins. She dawdles in the woods to ensure his victory.

He does arrive before her. He knocks and pretends to be the granddaughter. The grandmother invites him in and he eats her. He then tidies up and waits for the girl. She arrives and knocks. He pretends to be the grandmother and welcomes her in. She sees her grandmother only and is disappointed, wanting a kiss from the man. She inspects the room: because the Bible is closed instead of open and the pillow fluffed without indentation, she knows her grandmother is dead. “What big eyes you have,” she says. Twenty or fifty wolves gather outside and begin to howl. But the girl does not express fear at their numbers. Instead, she expresses sympathy with the wolves. Though she felt afraid when she realized her grandmother was dead, she decides not to be afraid because it will do her no good.

She asks the wolf what she should do with her shawl, and he says to throw it on the fire. Then she strips off her shirt; into the fire. He skirt, stockings, shoes; into the fire. She stands naked before him and freely gives the promised kiss. What big teeth you have she says, and he replies in the expected manner: “All the better to eat you with.” But instead of being afraid, she laughs at him. At this crucial junction, the story shifts into the future tense and tells what she will do: lay his head on her lap, pick the ice from his pelt and, perhaps, eat them. The clock strikes midnight and the girl sleeps “between the paws of the tender wolf.”

Carter’s version, like the traditional fairy tale, has a beginning, middle, and end, with rising action. In the traditional fairy tale, the girls resists the wolf throughout, wanting to deliver her cakes to grandmother, but ultimately he eats her. Here, the girl begins with the traditional desire of delivering oatcakes to her grandmother, but when she meets the man on the path in the woods, she immediately surrenders her basket of cakes (including her knife hidden within) to him. When he makes the bet that he can beat her to the cottage, a new desire blossoms within her: a kiss. At grandmother’s, she is at first afraid and wants her knife back, but “since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” Notably, between her fear and release of fear arose her sympathy for the wolves: “It is very cold, poor things; no wonder they howl so.” With that, all her resistance to the wolf dissolves. He tells her to remove and burn her cape, her blouse, her skirt, all her clothes, and she never resists even though she knows he’s killed and eaten her grandmother. When naked, she voluntarily kisses him though he hasn’t asked for his reward. When he says he’s going to eat her, she laughs. She strips off his shirt. It is implied that they have sex. The revisioned plot is unresisted desire on the part of both parties within a story that has a long tradition of resistance. The fairy tale is built on the assumption that the girl resists, and the girl will fail. But what if the girl actually wants what the wolf is offering? By removing the customary resistance within the traditional tale, it creates a new tension because the story resists the reader’s expectations. The girl is curious when she should be frightened. She’s naked when she should be modest. She’s eager when she should be devoured.

The howls of the wolves are used as a repetitive pattern that functions like a simplified Greek chorus, describing the plot to assist the reader in understanding or contextualizing this retold version of the tale (though the technique only succeeds if the reader has a strong musical vocabulary or a dictionary handy). The Greek chorus traditionally sang to describe, comment upon, and interpret the action of a play for the audience. The first instance of this is in the longer pre-story in the introduction: the husband-werewolf sings melancholic “canticles” (alternately defined as sung Bible hymns, love poems, or hymns of praise) on their wedding night. In the main story, when the girl hears the wolves howl outside her grandmother’s house, they sing a “threnody” (mourning hymn) shortly after the narrator compares her red cape to the red of “the blood she must spill,” indicating that some sort of death will occur: Will she kill the wolf? Will her hymen break and her virginity die? When she, naked, “freely gave the kiss she owed,” the wolves outside howl a “prothalamion” (a marriage song). Shortly after, the wolves “clamour the forest’s Liebestod.” (This has two potential meanings. The Liebestod is the final dramatic music as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body. As a literary term, it indicates erotic death; consummation of love in death.) Presumably, since both the girl’s and the wolf’s clothes are burnt, the girl will transform into a werewolf, killing her human existence (and the obvious interpretation that she’s transformed into a sensual, sexual, adult woman, her innocent girlhood dead). Thus, the werewolf chorus adds a surprising dimension to the telling of the story, adding context to the story action through their song selections.

Supporting the plot structure are what I will call twinned actions: an action occurs twice in the story, the second occurrence a flip or reversal of the first. There are four major twinnings in this story. First, at the largest scale, is the comparison of marriage between the final pre-story and the main story. The pre-story woman effectively disavows her werewolf husband and marries a human, but the story ends with her insulted, in tears, and beaten. Flipped in the twinning, the girl effectively marries the werewolf and wholeheartedly opens herself to him, and the story ends with her peacefully sleeping with him, a complete reversal. A second twinning is of shivers. While describing the girl’s virginity at the beginning of the story, we’re told that “she does not know how to shiver.” But once inside grandmother’s house with the werewolf, “…she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her…” This reference to what can “protect” her is itself a twinning. On the previous page, the narrator slips into the story to chastise “granny” for thinking that her Bible “was a sure prophylactic… call on Christ and his mother and all the angles in heaven to protect you but it won’t do you any good.” The final twinning is of laughter. In the woods, the werewolf as man “laughed with a flash of white teeth… He laughed at her again; gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth.” However, in grandmother’s house when he says he’s going to eat her, she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face…” In sum, these twinned and flipped actions mimic a sense of movement, change, or transformation. Something is different than before.

Similar to twinnings are triplicate repetitions or leitmotifs, repeated thematic phrases or words. These can mirror the beginning, middle, end structure of a conventional plot when strategically placed within those sections of the story. For example, there are three references to lice in the fur of werewolves: first in the pre-story, second with grandmother mid-story, and finally with the girl at the very end. Neither the pre-story wife nor the grandmother reacts to the lice, but most readers will likely have a squeamish reaction to this parasite. However, in the resolution of the story, the girl “will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.” She treats the lice differently than the other two women. This also mimics the desire-resistance model, with the lice being resisted by the reader in two instances, followed by a final success with the girl. Another example is the thrice repeated phrase: “carnivore incarnate.” It first occurs in the second sentence of the story in the introductory section, then again with the grandmother mid-story, and finally in the resolution with the girl. The phrase doesn’t substantially change, but works through juxtaposition to other developing plot elements (the wolf chorus, her laugh, the lice). It also simply reminds the reader what the story is about.

The tale also surprises by frequently shifting verb tenses. The story begins in the present tense as the narrator explains the wolf. During the four short pre-stories, it shifts to past tense, though with one exception. At the end of the first paragraph it shifts from the narrator’s POV to the newlywed wife’s, enters her thoughts, and shifts to the present tense: “And she waited and she waited and then she waited again – surely he’s been gone a long time? Until she jumps up in bed and shrieks to hear a howling, coming on the wind from the forest.” In the next paragraph, the POV switches back to the narrator who describes the howls, the melancholy of the wolf in present tense, then shifts back into the story, into past tense. After the only line break in the story, the main story begins in present tense, but shifts back and forth between tenses throughout the story: “It is midwinter… The forest closed upon her like a pair of jaws… There is a faint trace of blood on his chin; he has been snacking on his catch… She wanted her knife from her basket but did not dare reach for it… Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.” The resolution post-climax suddenly shifts to future tense, quoted above, followed by “The blizzard will die down. The blizzard died down…” This shift from future to past indicates that what was predicted (her eating his lice, their marriage), will come to pass. This shifting between now and then, past, present, and future, distorts time and disorients the reader. It creates a shimmering effect as if viewing the story through all time, through traditional beliefs and modern sensibilities, as well as a future where the previously unacceptable will be acceptable.

There is a further contrast, a tension, between what the narrator is seemingly trying to scare the reader into believing at the outset – be afraid and run away! – and what the story accomplishes. The four pre-stories are fascinating because none of them occur in the woods, which is where the reader is told to be cautious. None of the people run away, as the reader is told to do. People are either bitten, or they fight back and kill the wolves. In fact, the girl in the main story does everything wrong according to the narrator, but ends by sleeping peacefully with her wolf. The narrator who consistently warns the reader away from wolves (“Fear and flee the wolf”) at the end seems oblivious to her previous words and is triumphant in the girl’s success: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” The narrator her or himself has had a transformation, a change of mind, through the telling of the story.

The story also uses an odd humor that seems to poke fun at the chastising tone of the tale, and at how seriously people take the issue of human sexual desire. The first instance is the woman who is bitten while “straining the macaroni.” Straining the macaroni? Who strains the macaroni in Little Red Robin Hood when werewolves are about? Another instance is the duck dropped in the pit as bait for the wolf in the second pre-story. “Quack, quack! went the duck…” Quack, quack! is in tremendous tonal contrast to the entire rest of the story. Later, when the wolf from the main story undresses in front of grandmother, “she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.” Is she delighted with his size? And simply the word “genitals” is so technical and odd in what is purporting to be a fairy tale. Ah! there are no genitals in fairy tales.

One final note, “The Company of Wolves” is one story in a linked collection of retold fairy tales. Throughout the book, certain phrases or images are repeated in different stories, reverberating through the book, connecting all the stories thematically.

In conclusion, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” turns the fairy tale Little Red Robin Hood on its clitoral head by subverting the traditional desire-resistance plot into a plot of unopposed sexual desire that is resisted only by the reader’s preformed expectations of how the story should develop (and how girls should behave). Adding to the interest of the story, the verb tenses shift throughout from past to present to future, disorienting the reader. The wolves as Greek chorus add a wonderful and odd touch. The purported message of the story via the narrator seems to be to beware of sexuality, but is in direct conflict with the outcome of the story which encourages a revisioning of female sexuality from a perspective of victimhood to one of agency.

.

“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller

“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” is written as an academic report on a strange phenomenon, and runs just under four pages. There is a citation to the report (authored by Dr. Alma Victoria Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. and published by Fort College Press) at the very beginning, centered beneath the title. The tense shifts from past to present as would be normal in a report of this nature, as Dr. Snyder-Gray discusses and analyzes the subject of her study (i.e. the Worp Reaction). The only line break in the story occurs on the last page and separates the bulk of the report from two final paragraphs which give a summary of the where things stand now.

The report tells the story of Aldous Worp, a boy who was born “a hopeless idiot” and lived a sedentary and quiet life for his first six years, making only one sound, “closely akin to the expression ‘Whee!’” But when he’s six, he begins to gather junk from the city dump behind his family’s house and store it in an unused chicken coop. He collects junk for twenty more years. Then, for one additional year, he stops gathering and only moves slowly among his gathered junk, seemingly accomplishing nothing. At age twenty-seven, he begins mysteriously fitting his pieces of junk together into a large structure. One day at 10:46 a.m. he is witnessed climbing into the structure where he remains for five minutes. He then exits and pulls a lever on the device. There is a rushing sound from the object, purple light glows from beneath it, then it rises three meters into the air and hovers. Aldous says “whee!” three times, then turns another lever on the contraption and the object settles to earth. No one knows how it works. Aldous demonstrates it for people, but on the afternoon of the second day, the press corps arrives. With their arrival, Aldous lowers the machine to the ground and begins to dismantle it in exactly the reverse order that he’d constructed it, taking the pieces one by one to the chicken coop, then one by one back to the city dump. Aldous returns to his original sedentary, idiotic state, but occasionally his eyes light up and he quietly says “whee!”

A traditional story has a desire-resistance plot culminating in success or failure. In this story, Aldous is not seemingly propelled by a conscious desire, but some unconscious impulse; nor does he seem to encounter any resistance to this impulse. Still, the story has a traditional story shape with a beginning (Aldous’s birth), a middle (his junk collecting and the building of the device), a climax (the device levitates), and resolution (he dismantles the device and all returns to normal). However, this “story” isn’t a story, but rather purports to be an excerpt from the official report of Dr. Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. of Fort, Indiana. Hers is the character lens through which the story is told, and the desire is not the desire of Aldous to build his machine, but the desire of Dr. Snyder-Gray to understand his creation, the impulse of creativity.

In the report, Dr. Snyder-Gray interviews three people who were all present at the first levitation: Aldous’s father, Lambert Simnel Worp; Major Herbert R. Armstrong, U.S. Army Engineers; and Dr. Phillip H. Cross, A.E.C. (though why Armstrong and Cross were at the house of an “idiot” child who collected junk from a city dump on that exact day at that exact time is a mystery in itself). However, no one gives her the understanding she desires. L. S. Worp “was able to shed [little light] on the problem.” A “Dr. Palmer,” of unknown affiliation, stated: “It’s all nothing but a bunch of junk.” And finally, according to Dr. Snyder-Gray: “The most exhaustive tests, Geiger, et al. revealed nothing.” Dr. Snyder-Gray’s desire to comprehend the mystery of Aldous’s machine is resisted, obstructed, and defeated with each successive interview. Thus we find hidden within the story the traditional desire-resistance model not between the characters on the page, but between the author of the report and the characters within the story.

Of note, Dr. Snyder-Gray never interviewed Aldous, or if she did, failed to mention it in her report. According to her, Aldous could not speak except for one sound: “Whee!” She declares: “Communication with Aldous Worp was impossible since the young man had never learned to talk.” However, it is possible to succeed in communication or understanding without talking (as happens in “Axolotl”—both these stories having a character resisted by the muteness of whatever or whomever they wish to understand). Those attendant at the first levitation told Dr. Snyder-Gray that “Aldous jumped around with every semblance of glee and we distinctly heard him remark ‘Whee!’ three times.” By not discussing that word, she seems to assume it lacks meaning, or is unimportant to her understanding of the phenomenon, though its import to the story is emphasized by its repetition in the text: at the beginning, at the climax, and at the end. This tripled repetition in the beginning, middle, and ending of the story mirrors the common plot structure, as discussed above regarding Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.”

And what of that word, whee? Is it without meaning? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines whee as, “used to express delight or exuberance.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines whee as “an exclamation of joy, exhilaration, astonishment, etc.” Dr. Snyder-Gray herself states that Aldous “took great delight in operating his machine.” And while analysis of the component parts inside the finished structure failed to adequately explain how they worked together as a whole (as analysis of art can fail to discern the magic and mystery that animates the sum total of its component parts), she ignores the fact that its invention is a creative product of delight and inspiration. The academic report structure supports Dr. Snyder-Gray’s obtuseness, as many academics are lampooned for their emphasis on so-called rational, scientific explanations of reality, dismissing emotional, subjective, or ecstatic evidence as irrelevant.

Additionally, the word “whee” is contained within the word symbolizing the most important part of Aldous’s invention: the cogwheel. The cogwheel is the first item Aldous retrieves from the junkyard and the last item he fits into his structure before it levitates: idiotic delight as the alpha and omega of artistic creation. Further, Aldous never says whee without exclamatory emphasis: “Whee!” “Whee!” and “Wheel” look nearly identical as characters in text, and reference to the cogwheel is sometimes shortened to wheel within the text. References to the cogwheel or wheel repeat four times within the story (typically within one to two paragraphs of the word whee): in the beginning, middle, and end of the story (see above on triplicate repetition). Merriam Webster’s defines cogwheel as a toothed wheel (gear) that performs a specific function in a complete machine. We might then deduce from the text that creative delight performs an essential (if mysterious) function within the whole of an artistic work, but also that word play based not just on meaning, but also sound and textual congruence can be utilized for structural support through repetition.

Another structural device beyond plot or repetition is a story written as a faux document, such as this academic report, which mimics the structure of the real-life document on which it is based. This provides the author a known form to write from and play within. These “shadow texts,” as Douglas Glover refers to them, might be police reports, psychological tests, newspaper articles, poems, novels, bible stories, etc. For example, an author might use the structure of King Lear to write a novel (e.g. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley). Shadow texts build resonance within the story by echoing against the external document, silently engaging the reader by encouraging comparison between the faux document qua story and its real-world counterpart (though the reader may not always be aware of the root source of the structure if it is not stated plainly).

The faux document can also allow for a different tone or diction for effect (e.g. academic, bureaucratic, scientific, etc.). In this story, parody of academic analysis is used to humorous effect, beginning with the officious citation preceding the story: “Being an excerpt from Prolegomena To A Preliminary Research on Some Instances of Unique Anomalies…” The report’s title, despite its words, says absolutely nothing and is redundant to boot: a preliminary discussion to preliminary research on some odd oddities. Dr. Snyder-Gray is obdurate in her academic quasi-scientific investigation. And, as previously stated, the faux document can be used as a frame to insert tension or conflict into a story that has no internal conflict among the “on stage” characters from the perspective of an observing character.

In conclusion, Miller’s “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” combines numerous literary devices to transform this simple story from mundane to mystical. The strategic repetition of two key words (one an exclamation, one an object, but both nearly identical in text) connects the story to and within itself. By using the structure of a faux document combined with an external, investigating narrator, tension is built into a plot that had no inherent conflict at the time it was occurring. Those same devices also add humor to this story whose theme ultimately levitates beyond the laughs, into the mystery of creativity.

.

“The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury

“The Fog Horn” describes one night at a lighthouse. It is told in past-tense from the first-person perspective of young Johnny, who’s been working in the lighthouse for only three months. Though the story is told from Johnny’s point of view, his workmate, McDunn, a salty old timer, talks via direct dialogue through much of the story and because of this, the story feels as though it is written from his perspective. It is a ten-page story with one line break on the second to last page, between the climax and the resolution.

The action begins when the two men head up the lighthouse stairs to turn on the light, McDunn saying as they climb that he’s got something he’s been meaning to tell the boy. At the top, McDunn turns on the light and tells Johnny that a monster is coming that night, then the monster (a dinosaur from deep beneath the ocean, lured by the sound of the fog horn) arrives on scene. The fog horn and the monster call back and forth to each other, but McDunn turns off the fog horn for a moment. The monster goes mad in the ensuing silence and destroys the lighthouse. McDunn and Johnny both manage to escape, but a year later, Johnny is married and out of the lighthouse business, while McDunn is installed in a new, steel-reinforced lighthouse.

The story shape is seemingly traditional with a chronological development from the beginning (early evening), to the middle (fog horn sounds, monster approaches), to climax (monster attacks), to resolution (a year later). But what desire is resisted? Johnny doesn’t have any conflict with McDunn. The story begins with McDunn asking him if he’s used to their “lonely life,” and Johnny responds that yes, he’s used to it, and is glad that McDunn is “a good talker.” McDunn, for his part, is glad to have a witness to the monster that night, but otherwise does not express any desire. It is, in fact, the monster that has the desire. The monster has been living alone at the bottom of the ocean for eons, “waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back.” When the lighthouse was built and the fog horn sounded, the monster believes it’s found another like itself at last. It wants communion with its own kind, an end to loneliness and isolation. The monster and the fog horn cry back and forth to each other. When McDunn turns off the horn, he creates the resistance to the monster’s desire for connection. Though McDunn turns the horn back, it’s too late. The monster is bereft and enraged. Thus we find within the story a single resisted desire, but not between the two human characters as might be expected.

The crux of McDunn’s resistance to the monster lies within the story’s theme. Immediately before McDunn turns off the horn, while the monster and fog horn are serenading each other, McDunn states in a thematic passage:

“That’s life for you… Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving something more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can’t hurt you no more.”

By turning off the horn, McDunn fulfills his own lonely theory of life. He breaks the monster’s heart by turning off the horn, causing the monster to want to destroy the source of its heartache. McDunn lives a lonely life, believes that to be the only life, and perpetuates that loneliness onto the monster. The reader can imagine that perhaps he had a wife or lover at some time in the past, though that’s not part of the text. In contrast, after this experience, Johnny marries and chooses a life of community and connection.

In addition to the plot advancement, McDunn’s slow revelation of the monster to Johnny serves as a source of rising suspense through mystery. On the second page, we learn that McDunn had “been nervous all day and hadn’t said why.” A little later he tells Johnny, “I got something special I been saving up to tell you.” Then, after they climb to the top of the lighthouse, he says, “You been here now for three months, Johnny, so I better prepare you. About this time of year something comes to visit the lighthouse.” However, McDunn fails to tell Johnny what to watch for. While they’re waiting, McDunn tells a story of how the fog horn was invented. He says that he made the story up to explain why “this thing” keeps returning to the lighthouse each year. What thing? McDunn still won’t say. At last, “[s]omething was swimming toward the lighthouse tower.” The creature emerges from the deep and Johnny finally gets a full view of the beast, easing some of the mystery and tension built from McDunn’s anxiety provoking statements, but then Johnny asks, “Why does it come here?” We are then treated to a description of the serenading of the beast and the tower, along with McDunn’s explanation for how the creature rises from the deep, the time it takes, and the effort, to reach its man-made mate. Finally, McDunn turns off the horn, breaks the monster’s heart, and instigates the story’s climax.

In addition to the suspense, McDunn’s storytelling proclivities mimic the triplicate pattern common to many conventional plots. McDunn tells three stories to Johnny in the course of the story. First, he tells a story of how, one night, all the fish in the sea swam to the surface to stare at the light of the lighthouse which beamed red and white into their “funny eyes.” They fanned out in the water “like a big peacock’s tail.” McDunn imagines that the fish must have come to worship, believing themselves “in the Presence.” This pre-story mirrors and predicts the coming of the monster who will be similarly attracted by the sound of the fog horn.

Next McDunn tells his invented story of how the Fog Horn came into existence:

“…[A] man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean … and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long; … I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls… I’ll make me a sound…and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.’”

This story describes the sound of the lighthouse, but also predicts the voice of the coming monster. Additionally, it develops the story’s theme—loneliness—which was first introduced in the initial dialogue between Johnny and McDunn on the first page of the story: “It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?”

Third and finally, McDunn tells the story, again imagined by himself, of how the monster first heard the sound of the fog horn five years ago when the lighthouse was built, and how it must have taken three months to rise from the deep, feeding “on great slakes of cod and minnow, on rivers of jellyfish,” rising slowly to “pressuriz[e] yourself day by day” so you don’t explode, hearing the call, and finally finding the lighthouse with its “neck like your neck… a body like your body…a voice like your voice.” An end to loneliness. Interestingly, McDunn shifts mid-story from his assumed POV of the monster, into the second-person, putting himself, Johnny, and the reader into the mind of the monster, increasing our sympathy to it, experiencing its endless aching loneliness for ourselves.

In sum, the plot of “The Fog Horn” is carried along by multiple devices. Smaller parallel stories within the story create resonance as they echo against each other. Tension is built through mystery: incremental teasers that something big and bad will visit the lighthouse. The monster’s desire is resisted by McDunn to explosive effect. The theme of loneliness is developed through the word’s repetition throughout the text, resulting in a story that leaves the reader bereft.

.

Conclusion

A writer who veers away from the traditional plot can employ numerous devices to achieve an interesting, resonant story. Shifting points of view, verb tenses, and narrator tone can disorient a reader and arouse curiosity. As an alternative to conflict between in-story characters, the driving desire can be placed on an out-of-story character or narrator. Subverting expectations when retelling a well-known story can activate reader interest. Stories within a story can echo and amplify each other. Shadow texts can be adapted into faux documents which provide an alternative structure. Defamiliarization can revitalize a well-known plot. Tension can be raised through mystery (hinting at what is to come) or foretelling (naming what is to come). These devices are not unique to outlier stories; they are the same devices used in traditional literature. However, they can be orchestrated to keep a story buoyant and interesting when a conventional plot is absent.

Yet one device is paramount and deserves special treatment. All of the stories discussed in this essay employ repetition. Repetition lies at the heart of the conventional plot structure (the same conflict repeated, the same desire resisted), but is itself a versatile technique that can be utilized with any words, images, or thematic motifs within a story to develop a structural pattern. Repetition creates connections, intertextual reverberations that impel the reader to compare and contrast each successive iteration. Similar to rhetorical questions, it is a technique that allows a story to resonate within itself, to be in dialogue with itself, to build density and depth. Through juxtapositions, twinnings, and triplings, repetition multiples a reader’s mental associations with the text, thereby exploring more deeply a story’s meaning.

An unconventional plot built on repetition resembles a spiral, revisiting the same word or phrase again and again, but each time from a different context. If a traditional plot is like a wave, perhaps an outlier is like a seashell, swirling inward, tighter and tighter, until its inner core is touched. Both are interesting, and not necessarily so different from one another. In fact, if you hold a seashell to your ear, you can hear the ocean whisper.

—Julie Jones

 


Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. “The Fog Horn.” The Golden Apples of the Sun, Greenwood Press, 1971, pp. 15-24.
Burroway, Janet, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 7th ed., Pearson, 2007.
Calvino, Italo. “The Distance to the Moon.” Cosmicomics. Translated by William Weaver, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 3-16.
Carter, Angela. “The Company of Wolves.” The Bloody Chamber and Other Stores, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 110-118.
Cortázar, Julio. “Axolotl.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Blackburn, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 3-9.
Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, Biblioasis, 2012.
Miller, Lion. “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction.” Best SF Three: Science Fiction Stories. Edited by Edmund Crispin, Faber & Faber, 1958, pp. 89-92.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.


 

Julie Jones is currently enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Connecticut but hikes everywhere.


 

Oct 122018
 

Delighted and charmed also by the arrival of my author’s copy of Experimental Literature: A Collection of Statements, edited my Warren Motte and Jeffrey R. Di Leo. In it, you will find my essay “The Literature of Extinction.” The book is a special revised and expanded edition of American Book Review 37.5 (July/August 2016), where my essay originally appeared. It’s published by JEF Books, which is the book publishing wing of The Journal of Experimental Fiction.

I take particular pleasure in this publication in part because it cemented a friendship with Warren Motte, whom I met when I asked him to contribute to Numéro Cinq. Here is Warren.

Warren Motte 2016

Almost equally of importance is the fact that so many Numéro Cinq editors and contributors contributed to this book. Let me count the names: Douglas Glover (moi), Rikki Ducornet, Julie Larios, Michael Martone, Warren Motte (himself), Lance Olsen, and Eleni Sikelianos, This is a tribute to the sharpness of our cutting edge, the heft and depth of our community. I am pretty proud of this.

—dg

Here is the publisher’s description:

Literary Nonfiction. Essays. In EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE: A COLLECTION OF STATEMENTS thirty-four writers and critics reflect upon how literature puts itself to the test in an effort to make itself new. Those reflections assume very different shapes, and each approaches the question from a different angle. There are formalist readings here, and historicist readings; some contributors consider the politics of literature, others focus upon aesthetics; some statements deal with national traditions or periods, others are more synchronist. There are pieces on French theater, the Russian avant-garde, and performance in West Africa. There are meditations on poetry as a daily practice, on experiment as a way of knowing, on the restlessness of liminal spaces, and on the incommensurate dimensions of dream and reality. Each contribution is fueled by the notion that literature works best when it is willing to interrogate its own premises. Both individually and collectively, these analyses display an extraordinary mobility, one that does justice to the dynamism of experimental literature itself. Each essay engages its readers actively and thoughtfully, inviting us to participate in a conversation about literature’s horizon of possibility, about what literature is and can be. Robert Coover, arguably the most distinguished living American experimentalist, contributes an afterword to this volume.

Oct 122018
 

 

I am delighted and charmed to (drum roll) be able to say that I just received my author’s copies of Ingrid Ruthig‘s wonderful collection of essays David Helwig: Essays on his Works. I have mentioned this before on the blog, in the pre-order stage. Forgive me for repeating myself. It’s a lovely book. I mention in my essay an earlier essay by the late Tom Marshall, and Ingrid managed to snag the rights that essay and include it in the book. And so many Numéro Cinq alums had their hands in it, including Mark Sampson, rob mclennan and George Fetherling. And, of course, Ingrid herself published in the magazine (poetry and art). The book is published by Guernica Editions.

My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in was commissioned by Ingrid especially for the book. I had a lovely time writing it. Helwig is a master of the novella form, also a master poet, novelist, memoirist — you name it.  David is an old, old friend (inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but (have I mentioned this?) the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo or Amazon.

—dg

Jul 052018
 

My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in will shortly appear in David Helwig: Essays on his Works edited by the inimitable Ingrid Ruthig (pub date is September 1 2018, but you can pre-order on Amazon.com or Indigo). Ingrid is a protean artist, contributing both poems and text/art to our pages (follow the links). In fact, she’s a prime example of how many people who found their way here actually became friends.

Ingrid subsequently, in her role as editor, invited me to write the essay for the book, which I was happy to do because David Helwig is an old, old friend (also inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo.

So, oddly enough, the magazine lives on (actually we still get upward of 600 views per day) in its influences and friendships.

dg

From the essay:

It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.

Buy the book to read the rest.

Jun 242018
 

I am a bit slow on this one. An excerpt from my Davy Crockett novel Doom was published in the April issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Something here relating to a childhood obsession with Walt Disney’s version of the story and Fess Parker and raccoon hats.

A little research demonstrated that Davy probably never wore a coon skin hat, that this popular image derived from a stage actor who became immensely popular doing a broad caricature of Crockett’s public backwoods persona.

The backwoods persona hooked into a kernel of truth. Crockett was a hardscrabble farmer, living mostly in poverty, hunting for meat. But when he turned politician, he leaned on his street cred, drawling out homespun stories, telling jokes on his opponents, dolling out chewing tobacco and horns of liquor to constituents.

The real David Crockett perhaps looked more like this.

He became a member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, a Washington personality, a campaigner for what were called squatters rights, a popular speaker, and a legend in his own time. At one point, he was nominated to run for president, though not much came of this. But what really interested me, aside from not being what he seemed to be, was that Crockett wrote a book, his memoirs, which was intended as one of the first campaign biographies but was actually a very readable, if somewhat untrustworthy, account of growing up in rural America after the Revolution. Some critics see it as an early precursor of the kind of folksy humour Mark Twain made famous. There is also some doubt about how much of the book Crockett actually wrote (he had some help). But he published other books as well, collections of articles and speeches, mostly intended as potboilers.

All this interested me. In one of his letters from Texas, he confided that he wanted to write one more book, a sentiment with which many of us can identify. This was on his way to the Alamo, and we all know what happened there (though current research says we have all that wrong as well).

Here’s a taste of what is in The Brooklyn Rail, from an early chapter.

Yr Informant indites: 

When the Orchestra blared out Crockett’s March, Hackett, the Actor, tramped upon the Boards in Moccasins, leather Chaps, buckskin Fringes a foot long dangling from his Shirt, & a shiny Rifle cast in the Crook of one Arm. On his Head was a Varmint curled in a peculiar Manner so that the Tail hung over one Temple.

This was at the Washington Theater.

It were Uncanny to see the Legend from the Box, me & not me.

As if there weren’t already enough Versions of me wandering the Earth.

There was no use saying I didn’t wear a buckskin Shirt or that the Fringes would catch in the Laurels on a bear Hunt or that Hackett was Taller & Straighter & Leaner than yours truly.

He bowed & I bowed. It was like looking through the Mirror. I had the Feeling as the Audience bayed & Applauded that there was some mean public Joy in the Juxtaposition of the Real & the Theatrical, only I was not sure which was which.

I knew who I was when I pissed in the Pot & put on my broadcloth Coat & tied my Tie & brushed my broad-brimmed Beaver ere Tom Doggett came to Fetch me at the boarding House. 

But I had entered a treacherous Place in which it did not matter what I thought was real. People were sure James Hackett’s Colonel was the authentic One.

To most Folks who had seen the play or just heard about it, he was the Identical Colonel. 

This is some new Dispensation in the Order of Things. I cannot Fathom it completely. Christians quote me back what I Said in the Play & if I don’t talk the way Hackett makes me talk they Turn away disappointed. So I find I must Bend myself toward the Unreal to seem Real.

I believe I was somewhat responsible for promoting Myself on the Stump & liked the Acclaim & Intrigue.

But it has got Away from me.

I am living Legend but the Legend precedes me.

He bows & I bow.

Did you ever see the devil,

With his pitchfork and ladle?

I am all of a Sweat because I envy Him.

Except for that peculiar Hat. 

Which now the Constituents expect me to wear, which  I do, God Help Me, imitating an Actor imitating me.

Click here to read the rest at TBR.

Jun 242018
 

DG has been observing radio silence the last few months. He was supposed to be relaxing, basking in the after-glow of his retirement from magazine publishing. But then many bad things happened, not the least of which was the death of Lucy, the NC Blue Dog. Friends and readers who followed the magazine and the Out & Back blog knew her well. She was DG’s constant companion and photographic model.

In March, when the karmic tsunami of bad things began to ebb, DG found a new dog. His name is Pancho. DG was thinking of Pancho Villa, the great Mexican bandit revolutionary, but probably Willie Nelson’s “Pancho and Lefty” was in the back of his mind.

Pancho & Cleo, NC bunker mates

He has a baleful eye, which gives a character of inner complexity

On the farm

Oct 112017
 

Sulphur Mountain from dg’s bedroom window, Banff Centre

The past week and a half I’ve been at the Banff Centre, surrounded by hysterically looming, steroidal mountains, teaching nonfiction in the Emerging Writers Intensive program along with Elizabeth Philips (poetry), Jennifer Haigh (short fiction) and Rachel Cusk (first novel chapters). Here is a picture of us all. Cascade Mountain on the left and Tunnel Mountain on the right behind us.

Photo by Donald Lee. DG is the one looking stern in his Plainfield Hardware baseball cap.

The mountains totally intimidated me as did the signs all over campus indicating that bears were plentiful and dangerous and that the elk were rutting and that I should avoid male elk especially (I had some serious fears in this regard), although, as it turned out, we saw no bears or elk (no doubt they were off rutting in private instead of parading their lubricity in the streets).

Canadian moose, beaver, & bears in national costume, Banff Ave

An enterprising person in my workshop early discovered the Park Distillery downtown, which soon became a regular meeting spot for intense literary discussion, manuscript critiques, and philosophical debate. We had so many philosophical debates there that my class gave me a bottle of the Park Distillery’s homemade gin (best with Fentiman’s botanically brewed tonic water) as a bon voyage present.

Cascade Mountain from Banff Ave

Some of us were going to walk up Sulphur Mountain one afternoon after workshop, but the weather turned indifferent and we strolled along a branch of the Bow River on the Hoodoo Trail instead (I should be clear: a group of intrepid students did go to the top of Sulphur that day and lived).

Bow River branch looking back toward the Centre

Rundle Mountain from the trail

Hoodoos

Mostly the scenery defeated me as a photographer, and it’s all been photographed to death anyway (you could see the mountains blushing with embarrassment).

But the people in my workshop were extraordinarily lovely — engaged, passionate, animated. We held workshops in the Max Bell building with my diagrams tacked up around the room like a frieze (occasionally a deer would look in the window to see what was what). But for individual manuscript sessions we met in the McLab café looking toward Mount Norquay in the distance.

And at night I’d go to bed listening to the train whistles (after all, that’s the reason the town is there in the first place — the trains). I make jokes, but I think I was ready for this trip.

dg

 

Sep 272017
 

The estimable Montreal literary magazine Matrix (a print magazine, Issue #109). has just published the first four chapters of After Grace, a novel I’ve been working on, one of many such.  After Grace is an entertainment set in Ragged Point, Alabama. If you follow these sorts of things, Ragged Point is a fictional place on the Gulf Coast wherein several of my stories have arisen: “Story Carved in Stone” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour and “Sixteen Categories of Desire” and “The Left Ladies Club” in 16 Categories of Desire. Since Ragged Point doesn’t exist — and in any case, I have never been to Alabama — it’s a kind of relaxing place to visit. Anything can happen.

If you want to read the text, you’ll have to buy the magazine. But here’s taste:

Moses and the Burning Bush

Barley Tinkle was teaching Bible Stories for Little People in the basement of the Ragged Point Newest Separated Baptist Church of the Twelve Mercies, a cinder block one-storey with a half-basement out by the sewage lagoon a mile past the brick and wrought-iron entrance to the Mermaid Marina and Country Club on the bayou. Upstairs Pastor Gilboom was leading the congregation in singing “In the Firefight of Life, the Lord’s got your Back” accompanied by his wife Tabitha and her vibrating electric organ. Pastor Gilboom was a veteran of the War in Kuwait, where he had heroically driven a refrigerated food services truck for four months before he sprained his back hefting pallets of frozen TV dinners and had to be evacuated State-side. He had written the hymn all on his own, pecking out the melody on his grandson’s 10-key plastic piano. He said, “I had no idea I had a musical gift till I tried. The Lord, who made man and woman out of mud, sent the spirit to me.”

Barley was aware that the eleven parishioners made a pathetic show next to the Assyrian Baptist Church across the street, which was all black people except for his neighbour Geeda Rainbolt, who had a half-black son named Adam and no husband, also two Vietnamese shrimp fishermen and their families, an extended family of Guatemalan immigrants, a Kurdish Christian orthopedic surgeon (unlicensed, as yet, in the US of A) named Hamid, and a token unrelated white woman named Vida Delgrove, who was a defiant person and sat at the back on principle when she was home from college in the summer and at Christmas, though she had once or twice been asked to leave. The Assyrians had an overflow congregation of 127 adults and when they belted out a hymn you could hear it in Bayou La Batre. Not only that but the Church of the Twelve Mercies didn’t actually own its own house of worship but rented it from the Assyrians who had previously occupied it before moving into the spiffy, glass-fronted modern building with the curved, upswept peak that made it look like a ski chalet with a paved parking lot and palmetto hedge overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Five small people sat cross-legged on the lawn-green fire carpet in a semi-circle before Barley who assumed the seat of authority, a purple polka-dotted bean bag chair that would not support his back. Overhead a dull yellow bar light buzzed. Everything smelled of mildew. There was only one half-window that looked out at the parking pad and the rear fender of Pastor Gilboom’s RAM Rebel (with the Southern cross vanity plates). Every time someone flushed the toilet in the bathroom upstairs it sounded like Niagara Falls coming through the walls. There was a shiny new Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in the corner with a BUSTED sign taped to the handle, a Casio keyboard with MISSING POWER SUPPLY sign leaning against the wall, a rolled up map of the Bible Lands he had bought in a flea market, a stack of sprung-backed hymn books left by the Assyrians, and a matte black gun locker that contained Pastor Gilboom’s automatic weapons collection.

Around the walls Barley had taped up a dozen crayon drawings of Jesus in the Manger that he had collected from the children before Christmas, pictures detailing the well known and beloved story of Jesus, his mother Mary, his father Joseph and the four dogs, a pony, a budgie, two hamsters, and a kitten that had attended the birth. One showed Baby Jesus with an Xbox controller. Iris Tullahome, who was thirteen, had said, as she handed over her Cubist portrait of a dismembered Saviour and his mother’s three breasts and Joseph’s copious tears, “I feel sorry for Joseph because his wife was having another man’s child.”

Iris Tullahome was the largest of the small people, all of whom seemed faintly demonic to Barley, who had no children of his own, nor a wife (except for that one time), let alone a girlfriend. This was not for want of trying as he had profiles up on six dating websites: “Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, traditional family values, non-drinker, disease free (hookworm cured), non-smoker, not a fan of beaches or air travel, nervous stomach, part-time student at the American New Light Fellowship Online College of Pastorology (license conferred upon completion of the course), prefers easy listening music, does not drive, needs inhaler occasionally, open-minded but inexperienced, interested in LTR and Civil War re-enactments (watching only), seeks like-minded white female with car.”

“Are you a homosexual?” Iris once asked. Another time: “Are you sexually interested in children or animals?” The other children looked up to Iris Tullahome. She was the pack leader and the highlight of their weekly Sunday school class. Whenever she raised her hand to speak or ask a question, Barley could see the glint of anticipation flit from eye to eye. “Personally, I am doubtful of men who wear pastel yellow cardigan sweaters and LL Bean stretch dress khakis.” At the moment she said this, Iris was dressed in a neon green belly shirt, a denim mini-skirt hemmed above mid-thigh, blue tights, pink knee socks with the word PINK in white, and Uggs because it was winter. She noticed Barley’s eye tracking the letters on the sides if her legs. She said, “Do you know what PINK stands for, Mr. Tinkle?” And the way she said the word, with about eighteen syllables and a certain arching of her prematurely plucked eyebrows, made him blush crimson and lose what was left of his train of thought.

The lesson for the day was Moses and the burning bush, chosen carefully with Iris Tullahome in mind (Rahab the Harlot was out, as was any reference to the rape of Dinah, Onan, David and Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, Lot and his daughters, Jephtha and his daughter, the emerods in Kings, or the “hill of foreskins” on the banks of the Jordan in the book of Judges – all of which topics had been raised by Iris in the past; evidently she was an avid Bible reader), except that as soon as he said the words burning bush the demonic congregation began to titter inanely.

Iris Tullahome held up her pink phone, pressed the screen, and said, “We are not alone, Mr. T. I am streaming you. What was that about somebody’s burning bush?”

“Not that kind of bush,” said Barley. “Iris, tell me you’re not—.”

“What kind of bush did you think I meant, Mr. T.?” asked Iris Tullahome. “Golly.” She pushed the phone towards him.

Iris Tullahome gave Barley fits when she started in like this. He couldn’t imagine a motive for twisting his words so maliciously the more so since Iris had a quiet, Christian sister, older by four years, named Lorelei Tullahome, who prayed upstairs with the adults, was a straight A student, a member of the swim team (breast stroke), and had applied to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, early decision.  With Lorelei he could have intelligent conversations about intelligent design, fetal rights, what books should be banned from the school library that weren’t already banned and why African-American people were mostly poor and behind (except for the ones they had in Ragged Point who seemed, unaccountably, above average). But Iris disagreed or misconstrued everything he said. He felt sorry for her because she would not come to Jesus if she went on like this and she would miss the blessings of heaven, the pleasures of the communion of angels, the chance to talk to illustrious dead like Pastor Weldon Taber of the Second Alabama Circuit and the saintly Sister Euphemia Applegate, Barley’s ninth grade choir director, both of whom he had sought out for one-on-one discussions of Christ’s mission on earth and the difficulties of self-pollution before they passed. She had also been seen standing outside Rance’s Men’s Wear on Water Street of late in the company of LaTrobe Washington, a local basketball prospect and rap singer (also rumoured to be a drug dealer, though Barley could not believe that there were any illegal drugs sold to the children of Ragged Point).

Barley hadn’t given the lesson yet, but Iris raised her hand again. She had thick black hair, thick eyebrows, extremely red lips and long dangly earrings. She said, “Is it true that in the Bible Moses wife is a Negro?”

“We call them African-Americans, Iris.”

“Moses’ wife was an African-American?” She held out her phone.

“It doesn’t say that. But some authorities think she was from Ethiopia and the people there are Africans.”

“So it’s true. Moses, God’s right hand guy, had a African wife. How could God let that happen?”

“Well, it’s not clear–”

“And is it true that, as a favour to Moses, God gave his wife leprosy to turn her white?”

“It’s seems – well, maybe – something like that.”

The four other demons were gaping in stunned amazement and adoration at their beloved leader’s audacity and superior Bible knowledge, also in astonishment that there were such things in the Bible (although after Iris’s interventions and digressions on Rahab the Harlot, the rape of Dinah, the emerods, etc., nothing should have surprised them).

“That would be kinda hard on Mrs. Moses, wouldn’t it?” said Iris. “I mean when her skin melted and her nose fell off and her fingers rotted down to nubbins and she died. Is this the sign of a God who thinks ahead?”

Barley was staring out the half-window, struggling with his heart. I am having convulsive heart failure, he thought, knowing full well that there was no such thing. Between the tires of Pastor Gilboom’s pickup, he could see a rectangle of the front entrance and parking lot of the Assyrian Church across the road and an endless cavalcade of African-American legs and feet debouching from their morning service. They were happy legs, couples touching thighs as they walked, families holding hands with little ones half-suspended between their elders, legs leaning together for a handshake or a hug, legs in pressed pants or billowy dresses. His neighbour Geeda Rainbolt’s lean white legs were easily recognizable beneath the chaste navy skirt he had seen her wearing when she left for church. Her legs flashed in the sunlight, next to Adam’s chubby knees. The sun was shining on that side of the street but not in the dismal cave where Barley stood with Iris Tullahome and her phone and the Mother of God with three breasts. Surely, Christ dwelt with the black people these days. Surely, he preferred their company to Barley’s who felt, especially when a female talked back to him, unutterably bereft and alone. Profile: Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, seeks Saviour, LTR preferred but will consider all offers.

He felt a hand tugging at his sleeve.

“Mr. T.” Iris Tullahome said, “I got a text from Daddy. He wants to see you A-SAP.”

—Douglas Glover

Aug 162017
 

Editor-in-chief prepares to leave the building.

Now is the moment for reflection, gratitude, and farewells. Not that I am going away or anyone else connected with the magazine for that matter. It’s just that we won’t appear again in quite this form. (And I am going to sell the white horse, which has started to attract attention.)

The magazine started with a group of friends feeling outsiderish and piratical, and it has persisted in that light, though the names have gradually changed over time. There are 40 people on the masthead today; the list of artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine could fill a small town; and then there are our readers, most of whom we will never know, though some, in keeping with our policy, have become writers for the magazine and friends.

The fact that we got so big and lasted so long (on fumes) is miraculous.

It would be invidious to single out individuals, but there are some who by their intelligence and loyalty have altered my thin view of the human race. And others whose sheer bloody-minded willingness to throw their support behind an upstart magazine and persist have taught me something about the nature of friendship and the value of art. I will never forget the decency, kindness and camaraderie that have characterized NC’s inner workings. You are an astonishing tribe. I am eternally grateful.

My sons grew to adults under the sign of Numéro Cinq (while my dog — the blue dog of NC fame — grew ancient and incontinent). It was ever a topic of dinner table conversation (Mission Control has always been in the bedroom, where my laptop lives). Jonah designed the logo. Jacob still reads with the analytic eye he learned writing reviews for the magazine.

Now the feeling around here is distinctly autumnal, and I am a bit anxious about what I am going to do with myself when I don’t have to get up in the morning and attend to the magazine chores.

As for the site, it will remain live as a monument to us all. All your work, the archives, the special features and anthologies, will be available. Possibly, I will post in the NC Blog now and then on matters relating to the magazine. I’ve been using the “Out & Back” blog category as my personal blog; I might have to sort that out (or not).

There are going to be loose ends. Story of my life.

A few issues back I mentioned a speech from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander that seemed to capture the feeling. It’s very early in the film. Oscar Ekdahl is making his annual speech to the cast after the Christmas pageant in the little family-owned theatre.

Dear friends, dear fellow workers, dear family! For twenty-two years I have stood here and made a speech. I am not really any good at this sort of thing. My only talent, if you can call it a talent in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse. And I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better. Or is it perhaps that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, forgetting for a while the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love. I don’t know why I am so awfully moved today of all days. I feel so comically solemn. I can’t explain how I feel. I had better be brief.

(He shakes his head, raises his glass, and looks at the people gathered around him.)

—Douglas Glover

Aug 152017
 

.

Not sure why they want to fuck us. Is it because we look like children never been adults? Or is because we look like adults always been children? Either way the pretty tall boys keep on coming down from Colorado and California and stay at the El Paso Camino Real looking for a KILLVest® and some hot dwarf action. They say they can’t die up north anymore. KILLVests® illegal now. Dwarves mostly exterminated back in ’48. They tired of sitting around in their big houses going to work everyday, making money. Tired of all that life, all that living. They ask at what point living no different than death? They need a way to tell the difference. To remember who and what they are. Get themselves fake-killed. Be fake-resurrected. Fuck a dwarf. Maybe then they see the point of living again, go back to work refreshed, happy, love their wives like they should, give to charity, be good.

Problem is we don’t have no KILLVests® in the Free Zone of El Paso neither. We poor. All we got is my Big Billy Boy’s bowie knife and some old Texas Army Kevlar vests. We got to real kill with fake-KILLVests® just they like they got to fuck a dwarf so they ain’t cheating on their tall fake-boobed blonde wives. It makes sense somehow. Not to me, I’m just a dwarf, but to somebody somewhere, I suppose.

Billy Boy gives them a fake-vest don’t look nothing like a real vest and I start taking off my clothes real slow. Then right when they getting all into it, get a little taste, Billy Boy starts hacking. They excited for the knife until they realize they ain’t got no real vest and they going to real die. Or maybe not. Maybe they real die just like they fake die. Who can tell the difference? Not me. I can’t even watch.

Sometimes I get cold feet, beg Billy Boy to stop. I ask, can’t we just take the man’s money? But Billy Boy says how we going to let him go, Darling? Where they going to go to? They got to die because that’s what they really want to do, that’s why they here in the first place. He says if we let them go they just go back and tell more people where we are. Then they’ll come with the drones and the dogs and they’ll kill us for sure. I don’t know, I say. They people. My mama taught me all people got a right to live, tall, short, everyone. But he says life don’t matter much, anyway. All life meant to die. Whether they do it now or later just a matter of time, and time ain’t anything at all.

Can’t argue with him. He’s been all over the old U.S. with the Texas Army before he went AWOL and settled in the El Paso Free Zone. He’s done read a bunch of books too. Well, one book actually. But he’s read that one a lot. It’s a book about science. Explains the universe. Says we just bugs, all of us, talls, dwarves, even Billy Boy, and we all come from the sea and one day we all going back.

Hard to believe that’s true but I never read no book or seen no sea. Been in this desert ever since my mama brought me all the way to El Paso from Brazil when I was a little dwarf just like my grandmother took her from Naples to Brazil when she was a little dwarf. I told Billy Boy the other day I want to see the sea with my own two eyes, see if it’s true. I want to make it to the real water before I die. I tell him that’s how I know the difference between life and death.

Billy Boy smiles real big. Billy Boy thinks that’s the funniest thing in the world. Sea’s so big, he says. You so small! Go ahead and laugh, I tell Billy Boy. You know for a scientific fact we dwarves fuck. Think we can’t swim too? Think we scared of the sea?

***

Three weeks back I was coming out the Camino Real bathroom in a poofy-white halter-top antebellum number with more makeup than an albino clown and this boy says his name’s Absalom and he’d like to buy me a drink. But he says it all nervous like, like he doesn’t know how to use the words he’s saying, like they don’t sound right to him or he’s reading them from a book. He’s hardly a man at all, not tall, a boy really, might even have a little bit of dwarf in him, with those wrinkles around those bright blue eyes and pretty lips. I take his hand and lead him to the blue circle bar and say why, certainly I’d like a drink, we dwarf ladies do get parched during the summer months.

Billy Boy’s waiting in the truck outside. Good thing too. Way Absalom’s friends laughing on the other side of the blue bar, making faces and sticking fingers in finger holes, Billy Boy might start the slaughter early, then we’d never see no sea; we’d be murdered by the robot police or strung up on a West Texas crucifix. I ask for another Shirley Temple. Talls always love that. Think it cute. Sure tastes like shit though. Tried getting the bartender to slip some gin in there on the sly last year, but he’s an ancient Mexican with cataracts the size of dimes, thinks I’m a little girl. Always asking me about my momma. She’s upstairs I tell him. Got a wicked headache.

Absalom’s saying he’s here to economically develop the area around the Camino Real. He wants to revitalize the Border, show the South what the West can do for them because we all friends in the end. His friends saying they’d like to revitalize something all right and it’s about three feet tall with boobies like a Texas Barbie doll. I say I think that’s right and proper, decent of him, being so concerned with our border welfare and the good people of the El Paso Free Zone. The boy blushes real hard and I feel bad because I can’t remember the last time I blushed actual rather than used a brush. Days like this I don’t want to fuck no mark and certainly don’t want to see a man die. Days like this I just want to go home and watch a movie with Billy Boy, a movie about a different world than this one, ones that used to be or the talls used to imagine the world might be. But Billy Boy don’t watch no movies. Says they rot the mind.

“Aren’t you the sweetest thing I ever did see,” I say. Absalom’s friends think this is funny. “You sure are sweet, Absalom,” one of them says. “Absalom too sweet for a dried up dwarf.” Absalom tells them to shut up, but I say it’s all right, putting my small hand on his forearm, giving them other boys a meaningful stare. “We just having a good time,” I say. “Don’t none of us here mean no harm.”

.

Billy Boy drives Absalom and me to the hotel like he a cab service and says he always likes seeing young love and for a little extra he can get the both of us some real thrills. Got him some authentic KILLVests® back at the place. It’s the same old song and dance. Absalom don’t know what to say. He tongue-tied. Keeps on looking into my eyes like he found something he’s been looking for his whole life. But his is a short life, maybe twenty years, going to stay short too. What he know about what he’s been waiting for? How someone live so little know anything at all?

Back at the apartment, Absalom’s feeling the whiskey and starts talking about his wife, how they just married and she don’t really know who he is and he don’t know if he loves her, because what’s love? Billy Boy’s already got the fake vests out, lined up on the table like they bumps of coke. He’s telling me to get comfortable too, show off my lacy underpants, telling Absalom what fun it is to die and then come back again, pushing the murder and the sex along, like he heard what Absalom’s friends were all saying to me inside, like he sees in this poor baby Absalom all those other men Billy Boy’s seen kill and rape and pillage dwarves and talls in those battles he fought on the other side of the border, or like he’s seeing Absalom for a number in that book he reads, like this boy all boys and all boys the same boy and it don’t make no difference how they die and who makes them die because they all already dead.

“Billy Boy,” I say. “Maybe Absalom just wants another drink. Maybe Absalom don’t want no KILLVest®. Maybe he just wants an old-fashioned good time. We don’t even know the boy yet. As an individual.”

Absalom’s picking at the vest, holding it up to the exposed light, eyes lizard big. Ever since they banned them up north ten years back, these northern boys want to know what the fuss’ about. Want to know why you got to ban something that kills and don’t kills a person. You think people would’ve sense enough not not kill themselves, especially one as pretty as Absalom. But next thing you know he’s got it on, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Feels himself a man now, big, taller than Billy Boy even, and sits down next to me on our old couch, a smile on his face like he just popped the prom queen’s cherry.

“You want a good time, don’t you, Absalom?” asks Billy Boy. “You want you to have a good time with Darling here. Maybe get yourself into a fight. Maybe get yourself killed. You want to see what it’s like don’t you? What it’s like to live like us? We got real lives down here in the El Paso Free Zone. This ain’t no Denver.”

Absalom’s laughing now. Thinks he’s a man. They no good. I know that. Even a pretty one like Absalom. They gladly fuck me and then see me strung up on the tiny crosses lining the road to Colorado. Wouldn’t even blink their giant eyes. Take all kinds of pleasure in beating me up. In seeing me hurt and then forgetting that dwarves can hurt all at the same time. But that don’t mean I can’t stand the light in their eyes going away. Light ain’t meant to go away. That’s all it ever seems to do. Especially with Billy Boy around. He’s got something awful for the light.

“Absalom’s friends saw me at the Camino, Billy Boy,” I say, pulling my dress back on, over my lacy underthings, not really thinking, just stalling, not liking the way the knife just stop things, all sudden. “Friends got big mouths. We don’t want trouble from the law. Maybe we should play with the KILLVests® some other time. Maybe Absalom needs to go back to his mama.”

Billy Boy gives me a look like he might kill me instead. He’s got big features, like a bat ate too many mice and then got so sick it can’t fly. Makes me want to laugh sometimes. Hard to imagine a face like that saw all the violence it seen, did what it did to these northern boys. Hard to imagine a face like that hurting cockroaches skittering up our apartment walls. But don’t matter how many dwarf wrinkles you got or if your face pretty and smooth as a baby’s butt, stabbing a knife is stabbing a knife, don’t take no monster to do it.

“Absalom’s a grown man,” says Billy Boy, pulling out that knife, staring now like Absalom a fish with a hook in the lungs, can’t go back in the water, going to die anyhow, so someone’s got to be a man, someone’s got to stand tall, finish the flopping thing off. Absalom got a big grin on his face, glancing back and forth at me and Billy Boy, like we at a movie about a dingy El Paso apartment with roaches on the walls, water leaking through the ceiling, like his life something his momma didn’t give him, just be thrown away like ours already has been. “Pull up that skirt now, Darling,” said Billy Boy. “Give pretty boy a sight to see before the end.”

I started pulling up my skirt, taking my underpants off, and then stop. Absalom crying. Scared. Like my momma was before the militias shot her in the head. Like I was before Billy Boy found me in a rain gutter up underneath Highway 10, eating banana peels and drinking Thunderbird, turning tricks for a motorcycle-meth gang. Billy Boy says you can’t show pity. You show pity, you die. But I can’t help it. I go to rub Absalom’s crotch, like I’m going to take off his pants. Absalom starts sobbing hard and I roll around him, onto the floor, kick Billy Boy in the shins. Billy Boy so surprised he drops the knife. It clatters on the linoleum like a gunshot. “Run!” I shout. “Run, Absalom! We going to kill you. You really going to die!”

Absalom’s not crying no more. Rubs his face. Backs toward the door.  “You can’t,” he says. “I can’t die.”

“We all die,” says Billy Boy, picking up the knife. But Absalom’s already off, stumbling through the door, down the stairwell. I hear shouts down the way, illegal boarders cussing him something awful for messing up their hallway blankets and their tents. Billy Boy picks up his knife, goes through the door, stands at the top of the stairs, his shadow hunched. I’m laying on the couch my skirt hiked up, my organ showing to the world, thinking about my dead mama, where dwarves and talls come from, wondering why there’s so much coming and going, so much undressing and putting back on, why we can’t be naked and stay that way, without no vests or knives.

Billy Boy walks back in, stands over me. “I’m sorry, Billy Boy,” I say. “I couldn’t do it.” Billy Boy leans down from up high, kisses me on the forehead. Says it ain’t no fault of mine. Says softheartedness an evolutionary condition. Price of being a dwarf, says Billy Boy. I aint got no perspective. Can’t see the big picture. I grab his fingers, tell him to come close, lie down, relax for a bit, talk to me. But he says he’s tired. He says he’s going to read his book, book says alls there is to say.

.

Absalom had friends in high places. Should have known, pretty tall like that. Turns out he’s the son of a north general in charge of an army wants an end to all dwarf sanctuary towns, sick and tired of dwarf lies, wants peace forever and ever. They say on the loudspeakers and on the floating televisions screens if the El Paso Free Zone can’t control our dwarves then they can’t economically develop the city and if they can’t economically develop the city we all going to die and kill each other like wild dwarves so they going to clean up the city with their drones and their robots and their Assault Rifle Patriot Clubs.

But first they have to kill us. It is beautiful from the top of a mountain—the killing. The city glows like it never done from inside. Dark shadows, could be talls, could be dwarves, explode like moths flaring up in candles the size of Jesus. Drones dart in and out of the fire, putting it out with more explosions.  Camino Real and a few other hotels crumble. Highway 10 breaks in half. Billy Boy says many cities have done the same. No use getting upset. Billy Boy had some friends of his, Indian tribes come down from Ruidoso, take me up to Franklin Mountain to be safer. He says what’s going to go down no place for a pretty dwarf like me. I say it’s my fault. He says it ain’t no one’s fault. Bound to happen eventually. I say I can fight just like the rest of them. He smiles and says Darling, you a lover, not a fighter. I said he the same. That’s why we in love. But he says, no. He don’t believe in love. We just bugs in the end.

So I’m sitting on the Franklin ridge, holding Billy Boy’s science book, split like a hump between this world and the next, my small body peering down into the crackling flames, smelling the charring, waiting for my Billy Boy to come back, not believing it but knowing in my heart that he will, and then just when I’m about to give up hope, picturing him head shot like my Mama by some boy in blue, Billy Boy does come back, crawling up a path guarded by two fat young Indians. The Indians tell him to put his arms up but he says he can’t, his legs no good, shot to hell by drones. Indians says they better shoot him just in case. To be safe. Billy Boy says he just needs to say goodbye to his Darling. One Indian tells the other it be easier to shoot.

I scream, “Don’t you dare shoot!” and push past the Indians to embrace my Billy Boy. His face gone black with gunpowder and dried blood. He smiles. His teeth red as Texas wildflowers. They got my legs good, he says. Ain’t felt this kind of pain in a while. Ain’t felt anything this real in forever. Reminds me of the old days.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Stop your moaning,” I say.

“But, Darling, this is the end.”

“Answer me a question,” I say. “Why you ever alive then, you don’t like life?”

“Why Darling, I don’t know. I’m hurting. I can’t think right. I’m in pain.”

His legs bone white and chunked red and black. Smells like burnt bacon. Fatter Indian smoking a cigarette now, says it sad but Billy Boy’s a goner, cooked like a turkey. Says they’ll bury him with the dead Indians if I want. Maybe he go with the dead Indian God though they seen no evidence of their god being a particularly powerful God, being how they living on a mountain and still dying in droves even five hundred years after they got their land taken from them. I tell them to shut their depressing mouths. We ain’t dead yet, I say.

Billy Boy tells me to calm down. Tells me he wants a kiss before he goes, one more kiss from Darling. I bend down to kiss but stop short, rip my skirt off. Indians start hooting and hollering and whistling. I rip my dress in half, wrap Billy’s boy’s legs above the knee, shove a piece of dress in Billy Boy’s mouth. Take his knife, jab it in the campfire for a minute. “Wha yo don?” Billy Boy mumbles. He’s fading fast. “Don’t burn my knife. My knife a good knife.”

I bring the knife down on his thick good thigh meat above the knee. “You the devil!” Billy Boy screams, spitting out the cloth. I do the same to the other. The Indians watch on, taking swigs of purple liquor, like they feeling his pain, like they wearing KILLVests® and I’m doing it to them. “Shit,” they saying. “Shit.” I cut harder, all the way through the bone, until I’m down in the dirt stone, until I’m stabbing into the Franklin Mountain itself.

“I thought you said we just animals?” I scream at Billy Boy, wiping spit and tears and blood from my mouth. “How I a devil too?” But Billy Boy can’t hear me. He’s passed out, drops of sweat beading like clay on his forehead, teeth sticking out of his lip, blood all over the place, like he a mosquito been popped by Jesus. The city burning harder now down below, more robots and drones and rampaging armies coming in from the South, and East and West, Mexicans, Arizonans, New Mexicans, Texans, Americans, Hell’s Angels, Banderos, Rangers, Zetas, Christian Nationalists, Jihadists, Shiks, Nazis, Communists, Libertarians, Anarchists, Russians, Brazilians, Montenegrins, all going to clean the place up, make it pure again.

I get the Indians to help me drag Billy Boy’s legs to a green bush, the only one on the mountain not burnt. We dig a hole and put the legs and Billy Boy’s science book in there. Then we drink purple liquor together, damn sight better than a Shirley Temple. “I never bury no legs before,” says one of the Indians after the last clod goes over Billy Boy’s chopped legs. “Don’t seem right.”

.

We make it across Texas in Billy Boy’s truck, stopping only in small towns, telling them Billy Boy’s my papa. Cars and empty buildings flicking by so I feel like maybe I’m dead, maybe I died in El Paso with everyone else, and now I’m just running like I’m on rewind, repeating like a stuck video. But it’s not a bad feeling. It’s better than being afraid of ghosts like I was, killing and whoring because I didn’t know no better, because I can’t imagine a world different than it is. Billy Boy’s mostly quiet, sweating bullets, begging for death. But I tell him to hush. I tell him all you talls think you get to choose when you die, like you in charge of heaven and earth. But that’s not how it works.

Politician on the radio say dwarves’ evil. Got no soul. Maybe it’s true. How something with no soul know it ain’t got one? I don’t got no answer, so I turn the radio off and keep on driving, passing green trees, green lawns, green fields, so green it hurt my eyes. Then the truck’s engine and brakes screaming something awful, like a thousand child demons being cut to pieces under the hood, and I’m thinking we have another few hours driving left at most. I take Billy Boy’s hand. He’s moaning now, kicking his stumps, saying he don’t want to go back, go forward, go anywhere and in the engine racket I almost think this is the end, that the Four Horsemen caught up to us, going to split us in half, worse, split us apart, won’t let us be together. But then I look down and my stomach flips up into my chest: the sky’s in the wrong place. It’s come all the way down and around, rolling and running along the earth, eating up the green and the black and the brown all the way to the truck tires.

“Billy Boy,” I whisper, pulling to a stop, turning the engine off. He mumbles something I can’t make out. “Billy Boy!” I shout. I can’t wait. I’m already out of the cab. I’m taking off my clothes, my burnt white skirt, my bloody t-shirt, my underpants, peeling them off like shredded skin, like I’m a snake and venom in my scales not my teeth. I stumble on the soft gold sand and roll into the blue.

When I’m far enough out, when I coughing and choking on tinfoil blue, when it’s running along my hair and in between my toes, up my mouth and out my nose, I look back to shore. Billy Boy’s managed to get out the door, out onto the sand, and sits with his back against the truck’s burnt red-black wheel, bandaged stumps white eyes staring back at me. Truck hood puffs a string of gray smoke up into dark-bottomed clouds.

“The sea, baby!” I shout, standing up, letting the water run down me, like I’m a frog-fish and this the earth’s first day. “What I tell you? We made it to the sea!”

“We in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Darling,” he shouts. “It’s just a lake. We miles from the sea.”

I laugh and kick water, stumble back onto shore, out into golden sand, crawl up to my Billy Boy, lean over, touch his stumps with white-blue drops, kiss the drops one by one, suck the water up into my no-soul.

“What do you know of life?” I ask him real soft, touching his lips with mine. “What does a man like you know of the sea?”

—Michael Carson

.
Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He holds an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

.
.

Aug 152017
 

.

Love Letter from the Anthropocene

In my mind a waterfall. A coldness of water, dark cola currents in circular swirls. Rapids in miniature. I thought of some murky oil painting in the back of a gallery, this cove in the depths of the woods. In the shadows staring, shedding myself of people who parted like phantoms around me. This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep.

Was this a pre-experience of drowning? Did it happen in a dream? I recall the Secret Forest, exploring every nook and cranny of stone engraved, of foreign trees and mysterious huts. Gnarled wood and nonsensical drawings. I could hear birds whose origin was beyond me. A mint-coloured cascade made visible by the gaps in the emerald canopy, these mottled disco lights of gold and green. Years later I would be alone, then with a lover; splinters in my fingers, leaves in my hair, skin pressed close to the soil. I felt like the mystery crickets, my little croaks buried in needles and the mulch of insects, peat. Six dark streaks to my cheeks. I was wild.

I used to dream of drowning in dark and two-dimensional waters, the kind you find on ancient video games. I would be slipping, falling like Alice through perilous pixellated water; nothing buoying me up, strength fading, lungs choking as they filled with this water. It hurt so bad it was a sort of burning. I’d wake up, suffocating on my pillow, unable to breathe for a good five minutes. It was terrifying; the sensation scored in my skin so I’d never forget the shot of panic, adrenaline. Terrifying, but a necessary encounter with elemental intimacy. In such moments I’d forget myself, fully and nearly.

No floundering involved; instead an essential plunge. The rush of imaginary air. I’d invented a zone, a kind of sublime. Always quite out of reach, always there beyond some brink. Soon I was drawn to any trajectory. My life splintered its lines of desire; I was always trellising a net of crushes and loves and plans and regrets. The sight of a robin in the snow by the ice-crusted Kelvin would kill me, move me to tears. I let the flesh fall off, felt myself fragile and clear and hard. I soon realised that I was an alien being, not really human, hardly animal. There were the transcendentalists, their promises of freedom and spirit. There were matching green bruises on each of my hipbones, the soft impress of moss on my feet. I let all my wounds slip away, a form of abscission.

Where were these flat, transparent waters? Where was the tug of pondweed, the evil fishes with their Coleridgean flash and sparkle? I had nothing to empathise with. I could not whistle to the trees, could not whistle the way they did to me. I was ill-equipped for Aeolian thoughts. I had to crack open the fissures of my mind, fill them with eerie powders and aculeate drugs which tingled the skin for hours. I swooned to the window to watch the golden streams of light, the way they caught on the leaves of the summer limes, this glimmer I could only in the moment call mystical. This was temporary suspension, the end of depression’s snaring loop. I unravelled my net, felt each feeling take shape in the air around me. There were new zones. Clutching a cup of coffee, I felt the weight of tangible ceramic, the ooze of surly stuff I could not trace. Again, that gaping sensation of origins lost. I wanted to know everything about this coffee, its transit from deep in the soil, across oceans, lulling in lorries and jarred in factories. How it would groan like an old jazz singer when stirred in boiling water. You do not do, you do not do. The hot rush of caffeine made my veins jolt close to my skin. Through the solarised surface, the blue lines wove their fluvial currents and again I thought of electric space, the nuanced beauty of his distant face. Eyes of moss-green, the shadowy canopies. I was aflame in frozen bronze, clung to a friend’s sofa; life-raft upon a rising ocean. Soon the funereal cataracts would swamp this city. Spill over as easy as New York underwater. He brought me garlands of roses, which soon furled at the edges, browned and rotted to a pungent decay. I didn’t mind dying; it was the condition for existence. The petals fell upon the carpet, I swept them up and felt each one bloom into orbs of light. It made me shaky, like violins shredding their trembling key of sharp; great gashes of sound filling the room with their dissonant, abstract emotion. I longed for it all to end that dramatic, for the shivering minims to draw out each breath with irony alone.

Only the petrified stone retained its sincerity. The burst bits of sorrow and quartz lay all around me, a thousand refractions of my poisoned aura. Again I saw the oil painting; glimpsed its dark torrent of petroleum, the flickers of sheep. When I stared too long, the flat black sky began to fluoresce with unguent neon colours, this arsenic rich red that blossomed into coruscating orange, yellow, coral. The chemical soda of panic; I drank it in, felt in my chest its urgent fizz. Overlaid was the image of the Lake Project, David Maisel’s poetic mastery, this jagged array of shuddering lines, planes of nasty vermillion. I thought of hardened lava, bicarbonate dreams, the catalysing forms of inevitable pollution. From a bedroom window I drank Coca Cola. The forest was ready, warm in my thought, the breeze so crisp on my dehydrated face. It was burnt up in flames another day, the phosphorylase taste of sticky glucose, dissolving sugar. A new arrangement of needles, the amethyst bruise planted on my neck. Gluttony.

On the image, there was no place to rest the eye. Every capillary was always shifting. A constant dissolution of perspective, parallax melting to absolute flatness. I thought of the time I asked what an A road meant, and the boy said arterial. As if the world was a great bodily network, the flow of currents and traffic with every cell of life just some minimal part in the clotting transience of meshing blood. Such a thing was what, a Latourian plasma? A spilled can of molasses, darkling its presence on the concrete, treacle-thick and of godly opulence. I studied the lines with glyptographic precision, looking for the cracks underneath. These are the times I have loved you, loved you as I have loved the steam from a kettle, the way smoke gets in your eyes or smoulders the crack of your mouth. How your hair is a freshness of curls and gold; makes me think of the colour of harvest, the ardent ache of late summer, sunburn, long afternoons. Every pore of this skin is a window; I let the bacteria sink in and together we share a form, a body. We are a strangeness of strangers. I wrote a litany and called it coexisting. There is always more of what I would be with you.

Sometimes, the arabesques of knotted wood. The die-back that kills the ashes. The writing that stings me. The eagles that tumble from the sky, shot down by showers of poaching bullets. The eternal time of the stone before it is ground to dust, smoothed to glass or marble. All rendering machinery merely an extension of the eye’s aesthetic violence. I see before me all transformations, all subtle undulations of everything in its right place, pulled out from the roots of primal being. These shadow forms, these chasms. All claustrophobia. The world is too much with us. I lay down my words in favour of a strong cobalt promise of ocean. Dash my crayola on the blank white surface, wait for the waves to take shape, to suck in and swallow me. There is no world as such. A lonesome note pulls its magnetic sadness from across the bay, cry of the faraway island; it knows me, salt-studded, glazed in the air, sweet and easy as falling octaves. The tang on my tongue that reminds me of you. When the sea comes, when the windmills collapse, the sky blackens and there’s nothing we can do, I’ll remember you. The helices of me, these planted cells and their algorithmic beauty, remnant of bone and blood in the starving soil; all will be love in the warming waters, the subduing horror, the coming of nothingness. Mutated creatures, muted symphonies. I ask that you join me in melting, just for a second while the air is still, some clarity around us. All we have is the sounding of our lips, the whistling trees, the sullen transmissions of a faltering breeze.

.

Lime Tree

At the corner of some imaginary meadow, a lime tree. You had no idea for years what to call this tree, you only knew how green it was, how well-formed the leaves against the cool cobalt of a summer sky. How precious these things are to you now, far away where everything is always static, a vague and pressing grey. The tree sheds its honeydew and the aphids clamber for a taste of the limes; I have scratched that pitch with my fingers and placed its resin on my tongue. A taste of nature, extra-natural, too sweet and weird as if tasting chlorophyll itself, some abstracted process of photosynthesis taking place in the mouth. If the world has ended, I try to get closer to its remaining parts. These leaves are shaped like hearts. I once had a heart-shaped necklace, studded inside with the blackest sapphire. It’s a sin to forget who gifted this necklace; but I was only a child then, loose in my memories, vulnerable.

There’s a song called ‘Lime Tree’ on a favourite record and the singer says the string arrangements make him nauseous. This is a commentary on beauty, on how beauty marks the wonderful perception of an object’s weakness. When I see that minuscule split in the stem of a leaf, the thumbnail cleaving chain of daisies, I am overcome momentarily by a thing’s thingness, its originary mark of uniqueness. This whole secret life, this hidden agony. A heart-shaped stud of sapphire. In the mud there are all these tiny peridot aphids, glistening like something unknown beneath a microscope. I look forward to the taffyish pull of waning cirrus, the sky moving westwards in tandem with sun. It’s beautiful to not know how the atmosphere works, but instead to observe with that naivety of spirit, the hurt perception that longs for its heart-shaped necklace, its heart-shaped leaf. Place one on the tongue like a tab of acid. Again that taste, nature with added nature. You can taste too much of the natural. The chemical, the actual synthesis of light that is perhaps organic. Tiny nut fruits fall in October, pea-sized and gleaming in the old gold sun. Obsessed with the smell of the nectar, I return to the meadow, year after year. Children may spend their lives lying in fields, waiting for something to happen. I was content in the long shoots of aureate wheat, the true blue sky. I made promises to myself I could never keep.

Lime flowers cure headaches. I break them up in my tea and long for respite from insomnia. You had no idea for years what to call this tree. You named it a miracle tree; that was then and this is me. The wood is especially yielding. Somebody has sculpted great things from its pliant bark, its soft and workable material beauty. The elegant formations of time literally scar in the carved wood, making etchings and notches; each year a wound. Love’s young dream among the lindens. I feel more empathy with the tree than with anything. There are creases around my eyes, creases around yours too. Each one a scar of something dark and true, this honest mark, remark of the soul; elastic abrasions which ripple, sea-like, their former traumas. We make them new. Each expression brings life to the dark parts, the tears and rips and folds. In the forest, the leaves shiver shrill as a choir of children. I heard that line from elsewhere, a song or a whistle from a cup of coffee. Drink me, drink me. The leaves seem to sing. Time seems to sing; I can feel it, hear it shimmer in the sweet parts of the blood which rise in silence, subside in bright and flowery noise.

Underneath the autumn limes, a whole pastoral display of molten coppers and golds, we sip from miniature cups on tables built for urban grace. Somebody in the distance plays the flute, so intricate and soothing these tunes so old, so new. I have forgotten the origin. Almost the refrain from a video-game, imaginary landscapes materialise from somewhere inside my recessive mind.

Sweet-smelling trees that bear no citrus. Native, strangely ridged, slender of twig. Already craving the dull yellows, the fresh fade of autumnal cycle. These trees, hybridised, bred for flourishing in dirty cities. Little vapourers scavenge, triangular moths cling to sunspots. There’s such a lushness of syrup and pollenating dreams, I could lie in the bow of this lime tree like someone before me, merge my identity with a strange freedom, this crooked figure turning liquid, fading in the hum of the bees, the ornamental quality not quite what it seems. Sense of flourishing, slowly floating; the life-giving gold of arborescence.

.

Isthmus

There is an idea of an island. Sometimes purely retinal, the glory of excess gold. It is birthed from the flickers, pieces between consciousness when dreams make use of the temporary coves, holes which give in the mind for need of will. For a while, obsessed with the sore points in a honeycomb, cox in the blood that blocked all manner of aspirin, felt a cool white sky of powder, the outwards dissolve. There is now an island. Maybe archipelago even. The one and the several. Songs about auras, auroras.

We summon boats from out of the blue. There’s a pureness to our sun-bronzed bodies, plucked ripe from the ether as if never as free as now. This perpetual experience of floating. On the topic of jewels, she was a sweet one, always lusting for easy agates and sometimes the dream blue larimar. You traced either bubbles or lines, endless trajectories of the inward, arterial. A secret vault for the excess passion, her hoarded meaning. Teardrops of dolphins, hardened remnant of basaltic lava. The certain pendant of the still-moving earth, simple inclusion of ebbs and flows.

The collected anemones. Her velvet case. The cool tide in the cool blue. She lived here a hundred years and didn’t age one bit. Not even the sun could. I was always pursuing that anamnesis of the mind and skin, feeling again the heart-shaped cliff. I have questioned the island, receding before all westerly gossamer of waves. Glimmers across another bay, the potential invisibles. Ships and buoys. Remember we came here as children, hopped on a boat and we were so sure of where we were going. It was a case of following lights. Right across the bay, a blueness distinct from the bottle-green sea. It was so soothing, so easy.

There is an idea of an island. I mark it in writing, make of its rock and grit a topic.

Sometimes the tide sweeps over me.

—Maria Sledmere

.
Maria Sledmere is an MLitt Modernities student at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of two Glasgow-based poetry zines, SPAM and Gilded Dirt. Her work has been published in Bombus Press, DATABLEED, Fluland, Foxglove Journal, Germ Magazine, GUM, The Kelvin Review, Murmur House, Quotidian, and Thistle Magazine. When not lost in the gelatinous mulch of a dissertation on dark ecology, she contributes features and music reviews to RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and blogs regularly on everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.

.
.

 

Aug 142017
 

  Walter Benjamin

.
My Red Heaven is collage in form. This piece centers on Walter Benjamin, and moves back and forth in time as he sits on a bench on Unter den Linden, beginning what will become The Arcades Project.

 

1.The only way of knowing a person is to love him or her without hope, Walter Benjamin pencils in his notebook, hunched on a dark green bench in the dark green shade of a linden.

A bear occurs, a man playing a flute followed by twenty beautiful children.

.

  1. Walter crosses out the sentence. He has spent his entire day here, the last three, in this park running up the center of Unter den Linden, in combat with a three-page essay about Parisian arcades for the Frankfurter Zeitung. The essay refuses to stay in its skin. It keeps wanting to unfurl into something larger, messier, less itself.

    .

  2. Suppose I were to begin by recounting, he pencils in his notebook, how many cities have revealed themselves to me in my expeditions through them in pursuit of books. Suppose I were to speak of a time, ours, when even the best readers have become frightened of imperfect, torrential monographs — ones that fan out into a maze of dangerous branchings.

    Suppose I were to bring up how easy a certain kind of completeness is.

    .

  3. He crosses out that paragraph, writes in a choked scribble I am falling in love with lostness, then the brakes, a woman’s shriek.

    .

  4. When he raises his head everything already exists in another tense.

    .

  5. An old truck, advertisement for a brewery across its side, run up onto the curb in front of the Adlon Hotel. Several empty barrels burst on the sidewalk. A smartly dressed man splayed in the street, pedestrians vectoring in.

    .

  6. (When a world war breaks out, all you can do sometimes is begin to translate the works of Baudelaire as faithfully as possible.)

    .

  7. The bear man stops. His triad of notes. The twenty beautiful children stop, at first confused about where to look.

    One points, a perfect girl, mouth opening, nickel-blue eyes wide with the world.

    .

  8. Walter squints through his chunky spectacles to determine if the man is alive or the other thing.

    .

  9. Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —

    .

  10. Three years ago. Island of Capri. Ernst Bloch crumpled down the newspaper he had been reading and glared at Walter over the dried-seagull remains. The pair reclined in chaise lounges on their pension’s balcony amid a tumble of shiny white houses overlooking the Bay of Naples.

    How just so fucking absurd it must seem, Bloch proclaimed, for an immortal soul destined for heaven or hell to find itself sitting in the kitchen in the form of a maid.

    .

  11. The bear waiting for orders.

    .

  12. The children.

    .

  13. We may call these images wish images; in them the collective seeks

    .

  14. But most of all the tiny squares. Medieval alleys full of bougainvillea clinging to stone walls. Plumbago. Yellow, red, powder blue rowboats pulled up on the Marina Grande’s pebbly beach. And Bloch saying: The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security. It is the loss of the capacity to imagine things other than they are.

    .

  15. For you were born under the sign of Saturn, planet of detours and delays, blunders and stubbornness; of those who see themselves as books, thinking as a method of gathering, organizing, yet always knowing when to stray, wander off.

    .

  16. For to lose your way in a city or a person requires a great amount of willpower.

    .

  17. It is Bloch proclaiming from his chaise lounge, newspaper seagull crumpled in his lap, and emaciated Rilke all those years after that first meeting at the University of Munich, praising in a letter to Walter from somewhere among the Swiss Alps Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech.

    What soaring language! What beautiful discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!

    .

  18. The hotel doormen holding onto the driver of the truck until the police show up, and the belief Jewishness means a promise to further European culture, each epoch dreaming the one to follow.

    .

  19. Inaccurately.

    .

  20. These moments, those hours, the other days: Had Walter really accomplished anything at all?

    Wonders Walter.

    .

  21. It is Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap of paper Sois toujours poète, même en prose — Always be a poet, even in prose — and the ambulance disturbance rising on the far side of the heavy, coal-smoked Brandenburg Gate, and the found object, the readymade, the already extant message, the chance encounter, the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is eternal and immutable.

    .

  22. There was the juncture at which he understood he was not to become an academic instructor.

    There was that injury.

    .

  23. Wine. Bread. Thickly sliced salami.

    .

  24. The lizard with azure scales panting rapidly on a fence rail.

    .

  25. The sun, a glossy orange in the sunset sky: Capri.

    .

  26. There was that juncture, and there will be the one in which he can no longer remember what he wants as he reaches languidly for the bottle of tablets on his hotel nightstand in room number three.

    .

  27. Yet now it is those days with Bloch on that balcony, the nights with Asja Lācis in her bed, long umber hair tousled.

    Naked.

    Yawning.

    Her unselfconscious stretching, her body Y-ing on the mattress.

    Walter was completely open about the Latvian Bolshevik theater director when his wife, Dora, asked in her letters.

    But only when she asked.

    (She asked only once.)

    .

  28. Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones.

    This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou

    .

  29. We won’t be getting married, mana saulīte. I find divorce too hard on the nerves.

    Asja footnoting in mid-stretch.

    .

  30. Dora remaining behind in Berlin with their nine-year-old son, moody anxious Stefan, and Asja introducing Walter over dinner to Marxism as historical mutiny and late night Prosecco to sex as whirlwind.

    .

  31. Writing that looks like writing, however, thinking that looks like thinking, has come to feel to Walter progressively flat, faded, fated.

    Suppose, he pencils in his notebook, I were to rethink everything.

    Suppose I were to start all over again.

    .

  32. And thirteen years later, twenty-some-odd changes of address, standing outside the Bibliothèque Nationale on a thick spring day, twenty-four hours before the Germans howl into Paris with orders to arrest that Jew intellectual at his flat, Walter hands over his color-coded notes — green language, yellow, red; diagrams; copies of images that have collared his curiosity — to his grouper-mouthed librarian friend Georges Bataille.

    Over Georges’ shoulder, Walter’s last glimpse of the filthy Seine glistering.

    .

  33. Asja’s double enlivening: the erotic and the political slurred into a single unfathomableness.

    .

  34. Or this man, weak heart, weakening lungs, a mobile intelligence unit moving through the metropolitan streets, he likes to think of himself as, likes to believe he believes, maybe others, too, although what would happen if you began to imagine the essay you are composing, not as a —

    .

  35. After this shitty war, Georges telling Walter outside the library on that balmy pre-invasion day, Europe will resemble a de Sade novel. Watch out for Duc de Blangis. He will be everywhere.

    Georges not grinning then, but rather turning away, repairing to work.

    Walter watching his friend’s lightly pigeon-toed gait decrease in size down the sidewalk.

    .

  36. Suppose you began to imagine the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?

    This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to the other thing.

    .

  37. These lines written by the man who earned his Ph.D. cum laude eight years ago with a dissertation on art criticism amid German Romanticism, yet who has been assiduously unable to find academic employment ever since.

    That injury, too.

    .

  38. (Among others.)

    .

  39. There is that brief deliberation over emigrating from Germany to Palestine and how the bottle of morphine tablets catches the caramel sun in his tiny room at the Hotel de Francia on the Catalonian coast one autumn afternoon in 1940, police guard posted outside Walter’s door demurely clearing his throat every now and then.

    .

  40. Written by the thirty-four-year-old journalist unable to support himself, let alone his family, through his own labor, and so forced for a time to ask his wife to stop loving him so he could return to Berlin to reside with his parents.

    .

  41. To reside with his

    .

  42. Ne cherchez plus mon coeur; les bêtes l’ont mange.

    Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap.

    .

  43. There is that slightly less brief deliberation over emigrating to the United States through neutral Portugal as the Germans howled closer, and how Max Horkheimer negotiates a travel visa for Walter, who will only be able to flee as far as Spain over the Pyrenees before the Franco regime cancels all transit permits and orders the authorities to return those carrying them to France.

    .

  44. And on 25 September, 1940, there is that Spanish official with the pinched lips telling the group of Jewish refugees Walter has joined to prepare for deportation the following morning, and the emptiness on Hannah Arendt’s face taking in this information, on her husband the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher’s, on their friend the Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler’s, on the German photographer Henny Gurland’s, her son Joseph’s.

    .

  45. Yet, despite the future, the bear man steps into motion again, melody picking up.

    .

  46. One by one, the beautiful children.

    .

  47. Do not look for my heart anymore; the beasts have eaten it, scribbling the poet who spent his last two years between Brussels and Paris, semi-paralyzed and unable to speak after the massive stroke.

    .

  48. The emptiness on the ambulance driver’s face as he employs a plain white sheet to cover the bodily fluids held in by tender skin.

    .

  49. Or the emptiness on the doctor’s face during each of his four visits to tiny room number three through that late September afternoon and evening, administering injections and blood letting as if these things might in the end somehow alter the configuration of that space.

    .

  50. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Asja’s body in her bed, sheetless in silvery sun, along with the belief writing as collage draws attention to the sensuality of the page even as it strips itself of the tedious, tendentious pretense of originality.

    Suppose, therefore, it could be argued

    .

  51. Suppose we were to call it a meditative practice that allows one to be surprised by what one says next.

    A practice, we could even submit, of reading.

    .

  52. Or the other manuscript, completed, which Walter will carry in his suitcase from Paris to Portbou, which will disappear forever.

    That manuscript, too.

    .

  53. Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists, pencils Walter, then crosses out the sentence, for there will be that juncture in two years at which Dora and he will have become separated, then divorced, the juncture in thirteen at which the other Jews in his party of refugees for no discernible reason will be allowed sudden passage through Spain into Portugal.

    .

  54. Four days later all will safely reach Lisbon.

    Minus one.

    .

  55. It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Hannah Arendt admiring the terracotta rooftops, the pale yellow dwellings, bunching down the steep Lisbon hillsides into bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  56. The Spanish police will refer to the deceased forty-eight-year-old in their correspondence with Max Horkheimer, who will query about the details of his friend’s passing, as that German gentleman.

    .

  57. That German gentleman about whom you inquire, the Spanish police writing, died of heart failure.

    .

  58. Cerebral hemorrhage, the medical certificate will state.

    .

  59. The town judge listing Walter’s possessions at the time of death thus: suitcase leather, gold watch, pipe, passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, one pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, a few papers, contents unknown, and some money.

    .

  60. A few papers, contents un

    .

  61. How, because of confusion surrounding his identity, Walter will be buried in leased-niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetery. When no one remembers to keep up the payments, Walter’s remains will be quietly exhumed and moved in the summer of 1945 to the town’s common burial ground, where their exact location will over time become unremembered.

    .

  62. Four days after Walter reaches for the bottle of morphine tablets he brought with him from Marseilles, just in case, Hannah Arendt will lean out the window of her hotel room in Lisbon, relishing the act of breathing, just that, while admiring the terracotta rooftops and pale yellow dwellings bunching down the steep hillsides into the bluegreen seasprawl.

    .

  63. Below, the streetcars clanking by.

    .

  64. Mosquitoey scooters revving.

    .

  65. That greasy scent of reprieve billowing up around her a flash before she steps back into life.

—Lance Olsen

x
Lance Olsen
Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His latest is the novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017). A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

x
x

Aug 142017
 

.
—after Rabelais

The Marquis had a grandson, Jake. As a child, Jake would spend weekends with his grandpa who’d make a very nice from-scratch pizza before retiring to the inner sanctum to play Halo. These pizzas that the Marquis lovingly made were really something. To see the smooth globes of dough sitting on the counter—a little dusting of flour on top like little round baby bottoms in talc—makes me sad to remember.

For they are surely gone. All gone.

Well, the kid could have grown up to live a straight, true, and happy life, but, man, things can get messed up. For Jake it was not so much the stuff that most kids have to go through these days, now that the maturing process and its rites of passage require the use of handguns. Like it or not, Glocks are the new normal for these kids. Like it or not, it’s become part of growing up. That first court restraining order is now a milestone equal to a driver’s license, high school diploma, college admission, and so on. Happily for Jake, the Marquis gave him a sort of happy, dopey reality apart from all that. As a consequence, he was as close to innocent as a young man could come in these withered days.

At a young age, Jake married and settled down in a modest split-level ranch house with his new wife, Fanni, let’s call her. Jake learned to make pizza for her, just like his grandpa’s, and they settled in for life…as it were. Here’s the future he saw: he’d cook pizza and after dinner he and Fanni would play computer games, kissing now and then. On Fridays they’d have grandpa le Marquis over and play Halo. They’d drink root beer. What he neglected to figure into this delightful scenario was the fact that Fanni also had a notion or two about what married life ought to be like. Unfortunately for Jake, she was of the opinion that her life with her husband ought to be different in important ways from her husband’s life with his grandpa. In particular, the eating of pizzas and the playing of computer games was boring to the point of wishing that her high school biology teacher would come by and “pith” her with a straight pin in the frontal lobe, just as he’d done with frogs. After a month or so of Jake’s idea of happiness, buyer’s remorse was the primary fact of her life.

Jake was a simple person. Fanni was not a simple person. She did not have Jake’s stable, happy background sharing time with a grandparent in blissful side-by-side interface with the good old X-box. What Fanni had was a single mother who lived on the left side of a brick duplex in the spiritually destitute region just south of Chicago. Their house was one of those structures that census workers look at and say, “Does this count?” Her mother supported their little family through frequent “presents” from various “close family friends” in the form of cocaine or cash equivalents. What these friends got in return is irrelevant or almost. In spite of all that, Fanni grew up a smart kid capable of wandering away from the daily horror show at the old duplex. She thrived at school, went to college, met the son of a Marquis (!) and, without giving it a lot of thought, married.

In the sad thereafter, their marriage counselor suggested to her that she should have known what Jake was like, she’d been to his house before they married, hadn’t she? And she said, “Yes, I knew what he was like, but I thought he was kidding.” Then she added, “And he did kiss me once under the grain elevator, and so I asked him with my eyes to ask me, and when he did I thought, ‘Well, as well him as another.’”

Jake was sitting right there, holding her hand as she said these hurtful things. The therapist’s response was to put his head in his hands (the closest he could come to neutral affect in the moment). The counselor, at least, knew that it was too late and Fanni had already gone to blazes. On the other hand, he could now also confirm that Jake’s form of innocence was, just as Fanni claimed, morally exhausting. He could see how it could drive a person to unpleasant extremes.

As for Jake, he didn’t yet quite know what to make of it all. But when he saw the counselor bury his head in his hands he had to wonder, “Is that how I should be responding to what she’s saying?” He looked at her sitting by his side. She was smiling pleasantly.

There was something damaged in Fanni, something broken. She was, in a sense, not “there,” not present. For instance, she could not seem to tell the difference between the good things that she did and the bad things. Make breakfast? Hit their barky Yorkie with a shovel? Essentially the same for her. But when Jake showed how they were not the same, she would get confused and start crying. “How can you be so sure about everything?” she’d ask, and then she’d go after the dog with a hoe because it had stuck its cold snout inside her summer shorts and smelled her fur. (She kept garden implements in the kitchen for such moments.)

She was also someone with the interesting and organic conviction that if the world spread out from her, it was her job to take it all back in. Perhaps it was some sort of bizarre maternal instinct gone wrong, but she had faith in the thought that everything should go back to her empty inside.

And then there was the shopping. She shopped with tenacity knowing that it was her responsibility to buy it all, to take it all inside. She was the Imelda Marcos of any- and everything. She didn’t shop in Big Box stores, she shopped for Big Box stores. She created shopping lists like the card catalogue at the Library of Alexandria.

When she wasn’t shopping, she was eating. Unfortunately, this duty, this “moral imperative to internalize the world,” had horrible consequences in restaurants. She did not understand the purpose of a menu. The idea that she should choose only one thing from each section—one salad, one entrée, etc.—simply made no sense to her. The idea that there were sections didn’t make sense to her. Appetizer. Entrée. What? Explain as Jake surely did, it was all beyond her. She thought Jake was yammering metaphysics when all he might be saying was, “Darling, you don’t start with the chocolate mousse. It is not an appetizer.” There were some meals that took the form of quest legends. It was as if she believed that there was some food, some perfect food, that would make her world right if only she could find it. In spite of all his goodness and his love for her, Jake lacked the will to enforce what he called, for her benefit, “food reality.”

When he said things like that, in what she took to be a knowing and superior way, she would say, “There is nothing so dull as innocence.”

Touché!

Once during the Christmas season Jake and Fanni were eating at the legendary Stockyard Trough down in Decatur. She started in her pell-mell way with a dilled Blanquette de Veau. The chef had prepared six portions for the evening and she ate them all. She followed that with dozens of pizza hot-pockets off the children’s menu. (Yes, some of the little darlings cried when they were told that there were no more pizza hot-pockets, but she insisted that some people would have to sacrifice for the greater good, and she volunteered the children.)

The headwaiter scrambled with a sponge to erase the featured dishes as they fell from the little chalkboard out front, inexorably, one after another. At neighboring tables, the waiters sensed the drift of things and began encouraging guests to order quickly while there was still something more than bread and butter to eat.

“What!!??” one obese old-timer complained, a Cargill seed cap cockeyed on his head, bloody stains from rib-eyes past on his overalls. “No beef? None at all? Not even an old piece of flank? Not even a burger? How is that possible? This is the Stockyard Trough, isn’t it? Do you know what a stockyard is? What’s that you say? Her? That little girl over there with the Marquis’s boy? Are you saying she’s eaten the entire cow? I’ll be damned!”

Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”)  At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)

And why did she eat these things? She ate these things because that’s just the kind of gal she was.

—Curtis White

.

“Dining at the Stockyard Trough” is an excerpt from Lacking Character, forthcoming from Melville House Press, 2018.

.from
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).

.
.

Aug 142017
 

Credit: Ebru Yildiz

.
These two poems are excerpts from Wayne Koestenbaum‘s forthcoming book, Camp Marmalade, to be published in February 2018 by Nightboat Books. Camp Marmalade is the sequel to The Pink Trance Notebooks, which Nightboat published in 2015. Both The Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade consist of notebooks — chains of aphorisms, linguistic tidbits, aleatory ruminations, lyric or narrative fragments…
.
.

#20 [thick book on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er Tums]

.

……………………..good morning,
punctuated self—

_________

Lee Krasner proves it—stay
awake to the redemptive glyph

_________

………….scrutinized first chapter
and thought every statement dead wrong
except chartreuse and neon orange

________

……………………..cough
hurts right lung—even when I don’t
cough, the right lung has a lumpy
vanilla crunch feeling—in my arteries too

_________

………….M said Faerie
Queene is boring but thick book of it
on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er
Tums—

_________

………….Hans Bellmer
receives hate mail USPS
grab bag of slain doll parts

_________

………….irenic
or oneiric gabbing
like 4-H club for gay hoofers
and Oona O’Neill
will be there and Nicole Kidman
good Nicole not bad Nicole
like moon Nicole versus Apollo Nicole—
but moon isn’t versus Apollo

_________

………….what is the
Harlequin Romance equivalent of
“friends, Romans, countrymen”?

_________

………….obtuse
is an ob word like obscene or
oblate or obsequy—

_________

……………………..to stretch
one’s loins across the public domain—

_________

……………………..why
do shrinks even when off-duty
refuse warmth and ebullience?
or do I specialize
in non-ebullient shrinks?

_________

use her talky head to block
the blinding sun

_________

tidbit was dead woman’s word, we
shared tidbit and also transcendent
and now she’s dead and I never told
her we shared tidbit and transcendent

_________  

………….seeing I Never
Sang for My Father with my mother
long ago in a movie theater—

_________

be glad you never sang
for your father

_________

………….trying to prove that I
was Jewish despite ignorance
of the covenant—

_________

……………………..I saw a disgruntled
bride in flipflops lift her wedding dress
and walk at rush hour past Penn Station—

_________

stretched out like her dead
nurse mother whose
malted milk taste I still can’t fathom

_________

………….mother whose car
we wrecked in stop-and-go traffic
en route to Richard III or The Oresteia 

_________

……………………..reaching
toward narrative but not necessarily
approving of the reach

_________

which Kafka was I glad to meet
in Mykonos dream?

_________

or a Massenet opera that might
not exist like La Bouillabaisse—
a long river cutting through Manon
a good river advocating conversion
to frivolity—

_________

reunion cakewalk for retiring
kindergarten teacher who
expresses recognition when seeing me—

_________

……………………..rose glow
reflected on dull warehouse, blue
sky shined flat and pink by emigration
of rival color—

_________

sped up from pink extrojection,
wanting to subdue him in a scenario
of erotic torture based on my thinness
and his fatness—

_________

woman who ran a French
restaurant in St. Croix—
I envied her boozy
leathery ease—motorcycle—finality—

_________

writing on a paper napkin
a few un-causal enlightenment
nouns, like junk, hazard,
dumbness, Dillinger,
sexpot, dysfunction

_________

………….two hours of giddy
threshold consciousness—

_________

a few stunned lyrics
to signalize my stupor

_________

again the hilly outline’s Pompeii
lump as the Jew hears it—
“the Jew” means not a
generality but a specific listener
who actually likes sex
and told me so

_________

………….unless I’m this Jew, too,
doublecrossing the earlier,
spread-out, novel Jew—

_________

………….stiff box for requested pearl
granted but lost, a pearl I didn’t
understand though I craved it
as girl-sign under night-cover
of boy-dawn

_________

everyone has a nadir, a
Nadja—even Nadja has a Nadja

_________

………….I spoke about
the solidity of nouns,
a U in the regarded
eggy or jizzy corner

_________

………….my throat
is not my own, it has become
a colony of national interests

_________

………….green soot posing
as lake cover

_________

………….cream of spinach
soup, my mother’s body when she suspected
food poisoning or experienced its greeny
symptoms—

_________

………….indiscreet
revelation about her ex—
I love triangulating
via unwise confessions

_________

……………………..my lips
logical except when I teach
my baby sister the art of shoplifting—

_________

Miltonic or Latinate relation to sideburn
length and thickness, George
Burns and Robert Burns and
Raymond Burr and Burl Ives—

___________

…………………………………leave Burl
off the list of treasured burns

_________

Blythe Danner isn’t burly

_________

……………………..Morton Feldman
was once my mother’s friend—
is that fact her property?

_________

………….we have in common
a predilection for killing plants—
no ability to keep a plant
alive—that’s an exaggeration—
three roses in her sideyard, maybe more

_________

………….Carlotta my unmet
unphotographed step-grandmother,
to designate her with regal sobriquet

_________

another green succulent
covering a pond
surface with scum

_________

………….skim the nitwit
coating off my tongue

_________

………….Thoreau died at 44,
killed by Apollo

_________

………….you have to be killed
by someone, might as well
be killed by Apollo

.

§

.

#15 [imprisoned within Busby Berkeley or the ethereal phlox]

.

………….I draw butt
well because butt is elementary

_________

we say nautical because
we want to avoid naughty

_________

imprecise speech stovepipes
our position and we come
to love the stove
and its scarred pedigree

_________

immoral penis is the obvious
place to juxtapose somno-
fascist and dewlap?
figuration and abstract bagel?

_________

is Tachisme a movement
celebrating rough clumsy
texture—why sigh again like
Ophelia or her supporters?

_________

dipping into Frigidaire
we praise the book and
know its contours are
orderly, governed by proxy
and whim in lower region

_________

the sick mental wife drops
glove, and law helps,
law is recourse
when stents bloom, if bloom
squeezes his daffodils
or the ethereal phlox

_______

he pretends to know my sex
and photos it—

_________

………….1940 is she ten and
reading Black Beauty
watching Waterloo Bridge
Vivien Leigh?

_________

………….1958 I’m reading
Marjorie Morningstar, sending
emails to Leigh’s agent

_________

………….because syntax
has credibility and purse-like
we see syntax and can predict
its maneuvers and love
and forgive them in advance

_________

………….stones receive
sunlight, small
like teen friend dick-bush still
remembered

_________

lichen too has an unconscious—

_________

………….but his face
is so improbably handsome I
could die, his hair so phenomenal
I might need to do something radical—

_________

putting on lipstick
I wrote about fashion
classics in the Catskills

_________

………….he holds
himself like a hamburger,
hep to the hemisphere, an ass
presented to the camera
unconventionally

_________

………….Lauren Bacall
was Jewish and she died and I
really hope she doesn’t
show up because that would hold
a certain amount of bliss
in its pocket

_________

………….seersucker
yellow dream mother was
coherent, and the coherence fell
away like the difference
between ages 83 and 89—

_________

he treats me suddenly
with knife voice
edge shattering
Brünnhilde upon me

_________

………….the leaf of
when she thought I was her
favorite son and I leaned
upon her knee or its in-
dentation like A Star Is Born
oceanic suicide

_________

like a handsome guy in
basement doing laundry
and refusing to recognize me—

_________

my mother’s draught
of raw egg, raw beef blood
and onion—to ease
the ache of being
a girl in that household

_________

men were attracted to me
because of my big hips
she said

_________

cup with Sudek facets—
specialize in simple
forms and render them clearly—

_________

syntax contains only a few
available slots, capitalize
on each

_________

………….I called
my mother and she resorted,
bless her, to polite formula

_________

the recourse was mah-jongg,
the caregivers were three

_________

he sees me as evil but has
no prosecutor with whom
to share his verdict—

_________

………….it boils down to
a strange narcoleptic
cult of seriousness, to
be considered evil
by a quorum

_________

a consciousness defined by
the status (washed, unwashed)
of a coffee pot or a
cock (cut, uncut)—

_________

carving out a piece of
my Nachtigall stomach

_________

………….an eye imprisoned
within Busby Berkeley
corollas

_________

………….find
eros in blankness,
then behold his blotches—
don’t cry, he survives his
blotches and neither splices
nor censors them—

—Wayne Koestenbaum

.

Wayne Koestenbaum has published eighteen books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including Notes on Glaze, The Pink Trance Notebooks, My 1980s & Other Essays, Hotel Theory, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Andy Warhol, Humiliation, Jackie Under My Skin, and The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist).  He has had solo exhibitions of his paintings at White Columns (New York), 356 Mission (L.A.), and the University of Kentucky Art Museum. His first piano/vocal record, Lounge Act, was issued by Ugly Duckling Presse Records this year. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and French at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

 

 

Aug 132017
 

All photographs taken by the author.

.

A note (unedited, in English).

Buenos Aires. 20.12.2016. A return — this seems to be one of the things I’m expected to write about. And now that I return, now that I find myself here, I haven’t even left the airport and I’m already toying with the idea of writing a return, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from that mandate. To write about a return to a hot place, by a fictional character, broken by (self)exile and memories. But how could this return be any different? What could this writerly return add to this well-trodden path? People — broken by (self)exile and memories — have been returning to hot places, for an audience, since Ulysses (the first one). And it’s a terrible destiny, to find oneself in the mouth of a lyrical poet. This is very likely the most dangerous part of returning, that poetic possibility, the dangerous and fake nostalgia all poetry entails.

.

I

Missing Buenos Aires is a daily routine. Some days the longing arrives after a sound — memories are triggered, homesickness kicks in. Other times it happens after a smell, any smell, heavenly or foul. Most times the longing comes after the wanton recollection of this or that corner, any part of Buenos Aires that in my mind looks like Buenos Aires should look. Some days the feeling is overwhelming and I can spend hours wallowing in self pity. Most times the situation is manageable. I am writing this, listening to Astor Piazzolla, because today is one of those days where I can’t handle homesickness very well. And the music helps with the fantasy, it feeds it.

Because the thing is: I never lived in Buenos Aires. I frequented Buenos Aires a lot. But I never lived there, never managed to settle there, had my name on a bill there, or a fixed abode, or a favourite café, or a library card. Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me — I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spent this time coach surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires. And by missing its possibility I can miss my own hometown without the uncomfortable bits, without all the impossibilities, the proximities, the complexities and familiarities. The parts that can hurt.

I miss an imaginary Buenos Aires instead of a real Rosario. Homesickness is safer this way. And besides, like this I can plug into some universal motifs of Argentineanness — perpetuated by literature, tango, film (Argentine and international) — that I no longer wish to contest, since I have long given up trying to express the nuances and the complications of being an Argentinean. Of course I miss Buenos Aires. Of course I play football. Of course I am a gifted tango dancer. Of course I am a charming Lothario. Of course I am prone to fits of passion and — unlike British guys — fits of tears. Of course I can ride a horse. Of course I am a streetwise intellectual who likes to sit in cafés to solve the problems of the world.

I have, during these past fifteen years away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, become a simplified version of myself. My life is better without corners. And more importantly, in (self)exile I have become what I always wanted to be: the stereotypical porteño.

I miss Buenos Aires. How could I not write about this now that I am here, now that I return to the city I never left, the city where I never lived?

.

II

Ariel Ruzzo, professor of Latin American Literature in some college, University of London, arrives in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. Actually make it professor of Comparative Literature, it will be easier to market. And Comparative Literature sounds less of a con. It sounds like he went abroad to do the vini, vidi, vici. Professor of Latin American Literature, for an Argentine character like Ariel, sounds like he escaped an economic crisis to then accidentally find his way into a modern languages department, where he ended up teaching unsuspecting and overpaying students the soporific drivel known as magical realism.

So Ariel Ruzzo — professor of Comparative Literature — lands in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. He has come to sell a flat, a flat he inherited a while ago from an auntie, a flat in which he barely lived back in the late 1990s. He has found an overseas buyer, so it is only a matter of signing a couple of papers at the notary’s, some other papers at the solicitors’, receiving the money in his British account, and then back to London, to his musty office overlooking a central square. But there is also the thing with the boxes: he has to remove some boxes from his flat. Rita, an ex girlfriend, has been living there all this time, paying a symbolic rent. He would much rather avoid this, for a series of reasons, but he has already arranged to meet her tonight, have dinner together, old friends and all that, get the boxes out of the small storage corner under the stairs tomorrow. There must be five or six of them, said Rita. It can’t take him that long — most will go in the bin anyway.

.

III

I don’t remember where I was or why I was searching for images of Buenos Aires — it might have been a moment of procrastination; it could have been research towards an essay; it could have been anything. The reason for my search is no more but I remember very well the words, scribbled on a wall in some porteño suburb, in blue: “morirse no es nada, peor es vivir en Argentina,” — “dying is meaningless, worse is living in Argentina”.

These words pin down very well the atmosphere of the 1990s and early 2000s — my 1990s and 2000s. The decade felt like a slow death, punctuated by a long series of socio-political and economic upheavals. Like many others, this slow death — peaking with the crash of 2001 — sent me away. In my particular case, away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, on a journey to become Argentinean. No I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad, probably while I was cleaning a toilet in Dublin, and the toilet was full to the rim with shit. This was a defining moments in my life. The realisation must have hit me then and there, or during the series of crap jobs I had for years on end. Somehow, suddenly, it was clear: who I was, where I was from, what I could aspire to. It was both humbling and enlightening.

I know Ariel Ruzzo left for the same reasons, even if he likes to play the scholarly card. But I still wonder if he became Argentinean abroad. Is it a generalised disease, this displaced becoming? What was his “cleaning an overflowing toilet” moment, if he ever had one?

.

IV

Ariel has had a stellar career. From his undergraduate studies in Puán’s School of Filosofía y Letras, to an MA in Cambridge, to a PhD in Princeton. A stellar career, from the very start, in all the right places. His thesis, which surveys the detective story from its birth in the mid 19th century all the way to the cinema noir, has become one of those rare documents that manage to leap outside of the reduced spaces of academia, in order to become a non-fiction classic. Reading the Detectives is into its sixth edition and in the process of being translated into French and Japanese. And Ariel is only forty.

And yet, success aside, here is Ariel, back in Buenos Aires, like any mortal, after a hiatus of five years, and even from before getting off the plane it is clear that it will be a difficult trip, that coming back to Argentina always involves a process of readaptation and submission. There is a transport strike and among the people exercising their right to piss off everyone else we should count those in charge of driving Ariel and his fellow passengers from the plane to the airport. And no, the captain won’t let them walk the scant hundred metres to the terminal, because it contravenes a series of safety regulations, even if passengers from other planes seem to be able to do the walk. A two hour wait, then, until British Airways manages to find a scab to do the job, in several trips, old people and those with kids first, no mention of literature professors — tenure opens doors but not all doors.

Ariel is back in Buenos Aires, after a hiatus of five years. He will have to come back later to get his suitcase — the strike — or get a courier to pick it up on his behalf. But he is back. Really back.

V

I should be taking notes, there are so many things to remember, so many things that could go into that piece about a return, things that add realism, the details, the lived feeling. Now that I find myself in Buenos Aires I should be noting things down, focusing on the contradictory bits, because people love the contradictory bits, not only of returns.

In the subte, Línea B, between Gallardo and Medrano: a mother with a disabled kid. She is having a loud go at him when he tries to eat a cookie and the crumbs fall all over the place, as he contorts visibly in pain with some muscular malfunction. The mother, tired, aged too soon — she resents the child, not that I have to guess this, because she says “I can’t stand you anymore,” in Spanish obviously, and then realises she needs to get off, and makes her move, politely asking the other passengers in the carriage to make room for her and the wheelchair-bound kid, all charm. This must be the first time in my life I hear a porteño say sorry, please, thank you. I am impressed.

This differs radically from my first experience of Buenos Aires on my own, perhaps in the mid nineties. I was walking down the avenue connecting the Retiro bus terminal with the city centre — it was an ocean of people. I was a bleary eyed lad coming to the smoke from a place where we swallowed the Ss at the end of the words. I was bleary eyed and scared and walking maybe too slowly and maybe in the wrong side of the pavement. A redhead guy suddenly turned up before me, kindly shouted in my face that I kindly move aside and pushed me aside, kindly. I almost fell kindly on the floor but I didn’t.

I wonder if this kind redhead is now as polite as the mother on the subte.

.

VI

The car flies down the Riccieri. Thank god the driver is quiet and Ariel can dedicate his time to watching the ugly houses both sides of the highway, sprouting like verrucas. Many an Argentine house built since the big migrational waves of the early 20th century is an example of Feísmo, the modernism and beyond of the impoverished European, at home and abroad, he reminds himself, almost as if he were thinking in footnotes. Who lives here? What is it like to live by the side of this road that never sleeps, with planes over your head, in one of these eyesores?

He is about to find a provisional answer to this question when the love motels catch his attention. He might have gone to all of them, here at the outskirts of civilisation. What a perfect site for love motels. A perfect place to stop for a shag before you make it to Buenos Aires and get lovelessly screwed by the city. He once was in one of these love hotels — or he imagines he was in one, or I imagine he was in one, which for a fiction piece would be the same — called “París”. He might have gone there with Rita, before he got the flat, when the options where shagging against a tree or in a rented room, shifts of two hours, mirror on the ceiling, adult channel not included in the standard rate. They might have gone to a room called “La Torre”. There might have been a photo of the Eiffel Tower glued to the window, both blocking potential perverts peering in from the parking lot and providing the ambience. Or, like I said, he could have imagined all this, or I could have, thinking about his ghosts, planning his return in my head.

But it doesn’t matter who imagined or imagines this — soon Buenos Aires is there, to the right and to the left, tower blocks, barrios, more lack of planning, advertisement hoardings that look like soft porn, seen from the elevated Avenida de Mayo. And a song starts playing in his head, make it a tango, make it Piazzolla, make it legible for foreign audiences, the ones likely to read this piece about a return.

.

VII

And the poor, their dark faces underground — it is always a matter of skin, whatever Argentineans might tell you. The pregnant woman with several children, begging barefoot in Pueyrredón, when I get off to change to the line that will take me to Once station, where I have to catch a suburban train to Ituizangó. The kids’ dirty faces, their shredded clothes. They might be the same poor kids I see later on the train — poor but with air conditioning. Poor but spoiled after the tragedy of Once in 2012, when fifty one died crushed like sardines, when the 3772 from Moreno to Once, decided to enter the station at full speed. I can’t guarantee trains are able to stop now, but at least they have aircon.

These kids or other kids, around eleven or twelve years old, drinking warm white wine from a plastic bottle, happily and prematurely off the trolley. And the itinerant salesmen, offering everything from sweets and colouring books to a CD with the latest hits of x radio — they are playing the songs with a contemporary ghetto blaster, the salesman showing off a voice probably acquired during a journalism degree. And the Africans. Africans in Buenos Aires — they are back. Speaking a language I can’t pin down, sitting in groups of two or three, ignored by the other passengers, for better or worse, travelling to provincia with bags and suitcases. What are they doing here? Where are they going? There used to be many of them in Buenos Aires but then they vanished — blended into the white population over the years, according to some; decimated by the flu and the war with Paraguay, according to the ones who know better. And now they are back. Like ghosts. Is there any other way of being back than as a ghost?

Everywhere is full of ghosts and ghosts taking down notes.

VIII

Ariel uses his keys and comes in unannounced. The door is heavy. He remembers the door being heavy but it must have gotten heavier during these past five years.

Soon he is riding the lift all the way to the sixth floor. It is an old Otis with scissor gates. He thought they had been banned — children kept getting their hands and feet crushed by the gates. But here is this lift with scissor gates and it feels like being in a film, cinematically moving up with the numbers of the floors painted on the walls turning up one after the other and this irregular chiaroscuro of shadows and lights, scrolling in vertical pans.

And soon the sixth floor. Ariel leaves the lift, closes the scissor gates behind him, and the lift disappears towards the ground floor, called by another person and the door of his flat opens and Rita is there, unwilling to be taken by surprise. And she looks beautiful, the same, she hasn’t aged a single minute. Or maybe he never paid attention.

IX

The dead. If I were to write that piece about a return, of Ariel’s return, I should make a reference to the dead of Buenos Aires. The dead might explain the ghosts, or add some material basis for them, or just some colour.

The dead of Buenos Aires, underground. Not as in buried six foot under but given a platform in the actual metro stations, on station names and writing on walls — the battles, violent men, terrorist attacks, catastrophes, accidents, disappeared writers. Caseros — Ejercito Grande versus Juan Manuel de Rosas (another station and a tough we love to hate) 1852. Pasteur / AMIA — vaccination / suicide bombing. Carlos Gardel — plane crash, Medellín, 1935. Rodolfo Walsh — killed in Constitución, 1977, disappeared. But maybe I am exaggerating, forcing wanton connections. Or maybe not, because Cromañón.

By the tracks, in the depths, a small mural consecrated to the dead in the fire of Cromañón, where almost two hundred music fans burned to death during a rock concert, in 2004. The choice of words in the mural, on the black wall, links to other deaths: Cromañón Nunca Más. Nunca Más, Never More. The words chosen back in the mid 80s to attempt to quantify and qualify the crimes of the juntas between 1976 and 1983. Nunca Más was the title of the book by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), two words that would also become a call to stop death. In the mid 1980s the call was to stop state terrorism. In the early 2000s a call to stop another type of death: one born out of the state’s disappearance, all the corruption and oversights that would make it possible for almost two hundred — many of whom were children — to die in a blaze.

A piece about a return to Buenos Aires wouldn’t be a piece about a return to Buenos Aires without some paragraphs dedicated to the dead. This is, of course, another trope I am expected to write about, another form of surrender, part of the demand that Argentine writers fill the page looking back towards this or that violent past. Disappeared, victims of terrorism or petty crime, any of these will do to please the reader. Perhaps the dead might grant me the attention of a publisher too.

.

X

And of course they have fucked by now. Ariel is smoking a cigarette, lying in his estranged bed. Rita is smoking too. Of course they are smoking.

And of course a dialogue will here ensue, one of those dialogues full of love, longing, and bitterness. Like Graciela Dufau and Héctor Alterio talking while promenading by the rotten Riachuelo in a 1982 film about another return, Volver, unimaginatively named after the tango tune with the same name.

Alfredo (Alterio) comes back to Argentina, tortured by (self)exile. He comes back for work, although not only for work. He is a successful businessman in the USA, and he comes back to Buenos Aires, in 1982, when the dictatorship is crumbling, and the Malvinas idiocy is yet to happen. He returns, and he works and he beds Beatriz (Dufau), an old flame. And then —  or even before they get laid, I can’t remember and I don’t wish to watch this film again — they are walking by the Riachuelo, in a clichéd postcard spot better avoided, yet abused by art, cinema tango and literature. There are still dock workers here and there, because they had not yet been decimated by Menemism. And Alfredo and Beatriz walk, loving one another and hating one another in dub, in sepia, with corny phrases, so much to say, in so little time. And of course Beatriz is a journalist, just like Rita, who starts speaking over the dialogue in Volver, perhaps reading my mind, or Ariel’s, or perhaps to stop me from reproducing the original exchange of platitudes.

“Why did you come?” asks Rita.

“To sell the flat, you know that,” says Ariel. “And to see Buenos Aires…”

“I mean why did you really come? You didn’t really need to…”

“I was curious…”

“Tourists,” says Rita bitterly. “In just a few days they want to see everything: visit all the museums, watch the tango, the football. Everything. As long as it is authentic.”

“And I really wanted to see you,” says Ariel. “I’ve missed you.”

“Have you realised how much we sound like characters in a bad Argentine film?” asks Rita.

“It’s the fate of all Argentine characters,” says Ariel and lights up another cigarette. Or I might say that. But he definitely lights up a cigarette because I quit smoking years ago.

.

XI

And the dead of the AMIA, murdered in the terror attack of 1994. How many of them? Was it eighty five of them? The names are painted on the walls at Pasteur / AMIA — white traces against a black wall, also underground. I don’t count them.

The ideologues behind the attack were never found. The investigation pointed towards a cocktail of islamist terrorism, state and police complicity, inefficiency, and old school Argentine antisemitism. There was an Iranian connection and a national prosecutor in charge of the investigation. He was found dead twenty and so years later, in January 2015, a day before declaring before the congress, in a move that according to some would have compromised the then president Cristina Kirchner (who had recently signed a controversial deal with Iran in order to advance the investigation, if you ask some, in order to shelve it, if you ask others). As his death was investigated things started to turn up about him, dirty laundry. Inappropriate exchanges of information with the American embassy, bank accounts abroad, links to foreign secret services. No one will ever know who suicided him. Like very likely no one will ever know who bombed the AMIA in 1994, or the Israeli embassy some blocks away, two years earlier. Justice is so slow in Argentina, that frequently it never arrives. And everyone is a bit dirty, make sure to make this clear.

I can’t remember if it was after the attack on the embassy or the AMIA when a old lady on the telly, reflecting upon the atrocity, outraged and emotional, ended her speech with “why do they have to put a bomb here? They haven’t only killed Jews today. They have also killed Argentine people, innocent people.”

XII

Ariel spends the night with Rita. The next morning he goes for a walk.

If the piece had taken place during the 80s Ariel sooner or later would have bumped into a disappeared-theme demo. If it had taken place in the 1990s, he would have bumped into one against the political corruption and the economic misery that characterised the decade. In 2001 he would have bumped into a horde of angry citizens demanding that all politicians go — que se vayan todos. In the past fifteen years he would have bumped into demos for or against the populist saints or sinners who saved or destroyed the country, that bunch of holy crooks, the Kirchners — Argentina is a country of radical binaries, don’t ask me to explain this in this limited space.

And now, after hanging around Florida and Lavalle, Ariel is walking down Carlos Pellegrini heading towards Corrientes, being the tourist he is, when he bumps into a demo, pure coincidence. The posters betray the same lack of imagination as in any demo anywhere. The semiotics of red and black, block capitals, synthetic slogans. A large flag with Che’s face confirms that the lack of imagination in this opportunity is left-leaning. And here a closer look at the posters and signs: they don’t make any sense. Ariel feels dizzy but nevertheless starts to walk with the demonstrators, gets in the midst of the noise, unable to understand the language they speak (metaphorically) and he crosses 9 de Julio avenue with them, and then stops and watches them disappear banging their drums and singing the chants against the traffic down Corrientes, with that obscene erected Obelisk behind him.

He watches them disappear. Unable to process what is going on, what do they want, what is it about now? He can’t understand because he has spent five years away, because he has slowly disengaged himself from his country, because he doesn’t belong here any more — Rita is right: he is a tourist. And yet he is already thinking of a possible conference paper, why not a journal article: “Peripatetic Literature: Argentine Politics and the Poetics of the Demo”. The title just turns up in his mind. He doesn’t even need to know what the demo was about in order to write this — the reason can be found out later, or just invented. He only needs to know that the demo happened. That it will happen again. That Argentines love a demo. And that demos are just another form of literature. And that all literature can and should be compared. vivisected, CVfied.

XIII

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires and never make it home, to the place where I was born and where I spent twenty five years of my life. Let’s just say that a number of personal and work-related commitments impede it. I get to see my family, most of them. But I don’t see my friends, except for the ones who have turned the possibility of Buenos Aires into a reality. A natural order is repaired by my inability to bridge the 350 kilometres that separate me from Rosario. Some friends verbalise their disappointment and I stop responding to their messages. Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago — we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.

I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires, meeting this or that writer or publisher or filmmaker, sorting out papers, buying books and films and eating meat and drinking wine. Working but not only working and having a reason to be here, for once. And taking down notes — I take down lots of notes, on my notebook. Obviously I take notes with a fountain pen, on a Moleskine — this is part of my process of simplification, of embracing the stereotype.

I take notes in bars, on the bus, on the train and the subte. And people peer at my notes but the notes are in English. A girl on the train speaks to me in English after eyeing my writing, “where are you from?” she says. I reply to her in Spanish. She seems disappointed and asks why I write in English, then. I reply that I don’t know. She laughs. She is beautiful and young, and gets off at the next station, Villa Luro. This girl was some moments ago sitting zazen on the train floor. I had never seen anyone sitting zazen in Buenos Aires. It is never all about poverty or misery, is it? Not even when I think for an audience, for the page, speculatively, erasing the complexities and colours, in order to please, to be read, to be synthetic and available.

At some point I start missing London. I count the days. Thank god the days fly. I can live a different lie there, one that feels real.

.

XIV

After one more session of love with Rita, more tender than passionate, and very likely sterile, hopefully, Ariel sets to the task of getting the boxes out from the storage place.

What he finds will colour the nature of his return, whatever else happens before or after. Perhaps he finds notes. Or notebooks. Yes, notebooks of his years as a porteño intellectual, the years before the Big Leap into other continents and into a properly structured way of life, a career. Or maybe he finds nothing of any significance. The thought makes him anxious.

He does open the boxes. The first two house old books eaten away by damp and cockroaches (do they eat books?). He moves these aside, keeps opening. Old clothes, old readers from his undergraduate degree years. Everything ready for the skip, smelling of moist and time and somehow death.

But the smell of coffee soon starts to fill the flat, the melancholia is aborted, and Rita turns up with a cup, wearing a long white shirt, barefoot, all post-coital happiness. She moves next to Ariel, crouches next to him, passes him the cup, kisses him on the cheek.

“It’s all rotten,” he says, Ariel, opening another box.

“It’s very humid down there,” says Rita; she sits on the floor, careful that the t-shirt clothes what some minutes ago was exposed in the open, because this is how old friends sleep together.

Paper, this is all paper, and yes, he finally gets to the notebooks. He had the foresight of wrapping them in cling film. They seem unharmed. Two notebooks, pseudo-Moleskine, national production, they will fall apart as soon as the cling film is removed. He moves them to a side, doesn’t bother with them, not now.

“All this can go in the bin,” he says, pointing at the rest of the boxes, the six stinking boxes, with their mouths open towards the ceiling.

“Polo,” says Rita, referring to the building doorman, “he can sort this out when he clears the rest of the rubbish tomorrow night, after I leave.”

“Is Polito still alive?” asks Ariel, surprised.

“He looks like,” says Rita.

“He must be,” says Ariel. “I’d love to say hi to him,” he adds. He won’t.

XV

I am waiting in the departures lounge, Ezeiza airport. I lie to myself, that I will be back before the end of the year, that this time I will make the effort to go back home, not to an ideal or imaginary place, but to the only place I really left behind, to whoever still speaks to me there, to my mother’s house, my childhood things, the books I wish I hadn’t read, the places where I used to spend my time.

They have wi-fi in the airport now — it works quite well. I play with my phone, read the news in English, respond to banal messages, and when I run out of battery look at the passing people, singling out my compatriots without effort, their familiar ways and blue jeans and gigantic Nike trainers sticking out in the flurry of wealthy Brazilian tourists, mugged Europeans on their way home, and air hostesses and pilots with their small suitcases rolling over linoleum floors.

I sit here, waiting to fly back to London, and I think about Ariel’s return, about how the rest of his journey might unfold for him.

In the next days, after relocating to an AirBnB flat in Palermo, he will dedicate full-time to sorting out the final details pertaining the sale. Rita will be too busy, organising her move first and settling into her new place later, to meet him until the very last moment. He will welcome this space, spend his time in the bookshops of calle Corrientes, the bars, perhaps even go watch a film in one of the old cinemas left in the centro, if any hasn’t been turned into an evangelic temple. He will end up signing the papers by the end of the week and receive the confirmation of the bank transfer the following morning. The notebooks will remain unopened until after the sale, the transfer, after all the to dos, and Rita. Until he has had time to breathe and properly realise that he has nothing left in Buenos Aires, that all his traces in this place are contained in these two notebooks. So he leaves it until this very last moments, when I am sitting at the departures lounge in Ezeiza airport, waiting for the plane that will take me to London, to the place we call home.

The cling film comes easily and the notebooks don’t fall apart. The first one — a clutter of blue and black ink — contains mostly quotes from this or that book. The second one, this is the one that matters. The first page makes it clear.

A note (unedited, in Spanish).

Ezeiza Airport, April 13, 2002. A departure. This seems to be one of the tropes I’m expected to write about. And now that I depart, now that I’m here waiting for the plane that will take me away, I toy with the idea of writing something about a departure, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from this mandate, or from the fact that I’m leaving. I’M LEAVING. And I don’t have a clue what will happen with my life, where I’ll end up, doing what. It’s such a cliché, for an Argentinean to depart, and to write about it. It’s a terrible destiny. But at least it’s something to do. And what’s more: departing is meaningless; worse is living in Argentina.

—Fernando Sdrigotti

.

Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd

.
.

Aug 132017
 

Bees are the Overseers.

Bees are the Overseers

-Bees are the overseers of the world of light. The moon belongs to them,
…………as does the sun.
-Those who insult the moon are within the moment stung with lightning.
-Just as the kitchen is the navel of the house, so the bee is the navel of the air.
-The Devil paves his streets with bees.
.
-Seven, that auspicious cipher, numbers the ways one may disencumber oneself
…………..of a corpse:
It may be set in a slipper-shaped jar and buried in the sea, sinkhole, well,
but if some continue to dress their dead in aprons and caps of threaded shells,
it is no longer fashionable to entomb the dead among ants.
The dead may be kept in honey, or wine, or salt, or tar, or aromatic gum.
.
-Death is about change; architecture isn’t.
.
-As it may be entered, the mausoleum offers an adequate receptacle
…………….for the idea of the departed
without offending propriety.
.
-If the mummy, official portrait or bust are symbolic facsimiles of the deceased,
the dome both acknowledges the buried skull and anticipates its sequel.
The dome suggests stubborn persistence; the pyramid, infinity. As for the obelisk,
here vertiginous loss is dwarfed by vertiginous height.
.
-In the charged company of thugs, the skull both breathes and barks.
.
-Power, as embodied by architecture, is less fickle than the mourners who, sooner
………………or later,
will abandon their black weeds for sexier attire.
.
-Power never abandons its funereal mantle, nor its funereal appeal,
yet some continue to mistake the dubious attractions of secular authority for
the natty garments of seduction.
..
.
-One has a tendency to ascribe intention to the Abyss, even a logical scheme,
although it has been demonstrated, time and time again, that any given hypothesis,
…………..even “verified”
is contingent on provisory facts. As the nursery rhyme asks:
In the mouth of of despot, what is more fickle than facts?
.
Thus is Philosophy forever seated on the horns of chronic uncertainty. Science,
……………Her Right Hand,
insists that the First Quality of the Abyss is surprise.
.
Who knows?
…..—Venda
What Now?
…..—Vam Wemba
.
-Space is measured by the time it takes for one bee to fly to another.
If it were not for the bees, there would be no astrological computation,
nor could the transit of the human soul across the planets be observed.
.
-Wind, air and trees: these animate and exemplify the gardens of the bees,
which are intended for the ears and lungs only.
Sight is seduction, says the philosopher, evoking the whore’s commons
with their deep beds of blossoms, smoking furnaces, the dubious fascination
of mechanical songbirds.
.
-Like sight, sound sails the air on strings.
Compare, the philosopher entreats us, the fleshy arguments
…………..of the whore’s parterres,
to the spontaneous infinity of the sage’s bower.
.
-The word on the page transcends all things made of brick and bone.
Spoken, it rends the air, as do the bees, beams of light,
the stars that elbow their way across the night.

—Rikki Ducornet, Collages By Allan Kausch

.

 

The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

§

San Francisco Bay Area illustrator Allan Kausch has edited over 1,100 projects for Lucasfilm Licensing (including the manga adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy, for which he won the Eisner and Harvey awards), five volumes of the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, plus hundreds of projects for Tachyon Publications, Black Widow Press, Night Shade Books and PM Press. With Michael Moorcock, Kausch coedited London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction. Kausch’s semiautomatic writing has appeared in Antiseptic, Furious Fictions, Athena Incognito, Leviathan IV, Fantastic Metropolis and John King’s VERBAL.

 

.
.

Aug 122017
 

Photographs: Jowita Bydlowska

.

We are half-drunk and the alcohol cracks us open, lets in some air. We’re not entirely relaxed but we’re better than we were when we left home, all stiff and silent, wedged into the opposite corners of the back seat of a cab.

Now, my husband says, “But if you had to? Five grand.”

“Okay, maybe the one with red hair. With the tattoo. But probably not,” I say. The one with the red hair with the tattoo is one of the three bartenders. The game is of what if. What if I had to sleep with a woman. For five grand.

I used to get crushes on girls in university. They all dressed better than me or seemed more comfortable than me in how they were in their bodies, their clothes—I wanted to be them and on rare occasion I wondered if I maybe wanted to be with them.

And I wanted to kiss Helen before, in high school. I would watch her plump, small mouth talk and talk and think of penises she sucked and I would get jealous. I wanted to kiss that mouth. I was curious. She drunkenly confronted me about it once, at a party, asked me in front of people if I wanted to make out.  She said I was creeping her out with the way I stared at her. She laughed and I laughed along with her. I left the party as soon as she left to get another bottle vodka from the kitchen.

“Why not? She’s beautiful,” my husband says.

She is. I would kiss the redheaded bartender. I’d probably do it for five bucks or for free but I like lying to my husband, pretending to be hesitant about it.

I think he lies to me all the time. I have no proof but if you lie you think everybody else is.

There are other women here but the bartenders he can see best; they’re displayed right behind me. I wonder if my husband still sees me as beautiful. He never tells me I’m beautiful, any more.

His eyes never leave the girl display. “That would be incredibly hot.”

I say, “Your turn. Which one? The waiters.”

“They’re all men,” he says. “It’s different.” He finally looks back at me.

“Ten grand. Just a blow job.”

“No way,” he laughs.

“Fifteen.”

The patio is full, most of the tables occupied by couples similar to us, slightly crumpled stylish 30–40somethings. Perhaps they all play same stupid games. Perhaps, like us, they are parents set free for one night. If this is true, if you were to total the amount of money spent on tonight’s outing for this whole patio, it would be in thousands: outfits, sitters, cabs, dinners, booze, hotel reservations for some.

The restaurant itself is one of those places where car parts are used as decoration and drinks are served in mason jars with twine wrapped around them. Inside, the walls are exposed brick and air ducts under the ceiling and chandeliers made out of deer horns. Outside where we are, there are no special accents unless you count the waiters who all have moustaches and tattoos. It’s been like this for years now in Toronto, and there’s no sign of these sorts of trends going away. I try to imagine what the next trend will be, perhaps something to do with space, again like in the 80s but with some new twists: everything shaved off even eyebrows but armpit hair and it will be dyed; everyone will sit on the floor in restaurants, the walls will be empty and white, metal ceilings.

For now, this is one of the it restaurants downtown. You need double income to sit in these barbwire chairs without getting nervous about the injury and the prices, and you need high tolerance for hipness, which is why people like us eat in restaurants like this one. We’re not hip but we try to hang on to our youth. The way everyone does in their 30–40s. I don’t know if everyone else hates this shit secretly, like I do.

I share my observations with my husband.

“Yeah, if you’re right, we could probably live for a year on what’s being spent here tonight,” he says.

“Buy a nice car. Travel to China. I could travel to China where I would meet a man who’d murder me quietly in a dark alley somewhere.”

“You should try to go back to writing,” he says. “You always make things into stories.”

“It was a lame story anyway. You mocking me?”

“Yes, everything is a hidden insult.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you were mocking me.”

“No, I mean what I say. There’s no hidden agenda. You like to live in an imaginary world.”

“Not true,” I say even though it’s true. Despite the alcohol and the sudden ease it affords, I know I will never bring up how things are between us. I don’t know if he caught on that I’ve been fantasizing about leaving him. On some level, he must feel it—he must know that there’s something wrong, he must be aware of this ultrasonic scream that I scream. Then again, I’ve been pretending to be me for so many years that perhaps it is impossible for him to tell deception from the truth. The world he thinks he lives in, with me, is real to him but it’s something that I’ve created. He’s completely right about the imaginary world.

He sighs. “Fine. Not true.”

“Are we having a fight?”

“Of course not.” He laughs. “But do you remember when you thought I was this big playboy? You had this idea of me that had nothing to do with the truth?”

“You’re trying to have a fight.”

“No I’m not. I just always wonder why you need to make up these little dramatic scenarios. Life is quite interesting the way it is. Just write about penguins. You’d be great at writing childrens’ books.”

“I thought you were the novelist in the family. Anyway it was just a joke. About China, come on. Relax.”

“I’m relaxed. But think about the penguins,” he says and tries to ruffle my hair but I move back.

“Okay. I’m a bit testy tonight. You’re right,” I say when he grimaces.

I empty my glass of wine.

He says, “So has this thing with Helen and Rick been in works for some time?”

“No. It’s new. She just told me last week.” A lie.

“Did you know things were bad between them?” he says.

“Kind of. She wasn’t too happy. You know their baby issues.”

“The baby.”

“Rick doesn’t want a baby.”

He says, “Yeah, I always forget. I don’t think about babies. But there must be more to it. Divorce is a pretty drastic thing.”

I say, “Babies can be enough reason for women. I don’t know. Babies are a big deal.”

A moustachioed waiter brings us the next thing to eat. It’s broccolini; it slides on the plate in greasy sesame sauce and soya sauce as the waiter puts the dish on the table. The way the waiter describes it, he makes it sound like it’s a fancy gazebo. I can’t wait for him to go away. He does eventually.

I’m hungry so I scoop most of the thing onto my dinky plate and my husband looks on, “Glad you’ve got your appetite back.”

“What about my appetite?”

“You’re too skinny.”

“Like unfuckable?” I still care to be fuckable to him. Or I just care about being fuckable.

“You’re a skinny white mattress,” he laughs. “Just joking. I always want you.”

“I am what?” I say. I’m impressed with this joke. But it sounds like he thought about it a lot, like he just couldn’t wait to say it out loud. So now that he says it, I play the game where I will have to return the banter. I come up with something.

“A skinny white mattress. I could sleep on top of you and it would be pokey,” he says, “pokey, pokey, pokey.”

“I like heavy blankets.”

“Bam,” he says. He chews on his broccolini. “This is like eating an asshole. Like inside of an asshole. Like the asshole passage.”

“Ileum.”

“A what?”

“Small intestine. I read about it when I was looking up what my mother has been up to lately. She eats things that will pass through it undigested. It’s some new diet,” I say.

“Disgusting.”

“I like that she has hobbies now,” I say and the same waiter or one that looks just like him, with tattoos of words and symbols shows up with another dish. Some kind of shavings of meat like scraps of roadkill. Apparently a pork something.

“You have it,” I say to my husband after the waiter leaves.

“It’s not fattening,” he says.

“I know it isn’t. But you have it. I can’t eat pigs.”

“Why?”

Because I read an article about pigs being intelligent like dogs or even more intelligent. Because I watched a documentary about a slaughter house when I was 13 and had to cook for my mother and myself and I decided we should become vegetarian and she didn’t mind. I’ve never had bacon. The documentary, what I remember of it, was of pigs marching toward their death by taser and an ax to the tunes of Carmina Burata. It made me think of Holocaust. I told my husband the story a million times and he still doesn’t remember. He thinks this is about weight.

He eats the scraps as I gulp my glass of wine and motion for another.

I don’t know if it’s the same thing at other tables but when I look around, the other couples look as tired as I imagine we are. I picture them like us, in cabs, disgusted with their partners and horny because of wine, and resigned. Everyone wants to move the hell out of their lives.

I’m projecting. The proof is in a couple next to our table. The man reaches for the woman’s hand and she looks at him and it’s like a viagra commercial: her face beams with happiness.

“You think this is his secretary?” I say.

“It could be his wife,” my husband says, his voice low. I know he loves me more than I love him. It used to matter; now it doesn’t. He’s told me recently that he feels lonely. That ended up in sex; I had nothing else to console him with.

Another dish shows up and we split it; it’s a vegetable and at this point I don’t care what kind of vegetable; it’s marinated and so full of flavour that it shuts my mouth up. I count backwards from 20 then from 10 then from 20 again and order another glass of wine.

When we get home, we relieve the babysitter, my husband’s friend’s daughter with thick glasses and a 10-year-old blog. I read her blog to see if she ever writes about us; she never does. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or not that we’re not important enough or not more important than the food she eats and writes about.

“You should check out Anhedonia,” I tell her. It’s the name of the restaurant that we just ate at. It’s a name too lazy even for a hipster lowball of being nonchalant.

“I have. My boyfriend is a waiter there.”

“Which one?” my husband asks as he hands her a stack of 20s.

“He’s got a beard.”

I’m in a satirical novel about intentionally funny dialogue, which is not funny; it’s trying too hard.

“Oh, him. Yeah, he was good,” my husband says as if he could identify the waiter.

“Mark. He’s got my name tatted on his forearm.”

“Yeah,” my husband says and winks at me. This makes me cringe but then I feel sorry for him immediately, for his inability to hide his age. I think about how we used to be a glamorous young couple at events, how there were no babysitters—the luxury of being able to pay for babysitters, too!—in our old lives and the biggest conundrum was which high heels to wear with what dress.

*

The last summer before Henry, we decided to become novelists. We would both finish books by the time summer was over and we would quit our boring jobs after publishing offers would start to roll in. My husband no longer took pleasure in attending launches of condos or multi-blade razors, and I kept bouncing from one administrative assistant gig to another.

The idea to become novelists came about after one of those TV shows about unusual jobs. Someone was a writer. He seemed to be doing really well. It was the first thing we both got excited about in months.

We rented a small cottage in the woods by a lake. We spent mornings writing, afternoons fucking, evenings watching movies; every night a movie from the convenience store in the small town where we got groceries. Movies about funny love coincidences, with blonde actress daughters of blonde actress mothers, or comedies; everyone with big twinkly eyes.

Somewhere in the middle of this idyll, I abandoned my novel. Or it abandoned me. When I read what I had written so far, it turned out to be just a string of words, characters complaining about other characters. No plot.

I did not tell my husband about it. To look busy, I wrote long emails to friends. To Helen mostly. Back then she was dating someone who had children. There was a lot of drama. I had to analyze things he’d say to her, give feedback. It was ever-absorbing.

For a short while I thought about using our emails in my story, see if a plot would evolve on its own, organically, out of the emails, but it didn’t. Helen and the guy kept not breaking up. They also weren’t having any breakthroughs. It was a slog of bitchy little arguments between them. Nothing else. Exactly like the characters in the book I abandoned already.

After writing and lunch, my husband would take his nap.

One afternoon, I read what he had written as he napped.

The plot was solid because the story had really happened. All he had to do was type it up and give people different names; call himself Mark, which he did, and write from third-person—now it was fiction.

I knew the story because he told me it when we first started dating. The thing was already few dozen pages-long and right away I could tell who it was about. It was a story of his ex-girlfriend who had disappeared. He had found her eventually but by then she was married and pregnant and she lived in a small town and she was fat although he didn’t write that.

I hated that the story was about the ex-girlfriend, not about me. The long descriptions of her body, elastic and light brown, and the way she made elaborate dinners for him, shaking her ass as she cooked—why was that still in his head seven years after he’d last seen her. Why wasn’t I?

The writing wasn’t bad.

I didn’t tell him I had read his novel and that I wasn’t writing mine. My disappointment was speechless with indignation. It wasn’t a novel, it was therapy, I wanted to say to him but instead I just kept that thought inside me

I thought of emailing Helen about this but it was too humiliating. I didn’t want her to think my life was imperfect too.

I started taking his sleeping pills in secret. I’d swallow them during our evening movie time. I’d be passed out by the time the movie would end.

He’d lead me drugged and mostly asleep to bed. Maybe he’d have sex with me maybe he wouldn’t; I didn’t care. I didn’t have to think of her brown elastic body that was in his head, when he would or wouldn’t fuck me.

That summer, I felt there was something different about me even before we came to the cottage but I ignored it. I was always very cavalier about my female body. I had no idea how many days passed between my cycles, I didn’t do self-exams of breasts. I didn’t take birth control pills because I didn’t even have a family doctor and I smoked.

In any case. We weren’t trying to have a baby. He’d always pull out of me and wipe me carefully afterwards. I never asked him why he was so paranoid about it but once when I turned over too quickly, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “What are you doing with your hand?”

He thought I was impregnating myself.

Ever since that time, I’d lie there like a cadaver, waiting for him to clean me up till he deemed me satisfactorily sperm-free.

But something got through. One little determined tadpole. And once at the cottage, it was the peacefulness of nature and the quiet that made me stop ignoring what I could feel already: cells multiplying, weakening me inside.

Out in the country, there were no honking cars around me, no sirens, no houses on fire. Just rustling of leaves, and at night, cicadas, frogs; a gold-wire sound of August insects in the grass during the day. All of that calmed me down; I was also slower because of the sleeping pills in my system. A nervous, whirring machine inside me stopped.

It was that quietness that made me pay attention, admit that there was a possibility inside me. I left early one morning to walk into the nearby town to a big grocery store, to buy a pregnancy test.

In the big grocery store, I locked myself in the bathroom and peed on a stick.

Not far where we rented our cottage, there was a farm. A big meadow where horses ran free and ate grass. After peeing on the sick and seeing two pink lines, I walked around the meadow, changed, no longer myself. There wasn’t just me now. There were two of me.

The horses didn’t come up but would look toward me occasionally. I felt spiritual in those moments, like I was connected to everything—the horses too, of course. “I am going to have a baby,” I told one of the horses and it looked at me uninterested.

*

My husband comes home smelling of cigarettes and beer.  He says, “Helen was at the bar.”

“Oh.”

“She had an argument with Rick.”

“I should call her.”

“You should,” he says and stands there with his hands hanging against his sides.

In the past, he’d be sitting on the couch beside me, trying to kiss me, grope my breasts. But my body no longer invites it. And he tries very little to break through it. Mostly in bed. And even then, only if I turn a certain way. Often only if we both drink, our bodies come together under questionable consent according to the magazine articles.

“How was she? Was she okay?”

“She was fine. I walked her home.”

“That’s sweet of you,” I say. “Come here.”

He walks up to me then and bends down, stiffly.

He kisses my forehead with his lips.

Up close I think how he smells kissed-already. I picture a blonde 20-something-year-old throwing her thin arms around him, his baldness cute to her, manly. His body is a body of a former athlete. Women like him.

It arouses me to imagine this some girl kissing him and I pull him down by the neck and kiss him too, kiss him properly.

His mouth is surprised but only for a flash.

We stumble upstairs.

My orgasm is easy, fast. A build-up orgasm.

He pulls out of me and before he comes I angle my body so that it won’t land anywhere on me. The wetness grazes my shoulder. I picture the box of Kleenex on the night table on his side.

*

I told him after at the end of that summer that I would leave him if he were to try to publish it.

At the end of that summer, my body too was brown—brown like the body of the girl in his book—and smelling of sun. My hair went blonde from all the walks on the hot beaches. I was tall and gorgeous like a swimsuit model. A girl you marry so that others won’t fuck her.

I stood in front of him, with that body, in a swimming suit with my hair like that and I gave him an ultimatum. He was immortalizing someone else not me. The novel was not a love letter to me. He married me but it didn’t matter, all that sun and the body wouldn’t matter if he were to publish the novel.

And he said, “Then you have to leave.”

I didn’t believe he was truly a writer like that, that he really meant it. His stance surprised me.

Later on I thought that it was maybe his independence that he was standing up for. We were both blending in with each other as people tend to do in relationships, and he was fighting it.

We flew home on the same plane, different seats, without speaking.

I started looking for apartments.

He started reading and revising what he had written. He cursed in his office, “shit shit,” as he read it; I could hear him groan at night.

I heard him joke on the phone to someone telling this someone he would pay a dominatrix to not degrade him sexually but instead to insult his intellect, his creativity, to tell him how bad the writing was because he could no longer tell if it was as bad as he suspected. He wanted to destroy it but somebody else had to tell him to do that. It has to be a stranger, he said to the person on the phone.

Eventually, there was silence, no more cursing late at night.

I felt as if I’d won and it felt terrible. It felt as if I killed him in some small way. Now, desperately, I wanted him to go back to the manuscript. I couldn’t tell him that.

I found an apartment and put a deposit on it. I couldn’t imagine myself living on my own but here I was, about to do it. I had a vague idea about having to get a crib, set up a space for the baby-to-be. But I felt no enthusiasm about it.

I waited for my husband to tell me not to leave but he never did.

He took on extra shifts, wrote copy for magazines about dick products and shitty cars.

He would come home late and not check on me in the guest room where I lived now. We didn’t speak to each other, more than it was necessary: “Have you seen my umbrella?” “Rick is coming over.” “Helen called.”

I began packing. My plan was to do it loudly, obnoxiously, but he was never home. I cried but only out of frustration of nobody witnessing my misery.

After he’d go to bed I read what he had written so far. I read it again.

It was even better than what I’d read before. The writing was sharp, disciplined. The parts about the girl were tender but nothing over the top. Just simple words describing the protagonist’s desire and madness and self-loathing passages about loss: He felt offended by the world—it had the nerve to go on despite him being dead in it.

“You have to go back to it,” I told him, finally breaking our silence.

He was working late that night and I waited for him and he came home and I said that to him. It was almost midnight.

“You have to.”

“Have you found a place to live?” He asked without looking at me and his voice broke.

“Yes,” I said and we stared at each other and then we were kissing and it felt as if I could finally breathe.

“It’s so good,” I said, “your book, it’s so good.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Please.”

“If you want us to work out we can’t talk about it any more.”

“It’s so good.”

“Please. Stop.”

“I’m pregnant,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Good.”

And that was all. Good. He said nothing else about it then and we made love and fell asleep wrapped around each other, his hand on my belly.

*

The pictures online show a small house, a lake, a small beach. Another year, another vacation.

Inside the cottage, there are chairs, bookshelves, old comfortable couches. A large TV to watch DVDs on.

I move the cursor over the pictures. In some of them the lake is almost black against the washed out blue of the sky. The beach is all pebbles. There are Spectacular Sunsets!! advertised in the posting. A deck so you can look at our Spectacular Sunsets!!!!

The sunsets. And after the sunsets end, and the sky turns darker and after little Henry goes to bed, a deck to sit on, with a glass of wine, thinking up stories: me stories about penguins, my husband stories about former girlfriends.

Later on, we can make love by the Working Fireplace!!!

But first, before we do all that, I need to find his manuscript.

It will be like breaking a spell, finding this manuscript, having him go back to it

It will break the spell between us.

I don’t know what exactly I mean by that. I don’t believe in magic. But I suppose I do now: I have been reading horoscopes and articles about relationships on-line and I’ve played Solitaire obsessively like it’s an Oracle; playing till I win because I need positive answers to everything: Should I stay, should I go?

Yes, I still want to leave but I always come back; I place bets but the answer never comes—I’m always betraying myself in the end, even if I make a decision. I’m driven by chaos, not logic, emotions, not intentions. So perhaps the only thing left is magic, spells, breaking spells.

I go into my husband’s office to find the manuscript.

I’ve looked in the basement already but there’s nothing there, just crates of tax returns, hammers and rubber boots. No manuscript.

In his office, there’s nothing in the file cabinets, nothing on the shelves in the banker boxes. Lots of papers but none of them are the manuscript.

Perhaps he destroyed it.

I even look in a wooden box full of pens, hole punchers, staplers, magnifiers, a mirror with tiny grits of wet cocaine powder stuck in the scratches. Because maybe on the bottom.

Not on the bottom. Instead, I find a hotel key card, but not from the hotel we went to.

Once I find the key card, I become a detective, determined to find more evidence of whatever I think I’m about to discover. The manuscript is no longer important; the key card is.

I look behind the ship in the bottle. I don’t know why I look there. Maybe because I notice that the photograph of me pregnant is gone; it used to be right there, next to the ship.

How does this happen in movies? What is the buildup?

I try to recall specific movies, specific scenes, actresses, too, but I can’t; it seems there are so many—scenes of female characters going through drawers like me—through the pockets of her husband’s jackets, and the laundry. Kate Winslets, Michelle Pfeiffers, Cate Blanchets looking looking. Lipstick smudges on collars. No suspicion until the moment and it’s always a surprise, a hand to the mouth, a close-up on shocked eyes.

I see myself as if in a movie when I finally come across the item that confirms what I didn’t know but what I was looking for.

It’s tucked in behind the ship in a bottle. Not the photograph of me pregnant. A note.

I hold it in my fingers. I don’t have to unfold it. I can just stick it back where I found it.

I unfold it.

It reads: Can’t wait to fuck you again.

Then two hearts. A face with tongue sticking out.

The note is teenager-like but there’s carefulness even to the multiple exclamation marks that gives away this pretender. The writing is familiar, instantly familiar, actually; it’s Helen’s writing.

I have a quick, physical reaction to my discovery, a funny taste in my mouth, metal. Then, like a swift electric zap, desire to self-harm, too. To scratch my skin or smash my head against the wall. My body lunges forward inside me but I don’t move my body.

I wait.

I get up and go downstairs to the kitchen where I drink a glass of water.

I drink the glass of water; the desire to self-harm passes.

It’s getting dark outside. My husband and my son are at the museum looking at dinosaur bones. They will be home soon.

I drink another glass of water. Two glasses.

I walk up the stairs and go into his office.

I stick the note back behind the ship in a bottle.

I don’t know why I do this, like I’m not going to confront him about it but maybe I’m not—I can’t even tell.

All I feel is deep cold inside me, like everything is freezing. Like I’m freezing. The world is not the world. It is a movie. Maybe this is what betrayal feels like. Unreal. Unbelievable. Impossible to absorb.

There’s noise outside the door. My son shouting something. Boots stomping.

When I open the door, my husband shoves a bouquet of flowers in my face and then pulls me close to smash my mouth against his.

Henry is squealing, trying to pretend-push us apart.

It’s impossible. It was a joke. Some leftover thing from a party, maybe we played Charades, maybe Cards Against Humanity, maybe it was some sort of dare…

The was a party like that at someone’s house, last year. Songs. Charades.

I had to do “Love will tear us apart,” and I emoted—arms flying open from my heart, pretending to tear my hair out next, him watching and smiling, unsure.

It was hot outside, the windows were open, letting in the sticky, moist air.

We took a break from games and someone brought out cocaine. It was clumping from the humidity so everyone shouted, “hurry, hurry.”  We cut it on a big butcher’s table and snorted big cloying lines and went back to Charades.

That was the last time we played. Helen and Rick were there but I don’t remember any notes, nothing like that, there were no games that would produce notes like that, everyone just talked fast, and later we couldn’t fall asleep, although we must’ve fallen asleep eventually.

But if the note is a leftover thing, a jokey thing why hang on to it, why hide it?

As we kiss now, my tongue becomes a feeler, trying to feel out this secret, the wetness of his tongue not telling.

His mouth smells of mint and cream. I lick the corners of his mouth to figure out the taste. Some kind of dessert.

There was the card key, too, from a hotel.

He makes a sound, a muffled growl. I kiss him deeper, licking now and biting. It’s like an athletic endeavour almost, this kiss, me tonguing, tonguing. Kissing like I’m buying myself more time to figure out what I need to figure out.

“So so so gross,” Henry says and walks away, his shoulders drawn forward, feet stomping in a performance of exaggerated annoyance.

My husband breaks the kiss and laughs, “Whoa!” His face is red.

Perhaps this is good. The note. Perhaps it will make things easier, maybe this will be the thing that will put me over the edge. This is a substantial thing, a thing people commit murder over. Infidelity. My best friend. How could he?

I’m an actress with tragic eyes; I should run to the basement and grab all the things and burn them in the backyard.

*

Rick answers the phone right away, “Nina.”

“Can we meet?” I hold my breath.

“Sure.” He laughs. It’s not nice laughter. But this is especially not nice laughter. It’s nasty. It’s laughter that knows why I’m calling.

I want to shout at him, tell him—what? Him knowing why I’m calling, laughing like that makes things easier for me.

“When can you meet? Can you meet today?” I say. I try to keep my voice as straight as I can. A line of a voice, a strong line. No wavering. Fuck him.

“Sure, let’s meet.”

I show up at their house.

He’s wearing a middle-age-crisis jacket, kooky patterns, too much red. He seems to be on his way out, “Hey,” he says.

“Can I come in?”

“No. Let’s go,” he shakes his head and I don’t ask where but follow him instead.

He drives without speaking.

The silence is uncomfortable. I find it arousing too. The same repulsion-attraction I’d felt when he licked my ear that time when we played Charades and he was supposed to whisper a word in my ear.

We check into a small boutique hotel converted from an old rooming house. The concierge is a young Indian guy who checks me out. He’s unusually attractive with wide features—wide nose, lips—and I wish I was going with him.

“Coming?” Rick says. The concierge gives me a small smile.

Inside the room, the walls are raw bricks. They make hotels out of old asylums, doll or glycerine factories, remove all the innards and stuff them with slick sculptures and beds with sheets and quirky art on walls. Blown-up photos of female body parts in black and white.

We are silent.

I sit on the bed, under a photograph of a shaved armpit.

He goes to the bathroom and stays there for too long.

I take my coat off.

I fluff my hair. I need to wash my hair. I haven’t washed my hair in a while. It doesn’t matter.

He comes out, his face red, shining with wetness.

He sits in a chair across the room.

He watches me sitting on the bed.

Outside, there’s a courtyard, an old van with an airbrushed mermaid parked in it. Garbage bins and garbage bags. A tree with sparse, sickly leaves—a tree that wants to die and can’t.

“What are we doing here?” I say.

“We’re here because our spouses are shitty human beings and we are going to get revenge by fucking like crazy,” he says.

“Is that a good idea?”

“Why are you here?”

“Because I thought it might be a good idea.”

“There you go,” he says but doesn’t make any move.

I say, “When did you find out?”

“I paid someone. To follow her. Like they do it in movies,” he said. “I have pictures. I can get into her texts. It was almost fun. I felt like a kid detective. Nancy fucking Drew.”

“You actually paid someone.”

“Yeah. I can’t just spend my days spying on her. I was worried I’d hurt her, too,” he laughs. The laugh is short, fake. “I thought it was this little douchebag from her workplace. I wanted to see pictures of him, of them together. But then surprise!”

“Surprise.”

We fall silent again.

I look out the window. A man gets in the mermaid van. He doesn’t start the car. I wonder if he’s a detective too.

“Well I’ve always wanted you,” he says.

“That’s natural. Proximity.”

“Maybe.”

I say, “I should be angry. But I’m only doing what I think I should be doing, calling you. I don’t feel angry.”

“You’re trying to convince yourself you don’t feel angry,” he says.

“I love him.”

“I’m sorry,” Rick says. He gets up. He comes up to me and wipes under my eyes with his thumb.

He bends down to kiss me. His kiss is soft, softer that I would’ve expected from a mouth that says so many idiotic things. I kiss him back, take a clue from his softness, make my mouth pliable, submissive.

I wait for a bite but it never comes.

When he pulls away I let out a sigh. To him it probably sounds like desire.

But it is desire, too. It’s despair and desire.

He undresses me quickly, and I undress him.

We don’t spend much time on foreplay.

Our coupling is dry and fast. It’s unpleasant for a moment but then my body takes over, overcomes the initial discomfort: it lubricates.

Rick breathes rapidly, and I start to breathe rapidly too and I move along with his rhythm, close my eyes and let it take me away.

I can feel his rage, how it makes him hard.

He kisses me again and this time he bites.

I bite him back.

“Dammit,” he shouts. He touches his lip, looks at his fingers. No blood. “Dammit.”

He goes at me, faster now, to punish me, perhaps. He groans like an animal. He sweats a lot. Our bodies slick and slide. I adjust to this new rhythm quickly and I groan, too. A fucking panther. Fucking. We’re a sex zoo.

I feel the warmth: contract, pulse, squeeze.

I pull him even deeper inside me.

I clutch onto him, I love you, I think, feeling my orgasm fire off inside me.

After he collapses on top of me, I push him over.

He goes to sleep.

I lie with my eyes open.

I fall asleep briefly into a quick, satisfying dream. I dream of being made love to by a short, old man. Nobody I know. He holds my legs down as he kneels above me. We are both amused by how flexible I am, by how my open thighs touch the ground completely flattened out as he thrusts.

When I open my eyes, Rick is in the shower. I put my clothes back on and leave the room.

I walk through the underground shopping maze to get to the subway. When Henry was born, I used to come here all the time with the stroller. It was one of the places that opened very early. Like most new mothers I needed to have all kinds of stupid things to do before noon in order to prevent dying of boredom and guilt from not loving my child enough.

My favourite store was a large bookstore with bright lights inside.

I would go in and read all the magazines I would never buy. Tabloids and magazines about how to parent, or repair bicycles, and magazines targeted to lesbians, and music magazines.

There was a condo building above the shopping maze that was nicknamed “The Menopause Manor” because it was mostly occupied by the elderly. They, like the stroller-pushers, would come out first thing in the morning. They would buy expensive coffees and English muffins and eat them while in the little food court by the bookstore, watching everyone who wasn’t them. People like me, the young.

If I would sit down, there would suddenly be two or even three women with trembling white hair and lip-smacking fuchsia mouth, cooing at the baby, looking up at me with what I read as a plea: Get me out of here. But the “here” was age and we were all going that way. I wanted to shout that at them, tell them to leave my child alone.

Later, I softened. I thought of how carefully they dressed to display themselves to the world, to prove that there was nothing wrong, no loneliness, no death.

I recalled reading about sick animals, how often you couldn’t tell they were sick because they would present themselves as healthy—the outward appearance was a defence against a world that is ruthless in discarding its weak.

As Henry grew, I would take him back to the shopping mall and we would sit down and wait for the first cloud-haired lady and we would tell her what Henry’s name was and what he liked to do the most—art— and was he good to his mummy, yes, he was.

I felt like I was being charitable.

Today is the first time since long ago that I walk through the mall.

The bookstore is bright and shouty with front-store shelves displaying the latest hits: books on gluten, gardening, how to overcome being an asshole.

The elderly are occupying every table in the small food court by the coffee shops.

A stooped man in a t-shirt that reads “pushing 95 is enough exercise for me” stands at a table occupied by a flock of white-haired ladies. He says things that make them laugh.

He looks at me and winks and I wink back, without thinking.

I try to imagine who he was—I try to imagine him as my sexual counterpart.

As him, he is tall and his eyes are bright blue, not cloudy, and he has wide shoulders and wiry, black hair on his strong chest; he is a rugby player, a guy who drinks and fucks and laughs on yachts.

I think how that guy is trapped inside this twisted body, how there’s no getting out, how his desire must learn to die but it is refusing to die. The desire drives him, it tells jokes to ladies, the way it used to; it is a wink, a lighthouse in the darkness: I am still here.

I cannot get on the subway yet. There’s too much time between now and later.  The house is empty. That note.

I need a distraction.

I worry that in the empty house, I will behave badly, look through old photos, go on the Internet and do quizzes. I will compose emails to Helen or to a relationship advice columnist and I will never send them.

Many of the elderly look up when I halt in the middle of my walk. Sharp eyes. Anticipation. Maybe I will start screaming, fall down. A woman alone, disheveled.

There’s a movie theatre on the main floor of this place and I turn around, decide to go see a movie. A movie that will make me not think for a few hours, any movie will do.

I pick a movie about people in space. Three-D glasses.

The people’s space shuttle gets blown to pieces by cosmic debris and there are only two survivors.

They float in space to try to get to other shuttles to get back to the earth. It doesn’t work out for the guy; he floats off to his death. She survives somehow; it is a movie after all. There are dozens of scenes where she almost doesn’t survive. Almost dies all the time.

         —Jowita Bydlowska, Photos & Text

,

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, was published in 2017.  Her short story “Funny Hat,” published on Numéro Cinq, was selected for the 2017 edition of Best Canadian Stories. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

..
.
 

Aug 122017
 

Takacs

.
Blush

They took the district psychologist for a body search
to the drugstore office thanks only to her professional
myopia, because she couldn’t have imagined
that the substitute security guard with erection
problems could flop so badly as to take her
for a thief, and that he was so hard on her
heels in the empty store minutes before closing
time, solely to catch her in the act. So she was
summoned to return at once the (old) blush
she had sunk into her handbag, while conscientiously
placing an identical one in her shopping cart
so that, after payment, she could powder her cheeks
with it for the award ceremony of the Freud medal
for lifetime achievement, to be handed her
by the minister of education himself. ‘But I’ve seen her
steal it with my own eyes!’, the security guard protested
and in his indignation kicked a cardboard box
full of condoms, making a sizable hole
in it. The therapist’s face had no need for the blush
to burn. But her calling, to ease the guard’s bewilderment,
proved stronger than her shame, and with the battle
cry, the patient is always right, she sprang to the guard’s
defense in front of the manager who, blaming
the heat wave, in his embarrassment
hastily put on his long winter overcoat.

.
Revolt of the Extras

We long to be continued after the last
episode, although the producers opened
the champagne and gave us a small farewell
party. This afternoon even we sit
on the kitchen stools in front of the camera
hoping to see ourselves in the new chapter: we have
played our part for a full year and this recent
indifference to our fate, the plotlines unfolding
without us in the new scenario
hurt us to the quick. No, this is not
what kept us pacing up and down the street,
shivering as usual at winter’s
end. Is it possible that the audience is losing
interest in us? Has our time passed
for good, our story passé, even though we are still
stirring? Coming and going we can hear
the camera’s buzz. As before, we tread with nimble
feet, but a low growl comes from the machine’s
jaws. We fear it might be disapproving.

.
The Other Side of the Coin

To bear the unsayable agony
of the lovers seated on an anthill,
the rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings at the moment
of climax, a rumble of the stomach in the midst
of an ardent declaration of love, to mix up the dear
addressee’s name when reunited at last.
While contemplating suicide by the open
window, to be soaked not in springtime
melancholia but in grenadiermarsch[1] stench.
To suffer the priest’s flu-inflected
staccato prayer over our dead body.
After a night spent awake due to the weather
turning, to drowse off when our life
sentence is announced.
Instead of ours, to enter the hotel room
of the lust killer who is shaving naked
in front of the full-length mirror. To go raspy
when given the right to the last word.
To meet ourselves on the staircase
(she going upstairs, I tumbling down).
Incensed, to shove our manhood
into the bread slicer instead of bread.
To knock on our own door, waiting to be let in.
With our mouth full of spinach to choke
convulsively on some antediluvial joke
on the silken sofa of the newly wed.
To eat gilded-edged caramel custard
while changing diapers. To shake
hands with the disciple who tries
to sell us the dead master’s gold tooth.
To see the light under shadowy circumstances.
To remain standing for good, half-dressed,
in front of the cupboard, or sitting
in the bathtub until icicles grow on the tap
out of a penchant for parallelism.
…………………………………………..And if not, let go!
Then the day will come: the grenadiermarsch
smell in the open window, the killer
with the razor will come to cut off the ice
from our skin. And spring! spring will come!

.

A Royal Day

During his visit now and then the king
stops on a whim, and throws a look
across his realm. Winter has worn out
the city, the fences lean in, the frost drove
new cracks in the pavement.
Snow, black, is blocked in the gutter mouths.
Open lorries carry sand to a nearby
construction site, fine dust
drizzles down. With light fingers he wipes
the grains from his brow. On tram fifty-nine
homeless bums are yelling across to each
other over the passengers’ heads
in a tongue of the realm he barely understands.
He arrives at Déli Station. Descends
into the subway’s draughty inner
halls. The brass band strikes up
a fanfare. He spots the mutilated
Romanian sitting in the same corner,
a babbling would-be greeting on his cardboard sign.
So his faithful subject has come to him,
travelling all night on the blackened train,
or defecting across the green border of hope!
He waves at the man kneeling at his feet, whose
eyes run over with tears. Daily routine.
On a mouth organ a duke plays operetta.
The hailing, the attention directed at him,
the loud calling of his name, the hands grabbing
the hem of his robe wear him out, he feels repulsion.
And yet: he was born for this, when all the bells
spoke of hope, I will be one of them,
he said, but now it is as if he were watching
in a microscope the beings, invisible to the naked
eye, scurrying, worming on the ground.

.

Innocence

I dreamed I gave birth to a child: by him.
But they warned me beforehand: it is stillborn.
The most awful of all was my indifference,

I didn’t care what was happening with me,
I felt not pain but ennui rather. A huge,
waxen newborn was laid out on the table

covered in transparent nylon.
Next to it, under a damask cloth,
props of an unfinished breakfast.

We must behave as if he were alive, the midwife
said and cried out twice: Look,
how cutely he is wobbling!

.

I knew I was to be sentenced

I started eating. On the newborn’s brow
above the bridge of the nose, a wound cut
with a blade appeared, I tried to smooth it out,

fighting my repulsion, but couldn’t. No
blood oozed from it: it was final.
Like the outcome of something long-planned,

done in cold blood, it was: concrete.
I knew I was the one who wounded him, unawares
when slicing the bread. I even recalled how

the knife ran into the still protesting skin.
I felt fear and hazy remorse.
I knew I was to be sentenced.

.

For everything around us is: life

Surely I cannot be the killer of our love?
Surely it was the child of another, a stranger,
not yours, and by no means mine?

It was a strange child laid out on the table,
stillborn, since the wound didn’t bleed:
this should be sufficient evidence.

Most likely it was a wax doll. Someone
must have made a savage joke,
for everything around us is: life.

And inside me too: you surely know me!
Even if leaves are falling on the rails
and the tram turns the corner with long shrieks.

.

The Chain and the Link (A Lánc És a Szem)

(1) The most exquisite movement (A legszebb mozdulat)
It is now clear that the forcefully united
stands out in parts. Needless to resist
anymore: as I have always wanted,

the chain and the link crumble a-part.
(I never managed, as I now realize,
to align, however hard I tried.)

Leaf, how gently you fell on the lake’s
water. Gentler than any lover
on the craved pudenda.

This was the most exquisite movement, thank
you, leaf. You didn’t mingle. You didn’t quiver.
This was the most exquisite movement.

(2) To leave (KIMENNI)
the crowded room at the height
of ovation when the arch-funereal
clowns perform their lightning-fast

jest, not to be duped by their countless
tricks, to break through the elated
row, to reclaim from the mesmerized

cloakroom girl hat, coat and umbrella
for a song, to cross the city when its theatre wings
are being rearranged but the night shift

has not arrived yet, the clocks stand
still, our sole companion the disinfectant
smell on the last pestilential streets.

(3) Going on (FOLYTATÁS)
Not to call anyone (the greenery will
outgrow their pots anyway and, pushing
open the window, lean out),

not to avenge, nor to get over
insult, not to have tooth-ache, inflamed
cornea, leukemia treated,

not to open the door when the house is aflame,
not to cling on when drowning, to turn back
from the loathed door at the moment

of arrival. Not to look forward on the way
but backward only. To stand up to the clash.
Then on the water a leaf may fall.

.

Yearning for an ancient cup

To not rebel, even if you possess the necessary
skills, but execute the emperor’s order.
To smuggle my remembrance into the manner of the farewell,
the moral of experience paid with blood, the gift
of clear-sightedness, before my eyesight is
blurred and my pupils hitch upward.
Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.
If I linger on among you for a while, it’s only
to say, I owe a cock to Asclepius.
But since you had promised to pay my debt,
what would hold me here still? The command
summons me, to quote the tragic poet, and it’s high time
to arrange for a bath. I’ll drink the cup right after.
The sand sifting from my eyes will settle on
the borders of Athens. I have never believed in borders,
yet feel no triumph. My legs go heavy,
I lie down on my back, as the man
who brought the hemlock advised.
The world loses its contours, grows cold.

— Zsuzsa Takács, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa

 .

Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature TodayThe Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature OnlineShe lives in Budapest.

§

Erika

Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

 x

x

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Translator’s note: Potatoes and pasta stewed with onions, some sort of meat or bacon, and eventually anything else that could be thrown in – in this respect, a bit like the famous Irish stew. It is very consistent, and became a food of the poor. The smell would have been of onions stewed in pork grease, into which the mixture is then thrown with water. Appropriately bathetic.
Aug 112017
 


Okay, the scoop. Aidos, a short film by our senior editor R. W. Gray, marks Douglas Glover’s first credited film work (at 3:44). (It is not, however, his first onscreen appearance since he had an uncredited role as an extra in Michael Douglas’s 1979 movie Running; check out the start of the marathon. In terms of an acting career, this early success led nowhere — it is a galling fact of dg’s life that many things have led nowhere, though he remains optimistic.)

R. W. Gray has edited NC at the Movies for years, decades even, it seems. In between times, he’s been writing (his story collection Entropic last year won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award) and making films.

He shot Aidos in the winter-spring of 2014 when he and I were both rooming in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Some of the scenes were filmed in Mark’s house or nearby (you can see the old railway bridge through the stained glass window in one scene and the cathedral in the background of another).

The film has traveled the world (Tel Aviv, Romania, Lithuania, and all over the U.S. and Canada) and was programmed in twelve festivals. And now that it has finished its festival run, Rob has posted Aidos on Vimeo where we can all see it.

Aidos is, on the surface, about love and mourning. A young gay man has died, the voice over narration tells is that 21 people avowed their love for him before the end. What follows is 21 different actors saying “I love you” with the sound muted, just the faces, eyes, expressions.

When Rob filmed my bit, he told me nothing of the film’s structure or point. Actually, he told me nothing (I got no contract, no star in my door, we are still in litigation about the star on the door thing). He just wanted to film me saying the words “I love you.” This took a long time because he wanted a spiritual depth, a vulnerability, one is not used to performing in public. One, moi, I am so bloody shy. He coached me. He told me to visualize someone I loved and address that person. I thought of my sons. In my bit, I am thinking of my boys. That in the film this thought is translated into a completely different meaning is a revelation to me, a revelation about the nature of acting, which included, yes, an object lesson in the difference between acting and pretending — I was not pretending, though I was summoning up an image to cue myself. I am still mulling over this experience. I think I learned some, though I am not sure what.

That quality of vulnerability is what Rob was after in the film, I think. The word “aidos” bursts with complex implication, which you must think about as you watch the film. It’s a Greek word that means, as a quality, a mix of reverence, modesty, and shame and is meant to be one of those aspects of personality that restrain us from doing evil.

Here it is personified in Hesiod, where she appears as a goddess, a companion to Nemesis.

And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

The shame aspect is interesting because it involves the consciousness of being visible to others, of being seen, not just as a projection but as an emotional, thus vulnerable, self. The words “I love you,” so easily spoken in private, expose this inner self to ridicule (which, in itself, is an element of acting).

So re-watch Rob’s film and pay special attention to the interior contortions embodied in the faces of the actors (and, of course, they are mostly men, so the shyness/modesty quotient is very high — ah, we are a limping gender!): the effort to be real.

—dg

 

 

 

 

Aug 102017
 

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
by Megan Marshall
365 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $30

.

Elizabeth Bishop is a poet whose work during her own lifetime failed to reach as wide a readership as her more celebrated contemporaries. She published relatively few poems – approximately one hundred poems constitute her entire body of work. Since her death in 1979, however, Bishop’s reputation and readership have grown exponentially; she is now considered by many critics to be one the best American poets of the 20th century.

Many of her poems were considered masterpieces by her contemporaries. They are full of formal intelligence, clear and elegant language and charm. But they exhibit a complicated emotional distance and reserve; her work stood in direct contrast to the more popular work of confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich who dominated American poetry in the last two decades of Bishop’s life.  A famously private individual, she held information about her life and emotions close to the chest, even with good friends. Her books were few and far between. And living  abroad for many years, she kept herself apart from the turbulent cultural shifts of the mid-1960’s. Readers heard little from or about her.

The renewed interest and celebration of Bishop’s work might be partially due to the discovery of letters made public in 2015, written by the poet to her psychiatrist and friend, Ruth Foster. In them, we learn much more about her early traumas and frustrations, her sense of abandonment, her experience with incest and physical abuse, her long struggle with alcoholism, and her consistent belief that poetry provided the one stabilizing force in her life. The satisfaction poetry gave her was more reliable, even, than love. Near the end of her life, she had this to say about her work:

“What one seems to want in art is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (In this sense it is always ‘escape,’ don’t you think?)”

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, Megan Marshall’s much-anticipated new biography of Bishop, limns not only the poet’s work for insights about what made her tick but also the more confessional mode with her psychiatrist. Those letters, quoted from extensively by Marshall, help readers understand Bishop’s sense that she was an “outsider” among the privileged class of people who surrounded her. The biographer, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard, also uses her training in poetry to unpack many of the allusions in the poet’s work. With both of those perspectives – confessional and professional –  the emotional core of Bishop’s poetry becomes even more powerful and accessible.

A father dead when she was eight months old; a mother institutionalized for mental illness when Bishop was just five; removal from a well-loved home in Nova Scotia; incest involving a paternal uncle; life among a privileged class of people with whom Bishop felt ill at ease: Is it any wonder the poet kept some of these insecurities and traumas hidden? Is it any surprise she searched for a “life preserver” that could help her survive her addictions as well as the string of broken relationships she had with her lovers?

Bishop began to write poetry after an exclusive prep-school upbringing and entrance to Vassar. She was very much influenced by Marianne Moore, to whom she was introduced by a Vassar librarian. Bishop admired Moore’s technical mastery and ability to write directly from experience without sentimentality. In “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” Bishop said that Moore’s book Observations was “the self portrait of a mind…not as a model, and not as beauty, but as experience.” Moore urged Bishop not to submit poetry for publication until it was absolutely ready to send in, or “not at all.” Bishop followed that advice throughout her life, leaving many fine, unpublished poems among her papers. Her desire for perfection comes across in the biography as almost pathological.

As important as Moore was to Bishop, it was the poet Robert Lowell who played one of the most important roles in Bishop’s life. They became fast friends after being introduced by the another poet, Randall Jarrell; Lowell was “well-positioned” to connect her with other influential poets, many of whom offered lovely places to stay and sometimes funds to go with them. It was Lowell who named Bishop to succeed him as Poet Laureate (at the time called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) when she was only thirty-eight years old and had published only one book. It was Lowell who “nudged” people at Harvard to hire her when she finally did need a job, and it was Lowell who “wangled” grant money for her from a series of organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation. He also brought her to the attention of another well-connected person, Howard Moss, poetry editor of the New Yorker, to whom Bishop sent most of her poems as she finished them.

Elizabeth Bishop with Robert Lowell on the beach in Brazil, 1962

Lowell was authentic in his admiration; he carried a copy of Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo” in his wallet for years. Granted, Bishop’s work was excellent, but what might have become of her without these Good-Old-Boy connections? The list of them is long. A small trust fund from the Bishop estate to “cover rent and necessities” helped her survive for years as a non-teaching poet. But, truth be told, she depended on the loving, patient, and sometimes indulgent support (economic as well as emotional) of many friends and long-term lovers.

Marshall does a fine job of explaining Bishop’s desire not to go public with her sexual orientation. The atmosphere of tension and persecution in the United States during McCarthyism – attacking communists and “perverts” during the straight-laced 1950’s – was intense; Bishop felt no need to have her homosexuality be a factor for people reading her work. Perhaps she avoided teaching in the 50’s and 60’s because she knew what kind of price would be paid if her sexual preferences became public.

Her long-term relationship with a Brazilian landscape designer and architect named Lota Macedo de Soares (described by Wikipedia as “well connected” – a phrase which comes to mind so often in the reading of this biography) began to fail in the late 60’s. But Bishop still preferred not to align herself with “women poets,” believing the phrase to be demeaning. She refused to let her poems be published in anthologies which contained only work by women. She did not admit her lesbianism even when social tensions dissipated and persecution was becoming a thing of the past.

In a letter to her psychiatrist Bishop once wrote that when she was young, “I got to thinking that they [men] were all selfish and inconsiderate and would hurt you if you gave them a chance.” But she never went public with that feeling, and she was no feminist. In fact, she was apolitical, describing the Watergate hearings on the “god damn TV” during the summer of 1973 by saying, “If this is witnessing history – I’d rather not.”

Bishop’s 16-year relationship with Macedo de Soares was the longest sexual relationship of her life, a life sprinkled with love affairs before, during and after that time period. Most of those sixteen years, minus a few periods of time spent at friends’ homes in New England, Bishop lived in Brazil. Possibly because of her long absence from the United States, her reputation suffered.

If so, she didn’t seem to care. She believed in working hard on both poetry and her love life, less so on her reputation. She took on domestic life with a passion, fantasizing about it with some humor: “I can set myself up with a little shop in Rio, an impoverished gentlewoman, selling doughnuts and brownies.”

Impoverishment, though, was never a real threat to her in Brazil. Macedo de Soares was very wealthy, and she supported Bishop during their years together. When she and Bishop returned from New York to Brazil after a short separation, they traveled with “twenty-six pieces of luggage, as well as three barrels, four large crates, and seven trunks, packed in the ocean liner’s hold.” Hardly an impoverished poet’s baggage.

Eventually, the relationship ended (with Bishop beginning another affair before the break-up – “How could finding love again when she needed it be a sin?” Marshall asks, imagining what Bishop herself might have been thinking.) Bishop came back to the United States in need of distraction, and she began reluctantly to teach. She was the first woman to teach a creative writing course at Harvard, and the first woman to be listed in the Harvard course catalog.

Her drinking, a problem throughout her life, grew worse. She fell several times over the next few years, breaking bones and making rumors fly about her alcoholism. As Marshall says, “…poetry and alcohol had become organizing principles” in Bishop’s life. A long list of pharmaceuticals were added on – pills to wake up, pills to go to sleep.

Eventually, another new lover, a young woman more than thirty years her junior named Alice Methfessel, proved to be a loyal partner, tolerant of Bishop’s alcohol and pills. Marshall takes advantage of a collection of letters to Methfessel unavailable to biographers until after the woman’s death. There was a short period when the two separated, but once Methfessel returned to Bishop, the couple stayed together until the end of Bishop’s life. Still, they did not express affection in public – they referred to each other as friends, and they behaved as the same, never embracing, never holding hands. In fact, they seldom touched, even around close friends.

Marshall, who studied for a brief time with Bishop at Harvard, justifies a unique approach to the book’s structure by quoting this passage from The Confessions of a Biographer by Gamaliel Bradford:

Every living human being is a biographer from childhood, in that he perpetually studies the souls of those about him, detects with keen and curious thought the resemblances and differences between those souls and that still more present and puzzling entity, his own, and weighs with the most anxious care the bearing and effect of others’ thought and actions upon his own life.

The book opens with Marshall’s recollections of the Harvard memorial service for Bishop. She  then adds, in its entirety, a Bishop sestina titled “A Miracle for Breakfast,” from which the subtitle of the book is taken. The sestina – a particularly difficult and rule-heavy form involving lines with a series of six end-words repeated in a ornately strict order in six stanzas, followed by an envoy containing all six words – ends in a melancholy mood, suggesting that the “miracle” of happiness was happening just out of reach, on “the wrong balcony” – not Bishop’s.

Like the sestina, the book is organized into six chapters, using the same end-words Bishop chose for her poem (Balcony, Crumb, Coffee, River, Miracle and Sun.) Those chapters are interspersed with sketches which jump forward in time and involve Marshall’s interactions with Bishop. And like the sestina, the biography ends with an envoy.

Unlike some reviewers, I found the occasional chapters about Marshall’s first-hand experiences with Bishop to be intriguing, not disruptive. We see the poet through a different lens altogether, focused specifically on how she performed (or, sometimes, failed to perform) as a teacher. We also see the future biographer at work as a poet; we’re able to consider why poetry, for her, comes up short (and why she comes up short for poetry.)  And, as the epigraph suggests, we are given a theme: How do we read biography as a way to understand the resemblances and differences between someone else’s life and our own?

Should a biography end by focusing on the biographer rather than the biographer’s subject, as this one does? It’s unusual, but the approach stays true to the opening epigraph. Marshall clearly wanted to explore, sestina-like, the “resemblances and differences” between her choices and Bishop’s, measuring the effect Bishop might have had upon her own life. She does know how to look at Bishop’s poems intelligently and understands how to describe their word-choices and intricate rhythms. Her early training in poetry, her understanding of the poetic toolbox, makes her well-qualified to take poems apart to see how they work.

I found myself wishing occasionally that more of Bishop’s poetry had been quoted at length rather than given to us in short bits and pieces. Taken out of context, a line of poetry – especially one by Elizabeth Bishop, whose control of tone and sound was unique – can lose its author’s idiosyncratic voice, its musical qualities and its mystery. Prose from Bishop’s journals and letters also suffers too often from being taken out and quoted in phrases and small snatches.

But Marshall does do a good job of letting her readers know what early versions of Bishop’s poems sounded like. The revision process – essential to Bishop, who sometimes kept her poems “in process” for years before publishing them – is underscored, and we see how perfect the final version is.

Much of the last section of the book (“Sun”) describes the writing and revising of a villanelle that is Bishop’s most famous. Titled “One Art,” it is everything a poem should be: restrained, wise, clever, technically perfect, and (in combination with these, and most important) heart-felt. Facts gleaned from Marshall’s biography (places Bishop meant to travel, names she forgot, homes she left behind, people she loved and lost) are evident. This is a poem written from Bishop’s own experiences, less emotionally distant than many previous poems. The sorrow in it increases with each interpretation of the word “losing”:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it might look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The book ends with 44 pages of notes – interesting if you want to follow-up on some of the sources from which the author compiled her account of Bishop’s life.

Marshall’s research skills cannot be faulted, and this new biography makes for a revealing, if oddly structured, examination of Bishop’s complicated life and work. A fine follow-up book would be Colm Toibin’s examination of Bishop’s poetry (including biographical details) in his 2015 book On Elizabeth Bishop, part of the Writers on Writers series. You can also read a wonderful response by Toibin to the 92nd St. Y’s recording of Bishop reading her work in 1977, just two years before her death.

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios has written several reviews and essays for Numéro Cinq. You can find them archived here. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. She recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Art and currently lives in Bellingham, Washington, about ninety miles north of Seattle and forty-seven miles south of Vancouver, B.C. For approximately the next three and one-half years, until the election of 2020, she will be fantasizing about becoming a Canadian.

.
.

Aug 102017
 

Alexander Tinyakov

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

x
The poems below are the work of Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934), a Russian poète maudit who ended his days as a professional beggar on the streets of Leningrad. They are, to my mind, every bit as vibrant and prickly as they were when they first appeared a century ago. Tinyakov was a difficult man: a combative alcoholic, resentful of his fellow poets’ success and perfectly willing to compromise his own principles (that is, if he had any to begin with) for a good meal. And yet, his verse remains compelling – not in spite of his flawed character, but precisely because of it; he is completely and electrifyingly honest about his baseness, his desperation, his animalistic drive to survive at any cost. For a number of reasons – many of them quite legitimate – Tinyakov’s fellow poets began to lose patience with their colleague in the 1910s, and most broke all ties with him in the 1920s. In the third poem below, “Joie de vivre,” Tinyakov predicts the death of Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), one of the era’s major poets. Gumilyov would be arrested by the Soviet secret police (Cheka) on August 3, 1921, for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, and executed on August 24. The poem appeared after Gumilyov’s death, and was interpreted as a celebration of his demise. This may have been the final straw. For the rest of his life, Tinyakov was a pariah.

—Boris Dralyuk

*

How blessed to be a gob of spit
racing down a dirty gutter –
I can hug a stubbed-out cig,
find a piece of fluff to cuddle.

Say they spat me out in fury,
in a moment of despair –
skies are clear, I’ve got no worries,
breezes fill me with good cheer.

I may hunger for the freedom
of the river’s blue expanse,
but for now I’ve got the pleasure
of this dirty gutter dance.

1907

 

Belated Rook

Bitter cold – the puddles slumber
under frosted panes.
An old rook, all stiff and lumbering,
flaps a heavy wing.

He lingered here despite the chill –
it’s almost blizzard time.
Now he can’t escape the pull
of warmer southern climes.

He scrapes his beak with icy foot:
Must he really fly?
While fallen leaves circle about,
rustling their goodbye.

December 1909

 

Joie de vivre

Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!

You’ve kicked the bucket, you pitiful dogs.
Me? Well, I’m doing just fine!
They’ve sealed you tight under big heavy lids.
I can look up at the sky!

Say every coffin holds some kind of genius,
say that one there’s Gumilyov. . .
But I, who am hated and spat on by everyone,
am fit as a fiddle, you know!

Sure, soon enough I’ll be one of them – carrion,
nothing but worm-eaten filth.
For now, I’m still here and rejoice at the sight of them –
people that I have outlived.

July 28, 1921

 

A Prayer for Food

Fate, I beg you, I implore you,
give me food that’s good and sweet –
promise me a single morsel,
I’ll commit the vilest deed.

I would curl up like a ram’s horn
and go crawling on my knees.
I’d blaspheme the Lord in heaven
and defile even my tears.

I’d befoul the purest soul,
trim the wings of lofty thought.
I would burgle, I would steal –
lick my enemy’s bare feet.

I’d go down to hell, plod barefoot
through the Russian frost and mud –
for a piece of bread and horseflesh,
for a pound of rotten cod.

Put a yoke around my neck,
just as long as I can eat.
Life is sweet for well-fed lackeys –
honor’s bitter without meat.

November 1921

—Alexander Tinyakov translated by Boris Dralyuk

x

Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.

x

Aug 102017
 

Photo by Roelof Bakker

.
1.

A couple lived on a farm far away from the rest of the world. They had land to grow vegetables, chickens that gave eggs, and a well for water. Nearby, there was a stream jumping with fish and, right at the edge of their land, a wood with trees to chop for the fire.

The couple had everything they needed except for one small thing.

On their wedding day, to mark the occasion, the couple had planted an apple tree at the entrance to the wood and, exactly five years later, it bore fruit for the first time, as though celebrating their anniversary.

“Surely, it’s a sign,” the wife said.

The husband patted her stomach and smiled.

The years passed and the woman’s belly showed no swell, and though deep love slept within them, the couple stopped lying with each other.

The man took to going to the edge of the wood at the end of his working day to sit underneath the apple tree. At times, when he hadn’t come home for supper, the woman would go looking for her husband only to find him sleeping against its trunk.

“See what you’ve done,” she said, one evening, while helping her husband to his feet. “You’ve worn a dent in the tree with your back.”

She smiled through a sting of jealousy. Being of a sensible nature she shook her head and laughed at herself, returning to the calm she knew.

One day, when the man was tired from his work and felt the cool of the setting sun in his bones, he went to the wood and sat, leaning in the nook he had worn in the trunk of the tree. This groove his body had made over the years seemed to welcome him. Before long he drifted off to sleep.

In his dream, he was exactly where he’d sat to rest but the heat was unbearable. He took off his shirt, then the rest of his clothes, and lay naked at the foot of the tree. Despite the heat, a blanket of cool damp leaves covered the earth beneath the shade.

I wish there was a breeze, he thought, and closed his eyes.

What felt like a cool breath, ran over him, making the fine, blonde hair of his stomach stand and his skin bump and tingle. When he opened his eyes, the five-flowered blossoms on the apple tree waved. The branches swayed. He knew it wasn’t the wind but the tree itself fanning him. The branches came toward him, wrapping around his body and pulling him up and in until he was pressed against the trunk of the tree.

He placed his hands on the bark and looked up at the dance of the branches above.

“How beautiful you are,” he said, then kissed the tree tenderly. “How I’ve ignored you all this time. Have I been blind?”

The groove he had made with his back was now hip-height as he stood, and it yielded as he pressed against the tree. Leaves whispered in his ear and the smell of apple blossom filled his head and he became aroused. He made love to the tree in way that dreams allow. As he came, the tree caved, and he sank deep inside the damp, darkness of the hollow.

When he woke, he found he was lying naked on the earth. He tried to piece together what had happened, grasping at images from his dream, but, like snowflakes, they disappeared the instant he touched them. All that remained was a feeling of deep shame. He was cold and became self-conscious. Dressing quickly, he hurried home, his head thick with fog and full of fear and the sense of something very important lost.

.

2.

The tree waited for the man to return. Every day, as the sun rose, the tree unfurled its leaves to the cottage in the distance. Every afternoon, the tree waited, hoping to see the man appear walking towards her through the long grass. But he was never again to rest himself on her bark.

As the days grew hotter, apples burst from its branches, tiny and sore. One, sprouting from the tip of the highest branch, caused the most pain. Within a week it had grown ten times the size of the others. It weighed down the branch until it rested on the earth. As the summer had its way, while the other apples matured and fell, the huge fruit stayed and did not stop growing.

One morning, as the tree opened for the sun, something was different. The large apple had disappeared. The branch that had held it now led inside the hollow that had been made the last time she saw the farmer. The tree pulled to bring the fruit out, bark cracking from the strain. The tree called upon its deep roots to help. And with the strength of the earth itself, it strained until there was a cry. A human cry. Now the branch came easily. It rustled out from the hollow and with it a baby boy, the tip of the branch attached to the boy’s belly.

The tree slid some branches under the baby and lifted it off the ground. The tree wept leaves and blossoms of joy at the sight of the boy. The boy screamed and cried. The tree curled a branch around a rock and bashed its trunk until its bark split. It brought the boy to the bark and he drank the sap.

The tree was devoted to the boy. It shaded him under its branches when he was hot and sheltered him in the hollow when he was cold. It let him drink his fill of its sap, held and rocked him till he slept. And the boy was content, playing among the roots. The farmer never returned.

When the boy had been with the tree for seven years, and the autumn had painted them both brown and orange, a tiny figure appeared in the horizon and came towards them. The tree became frightened for the boy, ushering him into the hollow and concealing it with its branches.

A little girl emerged from the grass swinging a small basket. She sat on the ground and picked the apples, throwing away the bruised and wrinkled but keeping the golden and shiny for herself. The girl began to sing. Clear, high and pure, her voice hung in the air like a sweet smell.

The tree resisted as the boy pushed at the branches to escape the hollow. The boy growled, a sound he’d never made before. The little girl jumped. The growling became a whimper. The girl looked at the tree, glanced back at the cottage in the distance, then stood. Flattening down her skirt, she tip-toed towards the tree trunk.

“Hello,” she said, tugging at the branches that covered the hollow. The boy struggled on his side, too, and soon the two of them were standing face to face.

“Who are you?” she said.

The boy reached out and touched her hair then touched his own. The girl spat on the hem of her skirt then wiped the earth from his face. The tree shivered at this, its leaves whispered a warning.

“That’s better,” the girl said.

The boy glanced back at the tree and then at the girl.

“I’m not supposed to come here,” she said. “It’ll be our secret.”

She held her finger to her lips.

“I have to go, but I will come back.” The girl smiled, picked up her basket, and off she skipped.

The boy run after the girl until the branch that led from his belly to the tree snapped him back. He pulled at the branch. The tree felt those tugs deep in its sap. As the girl disappeared over the horizon, the boy dropped to the earth with a thump.

The boy didn’t return to the tree straight away but sat watching the sun grow tired and heavy until it sank from the sky to rest. When the chill of the dark came to rouse him, the boy stood and, with his foot, made a circle of turned-up soil around the tree, mapping his boundary.

As the autumn darkened, the girl came to the tree every afternoon. She brought books with drawings inside and taught the boy about the world beyond the field. Even after he understood her talk, he would not speak back. He was ashamed of the rustling whispers that came out of his mouth when he practiced alone. The girl didn’t seem to mind that he was always silent – except when he laughed. He couldn’t keep the wet, sticky clacking sound inside.

The next summer, while the tree was busy bearing fruit, energy low, busy with so much life, the girl came all day, every day. The children started whispering. They were keeping secrets. When they did this, the tree would tickle them with leaves or drop apples on their heads. They’d laugh then move further away.

One sticky, late summer’s day, under the pale blue sky, the boy ran to greet the girl. This time they lingered at the very limit that his branch allowed. The summer had been a hot one, and the apples on the tree had grown heavy and begun to drop before their time.

When it happened, it was like an explosion. Every branch shook, every apple fell. When the surge passed, the tree saw the girl and the boy running across the field, hand in hand. In the girl’s other hand, shears glinted in the dying sun.

.

3.

The boy’s hand felt crushed by the girl’s, but he didn’t mind. He ran through the field, down and then up the hill. He breathed deeper than before. Running in a straight line, knowing he could go on, running until he dropped, amazed him. But soon he grew tired and felt sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. He’d never felt so frightened. He stopped, trying desperately to breathe. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She pulled, dragging him on.

Ahead he saw a cottage, just like the pictures the girl had shown him. It was where people lived. People like him.

At the door, the girl said, “Wait here,” and kissed him on the cheek. He nodded and watched her go in. The door clicked but didn’t catch and remained slightly open. The boy was glad for a moment to breathe and rest but, left alone for the first time in his life, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. He watched through the gap in the door.

“Daddy! I’ve brought my friend home,” the girl cried.

“A friend? Where?” The father squinted at his daughter. “Don’t leave the child outside.”

“It’s the boy I’ve been telling you about,” she said, “the boy from the tree.”

“The apple tree, in the far field?” her mother asked. “That’s your father’s tree.”

“I’ve told you to stay away from that tree,” her father scolded. “And it’s not my tree!” He glared at his wife. “No wonder her head is full of nonsense.”

The girl ran out the door and grabbed the boy by the hand. He was scared and reluctant to come, but she dragged him in and helped him onto a chair.

“See,” she said, pointing at the boy.

“Oh yes, he’s a lovely boy, isn’t he?” the mother said. “He looks a little familiar.” She winked at her husband.

“Can we get him some clothes?” asked the girl.

“You’re not dressing a piece of wood,” her father snapped.

“When I start school, he can come too,” said the girl. “We can say he’s my little brother.”

The father slammed his hand on the dinner table.

The mother laughed. “He does have his father’s eyes.”

At that, the girl’s father jumped up, lifted the boy from his chair, snapped him in half over his knee, and threw him on the fire.

As he burned, the boy saw the little girl cry on her mother’s lap while the father picked up an axe and walked out to the field.

—Paul McVeigh

.

Paul McVeigh began his career as a playwright in Belfast before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. After turning to writing prose, Paul’s short stories were published in literary journals and anthologies, and were read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5. He is co-founder of London Short Story Festival.

The Good Son, Paul’s first novel, won The Polari First Novel Prize, The McCrea Literary Award, was Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and chosen for the UK’s World Book Night 2017. It was also shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, a finalist for The People’s Book Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Prix du Roman Cezam in France. His work has been translated into seven languages.

After living in London for 20 years Paul has returned home to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McVeigh will be in the U.S. in October to promote his novel. Catch him at Litquake in San Francisco or the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival.

.
.

Aug 092017
 

 

Oath

I made a vow to love whoever I encountered.
It wasn’t true yet, but came to me in the bathroom
looking at the purple tufted rug that boys’ shoes had trucked on.
There was a salt jar there too. And all these abstract paintings
I was entering and leaving. I stepped out
of the bathroom and saw the host’s white bedspread,
a corner of it, and some fabulous pillows.
I pictured a slew of children and mythological characters
sleeping together in front of the television. It was cozy there
in the silence, words floating up from below.
And it made me want to try harder.

 

Salve

In Italy, the buildings are for beauty,
and beauty, says Joseph Brodsky, is the enemy
of a hostile world. “Salve,” says the customs man
when he stamps my passport.
Which means, “Hello.” With the ve
jutting out its lower lip. Salve, at the bar.
And in the chapel built by plague survivors,
salve, says the cupola. Salve, says the floor.
In the Giovanni and Paolo hospital
the old wing opens out like fields and windows
in a Van Gogh painting, light penetrating halls
and making space in silence. No one’s there at all,
but—salve, salve, salve, salve.
When I return to my more brutal realms
the word comes with me. I don’t declare it.
How light in my suitcase it is, how old-fashioned
and almost ethereal, but in some lights
real, and close enough—to salvage.

 

Appointment in Samarra

30 people in chemo today multiplied by
x hospitals in y countries and z universes.

Back here, H smiles through 4 syringes of chemicals, 2 bags of saline,
and a flush of life-giving killer liquid.

Twin sisters in their 70’s share clippings of their modeling days
with shirtless men in big cars, take selfies holding up their matching drips.

A woman in the corner looks exactly like what is happening to her.
Pale and bald like coal after a fire.

Slap me good and hard with mortality while I’m strong.
My body wants to run as though it’s seen a ghost.

 

My Sisters’ Sisters

I am one of my sisters.
The one who refuses, goes inside
and draws her knees to her heart in a small ball
turns toward the wall waiting for someone to come
and for no one to come.
I am one of my sisters: I do not cross
the threshold where danger lies, its flank
on a couch of cossacked hopes
roaring its helplessness through the malice
of tongue and hands.
That one who closes the door
who remembers only enough
of what was inside to stiffen at its name.
I am one of my sister’s sisters who pounds
more than a thousand nails,
one for each name of her missing sisters, into dead wood.
I can feel her shiny hammer on my shiny head.
One sister raises her sisters
on her hands in an auditorium of her sisters.
I am the cancelled and begun again sister, reinsistered,
the one who goes back into the room
to tear the air from the walls.

 

A Blessing for the Waning

Here’s to the last suck before the birth of separation, before gums have teeth.
To skin that’s soft, brown, rough, cracked, bruised, itching, callused,
folding over, touched. To the body held, whole unto itself.

Here’s to what the body was before anything changed, which was never.
To the original flat chest of everyone.

Here’s to the growths, hoped for and maligned.
The deletions, depilations, bargains and beseechments.

Here’s to loss of consciousness remembered waking up in the morning, in recovery,
bewildered, with toast in your mouth.

To the sleep that was good but is now interrupted and induced.
To pain that lodges and travels.

Desire breathes like a tide, goes a long way out
and surprises when it comes back in a swell.
The way grief does.

Here’s to falling and to falling, and to falling falling.

To the curse of forgetting and its gift, forgetting.
To the gift of remembering and its curse, memory.

To having had a life. Us creatures and our smells.

Here’s goodbye to clothes that fit another body.
To the last embrace you didn’t know was last until there were no more. Here’s to
kissing the last mouth on yours. Pucker up. Pucker up now and go.

 

Back Pain

Then the light on the television went out.
I turned over on the heating pad trying
for a comfortable position on the floor. I got
to the section of the 400 page book called epilogue
and did not want to go on.
I went for my notebook, but the pen
was just too far on the dark field of the carpet.
Maybe the radio.
Instead I lay quietly listening
to the subway, feeling it under me
like an animal rubbing itself
along my personal earth
and beginning to enjoy it.

—Ronna Bloom

 

Ronna Bloom has published five books of poetry, most recently Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement (Pedlar Press, 2012). She is Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her new book, The More, in October 2017. Her website is www.ronnabloom.com.

 

 

Aug 092017
 

.

On the other side she’s there with me too. But not in this way, amongst these salts, with this compact touch. We come to the same room of the same house at the same hour, to inhabit the same translucence…

Was there any doubt? Of course I would come back to this seaside town. Lucky I got here when I did, two days after the storm that made waves lash the shore, ripped precarious habitations from the sides of the hill, filled hallways with water, swept away kiosks, dragged the mayor before bobbing cameras to speak the expected set phrases in his low voice, changing nothing. We watched the scenes of destruction on television, and this formed part of our romance.

Now, cracking open shells and forking out the rubbery flesh, rolling our tongues over these fruits of the sea and washing them down with the cherries, blackberries and spice of a good Carménère, I ask myself: Is life sensuality, and death silence?

Visible from the window of our home, two dogs, one black and one beige, lie with their noses poking over a sand cliff. At home on the beach, oriented by instinct toward the sea, they don’t even open their eyes at a stranger’s approach, just turn over with complete trust for a scratch of the belly. Matilde covers my hand with hers, and we watch as an intrepid young man and a young woman in raincoats ruffle the canines’ fur with affection, before continuing on their way.

The two of us used to have a chow-chow named Panda. A ridiculous ball of fur, that creature. He went straight to heaven, not even stopping briefly in this half-here, half-not-here place where Matilde and I spend our days, apart, together, waiting for a storm.

Matilde is there in the other life too, of course, but it’s not the same. There we are together as minds, not as bodies. When we move toward each another, it is as if we are in a dream. But the rains allow us to move in a different way, one that is capable of grasping, one in which our glistening opacities, our half shells with their lustrous insides revealed, enter into irresistible contact with the pearl of life between us.

For me, the relationship between life and non-life is something like the relationship between the ear and the sense of hearing. In non-life, the flesh is guided by reason; in life, it is guided by instinct. In non-life, the self becomes pure abstraction, while in life the whole body is receptive, an ear. An oyster still alive and in the sea, capable of movement and thrashing fury.

A pigeon lands on the beach, and from far off I can see the gleaming waves come in, the colored blocks of the Hamburg Sud storage containers. It’s the hour to make scratches on paper, to stretch out, to listen for the barks of the sea lions taking shelter. On a sunny day I might hop the bank and go down to the beach to pile sand into a mound. Or perhaps I’d choose not to descend, and just stay here, where I want to be.

Our forks scrape the plates. I remember just how I felt when I wrote my poem ‘The disinterred’, with its line about the ‘furious oyster’. At that time I was quite taken by the Count of Villamediana, a Spanish poet born in the 16th century. I was living in Rangoon, and in despair because for the first time in my life, I could not understand what I was living for, in such loneliness, in a place so far from where I was born, spending my days sunk in alcohol, filing piles of paperwork that mattered to no one, grappling with a local woman who was violently and jealously in love with me.

The Count of Villamediana did not suffer from these doubts. He knew how to live well; he wrote satire and carried on the business he liked at the theater, at court, at dinner parties, at the brothel, not caring for social norms. He was murdered under suspicious circumstances by those jealous of his relationship with the queen, and was buried a knight. I couldn’t help but think about him and the contrast between his brilliant life and the quiet of his existence afterward, under the earth. My poem imagines his restoration to life amidst ‘brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal’, a clanking return to sensuality.

I want to see a flesh waken its bones
​howling flames,​
​and a special smell run in search of something,
​and a sight blinded by earth
​run after two dark eyes,
​and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
​rabid, boundless,​
​rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts,
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.*

It can only be obvious that I wrote this poem with a sense of anticipation for my own end and what follows. In the poem, the Count rises up on the Day of the Dead, a fanciful holiday that I have always liked. I didn’t know then about the other life and its in-between way of being, incorporeal but capable of returning on certain days, when in the heavy rain and wind, the flat expanse of the Pacific surges up to push great masses of water onshore.

When the count is resurrected, he is also given back the ‘furious oyster’, his sense of hearing. All at once the flesh of the ear opens up, and unblocked of dirt, it is enraged and delighted by the rich variety of sounds available to it after so long in silence. Something similar happens when the power is cut and one’s hearing begins to sharpen, one sense replacing another in a forced transition to a different way of understanding. The oyster is unhinged to reveal the nacre, the waiting treasure, the ability to pursue sound as well as other senses…

Matilde and I move into the other room. Three times during the night, her face turns to mine. It’s always the face first, or is it the hands, so subtle they make the drawing near of all else both possible and necessary. One body pressed to one body, subtle axis spin, angular momentum of composite particles. Beneath my hand her hair is wire fluff; beneath my other hand, her belly firm elastic. Metatarsal joints, cuneiforms, fibulae, all the parts of her feet meet with mine in the search for heat.

Her legs are pure cold bone, torque and scissor. Like that, yes, it does take a few moments to ease the way in. Slight fatigue after travel sharpens every sensation; warm and soft in my hands, all at once she is tense: what is living is both delicate and firm, hard exoskeleton and tender inner mussel. My salt flesh gives out a substance of pearl capable of vanishing with no trace, dissolving within to form a part of her essence. Outside the window, a soft gray smears into white, an oil of flowers, an anointing that lulls us into sleep.

Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time? It never happened just this way, yet it is always happening. This is our collective dream, the dream I share with Matilde. A dream into and not away from life; a vivid picture drawn in aquarelle crayon, so intense that when made possible by the rains, it brightens into reality.

She rustles in her sleep, waking when she feels my presence. Her kisses alternate soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know. I know, I know. And with a swift change of the tide, we are back in the other life.

—Jessica Sequeira

.

* ‘The disinterred’, an homage​ to the Count of Villamediana by Pablo Neruda, appears in Residence on Earth, translated by Donald Walsh

.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French, currently in Santiago de Chile. @jess_sequeira

.
.