Dec 312011

Author photo by David Penhale.

Here’s a very smart, fresh, angular essay about Martin Scorsese, a recapitulation of his films, his trajectory in the art, but crucially focused on the idea and markers of success (material and otherwise) and tainted success, the kind of success that betrays authenticity. What makes this essay especially fascinating is that the author writes from the perspective of a Catholic intellectual, a stance not necessarily popular in this arid post-liberal climate we inhabit but nonetheless full of hermeneutic vigor. Scorsese is a lapsed Catholic, but a world view founded on ideas of sin, the fall, and redemption suffuses his gritty films—at least, when the case is made, it makes sense.

Philip Marchand is an old, old friend. See his complete and charmingly self-written biography below the essay. Suffice it to say here that he wrote the best biography of Marshall McLuhan ever, a book that I revisit and treasure and not just for what it says about McLuhan—it actually helped me understand how subplots work in novels. And he also wrote a gorgeous book called Ghost Empire about the great French explorer La Salle (but also about the author himself, the history of North America, and the decline of the west, which yet managed to be amiable and friendly and charming). Here’s the opening of a review I wrote at the time:

In Ghost Empire, Philip Marchand’s new book about the voyages of the great and peculiar 17th century French explorer Robert de La Salle, the author doesn’t tell us much that is novel about La Salle. But in recounting the daring explorer’s epic wanderings Marchand manages to compose an amazingly fresh, surprising take on North American history, French-Canada, Catholicism, and the author himself, a faintly quixotic character, bookish, erudite, and appealingly self-ironic.



Martin Scorsese ends King of Comedy in the same way he ends many of his films — with a man alone, overshadowed by a huge moral question mark. In this case, the question mark is also a narrative one. The final scenes of the movie show a cascade of newsmagazines featuring on their front covers the face of this man alone — the movie’s protagonist, the wannabe stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin. Pupkin, these magazine covers tell us, has finally become a somebody, a celebrity. But are those magazine covers “real,” or are they part of Pupkin’s fantasy?

There is an answer to that question, and we shall come to it, but more interesting for the moment is how starkly this movie’s ending dramatizes a dominant theme in Scorsese’s work. Pupkin is a character who, despite huge odds, obtains what he has long sought, a moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately he has accomplished this by kidnapping a genuine celebrity and refusing to release him until given a spot on the network so he can perform his comedy routine. Pupkin knows he is committing a crime but defiantly assures himself that it is better to be a “king for a night than schmuck for life.” He is expressing in milder form the same imperative that drives the gangsters in Goodfellas, who would rather be “whacked” or imprisoned than remain “content to be a jerk” (Tommy DeVito) or a “sucker” (Henry Hill).

On his own terms, then, Pupkin succeeds. It is a success, however, like the temporary successes of Scorsese’s gangsters, obtained by criminality and loss of conscience. This phenomenon of tainted success — a phenomenon rich in social implication — lies at the heart of Scorsese’s work.

In his breakthrough movie, Mean Streets, Scorsese dramatizes the opposition between virtue and tainted success in the soul of Charlie, the protagonist. Charlie’s moral struggle begins when he is offered a restaurant by his mafioso uncle. It is an item he dearly wants. On other hand he also wants to be a good man. In his voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie — a conversation with himself — Charlie lays out his basic religious beliefs, the beliefs of a Do-It-Yourself Catholic.  “You don’t make up for your sins in the Church, you do it in the streets, you do it at home,” he says. “The rest is bullshit and you know it.” There is never any doubt in the movie about the sincerity of Charlie’s spiritual ambitions, despite his involvement in poolroom brawls, despite his uneasy relations with his epileptic lover Theresa, despite episodes in which he rips off a couple of teenagers looking to buy fireworks and tries to beguile an exotic dancer with a job offer in his new restaurant. At one point, Charlie tells Theresa, “Saint Francis of Assisi had it all down. He knew.”

Can he “make up” for the sin of coveting this restaurant, which he is given only because the previous owner — who commits suicide — has failed to generate enough business to pay off his (presumably usurious) loans to Charlie’s uncle? The offer of the restaurant, which functions in this movie as a symbol of tainted success, or at least the possibility of such success, comes with a heavy price. Charlie’s uncle demands that Charlie stop seeing his friends, the wildly irresponsible Johnny Boy and Theresa.  “Honorable men go with honorable men,” he says, which clearly rules out Johnny Boy, and also Theresa, who is “sick in the head.” Charlie attempts to compromise. “I’ve got to stay away from you and Johnny,” he tells Theresa. “I don’t want to stop seeing you…Just let me get the restaurant first. Then things are going to be easier.”

Such deviousness is hardly the role of a St. Francis, and it’s no wonder that Johnny Boy, fully aware of Charlie’s desire not to jeopardize his chances of getting the restaurant, calls him a “fucking politician.” In the end, however, Charlie refuses to quit entirely on St. Francis. The fate of the characters is unclear after the movie’s violent ending, but it does seem, in the light of that ending, that Charlie has decisively turned his back on the restaurant. What matters about this movie, however, is not its ending but the way in which it has set the terms of the drama in which all of Scorsese’s characters, who do manage to get their hands on the restaurant, so to speak, will become embroiled.

These characters, for one thing, will not be victims. They will not be spiritual depressives, like the characters of Bergman, or neurotics (Woody Allen) or helpless witnesses to existential futility (Antonioni.)  Marie Connelly states the case well in her book, The Films of Martin Scorsese.  “Scorsese’s characters are out hustling, making it in a world that still holds out the possibility of fulfillment of hopes and dreams. Unlike other characters, his do not live lives of ‘quiet desperation.’ His characters are shown from the point of view of the swirling vortex of camera movement punctuated by the beat of contemporary rock music drawing us into their lives.”

In almost all of Scorsese’s movies there is a scene visually confirming worldly success, or at least affirming its promise, usually in the form of certain objects that are almost transcendent in their materialism, objects that seem to validate his characters’ hustle. The materialistic side of Charlie, for example, is established in a scene showing him lovingly tying his tie, with a brand new shirt,  in front of a mirror. The hero of Scorsese’s early feature, Who’s That Knocking on My Door, played by the same actor, Harvey Keitel, also meticulously adjusts his topcoat in a gesture of sartorial satisfaction. A nice car — “That’s the only toy I need,” says its owner — is another symbol of material success in that same movie. Eddie Felsen, the hero of Scorsese’s The Color of Money, his sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, combines fetishism of cars and fetishism of clothes in a scene where, dressed in an expensive topcoat, he gives his protégé, Vincent, a ride in his Cadillac. “It’s been very good to me,” Felsen says of the liquor business. “I mean, you’re sitting in it and I’m wearing it.” (Viewers of The Hustler will recall that Felsen’s nemesis in that picture, the gambler Bert Gordon, bought himself a fancy new car every year to validate his success.)

“Nice car,” says Vicki, upon being introduced to her future husband Jake La Motta in Raging Bull — what girl doesn’t appreciate a suitor with a hot set of wheels?  Scorsese certainly understands this, but between cars and clothes he seems more fascinated by clothing as a status indicator. The progress of Jimmy Doyle, hero of New York, New York, can be charted by the clothes he wears. At the beginning of the movie, Doyle stands amid the cheering throngs in New York celebrating V-J Day (the entire country enjoying its own tainted success as victor in World War II) dressed in two-toned brown and white shoes, white trousers and a Hawaiian shirt — an outfit he won in a card game. “Do I look like a gentleman in this shirt and these pants to you?” he asks the girl he is inelegantly trying to pick up. (The answer is no.) By contrast, at the end of the picture, Doyle is dressed in a natty dark gray suit (complemented by a pair of black shoes) with white shirt and silver tie. Add a topcoat and an umbrella, and the now successful Doyle is positively dapper.

In general, Scorsese’s gangsters are sharply dressed, if not always in the best of taste. One of the scenes establishing Henry Hill’s tainted success in Goodfellas is the shot of his endless bedroom closet full of suits. In Casino, protagonist Arnold Rothstein, manager of a casino for the mob, is perpetually turned out in matching suit, shirt and tie — red on red, white on white, blue on blue, green on green, cream on cream, lilac on lilac, tangerine on tangerine. “Look at you,” a fellow gangster says at one point. “You’re fucking walking around like John Barrymore. A fucking pink robe and a fucking cigarette holder.”

But there are many other material symbols of tainted success in Scorsese. One of the most notable is the championship belt — “a very rare item,” a pawnbroker tells its owner — won by Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. “I got a nice house, I got three great kids, I got a wonderful, beautiful wife — what more can I ask for?” La Motta tells a reporter in his retirement, sitting by his driveway where two convertibles are parked — but it is this championship belt which radiates talismanic power, the power suited to a winner, and when La Motta literally attacks that belt with a hammer, extracting jewels from it, his fall from grace is graphically demonstrated. (The wife and kids, by contrast, simply drop out of the picture.)

In Casino, the magical object signifying worldly success is the house Rothstein shows his new bride, complete with swimming pool and baby grand piano. This house, plus a chinchilla coat and a drawer full of jewelry, marks his marital covenant with her, in lieu of romantic attachments. (His bride frankly admits that she does not love him, but allows that his house is “great.”) Real estate in another form plays a similar role in The Departed, when the corrupt police officer Colin is shown an apartment in Boston with “a great view of the State House,” by a real estate agent. It’s such a desirable apartment, the agent says, “You move in, you’re upper class by Tuesday.” Colin takes it. He is, after all, a success as a member of an “elite unit” of the Massachusetts State Police, acquiring more and more influence within that unit as the movie progresses. The last scene of the movie shows the view of the State House and the parquet floor across which the blood from Colin’s head oozes. It’s Scorsese’s most succinct and vivid demonstration of the price of tainted success.

The signifiers of tainted success in Scorsese are not always, broadly speaking, material. In Taxi Driver, the hero Travis is hustling for a peculiar kind of success. “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads,” Travis proclaims in his empty apartment. “Here’s the man who would not take it anymore…Here’s the man who would not take it anymore. The man who stood up against the scum, cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” When Travis fulfills this ambition to “stand up” by fatally shooting a pimp — “the worst sucking scum I’ve ever seen,” Travis says — his success is validated not by material objects but by press clippings.  TAXI DRIVER BATTLES GANGSTERS reads one admiring headline. TAXI HERO TO RECOVER proclaims another. The same form of validation occurs at the end of New York, New York when Francine’s success is shown by a montage of magazines — bearing such names as Screen Idol, Glitter, Stargazer, Fan Club, Photoplay — featuring her face on the cover. It’s the same technique used at the end of King of Comedy, which is why, I think, the latter display of magazine covers is not simply dreamed up by Pupkin.

This affirmation of tainted success via journalism — and news photography in particular — has no direct connection to filthy lucre, but is just as disgusting in Scorsese’s eyes. In The Aviator, photographers are constantly in Howard Hughes’s face — when he unveils a new airplane, when he crash lands and nearly kills himself, when an outraged girlfriend rams his car. These photographers validate celebrity-hood, and in that sense they validate success, but as Kate Hepburn tells Hughes, they are relentless. “When my brother killed himself, there were photographers at the funeral,” she says. “There’s no decency to it.” At best, photographers and journalists miss the point, as in the case of Travis’s press clippings.

All the more interesting, then, when Scorsese himself becomes a photojournalist of sorts in The Last Waltz, his cinematic tribute to The Band. In this documentary Scorsese displays the same sensibility and the same obsessions — including his interest in tainted success — that he brings to many of his films. The success-establishing scene in this movie, for example, is the shot, early in the film, of the long line-ups of fans waiting to buy tickets to the concert. This shot functions in the same way as shots of Henry Hill’s bedroom closet or press clippings do in other movies. After this introduction, the discovery of a hint of corruption in The Band’s success is not long in coming.

That discovery begins when Scorsese, in his interviews with the members of The Band, elicits a sense of innocence lost. One of the band members, Garth Hudson, evokes an idyllic period, in the early days of The Band’s existence, before their fame, when they all lived in Woodstock, N.Y. “We got to like it, just being able to chop wood or hit your thumb with a hammer,” Hudson recalls. “We would be concerned with fixing the tape recorder and fixing the screen door, you know. Stuff like that. Getting the songs together.”

Then came the years on the road, with ever-growing fame, and a different set of rewards. Scorsese delicately raises the subject of groupies and Band member Richard Manuel displays a roguish, slightly goofy grin. “I love ’em.That’s probably why we’ve been on the road,” he says. He pauses. “Not that I don’t like the music.”

This is reassuring news. We wouldn’t want the music to be forgotten. At the same time we are aware that things have changed since Woodstock days, when music was everything. Hudson still clings to some notion of virtue and the performance of music by recalling old jazz musicians in New York who were “the greatest priests” and healers, but the last word is Scorsese’s, and he chooses to end the movie with a curious tableau of The Band playing the melody to the English Renaissance tune “Greensleeves,” about a prostitute.

Some equivalent of Woodstock days, some authenticity, is the flip side of tainted success in Scorsese. It’s not necessary for a character to have explicit religious concerns, like Charlie in Mean Streets — indeed, explicit spirituality drops off the horizon after Mean Streets. (With the striking exception, of course, of Scorsese’s films about Jesus and the Dalai Lama.) But characters still need to remain in contact with something real, something that is not “bullshit,” in Charlie’s words.

A striking instance is The Color of Money, a movie that would seem to be totally devoted to “bullshit,” in the form of successful hustling, and to the naked materialism of its rewards. “It ain’t about pool,” Felsen tells his protégé. “It ain’t about sex, it ain’t about love, it’s about money.” When Vince takes pity on a sucker, Felsen reads him the riot act. “You never ease off on someone like that,” he says. “Not when there’s money involved.” In pursuit of money, Felsen himself not only sets up hustles but also manipulates Vincent and neglects his own lover. “Do you understand me?” Felsen says to Vince and his girlfriend. “We’re business people.”

It’s a funny business, to be sure. “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” is its credo. Under the circumstances it is hard to say which is the purer example of tainted success — the success of the sucker who wins a pool game in the process of being strung along by the loser of that game (the hustler), or the triumph of the hustler who walks away with all the money he can extract from the sucker. Yet this is not the last word, either. Even Felsen, at the end of the day, wants to define himself as a great pool player rather than a great hustler or a great businessman. After he beats Vince at the pool table, in what seems to be a genuine contest between the two men, Felsen is dismayed when Vince subsequently reveals that he “dumped” — that he let Felsen win. Felsen pleads with Vince’s girlfriend near the end of the movie, “I want his best game.” There is no doubt about the sincerity of his plea. It is about pool, after all.

This clinging to a measure of authenticity in a corrupt world can seem senseless, as in Jake La Motta’s taunt to Sugar Ray Robinson after the latter has beaten him to a pulp in the ring — “You never got me down,” proclaims the pulverized La Motta, while an unsettled Sugar Ray stares at him in disbelief — or Arnold Rothstein’s insistence on placing his fate in the hands of his prostitute wife, because, as he says, “When you love someone you’ve got to trust them. There is no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that is yours. Otherwise, what’s the point?” These points of honor do seem senseless — but La Motta must be able to see himself, despite everything, as a man who does not give up or surrender, and Rothstein must be able to see himself as a man who knows the value of trust and lives by it. If they lose this ability, then, as Rothstein says, what is the point?

A man must define himself as something. Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, in the course of unsavory relationships with young girls and involvement in the corruption of military contracts, never loses sight of his self-definition as aviator. That is what he is, and no one can take this away from him. A vague sense of the male imperative of self-definition lies behind the comment made by the hero of Who’s That Knocking On My Door to his girlfriend. “Everyone should like westerns,” he says. This curious statement clearly has something to do with the protagonist’s notion of the western hero. What can that notion be? Robert Warshow articulated it most clearly in a 1949 essay on the western. The western hero, wrote Warshow, in an essay republished in his 1962 collection, The Immediate Experience, “fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world that permits that statement.”  Scorsese’s Hughes is a businessman, but he is not really interested in corporate empire building. He is interested in stating what he is, and that thing is not a businessman but an aviator. Scorsese’s Felsen may insist that he is a businessman, but when the pressure builds within him to state what he is, that something is a pool player.

The western hero is also a figure for whom love is notoriously an irrelevance, a reality Scorsese confronts in a number of his movies. “This is the most important thing to me besides you, you understand?” says Jimmy Doyle to his wife Francie, referring to his saxophone. “If I can’t do this, then I’m no good for you and I’m no good for anybody.” (The symbol of his authenticity seems to be the scene in which he uninhibitedly plays this saxophone in a Harlem nightclub.) The equally talented Francie, a singer, seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards her art — it does not define her quite so urgently. Yet New York, New York is one of Scorsese’s most interesting pictures precisely because it does portray a marital union of equals, in which love and self-definition should presumably co-exist. Certainly Francie is never in danger of becoming an irrelevance. When she starts making compromises with her art it undermines her husband’s self-definition. “You got everything, man,” he tells her. “You got it easy and I got nothing.”

In the end both settle for tainted successes. Echoing Charlie’s desire for a restaurant in Mean Streets, and answering his own complaint that he has “nothing,” Doyle becomes owner of a restaurant/night club — a classy joint, but Doyle is no longer the sax player who “blows a barrel full of tenor.” Francie goes Hollywood and stars in a sentimentalized version of her own career and marriage in a movie entitled Happy Endings, which Doyle aptly calls Sappy Endings.

The sluggish and rather forced quality of the movie — whatever spark it possesses comes not from music or sexual tension but from Doyle’s obnoxious qualities, which De Niro, in his fashion, plays all too well — is an indication of how uneasy Scorsese is with romance. Behind romance lies domesticity, and his men are too restless for domesticity, no matter how enticing home and hearth might sometimes appear. Jesus’s yearning for a happy family life with Mary Magdalen is literally The Last Temptation of Christ. He rejects it, of course.

 In portraying this search for authenticity via some skill, art, talent or hustle, it is very difficult to escape the male point of view. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese gives us a female point of view, which is very instructive. His heroine, Alice Hyatt, goes on the road in pursuit of a career as a chanteuse. It’s not a promising pursuit. There is no reason to suppose she is any more talented than Rupert Pupkin, and unlike Pupkin, she is unwilling to enact some desperate gambit in order to succeed. Eventually she gives up and accepts happiness in the arms of David, a solid character. In some remarks on this film, Scorsese has indicated he views the ending as an unfortunate reversion to domesticity on Alice’s part, but few viewers will feel that Alice has made a huge mistake in embracing Kris Kristofferson. It’s not as if she has a promising career up her sleeve. There is no success, tainted or otherwise, for Alice, but not a sappy ending either. It’s just not the kind of ending Scorsese can imagine for his male protagonists.

Why is it so difficult in this world for a man to attain a success untainted by sacrifice of his integrity? For a Catholic like Scorsese, the answer is no mystery — we are fallen beings, in a fallen world. Scorsese’s work dramatizes, more than the work of any other American director, the anguished complaint of St. Paul: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It may be the case, given lapsed Catholic Scorsese’s own comments about his reprobate status, that he views his own body of work as a tainted success, purchased at the price of his immortal soul.

Certainly Scorsese seems to have lost interest in his earlier theme of redemption, exemplified by movies such as Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Whether the redemption of Jake La Motta is convincing or not, the ending of the movie certainly nudges the reader to drop the Pharisee attitude and look at La Motta’s life through supernatural lens — to see La Motta as the unlikely recipient of grace. Latterly, there seems to be no such attempt on Scorsese’s part. The overtly religious movies he has made — The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundin — may have actually hastened his retreat from the realms of theology because of the failure of either his Christ or his Dalai Lama to emerge as vibrant characters or because of his own failure to overcome the extremely difficult narrative challenges presented by these movies. They call for a degree of sincerity that Scorsese can’t provide — they aren’t his stories and he has only so much leeway to make them his own. How much more excited Scorsese is in dealing with the character of Howard Hughes. There’s a man — an artist demanding perfection at whatever cost, a maverick, a daredevil — close to his own heart. The screen bristles with life and tension every time Hughes appears. But Scorsese can’t redeem him. Hughes demolishes his enemies at a Congressional hearing and proves he is an aviator one last time with the successful flight of the Spruce Goose, but neither of these triumphs wards off the madness waiting to overwhelm him.

 His recent concert film Shine A Light, has a dismal effect on the viewer. Scorsese clearly admires the Rolling Stones as a supreme example of hustle, which is why their music is so often heard on the sound track of his movies. But the spark has long since gone out of this particular hustle. Asked recently by an interviewer, “Are you amazed, surprised, delighted that the Stones have lasted this long?” their first manager Andrew Loog Oldham replied, “I wasn’t aware they had lasted this long.” Watching this movie, Oldham would have no grounds for changing his mind. Certainly in this concert movie there is none of the emotional resonance of The Last Waltz, which evokes a complete narrative arc from Woodstock days to the death of the Band. The Rolling Stones never had a Woodstock period of chopping wood and fixing screen doors and writing songs, and it appears they will never bid farewell to public performances while they are physically capable of walking on stage. In the rock solid wall of this dogged careerism and unrelenting appetite for adulation, there is no place for redemption to catch hold. In one of the cleverer moments of the film, Mick Jagger bursts out of a side door to sing “Sympathy for the Devil” with his off-key “woo woos.” Scorsese lights that space behind the door a lurid red, as if Jagger is just emerging from some kind of cheesy inferno. It’s a playful touch, but not entirely a joke to the director whose character Charlie, in Mean Streets, muses on the eternal flames of hell.

An interesting question is whether Scorsese has dropped this theme of redemption because of an intellectual or emotional change in his own makeup, or whether he has dropped it because he has perceived, with his highly sensitive antennae, something increasingly dark in the American landscape.

—Philip Marchand


Philip Marchand was born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and attended the University of Toronto, where he obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature. Afterwards he spent several years as a free lance magazine writer in Canada. A collection of his 1970s journalism was published in 1976 under the title of Just Looking, Thank You: An Amused Observer’s Views of Canadian Lifestyles, by Macmillan of Canada.  An unsympathetic critic termed the book the poor man’s Tom Wolfe and he may have been right. The author is not sure he wants you to look it up if you are so inclined.

A more credible book was his 1989 biography entitled Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. A slightly revised edition, with a foreword by the late Neal Postman, was published by MIT Press in 1998. It is still in print for all I know. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer called it “delightfully readable.”

Marchand has also written a crime novel, the 1994 Deadly Spirits. Again, the author is not sure he wants you to look it up. It’s okay, but not great.

Finally McClelland & Stewart published Marchand’s  Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America in 2005. (An American edition was published by Praeger in 2007.) This is a great book and you really should read it. It’s a mixture of travel, memoir and history.

From 1989 to 2008 Marchand was books columnist for the Toronto Star. He currently writes a weekly book review column for the National Post.

He is married and lives in Toronto.


—Philip Marchand (himself)

Dec 292011

This is a classic music video (in the ironic sense). A brilliant avant garde something or other written by John Cage. You might want to think of the famous blank chapter in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as you watch/listen to this magnificent work.

I myself am making preliminary notes toward a complete blank novel, epic in scope, called, poignantly enough, Emptiness.


Dec 232011



Everything Starts With Language: Gary Lutz’s divorcer

A Review by Jason DeYoung


Gary Lutz
Calamari Press, 2011
117 Pages, $13.00

Gary Lutz’s seven stories in divorcer are preposterous—in the best possible way. They disobey logic, scorn common storytelling technique, and frolic with destabilizing off-plot descriptions that are at once powerful and confounding. Yet Lutz never loses sight of his character’s emotions and how they squirm to “get around to” their lives.  He respects his characters—despite the grim maze of humiliations he puts them through—by giving them some of the best writing out there to take breath in. Built from an intense, ferocious vocabulary, Lutz’s fiction decries the mere functionality of language. Each unnerving story uproots expectations and delights with showing the reader the sun of a new approach in sentences that range from the overgrown to the monosyllabic to the fill-in-the-blank.

divorcer is Gary Lutz’s third full-length collection of stories (Stories in the Worst Way from Calamari Press and I Looked Alive from The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square are the two others, and A Partial List of People to Bleach is fourth collection, which was published as a pamphlet from Future Tense Books).  Lutz lists Barry Hannah, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and F. Scott Fizgerald as influences, and he is a former student of Gordon Lish, who published many of Lutz’s early stories in the legendary The Quarterly, the avant-garde journal Lish ran between 1987 and 1995 (publishing (and introducing) such writers as Don Delillo, Nancy Lemann, Thomas Lynch, Tim O’Brien and Numéro Cinq’s Capo di tutti capi Douglas Glover).

Continue reading »

Dec 222011

The tried and true revenge plot takes on a decidedly yuletide flavour as “Treevenge” explores the trauma and abuse Christmas trees face, and then offers a cathartic glimpse into their ultimate, bloody revenge.

The film was created by local (to me) Halifax filmmakers Rob Cotteril and Jason Eisener who first got notice for their fake film trailer for “Hobo with a Shotgun” which won Robert Rodriguez’s SXSW Grindhouse Trailer Competition and was featured as part of the double feature theatre release of Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. They have since developed the fake trailer into a real film featuring Rutger Hauer.

Happy Holidays to everyone. Especially the trees.


Dec 212011

Here are three spoken word poems & recordings from a brand new collection by Toronto poet Liz Worth who is also the author of an unforgettably named nonfiction book Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. The poems are personal/social commentaries, incantatory, and replete with surrealistic detours and juxtapositions and the three-syllable latinate nouns characteristic of the genre. The collection is called Amphetamine Heart, published by Guernica Editions. Liz Worth has also written three chapbooks, Eleven: Eleven, Manifestations, and Arik’s Dream. She lives in Toronto. (Author photo by Don Pyle.)



Amphetamine Heart: Poems & Readings

By Liz Worth


On Cheetah’s Speed

we are taut and directionless,
networks of revolutions suspended
like fingertips to a temple,
poised and blurring into white spider legs,
their ends painted an intrusive shade of red.
At this angle everything looks better from the left,
even the accelerated aging of blondes.
Warts of perspiration radiate,
glossed by black lights and exit signs.
We are marked as wounded, fragile,
the stimulated strength beneath us, between us,

. Continue reading »

Dec 202011

Here’s a wild and extravagant fictional account of a parallel-Barack Obama, a Barack Obama who never was but exists—as the imaginary biracial Dexter Arjuna—in the fevered imagination of a writer who, like Robert Coover or Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo, takes contemporary events and re-invents them as satire and myth (and, yes, a teachable moment). Adam Lewis Schroeder was one of my favourites back in the Paleolithic when I edited Best Canadian Stories (his stories appeared in the 1999 and 2004 editions). He had traveled and lived in the Far East, especially Indonesia, and his inspired stories were rich with mystery and cultural observation and the clash of tradition and modernity.

Adam grew up in Vernon, British Columbia, and now lives in Penticton with his wife and kids.  He is the author of the fiction collection Kingdom of Monkeys (2001) and the novels Empress of Asia (2006) and In the Fabled East (2010.) Douglas & McIntyre will publish All-Day Breakfast, an apocalyptic road novel, in Spring 2012.  He teaches Creative Writing at University of British Columbia Okanagan.



The Fairy Tale of Dexter Arjuna, President-Elect

Adam Lewis Schroeder


Since the election on November 4 the fact of Dexter Arjuna’s biracial identity has been extolled even more often than the 2:1 majority with which he dominated the Electoral College, as though those mundane descriptions heard early in the campaign—“the candidate, whose mother was Indonesian” or “the Democratic nominee, who is half-Asian”—could suddenly not do him justice.  The very moment the election was called—11:07 EST, as many will recall—CNN, Fox News, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and the regular networks simultaneously took the phrase “the first biracial president-elect” into their mouths like dogs with a particularly meaty bone, as if simply being half-white and half-Indonesian were far too narrow a description for the epicentre of such support from the American electorate.  Because a president-elect who is biracial might be any combination of half-black, half-Latino, half-white, half-Jewish, half-Asian, half-RFK, half-Gandhi or half-MLK.  His heritage is the heritage of the beholder—hybrid vigour indeed.  What’s more (and could the networks have been unaware of this?) biracial seemingly straddles interracial and bisexual so that as Dexter Arjuna delivered his acceptance speech beneath Seattle’s Space Needle he was not just throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of foreign oil, terrorists, corporate bullies, bipartisan whips and extremists of any stripe save those committed to freedom, he appeared as all people to all people while simultaneously having carnal knowledge of all people.  “Yes, we can,” he declared, and a billion viewers world-wide were simultaneously sated and seduced (with the meagre exception of some 40 million American Republicans.)  Such was the power of President-elect Arjuna’s voice; his profile; his dreaming-yet-wrought-in-iron, 1000-yard stare; the untapped power at the corners of his mouth; and his cosmic new label—Biracial!  (Eternal! a hysterical crowd might mouth in the same breath.  Unyielding!)  Yet to side-step the plain fact that he is Indonesian on his mother’s side is to never comprehend the events which truly brought Dexter Arjuna to power.

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Dec 192011

L’Immacolata: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in Liguria,[1] Italy,
By Natalia Sarkissian

Vivaldi-In Turbato Mare Irato, RV 627

(click and listen to the motet[2] sung by soprano Susan Gritton while viewing the following photographs)


On December 8, schools and businesses close throughout Italy. It’s the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.[3][[3]]A doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, the Immaculate Conception signifies that the Virgin Mary was conceived free of original sin. As dogma, it is conceptually distinct from the virginity of Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Liguria, a narrow strip of land to the north of Italy, lies on the Ligurian Sea and is ringed by mountains (the Alps to the north and the Appenines to the east). Liguria is one of the smallest regions (1.18% of the total land mass of Italy). Of this, 65% of the Ligurian region is mountainous with the remaining 35% made up of hills.
  2. According to musicologist Margaret Bent, “a piece of music in several parts with words” serves as definition of the motet from its inception in the 13th century and beyond. The Medieval theorist, Johannes Grocheio, believed that the motet was “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.”
Dec 162011

The Irish writer John Banville once said, “Under the artist’s humid scrutiny the object grows warm, it stirs and shies, giving off the blush of verisimilitude; the flash of his relentless gaze strikes and the little monsters rise and walk, their bandages unfurling.”  Brad Watson’s characters come to life thusly, little monsters dreaming through Gulf Coast towns, lazing on the beach, jumping off garage roofs, walking into the path of shotguns, being abducted by aliens or seduced by palm-reading, poolside gypsies. His stories are inhabited by flawed, fascinating and fully realized characters. They come to life in places so heartbreaking and familiar, so thoughtfully imagined, that to read a Brad Watson story is to leave yourself, which is the point, after all.

Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1955. He now lives in Wyoming and teaches writing and literature at the University of Wyoming. A self-described ‘misanthrope’, Watson was anything but misanthropic over the course of several email exchanges and a phone interview. Warm, affable, funny and blunt, Watson’s personality is a mirror of his writing. What’s most admirable about his stories are their willingness to stare life down, in all of its infinite complexity and messiness. His characters survive, even transcend, the darkest moments of being, and though the journey is often dark, it is also tender, funny and real. They are abundantly human stories,  yet dreamy, wispy things in their rendering.

 Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

I reach him in his office in Laramie. It is late afternoon, and he has just finished making copies of his students’ theses. Watson speaks softly, with just a hint of a Mississippi drawl, more noticeable in the slow cadence of his words than by any twang in his speech. He asks if can call me back because his son has phoned with a homework problem. His son is a senior in high school and lives in Alabama. Watson apologizes (unnecessarily) for the interruption. We talk for the better part of an hour. At times, I lose track of the fact that I’m trying to takes notes on what he’s saying because I find the conversation so interesting.

—Richard Farrell


Making the Little Monsters Walk: An Interview with Brad Watson

 By Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell (RF): I’d like to start with a question The Paris Review once asked of Arthur Koestler: What do you dislike most of all?

Brad Watson (BW): (laughing) Rules. Rules and the people who follow rules, who are obsessed with keeping them and enforcing them. Assholes who get uptight and yell at you if you cross the street the wrong way. That kind of bullshit. But you can apply it across the board.

RF: You’ve travelled around a lot.  You’ve grew up in Mississippi and you lived and worked in Alabama, Florida, in Los Angeles and Boston. You’ve lived in Wyoming for the last 6 years. And one of the things that struck me about your writing is how deeply important a sense of place is to your work. I wonder if your sensibility about place in your writing evolved out of so much movement in your personal life.

BW: In a sense, yes. My life and imagination are deeply rooted in Mississippi and Alabama, so my stories still seem to arise from that and there. But being away also intensifies that imaginative connection and even frees it up, somewhat. You’re able to be there in your head, unaffected by the present circumstances of actually being there. So in a way it’s more purely imagined.

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Dec 162011

Brad Watson’s novella, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” is like a recursive dream.  You’re never certain about where one dream ends and where reality (or the next dream) begins.  At first glance, it appears to be a simple love story about Will and Olivia, two high school kids living in Mississippi. When Olivia becomes pregnant, they marry, rent a small apartment near a mental hospital and suffer through an oppressive, breezeless summer. Their ambitious love-making disturbs the landlady; their families object to the arrangement; they survive on leftovers and beer. One night, Will wakes and finds a strange couple sitting in his living room. They are familiar yet unnervingly strange. “‘We’re what you might call aliens,’ the woman said.” After this, things change in the story, in dramatic, funny, hopeful and heartbreaking ways.

Watson has re-written the contemporary love story. He challenges the basic assumptions of dreaming and waking states, questioning the idea of destiny and meaning. Part fantasy, part social commentary, part meta-fiction, part Southern Gothic, part autobiography, Watson’s novella bends conventional boundaries in weird and wild ways.  “Young people don’t just drive around, bored, drinking beer and crashing into trees and other vehicles, slashing and flailing away at one another in parking lots and vacant lots out of rage or boredom,” thinks the narrator near the end of Aliens.  Watson makes you wistful for those times.

Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

Read an interview with Brad Watson here at Numéro Cinq.

—Richard Farrell


From “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”

By Brad Watson



In the moment after the couple from the asylum had left us that previous night, when I had begun to construct our little paradise in my mind, Olivia had awakened, dressed quietly, crept from the house, down the steps from the rickety deck, and walked away.

As she walked, and as dawn seeped into the cooled August air, the landscape began to change until she knew she was no longer in our little hometown.  It was as if she didn’t know where she was, or where she wanted to be, and the landscape continually reshaped itself with the beautiful, disorienting whorl of a kaleidoscope turned by an invisible hand.

She put her own hand to her belly as she walked.  It was flat and soft.  Well, that was gone.  That had ceased to exist.  That was not a problem anymore.

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Dec 152011

“Why don’t clouds float along the ground?” one of the young girls in Jane Campion’s short film “The Water Diary” asks. The film itself meditates on things as unreachable as these: the clouds, a child’s comprehension of all these adult mistakes, and any solution to the environmental disaster these people are enduring.

Campion’s contribution to the United Nations’ 8 film project tackles the seventh goal of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Goals: “ensure environmental sustainability.” Numero Cinq already presented the fifth film, Jan Kounen’s “”The Story of Panshin Beka” (you can see it and the intro here). The film shares a quirkiness with the Jane Campion’s “Passionless Moments” short films which Numero Cinq also presented (you can see them here).

The film places the central issue in the hands and imaginations of children. The child whose diary narrates the film has a perspective limited by her innocence but unlimited by her imagination. She cannot see where the horses have gone at first, her friend calls the central issue “global warning,” and she imagines impossible worlds where there are clouds on the ground and dancing mattresses. So where the adult response to the catastrophe in the film is to have dreams of rain and commit awful sacrifices, the children are able to each take their own small steps and imagine a possible solution.

What fuels the children and this story is the way the children seem to understand sacrifice and pain better than the adults. The horses provide the most visceral and material metaphor for the price these children are paying for their parents’ poor environmental choices. The narrative sees no solution in this sacrifice though, just further adult missteps. As one child warns, “If they think we’re going to look after them when they’re older, they can just forget about it.”

Campion uses extreme long shots to emphasize the landscape and its relationship to the small children in it. The children often appear in the lower corners of the frame or to the side, as in the last shot of the girl playing the viola. Though the children are perhaps diminished, what Campion emphasizes through these shots is how connected these children are to their environment and that small gestures, even single tears in a glass of water, can cause change.

Campion leaves the ending ambiguous. On the one hand what we imagine comes next depends on our own cynicism or imagination. On the other, the point of this story is not the rain, but the spirit, drive and sacrifice to cause change in the world – to fix what has been broken.


Dec 142011

Sprezzatura is a Renaissance term/style: nonchalant, natural, apparently careless though, in fact, the opposite—a pose in a sense, an attitude, a rhetorical stance.

Alan Michael Parker is a poet-novelist, that is, he began his career as a poet, has published five volumes of poetry, an impressive and expanding opus. The last book Elephants & Butterflies is, as it should be, perhaps his best, confident, urban, urbane, knowing, acerbic, witty, quick, cutting and surprising. Parker has a way of talking about God and TV dreck in the same moment. He has made sprezzatura his own.

Dear God who made me act
in whose gaze I am rerun
now I lay me down

Alan is an old friend and colleague from dg’s stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. He had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire.


Sprezzatura with Two Rabbits

By Alan Michael Parker


Talking to the two rabbits in the herb garden, I could be Gerald Stern,
the way he talks to everything, my god,
and really Gerald Stern is always singing to everything,
and everything is singing back.

I tell the rabbit on the left her name is Plato,
and the rabbit on the right she’ll have to wait for a name
because so many names are just a necessarily lesser quality
of an original thing. I call both rabbits “she.”

I describe to the rabbits Gerald Stern’s childhood in Pittsburgh,
his Greek roses and his Borscht Belt beauty and his poem about Auden;
predictably, the rabbits don’t seem to care about my story,
jittery and motionless in their agitation, while the stiller I have to stand

to keep my audience, the more some muscle in my left arm
starts to twitch like a bad rhyme,
or like a captive princess kicking over the table
in a fable when the witch wants rabbit stew.

But since I killed so many rabbits in a poem in 1996
with a shotgun—my best weapon then, before I learned to
write about my family—I feel too guilty in advance
to kill and skin and cook and eat

a rabbit named Plato or her pal.
Writing poems makes me hungry for what I can’t have, sometimes,
which I think Plato probably knew about poetry, but I need to Google it.
FGI, I tell myself all the time, Fucking Google It.

But now one of the rabbits is named Plato and the other’s Gerald Stern,
a combo I’m surprised by, although I suspect that
this poem suspected so all along, and named both rabbits
“she” only as a ruse. Hop away, hop, hop,

hop away free, you bunnies: go back to the greatness
of the garden, your fur dusted with sage and thyme, your lives
opening into a warren filled by the mind of God,
with carrot tops, twenty-seven brothers and sisters, and endless sex;

free of the human need to name, or our crude ambitions
to see whatever light we hope to see,
and hop up and down as we shout the light! the light!
before we’re gobbled up by mystery.

—Alan Michael Parker

Dec 132011

Kazushi Hosaka ©Yomiuri Shimbun

The In-Between Generation

A Review of Kazushi Hosaka’s Novel Plainsong

By Brianna Berbenuik


Kazushi Hosaka
Translated by Paul Warham
Dalkey Archive Press
176 pages; $17.95

Kazuchi Hosaka’s first novel Plainsong is full of characters who read like Japanese versions of Bret Easton Ellis’s narcissistic, directionless young Americans.

They seem trapped in limbo, on an aimless pursuit while an older generation overtakes them. They suffer from what you might call premature nostalgia, a Quixotic expectation, an empty yearning for something that doesn’t exist for their generation but was ever-present for generations before.

Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an “in between” generation.

Hosaka was born 1956 within the same decade as two better-known Japanese authors: Haruki Murakami (IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore) and Ryu Murakami (Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies). Haruki Murakami established himself as a literary giant with a distinctive style often aligned with magic realism (in Plainsong the nameless protagonist mentions that he once wrote an article about Haruki Murakami); Ryu Murakami writes about sex, drugs and the disenfranchised youth of Japan; Kazushi Hosaka, in contrast, has taken on the subtle and quiet themes of everyday people, exploring relationships with a delicacy and sensitivity that gives his writing a “naked” feel without being too revealing.

Hosaka’s prose is sparse and minimalist. His slender novel is a meandering journey, almost dream-like despite the plain, everyday details.  The action takes place in 1986 (when Hosaka would have been thirty). The nameless narrator’s girlfriend has just left him; he suddenly finds himself accumulating a steady stream of strange house guests.  The novel allows you to watch the characters through the eyes of the narrator, but does not allow you intimate access to their thoughts or feelings.  They are passing acquaintances; simple, transient people entering and exiting the reader’s field of view in the course of the novel.  At the end, they are easy to let go.  Like a passing satellite view – you’re there, then you’re gone and over different terrain.

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Dec 122011

Xu Xi (Photo by W. McGuire)


XU XI is an old friend, and colleague. This short story “Lady Day” is XU XI channeling Charles Dickens, at least to the extent that she originally wrote it for serial publication in the Hong Kong magazine Muse, much as Dickens did with his novels (serial publication, not in Hong Kong–in London–oh, the horror of dangling modifiers!). XU XI used to live in Plattsburgh, NY, and oscillate back and forth to New York. Often she would stop in Saratoga Springs, and she and dg would have coffee at a restaurant called  Scallions. There is less of that now, regrettably, since XU XI spends much more of her time in her native Hong Kong where she also teaches writing. DG misses those visits. But it is some consolation to be able to publish this lovely story, which, besides being in the magazine, also appears in XU XI’s brand new collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011). See early reviews of the book here and here at The Hindu.

XU XI is a Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong native and the author of nine books of fiction and essays, including the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  In 2010 she was named Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, where she established and directs the first international low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia and writing of Asia. “Lady Day” was serialized in a three-part bilingual (Chinese/English) publication in Muse, Hong Kong, Issue 11, 2007 & Issues 12 & 13, 2008.


Lady Day

by XU XI


It’s the stiff collar—tightly buttoned, covering the entire neck—that draws the eye to the lips. Makeup, high heels, and the walk are second nature; thighs—firm, barely, silkily there—flash through the fitting cheongsam’s side slits. Their glances, discreet or longing, slide up the leg, over the hip, away from the front and round back to where my black hair falls, like some endangered feline’s tail, long enough to sit on. I pass as easily here in Amsterdam as in New York, with less complications.

Medical complications are something else. Outwardly, nothing’s changed, not yet. But inwardly, I feel different, and know that the onset about which I’ve been warned has probably begun. There are things inside you can’t deny, and the best physicians and all the money in the world won’t yield the desired return.

Right now, though, I’ll live these nights, playacting a little longer. Tonight’s the “dynamic duo.” Double jeopardy, double the return. It’s their third transaction this week, the last night of their little “business trip” to the continent. They’re having the time of their life. Those boys obviously like my wares.

What I miss, what I’ll never get back, is the rush of control, the game of being her. Running the whole show on my terms. Many returned. Repeat business; Bernard taught me well.

Waan yuen, as Daddy might have said. Party’s over. No one to blame, not even Hewitt.

But most of all, I’ve missed daylight.

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Dec 122011

Herewith an excerpt from Plainsong, a novel by Kazushi Hosaka, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press. Plainsong was heralded by the Japan Times as a “laid-back celebration of the empty and the ordinary” that “reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.” NC’s reviewer, Brianna Berbenuik, writes: “Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an ‘in between’ generation.”


Excerpt from Plainsong

By Kazushi Hosaka

Translated by Paul Warham


All of this made me feel like talking things over with Yumiko again. I called her after lunch the next day from a phone booth near Ebisu station. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello, stranger. I’m just breast-feeding at the moment, actually.” I had to laugh—this seemed an odd way to start a conversation over the phone with someone who didn’t call more than once in a blue moon. But maybe she talked about this kind of thing with everybody.

“Don’t be silly—you’re not just anybody. But come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone unless I felt comfortable talking to them about this kind of thing, so maybe it comes to the same thing. Maybe I do talk about it with just about everyone—everyone I know, anyway.” I had another question, though: how long was it normal to breast-feed a child for?

“I don’t know. I mean, my kid has been eating normal food for ages now. But I decided to keep on breast-feeding till he’s five.”


“Didn’t I mention it before?” Yumiko asked, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I think it’s good to provide a child with a strong maternal presence for as long as possible. Don’t they say it helps give a child a more optimistic outlook on life?”

“Who says so?”

“Ah, maybe I just made it up. Anyway, that’s what I think.”

I couldn’t imagine any child of hers being troubled by a pessimistic or gloomy outlook.

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Dec 092011

Herewith a lovely, meditative essay on the conjunction of poetry, memory, and childhood from Nancy Eimers. The essay draws its inspiration from Proust and the art constructions of Joseph Cornell and draws to a close with Mary Ruefle’s Now-It, an erasure book made from an antique children’s book about Snow White. Nancy Eimers is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In March NC published poems from her new collection, Oz, published in January from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her three previous collections are A Grammar to Waking (Carnegie Mellon, 2006), No Moon (Purdue University Press, 1997) and Destroying Angel (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). She has been the recipient of a Nation “Discovery” Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships and a Whiting Writer’s Award, and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.  Nancy teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


 Charmed Objects: Poetry and Childhood

By Nancy Eimers


The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.  —John Ashbery


Image from Webmuseum at ibiblio

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) is a brown box with metal handles on either side. Here is a list of its contents.

—blue cloth
—blue thumbtacks
—a map of the moon
—three glass discs
—light blue egg, in a cordial glass
—doll’s head, painted blue and gold
—three white wooden blocks
—white clay bubble pipe

Really, they are ordinary things, in one world or another.

If you visit Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, you must keep a distance.  You will not be allowed to open the box and play with the bubble pipe.  Not even if you bring a child.

Now, a look at the box.  But not an image.  Words are the medium here.

Oh roundnesses you can feel in the palm of the hand. The moon’s at the center, silvery blue, and dominates.  Carte Geographique de la Lune.  The doll’s head, cheeks scarred, has been smiling now for how many years?  Also a silvery blue, the doll and the egg are bathed in the thought of the moon.  The discs of glass are laid at the floor of the box; if you picked one up, the rim might cut your hand.  Every circle is synonym to a bubble: doll’s head, egg, bowl of the pipe.  Even the craters of the moon.  One of the books Cornell loved was a series of lectures delivered in 1890 by a scientist, C. V. Boys, to an audience of children, on soap bubbles.  You cannot pour water from a jug or tea from a tea-pot; you cannot even do anything with a liquid of any kind, without setting in action the forces to which I am about to direct your attention.

 Image from Rocaille

I haven’t seen that soap-bubble box except in a book, but I’ve seen Untitled (Forgotten Game) in Chicago’s Art Institute.  A pinball-like game of a box with holes behind which there are pictures of birds cut out from the pages of old books.  Inside the box there are ramps down which a ball is meant to slide.  If you could open the little door at the top and insert a blue rubber ball, if the ball were to slide down the ramps and reached the bottom, a bell would ring.  That it doesn’t ring is part of a terrible sweetness.

Forgotten game, blue-silver moon, recessed birds, egg in a cordial glass, to what forces have you drawn our attention?

“Perhaps what one wants to say,” said sculptor Barbara Hepworth, “is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it?”


I remember a gaudy, jeweled pin worn by my grandmother.  I say “gaudy,” but I didn’t think it was gaudy then.  Costume jewelry is made of less valuable materials including base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetic stones, in place of more valuable materials such as precious metals and gems, explains Wikipedia helpfully.  But I hadn’t read and wouldn’t have been helped by this sentence then.  The jewels, their blue and pink sparkles, enchanted me.  They seemed almost to say, there is this other world.  The pin is lost forever, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers somewhere between Oz and Kansas.  But I feel the pull of a former feeling, not subject to reason, proportion, knowledge of anything likely/unlikely to happen.  In memory, where I am holding it in my hand, the invented and the real haven’t quite parted ways.  You can’t get beauty.  Still, says Jean Valentine, in its longing it flies to you.

I think this will not be an argument but a meditation—held together by asterisks, little stars—on how charmed objects, long lost, come back sometimes in poetry, present only as words, touchstone, rabbit’s foot, amulet, merrythought, calling us back, calling us forth.  What are they, now that we’ve lost them?


The Child Is Reading the Almanac

The child is reading the almanac beside her basket of eggs.
And, aside from the Saints’ days and the weather forecasts,
she contemplates the beautiful heavenly signs.
Goat, Bull, Ram, Fish, etcetera.

Thus, she is able to believe, this little peasant child,
that above her, in the constellations,
there are markets with donkeys,
bulls, rams, goats, fish.

Doubtless she is reading of the market of Heaven.
And, when she turns the page to the sign of the Scales,
she says to herself that in Heaven, as in the grocery store,
they weigh coffee, salt and consciences.

In an almanac there are moons, full and half and quarter, and there are new moons that look like black moons.  There are meteor showers, tides and eclipses.  Signs of the zodiac.  Questions of the Day.  Why is the ring finger sometimes called the medical finger?  Weather predictions.  Three misty mornings indicate rain.  Fact and prediction, the seen and the unseen intermingle; the strange is detected in the commonplace, and the commonplace in strangeness.  No wonder the child in this early twentieth century poem by French poet Francis Jammes has been tempted to set down her basket and read.

Jammes “wrote of simple, everyday things,” says the introductory paragraph on the torn yellow book jacket of my copy of his Selected Poems.  And inside the book, in the introduction, Rene Vallery-Radot marvels, “From a little provincial town there rises a voice that ignores all the gods, that tells of life simply, not at all systematized in theories.”  In a photograph just inside the cover Jammes, an old man in round black glasses and a long wispy beard, looks down at a page he is writing on.  For all we know he was writing this almanac poem. The child must have stopped on her way to or from the market (to sell the eggs? having just bought them?).  Perhaps she wonders if even an egg, like the animals in the market, has its counterpart in the stars.  The wondrous almanac testifies that as things are on earth, so they must be in heaven: how miraculous, how natural, that Heaven resembles an earthly grocery store on this most ordinary of days!

Still, Jammes remembers enough not to oversimplify, or presume.  On earth, scales are also associated metaphorically with justice, even by a child.  And like any child, this one must have done something, committed or contemplated committing some small act, a rebellion or peccadillo for which, in some small way, she’d paid, or feared to pay.  She spoke harshly to the donkey.  Maybe she broke an egg.  She dawdled on the way to the market.  Whatever it is, she keeps it secret.  Let us not trespass.


It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy.  Whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flower. —Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

In her autobiographical story “In the Village,” Elizabeth Bishop invents or remembers this from her childhood:

We pass Mrs. Peppard’s house.  We pass Mrs. McNeil’s house.  We pass Mrs. Geddes’s house.  We pass Hill’s store.

The store is high, and a faded gray-blue, with tall windows, built on a long, high stoop of gray-blue cement with an iron hitching railing along it.  Today, in one window there are big cardboard easels, shaped like houses—complete houses and houses with the roofs lifted off to show glimpses of the rooms inside, all in different colors—with cans of paint in pyramids in the middle. But they are an old story.  In the other window is something new: shoes, single shoes, summer shoes, each sitting on top of its own box with its mate beneath it, inside, in the dark.

The child is bereaved, though she doesn’t entirely know what this means.  It is for her too new a story.  Her father—her mother’s mate—like one of those shoes, has been closed inside a box of his own, but forever, unlike the shoes.  This story is one of those houses with its roof lifted off, so the writer, so we, may look inside.  But we may not enter.

Memory affords glimpses: of a flower, a doll or a shoe in a box, a marble rolling comet-like across the floor.  “My life,” writes Tomas Transtromer:

Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light.  On closer inspection it has the form of a comet, with head and tail.  The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up.  The nucleus, the densest part, is infancy, that first period, in which the most important features of our life are determined.  I try to remember, I try to penetrate there.  But it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.

Maybe it is important not to explicate our childhoods.  Or simply, merely impossible?  Cornell, from a journal entry, May 13, 1944:

 . . . stopped by pond of waterworks with cool sequestered landscaping—gardens & here had one of profoundest experiences + renewal of spirit associated with childhood evoked by surroundings—it seemed to go deep through this strong sense of persistence in the lush new long grass—the most prominent feature turned out to be “no trespassing” sign

Water, hiddenness, the cool, such things return for a moment from—exactly when and where?  What did it look like there? We can’t quite know, we can’t see inside.  No trespassing.   But the grass is/was lush.

Talking about her younger brother Joseph, Betty Cornell Benton recalls this scrap from their childhood:

Late one night he woke me, shivering awfully, and asked to sit on my bed.  He was  in the grips of a panic from the sense of infinitude and the vastness of space as he was becoming aware of it from studying astronomy.

From an earthly point of view, a comet is stationary, seen at night—then remembered in daylight—then seen—then remembered—over the rooftops.  It is there for a time.  Star with a wake of light.  Then it is gone.  That too is remembered.


“Stove” is one of the six end-words of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”  A Little Marvel. Brand new, that model would have been painted silver.  Through daily use, it would have grayed; open the door and it would be blackened inside.  MARVEL: the name is on the door.  It dominates like the map of the moon in Cornell’s soap bubble box.  Above, below, on either side there are swirls and curlicues forged in the cast-iron, resembling serious, stirred up clouds.  It has four legs, curving outward, stubby and braced.  In an early twentieth century village, a stove was a daily thing in anyone’s house, but to a child it must have seemed marvelous, like Saturn’s rings.

I have only seen photographs of the Marvel; but they were not photographs of the real thing.  All I found was a salesman’s sample, 16 inches high, still advertised on eBay but already sold.  That ship had sailed.  And a toy Little Marvel, complete with two ovens, burners and lifters.  Nickel plating over cast iron.  All complete and in very good all original condition.

A child in me is entranced.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

House.  Grandmother.  Child.  Stove.  Almanac.  Tears.   Six end-words, like miniatures on a bracelet.  (Even the tears have their charm.)  Each time the words, all nouns, come back, they are in their original form—no juggling with word play or parts of speech, no punning or homonyms.  Simple words, like primary colors, or figures from an old storybook.

Or they are like comets, passing before us seven times from the early twentieth century, Great Village, Nova Scotia.  As in the story “In the Village,” there is death at the nucleus.


And so on.  In the ordinary world a grandmother is trying to amuse a child.  Each time a word comes around again it feels sadder.  Even tears get sadder; the teakettle weeps, the teacup fills with dark brown tears.  To the grandmother, tears are recurring, equinoctial. The child senses something.  Unspoken grief is working its magic: the almanac begins to resemble a bird; the stove gets philosophical; the world grows cold.  The almanac knows what it knows but won’t say what.  How much does the child know, what is she warding off?  The poet senses something.  Does the child miss the man in the drawing?  How much can even Bishop have known of the child she was?  “Early Sorrow” was the poem’s original title.  Then withdrawn.  Explication fails, or it is irrelevant.  The child sees little moons in the almanac fall down like tears.  The poem ends, as it began, in present tense.  The child draws another inscrutable house.

That moment of wonder and puzzlement goes on orbiting but it is in the past, forever out of reach.  So are the stove and the almanac, ancient tears, the worried grandmother and the inscrutable child.  All in the past, except for the house in Great Village.  (. . . it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.)  That house is still there.  You can visit it; you can go inside; you can even arrange to stay.


In her art review of the Ann Arbor exhibition “Secret Spaces of Childhood,” Margaret Price describes certain characteristics of childhood hide-outs:

Almost always the entrance to a secret space is guarded, to protect the privacy and sometimes the fragility of what lies inside. . . .  Moving through the doorway into the space itself is often a rite of passage, and often the point of access is the most highly charged area of the whole secret space: usually elusive, always exciting, and sometimes dangerous.  Often they, or their entrances, are small . . . . being small of stature confers the privilege of access.  A hideout cannot function for a person too large to fit into it.  On the other hand, a child’s small size is a    passing attribute, and children know it.

Peering into the windows of a dollhouse, I feel almost an ache of pleasure.  I think this has to do with its smallness; the feeling is paradoxical.   I am charmed by the inaccessibility; and I yearn to be small enough to step inside.  If I could grow small enough to enter, the house and furniture would no longer seem miniaturized to mini-me and so would have lost their mystery; but I might find among the toys in its nursery (for in a dollhouse there is almost always a nursery) a tiny dollhouse, and who knows, perhaps an even tinier dollhouse inside of that dollhouse’s nursery, and so on and so on, as if longing were satisfyingly infinite.

Is remoteness integral to a certain kind of charm?  In a silk-lined box I keep my charm bracelet, a mercury-head dime and a single clip-on pearl earring.  I know they are there, but I hardly ever look.  I like the look of the hinge that fastens the lid.

from the Art Institute of Chicago

On the basement floor of the Art Institute in Chicago you can visit the Thorne Rooms, a permanent exhibit of miniature rooms behind glass.  These aren’t so much dollhouses as interiors, 68 rooms that, “painstakingly constructed,” as the museum website explains, “enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930’s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930’s.”  The rooms contain exact reproductions of period furniture, carpets, wallpaper, chandeliers, other objects—all somehow failing to interest me, I finally realized with some disappointment the last time I visited.  Perhaps it was more petulance I felt than disappointment; I had come in the spirit of a former child, and being there felt more like studying than play.

What bewitched me, though, were the windows.  Out every window there was a view—an exterior—tiny, intricate gardens with bushes and flowers; patios; benches; trees; and an artificial light from a source that wasn’t visible.  I started over, room by room, looking not at interiors but out the windows, craning my neck to see as much as I could; it was tantalizing, I couldn’t see everything.  Shining faintly into miniature rooms in the basement of a grand museum, the light seemed remote, a late-fall, old-world light.  Out of every window of every one of the 68 rooms was a little world a child might just have begun imagining . . . .

Or perhaps it was simpler, perhaps I just wanted to be inside looking out.  In fact, it occurs to me that may be why (at least in part) I’m so happy when it snows: as opposed to looking into dollhouses or the windows of other people’s lighted homes at night, I finally feel as if I’m inside something.


A charm is a miniature object worn on a bracelet.  A sombrero.  A bell.  I am childless, who will I give it to?  You can’t hear the tinkling of the tiny bell for the tinkling of the bracelet when you pick it up.  The use of the word charm as trinket did not occur (was not recorded) until 1865.  But charm has meant “pleasing” since the 1590’s.

It wasn’t until Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil and found herself, for a time, enormously happy, that she began to be able to write of her childhood in Great Village.  She says in a letter to friends, “It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia—geography must be more mysterious than we realize, even.”

Of course she meant some geography of the interior.

Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be. —Marcel Proust


Ghost stories written as algebraic equations.  Little Emily at the
blackboard is very frightened. The X’s look like a graveyard at night. The
teacher wants her to poke among them with a piece of chalk. All the children
hold their breath. The white chalk squeaks once among the plus and minus
signs, and then it’s quiet again.

This is an untitled prose poem from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End.  I have been that child, puzzling over the signs and portents on the blackboard, messages sent by way of math, of grammar, or even handwriting, strange row of continuous l‘s or o‘s.  In a way, it seems like a minute ago.  Did the teachers know how wildly some of us may been mistranslating what they were writing on the board?  Numbers especially, and their plusses and minuses, went beyond the explanations of words, beyond even paragraphs.  I am a teacher myself now, though white boards and dry erase markers have replaced the powdery chalk.  I am still a little frightened, like Emily, standing in front of the class.  The white boards haven’t solved or eliminated the mystery, yesterday’s propositions, assertions, and mistakes still lurking under today’s.

Though the blackboards of my childhood were almost always green, the first blackboards were black, made of slate.  For a newer generation of blackboards, the color green was chosen because it was believed it would be easier on the eyes.  As for the chalk, I can still feel the powder on my hands as I lay it back in one of the crevices of the metal rim.  I had been asked to do a problem on the board.  Or to outline a sentence.  Or maybe I hadn’t touched it at all but was sitting at my desk, watching my teacher, mentally tracing the swoops of her hand (his hand) as it held the chalk.  Oh mysteries of the chalkboard’s palimpsest, yesterday’s sums or sentences only half-erased.  And let us not forget the mystery of the chalk itself, composed partly of limestone, the sum of fossilized sea animals.


Vivien Greene, whose family moved repeatedly when she was a child, devoted much of her adult life to the study, collection, and restoration of Victorian dollhouses.  She had seen her own beloved house in London bombed and split open in the Blitz.  It seems that rift was decisive: after that she and her husband (the novelist Graham Greene) permanently lived apart.  (Graham, who wasn’t interested, said Vivien, in either her dollhouses or domesticity, had already formed what they used to call “another establishment.”)  “Houses have influenced my life deeply,” wrote Vivien Greene in a brief essay called “The Love of Houses”; “They have entered into dreams, made me stand enraptured, suddenly in unexpected places, filled me with a longing to possess; or they occasionally frighten.”  Fear of . . . bombs?  Of ghosts, of moving yet again?  She doesn’t explain.  In the evenings during the war, she used to sit behind blackout curtains working on her dollhouses, tearing down old wallpaper, adding the new.  Greene was the author of several excellent books on vintage English dollhouses.  They are filled with exquisitely old-fashioned and discursive descriptions of staircases, windows, doorways, furniture, even the crockery.  At one point, she writes, apropos of nothing,

 As some people ask and need to be stripped of ownership, so we can believe others are hardly fully alive, complete as persons, until certain material things, a horse, a place, a boat, have been loved and owned and afterwards remembered.


“In the lyric you can stop time,” said Ellen Bryant Voigt in an interview; “you pick that moment of intensity and hold it. The narrative moves through time.”  In Michael Burkard’s poem “The Sea” nothing really happens.  There is instead a kind of lyrical parallelism that advances no narrative but deepens the shades of emotion.

It could have been worse but for the sea. The watch of it. What was it
Chekhov wrote?—”Self same sea”—Yes. Yes. It was there, as was my mother’s
family, in Nova Scotia. There beyond the sloping meadow near Aunt Dorothy’s
farm, there from Cousin George’s kitchen window. The sea and its often daily fog
permeated everyone, everything. And because there was no electricity in those
days, only candles, lantern light, and no plumbing, it seemed almost a sea more in
the air than in the sea. You could not shut it out.

The poem travels sideways, or inward.  Certain words appearing numerous times, sea, there, now, as if, become on one level sheer sound, a force, a mystery.  They don’t so much stop the moment as return to its vivid pastness, over and over again.  There is something bygone and sepia about the scene described.  “There” suggests something in existence but away.   The landmarks in the poem are family names, a meadow, a kitchen window.  And the sea.  Which is also a kind of weather, an intrusive force or guest.  The residents of the poem are mired there, in a world miniaturized by memory.  Here is the rest of the poem:

And the lanterns we ate by, sat by—how small! Yet this permeated as much as
the sea, as much as the fog from the field, the conversion of one cowbell to
another cowbell in the fog, the red-yellow light flickering, now against a deck of
cards, now against faces and hands playing the cards, now being carried with one
or by one off to sleep. Sleep by the sea, as if the sleep were to last a thousand
years, as if the summer were a medium for color which could become
permanently framed, wearing only so slowly for another thousand years. Self
same lantern light shadows, sea and shadow of sea, and her face there, a thousand
years ago, only to be seen a thousand years hence and then to stay beside her face
for as long as ever is.

The fog doesn’t so much occur as seem always to have been; the family members play cards, listen to sounds, fall asleep.  Memory’s village: perhaps everything wasn’t always filmed over with sadness?  “A thousand years” means one thing to a child looking forward, and something else to an adult looking back.  Is the face that appears the face of the speaker’s mother?  On one side is there and ago, on the other hence and ever.  Stay is not an accomplishment but a plea.  Ever: at all times; always.  Matched by is, the moment stopped in time.  He doesn’t say “forever,” though.  He is, we are, outside the time that is “as long as ever”; it is already over.

Cowbells, by the way, come in various colors and sizes, but the ones I hear in the poem sound silver, and tarnished.


We move through time, like characters in a story.  The objects we loved with intensity seem timeless.  Is this because we let them go?  And yet, resurrecting the thought of them, don’t loss and accomplishment co-exist?  The story goes on and we go with it, but part of the story is what we’ve lost.  In “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Zbigniew Herbert asks forgiveness from three charmed objects:

Truly my betrayal is great and hard to forgive
for I do not remember either the day or the hour
when I abandoned you friends of my childhood . . . .

His “friends” are: a pen with a silver nib, illustrious Mr. Ink, and a blessed lamp:

when I speak of you
I would like it to be
as if I were hanging an ex-voto
on a shattered altar

Herbert’s elegy might as easily be to a soap-bubble, or a forgotten game.  But not to the story that edited them out.

I thought then
that before the deluge it was necessary
to save
warm faithful

so it continues further
with ourselves inside it as in a shell

There is that moment when we touch something for the last time.  But the child can’t know, as Herbert says, still addressing his “friends,” that “you were leaving forever / / and that it will be dark.”  Against that dark, the poem saves one thing, something that, reimagined, paradoxically remains miniaturized but it holds us: it is we who dwell within.

But before we leave that dark, W. G. Sebald has something else to say about it:

. . . in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air. . . .

Some yearning of the child’s imagination, Sebald suggests, forged those patterns of meaning in the flights of swallows.  If, like the swallows that have diminished in number, some freshness in our early imaginings gets lost along the way, poetry yearns for the “half-created” in things we once perceived.  A Marvel stove, school chalk, cowbells, a blessed lamp, a silver nib, things that once ordered the dark—or were ordered by it.  If nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, still, isn’t there something swallow-like and mysterious in our yearning, resistant yet integral to the very passage of time?  Poetry imagines the traceries that might once again hold things together, lost possessions, past and present, worlds real and imagined.  It restores the lost moment, shoe, cowbell, basket of eggs or blessed lamp, utterly itself; it is we who are changed, because we know it is lost.

* (last little star)

In Now-It, a collage-and-erasure book Mary Ruefle made out of an old children’s book called Snow White or the House in the Wood, she has pasted the words “the cry of the button” beside the picture of a streaking comet.  Oh you here and there, you cry and streak, all that’s precious in the commonplace!  Now that button and comet have found each other, the child in me believes nothing more need be said.

—Nancy Eimers


Works Cited

Art Institute of Chicago, website on Thorne Rooms.

Ashbery, John. “Joseph Cornell,” Art News, summer 1967.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “In the Village,” in The Collected Prose.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.  261-2.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “Sestina,” The Complete Poems.  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 1983.  123.

Boys, C.V.  Soap-Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them.  Memphis: General Books, 2010 (reprinted).

Burkard, Michael, “The Sea,” My Secret Boat.  New York: Norton, 1990.  22.

Cornell, Betty Benton, quoted in A Joseph Cornell Album, Dore Ashton, author.  New York: De Capo Press, 1944.

Cornell, Joseph. Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files.  Ed. Mary

Ann Caws. : New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.  105.

Greene, Vivien.  English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.  23.

Greene, Vivien.  “The Love of Houses,” The Independent (London), Nov. 29, 1998.

Hepworth, Barbara.  From notebooks.  Quoted in Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Museum, St. Ives.

Herbert, Zbigniew, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Elegy for the Departure.  Trans.  John and Bogdana Carpenter.  Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1999. 127-132.

Jammes, Francis.  “A Child is Reading the Almanac,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes.  Trans. Barry Gifford and Bettina Dickie.  Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.  23.

Price, Margaret.  “Secret Spaces of Childhood: An Exhibition of Remembered Hide-Outs,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2000.  248-278.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past: 1.  Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.  New York: Penguin, 1954.

Ruefle, Mary.  Now-It.  Carol Haenicke Women’s Poetry Collection, Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University.

Sebald, W. G.  The Rings of Saturn.  Trans. Michael Hulce.  New York: New Directions, 1999.  67.

Simic, Charles.  “Ghost stories written,” The World Doesn’t End.  Boston: Mariner Books, 1989.  13.

Transtromer, Tomas.   For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir. Hopewell, NJ:  Ecco, 1995.  25.

Valentine, Jean.  “Then Abraham,” Break the Glass.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2010.  16.

Vallery-Radot, Rene.  Quoted in Introduction,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant.  Inteview, The Atlantic Online, Nov. 24, 1999.

Dec 082011

Is it possible to film a dance piece with a corpse as a dancer?

Bravo!Fact describes Pedro Pires’s “Danse Macabre” as “The intimate journey of a body after its death.” Pire elaborates: “For a period of time, while we believe it to be perfectly still, lifeless flesh responds, stirs and contorts in a final macabre ballet. Are these spasms merely erratic motions or do they echo the chaotic twists and turns of a past life?”

The camera moves more than any body does in this film. And, indeed, for the first major shots, there is an absence of bodies, life instead represented by the flutter and dart of birds caught inside cathedral ceilings and hallways. We don’t see the body in question until it lurches from a chair and is suddenly hanging from the ceiling. It is the largest movement this body will make and the most violent as it marks the end of a life, though not the last time the body will fall.

The only body we get then is an abject body which soon turns fluid in ways that disgust and horrify: the dance of bubbling embalming fluid, the blossoming of blood in water draining from the autopsy table, and the body’s rigor mortis contortions. The film finds beauty in all this. In one section, an underwater ballet, the dancer’s dress and gestures resemble blood staining water, then the shape of her turns almost uncannily in utero, glancing back to birth.

And then the shot fades to a heart in a glass jar. The body is all these things on its way to becoming none.

In another section, as the body is lowered to the autopsy table, there is grace, edged with something unspeakably almost like longing in its repose, where the body touches the earth with one torqued foot, then one slack hand dragging the table, each a last tenuous connection to this earthly plane.

There’s a long tradition of representing “Danse Macabre” in painting where it is usually represented with a group of people, usually from different walks of life, to emphasize that death has dominion over everyone – no one escapes.

In another film representation of the “danse,” the final shots of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, death drags the characters along the hillside, they fight his pull, a chain of suffering, and still a dance.

If these images of “Danse Macabre” signify that no one escapes death, they also, perhaps, suggest that because no one escapes we are connected to others in this experience.

But not for Pires’s dead dancer. For her, death is reached alone. No other body, no one else ever enters the frame. The coroner, the undertaker, loved ones of the deceased, anyone that might have come into contact with the body . . . they are all absent. The body is always alone except in the flash montage of photographic images we see once the body has been lowered to the autopsy table. There are images of the body alive, dancing, and an image of a child. We see fragments of a life which just further emphasize how alone this body is now in death.

The film is built from an idea by the Canadian artist extraordinaire Robert Lepage who Pire worked with on Lepage’s Possible Worlds.

Pedro Pire’s second short film, Hope, also produced with the Phi Films collective, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Promotional material describes it as “Inspired by the play JIMMY, CRÉATURE DE RÊVE by critically acclaimed playwright Marie Brassard. . . [it] explores the fragmented violence of war seen through the eyes of a General on his deathbed. Accustomed to a life on the battlefield, he surrenders to a stream of consciousness, mixing death, brutality, and finally, one last gesture of hope.”

— R W Gray

Dec 072011

“Arise and Go Now” is an exquisitely written short story, also sad and funny and a beautiful character study. It has a deft exactness, a precise forward progression. Nothing is wasted. The identification of the mother/friend is clear and poignant. And, because dg knows the author, all the more poignant.

Sheridan is an old friend, dating back to the time dg used to teach novel-writing at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College when she charmed him by drawing a map of Australia in the air with her fingers and said it was her heart. She is Australian, he is Canadian—they shared a common background in the colonies.

Sheridan Hay holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday/Anchor), was a Booksense Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border’s Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries. Sheridan is currently teaching Moby Dick at The Center for Fiction in Manhattan.



Cathleen gave me the money to take on the plane — ten thousand dollars in cash. I was to take it back to New York and give it to the Polish woman who cleaned her studio apartment. She took out bundles of American dollars from a yellow padded postbag, the money so fresh and crisp it looked fake — a prop in a movie, or the haul from a bank heist.

“You shouldn’t have all that money in the house,” I told her. She didn’t lock her door in Clare, and I’d had to ask the neighbor to knock before he wandered in with the newspaper at seven every morning.

“Sure, I’ve no more use for it,” Cathleen said. “I like giving it away.”

She handed me a packet of cash, more than I’d held in my life, and changed the subject.

“That book on Courbet you bought me, love. I know you meant well, but I’ve decided I hate Courbet. The Desperate Man and all that — he’s not authentic.”

“Well, you’d be the one to know all right.”

She smiled.

“I’m more authentic with every passing day,” she said, but a shadow crossed her face, and she lay back on the pillows.

The money was cold in my hand. I pushed the padded envelope, with more than fifty thousand remaining, back under her bed. The ten thousand I wrapped in a crumpled plastic grocery bag and stuffed into my purse.

I would take it home to New York, I would do as she asked, and leave her to herself.

I knew her well for twelve years, but it’s hard to say why we became so close. We met in New York when she was working for the same newspaper as my husband. But Cathleen couldn’t give up Ireland, so she moved, in six-month increments, between Manhattan and a cottage in County Clare. She was at best prickly, but I liked that. And she was brilliant, with a mind I couldn’t always follow. There’s nothing more interesting than not being able to imagine where a person is going. I took her capacity to occasionally insult me as a mark of intimacy, which for her it was. She didn’t bother with anyone she didn’t like. I was familiar with the adamant, with taking things straight, for my own mother had been an acerbic woman.

Cathleen saw me through my mother’s death, a year into our knowing each other. But if I’d known how much our friendship would come to resemble that configuration, I might have been less committed. It’s hard enough to lose one mother.

Cathleen wouldn’t stand for a hedge of any kind. I was either sworn to her or not. To choose her friendship was a sort of pledge, and I took it. In just the same way, she was pledged to me. I had known nothing like it.

We spent a summer weekend in the country at a cabin I have, the same weekend I picked up my young daughter from camp. I made dinner and, after we ate, set about clearing the table and washing up.

“Sure,” Cathleen said, gesturing to my ten-year-old. “She’s young and strong. Why not make her do the washing up?”

“She’s hasn’t been home for a month, Cathleen. Let her be.”

My daughter got up and went over to the couch, as far away as the small cabin allowed. She took up her book and held it in front of her face.

“You’ll get nowhere spoiling her,” Cathleen muttered, as if she knew one single thing on the subject, never having had a child. She despised the word “parenting” and had told me so on more than one occasion. To get her started on the tyranny of American children was to settle in for a jeremiad.

That night, my daughter slept with me, Cathleen took the other bed. The following day, I packed the car installing Cathleen in the back seat — feet up, her cat on her lap — ready to be chauffeured back to the city. My daughter had disappeared, and although I hit the horn once, twice, she didn’t appear.

“She’s just selfish,” Cathleen said of my daughter who had given up her bed for my guest.

“She is not.”

“Well, what do you call it then, leaving us waiting?”

“I call it being a child.”

“Well, tell the child that the adult is ready to leave. And if you didn’t know, it’s adults who are supposed to run the world.”

All the way through security at Shannon airport I waited for a tap on the shoulder, a hand at my elbow, a “Please come this way, Miss.” None came. But the wad of ten thousand dollars turned hot inside the bag on my shoulder, and the heat traveled up my armpit until my shirt grew damp. I kept thinking about that story, The Tell-Tale Heart — how when you’re trying to hide a thing, it declares itself. When I found my seat on the plane I fell into it and lodged the bag between my feet. I called Cathleen to tell her I’d made it.

“Of course you did, love,” she said, her voice breathless. “You’re the most competent of individuals. You could run a small nation.”

“Except I’d never have made a good criminal,” I told her.

“No,” she agreed. “You’re far too upright and vivid.”

These were traits I so hoped to possess, that her naming them left me bare. I hung up so she wouldn’t hear my voice gone thick with tears.

Cathleen’s boyfriend cheated on her three months after my husband cheated on me. I’m sure at some stage the cheating was concurrent, but that’s hardly the point. At our annual Christmas lunch, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she told me how she’d handled the discovery.

First, she called her boyfriend’s boss and insisted it was probably illegal, what he had done betraying her with a part-time employee in his office. Only she called her a “temporary woman.” Next, she emailed her boyfriend’s young daughter to tell her that her dad was having a “sexy affair” and that she might not be seeing so much of her as she had been. Then she emailed the woman with whom he had been sleeping – she got the address from her boyfriend’s computer. She told the woman that Cathleen and her boyfriend were as good as married, were registered domestic partners, and that this was the bond that had been transgressed. As if the woman in question cared a fig for Cathleen and her sensibilities. The other woman wrote back proving more than her indifference with a comment along the lines of “he couldn’t keep his hands off me.”

After Cathleen related these three forays into outré conduct, I stood at the Met elevators staring at the blank unopened doors. In part, I was thrilled. I had kicked my erring husband out of the house, but I couldn’t have moved beyond that to incorporate those whom it might peripherally effect to make my case. I was impressed, in an embarrassed sort of way. But when it came to the mistress and the “couldn’t keep his hands off me,” I understood exactly why I hadn’t gone there. Cathleen didn’t just leave herself open to more injury – she invited it.

We were wincing in our respective spaces – she, fiddling with her handbag strap and me, reading every notice posted on the walls around us: The Avant-Garde Is Coming! See Renoir! Enjoy lunch in the café, lower level. Anything but think about hands not being kept off.

“And what did you do after that?” I asked, touching her on the shoulder as it seemed only reasonable to do.

“Well, love,” she said. “After that I went out and had a drink and a good meal. I bought the paper on the way from that newsagent on Broadway.”

“You were all set for an evening out — by yourself?”

“I was glad, if that’s what you mean.” Her chin trembled but her voice was strong. “I was glad I’d made my feelings known. I didn’t just take it, you know?”

I did know. I had taken it, at least compared to her.

We stood staring at the elevator doors waiting for a chance to get in and be lifted up and out of our conversation, out our troubles, whisked away to the calm realm of art. But it didn’t arrive. Lights flickered and we heard the lift carriage pass with a mechanical sigh. We were passed over again, and then again. I pushed and pushed on the elevator button. We were stuck, but together at least, thinking over our predicament.

“But it caught on fire,” Cathleen said.

“What? What caught on fire?”

The Irish Times,” she said. “I was sitting alone at this lovely restaurant, and you know, I’d rather sit with the paper than with just about anything or anybody. I’d got to the opinion page, when the edge caught the little table candle. The next thing the waiter was hitting me with a towel and throwing water and stamping the rest of the paper onto the floor.”

Her expression was one I’d not seen on her face in all the years I knew her — haplessness.

“You set it alight?”

“I did. And everyone was looking …”

I smiled, trying not to laugh.

“You may well smile, love,” she said without enmity. “But that burnt newspaper carried with it the full force of tragedy.”

“I can certainly see why it was the last straw.”

“I had nothing then,” she said. “And I still had to get through the meal, with all the couples arranged about …’

“I do see,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t go on. Now I was ready to weep. This was how it was with Cathleen – comedy and tragedy all at once.

“Ah, well,” she said, in her generous way. “Let’s take the stairs. We could use the exercise. I do have to see Leonardo’s drawings.” She headed for the fire stairs saying, “After all, he’s dead and here we are fully alive …”

In Cathleen’s studio apartment, the Polish cleaning woman fell to her knees when I gave her the money.

“It’s not from me,” I said, trying to pull her up. “It’s from Cathleen. I just bought it back for her because she’s too sick to travel.”

Huge tears ran down the woman’s face. It seemed her tears were red, but it was the crimson of her cheeks made dazzling by the water coursing down them. I’d never seen anything like the raw way she wept and held the money to her bosom. She didn’t stop crying even as she agreed to get up, and she didn’t release my arm after I helped her rise.

“It is a gift from God,” she said, gripping me, her face not more than an inch from mine. “She is God’s angel. She saves my whole family with this money. It is from God.”

Once Cathleen knew she was ill, she wasn’t exactly angelic. She still told me to fuck off when she lost her temper, not that that had ever bothered me. But with her bald head and face swollen from steroids, she did look like a saint or at least a monk.

She took to ducking her head down and looking up into my face with so much trust I’d have to look away; I couldn’t bear the absence of guile, her face peeled of guard. I heard her weeping into the night behind the door of her bedroom in Clare, but she would smile beatifically the next morning. A snatch of music on the radio, fresh chives in the scrambled eggs, the dog favoring her over me — heading straight to her bed to be petted — would bring forth a sublime expression. I saw how literal is the truth that darkness, night, brings despair – but that despair lifts with the coming of another day. I didn’t think witnessing her tiny, fleeting moments of pleasure would be unendurable. After one particularly happy morning I had to get out, and drove to a place called the Rock Shop to buy fossils. Cold and ancient, the stones seemed fitted to my hand. I bought half a dozen of the smaller ones — those I could close within a fist. Fossils, it seems, last forever.

It was impossible to offer comfort; I didn’t try. I made the cottage tidy and clean, and cooked her favorite foods.

“You do a great mash,” she’d say, tucking in.

She was best when I went out and left her alone — briefly happy when I came back, until she grew restless again with fatigue and nausea.

“Can I get anything for you?” I would ask her.

“Ah, now,” she would say. Go on with yourself …”

When Cathleen was in New York – half the year – we met for weekly breakfasts. On that spring morning, instead of breakfast, I took her to the emergency room. She didn’t have a doctor in New York and after she broke up with her boyfriend she’d lost her health insurance. She’d been to exercise class, and was convinced she’d pulled a muscle due to assiduously following the trainer. It was enthusiasm that injured her, she insisted — she was determined to lose weight now that she was once again single.

I waited with her behind a curtain. A young resident questioned her.

“My leg’s not working.”

“When you say, “not working” do you mean you can’t pick up your leg?”

“Of course that’s what I mean,” she told him.

“We’ll need to do a brain scan,” he said, looking at his clipboard.

“But it’s my leg,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. “Why a brain scan?”

“It’s standard,” he said. “Are you her daughter?”

Cathleen huffed. This had happened before and she took the assumption of her age, and our relation, rather hard. I admit it always pleased me. Certainly I didn’t think of her as much older than me, most of the time. But I could have been her daughter – we discussed it once — if she’d had me at twenty.

“I’m her friend,” I told the resident.

“Only family is supposed to be in ER.”

“I’m staying.”

“She’s not leaving.”

He sized the two of us up and left.

We waited. They wheeled Cathleen off for a scan and then brought her back. Three hours passed. I phoned my children to say I’d be late. I no longer had a husband I needed to call.

I’d gone to the bathroom for two minutes and when I came back the same resident had told Cathleen the results of the scan.

“Cancer,” she said, when I sat back on the edge of the gurney.

“You don’t have cancer.”

“They just told me. You weren’t here. Tumors in the brain are making my leg not work.”

I leapt up and went to find the resident.

“What do you mean by telling her she has cancer … how can you know something like that… what are you on about…”

He held up his hand like a crossing guard.

I waited.

“There are tumors in the brain.” He was all business. “She was a smoker. I’ve seen it before. A dragging leg is a sure indication. We’ll have to keep her overnight.”

In the reception area of the ward, on a high floor, we waited for a room to be readied. They took her credit card to make sure she could pay.

We sat in appalled silence.

Cathleen asked me, “When Alice James died, what did she die of?”

“Well, she was neurasthenic – she was bedridden for years without any apparent illness.”

“Yes, love, I know that, but when she did finally die, what was it from?”

“Breast cancer,” I told her. “It was almost as if she was happy then and started keeping her diary. She wrote the whole thing while she was sick.”

“That’s interesting,” Cathleen said. “I won’t be doing any more writing.” I looked at her but she was staring straight ahead. “Do you have the newspaper?”

“I’ll go and get you one.”

She sat up straighter. “I’ll have to get back, you know.”

“I can bring you anything you need.”

“No, love. Ireland. I’ll have to go home now for good.”

“If I’m the best God can do, giving out money, no wonder I never believed in Him,” she said, when I described over the phone the scene in her apartment and her evidently being God’s angel. She was pleased with the effect of the ten thousand, as if the Polish woman’s fresh emotion expressed something for both of us by proxy.

“How does the place look, love? You wanted to stay after she left?”

“I did,” I admitted.

I’d had to recover from the cleaning woman’s gratitude. And I stayed because I’d wanted to pretend that I was waiting for Cathleen to come back from an errand or an appointment. She always hid her key, wrapped in tin foil, under a brick beside the stoop. I could let myself in if I arrived before her, as if Manhattan was a small Irish village and a friend could make tea and wait if they needed. She’d bought the place without having seen it, based on my description. That she loved it was a private triumph. All her things were still about – the cat’s dish, books on the shelves, the silk curtains I knew she was proud of finding. An old press card with her picture lay on the mantle and her expression in the photo was one of astonishment. After surviving her Irish childhood, America often left her astonished.

“And what time is it there, love?”

“About four in the afternoon,” I said, knowing what she would ask me.

“And are you sitting in the brown chair?”

“I am.”

“And is the sun coming in all yellow and warm through the curtains?”

“It is,” I told her.

“And is the tree outside a sort of wavering green with new leaves?”

“It is.”

I listened to her panting breath.

“It’s beautiful in your room,” I said.

“Ah, now,” she said. “Don’t.”

When I arrived in Dublin for the funeral, I got off the airport bus at the wrong stop and walked around St Stephen’s Green looking for a hotel I’d stayed in once before. My feet hurt in impractical heels, working at a blister on my right foot. Now that I was single I seemed to always be buying shoes I couldn’t walk in — sexy shoes that just made everything worse. I’d missed the hotel, after walking the three sides of the Green, so I entered the park to cross it. The wind blew my hair about and although it was warm, I was chilled, then suddenly hot — feverish. Halfway across the Green, I heard Cathleen call to me and turned about with fright, dropping my rolling suitcase on the grass and tripping over it as I tried to set it to right. I fell hard on one knee. I lay flat on the grass then, listening to her voice, uncanny in my ear, as clear and breathy as if she were beside me. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, apart from my name, repeated over and over, just as my mother had done before she died.

At the viewing, Cathleen lay in the casket, a transparent veil of lace over her face. She was covered from the neck down with a shiny fabric, as if tucked in a narrow bed.

How’s that for a metaphor, I thought: it’s not a bed and she’s not sleeping.

Before I knew it a wild sob escaped my throat, and I clapped my hand over my mouth and ran from the room. The last, and only other, dead body I’d seen was my mother’s – likewise veiled and in a casket.

Grief is a great harrowing presentiment, and loving Cathleen had kept me armed against this knowledge, despite my own mother’s death. It was not quite three months since we’d sat in the hospital and she’d asked about Alice James. In that Dublin funeral parlor, I saw that nothing more than a veil separated me from the obdurate example of both women.

They meet in me — my mother and Cathleen. I am daughter to them both and, sooner or later, will follow in their wake.

—Sheridan Hay


Dec 062011

Here’s a lovely, wistful addition to Numéro Cinq‘s amazing collection of Childhood essays. Liz Blood grew up in Oklahoma amongst siblings and dogs. But this essay focuses on the universal passage from innocence to knowledge, the sad realization that idylls of childhood are shadowed by the opaque mysteries of adulthood. You grow up wondering, always, what you didn’t know, didn’t understand, at the time. Liz is a nonfiction student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She teaches English at a school in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea. See her “What it’s like living here” essay published earlier on these pages.




By Liz Blood


A neighborhood black Labrador made puppies with a neighborhood Dalmatian and the litter was up for grabs. My mother piled us—me, eight; Emily, six; Rebecca, four; John, two—into the metallic brown Mercury she drove then and we headed down the street towards the park. I hung my head and arm out the passenger window and, as we rounded the corner to the blonde-brick two-story, I saw him. Nixon—though he didn’t yet have that name—an all black puppy, running nonstop circles around the inside of a small, white wire-fenced pen. If my mother had taken any hints from this rambunctiousness, they were quickly ignored. We squealed in delight at this puppy, and squealed even louder when, after coaxing him onto his back with lots of petting, we discovered of a diamond-shaped tuft of white hair on his chest. This settled it, he was special in our eyes, and we took him home to the backyard.

It’s always been a dog backyard. Before Nixon we had Chevis and Bianca and Goth, but they all were old and soon would need replacing. Nixon was unlike any of those dogs, however. Where they were calm in their old age (the only ages at which I knew them), Nixon continued to act like a puppy long after he no longer looked like one. And I disliked him for this. His tail hurt when it wagged against your leg and it was always wagging. He bounded through the house if we didn’t confine him to the kitchen and, later, he became a chronic fence jumper. I suppose he had neighborhood gallivanting in his blood—after all, that is how he came to be. And even though I wanted to leave the backyard, to go beyond the fence, I couldn’t understand his need to do so. What did Nixon do out there among the wanderers? Did he mingle with the transients who asked for bus money? Did he run with the children on their way home from school? My parents warned if he did it again after so many times, they would not pick him up from the pound. I envisioned doggy gas chambers and wished he would just stay in the yard.

Continue reading »

Dec 052011




 ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats

Chlamydomonas is my favorite “model organism.” It is a small green alga that is one of a handful of unlikely organisms that serve science by acting as proxies for the human body. Scientists don’t pick so-called model organisms for exceptional evolutionary achievement and there is no scientific catwalk of gorgeous creatures. Some scientists do exclaim over the beauty of these creatures, but really. Pond scum? Writhing white round worms? Slime mold? The truth is, model organisms are a haphazard lot that scientists select from the teeming crowds because of quirks that make them useful for laboratory research. They are useful and as we work with them we come to know them.


Thank Evolution

Life on Earth emerged relatively soon (0.7 billion years) after our Solar System formed and it has been evolving ever since (i.e. for 3.8 billion years). Because all of life on Earth shares fundamental biochemical pathways, it is likely that we are all descended from a common ancestor – presumably the most robust of the emergent life forms.  This commonality means that studies of almost any organism can shed light on the others.

In this Tree of Life diagram the centre represents the last common ancestor of all life on earth. Pink are the eukaryotes (plants, animals and fungi); blue are the bacteria and green are the archea. Humans are second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment. The species included in this illustration are those whose genomes have been sequenced. (Courtesy of FD Ciccarelli).


When word gets out that an organism is well suited to a particular type of experiment other scientists interested in related problems begin using this species for their work. Over time, we learn a great deal about the organism and along the way we develop an array of experimental tools to study it. With the application of these tools, the organism expands its repertoire of usefulness to science. In other words, a few assets and a great deal of happenstance get the ball rolling. As our knowledge of an organism and our skill in working with it increase, the organism becomes established as a model.


Microscopic Models

E. coli, the infamous gut microbe variants of which can wreak havoc with human health, grows rapidly and is one of the easiest beasts to study in the lab. It and a few other bacteria serve as models for understanding microbial-based pathogenesis. They also serve as tools for the experimental dissection of fundamental biochemical processes. From these studies we have learned that although bacteria are small, they are surprisingly sophisticated and are by no means simpler versions of us. They branched off early and have taken a different evolutionary path than us. Because of this divergence, E. coli is of limited use as a model organism for understanding how human cells work.


Electron microscopic image of E. coli  courtesy of MediaWiki

We tend to think of ourselves as more highly evolved than, well, everything else. This is a strange idea given that every living thing has an evolutionary history as long as ours. We confuse evolutionary longevity with complexity. While we are no more highly evolved than any other being on Earth, we are arguably the most complex beings in an evolutionary lineage that specializes in complexity, a lineage we call the eukaryotes.

Around two billion years ago, by a process that seems to have involved some early cells engulfing other early cells and them all coming to live in peaceful co-existence, the eukaryotic lineage was born. These larger and considerably more complex cells, containing what have since become nuclei and mitochondria, allowed a blossoming of innovation, including complex multicellularity.

Under conditions of starvation, free living single cells of the slime mold Dictyostelium crawl towards one another. Eventually they aggregate into a slug-like creature that crawls around for a bit. Cells that find themselves in different parts of the slug differentiate into specialized types and together the community of cells (organism?) forms a base, a stalk and a fruiting body to launch spores (towards the end of this clip you can see the base and stalk on the left, the fruiting body filled with hopeful spores is just off screen to the left)..


Fungi, plants, and animals, we are all eukaryotes.  We are certainly different from one another, yet we are related closely enough that our genes are sometimes interchangeable. In a dramatic demonstration of this fact, Paul Nurse and Melanie Lee used a human gene to replace an essential gene in a single-celled fungus, a variety of yeast that is used in Africa to brew beer. [1]

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the budding yeast, is another microscopic fungus, the predominant yeast that we have been using for brewing and baking for something like 10,000 years. Like the fission yeast used by Nurse, the budding yeast grows rapidly and we are adept at manipulating its growth and life cycle in the lab. Yeast is a strikingly good model organism for a growing array of cellular processes, including cell division.

Dividing yeast cells courtsey of the Salmon Lab, University of North Carolina


Yeast has proven itself so useful that hundreds of independent laboratories from around the world use it as a model organism. These scientists have developed sophisticated technologies that allow them to probe deep into the workings of cellular processes such as cell growth and division.

Cell growth and division may look simple, but consider what is being accomplished:  cells grow and divide in just the right balance to maintain cell size within a limited range – too much division with not enough growth produces wee cells and vice versa. Cells must be able to assess their own size and then divide with exquisite precision.  Cell division is not initiated until each strand of DNA is completely copied once and only once. Each daughter cell receives precisely one copy of each chromosome along with a share of mitochondria and other essential organelles. The more we learn about the molecular machines that control and execute these feats, the more stunning it all becomes. The mysteries are deeper with every layer that is pulled back.   And the relevance to humans is unambiguous: cancer is cell division control gone awry.

Dance of the chromosomes: vertebrate cell division

As useful as yeast continues to be, there are some questions for which yeast is of no use at all. We tend to think of evolution as a process of acquiring ever more fancy ways of doing more and doing it better, but often it goes the other way. When conditions change, structures that previously served a purpose may no longer be of any use. Because it costs energy to build structures, individuals with a mutation that prevent the structures from being built can put the saved energy into other things – breeding being an eternal favorite. Such was the case in the deep caves of Mexico where light does not penetrate. After generations in complete darkness, a fish known as the Mexican cave Tetra no longer has eyes.

Like the eyeless Mexican Tetra, yeast is a bit weird in that it is a stripped down little creature. Over evolutionary time, yeast has lost some features, presumably because the cells have adapted to environmental niches where these features are of no use.  Among the attributes that yeast lost are cilia, small hair-like structures that protrude from the surface of the cell.

How do we know that one lineage (e.g. yeast) lost something (cilia) as opposed to the possibility that the thing never developed in that lineage to begin with? We know because cilia appear in all major branches of the eukaryotes and in each case they are fundamentally the same, built from the same complex array of molecules assembled in the same way by the same molecular machinery.  The last common ancestor of plants, animals and fungi was a single-celled organism with cilia.


How I Met Chlamydomonas

Chlamydomonas is a unicellular organism that has some of the attributes that recommend yeast, with the bonus that it has retained its cilia. This microscopic green alga is found worldwide living in soils, ponds and even on snow. All they need is light, water and a few minerals – they grow well in a flask of fertilized water on a windowsill. Specific cellular traits have made Chlamydomonas a valuable model for energy capture (photosynthesis of crop plants, biofuels and artificial leaves), cellular stress responses, mechanisms of evolution, and an array of human genetic diseases. Although I now use Chlamydomonas as a model organism to study the biology of cilia, that is not where my relationship with this cell began.

I first met Chlamydomonas in 1988 when I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation research in genetics and biochemistry at the University of Connecticut. I was part of a team trying to understand how the leaves of the majestic Rain Tree fold up at night (to conserve water) and unfurl in the morning (to capture sunlight).[2]

At night the cells on the inside of each tiny elbow of the leaf shrivel while those on the outside expand, causing the elbow to bend and the leaves to fold. Each morning the process reverses, the elbows straighten and the leaves unfold. We were interested in how these cellular shape changes were controlled by a circadian clock.  Sapling trees kept in the dark for days at a time continue to fold and unfold their leaves in time with the changing light outside.

We were testing the hypothesis that a particular biochemical pathway was involved in coupling the cellular shape changes to the circadian clock. The work involved growing sapling trees in large light-controlled growth chambers, harvesting the tiny elbows and incubating them in small vials of radioactive fertilizer, where they would continue to bend and stretch even while detached from the plant. After the elbows had taken up and incorporated the radioactivity into their cells, we would carefully dissect the inside of the elbow away from the outside of the elbow, freezing each section of tissue on dry ice, grinding with a mortar and pedestal, and then conducting biochemical analysis of the material. It was slow, painstaking work and we were not getting clear answers.

At the time we didn’t even know whether the biochemical pathway of interest was used to regulate activity in cells in the plant lineage. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of model organisms, but as an oceanography student I had worked with single-celled algae.

I soon started growing my first Chlamydomonas cells and it was love at first sight – they are green, they are beautiful and using them for this project was a way of bringing together my long-time fascination with algae and my new interest in biochemistry.


Getting To Know My Organism

Eventually I got the experiments working and determined that the biochemical pathway we were looking for was present in Chlamydomonas. I was getting to know my organism. After learning how to grow it and how to manipulate it for experiments, the next step was to see if our pathway controlled any of the behaviours of this tiny alga.

I surveyed three behaviours: phototaxis, mating and deflagellation. Phototaxis is directed movement in response to light:  Chlamydomonas cells swim towards dim light and away from bright light. Mating is, yes, sex. Chlamydomonas comes in two mating types, plus and minus – male and female, just like us (as it were). Flagella[3] on cells of opposite mating type stick to one another, bringing the cells together for fusion. The third behaviour, deflagellation, is a stress response wherein Chlamydomonas jettisons its flagella, to grow new ones later when the stress has passed.

Phototaxis and mating are both complex behaviours. I didn’t find any evidence that our biochemical pathway was involved in either, but then, I didn’t know the organism well enough to finesse the experiments. Thankfully, deflagellation was simple: shock the cells with a chemical treatment and the flagella would pop off.  I was lucky and discovered that our biochemical pathway kicked into high gear during deflagellation.

Excited by the biochemistry, I detoured into postdoctoral research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where I studied the molecular pathways by which mammalian cells respond to hormones. But I pined for Chlamydomonas. Eventually I established my own lab at Emory University specifically focused on the problem of how and why Chlamydomonas cells deflagellate.



One particular memory stands out from those early years in my own lab when I was getting to know my organism more intimately. It was late in the evening and no one else was around. While waiting for an experiment, I was occupying myself by sitting at the microscope watching Chlamydomonas.

Under the microscope you can see the cell wall for which Chlamydomonas is named. “Chlamys” is Greek for “a shoulder draped cloak.” That night I happened upon a mother cell wall containing the daughters from a recent cell division. I saw the evidence of three divisions in rapid succession: eight Chlamydomonas daughter cells still encased in their mother’s cell wall. Over the next hour and a half I watched as the daughters grew flagella and started waving them about within the confined womb. Eventually, they managed to rip a hole in the wall and one by one I watched the cells emerge and swim away.

The cilia that protrude from almost all of the cells in the human body are essentially the same as those of Chlamydomonas. Some of our cells, such as those lining our respiratory tracts and the ventricles of our brains, are topped with a cluster of motile cilia that serve to move fluids – mucus and cerebral-spinal fluid, respectively. Primarily because of experiments on Chlamydomonas scientists are beginning to understand the molecular machines that generate this beautiful form of motility.

Cilia of mouse brain ependymal cells maintaining flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Movie courtesy of Karl Lechtreck, University of Georgia.

The cells that make up most of our tissues – brain, liver, kidney, muscles, skin – have only one, very small and non-motile, cilium.  Until recently, scientists ignored these relatively pathetic looking little structures with no assigned function, considering them to be vestiges of our evolutionary past. A little over a decade ago, Chlamydomonas researchers seeking to understand how cilia are built made discoveries that have lead to a revolution in our thinking about ‘vestigial’ cilia.

Over the past dozen years we have learned that these tiny immotile cilia serve critical roles as cellular antennae, processing centres for the myriad signals that cells are tuned to detect. Signals from the environment and from other cells dictate differentiation into the various cell types that make up the organs of our body. Similar signals that maintain the physiological functioning of the adult. Both developmental and physiological signals are detected and integrated by cilia. Commensurate with the varied and important signals that cilia process, we are now discovering that defects in cilia cause a long list of diseases ranging from too many fingers and toes to obesity to Polycystic Kidney Disease and retinal degeneration.


Flies and Worms

Research in both Chlamydomonas and yeast depends upon the study of heredity, or genetics, a tool that is available because of research on another model organism, the fruit fly. Thomas Hunt Morgan followed visible traits of Drosophila melanogaster to discover that genes carried on chromosomes are the basis of heredity. [4]

As with other model organisms, Drosophila became ever more useful to scientists the better they came to know it. Experiments in Drosophila revealed master control genes in charge of establishing whether a leg or an eye would develop and fly researchers were among the first to decipher the language used by cells in a multicellular organism to establish their division of labor.  Drosophila continues to be an important model organism for studies of developmental biology. Because Drosophila exhibits complex behaviours that are controlled by a nervous system and can be dissected genetically, it has also become an important model for behavioural neuroscience.

In his acceptance speech for the shared 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Sydney Brenner said, “Without doubt the fourth winner of the Nobel Prize this year is Caenohabditis elegans; it deserves all of the honor but, of course, it will not be able to share the monetary award.”[5] . Selected for the transparency of its embryo and the limited number of cells in the adult worm (fewer than 1,000) C. elegans is a premier organism for studying the how cells distinguish themselves from one another and live or die to serve the development of complex organ systems.

Crawling C. elegans courtesy of Bob Goldstein, University of North Carolina.
These are brief introductions to a few of my favorite model organisms, there are many more. Experiments with model organisms continue to help us understand the molecular interactions that underlie cell growth, division and differentiation, the development and physiology of organisms. Can life be distilled into molecular interactions whose chemical properties we can measure and ultimately predict?


A Feeling For The Organism

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) was a botanist and geneticist who studied corn. McClintock discovered genetic recombination, mobile genetic elements, centromeres, telomeres and genetic regulation decades in advance of our molecular understanding of these things. She was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Recognized with many awards, including the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, this woman of uncontested scientific acumen had something of a spiritual relationship with her organism.

“I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it. I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a real pleasure to know them.”[6]

The mysteries of life remain so numerous and profound that researchers pushing the edges of our understanding are prone to witness strange happenings. Perplexing new observations become new discoveries – after you make sense of them. On the report of some new cellular activity it is not uncommon to hear scientists say, “I saw that too. I just didn’t know what to make of it.” Those with an intimate knowledge of their organism are better equipped to discern important changes and to make the intuitive leaps that turn perplexing observations into new knowledge.

The intuitive knowing that arises from familiarity is entwined with an awareness of kinship, of common origin. We may lose ourselves in pursuit of the specific mysteries of our creature, yet always what we are doing is revealing who we are. From small and specific questions arise big answers.

We grow fond of these quirky distant cousins who at times can be quite disagreeable (ask any cell biology graduate student). And on those rare occasions when our model organisms reveal their secrets and provide us with discoveries, the fondness feels like love.

— Lynne Quarmby

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Lee, M. G. & Nurse, P. Complementation used to clone a human homologue of the fission yeast cell cycle control gene cdc2. Nature 327, 31-35 (1987). For this and other discoveries Nurse shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. The Rain Tree, native from the Yucatan Pennisula to Brazil, and naturalized around the tropical world, is known by many names: Monkey Pod; Mimosa; Saman; Coco, French, or Cow Tamarind.  To scientists it is Samanea saman.
  3. In Chlamydomonas the cilia are called flagella simply because way-back-when scientists did not appreciate that they were the same structure. Bacterial flagella are something entirely different.
  4. This discovery won Morgan the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
  5. Sydney Brenner, Robert Horvitz, and John Sulston shared the prize “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”
  6. From A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, 1983. (p. 198)
Dec 022011


Keith Lee Morris has been compared to Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. He explores the world of bars and racetracks, of working class men on the edge and families struggling to stay afloat. In the dark corners of small-town taverns, his writing unhinges us. It takes us to places that are so familiar yet so startlingly strange in their portrayal, that it’s easy to forget you are actually reading a story and not sitting in the bar and watching it unfold. This is not to say that his work is entirely in the realist tradition. His more experimental work deals with the story in uncanny ways, and pushes back against strict verisimilitude. And his writing blends the best of both styles into a narrative that is at once compelling, sad, funny and utterly honest. To read Morris is to journey into the dark places of existence, to open your heart to sadness, to root for the underdog even when he doesn’t stand a chance. But you feel comfortable taking that journey because Morris is such a certain guide.

We spoke over the phone. Morris was in his office in South Carolina. His answers were sharp and enthusiastic. He spoke of writing, of teaching, of growing up in Idaho. For much of the interview, it felt more like we were sitting in a bar and having this conversation.

Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. He has published two novels, The Greyhound God (University of Nevada Press, 2003) and The Dart League King (Tin House Press, 2008), and two collections of stories, The Best Seats in the House and Other Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2004) and his most recent work, Call it What You Want (Tin House Press, 2010).

–Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell (RJF): The Paris Review once asked William Maxwell this question: Do your best sentences come from the air or as a product of much working and reworking?

Keith Lee Morris (KLM): (Laughs, then answers without much pause.) I’ll say both. Or maybe I’ll say they come from the air more often. When the writing just seems to happen on its own, that’s when I feel I’m at my best.  But maybe it has to do with the fact that if you write enough, over and over, it becomes more automatic.  In that sense, it’s the product of hard work.  I suppose it’s like playing football. Tom Brady has thrown thousands of passes, so that it looks like it’s happening with ease.  But it’s because he’s done it so many times that it looks so easy. When I’m writing well, it’s like being in that zone, where I’m not conscious of what I’m doing. It’s the bad sentences that I go back and rework.  And maybe by working on them over and over that they get better.

I have whole stories that I almost don’t remember writing. I’m inside the scene itself, and the characters are talking and I’m not aware of it, I’m just trying to keep up. And when you’ve done this so many times, it just happens.

RJF: I once read an essay (sadly I can’t remember the title or the author) that said in short stories, a character doesn’t necessarily go through change like the traditional method says. But rather, something happens in the life of the character after which nothing can ever be the same. So even if the character hasn’t come to something like an epiphany, even if the character isn’t yet aware of change, the life of the character is forever affected. Noting can be the same. Do you agree with this?

KLM: Most rules don’t make sense in writing fiction. If someone tells me a rule to follow, it just goads me into trying to break it. So I disagree that a story has to contain a change by which the character is forever changed in order for the story to be effective. The reader has to feel the possibility of change.

Look at The Great Gatsby. One of the arguments goes, Who is the main character? Is it Gatsby? If you buy into the argument of necessary change, then Gatsby can’t be the main character, because he is fixed. He doesn’t change at all. Daisy, Daisy, Daisy—he’s like a broken record. If it was really Gatsby’s story, the novel wouldn’t work. Even after he is shot and killed, the reader has the sense that change was never going to occur. But up until that point, you think it might. So I think that change matters, whether it’s internal or external, and it might not happen in the story, but it exists as a possibility. Part of what makes the novel work, too, of course, is that Nick Carroway does change significantly.

RJF: Much of your writing explores the motif of heterosexual male relationships. Specifically, the friendships between men. I think this is a rare thing to write about. Hemingway did this, of course, but you explore this territory with a more overt emotional compass. What is it about this male dynamic that is so interesting to you?

KLM: That’s interesting. I’ve never been asked that before. I’d say that some of it comes from my own experience. I’ve had the same set of half a dozen male friends since middle school. After I get off the phone, I’m calling one of them. We’ve been friends since I was, I guess, thirteen. His wife was just recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I call him every week to check in. So I guess this comes through in my writing from this sort of personal experience and this strong group of friends. And we all make the trek back home every year, to our small town in Idaho. I have guy friends that are writers, too. Steve Almond, Brock Clarke. So I guess, on reflection, that those kinds of long-term close friendships are important and they make their way into my writing.

RJF: Following up on this topic: What rituals exist for the contemporary male? You write a lot about bars, dart games, dog races, etc. Your male characters have this ‘lovable loser’ quality—they’re always getting drunk and stoned and getting into trouble, but you test them, too. Do you think that men today have lost some sense of the sacred ritual or the passage from boyhood to manhood?

KLM: Like the Hemingway thing, bullfights and war? Hunting, fishing, sports, sexual encounters? Those are the kind of standard coming of age rituals, I suppose. But I think my characters tend not to participate in rituals. Take Luke Rivers (the protagonist in The Greyhound God). When he was young, he went through a lot—the death of family members, a psychological breakdown, being in a mental hospital. So at a time when he would have been experiencing the traditional coming of age rituals, he was experiencing other things. He has this close bond with his wife, and while he goes through the ‘buddy stuff’ in the bars and at the track, his experiences are not typical. Even his friendships are atypical. He’s exploring his identity in the novel.

Typically characters I identify with have difficulty with rituals. They don’t see themselves as going through the traditional rites of passage.

Another example would be the character Deeder in my short story “Ayudame.” He was based on a friend of mine I grew up with, a working class, blue collar guy, but I crosscut him with another friend who had always dreamed of opening a record shop. And I wondered what it would be like for this character who never stopped dreaming of that record shop, who still felt that he should have been born in the 1960s. I guess I think about the different ways to create male characters who don’t go through the typical “coming of age” scenarios.

You called them ‘lovable losers.’ I grew up in northern Idaho. I went to school in the second-lowest funded district in the second lowest-funded state in the country at the time. A lot of those guys I knew didn’t even make it into high school. They just dropped out after eighth grade and disappeared. So I’m writing about people that are familiar to me. I’m actually uncomfortable around writers a lot of the time, you know? Guys with PhD’s and professors. It’s just not where I came from.

And I’ve been lucky. A lot of my friends have embraced my writing. Even if they aren’t readers or if normally they’d be reading books I’d hate, they still read all of my stories and books.

RJF: In your story collection, Call it What you Want, you refer to two types of stories. You have your traditional, realist stories and a type you call “dream stories.” Do these two types of writing inform each other as you go?

KLM: They do inform one another. Even in the ‘dream stories’ you’ll find the same types of characters at the center. And I think, because of my immersion in the dream stories, my realist stories aim at a language that is different. If you look at the end of “Ayudame” you’ll see that. The sentences become long and lyrical. So maybe the dream stories are a way of getting at the more lyrical writing. Something about me wanting to write those types of sentences.

RJF: I’m going to quote you back to yourself here. In The Greyhound God, you write this about fathers: “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night?

KLM: (Laughs) Well, it’s a lofty ambition. I meet a lot of writers who don’t want any meaning at all attributed to their stories. Maybe this is a result of the post-modern era. Authors won’t take ownership of their message. There’s a sense that, as a group, we don’t have that kind of influence anymore. If you take the most    famous writer in America, if Stephen King died tomorrow, they wouldn’t turn out in the streets like they did in Paris when Victor Hugo died. So things have changed.

But I do mean something when I write. I’m trying to get across an idea, even if I’m sometimes not entirely sure what that idea is. I’m exploring, too, while I’m telling a story. I’m certainly looking to find answers for myself when I write, so if I happen to answer some questions for someone else, then great. Part of the process is sharing ideas. Some writers think of a story as art. Like a story is the same thing as a painting. For me, a book is a form of communication. It’s a conversation.

RJF: Someone once asked Graham Swift what the essence of storytelling was. He replied that a story is “the relation of something strange.” He talked about overhearing a guy in a bar tell a story and that guy’s urge to relate the strange. He said he wanted to remember that guy in the bar when he wrote stories, that he wanted to be in that bar, too. Here’s the longer part of his response: “It begins with strangeness, it takes us out of ourselves but back to ourselves. It offers compassion.” Since so many of your stories are bar stories, I’m wondering how you think about Swift’s answer.

KLM: I hadn’t thought about stories that way before. But bars are fascinating. There’s nowhere else where you get people from all different walks of life coming together. And everyone’s there for the same reason, to have a drink and maybe to talk. So a lot of my stories are set in bars because the possibilities between people are so fascinating. But I think, even in the opening stages of a story, familiarity is just as important as strangeness. Think about it, if a total stranger walks up to you and starts talking, you’ll probably go the other way. If someone sits down with a strange story, you need to be interested in the person before you’ll be interested in his story

There has to be something familiar in a story. Until something is familiar in a character, we probably don’t want to hear what they have to say. We don’t want someone’s back-story until we are interested in him. So the element of the familiar matters. The strangeness has to come out of the familiar first for it to matter. I’d say it goes from familiarity to strangeness and then back again.

RJF: Here’s a more personal question. When did you first realize that you were going to be a writer?

KLM: It was later for me. I was in my twenties and I’d dropped out of college. I thought about acting for a while. I acted in some community theater, but I realized I sucked as an actor. I was acting in some locally written plays, and some of them were pretty bad, and I started thinking, damn, I could do as well as that. So I first started by writing plays. And I started reading more fiction, but I was well into my twenties. Back in middle school and high school, my teachers always told me I had talent as a writer, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was much older.

RJF: Was there an important person who influenced you to pursue it more seriously?

KLM: I suppose it was my parents first, who instilled in me the notion that I was responsible to do something, to not just be a bum. And I was well on my way to being a bum for a while.

The usual suspects, of course—my professors and writing teachers at The University of Idaho and UNC-Greensboro. But I can think of some less obvious examples, too. There was a guy in New Orleans who owned a bookstore. It was just a hole-in-the-wall shop, with books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. All these great books, literature, history, philosophy. I’d walk in and ask him what to read and he’d point me to a bunch of books, then I’d go back and tell him what I liked and didn’t like, and he’d suggest more. So I read a lot of good books because of him.

One person for sure had a big influence. I was dating a girl at the University of Idaho and I was writing short stories. I wasn’t in college then, but she took some of the stories to her English professor to read without me knowing it. He asked her to bring me in, to come and see him. He told me I needed to get back in school and get some formal guidance. He didn’t have to do that. I was nobody to him, and he took the time to call me in off the street. Walter Hesford. I’ll always be grateful to him. And as a professor now, it really taught me that you can’t ignore anybody. You never know who’s out there.

RJF: This is a weird question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Are there places you won’t go in your writing? Are there topics, for one reason or another, that you won’t touch?

KLM: I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no,’ right? But I’ll try to answer this.

I’m really reluctant to write about people that will be hurt if they recognized themselves. I’ll radically alter plots and characters to avoid that. So I shy away from material if it’s too close to someone. Other than that, probably not.

I do feel like I’ll write a story then go back and look at it and if I don’t like a character or a situation, I won’t send it out. I don’t always know where a story’s going when I’m writing it, so when it’s finished, I’ll sometimes decide that what comes out is too negative, that there’s absolutely nothing hopeful that the story has to offer, and for that reason I’ll dismiss it. If I can’t see anything in there that I would want to read about, I don’t want to force anyone else to read it.

RJF: My editor here at Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover, was also my advisor in grad school. His nickname was “The Shredder” and he was insistent that his students think deeply in terms of structure. He said a lot of new writers, even in an MFA program, don’t understand structure. So it’s for him that I ask you this: How do you think structure in writing?

KLM: I had a professor like that in grad school, too. Michael Parker. He really focused on structure and the integrity of language, the integrity of the story as a whole. He forced me to recognize things that I hadn’t been thinking about. To this day, I have this little Michael Parker running around in my head, making me pay attention to structure, both at the sentence and the story level.

But to be honest, I couldn’t care less about structure. Yet of course I’m aware of it. When I wrote The Dart League King, I was experimenting a lot with structure. And as a writing teacher, I force my students to pay attention to it. Paying attention to structure is important, but it’s not structure that I’m interested in.. It’s a precursor to or a byproduct of what I write. In itself, it’s not what I’m interested in. Writers write for different reasons, and I think all writers have parts of the process that they submit to grudgingly.

I know a lot of writers who just love writing sentences, and they have to be forced to think in terms of plot. But I want to write stories—I’m interested primarily in narrative and the ideas contained in narrative. You have to consider structure as part of how to create a story, though—and if structure is one of your weaknesses as a writer, it’s your responsibility to shore up the weaknesses in order to get the material out there.

—Richard Farrell & Keith Lee Morris


Richard Farrell is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq where he has published memoir, craft essays and book reviews. He is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” appeared in the most recent Hunger Mountain Menagerie and has been nominated for a Puschcart Prize. He lives in San Diego, CA and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.


Dec 022011

Keith Lee Morris’ short story “Ayudame” is a tale of friendship, failed dreams, and possibly a sliver of salvation. Morris has written two novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, as well as two collections of short stories.  “Ayudame” comes from his collection Call It What You Want, available from Tin House Books. The story originally appeared in Third Coast magazine.  Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. (Read an interview with Keith Lee Morris on Numéro Cinq. )

—Richard Farrell


By Keith Lee Morris


Douglas “Deeder” Mumphrey was wakened from a dream of the record shop in Haight-Ashbury by his ten-year-old daughter, Grace, who was, surprisingly enough, standing by the side of the bed dressed and ready for school. It was Deeder’s turn, not his wife’s, to get Grace ready for her car pool ride, that much seemed sure, based on the fact that Grace stood by his side of the bed, not Theresa’s, and based on her serious and rather tired expression, which said several things to Deeder, such as “Dad’s lazy,” and “Dad’s forgetful,” and “Dad had too many beers last night,” and “I had to make my own breakfast,” all of which were true, more or less, not to say that the various truths contained in the expression didn’t annoy the hell out of Deeder, because they did, because why the hell should a ten-year-old girl be right about so many things when he himself, Deeder, a forty-one-year-old man, was rarely right about anything.

Deeder glanced over at his wife, her hair in the band she wore to keep it out of her face while she slept, soft snores coming from her puffed-out lips, and he was reminded of the argument they’d had the night before and he wondered how she could sometimes look like such a peaceful, easygoing person, and then he whispered “Sorry” to Grace and dragged himself out of bed, still smelling somewhere in the back of his head the incense he burned in his record store, the one he never had, back there in the Summer of Love when he was just born.

In the kitchen he brewed a pot of coffee and ran through a couple of spelling words with Grace to see if she was ready for her test, which she semi-was, not for lack of effort, but Grace wasn’t much of a speller. Rapture, censure, preacher, adventure–three out of four. Her forte was personal grooming–he marveled now at the way she’d managed to pick out the blouse, the pants, the matching socks all by herself, the way she looked so neat, her straight blond hair brushed just so.

There was Mrs. Adkins, pulling into the drive. He waved out the window, hoping she couldn’t see he was in his boxers. He made Grace give him a kiss on the cheek. “You stink, Dad,” she said. He watched her set her pack carefully in the back of the Adkins’ Aerostar, watched her climb in, smoothing her pant legs under her to keep them from wrinkling. Monterey Pop, the family’s black Lab, was lying with his head on his paws over by the sofa, wagging his tail slightly. Deeder poured some more food in his bowl and watched him come over and eat.

Continue reading »

Dec 012011

Chris Milk’s “The Wilderness Downtown” is an interactive play where your home and past are offered and yet remain out of reach. The film requires a few more steps before your viewing pleasure: if you don’t have Google Chrome or Safari as a browser, please download one of them to view this experimental and interactive film. And I would suggest, for this week, reading this commentary as an afterword. Let your experience of the interactive film come before mine.

Two weeks ago Numero Cinq Magazine‘s “At the Movies” presented Milk’s music video for the Gnarls Barkley song “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” But Milk also does experimental work. “The Wilderness Downtown” is an interactive music video Milk made with the band Arcade Fire for their song “We Used to Wait.” To begin you have to enter the address of your childhood home. The video then develops a montage using images of a hooded, faceless man running, a flock of birds, and images it pulls from Google Earth of your childhood home. The resulting film hangs in multiple windows, creating a hybrid montage / collage. Montage usually relies on one image following another and collage implies something static; here we have the collisions of montage happening side by side and the effect, I’d argue, shares the randomness of dream logic, a narrative choice that encourages us to be more associative than strictly interpretive, calling up our own memories rather than seeking to understand the artist’s intention.

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Nov 302011


The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie:

Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction

By John Proctor


I don’t know whether this is an ancient Chinese proverb or a mass-manufactured brainchild of an underpaid copywriter somewhere in Chicago. I do know that it was inside my fortune cookie after I had lunch at Hunan Delight about a year ago, and it changed the way I look at nonfiction. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to gather meaning from mass-produced slips of paper, but isn’t that what books are made of? I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife’s help to operate my MacBook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit. If any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strand, but has its own infinitely variable sequential order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital online media have changed the way we read, and think. One of the ways we talk about this is by making a distinction between “analog reading,” in which a person reads something from beginning to end without stopping, and “digital reading,” in which a reader stops to analyze a piece of writing into interlocked units.  The first reading of anything is usually mostly analog; subsequent readings, if they happen, are usually digital.

Two years ago, I started writing creative nonfiction in earnest. My first and most looming problem was that I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was. I’d spent most of my life writing journals, poetry, criticism, fiction, and some freelance journalism, in that basic order. When I applied to MFA programs, most were in fiction. I’d seen the term “creative nonfiction” in passing, and had mostly thought it an unjust term – if it’s creative, can it be truly called nonfiction? And if it’s nonfiction, where’s the room for creativity on the writer’s part? Nonetheless, I was finding myself drawn more and more to nonfiction – about my own life, but also the world I saw around me. In the movie Sideways, a man tells the main character, a novel writer, “I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.” I found myself agreeing with the nonfiction reader. But I still felt a bit justified in distrusting a genre that is younger than I am – Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of CNF,” says he’s been using the term “creative nonfiction” loosely since the 1970s, and the National Endowment for the Arts made the term official in 1983 in order to justify handing out fellowships for it.

That’s where the fortune cookie comes in. If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. Much like a reader must read something numerous times to piece out the analog parts and then find the digital circuit at work, the nonfiction writer must find the story-units in the world and then fit them into a working digital circuit of the writing.  In telling the myriad stories the world and the self contain, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. For our purposes here I’ll coin the term “digital nonfiction” for this process – if an essay or a memoir or a news story (and, universally, the world) can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily on how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories.

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Nov 292011


Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione[1] by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).

We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.

Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature (36.1. 2011)



Mississauga: Cadence of Desire and Return

A Childhood Geografictione

By Cheryl Cowdy

To Aritha van Herk, for Places Far From Ellesmere,
from which this piece borrows generously,
most obviously in italics.



“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” [2]



Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.

Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your  father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.

The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.

What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.

Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses.  Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.

A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper.  As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.

The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air.  You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.

You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.

You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.

Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj.n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states.  (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. [3]

There has to be a minotaur somewhere.

How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.

Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.

Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.

Four months later, you return.


Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.

You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?

They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:

“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.

Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”

Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.

Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” [4]

In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.

Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom?  If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…

You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.

“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. [4]

Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401.  How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.

In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.

–Cheryl Cowdy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.
  2. Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8
  3. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
  4. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.
  5. Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston:  Little, Brown, 1991.
Nov 282011


Okay, one of the best things about Numéro Cinq is the serendipity of the network reaching out (which is its nature, and it is insatiable). DG’s friend Haijo Westra, a just-retired classics professor at the University of Calgary, wrote an essay about dg’s novel Elle which, some years ago, out of the blue, he sent to dg, and they became friends (and later the essay was published in French and then in an English translation on NC). Manifesting his enthusiasm in all ways, Haijo gave a copy of Elle to an Australian poet named John Watson who was in Calgary while his wife worked on her doctorate. Then John Watson wrote a poem in response to Elle and sent it to dg. Now dg and John Watson are becoming friends, and, as winter sets in around dg, John Watson WILL INSIST on sending him emails such as:

We had a foretaste of summer heat last week. We had driven to the Central Coast hoping to spend the night in a little cabin. Towards dusk the beach was listlessly hot, the cabin stifling with no Southerly change expected. So we drove another 3 hours back home so as to sleep…

And this:

We went today (2 hours) south of Sydney to the beach behind the house where DHLawrence lived in Thirroul for 3 months and wrote Kangaroo. The first day after a week of rain. Full sun with a large pale edge of rain run off before the dark blue water.

But dg did admire that poem—delightfully exuberant, digressive, Menippean (if you will) and droll (see poem below).

The poet, upon request, sent dg a bio to go with the poem. It went like this:

John Watson the author of A First Reader (Five Islands Press, 2003), Montale: A Biographical Anthology (Puncher and Wattmann, 2006), Erasure Traces (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), Views from Mt Brogden & A Dictionary of Minor Poets (Puncher and Wattmann, 2008), River Syllabics, (Picaro Press, 2009) and Four Refrains, (Picaro Press, 2011). He won the Newcastle Poetry Prize (2002) and the Blake Prize for Poetry (2009).

But then John Watson wrote a disclaimer:

The bio too is rather austere. No mention of the influence of voluptuous aunt in early days, nor keen interest in Brigitte Bardot films, pursuit of freakish weather events like waterspouts, St Elmo’s Fire, etc.

This seemed intriguing, so dg asked for another bio, the expanded version. Soon a far more exuberant bio arrived (unfortunately still lacking the “voluptuous aunt” story). Bio and poem together are pleasant and diverting reading.

Since in retrospect actual events seem to fade beside literary ones, a brief biography might be possible in terms of influences. Earliest memory: The Three Bears (the pleasures of uncertainty: “Who’s been sitting in my chair?”) Early adolescence: the stories of H G Wells and particularly the romance of The Door in the Wall. (The notion of idyll, loss and longing “which will persist with Watson for the rest of his life.”) A couple of years later, reading aloud The Windhover, with especial delight in the uncertain function of the word “buckle.” First stirrings of poetry as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Then Lampedusa’s story Lighea with its sexual blaze, Nerval’s Sylvie, Daphnis and Chloe, Beroul’s Tristan, Kleist’s Marquise von O. All of these he will subsequently versify i.e. rewrite in iambics. “The impulse to read more closely by means of versification” derives no doubt in part from Borges’ reviews of non-existent authors. Watson’s Dictionary of Minor Poets (read imaginary poets) (2008 but written 20 years earlier) is also part of that impulse.

Continue reading »

Nov 252011


Peering over the Precipice

A Review of Fall Higher by Dean Young

By A. Anupama


Fall Higher
By Dean Young
Copper Canyon Press
96 pages; $22
ISBN-13: 9781556593116
Trying not to be one to judge a book by its cover, I opened Fall Higher to skim the table of contents and immediately laughed. The title of the first poem in the collection is “Lucifer,” which struck me as the opposite direction I was expecting the collection to take, given its title. This first moment, its instant detonation of my assumptions, was a good preface to the rest of the experience of reading this newest collection by Dean Young.

This particular concoction of poetry manifesto, imaginative integration of tradition, and lyric exploration exposes Young’s passion for the art of poetry and his technical skill in this, his ninth collection. But amazingly and tellingly, just days before the book’s publication, Young underwent heart transplant surgery, which was a triumph for the poet after over ten years with a life-threatening degenerative heart condition. Many of the poems in Fall Higher peer over the precipice of that struggle. In the poem “Winged Purposes,” for example, he describes falling higher as “voices hurtling into outer space, Whitman / out past Neptune, Dickinson retreating / yet getting brighter.”

Young is among the very accomplished in contemporary American poetry: he currently serves as the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, and his collection Elegy on Toy Piano (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has been awarded Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, among other honors. Young was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in 1955, and received his MFA from Indiana University. His poetics are self-described as being influenced by the New York School and the French surrealists, and in this most recent collection the influences come from many other corners of the poetic tradition.

Young’s engagement with the themes, devices, and specific works of the Western canon are rendered as a kind of dispersed ode running through the collection. He plays with rhyme in some poems, sometimes embedding them deep within the lines instead of at the ends.

Since the book begins with Lucifer, evoking the traitors of Dante’s Inferno, my first guess was that betrayal would be a major theme in Young’s lyric. This guess, at least, was right on. The poem “Elemental,” is one of those heartbreakers. Young leans toward the pantoum with characteristic four-line stanzas and a heavy dose of repetition, but within the lines and every which way. So the form is evoked for beauty, but the emotion has its willful way within the poem, refusing to acknowledge the form’s rules of repetition:

Walked into the burning woods and burning
walked into me. One day we’ll wade
into the sea and see. Your coming
won’t summarize your leaving

nor waking sleep, sleep our dreams,
fireflies over wet grass, ice
settling in an abandoned glass. Winter
can’t summarize that summer, your body

in my hands won’t summarized be
by your body far from me.
Already you’re in the air
and my hands are nowhere,

my dreams mostly water.
This end won’t summarize our forever.
Some things can be fixed by fire,
some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.

In the poem “Madrigal” Young uses end-rhymed lines throughout, saying

You feel like something fallen from its shelf,
a yo-yo with a busted string, chipped ceramic elf
because all you can think about is not there,
the eyes not there, not there’s hair.

Here, the poem cops an attitude of disregard for contemporary poetry’s aversion to rhyme. But, at the end of the poem, Young pulls the form away and leaves us the unrhymed fragment “detonating with laughter.”

With the poem “Non-Apologia” Young makes a deliberate gesture of defying the craft of poetry by writing a poem about it. He begins “Maybe poetry is all just artifice, / devices, hoax, blood only there / to rhyme with mud.” He goes on to defend the way that meaning and symbol keep escaping back into words, he defends metaphor and the way that poetry offers delight. He ends by saying “Soon shadows are all that’s left, / that’s why poetry is about death.” He’s broken the secret rule about not saying what poetry is about. He’s broken the standard rule of creative writing instructors: “show, don’t tell.” The arc of contradictoriness instead of conclusions, however, makes the poet’s point by showing the way.

In the poem “The Decoration Committee” from the collection Strike Anywhere, Young has this to say about lyric poetry:

I know of no studies concerning and in how many cases
the lyric poem eases heartache by initiating 1.
the beloved’s return, the door flies open,
the bra unstrapped, the moose dappled
with dew and/or 2. a getting-over-it
happiness at just having written/read the poem
which is about misery in the old way
but also in a new way and then noticing
the pretty barmaid…

Young is tracking something more than relief from heartache in his lyric. The odes in Fall Higher have a lyric sensibility in them, especially “Infinitive Ode,” but Young seems to use these poems to explore the disjunctions in the human experience of time and space. “Irrevocable Ode” presents a litany of images of moments that can’t be repaired or taken back and the resulting experience of regret. The poem concludes lyrically, referring to careless betrayers, “maybe you’ll search and petition / and wander until you’re heard from no more.” “Omen Ode” gives the opposite perspective of everything connected: “Maybe a million strings connect / tomorrow to now.” In “Infinitive Ode” the cleverness of using the infinitive itself as the object of praise is immediately tempered by the dark superimposition of imagery: “To see the pile of skulls Cezanne sketched / as practice for his painting of hovering peaches” and “To see in the pantomime of invalids / the corps de ballet.” Theories break down, and the end of the poem illuminates the inquiry:

To preserve the dream under the tongue
all day, not garbling a word. To wash
with cold water. All the way to the ground
the sky comes, just lying down we’re flying.

In Young’s recent book on the craft of poetry, The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf Press, 2011), he writes, “The poet is like one of those cartoon characters who has stepped off the cliff only to remain suspended. But while the cartoon character’s realization of his irrational predicament brings about its fall, for the poet imagination sustains this reckless position over the abyss; it is what extends the view. As readers, we are charmed by the postponement of our plummeting even as we are made aware of its inevitability.” Fall Higher does exactly this, vastly opening up the view.

–A. Anupama

Nov 242011

John Bolton’s “Breakdown” is both a study in economy – doing much with little — and in the joy of having fun. It features a who’s who of working actors in Vancouver. They all came out to have fun, and for many of them, I’d suggest, make fun of the high stakes melodrama many Vancouver shot TV shows and movies specialize in.

The tagline for the film is “A disaster film disaster.” Perfect. The tropes of the disaster film have basically become self-parodic in films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow: where the world conspires to bring a broken family back together. It’s a tired formula, unwatchable. Bolton and his crew show us how tired the conventions are as they manage to shoot the major plot points and character development all in under fourteen minutes in a casting room.

It’s a beautiful disaster and strangely cathartic if you’ve been harboring low-level anger towards Hollywood disaster films the way I have.

Part of Vancouver, BC’s 2006 Crazy 8 Competition, Bolton and his team along with seven other teams were given eight hundred dollars to produce their short film. This year Crazy 8s enters its thirteenth year of supporting and challenging Vancouver filmmakers to make great short films.

The film stars Christopher Shyer, Amanda Tapping, Carly McKillip, Winston Rekert, Sonya Salomaa, Gary Chalk, William S. Taylor and Michael Coleman as themselves (in a way).

—R. W. Gray

Nov 232011

Hamilton, Bermuda

Mother Tongue

by Jane Downing

Forget the language that you learned in school
of England’s green hills, violets, cold grey sea.
Forget the nightingales, the Grecian urns,
the cataract, the darling buds of May.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.

Words that are sharp as sea eggs underfoot,
that burn with neon fire like fiddlewoods.
Words that are soft as sea rods, and as rough
as wave-washed rocks where no man’s foot has trod.

Forget the language that you learned in school
of gentlemen and ladies’ rosy cheeks.
Speak truth: My lover’s beard is coarse
as winter seaweed, stiff with salt and wind.
He is not fair, his skin’s palmetto berries, red clay soil,
driftwood that’s been drying in the sun.

Take words that whine and howl like winter winds,
that wash the storm surge up against your ear.
Take sweet and piercing words like whistling frogs
singing with you the only one to hear.
The time has come to name your world, your life.
The time has come to learn your mother tongue.[1]

Banyan Tree, Warwick, Bermuda


.“Take sweet and piercing words”

In January, 2009, I attended Ber-Mused, a poetry reading held in celebration of Bermuda’s 400th anniversary, and as part of The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts. It was the first time Bermudian poets had been featured in the annual festival, a coming-of-age party for the island’s literary arts. I’d planned my trip around this reading, which was organized by Nancy Anne Miller, a fellow exiled Bermudian to whom I’d been introduced at a the Vermont College of Fines Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. It was almost exactly thirty-one years since I’d left the island to live in Canada. I’d been back to visit regularly for the first ten years, and more sporadically after that, but lately my homeland had been calling to me, my “tangled and complicated”[2]roots asserting their pull. Bermuda was working her way back into my writing, my thinking, my heart, inspiring me to start an annual writer’s retreat there, a way to reconnect with the island as the woman I’d become since leaving at seventeen.

That January trip was my first attempt at gathering writers from the U.S. and Canada for workshops on the island. Since then the retreat has grown, but that winter, only one writer signed up—my friend Shelly from Colorado. Our arrival coincided with Obama’s inauguration. On the television over the lobby bar at our hotel, we watched the new president and his family arrive at the White House, and felt moved by the significance of the moment and by the elation of the Bermudians working or relaxing in the bar, their eyes like ours fixed on the screen.

The following night after dinner, Shelly and I walked through the balmy streets of Hamilton to the Daylesford Theatre for Ber-Mused. Shelly has never been a fan of poetry readings but we both fell under the spell of the evening’s excitement as eight poets assembled on a darkened stage, a spotlight singling out each one as he or she read. Often, the poets performed one another’s work—Jeremy Frith, who has since passed away, reciting Christopher Astwood’s “Politics Time” in his fiercely Bermudian accent, Ruth Thomas and Ronald Lightbourne giving a humourous, blues-y rendition of Jane Downing’s “The Size Two Blues,” and Alan C. Smith leading us through Kim Dismont Robinson’s poignant “Emancipation Day,” about the lost promise of Bermuda’s youth.

As I listened to the poets’ distinctly Bermudian voices, and watched their faces, which seemed lit from within, a tide of emotions swept through me—an unexpected sense of shared national pride, gratitude for the circumstances that had brought me there that night, joy at witnessing this diverse group of Bermudians read together, and a keen longing for my voice to join in with theirs.

Ber-Mused group. From Bottom Left : Jane Downing, Ruth Thomas, Alan C. Smith, Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Nancy Anne Miller, Kim Dismont Robinson, Jeremy Frith, Chris Astwood. Top: Ronald Lightbourne. Photo by Karen Pollard, Artistic Director of The Bermuda Festival of the Arts.



—for Erin

by Paul Maddern

To understand everything about the swell—
how on a given day the seventh in the cycle
provides the greatest chance to ride to shore
if caught where the rip collides with the surge,
where the wave pries a mouth wide
and prepares to heave its travelled miles—
to understand the moment of submission,
when to dive in and up the crest
in order to avoid a rabid tumble,
to be flung skyward out the other side
falling yards into the trough and humbled—
to understand that we’re aligned
to leave behind horizons to the climbing wall,
hunched and turned three quarters,
believing that the travelling momentum
is such we’ll be absorbed and pulled along,
so someone watching oceans from a towel
might raise herself a little on one elbow
and to her partner whisper, Dolphins.[3]



“Someone watching oceans”

When I was growing up on the island in the sixties and seventies, I didn’t know of any Bermudian writers. The poems, novels and plays we read in school had all been written by dead white British men, and in my final year of high school, one or two living Americans, like Ken Kesey. No one told us about Kesey’s Bermudian contemporary, Brian Burland, who was writing and publishing gritty, honest novels about Bermuda from a self-imposed exile in England and then the U.S, before returning home in the nineties. The conservatism of the small island would have made it impossible for him to write as freely if he’d stayed there.

In “Return to Mangrove,” Kim Dismont Robinson’s insightful introduction to the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, she gives an explanation for Bermudians’ difficulty in writing poetry and fiction about their lives and their homeland:

Like many other small islands dependent upon tourism and international business, Bermuda has often viewed itself from the outside-in. Ever dependent upon the whims of a foreign market, Bermudians have been conditioned to examine our environment in a manner that takes the form of an external measurement. We are far more likely to ask “what might an Other think of this?” than to ask “what do I think of this?” Such a fundamental point of perspective greatly affects how we view the world as well as how, when, and if we choose to express ourselves. Our conservatism has its roots in this behaviour, and might explain why as a nation our authors are far more likely to try their hand at writing historical narrative rather than poetry or prose fiction. [4]

.Kim Dismont Robinson, Photo by Louise Tannock

Another reason for Bermudians’ reluctance to write with a necessary depth of honesty is the size and density of an island where it’s commonly felt that everyone knows everyone else’s business. This social pressure requires a special courage for its writers to overcome. In her review of Bermudian writer, Angela Barry’s short story collection, Endangered Species and Other Stories, Robinson relates Barry’s response to this pressure:

Writing about life on a small island can sometimes be challenging, and Barry says when it came time to publish her stories, she realized locals would, undoubtedly, attempt to draw parallels between her fictional characters and real people. ‘But I can’t take that on. You can’t write anything unless you dip into yourself, but that can have many different forms. It can be your own personal experience, it can be people known to you, things you’ve overheard, things you’ve seen on the television. But as a writer of fiction, you have control over what you do.’[5]

Kendel Hippolyte who edited Volume II of the Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, This Poem-Worthy Place, identifies a third but related barrier to honest writing in “the ways in which Bermuda is an enigma to itself…how a country of 21 square miles (albeit 67,000 persons) can, under an almost quintessentially picture-postcard beauty, hide so much—of itself, from itself.” [6]



Journal Entry

by Alan C. Smith

In my mouth,        a hair,
means that he’s still here.
Spit it out  in my     hand,
place it between     pages
of my journal to    forget,
forgive                   again.

Foregone        outcome:
there’s a split in my lip
in the corner      where
the nail bit,   pink ring
purpling from the grip
of last            evening.


“A split in my lip”

Robinson, who is the island’s Folklife Officer, sees this Bermudian blindness as caused by a habitual reliance on the outsider’s view of the island, but it may also arise from a fear of self-knowledge, a reluctance to engage with the island’s painful colonial history, years of racial injustice and tension inhabiting such a small place, the very closeness of our hurts, whether social, political, familial.

When I left the island to live in Toronto, I was seventeen, pregnant and recently married. My husband was studying engineering at the University of Toronto, where I enrolled part-time. We made our life in Canada because of a lack of jobs in his field in Bermuda, but it also suited me to forget the pain of my island childhood, where my brothers and I had been molested by our uncle, and where we grew up amidst the political turbulence of the sixties and seventies, a time marked by sometimes violent protests, fear, excitement and confusion, a time when most white Bermudians felt things were changing too quickly, and most African Bermudians knew that things were not changing quickly enough.

But even during those decades of political struggle, some Bermudians were writing, and many attending the workshops of the Bermuda Writers Club. Ronald Lightbourne remembers developing his craft with feedback from Dr. Maara Haas, a Canadian writer who led workshops for the group. Lightbourne, inspired by the works of James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, has always identified himself as a writer, attending conferences in Canada and the U.S., publishing his poems in journals at home and abroad. He describes his early years:

I grew up, the son of missionaries, traveling the entire Caribbean, and Belize, and came home to Bermuda finally at the age of 17, to take my A Levels at the Berkeley Institute. Folk tales, the Bible, hymns and pop songs all fed my interest in how words worked with the imagination. I published my first two poems in The Munronian, the literary magazine put out by the students of Jamaica’s Munro College, where I came under the influence of Mervyn Morris. I studied music and Education in London before returning to teach in Bermuda.

Returning to the island where encouragement for writers was scarce, he found community and support in The Bermuda Writers Club. Lightbourne describes some of the activities of the BWC: “They ran an annual writing contest in poetry, playwriting and short fiction. There was always a prize-giving banquet where an imported speaker held forth. It was usually very well subscribed.”[7]


Ronald Lightbourne

Through the years, Lightbourne has continued to be active in the island’s writing community, from his involvement with the Bermuda Writers’ Collective to starting a self-help group for playwrights at the Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society, to taking part in the Flow Sunday Spoken Word sessions, founded in the late nineties by Andra Simons, Suzanne Mayall and Cyril (Beatnik) Rubaine. Kim Dismont Robinson credits Flow Sunday with “provid[ing] a space where Bermudians could freely express themselves for the first time without fear of censorship.”[8]

That Bermudian writers only discovered such a “space” and freedom fewer than fifteen years ago says a lot about the strictures, both spoken and unspoken, that inhabitants of a small, conservative island find themselves living under. How do you summon the courage, or even the words, to say those things your society thinks should remain unspoken? The support of other writers and role models can be an enormous help.

Poets and other artists can now perform their work at Chewstick, a non-profit organization founded in 2003, which has grown quickly, tapping into the oral tradition of the griot, or West African storyteller. Chewstick provides a permanent venue and a supportive audience for Bermudian poets and performers like Tiffany Paynter, Chris Astwood, Stephan Johnstone and many others, both experienced writers and beginners, to take to the stage and encourage each other’s honest and ardent expression. Chewstick has become a cultural force, offering a writers’ retreat, jam sessions, open mics, poetry slam workshops for young people, a sports program and other events, with a view to “empowering” Bermuda’s youth, and bringing together a diverse group of Bermudians to share their stories.

Chris Astwood describes the impact of Chewstick:

Chewstick is much more than an open mic night, and I think it’s safe to say that’s always been the intention of its founders. It’s a registered charity that has supported Bermudian culture in many forms since before it was a registered charity, a truly grassroots organization that exists because its founders and members really believe in Bermuda. I’ve seen it open doors and make links between people, had the chance to share my new and old work in a safe and friendly atmosphere, got to co-lead some weekend youth poetry sessions with Stephan [Johnstone] (big up to ChewSLAM)—it’s done a lot for me, and I’ve put a little time into helping out but not so much as it’s helped me out.



by Nancy Anne Miller

Nothing grows in a straight line here.
Oleander boughs curl, wriggle flowers
like painted pink toes for tourists.

Cacti flail thorny branches over stone walls,
the way octopi renege the nearby presence
of a gad about summer swimmer.

Standard English won’t grow vertical,
in the Stonehenge temple of teeth.
Drops an octave, swoons like sea grass

in a tide. Scatters tongues on the beach
in shells; tell of the in, out of ocean,
tiny scallop shovels which dig deep.

I  turn  brown as the earth below me,
my accent a thick shade, skin peels,
a need to be dressed, undressed by sun.

Nancy Anne Miller, Photo by Lisa Cueman


“The in, out of ocean”

While opportunities for writers have improved on the island, Bermudian poet Dane Swan lives in Canada where he can generate some income from touring the North American Slam and Spoken Word circuits, and applying for government grants. Swan has recently published a poetry collection, Bending the Continuum, with Guernica Press in Toronto. He says, “There are hurdles to being a writer in Bermuda. No distributed publishers, little to no grant system, little payment for readings.” All the same, Swan believes that “Bermuda’s mere existence is inspiring. The island is filled with great literary inspirations.”

In an interview with the Royal Gazette, Swan confesses that he was in the remedial group in high school English, and didn’t find his voice as a poet until he encountered slam poetry at a festival in Ottawa, Canada, where he was attending Carleton University, and heard Anthony Bansfield and Oni the Haitian Sensation perform their work.[9]

Now he says, “I would love to… be a part of changing the English curriculum in Bermuda’s schools. I truly believe that introducing kids to writers who are like them at a young age, can inspire them to strive for greatness instead of merely passing school.” Swan who was recently accepted into the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts hopes for a future of literary successes for himself and the island.

.Dane Swan, Photo by Michelle Darby

Opportunities may be limited, but some poets who have stayed in Bermuda are making the most of them. Alan C. Smith, who is also an artist and performer, whose visual art forms part of the Bermuda National Gallery’s permanent collection, describes his busy creative life on the island:

Even though I and some of my contemporaries have often felt like step-children on the artistic scene in Bermuda I feel very fortunate to have been able to write and develop as an artist here. Cultural Affairs and the Bermuda Arts Council have been instrumental in providing opportunities and funds for me to grow and develop. I have had encouragement from other artists and institutions on the island and have been able to collaborate with artists in other genres, from dance to music to visual art. I have been invited by schools to facilitate workshops with students of varying ages and to judge poetry competitions. I have been commissioned by institutions and organizations to write and perform work about themes as diverse as drunk driving, African Art and domestic abuse and rape.

Smith also attends workshops sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and led by Caribbean poets and writers, such as Mervyn Morris, Kendel Hippolyte, Olive Senior and Lynn Joseph. In addition, Smith, Lightbourne and some of the other Ber-Mused poets, with the help of Head Librarian, Joanne Brangman, started a group that meets at the Bermuda Library. A workshop there, led by Nancy Anne Miller, also contributed to the group’s genesis. Smith says, “This has been a great opportunity to share work and critiques and create a sense of community.”

In 2005, Smith was one of the poets featured in a special section on Bermudian writing in The Caribbean Writer. In her introduction to the section, Kim Dismont Robinson discusses the idea of Bermudian identity—what the island shares with the Caribbean and how its isolated location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean makes it different. In her poem, “Another Island,” she “imagine[s] other islands I cannot see/islands just beyond our cold and limiting horizon.”[10] From within this island solitude, each poet and prose writer brings his or her own Bermudian experience to the works here—from Jane Downing’s powerful villanelle about the indelible “taint” of white “privilege,” to Alan Smith’s conflicted feelings for a harsh, unloving grandmother, to Angela Barry’s journeys into the dark heart of the slave trade, the beautiful, endangered heartland of Guyana and the troubled heart of an African Bermudian mother worried by her young son’s fearless assumption of his own power and freedom in a world of white “entitlement.” The other writers featured are Chris Astwood, Margaret Anne Hern, Lisa Howie, Ronald Lightbourne, Llewella Rewan-Dowling, Andra Simons and Saskia Wolsak.


Alan Smith, Photo from This Poem-Worthy Place


Time Travelers

by Dane Swan

Who are the loneliest people in the world?
My guess: Time travelers.
When love fails it’s off to the machine—
time to rewrite affairs;
avoid heartache.

The time traveler never truly
invests in love.
He thinks he can figure her out this time.
She believes she can make him feel this time.

Physical touch is a question mark
the time traveler wrestles with.
If the moment is true,
were other moments false?
When physics and metaphysics collide.

The loneliest people in the world
manipulate history,
question imagination,
wandering aimlessly
as forgotten images of the past.


“If the moment is true”

Nick Hutchings, who, like Smith, Lightbourne and Jane Downing, attends the monthly meetings of the Bermuda Library Poets (BLiP), came to poetry later in life as a way to express thoughts and feelings about his island community. Hutchings says:

I was educated in Bermuda and Canada but despite the best efforts of my many teachers to prepare me for a life inside I became a commercial diver instead and am now the president of a deep-sea exploration company. I love to explore and am equally happy doing so in the deep ocean or the intriguing social phycology of my community, using aquatic robots for the former and poetry for the latter. Bermuda, being an isolated Seamount with a fascinating natural and social history, is a great place for both. An aquatic robot can be an impressive tool as can a literary construct. For example, a childlike rhyme can be used like a key to gently unlock a door long closed in someone’s mind.


Nick Hutchings holding what he describes as, “a piece of rare deep-sea lava called carbonatite from 2400 ft. below the surface of the ocean. Attached to it are the shells of little known deep-sea critters.” Photo by Thad Murdoch

Hutchings’ poem, “One Fine Afternoon,” uses the familiar childhood rhythm and rhyme of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to confront an outsider’s view of Bermuda, eager to set “the facts” straight. This poem is assertively Bermudian featuring characters whose names a non-Bermudian would most likely not recognize, and giving a wink to the insiders who are its ideal readers.

 One Fine Afternoon

by Nick Hutchings

One fine afternoon in St. George’s town
Astwood and Daniels were walking around
Chief Justice’s brother and best footballer anyone knew
Stopped near some tourists enjoying the view
When out on the water and easy to spot
Came the clean lines of an elegant yacht
Her topsides shined and buffed so bright
Turquoise water reflected in light
As the visitor looked he said to his wife
“Man, these people have got the life
And that someone would make such a generous loan
To let his staff take the yacht on their own”
Astwood looked at Daniels who was shaking his head
Then with a smile to the tourist he said
“That is the owner and his family out to relax”
“One shouldn’t prejudge without knowing the facts”
Said Daniels as the two friends turned to go
They thought it would be good for the tourist to know


“Turquoise water reflected in light”

As Bermudians explore what Jane Downing calls their “mother tongue,” they seek to write themselves and their island into being on the page or stage. In her review of Angela Barry’s story collection, Robinson quotes Barry describing her high school education in 1950’s Bermuda, “‘In our history classes…we were not given any structure to look at the world in which we currently were living. Similarly, in our studies in literature, we examined some wonderful writers, but there was never any suggestion that they were writing about us.’”[11]That the situation hadn’t changed much when I was in high school in the seventies, or when Dane Swan attended Warwick Academy in the nineties means that a few generations of Bermudians are hungry to see their lives reflected in a literature of their own.

Jane Downing, who is Registrar at the National Museum of Bermuda, says:

I find it extremely exciting to be writing at a time when poetry writing and performance in Bermuda is flourishing, and is firmly anchored in our sense of place. I have been a voracious reader of poetry from childhood but very little I read evoked my own environment (except perhaps the odd piece by Claude McKay). It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Walcott’s In a Green Night: Poems 1948-60 and Kenneth Ramchand and Cecil Gray‘s West Indian Poetry in the Bermuda Bookstore that I found poems which hit closer to home. Today there is a body of published work which Bermudians can relate to, which reflects our environment and all the different personal experiences and facets of Bermuda life. I see the flourishing poetry scene as part of a more general public expression and exploration of Bermudian identity, a complement to similar growth in scholarly work and art.

But does a poem or story have to be set on the island, or in a similar environment, to be Bermudian. Paul Maddern, a Bermudian who currently lives in Northern Ireland, where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, argues that:

there’s a school of thought that poetry isn’t about ideas or place; instead its primary concern is language. It’s a school I subscribe to. Interrogating the sounds and rhythms of language is why poets are poets. Ultimately, Bermuda influences my writing not because I necessarily want to write about particular places, flowers, animals or people, but because I was born and raised there; it was where I was formed, and therefore where my own personal language was formed. So, wherever I am in the world, that influence will always be with me. Thankfully, it’s inescapable.

Nancy Anne Miller, who writes about the island from her home in Connecticut, describes a similar experience as a poet and Bermudian:

My way of looking at the world, beholding it and processing it was formed by an exotic island environment. The use of image metaphor in my work is a direct result of taking in a multi-layered world with many cross references, both in the semi-tropical landscape as well as in the culture which was enriched by multi-ethnical references. Hence, there is no separation between my being a poet and being Bermudian as the island has effected how I behold the world, and how I use the tools of metaphor and of simile to write about it.


A Photographer’s Affinity For Bermuda

–for Eric

by Wendy Fulton Steginsky

He knows the difference between the snowy
-white within a longtail’s open wing as it glides
off South Shore in mid-March and the bleached

whiteness of a sea urchin abandoned to the August
sun. He captures the exact silver of a grunt’s under
-belly as it cuts through sea foam, turns it

turquoise-green, the color of esperanza.
In the flannel-gray shadows of banyan
trees he notices roots that ache for soil.

At Spittal Pond he singles out natal plum’s
trodden flowers, restores them to their milky
-white dignity. He translates the strength

of casuarina trees into knotty brown lines.
In early morning he defers to a frangipani’s
rosy aloofness that spews from every petal;

when whistling frogs trill from buttonwood bushes
that bend and dip he uncovers wind’s pebble-
soft voice as it cooees over Mullet Bay—

between breaths he hears it plead, Come home . . .
. . . Come home.


Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Photo by Emily Steginsky


“Roots that ache for soil”

When asked how living abroad affects what and how he writes, Dane Swan says, “The scope of what I can be inspired by is wider. Not only can I write about my experiences in Bermuda, but also, the world beyond. I feel unlimited in scope.”

Poets writing about the island from abroad have obvious advantages and disadvantages. We benefit from our dual role as outsider and insider to gain a “wider” view of the island, which we can write about from a safe distance with less anxiety about Bermudian responses to our work. But our experience of contemporary island life is limited, and exile can unsettle our sense of a Bermudian identity, and make us prone to nostalgia. Wendy Fulton Steginsky, who lives in Pennsylvania, discusses the challenge of nostalgia:

I struggle with presenting what may seem like a romantic or idealized view of my childhood. Maintaining a balanced perspective as I look back can be a challenge and I often fight the tendency to portray Bermuda as an idyllic place. As in most situations, I’m attracted to the unaltered, unchanging aspects and I tend to focus on those in regards to Bermuda. So my poems reflect the profusion of natural beauty that abounds on the island not, hopefully, in a naïve way but in an authentic way as a frame for my voice and mind.

Steginsky, who tries to visit whenever she can, describes her feelings for the island:

Even though I’ve lived away for many years (34 years in the U.S.) I still consider Bermuda my home, the place where my roots first took hold. It’s the place where I lost my first tooth, learned to ride a bike, kissed my first boyfriend, smoked my first cigarette; it’s also the place where I ate supper picnics on our family’s boat, anchored in expansive turquoise waters off an uninhabited island topped by a crumbling limestone castle, where I experienced the terrifying wrath of several roiling hurricanes, the thrill of our Poinciana tree when it burst into flames, where whistling frogs lulled me to sleep.

For Steginsky, writing poetry about her homeland is a way to reconnect with her younger self and to come to terms with the loss inherent in exile. She describes her memories as a living entity that requires attention and understanding:

My poems grant my memories air and breath so they can live when I can’t be physically present in Bermuda. My poems come from a deep place inside me, often expressing great longing and loss. Most recently I needed to sell my family home in Bermuda, the only house I’d lived in growing up on the island. It was a heart-wrenching experience—I felt as if my roots were being severed and the ground beneath me slipping away.

Poetry came to my rescue, providing the container for all my complicated feelings and allowing me to share what mattered most, revealing my interior self in a very intimate way.




by Ronald Lightbourne

Salt that had so flavoured my life is done,
unseasoned seasonings cancelling my fête.
That sumptuous full variety is gone
which of your bounteous bounty once I ate.
I gnaw on loneliness as on a bone
a dog gnaws when there’s nothing on his plate,
and hide, disguised, as one hides in alone,
nothing, if not the soul of desolate.

Blessed desolation that it comes from you!
Something I have, at least, that’s from your heart
to keep between me and this view
of nothing, all around, on every part.

And yet one word from you could ease this pain
and bring me to your banquet hall again.[12]


“Your bounteous bounty”

If distance can sometimes make us prone to nostalgia, it can also give us the perspective and freedom needed to write honestly, the space necessary to explore both our roots and our branches. Many writers have to leave their homeland in order to write about it. Paul Maddern comments on his need for distance when writing about Bermuda:

I believe it was the Jamaican writer, Lorna Goodison, who said she can only write about her homeland when she is away from the island. My experience is the same, but unlike Ms. Goodison—who I believe splits her time between Jamaica and America—I’ve now lived away from my homeland for longer than I ever lived there.


Paul Maddern

Maddern describes visits to Bermuda as full and charged with meaning. He “revisit[s] the landscapes of …[his] childhood,” takes lots of photos, notices “what landmarks remain; what changes are being wrought.” He says:

If I’m there at the right time, I spend a day or two watching longtails darting off Ferry Reach. I ride my moped along the island’s main arteries and make detours down the roads and lanes that are particularly special to me. I take the ferry around the Great Sound and along the North Shore to view my homeland from the sea, and I swim in that sea at any opportunity.

The sea provides not only a metaphor for Bermudian poets, but also a chance for actual immersion in the waters of memory, both for those remaining on the island and for those returning to visit. Maddern can only write when he is back in Ireland and has had time to assimilate everything he “soaked up” in Bermuda. He says, “Each trip …involves an overload of memories and sensory experiences. But in terms of producing writing drawn from those experiences, it’s all too much to process at the time.”

Nancy Anne Miller agrees:

I find that writing from afar most often creates an aesthetic distance which gives me time to process imagery, and to refine it into what is essential for the poem to resonate, be alive. I believe taking on a country as my subject has matured my work, as I try to embrace the scope of such, as entwined and morphed through memory. Poems can take on the anthropological task of a dig (to echo Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”) to recover a place and to re-member it through the map of words.


The World of Water

by Chris Astwood

If a marlin at the weigh-in
breaks a record, it’s hats off
to both fisherman and catch –
the latter for a life of luck
the former for a snatch of fortune;
All the photographs, sun rash,
and rounds on the house, can’t add up

to that invisible transaction
between catch and fisherman:
we celebrate their exchange
of providence, the transfer
between our world and the world of water.
But one must drown the other,
and let us never forget:

No matter how many lines we cast
that pull fish into their last gasps,
no matter how good our luck
with chum and bait and hook and gaff,
their ocean’s rising always,
climbs slow up the coastal rocks
to reclaim the bones.


“That invisible transaction”

If this “re-membering” is the work of the exiled writer, for those who stay in their homeland the challenges are different—to build and take part in community while maintaining a sense of a separate, independently thinking self, one who can give “a response formulated from the inside-out,”[13]an ability to see with the eyes of the insider/outsider without leaving home. Nadine Gordimer calls this “the tension between standing apart and being fully involved… that… makes a writer.”[14]

Alan Smith writes in solitude but pursues performance opportunities to share his work with others. He describes the liberating effect that Chewstick and other regular open mic sessions have had on his own process and on the arts in general:

For me writing is a necessarily lonely endeavour. I began writing quite a few years before Flow Sunday’s, the original open mic event that was followed by Nenu Letu and the most enduring of the three, Chewstick. In order to get my work out there I began to create performance opportunities around my work, theatrical presentations that became increasingly cohesive and narrative. That proved to be rewarding but expensive. I was elated when Flow kicked off and there was a free arena to bring one’s work to the public. Flow initiated an exciting movement; the desire for less inhibited self-expression stoked. The visual artists followed suit, and bolder, less traditional art began to show up in art exhibitions. A small group of serious poets began to emerge.

The night of Ber-Mused, a stage that had been dark and empty lit up to reveal “a small group of serious poets” ready to celebrate what they, and other Bermudian poets and writers such as Andra Simons, Veejay Steede and Laurel Monkman, had accomplished thus far. Now, whether from within the closeness of the island community or from the distance of exile, Bermudian writers have begun to embrace their role as artists—“to reveal a society to itself”[15]and to “reply… honestly: ‘This is what I think of this.’”[16]



Event Horizon

by Kim Dismont Robinson

Even when the ground seems steady, there is always a farewell in movement

I know this because I know the landscape of my island
And I have never been its cedar forest
My rootedness tangles the soil here differently,
In a way that ties but does not lash me to my home

Because I am here, I know the shifts and changes
Familiar and comforting are the days when sky is milky like the sea
And a dark curtain of distant falling rain
Blankets, curtaining the west,
Carving this slender landscape into ever thinner strips
It is stunning to see horizon from this shore

I was here, for a time
And when first I said goodbye I could not imagine a return
The curve of Dockyard fixed in place like some strange event horizon
Holding me at bay, with all the fury of history
Beating at my back
Refusing to shift the soil that was choking out the root

The days I felt the sea raging in my blood
Showed me I was not to be the glassy pool
Softly reflecting blurry pastel cottages
The elements I could not help but evoke
Drawn dormant from the heart of this island
Whipped into memory
Our volcanic origins, all but forgotten,
Rising again resplendent from the sea

Yes, it is dazzling to see horizon
Especially during a storm
To fill a gateway with imaginings
To speak and dream and act from a place so fixed
That, in standing,
All that now remains
Is to step on through


 —Kim Aubrey


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. From This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 43.
  2. Kim Dismont Robinson, “Return to Mangrove,” Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, ed. Mervyn Morris (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2006) 7.
  3. From The Beachcomber’s Report (Bakewell, England: Templar Poetry, 2010) 12, first published in Incertus, (Belfast: Netherlea Press, 2007).
  4. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 5.
  5. Kim Dismont Robinson, “The Atlantic Adventure,” Online review of Endangered Species and Other Stories, by Angela Barry, Peepal Tree Press website, first published in The Bermudian.
  6. Kendel Hippolyte, preface, This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II (Hamilton, Bermuda: Government of Bermuda, 2011) 4.
  7. That the speakers were “imported” is revealing, pointing to Bermudians’ reliance on imports—from essential shipments of food and goods to foreign expertise, which is often valued more highly than Bermudian know-how.
  8. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 5.
  9. Jessie Moniz, “Once in the remedial English group, Dane Swan is now a writer,” Royal Gazette August 3, 2011 <>
  10. Kim Dismont Robinson, “Another Island,” The Caribbean Writer 19 (2005): 156.
  11. Robinson, “The Atlantic Adventure.”
  12. From This Poem-Worthy Place: Bermuda Anthology of Poetry Volume II, 56.
  13. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 9.
  14. Nadine Gordimer, Introduction, Selected Stories (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) 4, qtd. in Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) 29.
  15. Hippolyte 4.
  16. Robinson, “Return to Mangrove” 9.
Nov 222011

1986 addition and renovation of the Market SquareMarket Square, 1986

This is the story of one city, but it’s every city. Struggling with the urban sprawl, de-industrialization, automobile culture, malls, and suburbs, cities all over North America have been fighting for decades against flight from the centre – often finding themselves astonished victims of the Law of Unintended Results. Nathan Storring does an amazing job in this essay of exemplifying the general trend with a particular case, in this instance, the redevelopment, destruction and rebirth of the downtown core in Kitchener, Ontario. He writes: “To me Kitchener’s history is the quintessential parable about the cost that these midsize cities paid to take part in Modernity because we tore down our bloody City Hall. We didn’t have a physical City Hall for 20 years, just a floor in a nondescript, inaccessible office building! It was the ultimate sacrifice in the name of ‘rationality’ – a complete disavowal of any historic or emotional connection to the city.” The beauty of this piece is Storring’s attention to the details – civic debate, architects, planners, theorists, trends, fads. An era comes clear. After reading this, you’ll walk around your town and see it in a different way.

Nathan Storring is a writer, artist, designer, and curator based in Toronto. A graduate of the Ontario College  of Art and Design University’s Criticism and Curatorial Practices program, he is compiling a graphic novel depicting conversations that friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances had with renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs. He is also the assistant curator of the Urbanspace Gallery in Toronto, a media intern with the Centre for City Ecology, graphic designer and webmaster for NUMUS Concerts Inc., and he has been performing archival research for the autobiography of Eberhard Zeidler, architect of the Toronto Eaton’s Centre (among many other things).



Man Dines Alone in the Market Square A man dines alone near closed stalls in the food court of the Market Square.



A ruin lies at the heart of Kitchener, Ontario. As one looks East down King Street from anywhere in the downtown core, one will see its gleaming green edifice, its almost-Victorian clock tower protruding above many of the buildings, one of its spindly glass pedestrian bridges stretched over the road like the arm of a yawning lover at a movie. Kitchener’s inhabitants call this shabby emerald city the Market Square – a name it inherited long ago, whose meaning it slowly devoured. The Market Square block bordered by Frederick, King, Scott and Duke Streets once held Kitchener’s Neoclassical City Hall and Farmers’ Market building, but in 1974 both were demolished and the Market Square Shopping Centre was built in their place as part of an effort to revitalize the ailing downtown. The City Hall offices moved into a high-rise office building across the street that was erected as part of the shopping centre development, and the Farmers’ Market was granted a portion of the shopping centre itself, with the primary produce section occupying the parking garage. Today, most of the building has been converted into offices. The City Hall and the Farmers’ Market both have new homes. Only a meagre offering of shops remain, and what is left of the retail area is riddled with dead ends and empty storefronts.

Market Square as seen from King StreetA view down King Street in downtown Kitchener. The green glass clock tower of the Market Square Shopping Centre presides over the cityscape.

For many, this ruin is emblematic of the loss of heritage and identity Kitchener endured during the numerous postwar redevelopment schemes that beset its downtown. But could it not be an emblem of another kind? To invoke the architect Augustus Pugin, who erroneously identified Gothic ruins as evidence of a medieval Christian utopia,[1] could the Market Square be interpreted as evidence of a modernist, post-industrial dream that preceded us?

Throughout its history, Kitchener has often imagined big plans for its urban development, but since the 1960s most of these grand plans for downtown Kitchener only ever found form in the Market Square Shopping Centre. Market Square is the most complete and concrete repository of Kitchener’s attempts at re-imagining itself in the postwar period. It is a chimera of styles and ideas – the symbolic and aesthetic laboratory in which architects and city planners forged alternative visions of this city. This thesis is a case study examining the methods by which the city of Kitchener, Ontario attempted to reinvent itself through the Market Square, and what these attempts have left in their wake.


Redevelopment: Trojan Horse Modernism in the Market Square


John Lingwood, Market Square development, 1974, Kitchener, Ontario. High-rise building that held the City offices on left side of the street, shopping centre and Farmers’ Market complex on the right side.

The Market Square acted as a flagship for Kitchener’s postwar project to recreate itself as a modern city. Fundamental shifts in the fields of architecture, city planning and economics dictated the shopping centre’s design, and its prominent place in the downtown displayed the importance of these new ways of thinking to the entire city. Its most significant contribution to Kitchener’s modernization, however, was its role as a skeuomorph. Rather than laying bare the magnitude of these shifts, the final design drew on the tradition of the region to recontextualize these shifts as part of a natural, inevitable progression.


Ontario Court of Justice, KitchenerJohn Lingwood, Ontario Court of Justice, 1977, Kitchener, Ontario.

The building’s near absence of ornament, its unusual rounded corners, and the choice of concrete as a primary building material in early designs reflected a shift in architectural tastes away from traditional forms. The building’s architect John Lingwood was recognized for his modernist buildings throughout Waterloo Region, including the Ontario Court of Justice (1977), Laurel Vocational School (1968),[2] and the Toronto-Dominion Bank at the corner of King and Francis Streets. Early sketches of the Market Square by the developers, the Oxlea Corporation, depicted the building with a more modern aesthetic than the final product, using cement as the primary building material.[3] One can imagine how Lingwood may have actualized these sketches by observing his work on the brutalist Ontario Court of Justice. Like many other architects in Ontario, Lingwood took advantage of the new materiality and formal freedom offered by concrete.[4] The building consists of several ribbed, precast concrete levels stacked into an imposing facade. Portions of the building are set closer to the street and others set further back like an imperfectly stacked column of building blocks. Such a novel use of concrete in a shopping centre would have had precedent at the time in Toronto’s celebrated Yorkdale Shopping Centre (1964) by John B. Parkin Associates. Regardless, in the final built product, Market Square was built in red brick rather than concrete, though it did retain Lingwood’s characteristic inclination toward austere geometric forms over traditional building types and ornamentation.

To observe many of the modern aspects of the Market Square, however, one must abandon the vision of it as a building entirely and instead consider the shopping centre as a phenomenon of modern city planning. In 1962, then planning director W. E. Thomson declared that Kitchener would have to take drastic and immediate action to ensure the downtown’s continued economic, social and cultural dominance in the region in the coming century. The following year, the Kitchener Urban Renewal Committee (KURC) was formed, and in 1965, after an extensive (though overly optimistic) economic study, they published The Plan… Downtown Kitchener – a document which proposed the near complete reconstruction of Kitchener’s downtown core into a rational, humanist utopia. The conclusions that KURC drew strongly resembled the projects of the Austrian-American architect and planner Victor Gruen, well-known for pioneering the first enclosed regional shopping centre in the United States as well as for his downtown revitalization projects.[5] Like Gruen, KURC recognized that because the city’s suburbs were built since the automobile’s rise to ubiquity, their topology catered to the new needs that this ubiquity presented, such as increased street traffic and parking. Meanwhile, an older downtown, whose design had been set in stone long before this shift, had to find ways to adapt. The Plan proposed that in order for downtown Kitchener to retain its significance in the region, a high-traffic ring road needed to be built around Kitchener’s downtown core, and the core itself needed to become a park-like pedestrian mall with a strict focus on retail activity.[6]

The Market Square Shopping Centre fit within these general goals of the new Gruenized downtown by offering a safe and beautified retail environment that segregated pedestrians from automobiles. The design of the building also embodied many specific city planning propositions put forth in The Plan. Firstly, its enclosed street-like structure alleviated anxieties about inclement winter weather affecting downtown activity.[7] Secondly, it combined multiple uses – retail, offices, the Farmers’ Market and the City Hall – in one development, providing an ‘anchor’ for the central business district.[8] Thirdly, it offered a second floor plaza on top of its first floor roof, overlooking the planned central pedestrian mall on King Street.[9] Finally, it provided new sanitary facilities for the Farmers’ Market and connected the market to King Street.[10] In this way, the initial concept of the Market Square can be seen as an extension of the infrastructure of the street, addressing the concerns of Gruen-esque modern city planning, rather than as a building. Gruen devised similar structures in his own downtown renewal schemes. In his plan for downtown Fort Worth, Texas (1956), for instance, Gruen designed a second floor, outdoor pedestrian area – a “podium” or “artificial ground level” as he calls it – upon which the rest of the central business district was to be built.[11] Gruen intended for his podium to provide people with a place of respite from the noise, smell and danger of automobiles, but unlike suburban solutions to this problem, Gruen’s approach refused to relinquish the density and liveliness of the city. The first Market Square development mimicked this intention on a smaller scale, creating a second floor oasis for pedestrians.

The placement of a shopping centre in such a prominent place in the downtown also foreshadowed a broad shift in North American economic thinking – the transition from a social market to a free market economy.[12] The architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter defines the social market as a society wherein economic activities are embedded in all social activities and directed by cultural organizations that occupy a specific time and place in the world.[13] During the first half of the century, Kitchener followed this economic/cultural model. Its downtown was the region’s centre of economic and cultural life, and there the economy and culture of the area were deeply interwoven. Before the construction of the shopping centre, the Market Square block epitomized this symbiosis of economy and culture. Containing both the City Hall and the Farmers’ Market, it was both a meeting place for political and cultural events as well as a place for the exchange of goods and capital – essentially a descendant of the Greek “agora.” However, by the time The Plan… Downtown Kitchener was published in 1965, the city had recognized that this model was no longer viable in the same way it once was and that something must be done. The new shopping centre that replaced the City Hall and old Farmers’ Market building seemed, at the time, to be a logical solution to this demand for “economic modernization,” or less euphemistically, the emerging demand for a neoliberal free market. In this new paradigm, it was expected that economic activities would be given “freedom from constraint,” both political and social. Initially intended to protect the market from governmental interference, Kwinter argues that this ideal of “freedom from constraint” extends into a social condition in which the market also takes precedence over social practices.[14] In other words, the system of economic activities embedded in social relations that prevailed in the first half of the century had to be inverted, into a system where social relations were embedded in economic activities. Shopping centres epitomizes this subsumption of social relations into the economy. Within the shopping centre, all human activities, transactional or otherwise, are considered within the scope of a financial output. Despite the presence of atriums, seating areas and garden arrangements – social areas that seem autonomous from the shops that constitute the rest of a shopping centre – these apparently innocuous areas are still designed with the goal of stimulating pecuniary activity. Sociologist Richard Sennett describes these areas as “indirect commodification” or “adjacent attractions” that promote shopping by eliding it with other leisure activities.[15]

The City of Kitchener and the Oxlea Corporation were aware that these departures in thinking that marked the fields of architecture, city planning and economics in the 1960s and 1970s may not have been greeted with open arms by the general public, so they appointed Douglas Ratchford, a local painter and graduate of the Ontario College of Art, to find a way to “skeumorphize” and “vernacularize” the building. That is, they challenged Ratchford to normalize these radical shifts for the local population by disguising this flagship building in a skin that referenced the region’s past. Ratchford proposed that the exterior of the shopping centre be built of red brick, rather than concrete as the early sketches intended, and the interior should similarly utilize red brick with garnishes of wood finish on elements such as furniture, appliances and pillars. Furthermore, Ratchford provided the building with a series of Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs painted on five-foot-square wooden plaques, hearkening to the history of the area as a Dutch settlement.[16]

In the first chapter of his book The Language of Postmodern Architecture, the architecture historian and architect Charles Jencks criticizes such use of superficial historical styles in developer architecture as a continuation of the meaningless, impersonal character of Modernist public architecture. Public architecture (exemplified by Pruitt Igoe in Jencks’ opinion) is known for its austere and uncompromising character. The CIAM and other Modernist architects they inspired believed in the ‘universal’ aesthetics of functionalist architecture without any ornament or historical reference. Jencks argues that while developer architecture reinstates ornament and historicism to make their projects more marketable, it suffers from the same impersonal temperament as public architecture because developers make stylistic choices through the statistical analysis of popular taste, rather than through a meaningful connection to their clients or users. Architecture by developers simply decorates the cement slab high-rises or other ‘rational’ forms of public architecture with arbitrary veneers and pseudo-historical ornamentation.[17]

>Ratchford’s skeuomorphizing of the modern forms and functions of the Market Square Shopping Centre fit within Jencks’ definition of developer architecture at face value; however, as a public and private venture, Market Square actually bridged the public and the developer architectural systems, which Jencks portrays as mutually exclusive. The impetus behind the Market Square was twofold: it satisfied the city’s prescriptive ambitions of modernizing and revitalizing the downtown, and it satisfied a developer’s ambitions to generate capital. This type of compromise was a common strategy for mid-size Ontario cities, who lacked the funding of larger cities like Toronto, to pursue the dream of a modern downtown.[18]

Because Ratchford invoked Kitchener’s regional history in his skeumorphic treatment of the Market Square, rather than choosing a more general ersatz historical aesthetic as seen in Jencks’ example of developer architecture, Ratchford formed a narrative between Kitchener’s past and present. In particular, Ratchford’s contribution to the Market Square attempted to smooth out the transition into the neoliberal economic order by placing the shopping centre as the next logical step in Kitchener’s economic development. By appropriating the Dutch hex sign as a design element, Ratchford produced a chronological relationship between the mostly Dutch Mennonite Farmers’ Market and the new shopping centre, which shared the same building. The placement of these signs on both the market and the shopping centre attempted to analogize one to the other, thus justifying and naturalizing the shopping centre as the next logical step in a history of entrepreneurial capitalism, and ipso facto defining the Dutch Mennonite Farmers’ Market as an outmoded form. Furthermore, these signs also falsely suggested that the Dutch Mennonite community (quite literally) gave the project their blessing. Like the old gods of Greek mythology, recast as demons and vices on Christian tarot cards, the Farmers’ Market had been allegorically stripped of its own identity and made to play a part in this theatre of modernization, made to reassure the modern onlooker that history is a process of betterment and that this new development, the shopping centre, was the product of a natural progression.


Renovation & Expansion: The Megatendencies of the Market Square


1986 addition and renovation of the Market SquareCope-Linder and Associates, addition and renovation of Market Square Shopping Centre, 1986, Kitchener, Ontario.

Despite the combined efforts of Oxlea Corporation and the City of Kitchener to integrate the new shopping centre into Kitchener’s downtown, other factors such as the small number of merchandisers, a lack of retail variety and poor traffic flow,[19] not to mention the building’s imposing, fortress-like facade that “reminded some of the Kremlin wall in Moscow’s Red Square”[20] led to unsatisfactory profits. So to revitalize the building and fix these initial errors in the building’s design, the new owners, Cambridge Leaseholds Ltd., hired the Philidelphia design firm Cope-Linder and Associates[21] to renovate and expand the Market Square.

In 1986, Cope-Linder gave the Market Square “an overdue facelift” as one reporter put it.[22] The front entrance of the building, originally consisting of a piazza at the corner of King and Frederick Streets as well as an adjacent grand staircase, were removed, and the area they occupied was put under a two-storey steel and glass enclosure, complete with a matching clock tower intended to return a sense of place to the once-important intersection.[23] Two glass-covered pedestrian bridges were also built on the second floor to connect the mall and market building to an adjacent office building and the nearby Delta Hotel.

The renovation did its best to eliminate any evidence of the building’s former identity. It abandoned past attempts at justifying the shopping centre’s presence through pseudo-historical materials and murals in favour of creating a dazzling retail experience similar to those found in the suburbs. Where possible, the re-designers applied veneers or replaced fixtures; they placed new cream, green and baby blue tiles overtop of the red brick flooring, replaced wood railings with brass ones, and so on. The mall’s red brick exterior, which was not so easily muted, was made to look like the support structure for the mall’s new glass frontage, as though John Lingwood had built the brick structure as an armature knowing that the glass would come later.[24] Cope-Linder built their steel and glass addition mostly upon the Gruenesque pedestrian terrace of Lingwood’s design as though it were literally ‘an artificial ground level’ – an elevated empty lot, a neutral plinth to hold their cathedral of consumption. Etymologically, the word “renovation” may be inaccurate in describing the process that the Market Square underwent. It was not merely made new again (renovate = re- ‘back, again’ + novus ‘new’), but rather made to look as though it was never old – always-already new.

At the time of the expansion’s unveiling, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record reported on the event with two counterbalanced articles by columnist Ron Eade. The first article presented the new development as a welcome change from the heavy-handed, Kremlin-wall architecture of the original building,[25] while the second article offered a counter-argument against the renovation by Donald McKay, then Assistant Professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo. Ironically, McKay suggested that rather than opening up the Market Square’s internally-focused architecture with a steel and glass showcase effect as Cope-Linder intended, they had actually created a building that was even more introverted than before.[26] McKay argued that the new glass galleria, complete with 25-foot tropical trees imported from Florida,[27] created “a self-contained, climate-controlled inside wonderland – an imperial concept instead of a complementary one for the downtown core.”[28] Furthermore, he considered the addition “a project conceived by Americans who are preoccupied with protecting shoppers from muggers on the streets – hence the overhead pedestrian bridges so no one need venture outside.”[29] These covered walkways extended the initial impetus of the Gruen-esque raised podium, as seen in the Market Square’s first incarnation, to not only protect the pedestrian from the automobile, but more specifically to protect the middle-class consumer and office-worker against automobiles, weather and ‘undesirables.’

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy terms this protective sensibility the “analogous city,” wherein tunnels or covered bridges between private buildings begin to usurp the public functions of the city street. Boddy argues that passageways that float above or tunnel below the street should not be mistaken for “mere tools, value-free extensions of the existing urban realm”;[30] on the contrary, because they are private space, “they accelerate a stratification of race and class, and paradoxically degrade the very conditions they supposedly remedy – the amenity, safety, and environmental conditions of the public realm.”[31] More pertinently for Kitchener,[32] like the shopping centre, such passageways subject their occupants to the logic of the free market. For instance, in Montreal’s underground city (the most extensive analogous city in Canada), Montreal’s urban planner David Brown observed that many sections of the labyrinth:

effectively screen clientele by keeping a watchful eye out for ‘undesirables’ and ‘undesirable activity.’ Occasionally these definitions may go so far as to embrace all non-shoppers and all non-shopping activity. […] The guards at many locations are instructed to move people along when they have sat for more than fifteen minutes.[33]

All social activity in these ostensible extensions of the infrastructure of the street must yield to economic activity – free from constraint.





Left: early proposals for covered sidewalks, K-W Record, 1977; Below: proposal for the King Street
“bubble,” enclosing the entire street, K-W Record, 1981.









In the years leading up to the Market Square’s new addition from 1977 to 1984, the City of Kitchener had plans to build such an analogous city throughout the entire central business district along King Street. Initially, the Chamber of Commerce, led by manager Archie Gillies, began discussing proposals for “an acrylic glass canopy constructed over the sidewalk and attached to building fronts with curved steel beams,”[34] or alternatively, a network of interior doorways connecting adjacent shops directly to one another and overhead walkways (like the ones attached to Market Square) connecting buildings across the street from one another.[35] These ambivalent suggestions eventually coalesced into a single proposal for a massive arcade stretching from one end of the central business district to another.

While this new plan shared similarities with Boddy’s notion of the analogous city, two other architectural typologies also seem to have been at play here – the megastructure and the megamall. Despite still being concerned with the protection and management of pedestrians, megastructures were more intent on controlling architectural form on the scale of the city by treating buildings as units within a larger superstructure. Like a crystal (or fool’s gold), the ideal megastructure would guide any future growth of these units with a set of rules enforced by the superstructure, ensuring a mostly cohesive aesthetic while also allowing for some variation in the subsystems. The strongest synergies between the Market Square, Kitchener’s bubble over King Street and the megastructure movement, however, lie in the movement’s peripheral interests, rather than its central ones. In Reyner Banham’s Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, Banham describes the various theories and projects of this late modernist movement. Very few buildings were actually constructed by proponents of megastructures, and most of the buildings that were finished only partially articulate the tenets of the movement. Geoffrey Copcutt’s Town Centre (1966), Cumbernauld, UK, “‘the most complete megastructure to be built’ and the nearest thing yet to a canonical megastructure that one can actually visit or inhabit,”[36] follows none of the points set out in architectural librarian Ralph Wilcoxon’s definition of a megastructure. It is not truly constructed of modular units, nor is it capable of ‘unlimited’ extension; it is not a framework supporting smaller units, and said framework is not expected to outlive these smaller units.[37] For this reason, Banham begins near the end of the book to describe buildings like Cumbernauld Town Centre as having “megatendencies,” instead of adhering to this rigid definition. In particular he recognizes several high-density downtown shopping centres in English provincial towns that echo the methods and aesthetics popularized by canonical megastructures like the one in Cumbernauld.[38] Like these English shopping centres, Kitchener’s bubble and the Market Square’s subsequent addition are not built to be megastructures, but show “megatendencies.”

Both the enormous scale of Kitchener’s planned “bubble” over King Street and its treatment of public transit echo Banham’s megatendencies. If the arcade were built between Frederick and Water Streets, it would have stretched four tenths of a mile and would have been the largest of its kind in Canada. This plan rivaled the ambition of some of the megastructuralist projects, which similarly occupied vast swathes of land. Also, the immense brutalist facades of megastrutures would often allow transportation to move freely into or through the building, as seen in Ray Affleck’s Place Bonaventure (1967) in Montreal, Quebec. Likewise, part of the King Street arcade was imagined as a transit bay that would allow buses to penetrate the bubble’s membrane.

The carnivalesque atmosphere of the bubble that Peter Diebel, then chairman of the Kitchener Downtown Business Improvement Association, imagined also echoed the idea of Homo Ludens (man at play) within megastructural discourse. Diebel described the climate-controlled contents of the mega-arcade as comprising “jungle-like rest areas, mini golf courses, skating rinks, gazebos, bandshells, play areas for children, fountains and even a waterfall.”[39] Diebel’s dream imagined the reconstruction of Kitchener to accommodate the utopian inhabitants of a post-industrial city, recalling the technological optimism that had been put forth at Expo ‘67 fourteen years earlier: the Expo guidebook promised that with all the wonderful emerging technologies in production, medicine, and computers, “Man is moving towards an era where working hours will be less and leisure hours will be substantially more than at this moment of time.”[40] Many megastructuralists, from Yona Friedman to Archigram, also took this projected transformation into a society of leisure as the point of departure for their projects.[41] While the megastructuralists tended to envision the ludic pleasure of the new urban environment in terms of the malleability and mobility of architecture, Diebel, on the other hand, imagined a more conventional approach, drawing on theme-park-like imagery in his description.


Map of the King Street "Bubble"A highlighted map showing the area covered by the proposed arcade, stretching from the King Centre in the West to the Market Square in the East.

Diebel’s dream of the pleasure dome over King Street more closely resembles the megamall’s conception of an architecture designed for the new desires of Homo Ludens, as seen in the West Edmonton Mall (WEM). Like a megastructure the megamall is a building on the scale of a city whose focus is the accommodation of a leisure class (though not an entire leisure society). However, whereas the megastructuralists sought pleasure through a radically adaptive, improvisational architecture, the megamall seeks pleasure through spectacle and simulation. The West Edmonton Mall pilfers Spanish Galleons and New Orleans Streets; it provides wave pools and gardens, but there is nothing radical about the West Edmonton Mall. It simply extends the already well-founded science of mall-making to a massive scale, recycling and embellishing content that can even be seen in a mall like the Market Square (consider the Floridian trees).[42] Descriptions of Kitchener’s proposal for the King Street arcade follow a similar trajectory to the WEM’s extension of basic “mall science” principles, and in fact would have used the Market Square Shopping Centre and the King Centre (another shopping mall built on the other side of Kitchener’s downtown in 1981) as “anchors,” like the department stores of a traditional barbell-shaped regional shopping centre.[43]

Unlike the megamall, which created a utopia of consumption as an alternative to the city, the King Street bubble imagined this utopia of consumption as the city. It superimposed the mall science of the regional shopping centre – designed to produce profit at any non-monetary cost, including the widespread abandonment of urbanity – onto the modernist motivations of the megastructure movement – to create a new society to suit the needs of capital-M Man. This elision of the megamall and the megastructure finds its apotheosis in Michael Anderson’s film Logan’s Run. Anderson used an amalgamation of the Hulen Mall in Fort Worth, Texas and the Dallas Market Center in Dallas, Texas to create much of the megastructural bubble city in the film.[44] For Anderson and the people of Kitchener alike, it seemed as though the consumerist utopia (or dystopia if you are Logan) of 2274, where all production is hidden and automated, was only a step beyond the regional shopping centres of the time.

But like the Gruenized downtown core that never was, this dream of the downtown as a megastructural wonderland ran aground, and its remnants washed up on the shores of the Market Square. Only the beginnings of Market Square’s analogous city – the pedestrian bridges and glass galleria – stand as a testament to this grand scheme of a controlled, connected and protected downtown core. The invasive “climate-controlled inside wonderland” that McKay saw in the Cope-Linder addition to the Market Square two years after the dome proposal was deemed too expensive, represented only a fraction of what Gillies, Diebel and others envisioned for the entire downtown core.


Reuse: Junkspace and Jouissance in the Market Square

In the years since the Market Square’s last major renovation, its identity has become increasingly unclear. Throughout the 1990s, the mall fell into decline. It endured a recession early in the decade, the loss of the City offices across the street after the new City Hall was built in 1993, the loss of Eatons as the Mall’s anchor in 1997,[45] and finally the loss of the Farmers’ Market in 2004 as it moved into its own building. This most recent chapter in the Market Square’s history, characterized by rapid tenant turnover and constant conversions, has shaken the building’s definition as a shopping centre.


Conversions in the Market SquareLeft: the Eaton’s anchor store of the Market Square has now been converted into an office for the K-W Record; Right: rows of exercise bikes currently occupy the food-court-cum-fitness-club.

The history of Market Square and particularly its final descent into entropy is what Rem Koolhaas terms “Junkspace” – “what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.”[46] It twists Kitchener’s dream of the megastructural wonderland into a dystopic parody. Where megastructures attempted to reign in aimless, kaleidoscopic growth by placing it within the cells of a unifying, modernist superstructure, “in Junkspace, the tables are turned: it is subsystem only, without superstructure, orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern. All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring.”[47] In Market Square, spaces have been divided and subdivided with makeshift walls, and in other places once-permanent walls have easily been dismantled in attempts to reprogram the space. Half the food court has become a fitness club; the entire bottom floor of the mall and the old Farmers’ Market area have been converted into offices for a design consultation company.

Because it was once a mall, the Market Square also bears the “infrastructure of seamlessness” that Koolhaas finds crucial to Junkspace. Escalators, air-conditioning, atriums, mirrors and reverberant spaces make the Market Square an interior world autonomous from the surrounding city, and these techniques also constantly strive to disguise the many disjunctures – nonsensically intermingled styles and functions, leaky ceilings, abandoned cafés, elevators that can accidentally whisk an unwary shopper off into the building’s hidden office space. This aesthetic and proprioceptive muzak binds these fragments into a “seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.”[48]

Koolhaas defines this mutational, systematic approach to building as the death of architecture and the architect, in a sense: “Inevitably, the death of God (and the author) has spawned orphaned space; Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian…”[49] Evoking Roland Barthes, Koolhaas insinuates that like writing, architecture has lost its filial origins – its author-God – and has become instead a rhizomatic phenomenon. Furthermore, just as the signifier in the Text has forever lost its signified, the architectural form has forever lost its intended function: “soon, we will be able to do anything anywhere. We will have conquered place.”[50] However, where Barthes sees the death of the author as an opportunity for the play of the reader, who could now engage with the Text unfettered from the singular voice of the author’s intentions,[51] Koolhaas only sees the effect of Junkspace on its inhabitants as “the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.” [52]


More Conversions in the Market SquareLeft: a bank of TriOS College classrooms, converted from empty storefronts; Right: the courtyard created by the design consultation firm that converted the first floor of the shopping centre.

Taking Barthes as a point of reference, could the collapse of architecture into Junkspace not also be seen as an opportunity for the endless play of functional potentials within architectural forms? Because the building’s original program is not considered sacred in the floundering Market Square, some recent conversions have produced playful conversations with the leftover forms of the building’s life as a shopping mall. For instance, TriOS College, which has taken over one bank of shops on the main floor of the mall, exploited the superficial similarities between the topology of a school and that of a shopping centre. They converted a row of shops into a row of classrooms that are now closed to the central walkway of the mall, and converted the utility hallways behind the stores into the new main hallways of the school. Likewise, the aforementioned design consultation company that now occupies the entire bottom floor of the mall, adapted their office plans to the conventions of the shopping mall, rather than adapting the mall to their needs. To accommodate the gap in their ceiling that once served as a balcony overlooking the lower level of the mall, their floor plan includes a central courtyard mimicking the quintessential gardens of the regional shopping centre, such as the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring in Victor Gruen’s seminal Southdale Centre.[53] Like the play of words in Barthes’ concept of the Text, these interventions play on the orphaned post-shopping-mall forms of the Market Square’s Junkspace.

In How Buildings Learn, writer Stewart Brand recognizes the joy of reuse – or the jouissance of play as Barthes might put it – revealing how Market Square’s reuse may yet give the building a new significance. In the book, Brand explores a series of case studies investigating how buildings adapt to the needs of their many tenants over time, and more importantly, which buildings age well and which do not. In a chapter on preservation, Brand discusses the joy of reuse that emerges in buildings when they survive long enough to become well-liked. He quotes architectural columnist Robert Campbell on the subject of adaptive reuse:

Recyclings embody a paradox. They work best when the new use doesn’t fit the old container too neatly. The slight misfit between old and new – the incongruity of eating your dinner in a brokerage hall – gives such places their special edge and drama… The best buildings are not those that are cut, like a tailored suit, to fit only one set of functions, but rather those that are strong enough to retain their character as they accommodate different functions over time.[54]

While perhaps the reuse of commercial architecture lacks some of the romance of “eating your dinner in a brokerage hall,” the Market Square’s character (generic though it may be) continues to shine through in the conversions of its new tenants. They do their best to integrate seamlessly (as Koolhaas’ Junkspace would have it), but ultimately the compromises and “the slight misfit” they produce give them a certain awkward appeal and quirkiness outside of Junkspace’s anaesthetic program.

Furthermore, the mere fact that the Market Square was built to endure may eventually earn it the reluctant respect of its community. Ironically, those solid, imposing walls of the original building that so quickly fell out of fashion may be the complex’s salvation in the long term. Brand observes that a common pattern for buildings that do not adapt well is graceless turnover; a rapid succession of tenants streams through the building without making any permanent contributions to it, until eventually “no new tenant replaces the last one, vandals do their quick work, and broken windows beg for demolition.”[55] However, Brand notes that time-tested materials, like red brick, and simple, adaptable layouts, like that of a factory or the empty box of an anchor store, are one way that unsuccessful buildings are often saved from the wrecking ball. Underneath the veneers and atriums of its addition, the integrity of the Market Square’s design earned it a masonry award for construction excellence the year it was built.[56] This, if nothing else, may guarantee the Market Square’s survival and eventual appreciation.


Ruins: Market Square and the Ethics of Re-

Thus far, I have intentionally considered the Market Square primarily through a lens of progress. Even in the last chapter on reuse which described the entropy of the current state of the shopping centre, the creative potential of the building has been given far more recognition than the decaying reality. If one wished to, one could easily construct a history of the Market Square as a recurring process of ruination and failure; however, as a resident of Kitchener, I have seen that perspective represented all too often and felt it was important to offer a counter viewpoint of the Market Square as a repository of Kitchener’s utopian aspirations and potentials. That said, it would be naive to not acknowledge this building as a ruin, because this is the position it most often occupies in the cultural imagination of Kitchener.


The Dismembered Kitchener City HallLeft: the pediment of Kitchener’s old City Hall mounted above the doorway of THE MUSEUM; Right: the clock tower of the old City Hall as a centre piece of Victoria Park.

Even from its outset, the project has been a ruin of sorts. In an article written three years before the opening of the Market Square, artist Douglas Ratchford commented that he was surprised to hear about the project because only four months earlier, he had created a painting titled Market Place depicting the City Hall and Farmers’ Market in ruins from the perspective of a Mennonite horse carriage. In the article, Ratchford commented, “I painted it because I think that’s our society’s hang up. The loss of that building is going to affect us more than the people who use it, like the Old Order Mennonites.”[57] His words were prophetic, for this is primarily how the Market Square has been remembered: as “the city’s ultimate pledge of allegiance to the wrecking ball,” [58] as a byproduct of the destruction and deterioration of Kitchener’s distinct cultural heritage in the downtown. Today, the dismembered City Hall building haunts the downtown still; its clock tower sits in Victoria Park and the pediment that sat atop its doors hangs inside the front entrance of a local museum. But even such ruination could have potential.

The art critic and historian Cesare Brandi’s theories of art restoration could be useful as a model for thinking about how architecture could engage with its history. In his article “Facing the Unknown,” historian D. Graham Burnett explains that Brandi believed the only ethical way to restore a painting would be a method that recovered the original ideological content of the painting that had been erased by time, while simultaneously not denying the work as an archaeological object that had been shaped by decay over time, like a ruin.[59] To extend Brandi’s approach, the ideal renovation or reuse of a building would then retain a sense of the building’s original identity, and record the changes the building has undergone since its construction, including decay and the contributions/adaptations of users. But of course, architecture’s relationship to such historical significance is complicated by something art need not worry about – function.

Throughout the Market Square’s history, it has always put function first, in spite of both the identity of the buildings on the block and their condition as archaeological records of decay and change over time. In redevelopment, the City Hall and Farmers’ Market, were completely wiped out and replaced with a new identity – the rationalized and Gruenized market/shopping centre. During the renovation and expansion, in order to improve the functionality of the shopping centre, Cope-Linder attempted to rebrand the building by erasing Lingwood’s design. In both cases, the original identity and the history of change in the building are jeopardized to some extent for the sake of function. Only in the recent adaptive reuses of the building have drastic changes been made while creating a dialogue between the past and present identities of the Market Square, as seen in the design consultation firm’s homage to the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring. While functionality is crucial in architecture, in order to facilitate a sense of shared, built history in a city, renovations and reuses of public or pseudo-public buildings should attempt to provoke a dialogue about the origin of the building or the way that time has affected it.


Hespeler Public Library ExpansionAlar Kongats, Hespeler Public Library expansion, 2007, Hespeler, Ontario. Left: exterior view, showcasing Kongats’ glass addition; Right: interior view, revealing the original Carnegie building inside the glass cube, like a ship in a bottle.

In response to this challenge, two buildings come to mind that I believe fully engage with their history, rather than concealing it. The first, the Hespeler Public Library (1923) in Cambridge, Ontario, engages with its origin particularly well through a Brandian approach to renovation. To address his great impasse of how to restore the original idea of an artwork while not hiding time’s effect upon it, Brandi decided that all inpainting must be done using the abstract technique of tratteggio.[60] Thus, when looking at the painting from afar, the viewer could see the painting in its original form, but if he/she were to approach it, they would clearly see that it had been altered.[61] Similarly, the addition and renovation of the Hespeler Public Library by Alar Kongats (of Kongats Architects in Toronto) utilized a form of abstraction to distinguish between the old and the new. Rather than erasing or fundamentally disfiguring the original identity of the building and hiding the process of renovation and expansion that took place, Kongats’ modern steel and glass addition was built around the original Carnegie library. At a glance, the viewer can only see Kongats’ addition from the exterior, but as he/she moves around the building, glimpses of the old facade can be seen through the glass. When the viewer enters the building, nearly the entire original library structure becomes visible. The ceramic tiles built into the windows of the new addition (which serve the practical purpose of lowering solar heat gain) cast the shadow of a broken line onto the old brick facade, as though it were placing it sous rature. It acknowledges the insufficiency of the first building, and yet allows this insufficient element to remain legible. Like with Brandi’s tratteggio, the viewer can oscillate between experiencing the original identity of the library, and the redesigner’s intervention depending on their bodily placement in relation to the object.


Michigan TheatreRapp & Rapp, Michigan Theatre, 1926, Detroit, Michigan. Partially demolished in 1976, but elements remain to ensure structural integrity of adjacent buildings.

The second building, Rapp & Rapp’s Michigan Theatre (1926) in Detroit, Michigan, presents a more provocative approach to history. In 1976, the building was partially demolished and the remainder converted into a parking garage. While it does not hermetically seal the building’s origin in a glass cube like a display in a museum, the Michigan theatre fully engages with its own history of failure and decay. It has not concealed time’s decomposing effect on the building or the destructive force that adaptive reuse often necessitates. Koolhaas criticizes architecture for becoming soft and malleable like tailoring, but the ruin exposes the hard truth of building reuse – it comes always at the expense of a partial destruction of the building. I call the Michigan Theatre’s new life as a parking garage a Benjaminian approach to reuse. Walter Benjamin wrote about the evocative character of the ruin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. As Craig Owens synthesized Benjamin’s musings, “here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from origin.”[62] By leaving a sense of ruination when adapting a building to a new use, the building acknowledges the inevitable and sometimes tragic “distancing from origin” that a building must undergo. In the Michigan Theatre, the tattered 1920s ceiling has been kept intact despite the building’s profound transformation into a parking lot. Furthermore, where walls have been cut to make way for parking spaces, there has been no effort at concealing the damage to the building. This treatment gives a sense of the tragic and sacrificial quality of reuse, the partial destruction a building must endure in order to survive, rather than trying to conceal the process as redesigners customarily do.

These two examples only begin to represent the multiplicity of methods that could be employed to actively engage a building’s history. I believe, however, that they both create particularly poignant dialogues about the issues that haunt all built history. On one hand, the Hespeler Library recognizes the tension between preservation in the face of functionality. On the other, the Michigan Theatre evokes the tragic necessity and inevitability of destruction in architectural practice.



As factories in Kitchener are being quickly claimed by developers, the city must consider judiciously whether the historical significance of these sites is being retained in these adaptations, or whether these projects are reducing history to a skin no thicker than the murals painted by Ratchford for the Market Square. We must consider whether history is being allowed to exist for its own sake, or whether it is being appropriated to further an agenda, like the Farmer’s Market as a precursor to the shopping mall. As new plans for a light rail transit system declare it will boost positive urban growth in the region, we must listen for the echoes of a modern, utopian downtown Kitchener that never was.[63]

As for the Market Square itself, I hope that the city does not repeat its mistakes and tear down this piece of our recent cultural heritage. It may represent the destruction of historical sites in downtown Kitchener to many people, however that too is a part of our city’s history. Whether we like it or not, history is not always progress. Charles Jencks once said,

Without doubt, the ruins [of Pruitt-Igoe] should be kept, the remains should have a preservation order slapped on them, so that we keep a live memory of this failure in planning and architecture. Like the folly of artificial ruin – constructed on the estate of an eighteenth-century English eccentric to provide him with instructive reminders of former vanities and glories – we should learn to value and protect our former disasters.[64]

Like the iconic Pruitt-Igoe project, the Market Square may have been folly, but it is the most palpable record of an ambitious half-century of plans and compromises, dreams and failures in Kitchener, Ontario, and should be maintained if only to remind us of our former vanities and glories.

—Nathan Storring

Nate StorringNathan Storring


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Augustus Pugin, Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day; Shewing the Present Decay of Taste (London: Charles Dolman, 1841) 1.
  2. Later renamed University Heights Secondary School, before closing and becoming a part of Conestoga College.
  3. Angel Castillo Jr., “K-W artist to put county flavor into design of new market,” K-W Record (Jun. 26, 1971).
  4. Concrete was particularly in vogue in Southern Ontario during this period. In Toronto, it became a modernist medium par excellence. See Concrete Toronto by Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart for more.
  5. Kitchener’s designs likely mimicked Gruen’s because the economic studies that gave rise to The Plan were executed by the economist Larry Smith, a collaborator of Gruen.
  6. Kitchener Urban Renewal Committee, The Plan… Downtown Kitchener. (Kitchener, Ontario: The Merchants Printing Co.) 6.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, 37.
  9. Ibid, 38.
  10. Ibid, 44.
  11. Reyner Banham, Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past (London, England: Thams and Hudson Ltd., 1976) 42.
  12. Sanford Kwinter, “How I learned to Stop Worrying Yet Still Not Quite Love the Bomb,” Requiem For the City at the End of the Millenium (New York: Actar D, 2010) 32.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, 31.
  15. Margaret Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 15.
  16. Castillo Jr., “K-W artist to put county flavor into design of new market.” A hex sign is a traditional symbol for good luck that the Pennsylvania Dutch often place on barns and other buildings. By this point, such symbols were also often fabricated as tourist souvenirs.
  17. Charles Jencks, “Part One: The Death of Modern Architecture,” The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy, 1991) 31. Developer architecture differs from Post-Modern architecture as Jencks goes on to propounds in the rest of the book because the latter uses ornament and historical reference with specific (often witty) intents in mind, rather than simply relegating design to becoming an ersatz product of the statistical analysis of taste.
  18. Similar shopping centres to the Market Square have been built in Brantford, Chatham, Guelph, Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Sarnia and Waterloo, all with the hopes that they would bring new life to the downtown.
  19. Sandra Coulson, “Upgrading to overcome Market Square weaknesses,” Western Ontario Business (Apr 22, 1985) 3.
  20. Henry Koch, “Restored Market Square has style, sizzle,” K-W Record (Apr. 26, 1986).
  21. Now renamed Cope Linder Architects.
  22. Ron Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift,” K-W Record (Mar 24, 1986).
  23. Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift.”
  24. The only element of Cope-Linder’s renovation that loosely hearkened to Kitchener’s history was the new clock tower that evoked the one that used to sit atop the old City Hall. The connection between the two structures, however, is purely functional. The City Hall’s clock tower was built in a neoclassical style with heavy, greystone pillars on top of a circular base, capped by a dome which bore the clock face; meanwhile, the Market Square’s clock tower sported a shape that would almost resemble Jean Omer Marchand and John A. Pearson’s Victorian Gothic Peace Tower (1927) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, if it were constructed of steel and glass and had a string of lights running down every corner.
  25. Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift.” He goes as far as to thank the god of capitalism for breathing life into Lingwood’s austere design.
  26. Ron Eade, “A shopping mall by any other name…,” K-W Record (Mar 26, 1986).
  27. Koch, “Restored Market Square has style, sizzle.”
  28. Eade, “A shopping mall by any other name…”
  29. Ibid.
  30. Trevor Boddy, “Underground and Overhead: Building the Analogous City,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992) 124.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Kitchener, as McKay points out in Eade’s article, did not have such stark race and class divisions in the downtown as in the downtowns of many American cities.
  33. Qtd. in Boddy, “Underground and Overhead,” 148.
  34. “King block canopy proposed,” K-W Record (Nov 10, 1977).
  35. Ibid.
  36. Banham, Megastructure, 105.
  37. Ibid, 8.
  38. Ibid, 173.
  39. Henry Koch, “He wants five-block canopy,” K-W Record (Nov. 26, 1981).
  40. Alexander Wilson, “Technological Utopias: World’s Fairs and Theme Parks,” The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, (Toronto, ON: Between the Lines, 1991) 166.
  41. Banham, Megastructure, 80.
  42. Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” 6.
  43. Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” 20.
  44. “Filming Locations for Logan’s Run,” Internet Movie Database. 23 Mar 2011.
  45. The Eaton’s was briefly replaced by a Sears Outlet, which eventually left as well.
  46. Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October 100 (2002): 175.
  47. Ibid, 178.
  48. Ibid, 176.
  49. Ibid, 185.
  50. Ibid, 184.
  51. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Image Music Text, Stephen Heath, trans. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) 162.
  52. Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” 183.
  53. Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall,” 22.
  54. Qtd. in Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1995) 104.
  55. Brand, How Buildings Learn, 23.
  56. Henry Koch, “Restored Market Square has style, sizzle.”
  57. Angel Castillo Jr., “K-W artist to put county flavor into design of new market.”
  58. Eade, “Market Square gets an overdue facelift.”
  59. D. Graham Burnett, “Facing the Unknown: History, Art, Loss, Recovery,” Cabinet Magazine 40 (2010): 42.
  60. This technique consisted of filling the affected areas with tightly arranged vertical lines of pure pigment that would optically blend into the rest of the painting at a distance, but be clearly abstract when approached.
  61. Burnett, 42.
  62. Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism,” Art in Theory: 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003) 1027.
  63. Jeff Outhit, “Can transit transform the region?” The Record 25 Feb. 2011, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 21 Mar. 2011–can-transit-transform-the-region.
  64. Jencks, “Part One: The Death of Modern Architecture,” 31.
Nov 202011

We live in an ideologically polarized culture; the noisiest religion is a clamoring family values political movement; the liberal left distrusts talk of God. It’s difficult anymore to speak of things like prayer in a rational, quiet, productive way. Spirituality now enters mostly through the side door, when we seem to be talking about something else.

This is one of the most moving essays so far published in Numéro Cinq, not for its secrets confessed or trauma disclosed (though always those are sad enough and never to be diminished), but for its gentle, careful, and intelligent unfolding of the art and throw of poetry and prayer. It reads like an extended aphorism, a balanced equation with poetry on the one side and prayer on the other. “Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.” Its references stretch from Stephen Crane to Coleridge to Jean Valentine to the Psalms to the Tao Te Ching. It makes emotional sense of knotty philosophical problems and romantic mysticism by reducing them to the human and the humble, always respectful of the otherness of the Other. “I don’t read poetry or prayer to directly encounter God or The Way.  I read both to encounter voice at its most tentatively human.  I can only be guided by the unmighty…”

William Olsen is an old friend, a colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a brilliant poet, and the author of five books of poems, including most recently Sand Theory (Triquarterly: Northwestern University Press, 2011). He has received fellowships from The Guggenheim Endowment, The National Endowment of the Arts, and Breadloaf. He teaches at Western Michigan University as well as the aforementioned Vermont College of Fine Arts.  (See a selection of poems from Sand Theory published earlier on NC here.)



On the Prayerful in Poetry

By William Olsen

Here is a poem about the subject of God as figured in the Bible by the young Stephen Crane: it’s from Black Riders.  Crane’s poetry was championed by William Dean Howells but parceled out by Howells into single poems for initial publication and, even when published in book form, strictly edited and reorganized—Crane’s intended order lost for decades—because the poems not only seemed so errant in form, but, at the end of our 19th century, alarmingly distasteful:

You tell me this is God?
I tell you this is a printed list,
A burning candle and an ass.

And here is a poem about the subject of God by the elderly Czeslaw Milosz: it’s from Second Space, his final book, one that plays out the struggle between doubt and faith bound to occur for they who think in such terms once personal end-time is imminent:

If There Is No God

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

Both poems are as modern psalms.  Both share elements of prayer at its least pious.   Both speakers are dead serious in their humor.  No, both are living serious.  The former protests; the latter instructs. Both more than allow for disbelief: Crane with acidic refusal, Milozs’s with seasoned acceptance.

Both are spirited.  The first is fiercely impassioned; the second is fiercely dispassionate.

Poetry and prayer do sometimes overlap or even co-exist.  It is impossible to make a categorical statement about their relationship.  But it is possible to volunteer a conditional distinction.

Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.


For me the most instructive and consoling verse in western poetry appears in the opening of Psalms.  As legend has it, Psalms was written by King David for the lyre.  David is the archetypical songwriter of western civilizaton.  Here is the first verse of the first chapter? song? poem?:

BLESSED is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the almighty, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

As a reader, I am being asked to enter this gateway to Psalms to hear something other than an almighty voice.  I can experience this initial blessing as advice coming from some place other than on high—say, from an absolute power or an absolutely powerful king.  Because I am not intimidated by it, I can take comfort from the guidance I seek.  I have already stepped out of the way of those not interested in the guidance I seek by virtue of seeking guidance in verse, yet another human activity that is no absolute thing. In the act of reading verse I have already forgotten those who would mock my holy enterprise!  At the very outset, this benediction becomes self-fulfilling.  This Ur-verse, whether it is prayer or poetry, effaces its authority, so that its reader can follow suit.

The most instructive and consoling verse I know in eastern verse is in the Tao Te Ching, verse 27:

A knower of the Truth
………..travels without leaving a trace
………..speaks without causing harm
……… without keeping an account
The door he shuts, though having no lock,
………..cannot be opened
The knot he ties, though using no cord,
………..cannot be undone

This verse also offers a self-effacing counsel for travelling of a special sort: that the traveller does not have to clean up the mess he has left behind because leaving behind a record of the traveller is and never was the point of truth.

The doors and knotty thoughts of Meaning—maybe they aren’t the psychodrama I would like to think they are.  This moment of verse largely exists in causing no harm, has nothing to do with gate-keeping, and is anything but abstruse.

I don’t read poetry or prayer to directly encounter God or The Way.  I read both to encounter voice at its most tentatively human.  I can only be guided by the unmighty, by those who relinquish any authority ordained by cultural identification, those confident enough to surrender confidence, or assumed power.


Some of the qualities of prayer crop up in surprising places, and even a skeptical poetry can give off sudden glimpses of a spiritual life.  I’m thinking of Robert Lowell, a poet at his splendid best unbound by the very cultural identifications he understands as oppressive, free of the fated familial roles from which he knows there is no psychological or literary escape.  What’s most true for Robert Lowell of prayer as it involves poetry is that any human truth is differentiated.  Lowell prays for memory and accuracy, not for the imagination, which, it must be assumed, Lowell takes to be innate; and not for passion, which Lowell takes to be a problematic precondition of freedom.  His poem “Epilogue” ends with this counsel:  “Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like a tide across the map/ to his girl solid with yearning./  We are poor passing facts,/ warned by that to give/ each figure in the photograph/ his living name.”

Lowell’s last book, Day By Day, particularly its last section, centers on spiritual questions and the god idea more directly, really, than Lord Weary’s Castle, the title of which says all you need to know about the wearisome mania of Eliot and modernism that the young Lowell inherited.  In Day By Day there is no custodial myth-keeping.   As is said of Ulysses, the prototype for the artist in “Ulyssess And Circe,” the first poem of Day By Day,  “He dislikes everything/ in his impoverished life of myth.”  This recognition could be a deft two-line criticism of the weird poverty or lack of vitality in Lowell’s first book—for him and Eliot the regeneration myths actually had the effect not of restoring but of draining of actuality the human experience poetry is, calling for that much more regeneration myth, and creating an above-the-earth spiral of modernist triumphalism, or as Lowell wrote in another poem, the “climacteric of want.”

In Day By Day the god idea is brought up, like everything else of crucial significance in this book, casually.  It is prompted by a masculine tradition but it is figured in feminine terms.  Not an innovation, figuring the divine in terms of the beloved, but in Day By Day the divine beloved is earthly.  The healing consists of coming down to earth from unearthly spiralings.  That’s what happens in Lowell that doesn’t get talked about: amidst any turmoil of spirit or technique one can find a preternatural calm that really is like nothing else in English poetry. In “Caroline In Sickness,” a poem to an ailing wife from a speaker himself struggling through the last challenging year of his life, Lowell strikes, I think, some of John Donne’s own radical sincerity: the divine is more thoroughly transformed than ever into the beloved, precisely because the beloved herself is ailing and mortal and flawed and merely human.  As in Donne’s most intimate poem “A Nocturne Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”—an improvisation of sorts on the trope of the dark night of the soul made actual because the poem is not about a Beatrice-like fantasy but about a dying wife, the real loss lived through, without the theatrics of being battered—in “Caroline In Sickness” it is not the spectacular metaphysical couplings but, to quote the single most instructive phrase from Donne’s poem, the “ordinary nothing” moments of personhood in the poem that are innovative.

Here is Lowell’s prayer to his beloved, not dead but suffering the ordinary afflictions of late-middle age:

Caroline In Sickness

Tonight the full moon is stopped by trees
or the wallpaper between our windows—
on the threshold of pain,
light doesn’t exist,
and yet the glow is smarting
enough to read a Bible
to keep awake and awake.
You are very sick,
you remember how the children,
you and your cousin,
Miss Fireworks and Miss Icicle,
first drove alone with learners’ cards
in Connemara, and popped a paper bag—
the rock that broke your spine.
Thirty years later, you still suffer
your spine’s spasmodic, undercover life . . .
Putting off a luncheon,
you say into the telephone,
“Next month, if I’m still walking.”
I move to keep moving;
the cold white wine is dis-spirited . . .
Shine as is your custom,
scattering this roughage to find sky.

There is a coarse delicacy to this tonal and textural mess.  The roughage must be assumed to be not only the images of this poem about the ordinary burdens, but also the narcissistic passions and thoughts and artifices of the poet-speaker, and perhaps the roughening up of tradition by the poet himself, freed here of Big-Time Agon-ism and perhaps as well from such rough times as this poet has put himself through.  Custom is evoked, almost casually, in an ordinary, unassuming gesture, and with it all of Influence, at its most elemental—the moon, which in an earlier poem of Lowell’s called “History” “a child could give .  .  a face, two holes, two holes/ my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no hole.”  But “Caroline In Sickness” ends not on a self-portrait of history or on an emblematic death face.  It is prayerful.  It is heard by some other, drawing attentiveness outward not perhaps to vision or epiphany so much as to clarity and to an unintrusive, clear look at the heavens, or “sky.”  This poem ends on a grace note of address.  It does so in an achingly contemporary way, wholly aligned with human experience.  Some stalled but unremarkable or “ordinary” despair seems to be almost audible between in these endstopped lines and these short-breathed phrasings.  The spectator first person “I” is curiously effaced here from as many descriptive junctures as possible.  And actuality is added to technique.  One night.  Wallpaper.  Comically apocalyptic childhood names of the poet’s beloved.  No thunderous occasion.  The experience of the occasion is not irrelevant.  But this is by no stretch of the human imagination an occasional poem, as the human condition is not most deeply understood as occasion, or even art, but as the possibility of a human voice rising to plea and permitted directness and personality as by some unspoken trust.


“The sense of justice is an enemy to prayer.”

I remember coming across this—what would you call it?—an assertion, an observation, a statement, thinking out loud, whatever it is that it should take up a whole page in Unattainable Earth, another later-career book by Milosz.   However grand the idea may be, the language sounded ordinary—it didn’t sound like poetry at all: but I liked the challenge it constituted.  For years this one-sentence page attracted me into misprision.  That is, I read it wrong.  I read it to mean, the sense of justice is an enemy to wishful thinking.  Because I myself assumed prayer to be wishful thinking.  To be magical formula.  And because I assumed religion to be, along with capitalism, the greatest perpetrator of human oppression.  So prayer would be an enemy to justice.  Just to pray is not to act.  Prayer is self-motivated, isn’t it?  And I am not!

It occurred to me years later that this line is freighted with rich Blakean contraries:  justice and prayer, ever in need of reconciliation.  Injustice motivating prayer.  Only in the last few years have I acknowledged the power of saying that the expectation of justice—if justice consists in waiting for the world to change before one can take up some responsibility for it and commit to an irreversible interest in it—can be an enemy to prayer.  As in: the world isn’t fair, so why should I bother asking for guidance, why bother asking for anything?  I don’t feel unconditional love of god or of anything, powerful or powerless or creaturely or human.  I feel unconditionally aggrieved.

I have heard this line now so many times in my head that it has become something like a mantra.  It turns me inside out and back into the world as it is and might be, and it does not cancel either justice or prayer but calmly evokes both.  That is how I hear it now, today, at the moment I am writing this.  As something I wish to hear.  As something, in order to hear, I must say out loud in a way.   Science now tells us that reading literally activates many of the same facial muscles that speaking does.  Speaking and listening at once, each the same and ever the other—poetry can call both into being.

My favorite line of Whitman is from his long song of the earth “The Compost”:

Now I am terrified of the earth, it is that calm and patient.

As one ages, perhaps there is happiness only if, as Lowell puts it, there is a “terror in happiness . . .”

I now imagine I can hear some of that calm and patience, and even perhaps the terror, in the little bit of Milosz that takes up an entire page.


Imagine a prayer without exhortation, exclamation, apostrophe, avowal, thanksgiving.  Imagine a poem that achieves a significant degree of stillness in the very act of reaching out to be heard, with no such exact division between speaker and the divine, only finalized meetings of addresser and address that defy some of the more stilted workshop notions of audience.

“Be still and know I am God,” Psalms 46:10.  Still, from the Hebrew “rapha,” to let go, to be weak—weakness, not power, at the heart of faith.  Or to cause yourself to let go, to willingly turn your life over—“rephai’im” is also used sometimes as a synonym for the place of the dead.

Be still and the division between dead and living, and the division between the writer-and the reader, dissolve.  Jean Valentine’s poems bear likeness to prayer in this regard.  They are not liturgical.  They seem to come out of something like meditation, or what some orders call contemplative prayer.  In their stillness, voice moves first inward, then outward. “But when you pray, close the door, go into your room” (Matthew 6:6).  No workshop I have ever been in has offered more practical counsel to an aspiring writer!  Writing poems calls upon at least that much seclusion.  To be sure, it might be easy to view contemplative prayer as the culture views poetry: non-outcome oriented, inactive and non-productive.  And a poetry that is even a little like prayer calls its writer, and its readers, away if never entirely free from more overtly public modes of discourse.

Elements of contemplative prayer and dream are united in Valentine’s poetry—by the very real need of healing.   One reality of meditation and prayer, and, perhaps, of at least one sort of poetry—is healing.  A prayerful poetry that attains to the reality of healing requires not just physical seclusion and silence but a deeper silence, a silence of a different order, a being still, or rapha, a letting go—a trust—not so unlike negative capability as all that.

Here is Valentine’s most public prayer: ruthlessly honest, it is not a cri de couer.  It merges song and utterance and masters noise:  it utilizes only to collapses pronouns “I” and “we,” also collapsing “I” and “Thou”:

I came to you

I came to you
Lord, because of
the fucking reticence
of this world
no, not the world, not reticence, oh
………..Lord Come
………..Lord Come
We were sad on the ground
We were sad on the ground

“Fucking reticence,” a phrase that the poem maybe finds to be too glib, too defensive, falls short of sounding defiant.  It authenticates this public avowal of the lyric self, flipping to testimony, recouping in a kind of verbal ritual—of chant, of verification through incantation. A lower case “you” inflected into the upper case “Lord”; the chant summoned and become foundation, against an emphatic if heartbreaking claim on earth, or home, or homeland—an earthly source.  At its most elemental, “ground.”  Whatever public plague or ceaseless war or desolation visited upon the “we” in the last two lines is lost.  Voice, bared of all the veracity of public record and of history, remains.  Plea.  Petition.  And precisely because voice does not produce any visitation here, it holds up.  It bears itself.  The last two lines are both tenacious and vulnerable.   They are an irrefutable statement of acknowledgement, so they have healing power.

Here is a far more introspective poem by Valentine, the title poem of Door in the Mountain:

Never ran this hand through the valley
never ate so many stars

I was carrying a dead deer
Tied to my neck and shoulders

Deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest

 People are not wanting
to let me in

Door in the mountain
let me in

The circumstance seems dream-like, and primitive, an archetypal vignette, perhaps, of hunting?  Or is the circumstance a default grieving?  The “what” or “which” is beside the point, but the burden is not.  In either case, how actual this meditation is in its details: not “dreamy” but physical, concrete, bodily.  Every stanza.  Spiritual progress not by way of public testimony, but by way of inwardly turned address.  Not towards verification of cultural identification.  A mountain that cannot be found on a map and a door: back to animism: and the quiet, universalizing yet self-differentiated utterance “let me in.”  The voice here is not particularly vatic, the vocal gestures are all downsized to human.  The poem ends not with the shout of demand, or the whisper of capitulation but with an audible human plea to something other than human.

The voice is pressed outward.


When my wife and I fly together, sometimes as a measure against fear she will recite to herself the last stanza of Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.”  Said a few miles up in the air, perhaps it restores her to earth.  It is addressed not to the divine but to Coleridge’s son Hartley, yet it bears evidence of some order that is other than human, that culture—and horticulture—may embellish but does not invent:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
In greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Between the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eaves drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Of if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

“Heard only in the trances of the blast”—Coleridge’s single-most frightening line.  In part for its quiet, the understatement of something like a terror in happiness.   Unheard, or heard to no effect, except that of trance and turmoil.  Over and against such oblivion this verse paragraph merges the seasons in an address from father to son that is a benediction of secular ministry, moving from bounty to clothing to shelter and finally taking us out of doors and into winter.  It hangs so long on the line break following the comma after “blast” that voice seems almost to lose heart, and yet only after this quiet hesitation can the tentative conditional “or if” initiate a self-fulfilling vision of selflessness.  “To” is the most important, the most prayerful, if you will, word of the last line.  Not “at.”  Not “under”.  All actuality, even when silent, is expressive.  Creation always speaks out to farther reaches of creation. The sentence weaves the seasonal into simultaneity, relativizing space and time, till the future happiness of the child implies the future absence of the father, and revelatory stillness hangs like a drop on an icicle.


“Absolute attention is prayer,” Simone Weil said.  “Something understood,” George Herbert says of prayer.  Disciplined, jaw-slack listening.  Deliberately awestruck gaze.

You look at the world and it may seem whole or it may seem broken but the world looks back and some sort of reciprocity that is not romantic and is not of any school of poetry or any single denomination happens, and in our absolute attention we feel attended to:

………………………... . . for here there is no place
That does not see you.  You must change your life.


You can’t very well fall into contemplation or attentiveness and beat your chest at the same time.


The world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet—

Issa wrote this poem upon struggling to come to grips with the loss of his baby daughter.

I am not qualified to talk about poetry as prayer.  There’s not a poet in the world qualified to talk about poetry as prayer.


Even if it were possible, I would not wish to write down and share any prayers I pray deep into a sleepless night.


Novismus.  The newest thing there is.  Closer to thee than thee.  This freshness: it is not always found in prayer or poetry.


What poetry I experience as prayer is not ever my own but always that of others.  When I say to myself George Herbert’s “Bittersweet,” I can hear prayer in it, in both the rhetoric and the spirit of it, and I can hear it and use it and be used by it as by prayer.  But I can talk about it only as poetry.  Its motive is, as the prayer by St. Francis put it, “not to be understood . . . ”—and isn’t making yourself understood a limiting, workshop-ish concern—but “to understand”:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise,
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.

“Bittersweet” has only a twinge of the vernacular that erupts in Valentine’s “I came to you,” but the effect is the same: “ah, my dear angry Lord” introduces a familiarity between listener and speaker that is not possible on anything but intimate terms.  So this poem breaks with the vatic, the liturgical.  It turns divinity into an intimate.  It has proleptic effects in its balancings of contrasts like “love, yet strike,”  “cast down, yet help afford,” “complain, yet praise,” bewail, approve,” and the homely “sour-sweet”—so that the linkage of lament and love at the end, a personalized notion here, seems as inevitable as it does fresh.  A subliminal paradox of grace and will resides at the last in an instable syntax.   The last two lines—“and all my sour-sweet days/ I will lament, and love”—is the sense here that the speaker is bound to lament, and love, for the rest of his days, or that he chooses to lament and love these selfsame days? Free will or grace?  And that last comma.  The little hitch of it, the hesitant lump in the throat of it.

Perhaps a single ordinary day of turmoil is what this poem responds to.  No more, no less.

This poem about affliction’s spiritual functions is voiced on a human scale, not a transcendant superhuman scale.

I have come hear this poem the way I hear the Milosz line, as a charm as much as a poem.  But it is a faithful charm.  Its sincerity is different than the sincerity that we look for in contemporary poetry: its authenticity seems not finally to lie in its spontaneity but in how considered and even pre-tested it sounds.  The willingness avowed here seem already to have been experienced.  I think a line from of Bob Dylan’s great song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”: “But I’ll know my songs well before I start singing.”  Or apply to poetic practice what Herbert says in The Country Parson, a prose instruction manual from one parson to others and something of a self-help manual for anyone else: what is needed for a sincere poetry is a capacity for “dipping and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts before they come into our mouths, truly affecting and cordially expressing all that we say, so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep.”  Herbert does not storm the gates of the divine nor does he need to be stormed and ravaged as his friend John Donne did in his Holy Sonnets.  Instead, he deliberately submits to a stillness that creates the latitude necessary for some crucial reconciliations.   There’s cordiality here—contemporary readers of poetry, imagine that!   Not poetry as divine struggle.  Poetry as plea.


Odes to and for the beloved or odes to the moon or odes to the glass of water on the bed table or odes to rust stains on the ceiling or wet newspapers or unpaid bills scattered across the face of the earth are as prayerful love poems to and for the same each in all.


A prayerful poem simultaneously praises and protests.


Twentieth century poets who wish for poetry a more public role are unnecessarily confounded by the seeming inaction of poetry.  But that gets changed in Fannie Howe or in Muriel Rukeyser—all the possibilities of the psalms, including outrage, are restored to poetry.   For W. H. Auden, until his conversion to Catholicism, Christianity implied a covering up, and phony sublimation.  For me it is still his secular poems that come closest to the healing quality of prayer.  In “Sept 1, 1939” with its unifying yet self-differentiated affirming flame.  Or in these holy lines from “Homage to Sigmund Freud”:

But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night
………………….Not only for the sense of wonder
………………….It alone has to offer, but also

Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
………………….Us dumbly to ask them to follow;
………………….They are exiles who long for the future

That lies in our power.  They too would rejoice
If allowed to serve enlightenment like him,
………………….Even to hear our cry of “Judas,”
………………….As he did and all must bear who serve it.

The terms for the father of psychoanalysis and for a teacher figure could not be much more religious here, and there’s a winsome sabotage of propriety in the implicit comparison of Freud to Jesus.  This passage is more rapt and has more stillness than maybe anything else in Auden.  It runs deep by going for broke, and it goes well past broken.  It opens up to the subconscious.  It extends an allusive invitation to human needs, and in its disintoxicated reasonableness it manages to outfox the logic of suppression.  That is, it opens out to vastly internal transports.  In an unprecedented way—consider, for instance, how distanced by second-hand attribution and how dispassionate in tonal register “our cry of Judas” is here—the voice is one of sanity and humility.  At this charged moment, when the underlying mode of elegy defers to contemplation, the poem becomes prayerful.

Auden again, this time in his elegy for Yeats:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying.”

Poets, who should know better than to depend on cherry-picked one-liners, often tend to remember the phrase “poetry makes nothing happen” and to omit the following phrase “it survives . . .”  To survive, poetry must be passed on, not in the valley not of death but in the valley of saying.

In a poetry that uses a kind of intimately public correspondence, in the manner of the Epistles in the New Testament, Auden’s elegies to Freud and Yeats permit the essayistic into poetry, thereby lending the poems—poems of unflagging belief in the ideal of a selfless ambition—a candor of the personal and the citizenly: not a one-size-fits-all voice, but a more reliable voice, the voice of one.  The poet as citizen, not poet king.  And without reneging on how indispensable poetry can be.  Auden is as a secular Paul in his mid-career public poems, writing contemplative, prayerful epistles to hitherto unenlightened lands.


The latitude Auden brought to something one might call a prayerful poetry may still be more or less unsurpassed.  Yet there is an accommodating ease to these poems.  Tory Dent gets at a tough, even confrontational kind of contemplation.  Her “Atheist Prayer” in Black Milk, her final book, is a heartbreaking marvel of a long poem and I wish I could quote all of it.  Dent’s poetry enjoys some of the rich spectrum of subjects that the Psalms do: politics, history, personal loss, heedings, advice, protest, bitterness, gratitude, self-revelation, avowal, appeal.  Radically sincere contemplation that can rise to outrage.  “Atheist Prayer” is a prayer addressed to, among any and all other senses of audience, the polis.  In it, prayerful poetry is not a matter of begging or groveling. And its voice is not that of a single tribe or nation but of the whole tortured earth:

This is what suffering reduces you to,
as the Hanoi Hilton inmates attest,
those who signed confessions after weeks months years of torture,
“they can make you do what you don’t want to do.”
So we begged from North Vietnamese angels and Nazi party angels,
we begged from apartheid angels and Reaganite angels,
we begged yoked and harnessed by their self-imposed glory,
their smug, omniscient unattainableness,
and we actually cried from the inanition of our begging,
so vary attainable were we in contrast.
Our words uttered in unison, words gestate in the stomach and groin
rather than larynx, brought us, as if strong-arming us to tears,
to cry the spirit-breaking kind of cry only total defeat produces;
the self-lacerating, wholly humiliating, soul-eradicating kind;
the wounded, the sick, the lynched, the historically persecuted kind;
the kind emitted perhaps from those engraved names we read nonsensically
after a while, like calligraphy or hieroglyphs, on memorial monuments
decades later; multitudinous objects of genocide
who most likely begged, in rushed elliptical entreaties, for their life
from the small, dark corner of what’s left of their life,

Don’t you know yet?—

You, who have not had to beg yet,
listen to the coffin maker running out of nails,
listen to the yelling of babies, orphaned and red-cell depleted
who must receive transfusions with HIV-contaminated blood
because the clinics can’t afford the requisite lab equipment
for seropositive testing.  There are no metaphors,
no “happening” adjectives or interesting, original uses of language,
no new line breaks,
You just have to smell it. . . .

Prayerful?   There is gravity here and, yes, hope.  “Atheist Prayer” is unguardedly current in subject matter—AIDS, the plague of Dent’s generation and here with us today, right now.  Unguarded in its devotion to accuracy and memory, it dispels the mania of contemporary poetry for innovation.  This is a poetry that refuses to say no to any subject matter, or any level of degradation.  Or any level of human indifference—“the greatest of all human cruelties,” Proust said.  “Atheist Prayer” is only seemingly defaced and profaned by fact, by science, by holocaust, by sweeping comparison, by not-so-immortal public shrines.  Its voice does not at all seem to be coming from behind the pulpit: the poet is in fact speaking from a death bed, and the poem, however essayistic, is not a lecture but rather an explosive kind of intimacy—through a language at some points poetic and at some points informational and scientific and at some points vernacular and at many points openly heartrending.  “To cry the spirit-breaking kind of cry only total defeat produces” is as heartrending a line as poetry can produce.   The fellowship the poem propounds is of the elemental sort.  “You just have to smell it. . .”  however foul.  “Aethiest Prayer” is a bardo.  Of lament, and love.

With no new line breaks . . .

Whether poetry can be prayer—may that be fodder for the sophists.  I live more fully on this earth when I read this poem, if only to myself.


Adam Zagajewski:

I now think that introspection is pure boredom—that is, if you see introspection as self-absorption, and not as attending to the voices of others, the living and the dead.

And again:

Introspection isn’t boring when it’s transformed into prayer.  It’s directed outward then, toward power.  It becomes an arc linking weakness and strength.


I find myself almost at a loss for words.  Maybe a prayerful poetry speaks out, or intuits outward, with utter familiarity, in a voice rendered more not less vocal by discord, radically sincere in its testifying.  The human voice sounds not so much defiant as—and this must be an effect of cadence and syntactic spell—almost serene, and not to the purpose of compliance or bliss but to the purpose of action—in the case of the speaker of “Atheist Prayer,” a woman on her deathbed, the action of words, of getting it down in words humanly holy all the way to the end.  A prayerful poetry is a construction, as any poetry is.  A prayerful poetry is also a dialogue.  A cleansing, towards healing.  Yes, it has power, to be sure, but it can be almost unbearably open about its needs.  In the case of the passage from “Athiest Prayer,” what power makes possible is vulnerability.  Willingness.  The facts may remain unshaken.  The silence surrounding these facts is broken, though.

For David Wojahn

—William Olsen