Aug 282011


Here’s a terse, direct, almost telegraphic tale of South Africa, race, danger, immaculate whiteness and denial. It’s haunting, disturbing—reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee himself. Dawn Promislow is another hugely promising writer dg discovered when he read her fine first collection Jewels (the collection from which this story is taken) while jurying for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Of this book, Jim Bartley wrote in the Globe and Mail:

At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories.

Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We’re admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, but has lived in Toronto since 1987. Jewels and Other Stories was published by Tsar Books in 2010. One of the collection’s stories was short-listed for UK-based Wasafiri‘s New Writing Prize 2009, while the title story was anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be launched in South Africa next month (September). It has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011. You can read an interview with Dawn Promislow here at Open Book Ontario and another one here at Rob McLennan’s Blog. And here is another review of the book.




A Short Story by Dawn Promislow


The grapefruit was sharp in my mouth when I read the report. I was on the terrace, the morning sun filtering through the trees – a hot, still day it would be. It was one of those reports we read all the time, back then. Attempted sabotage of power plant. Et cetera. I got tired of it. I turned to the theatre listings – I was to book tickets for a play.

And then I went in to dress. There was my face, wan in the morning light, I remember it, that day.

My husband mentioned it a few days later. He said there was a colleague’s friend who needed somewhere to stay – a few weeks, that was all. Someone involved in the recent attempt. He’d stay in the garden room, there was a bathroom there, we’d not need to see him. Is this necessary Howard, I said. It’s necessary, yes, he said, you know it’s necessary. We had had someone else like this stay once, in that room. My husband was not afraid; I was not either. He thought the police would never touch him. I told the servants a man from Howard’s work would be in the room for a few weeks. They weren’t much interested, of course. I told them not to bother him, he’d take care of the room himself.

A few days later he came home with my husband. He shook my hand. Thank you, thank you, he said. I’ll be moving on soon. It’ll be alright, my husband said, it’ll be fine. The three of us had a drink. It was a strange time, then.

And then I forgot about it. Or I tried to forget about it. I never saw him. Howard said he had books with him. He was a university professor, before. At night, very late, he had visitors, the servants told me that. The visitors came in cars, headlights pooling in the darkness, they let themselves in at the side gate, I never heard them. My husband assured me, again, he’d be gone soon.

I had my own preoccupations. The children, both, finally away at university. I was free. I was working, then, on my series –  the white series. You’ve seen it. It was before then that I  started it.

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Aug 262011

Ben Evans is the executive editor of the arts review Fogged Clarity and a contributing writer for The Huffington Post’s Arts Section. A fascinating real-time study in new media, Fogged Clarity’s editorial vision showcases emotionally forward poetry, fiction, art, music, and interviews to thousands of monthly visitors.

So it’s no surprise that Ben’s own poems scrutinize experience, perception, and consciousness with resonate undertones of vulnerability and the all too human need to seek. There is an omnipresent “now” in his poems, suggestive perhaps of that perpetually slipping vantage point many of us attempt to understand through writing.

Ben’s work has appeared in Sugar House Review, Gargoyle, and Illya’s Honey, among other journals and newspapers.  He is currently studying poetry under Garrett Hongo at the University of Oregon. We are excited to feature his poems here on Numéro Cinq.

—Martin Balgach


“Couplets (in Meditation of Self-Defeat)” and “Western Tenet”

Poems by Benjamin Evans


Couplets (in Meditation of Self-Defeat)

A pitch through time zones
this gambit made for a home

that edified panic and hard hours
as some lesson or encased flower

to be smelled on that rare occasion
of freedom, that 10-minute kingdom

I could crack when my mind resigned
its clumsy adherence to myths and signs.

That is what one longs for: bondage?
More headaches unsoothed by coffee mug adages?

Yes. The passion dance shakes curated frailty,
sweet haven of doubt.  Earth, the ailing,

will have.  Fold in on oneself and wait
for sanction. Breathe air of those not sated.

Where the heart is: home.  Take it on the road,
hide it in bars and tins and bottles and float

the same streets you faltered.  Never get up;
never, never get up.  Self-inflict the glorified glut,

that was your first and only haunt.  Chant the doggerels
of life everlasting where want is a tempestuous curl

stretched and springing, always springing, back
to the tight coil of madness—night and its bluest black.


Western Tenet

Across the echo stretch of Omaha a copper hook
of moon floods the scarce wonder of my middle country.

The absent thrill of periphery, the fusing of pairs
for substance, are things I was never taught.

Close the windows, flick the radio, keep going.
Joni trumpets the pitch, billows in the lyric of night.

Music, its spastic thrall, embers in Wyoming
but the morning has a pale and clinical hum.

I carry quiet in blurred sight, but carry nonetheless,
widowed from phantom and the most harrowing charges.

Sleep is the name that burns white in Cheyenne, but this
is not travel, it is intent—A yawned song so that they may

speak my son’s name.  Lazy turbines churn above small
rivers where I pause to swim in tiny reclamations of

purchase.  Until, finally a desert, where I am
allowed soft thrashes beneath a moon, now whole.


Hear the tenured moan of the philistine, learning hard amidst
strength and excuse.  Listen to cellos played and cracked clean

on a sore I-80 numbed by twilight—that wraith, that diamond,
that twisting distillation that precedes a cold glean of utterances.

Stitching great gaps in the black line behind, there is nothing left
to be cleansed but the tailor himself.  The frivolous absolution needed to

close the windows, flick the radio, keep going.

—Benjamin Evans

Read an interview with Ben Evans in the Sonora Review

Aug 252011

Dan Wilcox is an Albany, New York, poet, photographer and social activist. That’s him in the photo above (with the sign) at a pro-union rally in February. This the second set of author photos Dan Wilcox has published on Numéro Cinq (see the first flight here). The Arts Center of the Capital District will have an exhibit “From the World’s Largest Collection of Photos of Unknown Poets” by Dan Wilcox from September 10 thru October 15. The exhibit, all black & white prints from film, will include photos of Albany poets Tom Nattell, Mary Panza, & others, as well as Allen Ginsberg, William Kennedy, Anne Waldman & Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Arts Center is at 265 River St. in Troy, NY, should any of you happen to be in the vicinity.

Dan has just released a new chapbook called Poeming the Prompt using poems he wrote last November in response to the Poem-a-Day challenge on Writer’s Digest Poetic Asides Blog. This little book, including his “Top Tips for Anxiety-Free Writing from Prompts,” is published by Dan’s own imprint, A.P.D. (albany’s poetic device, another pleasant day, another poeming day, etc.). He is the host of the Third Thursday Poetry Night at the Social Justice Center in Albany and a member of the poetry performance group “3 Guys from Albany.” He has been a featured reader at all the important poetry venues in the Capital District & throughout the Hudson Valley and is an active member of Veterans for Peace. His poems have been published in Out of the Catskills, Post Traumatic Press 2007, Chronogram, Poetica and in numerous small press journals and anthologies, on the internet, as broadsides & in self-published chapbooks.t, A.P.D. (albany’s poetic device, another pleasant day, etc.). .


Jean Valentine, Jayne Cortez, Gary Soto, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders & More

Photos by Dan Wilcox


Jean Valentine, with Edward Schwarzchild & Tomas Urayoan Noel, New York State Writers Institute, Albany, NY  — November, 2010


Jayne Cortez with Denardo Coleman, Sanctuary for Independent Media, Troy, NY  — October, 2010

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Aug 242011


It’s a pleasure to herald the return to these pages of Julie Larios, a friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, also part of the NC community from way back (not that NC really goes that far back, of course). These poems have a dark even macabre edge to them; the felicity of  line and phrase creates a tension with the darkness; as in life, the darkness sneaks up on you. The first poem, “A Diminished Thing,” is also a kind of structural pun. Each line “diminishes” the last word in the line above it (recommended, commended, mended, mend, men, me….).  The title is a nod to a phrase in Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird.” This is Julie’s second appearance at Numéro Cinq—see “On Reading the Poems of Someone Buried in Poet’s Corner.

Julie Larios has had poems appear in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, Field, and Margie, among others. Her libretto for a penny opera titled All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed was recently performed as part of the VOX series by the New York City Opera. She has published four poetry picture books for children, and she teaches at the Vermont  College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program.



A Diminished Thing

It was easy. Many recommended
me. I was praised, I was commended
for my durability, that is, I mended
fast and often. To mend
is a fine skill, all the broken men
told me.


Pincushion Doll

That matte skin
is what bothers people most —

she’s like a ghost
with no shine, all bisque,

in need of a brisk walk
to bring the peaches to her cheeks.

But since she has no legs,
that begs the question.

Below the waist
she’s chaste, all ballast,

filled with sawdust, not a model
for anybody’s body.

The striped fan in her hands
meant to be elegant

is simply sad. Half a woman
is a bad idea.

Girl, you better tremble.
You better pray

you’ll find a way to walk,
you better have hip sockets,

knees that bend,
a bottom half at bedtime.

Otherwise, someone
will stick a pin in

and there’ll be nothing.
No cry. You’ll become

a shy lady with buttons
in a basket on your head,

a pocket for a bodkin,
a thimble, scissors,

a spool of dark thread
fastened to your back.

—Julie Larios


Aug 232011


Here’s a fierce and pyrotechnic little diversion on the subjects of capitalism, masculinity, violence, movies, Space Monkeys, Tyler Durden, and Fight Club, movie and novel, from Brianna Berbenuik, a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Brianna is an avid fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. You can find her at Love & Darkness & My Side-Arm. She is no mean hand with an AK47, and her last contribution to Numéro Cinq went viral, as they say, when Bret Easton Ellis read it, liked it and tweeted it around the world (it was about, um, Bret Easton Ellis).



We’re the All-Singing, All-Dancing Crap of the World, or:

You’re Doing It Wrong – The Fight Club Identity Crisis

By Brianna Berbenuik


Missing the point is pretty standard fare in life. People tend to get so pumped up about Fight Club that they miss a lot about the movie. Mainly that the “Space Monkeys” are the worst fucking part.

(Although I will admit that watching Jared Leto get his face beat to pulp is kind of excellent. Maybe even better than watching Christian Bale axe him to death in the film adaptation of American Psycho.)

Fight Club is one of those movies that pretty much everyone in the Western world has seen, and a novel that most people have read (and claimed to have read prior to the film — PRO TIP: Fight Club the novel is exactly like the movie, except for alterations to like, two scenes. So no, having “read the novel” doesn’t give you any fucking cred).

So most people think that is what is being criticized, and overlook the inherent satire within the bounds of Fight Club and Project Mayhem – it is set up within the film to look like a legitimate alternative to the capitalist machine, but it is being skewered just as much as capitalism is.

Thing is, people get really fixated on the ideology of the movie, and fail to distinguish that there are two separate things going on:

1) The obvious critique and satirization of a Capitalist society, and how it is inherently repressive and one must find solace ‘outside the system’ and

2) The satirization of masculinity, and critique of masculine violence as a “positive” venue or positive manifestation of nihilist philosophy.

There are a lot of people who genuinely believe that starting violent all-male “clubs” and committing acts of terrorism are actually being touted as a solution in the Fight Club world. A hell of a lot of fight clubs began springing up after the release of the movie – a cult phenomenon. Cult is a descriptor here for a reason. The “inside joke” about Fight Club is that if you worship the general philosophy and take it legitimately seriously, you’ve entirely bypassed the point and become exactly what the movie is satirizing. Quoting Fight Club excessively does not make you edgy or intelligent (“Sticking feathers up your ass does not make you a chicken”), it just proves that you’ll fall for anything that seems remotely cool and anti-establishment. Plus, Fight Club quotes are so quippy and simple – they really elucidate nothing deeper. Durden’s one-liners (and they are abundant) are like easy-to-digest commandments that everyone clings to as profound. Funny thing about profound stuff – once it saturates the mainstream, it tends to lose its kick.

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Aug 222011


Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg and lives in  Toronto. I discovered her while I was reading books for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award earlier this year, specifically her delightful first story collection Got No Secrets. These two stories are brand new, stories written in a gutsy, head-on, colloquial style about love, sex and mis-connection among the urban 20-somethings she knows so well. Her characters are all compulsively themselves, driven, probably always, to make a mess of things, but vulnerable, full of desire, and often touchingly witty.


These stories are part of a collection of short stories, with a little poetry included that is called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known. I had this idea a few years ago to write a collection of stories that focused on the romantic and personal relationships that I, and people I was close to had experienced. I’m only in the process of completing it now, mainly I think because I needed more time to reflect on what I’d been through recently (a divorce, the loss of a friend of many years, a big break up) It’s been genuinely therapeutic to write, and in some ways, more personal than my other two books. I was influenced the most by other short story writers and poets for this collection. Aryn Kyle’s Boys and Girls Like Me and You, Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love, Amy Jones’ What Boys Like, Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once, Lynn Crosbie (I think I reread all of her books) and the South African poet Rene Bohnen (and her book Spoorsny) were probably my biggest influences. I also listened a lot to the singer-songwriters Simon Wilcox and Amy Correia, who describe the ins and outs of relationships in a way that is so very literary and precise. —Danila Botha


Two Stories Not-Exactly-About Love

By Danila Botha


The Other Other

I ride the streetcar with my headphones on. I pick the loudest stuff on there: Bikini Kill, Ramones live, Metallica. I silently will the blast in my ears to blunt the thoughts in my brain. I will myself to look like a normal passenger, not some fruitcake on the verge of an anxiety attack. I get off the streetcar and navigate my way through a packed Queen East neighborhood. There’s a sidewalk full of people speaking languages I can’t identify. I make my best guesses: Arabic? Punjabi? Turkish? Cantonese? There’s a high rise apartment building that looks a pile of cement blocks. Wet laundry hangs from the balconies, flowered bed sheets and bathroom towels hang in the windows.  There’s a club with a cherry neon sign that says XXX girls. A sign underneath it in gold script reads, Lap Dances: More Bang For Your Buck. There are tv screen-sized photos of the girls in the glass window of the doorway. I find myself studying them as I stand there having a smoke. Blondes and brunettes, one redhead. Three line bios with their names and origins. Yuki is from Japan. Claudia is from Trinidad. They’re wearing lingerie or bikinis, little triangles of lace or cotton, open legs, eyes on the prize. I look closer and see some cellulite, some stretch marks, on Kelly’s (a blonde from Norway) thighs. Striking but reassuringly not perfect. A more streamlined version of some of the girls I’ve seen at university, the kind with rhinestone playboy bunnies dangling off metal studs in their bellybuttons. These girls are the real deal; sex is just a transaction to them.

There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s and a 7-11. A Coffee Crime with homeless types hanging around outside, spare a quarter, miss? I really can’t, I say, I have to take the subway, and I forgot to get a transfer. Like they care what my reason is.

It hits me like a wave: Get a lap dance, drink a Grape Crush Slurpee. Just be normal and have sex. Just do it already.

An ad for Trojans on the subway says Double Her Ecstasy. I wonder if it’ll be as good as everyone says. I chew my cuticles. In two days I bit my nails down to the quick. I knock my flip-flops together. My knees vibrate involuntarily. I try a panic attack prevention technique my therapist taught me. I look around and focus on an object. I describe it slowly in my head. This is a newspaper. It’s grey and black and white. The headline says War on Terrorism. There is a picture of George Bush, debris where the twin towers once stood. The oxygen flows more smoothly into my lungs again. I uncurl my hands from the fists they have formed.

If I decide finally to have sex today, all this worry will be over.

Continue reading »

Aug 202011

1976-montreal-star-deskThis is the copyediting desk (the rim) at the Montreal Star in 1976, probably just before 8 a.m., the paper has been put to bed and we’re just hanging around. I am across the desk on the left. Peter Leney with the long hair is next to me, The gray-haired gent is Walter Christopherson, the copy boss. Barry Johnson would normally be seated on my right, but most of the sub-editors appear to have momentarily disappeared.

I just discovered this obituary from the Vancouver Province. I worked as a copyeditor (we called them sub-editors) at the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976. We worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., putting the paper to bed around 6 or so, then often adjourning to a bar across the street for a morning drink. Barry Johnson, a handsome, florid-faced old-hand, usually sat to my right on the rim, no doubt placed there to keep the new boy out of trouble. He had been trained as an air force pilot, but he knew his grammar and punctuation inside out and could amalgamate a dozen wire-service reports into a gorgeous 10-para story with nothing but a steel ruler, a ballpoint pen and a gluepot (these were the old days, let me tell you). He had stories to tell: how he got his nickname Precious, his career as a foreign correspondent, his sideline in the movies (spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a part in a TV mini-series on Casanova in France), his rather hasty escape from Greece in obscure and unseemly circumstances. Barry was a legend, a man bigger than life, but his star was falling, age was creeping on him. Sitting next to him as the newspaper technology changed around us (we were dinosaurs of several varieties), I was always in a spin, in awe and yet aware of the ache of loss, time moving on. I soaked up his stories, while at the same time incubating an idea for my first (published) novel Precious.

Years later, the Star shut down and Barry went through a bad patch. He ended up in Toronto, unemployed, scrambling. My book was out. I didn’t know if Barry knew how much he had influenced me. An old friend from my newspaper days (we worked at the Peterborough Examiner and the Montreal Star together), Mal Aird, arranged for us to meet at the Spadina Tavern. It was a stirring thing, handing Barry a copy of the book. It meant a lot to me; clearly it meant a lot to him. Now both he and Mal are dead. Time eats her children.



Former Province reporter and copy editor Barry Johnson died peacefully in hospital after a long illness Saturday night, with his wife and sister at his side.

He was 74.

Johnson, who was known as “Precious” to his many friends, had a long career in Canadian newspapers, with stops at the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald.

The former jet pilot jumped into journalism in the 1950s after a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His writing career also took him to London, Greece and Rome.

“He’s been everywhere,” his sister Patricia Holland recalled Sunday.

Regarded by many as a lovable scoundrel, Johnson inspired Douglas Glover’s 1984 murder mystery Precious, the tale of “a boozy, burned-out reporter with an embarrassing nickname and a penchant for getting into trouble,” according to Glover’s website.

via Barry Johnson: A precious one gone.

But see also Barry Johnson obituary with more life details here.


From Precious:

I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-five chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.

On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.

Twenty years.

But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.

Aug 202011

Here’s a charming romantic comedy that turns on the presence of an eccentric cimbalom player named Lazlo. Julie Marden is a violinist and she writes fiction about musicians, with verve and wry touch of comedy. She’s one of dg’s former students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she has already contributed mightily to Numéro Cinq—see especially her lovely essay on the use of thematic passages in Chekhov’s short stories.

Right now, in addition to performing with various professional orchestras, she teaches chamber music to children at the Tufts Community Music School in Medford, MA, tutors Boston area children in reading and math (through the “No Child Left Behind” program), and teaches academic writing skills at an on-line college.  On the side, she also performs in amateur theater productions: Clytaemnestra in Euripides’ Elektra (in ancient Greek), Puck, Hippolyta, and Snout in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”  Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” and Elena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”  She lives with her daughter Nora, their dog Gracie and a cat Panther in Concord, Massachusetts and Walpole, New Hampshire.




By Julie Marden


When Jeff first recognized Nina’s voice, he was relieved he hadn’t answered the phone. He’d just walked into his two-room Washington Heights apartment, carrying a package of unassembled moving boxes. Nina was leaving a message, offering him a weekend job playing principal percussion in a college orchestra in Vermont.

“The piece we need you for is Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite . . .  rehearsals Thursday and Friday evenings, dress rehearsal Saturday morning and the concert Saturday night . . .  pays three hundred dollars plus hotel room . . . it would be great see you again, Jeff, how are you?  Please let me know right away if you can do this.  The concert’s in ten days. I’ll have to keep calling people if I don’t hear from you soon.”

Jeff leaned the flattened boxes against the wall. He hadn’t seen Nina in over a decade, but her breezy, lyrical voice hadn’t changed.  Fourteen, fifteen years ago, they’d been students at the New England Conservatory of Music.  They’d never so much as made out, but Jeff remembered her thick red hair, sonorous viola playing, and a forwardness that had sometimes puzzled him.

He took a beer from the fridge and brought it to the sofa.  He wouldn’t take the job. Three hundred dollars to drive three hundred miles to play with an amateur, student orchestra.  No wonder he was moving, leaving music altogether.   In his twenties, Jeff had gone to conservatory hoping to win a job in a full-time, first-rate orchestra, like the Boston or Chicago Symphony. But he’d never won a job with any full-time, professional orchestra.  Now, thirty-seven, he lived hand-to-mouth, job-to-job: a club-date here, a recording session there, the occasional freelance gig, a handful of private students. He wasn’t starving, but he’d had enough.  In less than two weeks, he was moving back to Hammond, Indiana to live and work with his widower father, who ran the tool and die company that Jeff’s grandfather had started in 1942.

Jeff finished his beer and set the can on the coffee table, next to his answering machine. The room was dim. The red light on the answering machine was still blinking.  Jeff reached over and erased Nina’s message.

By Sunday afternoon, most of the moving boxes were assembled and packed. One remained open, though, parked by the fridge, filling with last minute objects like the fake-copper-rimmed clock Jeff had once found in his parents’ attic and brought to his first apartment in Boston.  He’d just removed it from the wall by the stove and was lowering it into the box, next to a framed, bubble-wrapped photograph of his mother. The phone rang.   Jeff was sure his father was calling. He reached to answer, glancing habitually above the stove, only to see empty air and a circle of clean white paint where the clock had just been. He forgot to speak.

Continue reading »

Aug 192011

There is a mystery, nature’s shadow, that haunts our relationship with our pets. So often they are the reservoirs of the love, pity and dreams of connection for which we are not allowed an outlet in our ordinary lives. The fierce intensity of this relationship is easy fodder for satire, but the utter strangeness of the attachment subverts easy criticism. There is something exceedingly human about our love for small, furry non-humans. Human beings use language, make art and keep pets. Go figure.

Karen Mulhallen is an old and dear friend. DG and his sons have stayed at the cottage in Irondale and the house on Markham Street. We knew Lucy (pictured with Karen in the accompanying photograph; NB dg’s dog is named Lucy, too) and Starlight and Dawn and Dusk, the whole menagerie and their successors. So these poems have a special, personal importance. Karen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar and a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto. DG edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence. Her most recent collection, The Pillow Books, will be published by Black Moss Press this fall (see cover at the bottom of this post; see also three poems from this book published on NC in February).

The current poems published below are from an even newer book, Domestic Love, of which Karen writes: “It is about our relationship to domestic animals, cats dogs etc. The history of visual art is so rich in human interactions with their pets. And there are some wonderful prose and poetry books which also explore this. I thought, having written so many things which include pets it was time to devote an entire book to our relationship with these creatures with whom we are so privileged to share our lives.”



Poems from Domestic Love

By Karen Muhallen


May on the Haliburton Road Number 23
No Exit

A fallen bird’s egg, broken blue
white stars of snow drops
masses of trilliums dog-toothed yellow
violets pendulous bells, the deep yellow fuzz of dandelions
moss, spikes and fur, acid green softness
violets deep
myrtle light
sky blue cumulus puffs
a few threads of cirrus
beaver pond a blue eye trees at far shore
waterlily pads in the morning gold
dried pods of rushes ellipse of pond
milk weed
verticals and horizontals of fallen trees
wind, hardwood
scrub with elder flower pods
white birch
lake caught from elevation

No Exit Road
hump, rise and fall and then fall no more.
Over the quiet a bird calls,
a plane leaves a stream a double wake,
alone on the lake one power boat
time and it passage
from light to dark.
The fox crosses as the sun rises from right to left
taking gold on his tale

Six in the morning and no one on the lake,
gold spreads
shore approaches shore
bird calls and calls again,
chorus begins.
The birch tree is white, luminous white against the even
morning light which spreads
down the hill to the eastern shore.
Every sapling, every green branch

Gold becomes greener, hill becomes
clearer, bird song

I lift my eyes to the hills whence
cometh my peace, comforts do increase,
gold moves off from shore becomes
dark mirror moves toward
the south. North becomes day
gold takes the lake, silver
birches spread their limbs, tall
white. Birdsong becomes even, continuous
No exit from Road 23.

The fox crosses down as the sun rises right to left
taking the gold on his tail
road and trees are dark, the black top smooth
then the city spires arise
on the road a small mound of dead fox.
One option, no exit,
out out brief candle.

Once there was a carpet,
..there was a road,
..there was a woman;
..and nobody loved as much as she,
..but me I loved him more…


Spitz of the Cimelia

It was a misty early morning when the boy first saw the shadow
move from the stand of willows behind the burnt red of the
dogwoods near the pond’s edge across the grass toward his
bedroom window.

Not yet nine o’clock and not a school day and he blinked the sleep
from his eyes and looked again
but there was nothing there.

The mist never lifted that morning, the sky was an even light grey,
and the trees, black willows
arms stood dark but blurry in the density of the watery air.

All night the sound of the rain had entered his dreams,
and this morning there was still a drip drip drip from the trees
and the roofs of the farm buildings lying low on the land,

not far from the quaking bog.
The birds began their commotion despite the grey of the morning,
and one of the farm cats, a male, the large orange tabby

began to yowl near the back door.
All early winter they would leave their wet mittens
and soaked boots on the small side porch.

Gradually a boot or a mitten would disappear from the heap, and
throughout that early winter morning departures for school would
become moments of crisis, one child or another

hopping on mismatched footgear down the lane to the school bus.
He was only seven, going on eight, his brother was five and in
kindergarten, one older sister, only a year older,

and at home a little sister, a toddler.

One late spring day, when the day lilies were just in bloom, we
were out in the woods playing and stopped to eat our lunches,
peanut butter sandwiches. Out of the brush streaked a comet of
white fluff

and the sandwich was gone. He was ready.
After that we went to the woods to see him, and we always
took him his own lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.

And we were not afraid, though he was a wild dog.
A wolverine, perchance.
A good dog, as Beowulf might say.

As the bog flowers began to appear, pitchers opening to swallow
the first insects of summer, he led us deeper and deeper into the
woods and one day showed us his cache,

his cimelia
of all the lost boots and mittens.
He was aerialist, master of the woods and grasses,
leaping in the air to catch a field mouse,

all summer he was our companion in the woods and the vly
but  each day with us he moved closer and closer to the house
and then he began to sleep out on the porch until winter came.

As cold deepened he moved inside
usually slept next to my bed, the lower bunk.
He would not be in the same room as my father,

nor any other person over six feet tall
even though my father fed him most of the time.
Table scraps, never dog food.

He refused dog food.

We were four, but he hung out with me most of the time
because I did the most  things a feral dog would be interested in-—
woodsy things.

His name was Duffy, but I don’t remember how he got it.
He was a whitish spitz, sort of a cross between a Finnish spitz
and the yappy cotton candy dogs you see.

Canis pomeranus,  according to Linnaeus, not nearly so big
as a Siberian husky, or one of those Asian Chow-Chows
but his tail curled up and he had a thick coat and small ears.

Spitze are wolves of course, but he never barked like a wolf.
And if he were in touch with his ancestors he wouldn’t say.
He did not like cats, but he was otherwise purely virtuous.

The quaking bogs were our playgrounds.
The one nearest to Oneonata is completely closed over by moss,
with no trees until you get right to the edge.

In the middle it’s like being on the sea on a huge underinflated
air mattress. Its border is all cattails, large sausage spikes rising up
nine feet, rushes with their rounded stems and small yellow

flowers. Thick mats of sedges in circular mounds moving out from
the shore of the bog, their sharp edges cut us as we played, and the
bulrushes protruded from the watery bits of the bog.

The part I didn’t tell is the one instance a dog ever talked to me.
I was ten, just about to turn eleven, and out by a stream
on our farm, the sky was a very deep blue above the cumulus

clouds but their bottom edges were slate grey and threatening,
suddenly I thought he was there with me, saying goodbye.
Though neither his presence nor his talking was finite

or organical, as Blake would say.
And I never saw nor heard of him again.


Elegy for Starlight

Like a flight of geese you came through a February blizzard
A small black white and bronze mass of carapace
with bright blue eyes

I warmed you by the fire as they departed.
Home, home at last.

If I were to write the chronicle of your life
staving off the maw of Father Time

devouring always his young hostages to fortune
it would be to begin now, one year after your passing

while grief is fresh, but tears
have ceased, or so I would believe.

This morning the far western shore
replicates, duplicates itself

in the glass of water.
You are my Pangaea;
I your Gondwanaland.

And now to put an end
to all my journeying

open the window
let the warm love in.

This morning at last
the lake is glass on the far side
ripples nearby, light mist rising.

This Sunday morning
just before departure

the lake at last gave back
that quiet I had sought

the mist had gone;
it was now sheer glass

so smooth a passing motorboat
made scarce a mark  or sound

to the west someone was gently
tapping, hanging perhaps a

picture of the mind or of the
thumbnail fawn toad

that hopped across my path
as I ascended to depart.


A Delight of Pigs
Overcomes Household Stigma

Singularity being the Mark of Cain in human society,
the only solution is the acquisition of a household of warm fur

Markham Street Household of large-haired warm females
language not confined but defined by barking growling hissing
chattering whistling and cooing.

Steady diets of fish and organic vegetables for Miss Lucy.
Steady diets of organic greens, melons and good books
for all other inhabitants.

Collage being the ultimate post-modern art form, democratic
and encouraging of viewer participation invites you to enter
Markham Street interactive space and play with the pigs
Dawn and Dusk

who being toupees on eight feet are easily distinguished
by colouring, Dawn of course having an orange face
and her sister a puff of smoke as light falls.

To bury one’s face in a guinea pig’s back is to smell
a meadow of wild flowers on a warm summer day

The story of how Dawn and Dusk came to live in a corner
of the dining room will have to wait for another episode of
How the House Turns

but it should be stated that Dawn and Dusk, aka the Little Girls,
prefer the corner of the dining room to the great outdoors,
to their antique carved wood Rajasthan dovecote in the garden,

to the kitchen and the living room, and might
even prefer the dining room to the grasslands of Peru
where their ancestors roamed free and mucky
for most of their organic filled green grass lives.

For Dawn and Dusk, the fly in the proverbial ointment
is the giant: ‘Pssst, Sis here comes the Giant’.
The giant like the pigs is warm blooded with immense

circular green and yellow hands off which tumble lettuces, alfalfa sprouts, melons, green peppers, apples, sliced green grapes,
coriander, swiss chard, and in spring and in summer

the sweetest of fresh grasses, lemon balm and parsley.
Before Dawn and Dusk came to live in their two-storey palace condominium, it was the home of Starlight.

Starlight had blue eyes, huge testicles, and a little penis
which only appeared when his belly was gently pressed.
Starlight took tea regularly with the giant,

and the giant white fuzzy called Miss Lucy.
In the evening, he lay on the white sofa with the giants
and he smiled, and sometimes contently pooed and peed

on whomever he lay upon. The white sofa
was Starlight’s favourite corner of the universe
because it also came with a big book

which the giant of the large hands held up conveniently
for him to chew. His favourite book was The History of Reading,
though he also had a nibble on Through The Looking Glass Wood.

Alas, Starlight passed over, much to the sorrow
and the continuing depression of the giants,
but the chewed corner of his favourite book remains.

—Karen Mulhallen

Aug 182011


Ian Colford is an author and librarian (not a bad side occupation for a writer) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has had stories and commentary published in about 20 different print and online literary journals including “Laurianne’s Choice” in Numéro Cinq. His 2008 story collection, Evidence, was shortlisted for several prizes, among them the Thomas Raddall, the Danuta Gleed and the ReLit. It won the Margaret and John Savage Award for best first book. 

The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a novel the action of which takes place in an unnamed South American country during a period of political turmoil in the 1960s. Hector is fifteen. He has committed an assault, and rather than risk his arrest his parents are sending him away to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm in Envigado. For a number of months his father’s behaviour had aroused Hector’s suspicions, and the assault was motivated by Hector’s jealousy of another boy, Jorge, on whom his father had been lavishing attention. Nadia is Hector’s girlfriend. Hector’s brother Carlos is also mentioned. A few years earlier Carlos became involved with a resistance group. One night he was abducted by armed thugs. He has not been seen since. Parts of the novel were composed at writing retreats in the US (Yaddo) and Scotland (Hawthornden Castle).



From The Crimes of Hector Tomás

By Ian Colford


The rickety train skirted the mountains, passing villages that were no more than clusters of huts and shanties, occasionally winding its way up into the hills and chugging laboriously across a high plain. There were frequent stops. Hector could hear and see, in the warmth of greetings and in the eyes of children trying to sell plastic Virgin Marys, molasses drops, and dried figs to the passengers, that the train’s arrival was a momentous event for the people who inhabited these parts.

Progress was slow. He had plenty of time to drift from one sweltering compartment to another, to watch the ocean pass by on his right and the mountains on his left.

His belongings filled a single small valise: clothes, toiletries, a deck of cards, a few prized superhero comic books: The Flash, Spiderman. He wore his only pair of shoes, which still bore traces of Jorgé’s blood. The lazy swaying of the train made him restless and he did not like the way his traveling companions looked at him—sullenly, as if he represented all that was troublesome in their lives. The soldiers in particular, of which there were many, seemed annoyed by his presence. He did not trust any of these people and when he roamed from one compartment to another he carried the valise with him. He took it with him to the toilet. He saw how the other passengers watched him and knew they did not trust him either, and for the first time in his life he began to suspect that the black hair and swarthy complexion he had inherited from his mother’s family marked him in some way. The man who examined his ticket did so with a wary frown, as if he could hardly believe there wasn’t some trick being played on him. Sitting by the window half dozing, Hector inadvertently met the glance of a young mother, and at the moment of contact she gathered her baby close to her breast as if to protect her from the evil eye. What did they think? That he was dangerous? A murderer? Many people had black hair and skin darkened by the sun. It did not mean they were murderers. He smiled at the woman with the baby, but she lifted her chin and did not smile back. A few moments later she stood, collected her things, and left the compartment.

The landscape was parched. The sun beat down without mercy and Hector recalled the geography lesson in which his teacher had told the class that certain regions of the country had not seen a drop of rain for a hundred years. In some areas people working the fields paused and stared as if mystified, watching the train pass them by. Hunched and motionless, they seemed like stumps from huge felled trees. Oxen and goats huddled behind sun-flayed wooden fences had a look of doomed resignation about them.

Continue reading »

Aug 122011



What It’s Like Living Here,

by Allison Kaufman in Connecticut

Living by the Numbers 

Seven days.  You check your watch constantly.  You live and die by the ping of the calendar on your phone.  Realize that there is slight irony in the fact that you are writing of this place with only seven days left before there are seven states between you and this desk.  Seven being the magic number, not in the lucky sort of way.  Seven being the number of days that you work twenty-four hours.  Seven being the number of blocks there are in the daily schedule.
It’s only been three years.  You’ve done everything you can.  You repeat this mantra.

You’ve been a parent now for three years.  Not biologically, but in dorms.  You sleep in an apartment that is likely larger than any you will ever own.  There are 10-foot ceilings, a handrail that snakes around the living room, and a kitchen whose appliances and cabinetry are older than you are.  You install pendant lighting.  You paint (Nantucket Grey).



Your charges in your first year were 16 junior and senior girls.  Your toughest disciplinary issue was dealing with a girl who left a douchebag (literally) with a bow on it in front of a neighbor’s room.  You fought laughter while scolding the seventeen-year-olds.  You noted that there were only 4 years separating you from them.  You wished you had thought of the douchebag gift your senior year of college; a roommate of yours, the one you and your friends called Sandy Vagina, could have used a wakeup call.
Continue reading »

Aug 082011


Sheryl Luna’s poems are brimming with sincerity—and they seem to elucidate the actual while reveling in the cosmic. Her work offers a palpable humanity, stemming in part from her multi-cultural heritage that she simultaneously strives to reconcile and illuminate. Having known Sheryl over the years, I remain impressed by her unwavering self-examination and emotional tenacity.

Widely accomplished as a poet, critic, and teacher, her credentials are also noteworthy: Sheryl Luna won the inaugural Andres Montoya Poetry Prize for emerging Latino/a poets, and her first collection Pity the Drowned Horses was published by University of Notre Dame Press. She has received fellowships at Ragdale, Yaddo and the Anderson Center. She also received the 2008 Alfredo del Moral Foundation award, funded by Sandra Cisneros. Poems have appeared in Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Amherst Review and others. She is also a Canto Mundo fellow. She blogs at Dialectical Migrations and writes a review column for the El Paso Times.

It is certainly a pleasure to have Sheryl’s work here on Numéro Cinq.

—Martin Balgach


Four Poems
By Sheryl Luna




If you try to ruin me,
saddle me with man-made
doubt, I’ll gallop past large pines.

Aspen will bleed fall as I run
forgotten trails, seeking
a sunlit path.

My sway back will sweat slick.

Arctic and blazing,
I’ll grow wild,
rear up and kick.

If you try to break me,
remember, I’m a maverick
on a mad run.

Corral me?
Herd me?

A lasso burns my thick neck.
I thump, trot, and kick.

Use me like property?
Cage me and blame me?

I’m hard-hoofed, snickered trouble.

Just when you think you’ve won,
I’ll buck.


Continue reading »

Aug 072011

Illustration by Frank Fiorentino


My Owls

Essay by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

In the stories I’ve been writing lately, all set in and around my neighbourhood, a great many animals have arrived as if in the Eden of my mind, they are a necessity. They are not always kindly creatures. And they are there in the created neighbourhood of my stories even when they are not necessarily in my actual neighbourhood. And even when they are something like the animals that can be found in my actual neighbourhood, they are certainly not real in the way they enter the space of the stories, which can be both violent and inexplicable.

Yet, there are animals in my neighbourhood.

Over the May 24th weekend — a sacred Canadian long weekend — a Screech Owl was spotted in a Linden tree on my street.

It was neighbour # 82 who noticed the owl in his front yard tree and told me about it — actually, stupidly showed me the owl in his tree. He can be forgiven, as he did not know what havoc my imagination would play with this knowledge. The story should start here but this was, in fact, the second central problem, now I see, in retrospect.

Continue reading »

Aug 032011


Line Up

Tahrir Square, August 2011

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian

Since the last time I wrote about Egypt after the Revolution, just a month ago, the atmosphere has changed. The military police are back in Tahrir Square after several recent protests became violent. Tanks have once again been deployed. And in the side streets, vans and more police sit, at the ready. It’s Ramadan, and according to local newspapers, “this year it will be more political than previous ones.”

Today, August 3, history is being made. Today Hosni Mubarak has been flown in from Sharm el Sheikh. His trial is set to begin. Today, armed with my camera and accompanied by my driver and my husband, I went to Tahrir Square. In addition to the police, we found others there, like us, gathering, waiting. Wondering what is to be.


Bridge over the Nile at dawn


On our way with Mohammed

Continue reading »

Aug 022011


The DOW is down 266 points today; America waits for the consumer to spend money so we can get out of the current crisis; the consumer won’t spend money because the debt ceiling deal promises more uncertainty about pensions, medical insurance, and jobs; it’s a merry-go-round spiraling down; and the ancient gods appear as cartoon musclemen in 3D instead of guardians and saviours. In these David Helwig poems, Lady Godiva has joined the Tea Party to protest paying taxes and money distracts us from infinities. There is, perhaps, nothing to do but write comic poems about the current situation, Post-Empire poems, in the current NC jargon of the day. These poems are taken from a 47-page long poem or group of poems called “Seawrack.” David Helwig, as most of you know, is an old friend; he looks like an amiable Old Testament prophet in his author photo. He is an amazingly prolific author of poems, stories, novels and memoir. His book of mystery stories called, appropriately, Mystery Stories, came out last fall. Oberon Press is publishing a novella called Killing McGee this fall (the main character is obsessed with—among many things—the 1868 assassination of  Darcy McGee). And Biblioasis will publish in 2012 a collection of David’s translations of Chekhov stories, one of which appeared on Numéro Cinq last year.



From “Seawrack”

Poems by David Helwig


All men are mortal: this
the philosopher’s first premise.

And second, Socrates is a man.

Outside our bedroom, night rain
comes down, chill, polyrhythmic.


In each ear tickety percussion distracts
us from infinities. Once discovered
a pretty frisson bedecks the edge of use. The muse
tickles herself with feather dusters, lust
whiffling its stroke to court her smallnesses.
Catch trifles sidewise to consequence;
a premise means only its brisk shape.

Is it bearable to the hurt ones,
our sheen of sensation? A blue garden
tinctures the periphery. Skywise
space hollows itself for events. Old pal,
you looked so very brisk that night
when sweet baby came home with a dog
trained to sniff out the truth of flowers.

Seven is chosen the absolute number
for measuring beauty. Listen closely, my clever ones,
your by-names will not be forgotten. Though taste
of cake grow bitter as myrrh and musk,
your sandals shine  deliberate and gold.
And nothing is forsworn, beauty
becomes itself by being nothing else.



The slap of a screen door closing
in nineteen forty-something,

hot August, flies in their hundreds.

Drifts of goldenrod, seasonal, prophetic,
grow tall here in the changing light.


Who was a child
in time’s elisions,
summer, the prime
element sand.

That was. That.
Doorslap. Voices
from unceilinged bed-
room to bedroom.

The thrill, to hook
a cold bright living fish.
Always the secrets.
That. Flies beyond count.

Time’s elisions:
unseen, unheard
some great wheel
turns the sky.



Scrubbing garlic at sunset,
in a bucket of mud-red water,

fat bulbs shedding earth.

Take to the road, night traveller,
maybe never to come back.


Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
all barefoot through the mud-mush,

around them holy universe a-twirling,
buddy on the old railroad beating time;
they dandled Eve’s sweet apples,

mud-red to the knee as they sang hymns
about the attainable tough-ass farms
with mortgage documents long as bibles.

I’ll feed you spicy buds with sticky fingers
the Little Mouse lined it out
that fox-tailed whistle tune in quavers.

Felicity stood waving on the tracks,
baked seven moon-pies for buddy on the railroad,
and mud was ever with them.

Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
and coming home with their new hymns

that run downhill like water.



That season here again,
bees scour late-flowering thyme,

sun in retreat, still hot, still bright.

On the porch an open book
exposits biological enigmas


Ha. Ha. Ha. Sudden glory,
writes the son of the angry vicar;
a salutary warning against democracy.
Nota bene: the pope farts like all men,
matter in motion. The king instructed
in mathematics can measure
his royal enormity. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. The clown howls
for his dildo-diddle-darling,
waves a mute stuffed penis
at the delighted crowd.
The honeybee queen mates
with her drone at the top of the sky,
rips off his parts. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. Long-leggedy
dancers fall to the ground,
subjected. Fat boys in drag
achieve transfiguration,
matter in motion. King Flea
sucks blood in the bush
of the loveliest. Ha. Ha. Ha.



Shorebirds unmoving
like rock, sand, shell; invisible
here now or long gone.



In accord with one accurate word,
or a permission from the high mind
that watches intently the idea
of ourselves joining it here

in proportion, in right proportion
recorded in books bound in calf
shelved in dark lengths
of present time; clock clicks onward.

Beyond the window, the pale daffodil
sky darkens to green, violet, and offers
its blackness for stars as it must
at such a becoming moment.

Within, what has achieved persistence
the abiding-with, what was, is,
what will be the event of quiet mind
in accordance, in order, in this room.



The crickets silent,
frozen to death or hidden
in somewhere somehow.


The cold mood, canine:
a punctuated screech
from monkey mind
distracts it; meanwhile

the flirt and wimble
of the so fleshly
Miss Concinnity dis-
roots all deepness.

Hocus-pocus, the dog-
latin creed broods
over the winsome drumming
of the theologian’s heels.

Bob the urgent surgeon
redesigns the ductwork.
The joker, brindled,
pink, lies standing up.



Wet snow, a north wind,
the poet’s occupation—
reading all weathers.


Lady Godiva, doubly bareback blonde
waves her scrawled sign,
and the citizens keep house

bar Tom the poet, who word-
struck, avid for inklings,
peeps her from toe to temple, bush
silvery, crinkled, lichenous.

Asked for opera, give them the works,
everyness of tricks and trades,
of which, of whom on all the notes,
dancing dogs and the climactic squillo.

A  sad tale’s best for winter.
Lock the doors with the universal key.
NO ADMITTANCE. The forbidden
matches the perfectly desired.

Lay out the tale of Hansel and G.
or Caesar mounting the throne of Egypt
as Jack the neighbour spills the beans
on a mutant township of titans.

Hopping on one foot, gump, gump, gump,
prevents an easy slenderness, while grace
goes toothless and badly bald. Sharp,
the surgeon’s foresight tunes the interlock.



Recall that bedroom,
the stove pipes from the kitchen
cold in the mornings.


The cuckoo-clocks hoot all night
in that tallest of landscapes.
The accidental virgin carries
a clutch of red morning flowers
out of the Schwarzwald.

Beyond the far-sighted, mountains
where birds and animals master
six available languages;
those who arrive achieve
the unlikeliest of wisdoms.

Wotan and the Seven Dwarfs
audition for Hollywood
up on the crags as Windy and Sol
run bounding arpeggios
on lengths of natural horn.

Those who can, do; those
who can’t, sing opera—
the second law of the brothers Grimm.
Each goddess must proclaim herself
free to die of her own disease.

Beyond the white mountains
the cuckoo-clocks gossip hourly
about the private life of demons,
and a translated avian soprano
hangs caged in each hot kitchen.



Socrates is mortal: QED.
The concepts dance like numbers.

Philosophers tell lies about desire

and the wisdom of hairless boys:
to prove the obvious.


In each eye the texture of pelt distracts
us from infinities. The spooks gabble
their old malarkey, wholesaling thrills. The muse
pleases herself with foxtails, fingertips; a humming
electrifies the dapper suit of epidermis.
Exit: he goes out. Wash dark things white.
A conclusion reveals only its own perfection.

Is it still bearable to the lost ones,
our aching gladness? A blue garden
awaits us, spans our path, felicities
of petal, air, twilight. Old dog,
you chewed the bones of so many good things,
after sweet baby showed us her tattooing
all in the language of spice and ecstasis.

Seven is the absolute number
for measuring it all. Listen, my pretty ones,
while I recite the four lovely imperfections. Though truth
grow bitter as the crimsoned and demented,
your toenails will preserve the gloss of silver.
Whatever is forsworn, foregone, beauty
becomes itself still, clamant, ubiquitous.

—David Helwig

Aug 022011


Here are new poems from Melinda Thomsen, a freshly minted MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, but already dazzling and prolific. Melinda Thomsen’s poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Alimentum, Heliotrope, and The Same.  Anthologies include Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews and Spring from Gatehouse Press, Great Britain. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Naming Rights in June 2008. These poems are from her next collection, Field Rations, to be published in October 2011.



From Field Rations

Poems by Melinda Thomsen



Suppertime, December 28, 1944


Every night his mind ticked on
at 1:00 AM while she was fixing supper.
Was it like last time? Biscuits, fried chicken

and bean salad they saved from noon.
She’s sculling water through some peas.
He felt cool air running around his hands

and his stomach pressed against the sink.
Movements of her fingers echoed in his.
His tongue moved around on its own

but what was it saying? His hand drifted
up her leg and across her back, over
and over like the touch of butterflies

that seemed to land on her shoulders.
He was kissing her when the pulsing caress
of her lips answered his, was she there?

Was she stopping to close her eyes?

Read the rest of this entry

Aug 012011

Photo credit: Kate O’Rourke

Here’s a timely (always timely) essay (exhortation) on the art of reviewing from Michael Bryson who has already contributed mightily to these pages (see his stories “Niagara” and “My Life in Television“). Taking Pauline Kael (the late, great New Yorker movie critic) and Susan Sontag (the late, great novelist, memoirist and critic) as his models, he makes a case for articulate, argumentative, critical criticism, the cut and thrust of literary debate, and the healthy expression of superior literary taste (READ: criticism as demolition) as a corrective to the marketplace. For several years Michael edited the magazine The Danforth Review, a lively, inventive online short story journal that went into mothballs in 2009. He is restarting the magazine this fall, getting ready to take submissions (see full bio and details below the post).



Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition?

By Michael Bryson

For years I’ve wanted to write an essay about criticism: what is good criticism, what is poor criticism, what frustrates me about criticism, what makes me go, yes, yes, yes.

Increasingly I suspect this essay will never get written.

My mind is unsettled. Sometimes I want critics to be harsher: stop waffling! Sometimes I want critics to be more judicious: stop rushing towards unfounded conclusions! Sometimes I abhor mis-readings; sometimes I’m pleased to be shown an unexpected side of a work. Sometimes I’m keen to read a gender-based analysis; sometimes I just can’t take any more; enough already.

Yes, I’m finicky. I’m not the ideal, consistent reader. I don’t have a still point upon which to ground direction to others about how criticism ought to be done.

As I’ve said before, I write reviews. In my reviews I engage the work; I try to provide evidence-based analysis; I try to recognize that interpretation is dialogic (it’s part of a larger give-and-take process). Reviews need to be able to stand alone, be a unit of communication, transmitting meaning.

But I don’t believe in still point truths, or monologues. But, then, sometimes I do. Every once in a blue moon I enjoy a good polemic blasting.

Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004), a brilliant compare-and-contrast essay on the work of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, has returned me to my unsettled thoughts about criticism.

T.S. Eliot said: “Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow.”

Seligman could be paraphrased: Between provocation and judiciousness lies the graveyard of failed criticism.

Okay, the parallelism is rough. Here’s some real Seligman:

You can’t be a great critic–you can’t even be an interesting critic– without a talent for provocation. An imp of the perverse perches on the shoulder of the critic as she formulates her sentences, a still, small voice will warn her, “Caution! A statement like that is bound to land you in hot water!” And if she’s a genuine critic, her imp will throttle that voice. The aim is to make people think; the means is, much of the time, to make them mad. Judiciousness may be central to all criticism, but judiciousness without provocation of some kind is like nutrition without flavour. Who cares if a boiled turnip is good for you? Through angry responses to something you’ve written can be unpleasant, they’re not nearly so demoralizing as no response. At least they’re evidence–sometimes the only evidence–that the audience has listened (95-6).

Argument is how we learn; argument is how we think (166).

Ninety percent of everything, as Theodore Sturgeon observed, is shit; in criticism, the percentage must be ninety-nine (167).

[Adler] just can’t stand [Kael]. And that’s where criticism begins. Call it sensibility or call it taste, we embrace what we love and trash what we loathe; but the response–the recoil–comes first. In articulating her loathing, Adler gives me a better handle on my love. That makes her a real critic (168).

[Kael] and Sontag were magnificently uncompromised, but their work isn’t bursting with “sympathy and understanding.” Those who can have a moral obligation toward those who can’t, the obligation that Henry James articulated so beautifully when he counseled, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” But criticism–unfortunately for the criticized–isn’t human life. Notwithstanding their many enthusiasms and their palpable delight in praising, Sontag and Kael don’t deserve any rewards for kindness. And that’s as it should be. Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith (186-7).

We’ve all read hatchet jobs by critics who are scandalously inferior to the artists they’re judging. … I’m talking about geniuses, though, not nitwits, and geniuses, almost necessarily, are monsters. There’s something monstrous in the titanic will it takes to produce a world-class oeuvre, not to mention the coldness it takes to pronounce somebody else’s work wanting (187).

Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one’s time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic’s responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag’s phrase, “mercantile values,” somebody has to say no (188).

It’s a measure of [Kael’s and Sontag’s] greatness that what we take away from their work isn’t the no but the yes. They fret, they recoil, they prophesy–but their enthusiasms sweep them away. No one can write great criticism without bringing so much passion to the task that she risks making a fool of herself (189).

Passion. Provocation. Demolition. Titanic wills and monstrous somethings. Argument is how we learn, how we think. The bottom line: how to be a great critic.

Seligman doesn’t waffle. He’s not finicky.

He clearly loves his two subjects, but he rages frequently at Sontag and finds numerous occasions to wish Kael had written something different, something better.

Here’s more Seligman:

I hope you don’t think that because I’m crazy about her writing I bought all of her opinions. “Infallible taste is inconceivable,” she wrote; “what could it be measured against?” If Sontag’s taste seems less controversial, surely that’s because she’s allotted most of her criticism to Olympian work. This determination to play the admirer is what, in her view, justifies her claiming she’s not a critic: “I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious.” So do I, but her distaste for that side of the job doesn’t free her from the mantle of criticism; it just makes her a critic who doesn’t do half her job. … For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates (187-8).

I savoured this book. I didn’t want it to end. I wish I could say one of my well-read friends recommended it to me, but the truth is, I picked it up off a used book table at a sale my employer was having to raise funds for charity.

Chance, in other words, introduced me to Seligman (and a Google search has pointed me–grateful–to more of his work). Kael and Sontag, of course, I was somewhat familiar with. My bookshelf includes Kael’s collected movie columns, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies (1996), and Sontag’s canonical Against Interpretation (1966) and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).

Here’s part of the entry of December 19, 1948, the year Sontag turned 15:

There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few:

The Counterfeiters – Gide
The Immortalist – Gide
Laccadio’s Adventures – Gide
Corydon – Gide
Tar – Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within – Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Ester Waters – George Moore
Diary of a Writer – Dostoyevsky
Against the Gran – Huysmans
The Disciple – Paul Bourget
Sanin – Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trombo
The Forsyte Saga – Galsworthy
The Egoist – George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways – George Meridith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel – George Meridith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heinie, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman… [This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]

… Poetry must be: exact, intense, concrete, significant, rhythmical, formal, complex

… Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence …

… Language is not only an instrument but an end in itself …

Kael is not so easily quoted. Let’s just note that her selected/collected weighs in at 1291 pages.

Both of these women, Seligman notes, were lightning rods for adversaries. Both also became major critics before the late-1960s expansion of feminism.

Titanic wills? Here’s the quotation chosen for the back cover of Reborn: “I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!”

Nothing was going to hold Sontag back, and nothing did. What Seligman finds in her criticism, however, are swells of contradiction and intense sophistication to both hide and reveal herself. She was gay, but for a long time didn’t say so. She identified with the North Vietnamese, but then broke with the ideological left in the 1980s.

On February 6, 1982, Sontag gave a speech at a Town Hall in Manhattan at what was supposed to be an evening of left-wing solidarity. She said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who ready only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Over boos and catcalls, she neared the end of her speech:

Communism is fascism–successful fascism, if you will. … I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Uproar. Accusations of betrayal. Surprise from Sontag that the reaction was so vocal.

Seligman uses the example to reinforce that this is what great critics do; they get our attention and make us think. He asks:

Would Sontag’s detractors have been happier if she’d gazed with fiery eyes into the crowd of the Town Hall and declared, ‘Communism resembles fascism’? Oh, God, some of them probably would have. But Sontag has too much pride in her craft to let her language turn into mush (95).

A similar example from Kael, from a 1992 interview with The Oxford American:

OA: I’ve heard a few people say that they have stopped reading you because you have made them feel stupid at times for liking something they shouldn’t. Have you ever–

Kael: Tough (140).

Yes, tough. Good answer. But what I didn’t find in Seligman was a way to separate the geniuses from the nitwits.

If the geniuses are “monstrous,” what are the nitwits? Evil?

If 99% of criticism is shit, what are 99% of critics? Pigs?

And what of the process of reviewing, criticizing, and dialoguing? What of give-and-take? What of that thing superficially called the literary community?

If demolition is “probably the primary critical task,” what of community building? And how much weight should be give that “probably”?

The further I get from the book, the more my finickiness returns.

Yes, demolition is a legitimate PART of the critical process, but the primary task? Isn’t the primary task to know thyself and to be aware of your own biases? And to present a strong (not mushy!) argument (evience-based) that acknowledges the biases? And always, I’ll say it again, to acknowledge that argument is dialogic? That no single argument can dominate and end the debate?

In December 2010, the New York Times ran a series on “Why Criticism Matters.”

The Times introduced the series as follows:

We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.

 But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)? Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?

At the time, I started to make notes to provide my own response to this series, but I couldn’t complete it. My wife, then, was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. While thinking through questions about literature is part of what sustains me (I have my own titanic will and youthful journals, though they’re nowhere near as intense as Sontag’s), my life-energy was needed elsewhere.

Life/art: it’s a separation rife with unintended consequences.

Anger, Seligman notes, can be a source of great criticism. I distrust my anger. I have written out of anger and later regretted it, though even in reflection I usually think my impulse was true. And the result, pace Seligman, if often more interesting.

I was angry at the Times series. It didn’t go deep enough, I thought. It didn’t provide me with what I felt I needed out of it. Which was what, exactly? I can’t recreate that now. I was in a unique situation then, one what swelled with fear and an intense need to live simply one day at a time.

The situation reinforced my natural impatience for stupidity.

I wanted to write an essay: “Why I hate social media.” But I don’t hate social media. I hate that people post banalities. I don’t care that you’ve just crossed the street, brushed your teeth, or are meeting your friends at the art gallery.

I’m okay with receiving links to YouTube videos, sharing one of your favourite songs from the 1990s, but, please, not twenty times a day.

What I wish more people did, is write reviews, write commentary, write analysis. Don’t just send witticisms about Toronto’s Ford brothers (yes, you’re clever; and Atwood may well make a good mayor), provide argument.

Argument, as Seligman says, is how we learn. Argument is thought.

Go deeper. Compare and contrast. Risk being wrong. Risk contradicting yourself. Risk offending someone.

Risk alienating your friends.

It will make you more interesting.

Please. Please. Pretty please.

Thank you.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. It’s a book about, well, angels and shit. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. In fall, 2011 TDR will once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club. He has new fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly (Fall 2011) and new fiction (“The Places You’ll Go”) recently online at Urban Graffiti. He co-parents a daughter and a son. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months ago. She has survived the disease, the treatment, and a lot else besides.