Mar 312011

On the Hunt for Elusive Literary Game: the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s Oldest Literary Prize

by Natalia Sarkissian

Last Friday night my husband and I took a cab to downtown Milan. I’d invited him out to dinner at Il Bagutta, but it was a working dinner. Once again I had my Numéro Cinq press tags clinking around my neck and was hot on the trail of Italian literati. Because Il Bagutta is where the Premio Bagutta, the oldest Italian literary prize was established in 1926 (and first awarded in 1927) and ever since, Il Bagutta has been frequented by the crème de la crème de la crème.

“Please hurry,” I said to the driver, checking my watch. We were already late for our 9 pm reservation. What if the maitre gave our table away and we couldn’t get in and observe the literati wining and dining? What would I say to my editor at Numéro Cinq who was waiting with bated breath for this insider’s view?

“It’s on Via Bagutta, off San Babila,” I added when the cabbie began thumbing through his map of Milan. “Between Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone.”

“Relax,” said Mauro, grabbing my hand. “We’ll get there when we get there.”

I sighed and sank back into the plaid seating. Mauro can be so Italian about being on time at times.

As we sat in a traffic jam on flashy Corso Buenos Aires and then inched along stately Corso Venezia, I inhaled and told him about Paris and compared it to Milan.

Back in the twenties and thirties famous Parisian cafés like Le DomeLa Rotonde and La Coupole had seen literary giants—Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir—come and go. In his memoir, a Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes the atmosphere, when he was young and penniless, drinking in the company of Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford.  Likewise, Milan’s Il Bagutta, established at approximately the same time as its Parisian counterparts, offered good food, good wine and attracted home-grown Italian talents of stature; one of its first artistic patrons was Riccardo Bacchelli (a prolific novelist, essayist, playwright and librettist) who, in 1926, rounded up a group of gifted friends one night for dinner. Together they started the Bagutta literary prize at the spur of the moment. Later, Dino Buzzati, Mario Soldati, Ingrid Bergman, Lucia Bosé (Miss Italia 1947), Arturo Toscanini, Sandro Pertini (President of the Italian Republic 1978-1985) and other legends flocked to the restaurant.

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Mar 302011


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines.  If you would be a man, speak today what you think today in words as hard as cannon-balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson


My car has a factory-installed blind spot detector, a system that the manufacturer, Volvo, calls BLIS, or Blind Spot Illumination System.  (The actual device, fortunately, works better than the acronym.) It consists of a camera mounted below the mirror that is wired to a tiny orange light inside the car.  The dime-sized, triangular light illuminates when another vehicle is moving somewhere in my car’s blind spot.  I’ve grown quite fond of BLIS, quite accustomed to the orange glow, especially in the dizzying commutes on Southern California freeways.  It’s a helpful aid.  A cheat, if you will, a machine doing the vigilant work that the driver is supposed to do. With only a quick glance at the side mirrors, my peripheral vision catches the orange light and I know that something lurks in those hidden spaces.

I wonder what it would be like to install an automated blind spot detector on myself, BLIS for the soul, illuminating the parts I fail to see.  What would such a device show?  Would it light up when my hot temper flares, or when I’m impatient with my kids or insincere with my wife?   Perhaps it would reveal  buried things about my desires, expose my snap judgments toward other people, or render visible my hidden fears and anxieties.  How embarrassing it would be to have at a party, in a room full of strangers, glowing as a boorish lawyer droned on about his wonderful job, or lighting up like Rudolph’s nose on Christmas Eve as a pretty woman crossed the room. But if I’m already aware of these shortcomings, even in brief, then maybe that’s not what this blind spot detector would do at all. Maybe it would only flash on when least expected, revealing aspects of myself I can’t see, or don’t want to.  How often would that little orange light glow?

For a good portion of my adult life, I’ve turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great nineteenth century American transcendentalist writer, whenever my vision gets cluttered .  When I wonder about the world and my place in it, his writings have a restorative effect on me. I own this wonderful, worn paperback book, Self Reliance: The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson as Inspiration for Daily Living.    It’s a condensed version of Emerson’s essays edited by Richard Whelan.  My copy is almost twenty years old, the cover worn to a sun-bleached smoothness, the pages gently yellowed. A small part of me is ashamed that I turn to this much-abridged, ‘best-of’ version of Emerson’s work rather than reading the whole text, but the Whelan book has been with me since I was a young man more prone to short cuts and self-help aisles in the bookstore. I’ve underlined and starred dozens of the pages. In many ways, the book has been a trusted companion for most of my adulthood.

The voices which we hear in solitude grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members, Emerson writes, always speaking directly to my heart, always illuminating the dark corners of my introverted being.  He may ignore the danger of his philosophy, that tendency toward self-righteous solitude and mild paranoia that self-reliance can engender, but he reassures me.  This world can be a transcendent place.

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Mar 292011

Keith Maillard

Here’s a gorgeous yet chilling excerpt from Keith Maillard’s creative nonfiction book, Fatherless. Keith was five when his father went to work at the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River. Originally part of the Manhattan Project (nuclear material for the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Japan came from its reactors), Hanford grew rapidly during the Cold War. Now it is mostly “decommissioned” although vast environmental damage remains. Keith’s memoir is chilling in part because of the very ordinariness of domestic life within the immense and hugely dangerous nuclear manufacturing community but also because, to a large extent, not much has changed—the illustration of the fast breeder reactor bearing Keith’s father’s signature below is eerily like the many plant drawings the press has been using to explain the current nuclear plant disaster in Japan. All of this is aside from the poignant recreation herein of Keith’s search, as a grown man many years later, for the estranged father he never knew. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection. Many thanks to our mutual  friend, Lynne Quarmby, for bringing Keith to the NC fold.




My father began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1947, the year I turned five. He pasted into his scrapbook only one reference to his official work—a pen and ink drawing so anomalous that it jumped right off the page. He’d made a clear, simple, easy-to-understand drawing of a “LIQUID METAL FAST BREEDER REACTOR (LMFBR),” labeled all of its parts, and signed it “E. C. Maillard.”


Within his first year in Richland, Gene Maillard had clearly established himself as the number one song-and-dance man in town. In 1948, while living in a dormitory room and composing on a “collapsible” organ, he wrote “Our Richland,” a song that told the story of the building of the “atomic city,” a song approved by the General Electric Company suggestion department.

The Richland Junior Chamber of Commerce produced a brochure to accompany the “Atomic Frontier Days” that were held during the first week in September of 1948. Celebrity guests Roddy MacDowell, the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne entertained, with Rudy Vallee as the Master of Ceremonies. The cover of the brochure is illustrated with a crude silhouette-style drawing in red and black—the skyline of a booming town with smoke rising from smokestacks, a great flair of white-out at the center, the whole works crowned with an atom, its neutrons zipping in orbit around the dot of the nucleus. The white nothingness that represented nuclear power is firing straight lines of white in all directions and hangs over rolling hills where a chuck wagon and three men on horseback are making their way across an empty desert spotted with sagebrush.

Under the heading of “Let’s Look Back,” the Junior Chamber of Commerce presents its version of Richland’s history.

In the year 1943 a group of men sitting around a table in Washington, D. C. seriously watched as one of their number pointed to a tiny spot on a large-scale map of the Pacific Northwest. Richland! Here, they decided, was the place! Thus was sown the seed from which sprouted a great plant and a thriving community.

Within a few months the pastoral quiet of this agricultural region was no more. Giant bulldozers leveled great tracts of ground, massive trucks roared day and night along erstwhile country lanes, new roads appeared and factories exploded into being from the desert sands. The fantastic barracks town of Hanford materialized to house thousands of construction workers. The nucleus of a vast, secret plant, born of wartime necessity, had been created.

The old farming center of Richland was evacuated and transformed into a modern community designed to eventually house thousands of production workers and their families.

Erection of plant and village ended; production of plutonium began. Only a handful knew “What”, and they were not talking. The village kept its secret well, so well that the nation and the world first learned of its existence only after the announcement of the A-bomb.

The Second Annual Atomic Frontier Days was held in August of 1949. The accompanying brochure was no longer free but now cost twenty-five cents; the cover had changed from red to blue, from hand-drawn illustration to photography, and featured “hard hats and assault masks in the northwestern desert.” Gene has pasted a clipping to the front of the brochure—a picture of close harmony being sung by the “Atom City Four” and a shot of himself with the caption: “A soft shoe tap in black face was an Atomic Frontier Days variety show headliner as done by Jean Millard.”

The Richland Chamber of Commerce expressed its gratitude to the people who made the 1949 Frontier Days a success, and one of them was my father. Once again, we are given Richland’s proud account of itself.

Scattered deep within this natural isolation are this nation’s most modern industrial plants. The vaunted American mass production, the assembly line method by which we lead the world in motor cars, in refrigerators, in turbines and egg beaters and pots and pans, is merely a fumbling dress rehearsal compared to the engineering know-how, the construction skill, the unusual operational methods required in this plutonium manufacturing plant.

The product itself, plutonium, is a man-made element which will be usable a thousand years from now for either war or peace. It is a packed power which will not deteriorate with time, which is a million times more powerful than any known fuel. Its manufacturing raises problems of production, storage, worker protection, national security, and world-power-plays, as no other American made package has ever done. It is owned by a free people; it bears a union label.

At the August, 1950, Atomic Frontier Days, thirty-five booths were set up in Riverside Park, offering “fun and refreshment.” Professional wrestlers went at each other in two exciting matches, and there was a fireworks display with “more than a dozen set ground pieces and bursts of two and three aerial displays at the same time.” The Queen of Atomic Frontier Days was crowned, along with her four princesses. And, of course, there was a free variety show—with twenty-three acts that included a comedy routine starring “Tony the Atomic Clown, Little Atom, and Koko, Hydrogen (H20) Bomb.” The night ended with the entire cast doing “Baked a Cake.”

Gene is listed as one of the directors and appears a number of times in the program, dancing twice with his fifteen-year-old student, Gail Muller. He’s a year away from turning fifty but in the pictures looks younger than that—a lean, fit, grinning showman in two-tone oxfords and a theatrical suit. Two shots catch each of them at the height of a “wing”—balanced in the air with arms flung outward, one foot kicking and the other striking the floor with a toe tap. We can almost hear the laughter and shouting voices egging them on, feel the electrifying exuberance of their performance.

The last photograph in the sequence shows Gene and Gail acting out the story of “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” The image is so crisp that we can see every detail of Gene’s hairline moustache. Gail has one foot resting on the top of a folding chair. Gene is polishing her classic black patent tap shoe with a rectangle of cloth. On the bottom of this photo, Gail has written in a schoolgirl’s careful hand—“To the nicest and best dancing teacher anyone ever had.”

When my father was working there, Hanford’s only business was the manufacturing of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Not until 1963—when the N-Reactor added its bit to the Washington Public Power Supply System—would Hanford’s nuclear energy ever be used for any peaceful purpose whatsoever. Hanford officials constantly reassured those employed at the plant, or living near it, that they were perfectly safe, that “not an atom” escaped, but Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in North America. It had always discharged radioactive material into the Columbia River and continued to do so until its reactors were decommissioned. It fouled not only the river but the groundwater beneath it and left behind fifty-three-million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that are leaking. Radioactivity from Hanford has been detected as far away as Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. By 1951, the plant had sent more than 700,000 curies up its smokestacks, most of it in the form of iodine-131. For the sake of comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident released less than 25 curies.

On December 2, 1949—in an exercise called “the Green Run”—the Hanford Works intentionally released radiation into the atmosphere so that scientists could monitor the resulting radioactive plume and apply that knowledge to the monitoring of Soviet nuclear production. My father—and anyone else living near the Hanford site—was exposed to twenty times more radiation than the limit allowed by the lax standards of the day. Readings on vegetation afterward were nearly a thousand times over that limit. The Green Run was conducted in absolute secrecy. No one was warned. The public would not know a thing about it for years.  By the time that Gene could have first read a newspaper account of the incident, he would have been eighty-five years old.

On July 31, 1997, I interviewed my father’s old friend, “Brink,” and a younger man, Carl, in the Travel Lodge in Delta, British Columbia. The notes I took are sketchy, cursive. Most of what I heard about my father, I wrote down, but large chunks of the interview didn’t make it onto the page.

We sat in the room as the daylight faded away and no one bothered to light a light. The TV was on, a bunch of pros playing a game of something, somewhere—baseball? The volume was low. Carl—along with a possible shadowy fourth presence—was watching the game, but Brink wasn’t. He was talking to me. In the distorting glass of my memory, the scene is set in twilight, lit with the flickering pixels of the TV screen. Brink was friendly enough, helpful enough, but as blunt and straight as a hammer handle. Initially, I read him as a man who had reached an age from which he figured that there was no reason to speak anything other than the plain truth, and I liked him for that.

I see from my notes that Brink had been an engineer. He and his family moved to Richland in February, 1948. Brink originally worked for DuPont, but his employer kept changing names. DuPont morphed into General Electric, and there were several others—United Nuclear, Martin Marietta, Isocan Rockwell. The word “Hanford” must never have been spoken because it doesn’t appear in my notes at all.

When Brink first arrived in Richland, Gene was already there working as a draftsman. He lived alone and avoided crowds because he didn’t want to “get a bug.” Later he bought a little two-story apartment building in Kennewick, lived upstairs, called it “the Maillard building.” Brink laughed at that—at Gene’s seemingly boundless ego—and so did I.

Gene “performed tap dancing”—yes, that’s exactly what I wrote down, so that’s how Brink must have put it. He’d told Brink a story from his early days on stage. Gene was in a comic role, so he used pecan shells to make himself look cross-eyed, but the effect was too realistic. Instead of finding him funny, the audience felt sorry for him. There was nothing worse, he said, than trying to be funny and not getting any laughs, so he worked out another gag. When he made his exit, he was supposed to tip his derby. He lifted it up, and there was another derby under it. He lifted that derby, and there was another one yet—and then another one. He got a big laugh for that one.

Brink told me that he’d built a little studio in his basement for his daughter, Kippy. He had to dig out the basement first because it was only half dug when they’d moved in. He finished it and tiled it, and that’s where Gene gave Kippy her tap lessons. Gene came every Tuesday night. He charged $2.50 for an hour. Then he’d stay and eat supper with them. As Kippy got older, she gave lessons to other kids in that basement studio.

Carl joined the conversation, and for awhile the two men reminisced about Kippy. Carl was a talkative guy. He’d known my father too, had seen him dance lots of times. Richland had been packed with remarkable people like my father—interesting, talented people. It was a nice little town, a great place to grow up. I’d read a lot about Richland by then, and I agreed with him—it must have been a nice little town. Carl said that he couldn’t imagine any other high school anywhere in America that would have had as many PhDs teaching in it. Yeah, he said, it was a nice little conservative town—making sure I got the point. He didn’t need to do that; I’d got the point awhile back.

“When I was growing up,” I told him, “I imagined my father dancing like Fred Astaire.”

Carl laughed at that. “Oh, no. He wasn’t like Fred Astaire at all. He did fast tap dancing, really athletic stuff… definitely athletic. If you had to compare him to somebody, he was more the Gene Kelly type.”
I wanted to bring Brink back in. “Did Gene talk about his wives?” I asked him.

“Well, he had three wives. He didn’t talk about them too much. One couldn’t be without her mother. She wrote to her mother every day. If she didn’t get a letter from her mother every day, she’d get upset. She’d say, ‘I didn’t get a letter. I have to call her.’ Gene asked her, ‘Do you want to live with me, or do you want to live with your mother?’ She said, ‘I want to live with my mother.’ ”

That was my mother—I’d recognized her instantly. I waited to hear the rest of the story, but there was no rest of the story. Could my mother have actually said something like that—made that admission? If she did say it, maybe it had been on the day she’d left him.

“Gene knew you were a writer,” Brink said.

“Oh?… Did he ever talk about reading anything I’d written?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Before I could find another question, Brink said, “Gene had the impression you didn’t want to see him.”

“That’s not true. I did want to see him.”

“Well, that’s not the impression he had.”

I’d known right from the beginning that there was something going on below the surface, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I kept coming up against a hard edge in this man. Gene and Brink had worked together, had known each other for years. They’d been friends. I now read Brink as very much on Gene’s team, so what did that make me? Some unknown guy who’d arrived too late, appearing out of nowhere to ask a lot of dumb questions? It was as though Brink felt it was his duty to present Gene’s point of view as clearly and firmly as possible. “He thought your mother had poisoned you against him,” Brink said.

“Maybe she did,” I said. “I know she tried to do that, but…” I made an expansive gesture. “Here I am.”

“He had cancer, you know… testicular cancer. He had a testicle removed. The day he got out of the hospital, he got into his car and drove into the desert. His car broke down. He got stuck in the desert. He had to walk back. It was right after the operation.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We could never figure out why he’d done it,” Brink said. “It seems like an odd thing to do… to drive off into the desert the day you get out of the hospital.”

We must have talked about other things after that, but I can’t remember them. The last entry in my notebook might have been the last thing Brink said—“Gene always talked low. I never heard him raise his voice.”

Talking to Brink was as close I was going to get to talking to Gene, and it badly shook me. For days afterward, I woke up feeling not right—a particularly nasty variety of not-right that was like waking up sickened by the stench of bad breath and realizing that it’s your own. I felt as though I had received a message directly from my father—one that predated the “fuck you” he’d sent me in his will when he’d disinherited me. If I was going to continue the conversation, what was I going to say back to him? I’m sorry about the surly letter I wrote to you when I was twenty?  Gene would have been sixty-one when he got it—if he got it. He was still working at Hanford then. He might have talked to Brink about it. I hated the thought, but maybe that had been my only chance to connect with my father.

I knew why Gene had driven into the desert the day he’d got out of the hospital. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone, but I understood it because I could have done the same thing. Walking in the desert with one ball, Gene had been thinking about me, I was certain of that. How the hell do you get testicular cancer? I didn’t have a clue, but I suspected that being dosed with several hundred thousand curies of radioactive iodine probably didn’t help.

—Keith Maillard


Mar 262011

Character grouping and gradation is one of the more arcane and least understood (never mind being taught) aspects of novel composition. For me, the primary source on this is E. K. Brown‘s essay “Phrase, Character, Incident” in his book Rhythm in the Novel. Brown was a Canadian academic and critic with a bent toward formalism, but he died rather young, before he could make as large an impact as he might have. His book is out of print, and it shouldn’t be. See my book The Enamoured Knight (pp. 128-131) for a succinct outline of the structure. “By character grouping I mean the composition of characters based on shared traits; these traits are varied, diminished or intensified from one character to another, that is, they are graded. Another way of saying this is to remember how Madariaga thought  of Sancho as the same as  Quixote only transposed into a different key.”

Vanessa Blakeslee is a former student of mine, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She does a fine job here of analyzing character grouping and gradation in the structure of three contemporary novels. Vanessa’s fiction and poetry have appeared recently in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, New York Quarterly, The Bellingham Review, Southern Poetry Review, among others. She has received grants and fellowships from Yaddo, Ragdale, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and the United Arts of Central Florida. She directs Maitland Poets & Writers, a community organization which focuses on expanding the literary arts throughout Central Florida.





Shades and Mirrors: Character Gradation as a Demand of Resonance in the Novel

By Vanessa Blakeslee


In my early twenties, I embarked on my first attempt at writing a novel. Loosely based on events passed down in family history, the work sprawled across several generations of Italian-American women as they struggled to overcome the trials of love and death. Key word to note: “sprawled.” As an inexperienced writer of long fiction, I sensed that what my characters suffered from most (outside of the sick husbands and dying babies on the page) were composition flaws. Workshop feedback repeatedly struck the same chord: often my female characters seemed like the same person. I gave each of the daughters distinguishing characteristics, one a love for music, the other for business and career, yet somehow these differences failed to establish sufficient motivation for subplot, unity and resonance to develop. To make matters worse, the large cast of secondary characters was comprised of relatives who seemed to pop in and out of the story at random. After much teeth-gritting, I stowed the several hundred page draft away. I simply lacked the craft technique to approach fixing the mess.

Not until I was a student in the MFA in Writing at Vermont College did my interest in the novel’s architecture resurface. One of my teachers, Douglas Glover, pointed me to an essay by Yeats, “The Emotion of Multitude.” He also suggested a somewhat hard-to-find but indispensable gem of a book, E.K. Brown’s Rhythm in the Novel, and a concept Brown refers to as “character gradation.”[1] According to Brown, graded characters share traits, attitudes or experiences with other characters to varying degrees, thereby composing structural parallels in a narrative. Such structural parallels lead to the creation of the echo effect in a novel; without the parallels and repetition in place, the narrative turns to sprawl. I found a used copy of the book online and ordered a contemporary novel Glover recommended for the study of subplots, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. I added to my list Glover’s own study of Don Quixote, The Enamoured Knight. The following semester my advisor Xu Xi suggested novels by V. S. Naipaul and Muriel Spark might make worthwhile subplot-studies as well. Books piled high, I began with Brown. Almost immediately my long forgotten novel draft came to mind as I hunted after the question: how does the relationship between structural parallels and the desired echo effect of resonance in a novel work exactly?

Resonance derived from an echo effect has been well-explored territory for other writers. W. B. Yeats called the effect of subplotting “the emotion of multitude” in his essay on King Lear:

The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight…Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose father, too, have been killed.[2]

“Mirroring” may be a better term for how a subplot relates to the main plot, for in a mirror people and objects reflect but can appear slightly sharper. Notice that in order to achieve “the emotion of multitude” Shakespeare uses other family members or two different family groups along plot/subplot lines who then may interact and observe one another and achieve the mirroring effect. And it is this mirroring within the plot-subplot relationship that creates the echo effect because subplot allows for multiple sets of characters who share situations and traits to interact with the main plot, adding sub-stories while keeping the long narrative from sprawling.

To better pinpoint how my sprawling multi-generational novel went wrong, I took a close look at the three novels mentioned above: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The former two titles use family dynamics in the character gradation and subplotting to achieve resonance while the latter uses a group of schoolgirls, but the gradation works the same way.

In these novels, the characters involved in the subplots that are closely related to the main set of characters (often as other family members) contain an element of gradation. Subplot characters often mirror larger characters acting on the main plot, but can be less ardently subjected to their desires. The author may give the subplot characters the same or a similar core trait as their counterparts but “shade” its intensity, which helps push the subplot characters toward an outcome which differs from that of the main plot. As the characters of the main plot and subplot(s) interact with one another, this gradation becomes a key factor in the development of thematic complexity and resonance.

I prefer to think of the concept as “shading” and borrow from the world of visual art, perhaps because I tend to picture the novel as a grand scene akin to Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre with characters inhabiting the foreground, the center and the background. If we take a close look at these novels and trace the textual paths and tie-ins, we can better understand why the writers make the compositional choices that they do for their characters.

To accurately trace how a writer accomplishes character gradation or shading in a narrative and because the subplot characters are so closely related to the main plot characters, it’s important to find exactly where the subplot cuts into the main plot and out again, the points where the plot weaving occurs. Only then will the writer’s techniques of “character doubling and splitting” stand out clearly. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover explains how Cervantes uses character doubling and splitting in Don Quixote:

Note how clear it is that such structures (subplots, groups of characters, and develop through a simple doubling or splitting process. Characters in novels replicate by cell division. They split off a semblance of themselves with various characteristics shaded differently, either exaggerated or diminished. Thus the curate and the barber are a pair, though one is clearly more educated and more officially significant. The two of them spawn a younger, more energetic version of themselves in the person of Sampson Carrasco. Don Quixote spawns Sancho, an illiterate, tubbier, plain-speaking version of himself… [3]

Character gradation and “shading” ranges from a more complex system of parallel structures in lengthier works, such as in Don Quixote, above, or A House for Mr. Biswas which I will examine later. For a more basic plot-subplot-lesser plot structure using shaded family members, Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist makes an excellent example.

The main plot of Tyler’s novel is Macon Leary’s relationship with the dog trainer, Muriel. On the heels of a separation with his wife, Sarah, every step Macon takes is in the direction of reclusive self-preservation, seeking and keeping his creature comforts. Macon’s sister, Rose, has similar neuroses about tidiness but also a desire for romance and so embarks on a relationship with Julian. So the Rose-Julian subplot mirrors the main love plot between Macon and Muriel. Both Macon and Rose share similar traits and attitudes—obsession with household order and wariness of strangers—but Rose’s homebody tendencies are even more pronounced than Macon’s. At the end of the novel, Rose is still somewhat stuck, having returned to her marriage but repeating the same caretaking routine, while Macon has broken free. Julian, the complete opposite of Macon and a cheerful, ready adapter must take on Leary family behaviors to compensate for Rose’s failure to leave the Leary brothers, Porter and Charles. A lesser plot also develops between Macon and the brothers, who are so stuck in their “Leary” family ways that they are incapable of change. As Macon and Rose find themselves in similar romantic situations, their differences place them more at odds with one another as each character’s plotline moves forward; so, too, does Macon run into more conflict with his stagnant Leary brothers as he heads in the opposite direction, and his attitude shifts from security toward spontaneity.

Tyler plants the seeds of variation in the first scenes depicting Macon and his family by comparing and contrasting characters with one another. Often one brief stroke containing a distinguishing feature is enough to shade a character and set him apart from the others in a particular way. A writer may shade an entire set of characters with an overarching common trait in a line or two. One of the first lines introducing Rose links all four Leary siblings together. “Rose had a kitchen that was so completely alphabetized, you’d find the allspice next to the ant poison. She was a fine one to talk about the Leary men.”[4] The scene gives a brief introduction to what Macon’s family is like on the whole, just enough for the reader to understand that they all share a defining trait: obsession with planning and dutiful order.

Tyler develops Macon’s character with her frequent use of doubling. Macon and his boss, Julian get described and contrasted together. The contrast in their traits creates opposition and places the characters on different plot trajectories and also functions as a continual reminder of Macon’s distinguishing characteristics and worldview: “Julian was younger than Macon and brasher, breezier, not a serious man.”[5] So the reader recognizes the two as opposites; Macon looks down on whimsy and boldness. The development of Macon’s character using doubling and contrast sets Julian on a criss-cross pattern with Macon’s main plot. As Macon moves away from his passive, worried nature to explore the world, Julian forgoes his breezy life of singlehood for home cooked meals and board games with the Leary family. This pattern is a direct effect of character shading and doubling.

With the Macon’s sister Rose, the most noticeable difference that plays an integral part in her plot with Julian is her devotion to soap operas. “While she watched, she talked aloud to the characters….’Just you wait. Ha!’—not at all her usual style of speech. A commercial broke in, but Rose stayed transfixed where she was.”[6] The phrase “her usual style of speech” refers to the Leary’s penchant for proper grammar demonstrated throughout the narrative; here Rose abandons this group attitude. Her yearning for romance sets her apart from her brothers and motivates her decision to marry Julian. Another difference which plays a factor in Rose’s subplot is that she gets lost outside of the Leary neighborhood. All the Leary siblings share this tendency—of the four, Macon is the most able to locate his surroundings, Rose the least. This intensity of shading leads Rose to a different outcome from that of Macon; getting lost in her new neighborhood is one of the reasons Rose moves back in with her brothers after her marriage. So shading plays a major role in pushing the subplot forward.

As the plots progress, we can trace the steps of the characters to the shading of their core traits and attitudes and observe how the structural parallels result in resonance.

The Rose/Julian subplot unfolds alongside the Macon/Muriel main plot, but the characters go about achieving their desires in different ways based on their shaded traits. Muriel pursues Macon but he gives in only when pressed, whereas Rose freely reciprocates Julian’s interest. This contrast develops as the subplot cuts in to mirror the main plot. When Muriel asks Macon to a movie or dinner, he backs away. This is completely opposite Rose’s speech and action in the Thanksgiving dinner scene:

‘You want to drive him off! You three wasted your chances and now you want me to waste mine, but I won’t do it. I can see what’s what. Just listen to any song on the radio; look at any soap opera. Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love. A new person comes to town and right away the question is, who’s he going to love? Who’s going to love him back? Who’ll lose her mind with jealousy? Who’s going to ruin her life? And you want to make me miss it!’[7]

So Macon runs away from love while Rose runs toward it. Meaning arises out of juxtaposition and repetition with variation as this plot/subplot pattern reappears in the knitting scene. While Macon’s doubts and overprotective habits cause him to reject Julian’s different manners, Rose’s romantic streak trumps her be-wary-of-strangers upbringing to fall in love with Julian (and it’s worth noting that Julian and Muriel share similarities: stylish clothing, boldness and a positive outlook on life that drives opposition and conflict as they interact with the Learys). Rose’s disapproval of Muriel creates a parallel to Macon’s contempt for Julian, although her reasons differ: Muriel speaks sloppy English, she’s disorganized and erratic. Yet the core trait from which the disapproval stems is the same—don’t trust others. This theme emerges from the parallel structure and shading.

In the end, Macon chooses a life with Muriel because the Leary traits Tyler gives to Macon do not contain the same severity of shading as the rest of his siblings; he has changed and become more like Julian. And Rose, while she does not change, is able to return to her marriage and achieve companionship as a result of the one striking feature which separates her from the brothers—her desire for romance as a result of her devoted soap opera-watching. Her transformation is not as successful as Macon’s, but her situation has changed by her opening up to find love outside Leary walls.

Why are the family parallels so significant here, namely those involving Rose and Macon? For one, isolated neuroses would likely not supply any particular insight to Macon’s character. Without the mirror of his family, the deeper picture of Macon is blurry: what’s the context in which his personality and desires are rooted? Because Macon’s desire is the offspring of his traits and quirks, his shading causes the main plot to take the one-step-forward-two-steps-back shape that it does. Now his personality foibles could be illustrated through further sub-stories and subplots about his work, his relationship with Julian, or a neighbor, perhaps—but then the theme changes entirely. The novel would cease to be about the insular nature of family. So the structural parallels directly inform the greater purpose of the work. The larger meaning of Tyler’s novel is about the individual’s wandering away from home and into the world to find out who he really is; hence, Macon and Rose are “the accidental tourists.” That tension of the self torn between family and the outside demands the structural parallel of the character shading among family members. Otherwise, titling the work “The Accidental Tourist” wouldn’t fit the purpose—or the purpose of the title would have to mean something else.

And because longer narratives must deal with scope in a way that short stories do not, structural cohesion is vital to achieve scope (and avoid sprawl). The structural parallels mirrored in the Macon/Muriel plot and Rose/Julian subplot can be traced back to the spawning and shading of characters and the groups to which the varying traits belong: the “stuffy” Leary group: Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, spawned from the grandparents at odds with the “fun” group spawned from their mother, Alicia: Muriel, Julian, and to lesser degree, Sarah. So the character gradation and shading cause repetition with variation between the outcomes of the main plot and subplot; the mirroring of the plotlines creates the structural cohesion necessary to build scope and unique thematic complexity. The Accidental Tourist is much more than Macon falling in love with his dog trainer; the effect of Tyler’s mirroring is that the main story along with the sub-stories woven together resonates with mysteriousness and meaning. By venturing beyond home, Macon Leary finds his true self.

V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is also about family, and the 564 page novel is rife with parallel structures on a much grander scale than Tyler’s. The protagonist, Mr. Biswas, wants a house of his own and a life away from his in-laws, the Tulsis, and this Tulsi opposition reaches across the extended family with the techniques of character shading and sub-grouping. The Tulsi brothers-in-law are all different versions of Mr. Biswas. This distinct shading allows for each brother-in-law to share similar circumstance with Mr. Biswas (brothers-in-law living under Tulsi rule) but each has a different trajectory and outcome. Because the traits shared by Mr. Biswas and his spawned doubles vary in intensity, the shading and character grouping spurs conflict and pushes the narrative action forward. Mr. Biswas spawns another double in his son, Anand and a subplot is born from their common desire for reading and learning. In Part Two of the novel, the main plot and subplot come together with the Biswas/Tuttle/Govind family rivalry. In the tradition of the upstairs/downstairs novel, Anand and his cousin Vidiadhar have a competitive little plot that mirrors the conflict going on between their fathers. The greater breadth in narrative scope increases the demand for structural cohesion; this provides more opportunity for subtle difference in character shading. Naipaul’s novel achieves reverberating wholeness as a result.

I counted over a dozen spawned character doubles that could be isolated to make this argument, but for purpose of this essay, have chosen to cite and analyze the primary one, the shaded versions of Mr. Biswas.

One variation of Mr. Biswas occurs with Govind, Chinta’s “eager, loyal” husband. The mirror between Govind’s subplot and the main plot of Mr. Biswas develops to a greater extent from the stark differences between the two men; they share little beyond the common in-law situation. “Mr. Biswas thought of Govind as a fellow sufferer, but one who had surrendered to the Tulsis and been degraded. He had forgotten his own reputation as a buffoon and troublemaker, however, and found Govind wary of his approaches.”[8] Good-looking but non-intellectual Govind does manual plantation work, gets nervous and allows Seth to control him, then behaves obnoxiously when Seth exits. He is a variation of Mr. Biswas shaded with intimidation and cowardice, a darker, Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal. Because of their opposite attitudes in facing the same situation, the lesser Govind plot takes on a contrasting trajectory and cuts into the main plot at the Shorthills house where he becomes “increasingly surly.”

The episode at Shorthills house is also the point in the narrative in which W.C. Tuttle and his family appear. Tuttle is yet another shaded version of Biswas who picks up some pious traits from the now deceased brother-in-law Hari and also the scheming Govind; he prays regularly and reads but Biswas labels Tuttle’s books “trash.” Yet Tuttle resembles Mr. Biswas more than any of the other brothers-in-law, such as when both men order bookshelves to be made at the same time, because both men actively pursue their desires. Tuttle’s desire to acquire a house of his own is identical to that of Biswas but not as urgent. Tuttle does not possess the same degree of obsession about his desire as his main plot counterpart; he is “Biswas Lite” if you will. So the main plot and the Tuttle subplot do not share the same outcome, although Tuttle comes closer than any of the other brothers-in-law to escape from the Tulsis.

The more alternate outcomes achieved as a result of the various Biswas doubles and subplots, the more echoes are created and the greater the resonance of the novel. Naipaul weaves all three plots together, adding more mirrors to the main plot of Mr. Biswas. In places, Naipaul describes all three men together and contrasts arise from this triple juxtaposition. The effect is a “piling on” of differences, opposition, a spike in dramatic tension:

…he (Biswas) continued to plunder, enjoying the feeling that in the midst of chaos he was calmly going about his own devilish plans. Then the news of the ravages of W.C. Tuttle and Govind was whispered through the house. W. C. Tuttle had been selling whole cedar trees. Govind had been selling lorry loads of oranges and papaws and avocado pears and limes and grapefruit and cocoa and tonka beans. Mr. Biswas felt exceedingly foolish next morning when he dropped half a dozen oranges into his bag.[9]

The difference in shading among Biswas and his two counterparts, Tuttle and Govind is revealed with the technique of side-by-side description of each man’s action in the same situation. The juxtaposition illustrates that Biswas does not share the same acute ability to deceive (though he thought he did). Govind and Tuttle are more aggressive than Biswas in their actions and conflict arises from the different shades in character. Tuttle and Govind race ahead while Biswas remains stuck, still sticking his oranges into his bag to peddle in town.

But the technique of describing characters together to heighten the different shades works in the same way to heighten focus on their sameness as in this paragraph juxtaposing only Tuttle and Biswas. Govind has been left out which in itself increases the “sameness” in the shading of the other two.

And when it was learned that some of the widows’ sons had killed a sheep, roasted it in the woods and eaten it, W. C. Tuttle expressed his outrage at this un-Hindu act, refused to eat any more from the common kitchen and made his wife

cook separately. One of his sons reported that W. C. Tuttle’s Brahmin mouth had burst into sores the day the sheep was eaten. Mr. Biswas, though unable to produce W. C. Tuttle’s spectacular symptoms, made Shama cook separately as well.[10]

This comparison helps to place the “sameness” of Tuttle and Mr. Biswas in a special light. In this paragraph, the main plot of Mr. Biswas and subplot of Tuttle come together in the description of the two men. The repetition of their situation, their desires and anti-Tulsi attitudes (with the slight variation in the mouth sore incident) continues to build unity and resonance through parallel structure.

How are these precise structural parallels important in A House for Mr. Biswas, and to what extent are they important to novels in general? Again the matter of meaning and scope requires a closer look. Like Tyler’s novel, Naipaul’s concerns family. Through the duplication of parallels the problems involve not just a single family, but numerous families. But the scope of “the family problem” and the nature of the situation itself, independence from domineering relations and individual freedom, are different than Tyler’s. And here the thematic meaning does not only apply to severalfamilies but to an entire society of Trinidad as a result of the more extensive network of shades and mirrors. Perhaps because the novel revolves so definitely about a specific place, an island set apart from the rest of the world, this determines the need for a wider scope in order for the particular meaning to emerge—that the Biswas/Tulsi struggle is not isolated to their dynamic, but is representative of vast numbers of other Trinidadian families. So the complex web of character gradation and different plot outcomes are crucial to form this wider scope and achieve this exact theme. Without the shortcomings of his doubled counterparts and their contrary outcomes, Mr. Biswas’s independence from in-law rule would not have the meaning it does—that of a rare triumph.

Thus, scope curtails sprawl. The longer the narrative, the more critical the demands; the shades and mirrors must achieve a structural cohesion that will capture great scope and theme in lieu of sprawl.

The subplots of the three men weave in and out throughout the narrative. Biswas, Tuttle and Govind all move their families to the city. Tuttle and Govind argue over the parking spaces of their cars, and this quarrel is echoed through their wives. The differences in the shaded qualities shared by the three brothers-in-law make room for opposition. Similar gradation and shading groups like characters together against the opposite pole. Here the alignment of Govind and Tuttle is against Biswas:

There was money in the island. It showed in the suits of Govind, who drove the Americans in his taxi; in the possessions of W. C. Tuttle, who hired out his lorry to them; in the new cars, the new buildings. And from this money, despite Marcus Aurelius….Mr. Biswas found himself barred.[11]

But these poles keep changing and shifting. The subplots of Govind and Tuttle take on twisting patterns in their relation to the main plot. The twists, the variations, correspond to the lessening or heightening of certain common traits, almost as if the novelist is playing with the volume using a dial. The focus depends on the juxtaposition and whether or not the characters get compared or contrasted together. Contrast sets the poles further apart and comparison brings them together to unite against an opposite pole. Because these alignments are not fixed and they “change sides” as the power struggle moves along in the novel, the character shading and gradation plays a considerable role in the plot. The reversal of fortune necessary for drama is born through the shifting poles.

Tuttle’s subplot only cuts into the Govind/Biswas subplot that ensues about school briefly; otherwise, his family all but disappears from the narrative. But Tuttle’s subplot roars back toward the novel’s conclusion with the announcement that he has bought a house. Here Tuttle’s shading and subplot push the main plot toward reversal of fortune because Tuttle’s action rekindles his counterpart, Biswas, to search for a house of his own. Tuttle’s escape from the Tulsis is through a far more underhanded action than any Biswas would attempt: Tuttle throws poor people out of a house by persuading local government that the house is unsafe. Since Biswas does not share Tuttle’s tendency toward piracy, Biswas goes about his desire through different means and is somewhat taken in by the seller. Yet the Biswas family wins. The Tuttle’s “nervous little chuckles” during the visit reveals their unhappiness about their own home. Tuttle, a more contemptuous, scheming version of Biswas, ends up achieving the same goal but with a less satisfying result.

So the Tuttle subplot has multiple purposes. It informs the action of the main plot by helping to set up the major reversal of fortune in the novel. It creates repetition with variation by means of its different outcome. And together, this less ethical trajectory of Tuttle next to the better circumstances of Biswas in the end helps generate the greater meaning of the work—freedom from tyranny.

Govind’s subplot takes a different trajectory and does not mirror the main plot about the house. Instead, Govind’s subplot weaves together with the subplot of the Biswas son, Anand, who is a more educated, stronger spawn of his father and shares a love for reading and learning. The competition between the fathers is mirrored in the school competition between their sons. Unlike the path of Tuttle’s subplot, here a multigenerational parallel structure develops to build unity and resonance through repetition and reversal of fortune.

The Anand subplot reveals a version of Mr. Biswas that is very different from the split-off duplications-with-variation in his other spawns, the brothers-in-law. Anand and Mr. Biswas share nearly identical characteristics but have one large key difference: Anand is not obsessed with obtaining a house. So his subplot is an offshoot of the core traits he and his father share, the desire to better oneself through education. As Mr. Biswas pursues his self-education by writing tabloid journalism, Anand pursues writing and learning by taking the higher road of academia in his subplot. The two mirror one another but the variation in Anand’s fulfillment of his desire will lead to a drastically different outcome. At the conclusion of the book he has left Trinidad to study in England.

Not all character doubles contain enough shading in their composition to enable subplots to emerge. Lesser doubles appear that are just brief repetitions of their greater counterparts, only with distinct twists. So the mirroring continues throughout the entire spectrum of characters. Anand spawns lesser versions of himself in the worried Chinese schoolboy (a more fraught version) and the first place Negro boy who possesses a superior knowledge of the female body (a more advanced, worldly Anand). Biswas has lesser counterparts in the co-workers he drinks with at the cafe: “three men, none over forty, who considered their careers closed and rested their ambitions on the achievements of their children.”[12] These lesser doubles are important in creating that particular effect Yeats’ called, “the emotion of multitude.” Without the shading and the doubling of characters, the mirroring of subplots and inset stories and subsequent varied outcomes, a novel like A House for Mr. Biswas would not achieve the sweeping greatness that it does by seeming to be about an entire island struggling with similar problems. With parallel structure character links to character, so the inner workings of a novel forge a network of support beams on which the unity and resonance depend.

So compared to Tyler’s novel, Naipaul’s has greater scope. Does greater scope equal greater meaning? Not necessarily. The Accidental Tourist takes on a certain scope in order to achieve particular meaning; next to A House for Mr. Biswas the scope is more limited but the story is still rich with resonance. Each novel mandates its own demands of form and content, and each arrives at a very different kind of whole. Because of the natural dynamics of families to interact within close proximity to one another a novelist can play more with the dial in the wide range of scope available. The more character shades and mirrors, the greater the scope; less and the scope takes on a more narrow, concentrated focus. Either way, in a family novel the plot trajectories that emerge from the gradation are more likely to take an organic progression with more subtle differences in shading. The technique slips by largely unnoticed by the reader.

But not all novels revolve around family groups. One novel that uses character shading in a non-family dynamic is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Like with Naipaul’s protagonist Mr. Biswas, the subplot characters are shaded versions of Miss Brodie with more or less exaggerated traits. Gradation, shading, doubling and mirroring devices can work with different types of tightly-knit groups who interact within close proximity to one another for an extended period of time. Spark’s use of shading and mirroring with students at an all-girls’ school in a cascade-style illustrates the range of variation in the subplot structure, but the results of this approach to the character shading technique are distinctly different from the novels of Tyler and Naipaul. While the cascade-style gradation bears correlation to scope, this composition develops less organically in order to bring the family-that-is-not-a-family into conflict. The steepness of the cascade, the narrow scope (the novel has only six chapters), gives the technique a self-consciousness not found in the other two novels.

The main plot of the book is Miss Jean Brodie’s struggle to persevere with her unorthodox teaching style against an administration that would like to get rid of her. Miss Brodie carries out her plot by cultivating her six favorite students into her confidantes—“the Brodie set”—Sandy, Rose, Jenny, Eunice, Mary, and Monica. Each of the girls turns into her own unique double of Miss Brodie in a more or less pronounced way. The special attributes, in some cases bestowed upon and then groomed by Miss Brodie herself, create subplots and lesser sub-stories that mirror Miss Brodie’s desire but with variation. Miss Brodie has a love plot with the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and Sandy’s subplot mirrors her teacher’s. The Sandy subplot eventually joins together with the main plot of the school’s headmistress against Miss Brodie. There are lesser subplots—Jenny, Rose, the Joyce Emily episode—but Sandy’s is the most developed. Spark uses doubling to compare and contrast the six girls to one another, Miss Brodie and her peers at the school, and repeats each Brodie girl’s trademark characteristics whenever she appears. The Panama hats and the portraits painted by the art teacher of the six devoted pupils reinforce the replication of Miss Brodie and her cascade of mini-Brodies.

The members of the Brodie set take on various shades of interest in love and sex, and this shading determines each girl’s interaction in the Miss Brodie love plot. Sandy is the Brodie girl who has the most interest in love and sex. Her friend Jenny shares this desire at first: “Jenny and Sandy wondered if Mr. Lloyd and Miss Brodie had gone further that day in the art room, and had been swept away by passion.”[13] Sandy and Jenny write a fictitious tale of Miss Brodie and her lovers. But eventually Jenny’s interest in sex wanes while Sandy’s increases. The outcome of Jenny’s love subplot occurs years later with a moment of reawakening. Sandy’s shading changes; she picks up the interest in romance shrugged off by Jenny. Sandy and Rose start to visit the Lloyd’s together, and Sandy becomes more like Rose as a result: “Rose modeled for Teddy Lloyd and Sandy occasionally joined her…”[14]

The cutting in of lesser plots and outcomes that mirror Miss Brodie’s main plot are like sign posts to the reader that character shading is being used in some way to construct opposition. Shading and doubling transcend mere description by setting up conflict on the sentence-level out of which grow the larger, more pivotal plot events. The dramatic force is heightened, and the significance of this in a longer work such as a novel is that all the characters, not just Miss Brodie, drive the conflict. When we find the place where a lesser plot cuts in, we can trace the steps backward to the distinctive brushstroke Spark gives each girl. Miss Brodie’s encouragement of Rose to have an affair with Lloyd fails because Rose does not have an interest in sex—in fact, of all the Brodie girls, she cares about sex the least.

She was the least of all the Brodie set to be excited by Miss Brodie’s love affairs, or by anyone else’s sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex, her magnificently appealing qualities lay in the fact that she had no curiosity about sex at all, she never reflected upon it.[15]

So Rose is the most opposed to Miss Brodie’s love plot desire. Instead Sandy takes up as Lloyd’s mistress because she occupies the opposite end of the “Brodie girl” cascade and has the most fervent interest in sex. The conflict grows out of all three different shadings of a common quality—sexual appetite—and Miss Brodie’s desire is denied fulfillment by Sandy’s action. The love plots collide.

But why does Spark use the more drastic cascade arrangement of character shading and grouping, and why does the cascade call more attention to itself in the text than the ways novelists use gradation in the two family novels?

The answer lies in purpose and scope. Spark intends her novel to center on the relationship of an eccentric and passionate schoolteacher and her “loyal pupils,” but the challenge of this set-up is how to construct the trajectories of plot and subplot so that they keep “mirroring” one another. In a novel about family, this is much easier because family members by nature must keep up interaction. This is why the gradation in a family novel tends to develop more subtly. But in order for the plot/subplot mirroring to both build scope with multiple entangled threads as well as launch each of the girls toward a very different outcome from Miss Brodie and one another, the shaded traits must be distinct and unmistakable.

Scope plays an important role to the cascade. The situation of Miss Brodie and her students is contained within the realms of school and does not spill over to any of the girls’ families (at the most, it dips into the Lloyds). By keeping a narrow scope, the plot and dramatic tension is focused on the nature of school and creating one’s own identity eventually apart from that institution. With a narrower scope, there is much less room for subtle variations and “lesser doubles” than in a novel like A House for Mr. Biswas. The scope is so narrow, in fact, that it makes the opposite demand of the gradation technique. The narrow scope tends to demand a sharper, instantly recognizable portrayal of each girl. In conjunction with the content, the school situation as opposed to family, the resulting gradation is even more pronounced and forms a “cascade.” As with the shades and mirrors in the other two novels, the effect of the “cascade gradation” is the scaffolding of structural cohesion out of which the deeper meaning emerges.

Because of the narrow scope and the demands for such instantly recognizable character composition, Spark’s novel stands apart from those of Tyler and Naipaul in that the text is very aware of the character shading and gradation going on. This exaggerated type of character shading pops out with the portraits and the Panama hats, i.e., every time Lloyd paints a Brodie girl, the portrait resembles Miss Brodie. The observant Sandy quips: “We’d look like one big Miss Brodie, I suppose,” after Teddy Lloyd proposes a group portrait.”[16] Spark repeats the resemblance of the portraits to Miss Brodie in every scene that the paintings appear, “a different Jean Brodie under the forms of Rose, Sandy, Jenny, Mary, Monica and Eunice.”[17] So the paintings repeat the doubling technique, along with the plot and subplot actions of the Brodie members.

Each girl’s trademark attribute appears nearly every time Spark mentions the character, and she plants these constant reminders everywhere. She brings the Brodie set together and sets them at odds simultaneously, by describing them one after the other and juxtaposing the contrasts among the characters. The nearly exact duplication of her technique in diction, syntax, and grammar makes it a great deal more obvious, as in the different way each girl wears her Panama hat. “The five girls…wore their hats each with a definite difference,” Spark writes, with “subtle variants.”[18]

Finally Sandy’s subplot leads to her abandonment of romance for religion, and she undergoes a “transfiguration” to become a nun. While Sandy undergoes a drastic change, Miss Brodie is rooted in the past, “her prime,” and wastes away a few years after her dismissal from the school. The two opposite reversals of fortune between the plot/subplot outcomes add complexity and resonance to the novel’s theme. This effect is heightened with the multiple outcomes of the other Brodie girls, adding possibilities to compound the mirror effect.

This complexity is significant in all novels, even ones with a narrower scope, because novels demand it for meaning and resonance. In a short story, great meaning can arise out of a more simple structure leading up to the “epiphany” or “reversal” at the end; there’s not as much room for extended repetition with variation, nor is there the same degree of demand for it in order for the story gain meaning. But in order to reach its resounding wholeness, a novel, because it is so much longer, must have repetition with variation. And what is the significance of the complexity here? The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at heart about girls growing up to be individuals, about independence and finding one’s prime—and also not imposing one’s identity onto another. Miss Brodie finds her prime and then overextends herself; thus, the title encapsulates the novel’s meaning which has grown out of the multiple “mirrors.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the shortest of the three novels analyzed here, and sprawl is not so much of an issue as resonance—making the story gain scope and depth, the echoing. Is the cascade inevitable to enable the work to gain its meaning, because a shorter narrative by nature has confining demands? The self-awareness of the cascade technique reveals that Spark is well-attuned to her purpose because without the cascade, her novel would risk losing the “ripple effect” to gain breadth and thematic resonance. Otherwise, Miss Brodie’s plot might just as well be rendered in a long short story. But in novel form, Miss Brodie’s story resounds as poignantly as that of Mr. Biswas. The novelist must be aware of the correlation between the character gradation and the scope of the novel because the degree to which she manipulates the technique directly links to the meaning. She must ask herself how pronounced the shading and doubling should be in the work, and how that will inevitably affect the scope and resonance. She must keep in mind that novelists must deal with scope in a way short story writers do not, and that structural parallels determine scope and defer sprawl.

Shading is hardly fixed; the traits can be more or less intensified like the colors mixed on a palette. The novelist’s shading and blending of a common set of traits in a character group is done consciously through the techniques of doubling, juxtaposition, and repetition. Only through these means can structural parallels emerge organically from the vast subject matter the novelist has at hand. From this hall of mirrors the “emotion of multitudes” is born and the narrative churns with thematic complexity and Je ne sais quoi.

Whether the novelist is working with a family novel or different closely-bound group, the various iterations of the character shading technique are vital for the novel to come together as a whole. The gradation may develop more organically, such as with the multigenerational approach, or take on the shape of a more self-conscious cascade. Great meaning is achieved either way.

But novelists must recognize the purpose in their work.

Understanding how character shading and mirroring together develop a novel’s demand for unity and meaning does diminish—if not eliminates—some of the “I don’t know what” a writer faces in the task of a putting together a long narrative, like the cast I juggled with my floundering multi-generational novel draft. Understanding how the novels of others work, opening them up and tracing all the connections between the systems of Character, Plot, and Scope will help us approach our own. Then after pouring over the innards of a handful of novels, remember to keep it simple: Structural Parallels (shading, mirroring, Brown’s “repetition with variation”) + Scope = Thematic Complexity, Meaning and Resonance.

—Vanessa Blakeslee


1. E. K. Brown,  Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

2. “The Emotion of Multitude” (1903). W. B. Yeats. Essays and Introductions. NY: Macmillan Co., 1966. 215-216.

3. Douglas Glover,  The Enamoured Knight (Illinois: Dalky Archive Press, 2004),  135.

4. Anne Tyler,  The Accidental Tourist,  (New York, Random House, 2002),  12.

5. Ibid. ,  41.

6. Ibid. ,  159.

7. Ibid. , 64.

8. V. S. Naipaul,  A House for Mr. Biswas,  (New York: Random House, 2001), 101.

9. Ibid. ,  391-92.

10. Ibid. , 404.

11. Ibid. , 421.

12. Ibid. , 467.

13. Muriel Spark,  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,  (New York: HarperCollins, 1999),


14. Ibid. , 126.

15. Ibid. , 58.

16. Ibid. ,  109.

17. Ibid. ,  118.

18. Ibid. ,  1.


Brown, E.K. Rhythm in the Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2004.

Naipaul, V.S.  A House for Mr. Biswas. New York: Random House, 2001.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

“The Emotion of Multitude” (1903). W. B. Yeats. Essays and Introductions. NY: Macmillan Co., 1966. 215-216.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York, Random House, 2002.

Mar 252011

Anonymous folk engraving of merpeople.

Speculating on Divinity Genes

A Review of Matthew J. Trafford’s The Divinity Gene

By Peter Chiykowski

The Divinity Gene
Matthew J. Trafford
Douglas & McIntyre
ISBN 9781553656036

In his debut collection of short stories, The Divinity Gene, Matthew J. Trafford pulls off a generic balancing act, suspending his swaying narrative tightrope between the often opposed platforms of “genre” and “literary” fiction. His performance is certainly captivating. Walking the line with him are rogue angels, dissected mermaids, messianic clones, Faustian e-demons, and homophobic undead (the term “zombie” is considered demeaning to still-sentient beings who have yet to gain the vote). These creatures swing the stories between scenes that are sometimes fantastically unfamiliar, sometimes unflinchingly intimate, often both.

“Thoracic Exam,” the opening act of the ten-story collection, is a good indicator of the volume’s strengths and weakness. An unnamed female narrator-nurse examines the recent widow of an old love interest. The routine check-up turns into an opportunity for the romantically unsatisfied stethoscope-wielder to investigate the body and the life she never chose. The story showcases Trafford’s writing chops (“I must eavesdrop inside of her”), but also his off-putting love of jargon (“Her lacrimal ducts are now secreting full tears”).

Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons. Artist unknown.

His tendency toward clinical and obscure terms, one that recurs frequently, culminates in a prepubescent narrator from a fishing village describing a cut-up mermaid using words like “striated,” “lepidopterist,” and “filigreed.” The narrator’s vocabulary asks for more suspended disbelief than the mythical sea creature around which the story revolves.

Trafford skilfully deploys the speculative elements of his fiction. Never does he let fantasy outweigh the emotional core of his plots, and crucially, he never lets the magic or technology interfere with the complex networks of desire that motivate his characters. Rather, the “genre” elements of his stories work to distil the conflicts and intensify the choices the characters have to make. In “iFaust,” a widowed grandfather wrestles with the decision to trade his well-aged soul to the devil in exchange for that of his ungrateful grandson who made a literal Faustian bargain for success as a rock musician. The conflict – the grandson’s sullen plea and the grandfather’s vacillating refusal – is served well by the supernaturally high stakes. Unfortunately, the tension is later spoiled by a last-minute decision from a secondary character who consequently trivializes the grandfather’s role in the story.

This is not to say that Trafford relies on speculation and magic to distract from narrative shortcomings. One of the collection’s most powerful pieces, “Past Perfect,” is a slice-of-life story that follows the experiences of a young man losing his older husband to aphasia. It is one of the book’s many grief narratives, arguably the most powerful. While in “The Renegade Angels of Parkdale,” the gay male narrator of a similar age is made passive by the loss of his partner, relying on friends and fallen angels to initiate the story’s significant scenes, the narrator of “Past Perfect” is admirably active in dealing with and dramatizing the gradual and thoroughly disenchanting processes of grief. The loss of partners and family members is a recurrent focus of the work, as is the nature of homosexual and homosocial relationships.

In addition to being fascinated by the classic themes of death and love, Trafford is also interested in formal experimentation. “Renegade Angels” features some two-column simultaneous narration. The gambit is a little distracting, a visual reminder that the reader is involved in the physical task of reading a page and not the cognitive task of a reading a story. The footnotes of “The Grimpils” feel less like aids for differentiating protagonists and more like excuses for the author to trot out his technique. The centre-stage action of the characters coping with the disappearance of their friends and lovers is vastly more interesting than Nick’s aromatic analysis of Ceylon tea. The opening section of the title story, “The Divinity Gene,” engages in a much more rewarding bit of play. It is formatted like a wiki entry, complete with links and section headings to explain technological advances that lead to the genetic cloning of Jesus in 2006.

Ultimately, The Divinity Gene indulges in a level of showmanship that is unnecessary, but not unappreciated. The volume is best taken in multiple sittings. The young introspective gay narrators dealing with isolation and/or grief can become a bit monotonous, even when separated by the various other protagonists (including a widowed grandfather, a thirteen year-old boy, and a bitter middle-aged nurses). Whatever their limitations, though, his stories all come from a uniquely powerful breed of conflict, one playfully mutted up with formal and fantastical experiments that continue to yap and growl in the memory after the book is closed.

Peter Chiykowski

Mar 252011

—Photo by Carl Olsen

Nancy Eimers has been a colleague and a friend at Vermont College of Fine Arts longer than I can calculate. Very long. She has this look, when I see her, as if she’s a bit worried about me, as if there is something to worry about besides the stuff I already know. Then she smiles—such a relief. Her readings at our residencies are always occasions. Here are four Nancy Eimers poems from her hot-off-the-press poetry 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.


Four Poems from Oz

By Nancy Eimers


Confession of a Luddite

(28-hour power outage)

It had been raining, and it would rain.
Without the streetlights tending them
trees turned into a forest,

the houses had fallen back,
I found myself coveting old brass keys
to doors that are lost

and the keys to my old typewriter
for like piano keys,
when you pressed them

something pressed back.
Bill beside me, the two of us walked along
in an elder dark

though an oaf-ish light blared
in a couple of houses powered by the roar
of generators draining the dark

as if it were a basement of water.
But dark was a folk art, dark was a primitive
science composing the very wetness

of bark.  No government
could have taken over0
so quietly.  Without newspapers or stars.

Without the sounds of cars or shoes.
For a moment, nothing needed anything.
Every now and then we came upon candles

deep in houses
and throwing a see-through light,
light that had no argument

with the dark.

My Parents Contemplate Moving a Last Time

They speak as if they have ten thousand years

To go about recalibrating numbers,
The distance from home to church and shopping, couch to television,

Degree and slant of light in the laundry room.

Light to dark and wall to wall they have been traveling,

Years of back and forth
Between each other’s eyes and mouths,

He, asleep in his chair at night, she, riding the dip
She always rides at her end of the couch.

They seem to know time as an ordinary thing

As they sit and procrastinate forever
Over USA Today and the Arizona Republic,

Half-decaf, melon and toast.

No map of future’s day or night, the shallows marked with squiggly lines,
The depths not marked, they are that steep, will guide them;

Nor do they seek the blueprint of a wave.

More coffee, honey?  Pass me the Jumble, please.

I watch them contemplate their move so quietly
It resembles just sitting there over breakfast

Talking themselves backwards, toward the smallest house in the universe–


To watch this losing part of itself—

this frozen dash,
a sign, a pause, a being poised—

at the speed of ice—

just think, says the ranger, it is made of individual snowflakes-
I love that bend of her voice
into my head where her sentence goes on—

compressed into a vastness, making this one incredible thing
moved along by the force of its enormous weight,
finding its way down out of the mountains

in the shape of an S—relentless plurality—all those battered snowflakes—
to the sea.

At one place in its side
three ice-caverns—two eyes and a mouth—so like

—so strange—Munch’s “The Scream.”

Each calving’s a fusillade—
the sound an “outpouring of anything,”

an inner surge.

If there is a waiting, it is ours.
Watching the face change its expression

every time a chunk of ice breaks off—

and yet behind it this entirety—boundless, immense, this tidy sum—
the face forlorn—dejected—hangdog now—
our faces turned to it, our eyes and cameras trained on it

as if to document the very moment
something in us changed,
the ship turning in place—deft for so big a thing—

while all along immensity recedes so incrementally we can’t—
we just can’t
put a human face on it—


There is something furtive about the water

It is most itself at dawn or dusk.
It falls in a haze,

it speaks to the grass in a whisper.

But the outgoing, voluble grass

fills in gaps in the conversation.
There are citizens who attend to it

better than others.  Grass refers to itself
or it overflows.

As a matter of policy, all it witnesses
and all you ask

the grass denies:

in the end, every lawn mower
is just a trailing off.

First there were streets and driveways,
then the houses, one by one,

amid the ploughed-up loneliness,

and the people
to come and settle it.

Only then the grass.  Around.  After, before.

There are over 9,000 species.  The terrestrial, not to mention
the aquatic.

Its fruit is dry and dull
on stalks that bend to the shear of wind.

It used to roll and roll without impediment
and say expanse.

On a windless day it still resembles a body of water
but only

once you’ve closed your eyes.

—Nancy Eimers

See also: an interview with Nancy Eimers.

(Post design by Mahtem Shiferraw)

Mar 242011

Mary Donovan

Here’s another delightful addition to the Numéro Cinq What It’s Like Living Here series, this time from VCFA graduate Mary Donovan in Wheaton, Maryland, which, yes, goes by many names, and is thus ambiguous, until you get to the charming details.



What it is and is not

Wheaton is many things, but it is not Silver Spring.  Much less Kensington.  Nor (god forbid) Washington, DC.  If you live in Wheaton, though, you must reckon with these.

The US Postal Service makes you say “Silver Spring” as your City.  The US Census hyphenates “Wheaton-Glenmont,” though Glenmont is a crossroads of strip malls and the end of a subway line.  Just across Veirs Mill Road is Kensington, where the high school blasts its Friday-night-football and half-time tubas clear through your cottage. You’re not far from the border of Washington, DC, where you likely commute to work. Although when you travel you say “from DC,” every evening you’re relieved to flee its workaholic bosses and center-of-the-known-and-unknown-universe stance. Wheaton is also not Rockville, whose shared border remains mysterious and may involve the creek; you once mailed a card to friends you knew from woods walks and guessed their address as Rockville, but it was Silver Spring, which meant Wheaton.

Although Wheaton has no formal borders, everyone knows where you mean when you live there.  Ah, near Wheaton Plaza, the first “shopping mall” in the 1960s.  Near vast Wheaton Regional Park — you can hike miles of trails or ice-skate year-round or ride a horse or play (or watch) baseball as the sun sets.  All those tiny places to eat – Salvadoran, Peruvian, Vietnamese — and you can walk to HMart? You’ve got Wheaton Regional Library, with robust programming for children and speakers of languages other than English, who are now the majority. You signed a petition called “Don’t Move the Wheaton Library!” when council members decided to “revitalize” by razing an historic area and building a brand-new library and chain stores. (They ran out of money when the Recession hit – you win – for now.)

No one knows quite where you mean when you (must) say “Silver Spring” with its 16 zip codes. Your next-door neighbor Bernice, a stalwart, 80-something daughter of “original” residents, mails you a Christmas card with “WHEATON, MD 20902” pressed by a forceful hand. (They deliver it.)

Wheaton, MD, has a strong feeling of the late 1940s-early-‘50s, when most houses – including yours and Bernice’s — were built: small, brick homes rising and falling through rabbit-warren neighborhoods for middle-class folk with, at most, one car per.  Now these streets are choked with parked vehicles and you can only drive one way at a time.  You may not have a dining room, or an upstairs, but you will have hardwood floors, thick plaster walls and solid brick construction. Store signs still feature the fonts – Art-Deco-meets-Space-Age — of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People your age – and you are not THAT old – reminisce about childhood trips to Hot Shoppes at Wheaton Plaza, home of the Mighty Mo and its Special Sauce, delivered to your car by a waitress on roller skates.

Claims to fame

Wheaton has the highest elevation in the Washington, DC area, and sprouted its first radio towers. WTOP has been broadcasting since 1939; you rely heavily on its traffic reports each morning.  Wheaton also transmitted the very first television in 1923. A resident named Charles Jenkins built that first transmitter and got the first TV broadcast license – and invented the television set.  People in the 1920s and ‘30s watched his “radiovision” and assumed everyone in the U.S. would remember his name.

The Wheaton Metro (subway) Station has the deepest escalator in the Western Hemisphere; only Hong Kong has a longer escalator.  Kensington, with its antique shops and Victorian wrap-arounds, can only dream of having such an escalator.

Chuck Levin’s Music Center in the heart of Wheaton is a legendary destination for musicians in the Mid-Atlantic region. When your band needed its sound and light equipment in the mid-80s, you drove all the way from Virginia to Chuck Levin’s. When your Dad (in Florida) threw himself an 80th birthday party a couple years ago, Chuck Levin’s kazoos, shakers and harmonicas filled your suitcase.

HMart is not unique to Wheaton. Both Gaithersburg and Catonsville (near Baltimore) have them in Maryland. But people know where you live by “that awesome Korean grocery.” You can buy 21 different (frozen) types of dried fish cake, or a set of shot glasses whose box reads “Perfect for Today’s Modern Life” or the absolute-best deals on fresh and strange produce.

Roads named “Mill”

Wherever you live in Wheaton you live on or near a road named “(Someone’s) Mill” – remnants of grain mills in operation from pre-Civil-War throughout Rock Creek, the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River, and Sligo Creek.

Just say “I’m near” Veirs Mill, Kemp Mill, Plyers Mill, Newport Mill. People nod their heads, sure.

Flora and fauna

Your house and porch appreciate the shade of mature oaks (red, white and black). Yards feature azaleas, hydrangeas, lilacs, rhododendrons, crape myrtles, boxwoods, magnolias. These somehow survive icy winters and bloom in turn, just when you most need them.  Your own vegetable yield can be iffy, but you can go to any of a dozen farmers markets on weekends.  Plus HMart!

In your yard you spot raccoons, possums, squirrels, rabbits, and more rabbits. Deer venture away from the creek to eat only the heads off your tulips. Birds make the rounds of neighborhood feeders; gangs of starlings bully away sparrows, cardinals and mourning doves. Even starlings fear the iron beak of a red-headed woodpecker with black-and-white houndstooth markings, who travels solo.  (You’ll hear him and his family pounding bark – like rapid-fire gunshot – while you climb the trails of Wheaton Regional.) You see goldfinches, but to date, not one oriole without cleats and a uniform.

In the Brookside Gardens of Wheaton Regional Park, you can visit the Butterfly Garden May-to-September and the “Garden of Lights” Thanksgiving-to-mid-January.  Last year they began an “edible landscaping” project, foregoing flowers for vegetables and crops. Eggplants drew flea beetles but the okras were insanely happy and the sweet potatoes grew out onto the sidewalks.

Along the Park’s trails, it behooves you to look down and jump over piles of horse droppings (they have the right of way). You find it curious that you see chipmunks only in this Park, never in anyone’s yard, and you marvel how they achieve jet propulsion across your path, leaving only the after-image of black stripe on brown.

Maybe twice a month you see a fox there, and notice its vibrant red fur with ring of black on its chest — not the same brownish fox you see other times. You aren’t sure if these are differences in gender or ethnicity or family resemblance, or all three. The fox usually trots parallel to you for a while from fifteen yards away, so you can exchange glances.  Once you saw a coyote, whom you didn’t register as “coyote” but “strange dog – odd-colored fox? – hey!” as you remembered reading of their increasing numbers along the East Coast.  You miss your dog every day, your longtime eager companion for woodsy adventures; she would dive shoulder-first to roll around any ground cover trotted upon by fox or coyote. (Thus both of you once suffered from sarcoptic mange.) She is buried in Rockville, your ex’s choice and his to make; she was his mother’s dog first.

Speaking of dogs

Since you miss your dog every day but adopting one would be unfair with your DC commute (11-12-hour days R/T) you may arrange your activities around chances to encounter them.  Your own corner lot has much more lawn than house and seems a message board for Wheaton dogs. (You may not be fully aware of this paw traffic until it snows.)

Loiter outside. Sophie and Billy, Springer Spaniels, live just across the chain-link fence. There has never been a creature – not a lover, nor niece or nephew, nor your own Cocker – ever happier to see you than goofy Sophie. Billy is geriatric with a fraction of her energy, but his tail whirrs just as fast. Catty-corner lives Bentley, a white dreadlocked Komondor, and further down Allison the elderly Basset and Christopher the Terrier mix.  Out on the trails you’ll likely be rebuffed by Nellie (unless you’re wearing strawberry lip gloss) but met with enthusiasm by the King Charles pack (Kallie, Ottie and Netta) and their Golden Lab companion, Cozy, with a sinus tumor. You hope their humans don’t expect you to know their names.

Now and then you hear cats wailing at night below one of your windows. Neighbors have guessed they’re feral. One gray cat has tried to get through your front door twice (you are allergic). S/he is breathtakingly beautiful and wears a collar.

Water features

Along with the creeks and branches that promoted so many Mills, streams run under or along roads and provide a soothing sound when you pass by.

In the summertime, sudden violent storms can move in from the west. They are strong enough to down trees and knock out power and even issue “microbursts” of rain (2-3 inches in 30 minutes). These can overwhelm your back stairwell drain and soak your basement. After the sun comes out, your neighborhood fills with vans of ServPro folk hauling industrial de-humidifiers and fans inside, while other folk haul carpeting and laminate out to the curb.

If you sold your Rockville condo and bought your Wheaton house in August of 2008, you would’ve treaded water through the crash of the housing/financial markets in September/October.  With enough homes in foreclosure or bought vastly undervalued, your own cottage is now “underwater.”

The Corner of Collins and Ivydale

In Wheaton, just for showing up you benefit from the spectacular hearts of your neighbors. You know the names of the humans across your road, next door and behind, at least. Only a few remain of “the originals” – first occupants like Bernice’s parents. (You will hear the term enough that it insinuates your dream, reminiscent of TV’s “Lost” – murky group called “Originals” — but it was only a dream.)

Don’t worry about going out of town for a few days. Without your asking, your neighbors will look out for pamphlets stuck in your storm door or newspapers delivered contrary to your stop request. They will take in a box from Amazon on backorder. You will do the same during their upcoming trips to Italy and Ocean City.

You catch up with news of life on any day warm enough for yard work, and you talk again about getting a list-serve going for yourselves. You should really have a block party or something.  And you stop raking to visit with Allison or Christopher or Buddy or Moose from blocks away, but you forget again to ask the humans their names.

And they won’t know your name.  But it won’t matter. You all know where you live.

—Mary Donovan

Mar 232011

Ann Ireland is an old friend and a brilliant novelist. I knew her novels long before I knew the author. I recall reviewing her first book,  A Certain Mr. Takahashi (winner of the $50,000 Bantam-Seal First Novel Award), a brilliant, comic and poignant tale of two teenage Toronto girls smitten with an exotic, foreign symphony conductor who happens to move into the house across the street. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for Trillium Award and Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Literary Award  and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award for fiction. Ann lives most of the time in Toronto (not far from where my brother lives); she is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates the Writing Workshops at The Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

This chapter is taken from a brand new novel called The Blue Guitar. Much of it takes place at an international Classical Guitar Competition where (mostly young) musicians come from around the world to compete for a grand prize and career liftoff. Ireland is interested in examining the reasons why musicians put themselves through this grueling event and how they hold up. Or don’t. This section introduces Lucy Shaker, the oldest competitor, as she does her level best to make time to practice her instrument – despite domestic distractions – in the lead up period to the contest.


A Chapter from The Blue Guitar

A Novel by Ann Ireland


Mark’s uncle has finally pushed off. Out the door he goes, spry as a bird, tossing his vinyl suitcase down the front steps, not bothering to thank Lucy or Mark for their hospitality, nor to offer a farewell to the boys who’d already left for school. His forehead shines as he smiles; in his mind he’s already disappeared from this sorry excuse of a city. The limo idles curbside, plumes of exhaust meeting autumn air while Uncle Philip’s suit jacket whips in the wind.

He wears no overcoat, having left this bulky item stashed in the cupboard down the hall; it is an unnecessary burden in the torrid climate that he is about to enter. He will return in six months to reclaim it. Mark’s uncle insists on limousine service to Pearson International because he likes plenty of leg room before the arduous flight to Southeast Asia. Of course he was too cheap to pitch in for food or wine when he stayed here, en route.

Lucy feels a faint spasm of guilt on thinking these thoughts for it was Uncle Philip, music lover extraordinaire, who quite unexpectedly mailed her a cheque last year with the note: ‘If you’re going to enter this competition, you’ll need an excellent teacher. I hope this will help.’

Thanks to him, she’s been working with the divine Goran.

Lucy watches the driver fit suitcase into trunk then hold the passenger door open for Uncle Philip who, once settled, rolls down the window and calls out in his sunny voice, ‘Back in the spring, dear.’

As if she’ll be counting the days.

She shuts the front door, twists the lock and breathes clove – scented aftershave mixed with breakfast bacon, a now – familiar brew. With luck, there will be no interruptions until four o’clock when the twins amble home from high school. Her husband, Mark, works as a security guard at the Art Gallery of Ontario and doesn’t get off shift until supper time. It’s his dream job, or so he claims. He loves standing in the 18th century room, surrounded by lacquered paintings by little – known artists, making sure school kids don’t jostle or touch anything, or some jackass doesn’t take a knife to the brittle canvases. He claims to thrive on the long stretches of nothing, punctuated by bursts of activity. It gives him time to think – about what, Lucy has no idea. She pictures him standing guard in front of the portrait of some long – forgotten Cornish merchant whose manicured hand rests on a globe.

Continue reading »

Mar 202011

The Dayroom, a personal essay,

by Inmate # 6666666Z, Texas Department of Corrections

Contributor’s note: This essay was recently forwarded to Natalia Sarkissian by its author.

In this prison, there’s a small room, the size of an average living room, called the dayroom. With brown vinyl paneling on the walls, a few grimy windows that don’t open, twenty red plastic seats arranged in rows and a small black-and-white tv set mounted on a bracket high up in the corner, the dayroom is the best room in this place. We watch movies here, listen to the news. And every Sunday at least one hundred of us watch sports. Well before the event begins the room fills beyond maximum capacity—all the seats occupied, all the standing spots with good views taken—and gives a whole new meaning to the expression “packed like sardines.”

Every Sunday during football season I get to the dayroom earlier than most, snagging myself a choice spot, and sit waiting, filled with excitement. It’s that season again. Soon everyone’ll be in here, eating bowls of nachos, frito pies, cookies and popcorn. We’ll be betting on our teams with whatever we’ve got of value. Some of us will win big; others will be wiped out.

Since the stakes are high, people cuss the tv out. “Ho ass bitch, mother effer, can’t you catch the damn football?” they scream, their hearts and emotions running wild.  Most times I get caught up in the spirit and forget I’m not in a real stadium. The noise, the hollering, the fried food smell of fritos, and I transcend these fake wood walls. Sometimes though, the magic doesn’t work and I remember. What it was like to be outside in the freeworld. How I used to run on the field. Bull, they called me then.
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Mar 192011

Christy Clothier is one of my former students and a dual-genre graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction and nonfiction. A small, feisty woman,  Christy taught me more about the nature of the military, returned soldiers, trauma and its aftermath and life than perhaps I wanted to know. Her memoir is riddled with sadness, injustice and  innocence betrayed.  Just to give you a taste: there is an incredibly telling moment in an early chapter when she realizes she feels safe amid the horrors of boot camp because no one is allowed to hit her. The chapter I selected is perhaps one of the most benign. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere (see below) and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot, currently touring the United States through 2011. Christy lives in Colorado with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.



Excerpt from Trail of Breadcrumbs:

Why I Joined and Left the US Navy

A Memoir by Christy Clothier

From the air, Naval Air Station San Clemente Island resembles a malignant mole on the skin of an ocean freckled with small islands. Twenty-five sinewy miles of salt and rock, San Clemente rose nearly 2000 feet above the sea after tectonic shifts deformed the region. The sea continuously feeds on the island’s borders and leaves behind erosion’s bite marks. Large sections of earth are left to hover over the water like a ship’s plank before breaking off daily into the sea.

A small military community works on top of this unstable foundation. Where untouched sand dunes named Castle Field once lied, the Navy took over. First, they covered the area with white rocks and small shells and used the makeshift airstrip for emergency landings only. Today, the runway sits on land renamed Sherman Field and paved over with a 9,300 foot concrete runway capable of supporting the heaviest warcraft. That was where I was headed.

A one-way flight from the Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado, California, to Naval Air Station San Clemente Island takes approximately 30 minutes. The refitted Orion P-3 levels just above the first cloud layer, skimming the frothy blue-white haze as though it were riding the crest of a wave. I do not peek out the oval windows. I shut the plastic screen. The familiar scent of industrial fabric on the seat back in front of me lulls me into an uncomfortable sleep, until the P-3 plunges into the froth of clouds on final descent. I ride the white rush until I land with a hard screech on the rocky surface below.

On the tarmac, the view gets only flatter. Aluminum buildings still look as they would from the window seat on a plane, all sides and roof. The island is the shape of a landfill. Dust settles in thin coats on the World War II relics, tanks that mark the fields like billboards.  Macadam Road snakes six miles along sharp cliffs and deep canyons from the airfield down to the pier at Wilson’s Cove. The remainder of the island is sectioned off, either unused by the military or inaccessible to individuals without prior authorization. The entire island sits beneath an invisible barrier, airspace designated as Warning Area 237. Dangerous flight activity occurs from the surface of San Clemente Island up to 5000 feet in the sky and for 10 nautical miles in every direction. Without authority, no one flies in or out of San Clemente’s airspace.

I had been in the Navy for a year and a half, all of that time spent at Chicago’s boot camp and Pensacola’s Air Traffic Control School. I was an E-1, the lowest rank in the military. I knew my official title was Air Traffic Controller Airman Recruit (ACAR). I knew to dress properly in my uniform, how to pass military inspections and ATC exams. I knew not to do anything without being told. I stood alone outside the airport terminal and waited for someone to claim me.

Continue reading »

Mar 192011

Maggie Helwig is an incredibly gifted novelist and poet and an old friend dating from the early 1990s when for four years (1991-1994) she and I edited the annual discovery & showcase anthology Coming Attractions published by Oberon Press. Among the new writers we discovered were Lisa Moore, Caroline Adderson and Elise Levine (who subsequently got her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts). Maggie lives in Toronto, and is the author of six books of poetry, two books of essays, a collection of short stories, and three novels. Her most recent novel, Girls Fall Down, was shortlisted for the Relit Award and the City of Toronto Book Award. She has worked as a human rights activist with organizations including the East Timor Alert Network and War Resisters’ International. Maggie is currently completing a Master of Divinity degree at Trinity College, and will be ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada in May.


Now the Green Blade Rises

By Maggie Helwig

A homily preached at Trinity College Chapel, Toronto, Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009

And at the beginning of everything, a garden.

Two people in a garden, and in this place the whole human story begins; begins and begins again, new, utterly changed.

John Donne wrote, “We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.” We knew this, two days ago, our failures and petty evils, our violence and greed, converging on that terrible death, all our sins wrapped up in the torture and murder of a man on a tree.

But this place, this day, is more than that, it is all places; it is the cross and the grave and the place of rebirth all at once, it is paradise and Jerusalem, the city and the garden, and in the meeting of these two people are all people, all of us falling at the feet of the unknown and so deeply known Resurrected One.

And Mary Magdalene in the garden, the last one left, pathetically stubborn, unable to let go, unable to accept the inevitable loss and move on; she is the first to know, and she is the first to tell the story.

But she begins with a mistake – or not a mistake, perhaps. Perhaps something more. The man approaches her, and she takes him for a gardener. It isn’t that surprising, really, that she doesn’t recognize Jesus right away. How could she have expected this? How could any of us expect this?
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Mar 172011

The Soul’s Habitation: Emotion and Writing

By Richard Farrell

Contributor’s Note: This essay is based on my graduate lecture delivered at VCFA in January, 2011.

When I was eight-years-old, I started hanging out with the older boys in my neighborhood, many of them already teenagers. They nicknamed me ‘Head,’ because I had, or rather I have, a large head.  At eight, I also had a tangled mass of blonde wavy hair, hair which made my already considerable melon twice as noticeable atop of my scrawny body.   Today, my son is likewise afflicted.  But getting a nickname in that world was also a sign of acceptance.  I was the only boy under the age of ten so honored in my neighborhood.

One summer day ‘Bessie’, who was fifteen at the time, who lived next door to me, and who hung himself five years later, suggested that we go behind the Doherty’s house and throw crab apples at a nest off field mice.  The mice had been recently discovered by my twelve year old neighbor, ‘Burger.’ A hunting party formed.  Six or seven of us set out for the field, armed with fistfuls of crab apples and barbaric energy.

We found a piece of plywood lying flat in a field of summer grasses.  We circled round it in a phalanx, armed and angry, our eyes brimming with the thrill of the hunt, our weaponized apples cocked and at the ready.  Bessie reached down and lifted a board of rotting plywood from the matted rectangle of bleached yellow grass.  A second later, half a dozen mice scattered in every direction.  Apples flew like arrows.  Someone whooped as the fruit ricocheted off the dirt.  Boys jumped.  The mice darted between our feet.  Dozens of apples pummeled the ground, but the mice evaded them, scurrying into the grass and safety.

Somehow, I ended up holding the last apple.  And somehow one tiny mouse kept running around in circles, spiraling around the center of the flattened yellow grass, dazed, while I took aim.  It circled once more.  I clenched the spotty apple in my hand, then I chucked it with everything I had.

My shot pelted the mouse square in the head and it flipped in the air. The boys screamed and laughed.  The mouse flopped on its side, a streak of blood leaking from its mouth, which hung open in a grim smile.  Its legs twitched, then went still.  Bessie raised my hand in the air as the boys howled their approval, but I stood there, frozen, staring at that dying mouse.

Much of my desire to write seems to stem from that moment, if not directly, then at least indirectly, at least in the sense of my need to reconcile that act with all that has followed it.  That mouse still haunts me, even after so much time.  I’m neither a pacifist nor a vegan and I still love football.  I know that many worse things have happened in the world than the death of a tiny mouse. But the emotional core of who I am has not strayed very far from that eight year old boy standing in a summer field.  It’s not just that single incident, clearly, but all the things which have followed, all the joys I’ve felt, the sorrows, the loves, the passions, the rages, the tears.  When I stop and analyze what I love about good writing and why I want to be a writer, it strikes me quite plainly that writing retains the ability to express profound emotions through language.  I should broaden the scope a bit.  Art does this, not just writing, though I can’t paint and I can’t make music, so I struggle to sing on the canvas of the page.  And it’s not intellect, though clearly good writing does challenge my brain.  The intellect is necessary to take something as abstract as an emotion and to convey it plainly.  But my desire to write seems tied up with a deep need, with a desire to express that swirling, muddied mess of interior emotions.

Margot Livesy

Margot Livesey says that “one of the main ambitions of art is to depict and evoke emotion.”  At its best, a work of art furiously explores, conjuring and capturing the full palate of human emotions with unflinching honesty.  A well-written story guides us toward thought, compassion, and insight; it points the way toward wisdom.  Good writing does not teach by brutalizing the intellect, or by subduing the spirit or proselytizing to the uninitiated, but by finding a way to make contact with another soul. Art teaches emotionally.

An object of art is a negotiation, the artist bartering with the observer, the transaction conducted between song and ear, between painting and eye, between story and reader, and the primary currency of these transactions is emotion.  We write, because through the act of exploring our ideas conceived in words, we stumble toward meaning, toward a deeper, more complex understanding of ourselves and of others.  Through writing, we radicalize the emotional core of life, which for me is the sacred center.  Poet Pattiann Rogers echoes Bertrand Russell when she calls for us to build the ‘soul’s habitation’ in our work, a place we write from and towards, a place of exile and yearning.  In the end we attempt to create an enduring object through writing because this remains one of the few affirming ways left to communicate our unadulterated selves:  our fears and desires, our grief and hope, our love and our desperation.    The artist speaks, first and foremost, from his soul’s habitation, which for me has a secular but no less powerful meaning.  It can be touched only within the emotional transactions of art.

Jane Kenyon offers this:

Why do we want to write?  What is behind this crazy impulse?  The wish to connect with others, on a deep level, about inward things.  The pressure of emotion, which many people prefer to ignore, but which, for you, is the very substance of your work, your clay.  There’s the need to make sense of life behind the impulse to write.

But how?  How do we transform these ideas, these feelings, into stories, essays and poems?  This exploration, this journey in, must have techniques, right? There must be clues.

In fiction, at least, it begins with characters.  The fiction writer must put characters into dramatic situations and figure out how those characters will feel things, how they will explore their world with action and thought, but with the emotional baggage always in tow.  Only after this can the writer consider how that depiction will conjure a response in the reader.  John Gardner says,

The first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel.  However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world—odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player—we must be drawn into the characters’ world as if we were born to it.

The first step, then, is to build a world that characters can experience through their senses, actions, thoughts, and memories.  A world we construct, word by word, image by image, on the page.

Before a writer can evoke any emotional response in the reader, she must give her characters their due.  And characters demand to be heard; they insist on feeling things deeply—to laugh, cry and punch holes through the page.  Only then can the reader be drawn in.  Only then can the reader hope to feel something too.

This is an area where I struggle in my writing.  I have a difficult time entering my characters’ space. I don’t dwell in their soul’s habitation. I’m not experiencing the emotions first-hand, but through the filtering lens of my intellect.  And this holds my writing back.  It prevents my stories from conveying emotion because the initial, primary depiction is off.  I’m like an actor dutifully memorizing my lines, but unable to inhabit my characters, unable to make my characters believable.

Before emotion can be conveyed to a reader, it must be authentically, honestly depicted within the story.

Yet none of this should take on the appearance of dogma.  This is not an argument for strict realism. The artist doesn’t gerrymander emotions.  She doesn’t manipulate, she explores.  The outcome is never certain, and the pathway often less so.  And technique alone is never enough.  Depicting emotion in a story a certain way can arouse strong feelings in one reader and none in a second.  Every person brings his or her own emotional histories to their reading.  And the emotions portrayed and evoked can often be unpleasant, disturbing, even downright brutal.  Also, the feelings we experience as readers are often very different than those characters feel within the story.

Dostoevsky’s murderous student, Raskolnikov, evokes a powerful reaction in me, but I don’t share his emotions as he bashes in the skull of his pawn broker and her sister. So why do I identify with him? Douglas Glover once said in a workshop that we don’t identify with a character so much as we do with their desires. To wit: I feel the restrictions of Raskolnikov’s life; I feel his desire to break free; I have sympathy for his desire to make something out of his life.  I might even understand his murderous impulses at times.  I can feel these things in myself because Dostoevsky depicts Raskolnikov’s desires so vividly.  But as the axe blades shatters the skulls of his victims, I feel very differently than the character does.  What’s depicted and what’s conveyed are almost diametrically opposed, but it is effective because Dostoevsky paints such vivid interior details of his characters.

The day I slaughtered that mouse, I also slaughtered the first innocence of myself. I spent the next twenty years trying to prove that what I felt that day was not weakness.  I spent most of my life bound to male rituals, to contact sports and the military and the systematic suppression of my emotions.  I hoped, like many men and women, that the rituals would toughen the core of me, would harden the exterior and overcome what I perceived to be softness.  Because I couldn’t celebrate with those other boys, because I couldn’t share their mutual joy at my kill, I spent twenty years distancing myself from the pain of watching that mouse die at my hands.  I ran away from my soul’s habitation.

I’d like to think that I’ve stopped running, and I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out how to render the complexity of emotions that life can evoke. I’ve tried to express that through writing.  In part, this is why I want to write.  I want to time travel and tell that little eight year old boy that what he’s feeling is okay.  And while I can’t do that, I can hope to reconstruct in my stories a place where my characters, my readers and my self can feel things without worrying that what we feel is wrong.  I haven’t accomplished this yet, but it’s a long race back to that summer field.  Sometimes, the only guides I have are other writers who’ve succeeded.

In the end, we are bound to structure and ritual in writing.  But as Bob Vivian once eloquently stated, structure, technique, grammar, words, even genre, only provide only the vessel, the container which holds the water.  And though we need the vessel, and we struggle so much to build it, what we desire is the water inside.  We desire not the walls which make up the soul’s habitation, but the fire burning in the hearth inside those walls.

I don’t know if anything I write can ever heal that first wound.  But maybe healing isn’t the goal.  Maybe the goal is not inward, but outward.  Maybe the goal is discovering ways to express the internal, to share it, and not hide it away.  Maybe that’s what all good stories do.

—Richard Farrell

Mar 122011

Here is a Richard Jackson translation of an ever so slightly upbeat Leopardi poem. Giacomo Leopardi was one of the 19th century greats, an Italian patriot and a great pessimist in the Schopenhauer mode.  Rick Jackson is poet, translator and teacher at Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. You might want to read this Leopardi poem in conjunction with Rick’s terrific essay, “Translation, Adaptation and Transformation: The Poet as Translator,” published on Numéro Cinq earlier this week.




The Infinite

By Giacomo Leopardi

Translated by Richard Jackson


Always dear to me was this hermit’s hill,
And this hedge that always separates me
From looking at the distant horizon, but
Seated here and lost in an endless meditation
Which discovers a vaster space within,
Boundless silence and deep inner quiet,
My heart is nearly overcome. And like the wind
Murmuring among the leaves to which I compare
Its beating, this infinite silence, this inner voice
So with my mind I encompass an eternity,
And the seasons die, and the present lives
In that sound. And in the middle of all that
Immensity, my thought drowns itself:
Sweet to me, to be shipwrecked in this sea.

—Leopardi, translated by Richard Jackson

Mar 112011

Here’s a second Las Vegas essay from NC’s intrepid observer of all things Nevadan (from the unique perspective of a 24-year-old Canadian Russian and Slavic Studies grad student). In her first essay, Brianna shot a Glock and an AK47. In this one, she visits the Atomic Testing Museum. In two short essays, she somehow manages to go straight to the heart of American strangeness, at least from an outsider’s point of view. Brianna Berbenuik publishes the blog Desire Machines and writes occasional film critiques here.


Let’s See Them Top That

By Brianna Berbenuik


I’m pretty disappointed that I don’t get to see the nuclear test sites out in the Nevada desert. Being a Canadian citizen, I am required to go through extensive paperwork that takes up to 6 weeks to clear in order for me to be able to see radiated holes in the ground. This is a letdown, because I hear that parts of the desert have turned to glass in the wake of the testing. I imagine this and think that there is, somehow, a morbid, unshakable beauty in this. The aftermath of great destruction: quiet and delicate. However, just up Paradise Boulevard off the Strip, there is the Museum of Atomic Testing. My consolation prize.

We walk there, which is a fucking mistake because it takes forever and by the time we actually get there my legs and feet are sore and I kind of feel like strangling something. The museum is a boring cube of grey concrete passing as a building. It resembles a bunker in some aspects, and maybe that’s the point. I buy our tickets, sign a guest book, and walk through the museum, which is essentially full of dismantled bits of the nuclear test stations that once were out in the Nevada desert. Everything is educational, scientific and at times hilarious. So much of the American zeitgeist of the 1950’s and until the end of the Cold War was illustrated by videos and documents “preparing” people for a nuclear attack. Incidentally, I read somewhere that less than 1% of the American population, during the Cold War, had fallout shelters.

But, because it is America, within all this educational material and nostalgia there is a lot of propaganda:  videos of veterans of nuclear testing extolling the virtues of having nuclear bombs and how it truly does protect the country and the greater good in the end. No regrets. But the war is over.

Continue reading »

Mar 112011

Sydney Lea gave the best poetry reading I have ever had the pleasure to attend—this was in the Noble Lounge at Vermont College way back in my first teaching residency, yea, these many years ago, mid-1990s. It was a long poem about a chainsaw accident that nearly cost him a leg. But it was also about friendship, the passing of the generations, the loss of the old north woods culture, about death and memory. It was the dead of winter outside, hot in the room, the chairs packed, people standing along the walls, damp condensing and dripping down the windows. Syd gripped the podium as the emotion rose. He began stamping his foot rhythmically, partly for the poem and partly, it seemed, to keep his own rising emotion in check. There were tears in the audience. The mood was electric. And when he was done there was a spontaneous ovation, people ran up, crowded up the aisles to embrace him, clap him on the back, make contact. I remember that, of course, and, of course, Tang Night: every residency the male faculty would adjourn one evening to the House of Tang for the All-You-Can-Eat buffet. Mostly this involved Syd and the other senior faculty, all VC veterans, regaling the newcomer with ribald tales of legendary teachers and students, also the famous Florida residencies when (long ago) we fled Vermont winters en masse. Which is to say, that I remember Sydney Lea and my early days at Vermont College with vast affection and nostalgia.

Besides being a wonderful poet and fiction-writer, Syd is a master of the personal essay, often combining his love of the woods, dogs and hunting with a passion for the laconic wisdom of northeastern oldtimers in a way that puts him among the best nature writers in American today.


Sydney Lea’s ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, has just been published by Four Way Books, which will issue his tenth, I Was Thinking of Beauty, in 2013. Lea founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review. He has just retired from Dartmouth College, after four decades as a professor there and at several other colleges and universities. The current essay is part of a collection he has all but completed, celebrating the men and woman of pre-power tool times in a logging community in northern Maine.  Lea is a trustee and capital campaign manager for the local land trust there, which has conserved 350,000 acres of woods and waters.


Weathers and Places

By Sydney Lea

— in mem. Creston MacArthur (1919-76)


Wherever you may be, if you are capable of memory there, can you fetch that dawn on Freeze-to-Death Island, the sleet slamming at our faces like some archaic dentist’s tool? A flock of geese drops in among the decoys, and without so much as a word between us, we let them paddle around unharmed on the riddled surface. There’s something so elegant about the birds that we just can’t fire on them. At length you rise from behind the rock we use for cover to shout, unaccountably, “Off to Cuba, baby ducks!” You pronounce it Cuber, like JFK. October of ‘62. The geese flush in a tumult of sound.

What elegy can there be?

As a young man, I had a real knack for remembering weather like that, or any. I can still tell you, say, that the winter of ‘81 brought virtually no snow to the northcountry. Several days in April of ‘73 were unseasonable, to put it gently; they got hot as a flatiron. My son, your namesake, was two, and I still see that chocolate Easter bunny liquefying in his tiny hand as we stood together in the dooryard. That seems sad now, which is odd. He wasn’t the least bothered himself. The sweetness remained; he simply licked the dark streaks from fist and forearm.

That power of recalling a day’s or season’s conditions, along with a few other endowments, is about gone. I am apter to summon the elements from a morning fifty years back, like that one on Freeze-to-Death, than from fifty hours. But whatever gifts I own or lack, I’ll never forget how the day shaped up at your funeral: it was very like that hour of the geese, but this time the perverse conditions, rather than seeming apt to a moment of glory, seemed equally fit for an opposite one. The day for me marked the end of a crucial discipleship, friendship, even sonship. I watched the frosty, wet earth close over all that.

The old saw claims that time heals our wounds, but it’s not so much that we’re healed by its passage as that the wounds become parts of us, along with the joys and frustrations and pleasures of any life. They sink deep inside, components now of what people describe as our characters.

What or whom, really, might I have elegized then? What or whom now?

In some sense, the day of that service in ‘76 seems a perennial today, all full of sideways sleet and wind. We mourners dodge strips of shingle and bright can torn by the gale from roofs of the Passamaquoddy shacks. Sand and salt blow off the road and sting our eyes as we file into the reservation’s small Catholic chapel. The congregation is about half tribal, half white.

It’s February, but Big Lake is pocked with open water. A strange winter thaw: whitecaps show in the gaps, sloshing up and over the ice. Skinny dogs hunker against the leeward wall of a maintenance shed, from which a poster flaps. I can’t read it in the blow, but I know what it says: KEEP MAINE’S FORESTS GREEN. It doesn’t seem possible they’ll ever be that again.

The power has failed clear to the coast.

Though I don’t know her, an old Native woman limps to my side and tells me she can’t remember anything like this in late winter. She grimaces, sneaking a tea bag under her lip against the pain in a dark tooth, which she keeps touching, as if she had a tic. It’s just that she’s nervous, as we all must be, at least in some measure.

Continue reading »

Mar 102011

Allen Ginsberg, QE2, Albany, NY, 11/29/90

Dan Wilcox is an Albany, NY, poet and photographer who claims to have the world’s largest collection of photos of unknown poets. But many of the poets he has photographed over the years are, in fact, very well known. Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Quincy Troupe are among the illustrious authors who have found their way to Albany. Also pictured here are dg’s friends, the novelist William Kennedy who, as director of the New York  State Writers Institute, hosts many of the visiting writers, a young Pierre Joris whose translations have been published on NC, and Susan Novotny, owner of the Bookhouse.


I started taking photos many years ago of poets & writers reading their work & my photos have been used for the cover of poetry chapbooks, for publicity & author’s photos, in poetry magazines & online.  Before digital cameras, I was often the lone photographer in the audience.  I estimate to have approximately 10,000 photos, many of famous poets & writers, but mostly the unknown community poets who read at open mics in the Capital District area.  You can many of my photos at —Dan Wilcox

Author Photos

By Dan Wilcox


Allen Ginsberg adjusting his camera, QE2, Albany, NY 112/29/90


Allen Ginsberg & William Kennedy, Half Moon Cafe, Albany, NY 11/30/90

Continue reading »

Mar 072011

Here’s an outrageously subversive essay from Las Vegas by Brianna Berbenuik, a  grad student  in Russian/Slavic culture and English & Russian literature at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. DG discovered her by stumbling on her Tumblr blog Desire Machines where she goes by the name Superfoo. Beyond this, dg knows nothing about her except that she writes with audacity and says what she thinks and has an instinct for cultural truth, troublesome as that might be.


Shooting Guns

By Brianna Berbenuik


One of the things on the top of my list of things to do in Las Vegas was shoot guns. I had heard legends of places you could go and for $100 shoot whatever weapon of destruction you chose. As I am an avid student of war, apocalypse and humanity’s unending and impressive ability to continually invent new and exciting ways to demolish itself, shooting guns had not only its historical appeal, but also a pop-culture appeal, and personal appeal. To be, at least for a little while, part of this culture that loves to bear arms and imagine blowing away wrongdoers was exciting. I guess it’s kind of like a kitschy power-trip. When in Rome. Americans love their guns.

The Gun Store is about a 10 minute cab ride from the main strip, and it costs around $20 to get there. We enter the store and I sign a sheet of paper already almost full of other signatures, that declares with far too much ease that I am mentally sound enough to wield a gun, and that I understand I could be grievously injured or killed due to stray bullets, ricochets, malfunctioning of the weaponry, and everything else that goes along with toting a killing machine. I read this and of course my standard reaction is to smirk and laugh a little at the absurdity and redundancy of what I am signing, but my gut ties itself in a little knot and I think about how pissed I’d be if I died shooting an AK47 in some shit hole in Vegas because the dude next to me decided he didn’t like my face. Or worse yet, just a stray bullet. I mean, how pointless. Not that life isn’t pointless in the first place, but putting yourself in a situation where the pointlessness is magnified if you happen to be killed due to your own compliant stupidity is a little frightening. I guess you’d also call that the American Dream. Continue reading »

Mar 072011

Evidence of Life, by Richard Farrell

Micrograph of “Alien”

I recently read about a scientist who claims to have found evidence of extra-terrestrial life inside a meteorite.  Not the bulbous-headed, green-skinned Martian type, but simple life, unicellular remains of bacteria trapped inside the deepest pockets of a four-billion-year-old meteorite. Accompanying the article was a micrograph of a ghostly white, worm-shaped thing, two microns long, ‘floating’ in a cave of spongy space rock. The scientific community remains appropriately skeptical, demanding more evidence, expecting this claim to be debunked under the scrutiny of peer review and more plausible explanations.  It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that earth bacteria simply slid inside the meteorite long after it landed on our planet. But if it turns out the other way, if this bacterium is one day confirmed to be from a place other than our own world, it should shake us up.  It should erase long-held perceptions about our sense of privilege and uniqueness, and it should quell the uneasy loneliness we feel when we stare off into the vast universe.

I doubt, however, that it would do much of anything. We, as a species, would probably be far too busy with mundane things to notice or appreciate the sublime.

My mother is having her gallbladder removed today at a hospital some three-thousand miles away from where I live.  I worry about her in the silence of my California home as I sit here thinking about extra-terrestrial microbes.  Memories come back to me, in the shape of broken bones, sore throats, scraped knees and a mother’s healing touch.  And though gallbladder surgery is routine, and at sixty-four my mother’s health remains good, the cascading nature of growing old must weigh heavy on her.  How many organs can be safely removed?  How much surgical trauma can the body withstand?

I like to imagine we humans retain a burrower’s gene, some long-lost prairie dog instinct spliced onto our twelfth chromosome, right next to the gene for opposable thumbs or back hair.  For even after thousands of years of civilization, we still sift through the past as if it contains answers.  We dream of dinosaurs, ancient kingdoms and long-lost ancestors, archaeologists all of us, in one way or another.  We remain yearning creatures, hell-bent on digging our way out of loneliness, determined to find even the faintest pulse of another life buried beneath the rubble of time and space before we do indeed shuffle off this mortal coil. Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter one damn bit if life existed on places other than earth.  But can anyone deny the thrill of the search?

I worry about my parents now.  Only twenty-three years my senior, the snapshots of their health are like a coming attractions reel for me: my mother’s surgery, my father’s recurrent prostate cancer and heart trouble. I feel the pull of time, too.  I pre-vision my body turning brittle, bones thinning out, organs misfiring, the pieces crumbling due to time, a process already well underway in the invisible cellular forces pulling me towards silence. The inevitability of degeneration.  I wonder, sometimes, how we persevere in the face of it all.

Those scientists searching for evidence of bacterial life in meteors must spend a lot of time with their hats in their hands, probably avoiding class reunions and UFO conventions with equal dexterity. I think about those men and women with awe, highly trained physicists and biologists who toiled in graduate schools along the Charles River, but now spend their careers sifting through space rubble, scouring cosmic dust with patched-together grants in a desperate search for microscopic evidence of life from outer space. It’s hard not to ask myself why they care so much, why they scrounge up dollars and lab spaces from fringe organizations while their Harvard classmates rake in the big bucks working for drug companies and defense contractors.

This morning, I overhear a conversation between my daughter and a little girl while they wait for their carpool ride.  It’s about birthday parties. My daughter is not being invited to the little girl’s party. Names are given–names of the invited girls. I don’t know the reason for any of this, nor why my nine-year-old has been left out. She pretends not to care, but it must sting.  Still, it’s not the sadness of being left out that gets to me, not the hurt feelings of rejection and confusion that linger after the girls climb into the minivan and head off to fourth grade.  It’s important that my daughter learn some of life’s hard lessons.  What bothers me is the telling. One child’s need to point out the snub, her need to belittle, to isolate, to marginalize. It’s the nature of kids, mine included, that a thin layer of cruelty exists below the innocent surface. Something that makes one want to hurt another.  It must be empowering in a way. How this relates to gallbladders or cosmic life forms I can’t honestly say.  But it seems to fit my mood.

The moments I most regret in my life are the ones where I was cruel toward other people.

Would it matter much if we found space bugs?  Would we lift our eyes heavenward more often, knowing that something existed beyond the boundaries of earth?  I suspect not. We’ll probably need the little green men to land before we’ll take notice.  Archaeological bacteria won’t cut it in our sophisticated times.

I’m out walking my dog when the ‘all-clear’ comes, a terse message on my phone from my mom’s husband.  The operation is over.  My mom will be going home soon.  All is well. And this of course comforts me, makes me relieved, desperate contingencies avoided.  But the lingering effect is one of wonder, maybe even resignation, that the worst outcome is only delayed, never avoided.  Of course I’ll happily take the delay.

I’ll pick up my kids in a few hours from school and ask my daughter about what happened this morning. I’ll try to patch whatever wounds were opened and try to explain to her that life, even in its worst moments, is far less limiting than she imagines. She’ll make a card for her grandmother and put it in the mail.  They share a close bond, my mother and my daughter.

Perhaps I’ll take her outside tonight, if the rain stops and the clouds part.  I’ll try to show her the Milky Way, try to explain to her how that gossamer web stretching out across the night sky like paint strokes of the gods is actually light from billions of suns.  And that around some of those suns are planets.  And how on some of those planets, there is surely life.

–Rich Farrell

Mar 072011

Richard-JacksonRichard Jackson, Betanja, Slovenia, June 2008. Photo by Douglas Glover

Richard Jackson is an old friend, an eminent colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts where he teaches poetry and translation, and an indefatigable traveler and spirit guide (dg spent nearly 2 weeks in Slovenia with Rick, during the 2008 VCFA summer residency—see  photo above—dg is still recovering). Richard Jackson is a prolific poet, a great humanitarian, a man of immense culture and erudition, and a gifted translator. He raises the bar. When you’re around Rick, you want to read more, see more art, learn more languages, and travel to distant fabled places.




Why translate? Kenneth Rexroth, one of the most influential translators, writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator,”– “The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.” Translation is at the heart of poetry– a poet like Rilke writes in his “Ninth Elegy” that when the poet

returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower….But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

Rilke’s notion that words only metaphorically stand for ideas, sensations and feelings suggests that they are themselves a form of translation. Of course, this could lead us quickly into a maze of problems and suggest that even a poem in our own language must be “translated.” What is at issue in translating poetry is the very nature of poetry, and the very nature of language. The main problems and debates that arise concerning the translation of poetic works occur when one realizes to what extent the essence of a poem lies, as Rilke and Rexroth suggest,  beyond the words per se.

First, I want to point out that literary translation differs in many important respects from the kind of translation that is usual in a language class. Literary translation, for one, involves a good deal of interpretation about intent and effect. For another, it is often not so interested in a literal “transliteration” as much as finding a corollary mood, tone, voice, sound, response–any number of issues can be raised here. John Dryden, the great neoclassical poet, wrote in his “Preface to Pindaric Odes,” that translation should be “not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase.” A poet such as John Nims feels that the most important thing to translate is sound; for him, the pure music of the poem is most crucial. James Wright in translating Hesse’s poems aims to duplicate their emotional effect more than any technique such as sound per se. Robert Bly’s translations are extremely loose yet often capture the essence of Neruda’s and Rilke’s spirits.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation,” wrote Robert Frost, a notion we have probably all heard. “Poetry is what is gained in translation” wrote Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize winning Russian poet who also spoke several languages. Or as Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel prize winning poet says, “poetry is what gets transformed.” Ezra Pound, in “How To read,” describes three aspects of the language of poetry: melopoeia, its music; phanopoeia, the imagistic quality; and logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” It is this last aspect that Pound says is the essence of poetry, Rilke’s unsayable. What Brodsky, Pound and Paz were driving at was that there are intangible things, that the realm of the wordless and visionary, as Dante himself says in Paradiso XXXIII , is both untranslatable while also being the essence of poetry. Brodsky may be echoing Boccaccio’s notion in Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, X,7, where Boccaccio says that in listening to the Greek Iliad in Latin translation “some passages I came to understand very well by frequent interpretation.” And the renowned Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, writes that a poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves. “Languages are many but poetry is one,” says the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

Where does this leave us? Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: “If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’” It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation. That is why the contemporary poet and translator, Jane Hirshfield, says: “A literal word-for-word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation.” She is perhaps echoing the great Latin poet Horace who writes in his “Art of Poetry” (Ser. II,iii)that a good translation of Homer can exist only:

if you don’t try to render word by word like a
slavish translator, and if in your imitation you do not
leap into the narrow well, out of which either shame
or the laws of your task will keep you from stirring a step.

The step image, by the way, is a pun of the use of “poetic feet,” a way to measure rhythm. Horace’s and Wan-Li’s notions have been echoed through the ages. In our own day Octavio Paz says: “After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings….With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes….of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.” This leads us to an essential irony: Stephen Mitchell, the well known translator of Rilke, says that “with great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful.” And the great English poet, translator and critic, Samuel Johnson, who was one of the most conservative critics of the neoclassical period, wrote: “We try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge the merit of translation.”



Let’s look at a small portion of Dante’s text, the opening stanza of the Inferno, as a way to see look at the problems involved in such judgements . The four versions I’ll briefly look at are John Ciardi’s standard translation which strives to duplicate the colloquial effect of the language as well as some rhyme, Mark Musa’s relatively accurate literal version which uses a three line unrhymed stanza which renders an accurate sense of the poem’s meaning and scope, even the play of its metaphors, yet does not provide any of the poem’s tonal qualities,  Robert Pinsky’s terza rima version strives to capture more of the varied aspects of Dante’s language, and Michael Palma’s new colloquial terza rima version that adds a great deal of interpretive material. One could say, as with Ovid, that in all these translations one is not reading Dante but only a translator, but of course that is also true for an Italian of today who must not only cope with archaic words and word forms, but also the different force and even connotative meaning of images and metaphors. We can gain a basic insight into these versions by looking at the opening stanza:

First here is the Italian and a literal transcription:


The road, first of all, is both literal, and as we soon learn, spiritual, the Biblical, “straight and narrow” road to salvation. Note that the loss is in the passive voice—Dante the pilgrim narrator is incapable of admitting at this point in the poem what Dante the poet knows: he is ethically confused and about to lose his soul. Ritrovai has special problems: to be lost and found is a basis of the Christian faith Dante is writing out of, yet the primary meaning of the word in the reflexive (mi ritrovai) is to meet another, also to come to consciousness, —which explains why some translators will use “came to myself” (though some use the reductive “awake”) emphasizing the spiritual split inside the narrator. Similarly, “straight” and “right” might be spiritual equivalents, but they suggest two different moods, the second being more directly a matter of ethics. Similarly dark and shadowy pose two distinct choices, both with Biblical connotations, shadowy suggesting more of the Hebrew Bible.  Note also that Dante uses two words for the road—perhaps suggesting the road mortal people usually take as opposed to the correct path of righteousness.

While Ciardi’s version retains much of the colloquial energy of the original, he makes the narrator admit his fault (“I went astray”), which goes against the dramatic unfolding of the poem, for Dante’s narrator does not understand his own guilt and is in fact filled with pride and the inability to perceive sin accurately. Ciardi gives us:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
From the straight road and woke to find myself
Alone in a dark wood. How shall I say….

Much of the drama of the poem rests in his struggle to separate his emotional sympathy for sin from his rational knowledge of evil. This sort of split is not something common to Ciardi’s own poems, either, which are straightforward and confessional– as is his translation. In many ways we are reading Ciardi using Dante as a way to describe his own self. To really understand what Ciardi is doing and the relation between his poem and Dante’s, one should read some of Ciardi’s poems along with his translation: what we find is the same forceful, direct, driving voice that the translation offers. Understanding this, we can extrapolate in order to imagine Dante’s quieter and more lyrical voice behind Ciardi’s. We can under stand, for example, that “Went astray” seems to lower the stakes while it lowers the linguistic level in a way that works better in Ciardi’s own poems than in this translation. We begin, in other words, to understand Ciardi’s approach as a sort of “common man” approach to the poem.

Mark Musa’s version suggests that Dante’s drift was part of a sleep, for now he awakens, a very literal and reductive interpretation of mi ritrovai not as a coming to consciousness, but a mere waking up– Musa’s pilgrim also states that the wandering was his own fault, as Ciardi’s does. By using “path” he also emphasizes the physical dramatic setting of the woods:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Musa’s use of “some” suggests a kind of casualness, at least as much as Ciardi’s, though he probably means it to heighten the narrator’s sense of being lost. This casualness– perhaps a product of our age’s fascination with freer verse forms and the looser Wordsworthian and Frostian blank verse– dominates Musa’s account, which is hardly a poetic step above the plain prose account of Mark Singleton. Musa doesn’t really provide a range of rhetoric, a range that is essential to Dante’s poem, and which a translator like Pinsky strives for. If we use Musa’s account, then I think we have to look at the influences that have led him to his form– to much of the poetic strategies of mainstream contemporary American poetry (he’s not a poet himself). Still, understanding that allows us to start to be able to perhaps take a step back towards understanding the difference in poetics between our world and Dante’s world, and gauge at l4ast the force of his metaphors which Musa remains absolutely loyal to.

For my money, the best current versions are those by Robert  Pinsky and Michael Palma. Pinsky’s tries to be formal where Dante is formal, more rough and colloquial where Dante is Colloquial, imitates formal elements in the rhetoric such as anaphora and parallelisms, and generally keeps the tone. He also suggests something of the pace of the original, ironically by condensing it somewhat. Here is Pinsky’s opening:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…

Pinsky leaves the responsibility for the way being lost ambiguous which I think is a good interpretation of Dante’s sense of things at this point. Pinsky places the reference to the tangled wood, which occurs in Dante a few lines later, at this point, allowing, as dante intended, the tangle refer to the pilgrim’s words nand ideas as well as the physical path. If we continue through his version we find Pinsky echoing the harsh onomatopoeic effects Dante uses to describe the lawyers in later in the poem, and imitating the song-like anaphora Francesca uses to seduce the Pilgrim in her “imbedded” lyric within canto V. Pinsky raises and lowers the linguistic register just as Dante does and the reader leaves the poem with a pretty fair sense of what the poem is trying to do.

Michael Palma’s version, which seems to lean on Pinsky’s, uses slant rhymes as well as full rhymes, and also the interlockings of terza rima in an interesting new version, though one must be also aware of interpretive additions or juxtapositionings which place in a half notch below Pinsky’s version:

Midway through the journey of our life, I found
Myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
From the straight pathway to the tangled ground.

Of course, some of what he adds is to fill out the rhymes, but in doing so he inadvertently emphasizes the physical journey over the spiritual with “tangled ground”  by including it in this first sentence rather than a tad later where it actually occurs. And he also allows the narrator to be more conscious of what his own culpability is than Dante’s narrator, as Ciardi and Musa do– all three of them perhaps falling prey to the sort a sort of guilt complex that seems to have entered much contemporary poetry and consciousness. Palma’s very colloquial version also seems to sometimes create a suburban inferno; his use of “pathway” here suggests a kind of jogging path, an effect one also sees in Longfellow’s 19th century version.

One could say that in all these translations one is not reading Dante but only a translator, but of course that is also true for an Italian of today who must not only cope with archaic words and word forms, but also the different force and even connotative meaning of images and metaphors. One answer is simply to not read any version because it is not the author per se, but that would lead to a pretty narrow view of our literary heritage. (What would happen if the same principle were applied to the UN where speeches are given and translated but cannot translate nuances of meaning, tone, voice, rhythm, etc.?)



In recent years translators have taken to collaborative efforts, often translating language they do not know or know very little. Such collaborations, usually between a good linguist or native speaker and a good poet have resulted in some stunning translations. Usually the poet is provided with a literal translation, then works with the translator over phrases and words with colloquial, historical or metaphoric resonance, and then the poet comes up with a poem that is a version, imitation (fairly close) or adaptation (loose). This, too, is an old practice: Johnson, for instance, describes it in his description of Pope’s work on The Iliad. When Pope or any translator poet felt himself “deficient” in understanding, he would make “minute inquiries into the force of words.” Chapman, for example, besides Pope, clearly worked this way. The aim of these efforts is to provide, as Johnson, sought, the best poem in English. The result of translation in the context I have been discussing is, as Johnson notes, a way to enrich both languages just as Pope’s translation of Homer “tuned the English tongue.” Pond puts it this way: “it is in the light born of this double current that we look upon the face of the mystery unveiled.” Pound says that his translations of Cavalcanti are not line by line by rather “embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man.” Clearly the notion of translation here is far different than what the average person thinks.

The French poet, Paul Valery, in his The Art of Poetry, writes that in translating Virgil he wanted to change parts for he felt a merging with the author: translating was creating, he felt. In a similar way, in our own time, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and translator Charles Simic writes: “translation is an actor’s medium. If I cannot make myself believe I am writing the poem I’m translating, no degree of aesthetic admiration for the work will help me.” Judith Hemschemeyer, who translated perhaps the greatest poet of the century, Anna Akhmatova, describes a slow process of first getting a basic sense and then working to duplicate various effects depending upon what she felt the main strength of a particular poem to be. And well known American poet Galway Kinnell describes, in his preface to Villon’s poems, how “one can be impeccably accurate verbally and yet miss the point or blur the tone quite badly….I wanted to be ‘literal’ in another sense. I wanted to be more faithful…to the complexities of the poetry, both to its shades of meaning and its tone. At the same time I wanted the English to flow very naturally. Therefore I avoided transferring ‘meanings’ from one language directly into another.” Kinnell goes on to say he attempts to “internalize” the French: I would not merely be changing language into language but also expressing what would have become to some extent my own experiences and understandings.” If that seems strange, remember that whenever we read a poem in our own language we bring our own experiences, contexts, and notions to the text, and they interact to form a unique experience called the poem. One could argue– and many critics and linguists today do so– that we translate even as we read within our own language. reading Kinnell’s poems and Kinnell’s translations involves similar activity, and not unlike what we would do when reading Villon in the original. So what is Villon’s poem? As read by a French scholar? a French poet? a good reader of French? a bad reader? Do the poems exists in some absolute Platonic place where all the meanings and effects are intact? Do they exist in individual reader’s responses? Somewhere in between? These are precisely the issues a translator and a reader of translations must face. “It is because it is impossible that translation is so interesting,” wrote William Matthews who has translated Ovid, Horace and Martial.

In a letter about the nature of poetry to his brother, Gherardo, Petrarch wrote of the Biblical poetry that they “never have been, or could be, easily translated into any other language without sacrificing rhythm and meter or meaning. So, as a choice had to be made, it has been the sense that has been more important. And yet some trappings of metrical law still survive, and the individual pieces are what we still name verses, for that is what they really are.”  Still, unsatisfied finally with that, Petrarch wrote his own sequence of Salmi Penitenziali in a single year in imitation of the Biblical psalms, but using phrases and ideas from the originals. In the “Preface” to his “Familiar Letters” Petrarch wrote that “The first care of the poet is to attend to the person who is the reader; this is the best way to know what to write and how to write it for a specific audience.” In a sense he prefigures Johnson’s concern, cited above, that the purpose of poetry is to be read.

How, then, to restore poetry’s original sense of freshness, of movement, and yet take into account a modern audience is always the issue. Translators like David Slavitt, with Ovid and Virgil, and William Matthews, with Martial and Horace, have magnificently transplanted these poets to our own times so that they seem to come alive, filled with their own concerns, but as they would speak in our own age, as Johnson had wanted. Matthews, for instance, adds current references, Slavitt’s Virgilian Eclogues are as much interpretations as translations. In other words, they have considered the contemporary reader, as Petrarch urged, along with the meaning and rhythms. This is precisely the example of Horace and of Pope. As Johnson wrote of Pope’s Homer: “To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient: the purpose of an author is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside.”

Literary translation comes close, as Pope suggests in a letter about his Imitations of Horace, to the notion of imitation. One anonymous wrote that Pope’s versions were “bound hand and foot and yet dancing as if free.” Earlier, Ben Jonson had defined imitation in his Timber as merely a poem loosely based on another poem. Dryden in his “Preface” to his translation of Ovid,  then defined three kinds of relationship a poet could have to a prior text.  “Metaphrase” for Dryden was a slavish, “word by word” account. “Paraphrase” was a “translation with latitude” that kept the original meaning but often with “amplification.” “Imitation,” on the other hand, meant, for Dryden, a process where the “translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases.” This is precisely the sort of thing Robert Lowell does in his Imitations from various poets, and what Pound does in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ a sequence of loosely translated lines rearranged into a sequence of totally new poems. And it is related to what Stephen berg does in  gathering images, tones and lines from Anna Akhmatova in his With Akhmatova at the Gate . Dana Gioia has written an essay describing how Donald Justice makes use of various lines, poems and forms of previous poets in over a fourth of his own poems.

We’ve become so used, in our own time and place, to valuing the new and the different above all else, that we have lost sight, in our own art of poetry with its rich tradition, of, as Roethke says in the title of a revealing essay, “How to Write Like Someone Else.”  Indeed, poets through the ages have learned to write by imitation, from Catullus adaptations of Callimachus, Horace’s borrowings from Lucilius, Petrarch’s use of Dante and Cino di Pistoia, Wyatt and Surrey’s use of Petrarch, and so on. Pope in fact said he turned to imitation to tighten his own verse and to find a voice to say things he was not ready to speak in his own voice. Petrarch, an early champion of learning from the past,  writes in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something– akin to what the painters call one’s air–hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness…. [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined…. It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.” Imitation, in other words, is creation: just taking a glance at what Samuel Johnson does to Juvenal in his “Vanity of Human Wishes” or what Frost does with  Virgil’s Georgics in his North of Boston the Greek Anthology in A Witness Tree ought to show us how one can learn from the past and still be original. Curiously, Frost gave a January 1916  lecture called “The discipline of the Classics and the Writing of English” which extolled imitation. One can see how James Wright’s middle poems were influenced by his reading of Lorca, Jiminez, Neruda and various imagistic poems from China and Japan. In fact, a glance at W.S. Merwin’s poems in The Lice (1967) and the translations he was doing at that time show an incredible similarity of the type Petrarch describes. Of course, sometimes imitation is very close to the original: in fact, one translation of Merwin’s , “The Creation of the Moon” derived from a South American Indian tale is almost rendered step by step in  in The Lice but with a different ostensible subject.

Even more  loosely, we can see a number of influences: Kunitz, Horace and Robinson on James Wright; Greek and Roman epigrams on Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert; Vallejo, Rimbaud and the beats on Tomaz Salamun. Longinus, the Roman critic wrote: “Emulation will bring those great characters before our eyes, and like guiding stars they will lead our thoughts to the ideal standard of perfection.” Perhaps one of the greatest examples is the way Petrarch borrows the idea of creating an evolving self in a sequence of poems from Horace’s Odes and his sense of how to address the reader from Cicero’s letters. Ultimately the point here is that poets learn to advance their craft by reading other poets from other ages and other cultures, adapting impulses, lines, forms and ideas to their own times. Not to read, not to “emulate,” is to isolate one’s art, to leave it static.



My personal history of ideas by poet-translators on their art is a far ranging one that extends from the Romans like Catullus who saw it as a “combat” with the original, to poets like Petrarch and Samuel Johnson who judged a version by its effect in the so called “target language,” to Robert Lowell’s and Alexander Pope’s loose “imitations.” I know that some of these practices would startle if not horrify most of my language teachers. Yet even a respected academic like Wilhelm Humbolt, in his introduction to his translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, says: “the more a translation strives toward fidelity, the more it ultimately deviates from the original, for in attempting to imitate refined nuances and avoid simple generalities it can, in fact, only provide new and different nuances.” This is perhaps why a poet like Jane Hirshfield, also a translator from Japanese, writes: “Translation’s very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text is.”  I think what has intrigued me about the various possibilities of various kinds of translation is precisely that challenge; it offers a way to understand my native language better, to pay more conscious attention to kinds of detail that I approach on a more subconscious level in writing my own poems, and to appreciate some relationships between my own poems and those of poets in another language with whom I have found a kindred spirit.

For my own part, I have done three separate and very different translation projects that I would like to describe for what light they might cast on the the poet as translator. I felt that each poet’s poems demanded a different approach. Perhaps what links these three very different projects is Milan Kundera’s notion, in Testaments Betrayed, of the importance of the original author’s “personal style.” In many ways he extends Humbolt’s theory when her says that “every author of some value transgresses against ‘good style,’ and in that transgression lies [his] originality. The translator’s primary effort should be to understand that transgression.” For me this has meant reading everything, from letters to journals to work in other genres, to the author’s own translations of other writers’ works, and to the author’s own contemporaries, in an attempt to get to the source of his style, the structure of his mind. The results have been variously:  a fairly traditional approach, a radical transformation of the original, and a collaborative project.

First, the traditional approach. Several years ago I stumbled across a book of last poems by Cesare Pavese in a bookstore in Firenze, poems not then availabe in English, and very different from the William Arrowsmith versions I knew. This book, his last poems before he committed suicide, contains a number of poems in narrow lines where the metamorphic aspect of his earlier work is much intensified. A number of these poems of “Disamore,” “Disaffection” or “Lost Love,” as it might literally or figuratively be translated, identify the land of northwest Italy, especially from Torino to Genoa with a woman, and that land as variable, enticing, dangerous, beautiful, forbidding and distant.

Most translators translate one section of these last poems, originally published in a pamphlet, as “Death Will Come and It Will have Your Eyes.” I translate the title as “Death Will Come and She Will have Your Eyes.” This small difference suggests a huge difference in what Pavese is trying to do. The whole section, in fact, deals with a woman or women who potentially betray him—leading up to his suicide reportedly after his rejection by an American actress. The personification, using “she” rather than “it” is warranted first by the way he personifies other things such as the land, which he sees as feminine, in earlier sections from this book. (While “morte” is technically feminine in Italian, this of course does not carry over into English, though one wonders if Pavese, so careful with images, might have felt this more than we do.) For example, in one poem in this book he writes: “You are the land and death.” In another he says the woman is a “clump of soil.” In another section he is even more direct in linking womanhood to death, something he does in his journals where he says that one kills himself for the love of a woman, “any” woman because of the way the self is humiliated by all women. Obviously, Pavese’s attitude towards women throughout his poems could have benefited from serious counseling.

In any case, my version reads:

Death will come and she will have your eyes.–
this death that accompanies us
from morning to evening, sleepless,
deaf, like an old remorse,
or an absurd vice. Your eyes
will be one empty word,
a hushed cry, a silence.
Things you see each morning
when you alone gather yourself
into a mirror. O dear hope
when will we ever know that
you are life and you are the empty day.

For every death looks the same.
Death will come and she will have your eyes.
It will be like giving up a vice,
like seeing in a mirror
the face of death come to the surface,
like listening to closed lips.
We will descend to the abyss silently.

Personifying death this way also makes the image of seeing death, the woman, in the mirror, more powerfully, for in many ways the idea of a deadly woman took over and controlled his own identity. So the Pavese project has been one where the basically accurate translation tends to emphasize Pavese’s peculiar humanizing of his landscapes more than other translations.

I should also add that these later poems have an entirely different rhythm than his earlier ones: there are quicker turns and the emphasis is more on words and their placement in the line than on phrases and sentences as in the earlier poems. I feel, because of the rhythm of thinking in the original, that, as much as possible, the original word order should be kept. In translations of earlier poems, on the other hand, I have placed more emphasis on the phrase and image order, for it is in those poems that Pavese practices his theory of the “image narrative.” So for example, my last line in “Death Will Come” reads “we will descend into the abyss silently” rather than the more normal American English order, “we will descend silently into the abyss.” The word, silently (“muti”),  comes as a kind of afterthought in the syntax, and yet its place at the end of the line also emphasizes the relationship between silence and death.

The effect on my own poems, if I can judge that, has been first of all an increase in the use of personification, and related to that, a more functional use of landscape. I think I have also noticed a greater attention to different effects of lineation. And as far as understanding Pavese goes, I have gained a more sympathetic understanding of the pathology of his torment.

The second project is not really translation at all, but rather “Poems based on Petrarch,” where I have taken an entirely other approach, using the originals as take off points for what might be likened to jazz riffs. I have in mind the way Coltrane uses a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in his Swedish date and then takes off into the stratosphere for 13 minutes until we are so far afield all we sometimes hear are a few of the original notes in various patterns. In a way I am following Petrarch’s own advice when he writes in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something– akin to what the painters call one’s air–hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness…. [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined…. It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.”

I suppose another model for me was the way Ben Jonson had defined imitation in his Timber as merely a poem loosely based on another poem. Besides, for me there was a problem of the quality of the English version, for even by the time of Shakespeare’s mocking of Petrarch in “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” many of Petrarch’s fresh images and comparisons had already become clichés. This was a problem I experienced with my first versions of Petrarch which were standard conservative translations. These early versions led me to realize that I wanted a sense of what I felt Petrarch might sound like if he wrote today in America. In this context I think of what Pound does in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ a sequence of loosely translated lines rearranged into a sequence of totally new poems and  what Jo Shapcott does in Tender Taxes, based on Rilke’s French poems, which, as she says,  “re-imagines Rilke’s brief and fugitive lyrics as English poems.”

Here, for example, is Petrarch’s #234. ‘O cameretta che già fosti un porto’, literally translated:

O little room that sometimes served as a port
In these fierce daily storms of mine,
You are the fount, now of my nightly tears,
Which, because of the shame I feel, I hide by day.
O little bed, that used to be a comfort and a rest
In many trials, from what  doleful urns
Love bathes you with those hands of ivory,
So cruel to me alone, so unjustly!

I flee not only from seclusion and my rest,
But flee myself and my thoughts even more,
Which used to raise me in flight as I followed.
And now for asylum, I seek out the crowd,
My hated foe — who would believe that?
I am so afraid of finding myself alone.
(my translation)

My riff, “The Exile,” tries to extend the mood of the poem, keeps some allegiance to the setting, but radically changes the images, making them more surreal. I suppose I had in mind what Dryden called “imitation” and what Pound logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words. It is admittedly a far cry from the original, in fact I would really consider it more of an original poem that, in Eliot’s phrase, “steals” from the original. Here, then, is my “riff”-

Grief frames the doorway to that room I used to call my port
against whatever storms came careening down my street,
that room with its memories now crumpled on a table, a fleet
of hopes wrecked by words that regret what they alone distort.
Thorns fill the bed. A taunting night shakes its keys to closets
of desire I can no longer open. Who sleeps there, indiscreet
rival, while I flee his shadows that loiter like a disease
which waits for a soul to pummel, a love to perfectly thwart?
The doorknob of the night is always turning, but it is myself I flee–
my dreams, my rhymes, that lifted me towards a heaven
I thought was the love these words might finally create.
Maybe now I’ll hide in those city crowds I’ve come to hate
since I can no longer face myself, no longer be alone.
Longing rings the doorbell, but the house is empty.

My first idea was how to make this remarkable poet and influence fresh again, more contemporary. So there’s the doorbell is a contemporizing effect, and the doorknob, and the colloquial American English in general. But in all of them I have kept the original rhyme scheme, or one of the schemes, using a lot of slant rhymes. I also loosened the line from his pretty strict classical 11 syllable Italian line, but within those constraints I was often thinking through Petrarch’s mind as I understood it, especially after reading all the 365 poems in his conflicted book about Laura, his Ciceronian and Familiar letters, his other poems and prose and several biographies and critical works.

The poems vary considerably in what they owe to the original, because my ultimate aim was what I could apply to my own work. As I worked with more of his poems I saw much in his life and times similar to my own, and so I began to absorb that personality. Oddly, then a great number of these poems are in effect more autobiographical than my other poems from about 1993 on. This project effected a greater sense of the possibilities for contradictions and arguments within the evolving movement of my own poems, a move also towards more concise poems than I had been writing, a greater sense of the odd and sudden twists and turns metaphors can take, and the way a controlling metaphor can move in and out of a poem’s surface. I’ve done about seventy poems, mostly sonnets, with a few canzoni, and am probably done with it for now.

My third translation project is a collaborative effort with two other American poets, Susan Thomas and Deborah Brown, with occasional help from a few of our friends. In our versions of Giovanni Pascoli, a turn of the last century poet who spent his last years in rural Barga, in northwest Tuscany, we have used John Hollander’s notion of finding an analogue in English poetry to use as a kind of base. (As with the Pavese and Petrarch, I have visited Pascoli’s home and favorite haunts to gain a further feel for the landscape that is so important to him.)  Pascoli, by the way,  was a terrific influence on Pavese. Just as Nabokov found an analogue for his translation of Pushkin in Andrew Marvell,  as part of our procedure, we found an analogue in a combination of Hardy and Frost, that is, a voice that is at once rustic and cosmopolitan, melodious and rough, minute in its natural observations and ready to imply larger analogies.  We have not kept strictly to Pascoli’s format, never the rhymes which his rustic syntax allows him to sound more natural in Italian, though we have tried to duplicate the inner form, the appearance on the page and many of the sound effects.

Our procedure, after deciding we wanted an accurate translation that also conveyed the mood and tone– was for one of us– this varied  poem to poem — to provide a version to work on. Then the other two would offer comments, suggestions, sometimes radical rephrasing. This was mostly done by email. A number of problems surfaced immediately. For one, Pascoli writes in a particular dialect from the mountains of northwest Tuscany above Lucca. A number of words had to be deciphered contextually through the meanings of the poem in question, its companions and through the online version of the poems that also contained a useful concordance. Stylistically, Pascoli often drops part of a sentence, uses pronouns in an ambiguous way to extend meanings, and puns in sometimes very subtle ways (both verbally and visually). As with Pavese, I felt the word order with its rhythm and lineation was crucial.  Some of his references are to specific places near Barga, and to particular folk events and sayings. He also has a habit of linking clauses together by semicolons to suggest a kind of linking of the particulars of a scene in a kind of image narrative that may have later influenced Pavese’s theory of the “image story.” His poems range from dialectic sequences of brief lyrics about rustic life to odes and other longer poems, and then later in his career to political poems and poems based on classical and mythic themes, on artists and other famous figures.

One example of the problems of translation here stems from his extensive knowledge of astronomy and mythology. For example, one of his most interesting sequences is “The Last Voyage,” a narrative of Odysseus wanderings after the Odyssey to plant an oar where Poseidon is not known, certainly a sequence influenced by Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  Susan rendered the opening poem’s lines 3-5 as:

Because of an error made on land,
He was exhausted and foot weary,
Supporting an oar on his strong shoulder.

Now the word for shoulder is “omero” which, capitalized, is also “Homer.” The poem itself is a carrying forward of Homer: should we try to account for this pun? Would the phrase “Homeric shoulder” work? The adjective for shoulder is “grande” which can mean here “big” or “strong.” Someone even suggested “epic shoulder” which we rejected. Also, the “error made on land” is that he is lost — (the root of “error” in English and the Italian original here is to wander– as in Spenser and Milton, for example). Lines one and two had referred to Ulysses as the great navigator– on sea. So, for now, our committee of three has settled on the following, also changing the word order to reflect the original:

Because he had lost his way
He was exhausted and foot-weary,
Carrying, on his strong Homeric shoulder, an oar.

Even the title of the poem, “La Pala,” or “blade,” though, poses problems. “Pala del remo” is the blade of an oar, but the oar here is mistaken for a harvest flail, and in the second poem “L’Ala” (literally, “wing” or even “oar blade”) the oar is perceived as a wing. So should we render the two titles as “The Oar as Flail” and “The Oar as Wing”? We are still wrestling with the possibilities.

With references to constellations and stars we have consistently described them as the animals and figures they were seen as in ancient times because Pascoli seems to be using them this way. For example, Deb’s literal rendering of one section of a later poem in the sequence would yield:

It is time to plow the field, not the sea,
from which you can see not even
a handful of the seven stars.
It is sixty days till the sun returns,
Until Ursa Major, the stars that guide you,
will return. By then the breeze is sweet,
the sea is calm, the shining Bootes will be visible.

The seven stars are possibly the Pleides according to an Italian editor’s notes, but most likely the big dipper, Ursa Major, the great bear because Bootes, after all, is the hunter who follows after her. Indeed, the handful of stars is what is probably referred to as the tail of the bear — or the handle of the dipper.  Actually, Pascoli uses the word “Carro” (capitalized) for Ursa major which is its astronomical meaning, but its more common meaning is cart, and so the tail of the bear is also the cart’s handle and the dipper’s handle. The association with the cart is important because it relates to the plowing image. There is a kind of furiously quick web of associations here that is probably impossible to translate. Here’s our version:

It is time to plow the field, and not the sea,
From which you can not even begin to see
A handful the seven stars in the Great Bear.
It is sixty days till the sun will return,
Until the Bear, your guiding constellation,
Will return. By then the breeze is sweet, the sea
Calm, the brilliant hunter will be visible….

There is an interesting play between what can and can’t be seen, between finding one’s way and being lost. And this version tries to maintain some of the traditional 11 syllable line length that Pascoli deploys. We have kept “handful” to suggest both the plowed earth and the handle of the cart. Finally, turning the constellations into the figures they represent gives, we hope, a greater sense of visual drama.

Working on this collaborative effort has been immensely rewarding for it has the advantage of having different minds, while adhering to the same general poetics, offer and discuss various alternatives. The result has been a deeper understanding of the process of translation, and of the inner workings of  Pascoli’s poetic mind, and also possibilities for using myths in our own poems. And we have been able to see how Pascoli’s descriptive poetry is later adapted and transformed into a more metamorphic vision by Pavese: in other words, we have been able to see a kind of translation between poets of the same language which has in turn influenced how we read our own influences.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Charles Simic, writes that “Lyricism, in its true sense, is the awe before the untranslatable.”  I suppose it is that sort of lyricism that these three projects aim for. Obviously, too, I have been using American rather than British English, a difference radically brought home to me this past September at Vilenica where I worked on a couple of poems by a Slovene poet with a British poet translator, Stephen Watts, the  Slovene translator, Ana Jelnikar, and the poet herself. Several times Stephen and myself had very different phrasing. Each of our choices, I believe, was appropriate to our audiences back home. I was reminded of the American teacher who had his class translate a sentence, “The evening passed,” from an English novel, and one student rendered it as “It got late.” And it has– so I’ll end here.

—Richard Jackson

Some Useful Sources

Arrowsmith, William and Roger Shattuck, eds., The Craft and Context of Translation: A Critical Symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961.

Baker , Mona, ed., Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London: Routledge, 1998.

Barnstone ,Willis, The Poetics of Translation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Belitt, Ben. Adam’s Dream: A Preface to Translation. Grove, 1978.  Interviews, essays, introductions on a variety of problems and poets.

Brower, Reuben, Mirror on Mirror: Translation, Imitation, Parody. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974

_____, ed., On Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959. This landmark anthology includes Bayard Quincy Morgan’s critical bibliography of works on translation (from 46 BC. to 1958)—an essential historical survey of the topic.

Gass, William. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Knopf, 1999. A well thought out, book length account of what it means to translate an author, his life, his work, his being.

Gentzler, Edward, Contemporary Translation Theories. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Graham, Joseph F., ed., Difference in Translation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Grahs, Lillebill and Gustav Korlen, eds., Theory and Practice of Translation. New York: Lang, 1978.

Hawkins, Peter and Jacoff, Rachel. The Poet’s Dante: Twentieth Century Responses. Farrar, Strauss, 1999. Essays by numerous essential poets such as Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Montale, Lowell, Auden, Merwin, Pinsky, Doty, Hirsch and many others.

Hirschfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Harper Collins, 1998. This terrific book has a great essay on translation.

Kelly , Louis G.. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979

Raffel, Burton, The Art of Translating Prose, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

_________, The Art of Translating Poetry, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

_________, The Forked Tongue: A Study of the Translation Process. Hawthorne, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1971.

Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet, John. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. University of Chicago Press, 1992. Includes major works by Goethe, Rossetti, Benjamin, Pound, Nabokov, Paz and others; the best single source of theory.

Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet, John. The Craft of Translation. University of Chicago Press, 1989. Excellent practical essays, many being introductions, on translating writers such as Celan, Eich, Japanese Poetry, medieval works, and some theory.

Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press, revised edition 1993 (original edition 1975).

Warren, Rosanna, ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Weissbort, Daniel, ed., Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989

Wechsler, Robert. Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation. Catbird Press, 1998. General introduction to major issues.


Other Sources

Some examples of Adaptation include: Jo Shapcott, Tender Taxes (Faber and Faber, 2001); Stephen Berg, Oblivion (Illinois, 1995) and With Akhmatova at the Black Gates (Illinois, 1981); Robert Lowell, Imitations (Farrar, Strauss, 1961).

Two excellent examples of various versions of two major poets, from translation to imitation are:

  • Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets, ed. Dan Halpern, Ecco Press, 1993. Widely different approaches by Heaney, Strand, Kinnell, Graham, Plumly, Mitchell, Williams, Wright, Clampitt, Forche, Merwin, Digges, Hass, etc.
  • After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, ed, Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, Faber and faber, 1994. Everything from strict translation to tangential relationship is represented in versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Hughes, Graham, Fulton, Pinsky, Boland, Carson, Muldoon,  Simic and others.

The Nov/Dec 2002 Poets and Writers magazine has a complete section on translation.

See also the comprehensive web site sponsored by P.E.N. International.

There is a terrific Manual For Translators with bibliography and resources at


Mar 062011

Kim Aubrey has already contributed a “What it’s like living here” from Toronto just as she was about to move to Saskatoon. This new piece actually seems better than the first, denser, more pressured, more engaged, even as it struggles with engagement, with the new, alien place. It’s fascinating to read the two together. But, of course, I also like this piece for the use it makes of my short story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon,” which is, yes, based on a true story. I did run out onto the ice to help rescue a blind man and his companion dog. But in real life we actually managed to save the dog (in the story, it dies); I brought the dog to my girlfriend’s apartment to dry it off and warm it up; it knocked over the Christmas tree and ate two of the presents and then attacked the policeman when he came to take it into custody. No doubt this will distract you from Kim’s essay. Ignore me. I had a very interesting time living in Saskatoon—but this is Kim’s story.


What It’s Like Living Here

By Kim Aubrey

You ask what it’s like living here and whether I have read your story, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” I read it last week, swearing out loud, “Shit, that’s a good story.” I’ve taken to talking to myself because I don’t know anyone here, except for my husband, Joseph, who’s at work all day. My experience of the place is limited, tentative, and your story has already begun to color how I view it. I’ve been planning to visit the Mendel Art Gallery, and now when I go, your narrator’s account of Mendel keeping his art collection in his slaughterhouse may conjure the sight and smell of blood.

“There seem to be so few people”*

You feel strange here. If the place you live shapes you, molds you in ways you don’t realize, subtly and slowly, Saskatoon has yet to work its magic. You’ve only been here for seven weeks in total, interrupted by a return to Toronto for the holidays and to New Hampshire to stay with your mother while she had a hysterectomy. You make yourself go out some afternoons, no matter how cold it is. Other days you stay at your desk, working on projects, answering e-mails. Or you ring your daughters in Toronto, consoling yourself that they are only a phone call away.

On those days that you make it outside, you walk the two blocks across three snow-packed streets to the South Saskatchewan river, where you can either follow the sidewalk and view the open and closed waters from above, or climb down the slippery hill to the Meewasin walking trail which stretches along both sides of the river. You could cross over to the west side on one of the bridges, but you are waiting for milder weather before venturing across on foot. Here on the east side, the surface of the river is frozen and seems like an extension of the trail, but beyond and under the ice, the river flows swiftly north to Lake Winnipeg.

“Beneath me the unfrozen parts of the river smoke and boil”

Corner Grocer

Outside, it’s minus thirty, but you kick off the covers three or four times a night, pull them back on. Your body’s thermostat is wonky. Heat blazes through you, a trial by fire, something being forged. Your period is late again. Maybe it won’t come. That doesn’t mean what it meant twenty or thirty years ago. It means the opposite now, your power to make a baby dwindling, some other power replacing it. The force of this heat kindles you even in the frozen depth of a Saskatchewan winter.

You hurry inside from a walk. Your knees and the tops of your thighs sting as the warmth floods back into them. You neglected to wear snow pants or long johns, or to wrap your scarf around your face, because you relish the bite of cold, the uncompromising crispness, hoping it will eat a clear path through your befuddled mind. You wonder how you’ll manage to make this prairie snowscape feel like home. When you first moved to Canada, your daughters helped to ground you, to root you in Toronto where you’d landed. What can root you now? You’re hoping the cold can tell you, or the tension between cold and warmth, desire and paralysis.

You gaze at the painting on your bedroom wall—an enormous hyper-real hibiscus. The yellow stalk of its sex casts a cool blue shadow against the lush red petals. When you were a kid in Bermuda, you used to strip the petals from the stalk to find the sticky heart of the flower, its hidden juiciness. You and your brothers would fix the small white cone to the tips of your noses to see how long it would take before the flower’s heart fell off.

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Mar 052011

Here is a twisted, black comic reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which, yes, is already a twisted, black comic reversal story. So that “Gregor,” by the wonderful Catalan author Quim Monzó is a double dose of twisted and black, or maybe twisted and black squared. This story is from Monzó’s collection Guadalajara, translated into English by Peter Bush, and forthcoming this summer from Open Letter Books. Watch for the book—it’s amazing. Like “Gregor,” many of the stories work on the principles of literary reference and inversion: Ulysses gets trapped inside the Trojan Horse, Robin Hood steals so much that the rich are impoverished and the poor become wealthy, a famous prophet can’t remember any prophecies. Monzó’s influences are often postmodern (Coover, Barthelme, etc.) or surrealist (Raymond Queneau). He was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award; he has been awarded Serra d’Or magazine’s prestigious Critics’ Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway.



When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.

What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.

He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back. His instinct told him that if he twisted on to his front he might find it easier to move; although with only four (very stiff) extremities, he didn’t see how he could possibly travel very far. Fortunately, he couldn’t hear any noise and that suggested no humans were about. The room had one window and one door. He heard raindrops splashing on the zinc window sill. He hesitated, unsure whether to head towards the door or the window before finally deciding on the window—from there he could see exactly where he was, although he didn’t know what good that would do him. He tried to twist around with all his might. He had some strength, but it was evident he didn’t know how to channel it, and each movement he made was disconnected, aimless, and unrelated to any other. When he’d learned to use his extremities, things would improve considerably, and he would be able to leave with his family in tow. He suddenly realized that he was thinking, and that flash of insight made him wonder if he’d ever thought in his previous incarnation. He was inclined to think he had, but very feebly compared to his present potential.

After numerous attempts he finally managed to hoist his right arm on top of his torso; he thus shifted his weight to the left, making one last effort, twisted his body around, and fell heavily, face down. His family warily beat a retreat; they halted a good long way away, in case he made another sudden movement and squashed them. He felt sorry for them, put his left cheek to the ground, and stayed still. His family moved within millimeters of his eyes. He saw their antennae waving, their jaws set in a rictus of dismay. He was afraid he might lose them. What if they rejected him? As if she’d read his thoughts, his mother caressed his eyelashes with her antennae. Obviously, he thought, she must think I’m the one most like her. He felt very emotional (a tear rolled down his cheek and formed a puddle round the legs of his sister), and, wanting to respond to her caress, he tried to move his right arm, which he lifted but was unable to control; it crashed down, scattering his family, who sought refuge behind a container of liquid softener. His father moved and gingerly stuck his head out. Of course they understood he didn’t want to hurt them, that all those dangerous movements he was making were simply the consequence of his lack of expertise in controlling his monstrous body. He confirmed the latter when they approached him again. How small they seemed! Small and (though he was reluctant to accept this) remote, as if their lives were about to fork down irrevocably different paths. He’d have liked to tell them not to leave him, not to go until he could go with them, but he didn’t know how. He’d have liked to be able to stroke their antennae without destroying them, but as he’d seen, his clumsy movements brought real danger. He began the journey to the window on his front. Using his extremities, he gradually pulled himself across the room (his family remained vigilant) until he reached the window. But the window was very high up, and he didn’t see how he could climb that far. He longed for his previous body, so small, nimble, hard, and full of legs; it would have allowed him to move easily and quickly, and another tear rolled down, now prompted by his sense of powerlessness.

As the minutes passed, he slowly learned how to move his extremities, coordinate them, and apply the requisite strength to each arm. He learned how to move his fingers and gripped the windowsill. Seconds later he finally succeeded in raising his torso. He thought that was a real victory. He was now sitting down, legs crossed, with his left shoulder leaning on the section of wall under the window. His family stared at him from one corner of the room with a mixture of admiration and panic. He finally pulled himself on to his knees, gripped the sill with his hands, so he wouldn’t fall, and looked out of the window. Part of the building on the other side of the street stood out clearly. It was a very long, dark building, with symmetrical windows that broke up the monotony of the façade. It was still raining: big drops of rain that were easy to spot individually and hit the ground separately. He made one last effort and pulled himself up and stood erect. He marveled at being so vertical, yet felt uncomfortable at the same time, even queasy, and had to lean on the wall so as not to fall down: his legs soon went weak, and he gently eased himself down until he was back on his knees. He crawled towards the door. It was ajar. He had to push it to open it wide, and he pushed so energetically (he found it difficult to estimate the effort strictly necessary for each gesture he made) that he slammed it against the wall and it swung back and almost shut. He repeated the movement, less brusquely this time. Once he’d managed to open the door, he went out into the passageway, still on his knees.

Could humans be somewhere in the house? Probably, but (he im­­agined) if he did find any, they wouldn’t hurt him; he looked like them now. The idea fascinated him. He’d no longer have to run away for fear they’d crush him underfoot! It was the first good thing about his transformation. He saw only one drawback: they would want to speak to him, and he wouldn’t know how to reply. Once he was in the passage, he pulled himself up again with the help of his arms. He didn’t feel so queasy now. He walked along slowly (his legs bore his weight better now) and every step forward he took became easier. There was a door at the end of the passage. He opened it. The bathroom. A toilet, bidet, bathtub, and two washbasins under their respective mirrors. He had never looked at himself before and now saw immediately what he was like: naked, fat, and flabby. From his height in the mirror he deduced he wasn’t yet an adult. Was he a child? An adolescent? He was upset to see himself naked; he didn’t understand why—nudity had never bothered him before. Was it the misshapen body, the pounds of flesh, the chubby, acne-ridden face? Who was he? What was he all about? He walked through the house, gaining in stability all the time. He opened the door to the bedroom that was next to the bathroom. There were some skates next to the bed. And lots of pennants on the walls. There was also a desk, exercise books, reading books. And a shelf full of comics, a football, and some photos. A photo of himself (he recognized himself straightaway, just like in the bathroom: fat, spotty, and dressed as if for indoor football, in a blue jersey with a white stripe on each sleeve). He found clothes in the cupboard: underpants, a T-shirt, a polo, tracksuit bottoms, socks, and sneakers. He got dressed.

He looked through the spy-hole in the front door. Outside he could see a landing and three more front doors. He went back to the living room, ran his finger along the spines of the few books on the shelves. He caressed a china mug. Turned on the radio. Music blared out, but he couldn’t understand the words:

. . . unforgettable doves,
unforgettable like the afternoons
when the rain from the sierra
stopped us going to Zapoopan . . .

He switched it off. Silence. Sat down on the sofa. Picked up the channel-changer. Turned on the TV. Changed channels; brightened the colors as much as he could, turned the volume all the way up. Turned it all the way down. It was so easy. There was a book open on the sofa. He picked it up, convinced he would understand nothing, but the second he looked at the page, he read almost fluently: “I’ve moved. I used to live in the Duke Hotel, on the corner of Washington Square. My family has lived there for generations, and when I say generations I mean at least two-hundred or three-hundred generations.” He closed the book, and when he’d put it back where he’d found it, he remembered he’d found it open and not shut. He picked it up again, and while he was looking for the page it had been open to, he heard the sound of keys turning in a lock. A man and a wo­­man appeared; they were clearly adults. The man said, “Hello.” The wom­an walked over, kissed him on the cheek, looked him up and down, and asked: “How come you’ve put your pants on backwards?” He looked at his tracksuit bottoms. How was he to know they were back to front? He shrugged his shoulders. “Have you done your homework?” the man asked. Oh, no, not homework! He imagined (as if he could remember) an earlier time, when homework and backward pants didn’t exist. “Get on with it then!” It was the woman’s turn. Before going to his bedroom and getting on with it, he went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, took out a can of Diet Coke, that he struggled to open (still being clumsy with his hands), and spilled half on the floor. Before they could scold him, he went to the junk room, and as he unhooked the mop, he spotted three beetles huddling against the wall; after freezing for a moment, they tried to escape. He felt disgusted, put his right foot on them, and pressed down until he could feel them squashing.

—Quim Monzó, translated by Peter Bush


Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK, and now lives in Barcelona. Previously he was Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, where he directed the British Centre for Literary Translation.He has been active in defence of the rights of literary translators as Vice-President of the International Translators Federation and was founding editor of the literary translators’ journal, In Other Words. His recent translations from Spanish include Níjar Country and Exiled From Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo and Celestina by Fernando de Rojas; from Catalan A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana and The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi. He is now finishing Tirano Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, the classic novel on the theme of dictatorship in Latin America and L’Éloge de l’Amour, a philosophical dialogue between Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong. He has also translated the novel, The Enormity of the Tragedy, by Quim Monzó.


Mar 042011

What it’s like living here

by John Proctor

Every Monday and Thursday during the school year, I get up at 4:30 and commute via subway from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal, the Metro North commuter train from Grand Central to White Plains, and the Bee-Line bus from White Plains to Purchase, New York, where I teach at Manhattanville College. Having a wife and child while  trying to maintain my pre-offspring reading and writing schedule can be difficult, and the train gives me a chunk of mostly unaccosted reading and writing time. Also, I’ve found that I’m rarely so aware – of my thoughts, of my surroundings – as I am at 5:00 in the morning in a moving vehicle that I don’t have to steer.

For the first time since I moved to New York City in 2000, I live in a neighborhood – Park Slope – that rarely makes me feel physically unsafe. It’s a popular site for movie shoots that want an “old Brooklyn” feel, but the only hint of crime that I’ve experienced are break-ins of my car if I leave it unlocked.

Park Slope, in the springtime

No matter the time of year, whether the waning days of summer at the start of the school year or the dark heart of winter when the second semester is just getting underway, I exit our three-story brick apartment building into a near-total darkness, broken up every 50 feet or so with the dim yellow arcs of streetlamps. Our block is mostly old three-story linoleum-sided buildings, with a sprinkling of ultra-modern condos that sit half-empty, waiting for the housing market to recover. We hope the market stays bad forever, so we’ll always have streetside parking. Some blocks near ours have actual gaslight lamps. These lamps seem to be in keeping with the “historic district” designation that Park Slope shares with Beacon Hill in Boston and New Orleans’ French Quarter.

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Mar 042011


Spain has a surprisingly extensive network of Canadian studies departments, a fact that astonished me when I stumbled upon a conference program reference to this essay about my novel Elle. I tracked down the author, wrote him an email, and asked to see a copy of the paper. This was years ago. Pedro and I became email friends. He arranged for me to be invited to a conference at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands where I met a crowd of fascinating scholars and lived in an old hotel on a beautiful windswept square in the centre of the city (which is a UNESCO heritage site). The volcanic mountain at the centre of the island was shrouded in mist the whole time I was there. I was introduced to drinks the names of which (as well as the contents) are unfortunately lost to memory. (DG is a notoriously bad traveler.) I love this paper about Elle. I love the magical message loops–someone in Spain was decoding Elle as, simultaneously, I was decoding Don Quixote and writing The Enamoured Knight. I have no idea why there is this connection with Spain. It’s mysterious. Pedro Carmona-Rodríguez is an affable, acute, and sapient scholar, a terrific reader of my work. He teaches English, Theoretical Discourses, and Anglo-American Literatures at Universidad de La Laguna /UNED in the Canary Islands. His area of research is contemporary Canadian literature with an emphasis on gender and postcolonialism, the two entwined. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Annual meeting of the Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) at the University of Huelva (Spain) in December, 2006.[1]



Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, engages issues of control and its refusal, which are part and parcel of any document that intertextually appropriates and interrogates the imperial text. Through its historical research, the novel shows how the dynamics to expose the functioning of empire is increasingly concerned with examining the extent to which contemporary views are inflected by colonialism. As Tiffin and Lawson argue, “[i]mperial textuality appropriates, distorts, erases, but it also contains” (1994: 6), being this containment a more or less covert tendency to silence any contesting narrative. Glover’s Elle reflects how a female wayward gender construction turns into a counter narrative of the imperialist zeal of settlement and reproduction of the same in the seemingly empty land of the other. Woman and land are here interrelated entities, since biological reproduction and the reproduction of the incoming civilisation are, therefore, parallel acts of colonialist impregnation.

Anne McClintock’s suggestion that imperialism and its deconstruction requires a theory of gender power unveils the mechanisms whereby gender and sexuality lead us into a new dimension of colonial mimicry (1995: 6). This paper is concerned with the ways in which a wayward gender configuration parallels the generic instability of the document produced by the novel’s heroine. On the one hand, Elle’s views on space, race, gender, sex or Native myths challenge the mirror of the Eurocentric technologies of representation, and their vehicular means, the travel account, to inhabit on the other side. On the other, an atypical gender inscription manufactures a peripheral location for her subject. In the meantime, the Canadian periphery, in several senses, is hailed as the stance to threat the colonialist centred textuality. Elle’s autobiographical document unwrites the marginalisation that colonialism and patriarchy have firmly elaborated for her and the Canadian space.

When the novel opens its main narrative line, its then anonymous female protagonist, a replica of the 16th century historical Marguerite de Roberval, the French woman abandoned in the St. Lawrence River’s firth during Jacques Cartier’s third Canadian expedition, is on top of a man whose penis she maintains erected as tied by a rope, while her lover, Richard, is about to throw up out of sea sickness. When the novel is about to end, in turn, the same protagonist has just murdered Monsieur de Roberval, the agent of her dereliction, in the guise of a Canadian she-bear.[2] While it seems evident that passivity and activity struggle for preponderance in Elle’s story, her act of writing back from Canada gains for her an upper hand in her fight with the vectors of imperialism and patriarchy: on the one hand, she overtly defies the humanist subject in underlining her gender, and, on the other, that same gender diminishes the relevance of the European colonialist patriarchy.

Being a literal defiance for the systems upholding the enterprise of settlement and reproduction of the French in Canada, Elle is left behind the expedition to which she belongs. Her rendition of that abandonment is transformed into a vitriolic critique of the colonialist mentality (see Hernáez Lerena, 2007; 2009). The creation of subjectivity produced by her memoir interweaves race, gender and sexuality, three elements that turn colonialism upside down. However, Elle promptly claims that “I must be the first French woman to set foot in this world, the first of the General expedition to land, the first colonist in Canada” (Glover, 2003: 37). From the opening of her text, she reveals herself as being between the colonialist and the colonised. Whereas her European origin includes her within the former group, her position as writer and story-teller endows her with the authority of the historian, and illustrates that of so many white women in the New World, who “[…] were not the hapless onlookers of empire, but were ambiguously complicit both as colonisers and colonised, privileged and restricted, acted upon and acting” (McClintock, 1995: 6). As part of that appropriated agency, Elle launches demolishing critiques, and, once, they have targeted their aim, recedes to deny her own relevance as writer and subject. Pragmatically speaking, however, the objective has already being achieved, namely, that of undermining the basis of dominance and establishing firmly a counter-narrative. Thus, she frequently makes speeches like,

I am a headstrong girl, shallow and frivolous, born to a little land in the provinces but never meant to take part in the so-called great events of my time even if I have wanted to. Instead, I wanted to read books and make love, which only made me an object of lust or ridicule and bound me to the periphery, the social outlands, to Canada. Aguyase. […] I have founded an unofficial colony in an unofficial Canada. […] Unfortunately, no one knows this, which is the nature of unofficial non-histories (and anti-quests). (Glover, 2003: 149)

That rejection of positionality starts from quite early in Elle’s memoir. The writing subject lacks a name, since ‘Elle’ is not a proper noun, but a common third person, singular female pronoun. In lacking a name, issues of position, addressing and the authority of writing are immediately affected. In other words, the author of this memoir adopts a quasi-anonymous persona that travels back and forth in time; she rejects the linear teleology and moves from 1542 to 2003, when a contemporary Elle makes love to her boyfriend by the sandy estuary of the St. Lawrence, where it all begun five centuries ago. In this form, the unity and the single voice resonant of any account of colonialism and pseudo-ethnography are broken into pieces; Elle moves in and out of her own writing and her movement, literal and metaphorical, deconstructs the fixity of the ideology and categories underneath. Her dwelling between positions of superiority and inferiority is also a rejection to inhabit a single site to be in turn in several, all-partial enclaves of writing and vision where the spectacle of travelling is mostly refused (see Siegel & Wulff, 2002: 109-122).

Her memoir also deconstructs itself, and in the process, undermines one by one the cornerstones of the linear geographical conquest and its narrativisation according to an European calendar. “[…] I find I am the subject of a story I can hardly follow. In the labyrinth of dream, I lose the power of thought”. And then, she continues, “[…] this is the unofficial account of an anti-quest. This is the story of a girl who went to Canada, gave birth to a fish, turned into a bear, and fell in love with a famous author (F). Or did she just go mad” (Glover, 2003: 131).[3] And, not only is this an anti-quest, since Elle’s descent is not followed by an ascent paralleling a learned moral lesson (see Frye, 1976), but an anti-conquest as well.[4] Hardly do we hear her comments on racial dominance or the prevalence of her moral codes. Far from that, she questions the hegemonic stance with which Europe constructs its other as well as the conveyance of any message of human progress travelling from Europe to America. “[A]nd which message”, Elle wonders, “will we bring to the New World racing through the waves to meet us at the fringes of the mist (M. Cartier says the savages call it Canada, to our ears a nonsense word something like banana, although I can easily imagine that to their ears the word France calls to mind wholly other and unworthy resonances)” (Glover, 2003: 22).

Whereas it is clear that Elle’s alleged lasciviousness motivates Roverbal’s decision to leave her behind the expedition, her learned status is never dismissed as a relevant cause for her dereliction. And, no less important, the connection between her attitude to knowledge and her challenge of patriarchal morality are never set down as trivial reasons for her exclusion. “Maroon her on a deserted island lest she spread the contagion of discontent to other girls or even men, though men are generally impervious”, Elle remembers, “Keep her away from shops and books and looking glasses and friends and lovers, forget her” (Glover, 2003: 29). Her words notwithstanding, there is no way in which she can be forgotten, inasmuch as the text we read is her own account of the events, and seldom does she let her tracks be textually undetected. She never misses the opportunity to highlight that her viewpoint presides over, and consequently, her text strikes backs the systems that attempt to stifle her liberty in every sense, and physically constrain her to an open-air prison. “I like fucking and food and reading books […]” (Glover, 2003: 37), she states to define herself in opposition to the patriarchal imperial system that restricts her freedom of thinking and movement likewise. Bearing in mind the outstanding parallelism between woman and geography, it is no coincidence that there is a shared intention to contain both of them. Whereas the contagion that Elle may bring for the men in the expedition is ended by confining her on an island, the colonialist contention of a threatening geography is carried out by means of a representation whereby cartography is the direct vehicle to overpower the unknown. Thus, when she is about to be exiled, it is Roberval’s finger that points on the map and decides the place where Elle will stay. She, in turn, points out that “maps never look like the territory. Their relation to geography, […], has always been abstract if not outright deceptive” (Glover, 2003: 28). And if the relation between subject and space is always problematic in the colonial context, it is especially so in Canada, where a great deal of attention has been paid to the description of North American nature (see Osborne, 1988). In this sense, whereas the colonial writer makes an effort of containment, Elle shows the opposite tendency, since she distrusts the power of language and representation to contain, and very especially the power of cartography (see Huggan, 1994; van Herk, 1996):

the most up-to-date geographers, cosmographers, map-makers, astrologers, admirals, kings, court jesters and merchant adventurers of Europe contend that Canada is: a) a thin strip of land running north-south and dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean; b) an archipelago of large and small islands encompassing a labyrinth of channels leading more or less directly from the Atlantic to the Pacific; and c) a continent enclosing a vast inland sea  […]. (Glover, 2003: 46).

Yet that distrust also taints Elle’s capacity to see and report, and, consequently, her memoir turns into what Graham Huggan calls “counter-travel writing” since it “interrogates the privileges that accrue historically to the genre” (2000: 40).  And that position of writing from the questioning of genre enables her to provide the reader with a counter-vision of the traditional account.  “[…] I have entered a place where the old definitions, words themselves, no longer apply, a world strange beyond anything I could have imagined […]. We have a name for such a place as this – wilderness. It is a name for the thing without a name, for everything that is not us, not me” (Glover, 2003: 38).

Her position as the non-European, paradoxically, enables her to go against the grain and interrogate more fiercely issues of foundation as well as the authority of the national fathers, and the very ontology of Canada. Thus, “[…] The mere existence of Canada constitutes a refutation of the first principle of Christian cosmology, expressed by St. Isidore in the seventh century, ‘that beyond the Ocean there is no land’” (Glover, 2003: 58; see Turner, 1994: 1-18). This creation of what could be termed a strategic marginality endows her with more authority to question issues of foundation:

And I wonder about a country founded by such disparate heroes as Richard and the Sieur de Roberval, who, if combined, still might not amount to a real man. Poor Canada, destined always to be on the edge of things, inimical to books and writing, plagued by insects in the summer and ice in the winter, populated by the sons and daughters of ambitious, narrow, pious, impecunious Protestants and inarticulate but lusty Catholic tennis players, not to mention the rest of the expedition […], every kind of rogue except heretics, traitors and counterfeiters who were deemed unsuitable to the dignity of our pious expedition. (Glover, 2003: 43)

But the act of colonisation is also filtered through the lenses of the body and a related politics of desire. It is in this context where Elle’s assertion of “I am a landscape of desire” (Glover, 2003: 53) gains special strength, since it reduces the act of colonisation to that politics of free-ride desire that has secluded her on a stranded island, and, eventually, reconciles the act of colonisation to her body mastery. In opposition to her fellow explorers, and their ideas on foundation, Elle claims “[f]ounding a colony in the New World is like the act of love” (Glover, 2003: 108). And to go further, their divergence concerning colonisation is made to rely on a gender difference that borders that comic effect with which Glover, and, ultimately, Elle punctuate their writings. “[…] I think, this is the difference between men and women: my uncle has conquered Canada by brandishing a sword over the bodies of his companions; I have conquered Canada on my back. In either case, the long term effect on the inhabitants is the same” (Glover, 2003: 96).

Thus, Elle rapidly approaches the native Itlsk, once her European fiancé dies on the Isle of Demons. The common issues of human degeneration and its coterminous claims of lack of domesticity and progress are wiped out in Elle’s reliance on her own colonial politics. The colonialist assumption of the virgin land is also disclaimed in her writing. First by her acknowledgement of the native presence, but also by using and reversing that already classical parallelism between woman and land. As Lawson and Tiffin state drawing on Peter Hulme (1995: 5), the parallel between these two entities is based on gender / sexual and racial postulates. First, the virgin woman/land is depicted as devoid of desire and sexual activity, but also waiting to be sexually initiated and impregnated, and, indeed, it cannot be overlooked that “sexuality as a trope for other power relations was certainly an abiding aspect of imperial power. The feminising of the virgin land […] operated as a metaphor for relations that were very often not about sexuality at all, or were only indirectly sexual” (McClintock, 1995: 14).

The racial factor is also significant, because the claim of native property is rapidly dismissed on the basis of white European supremacy. Racial inferiority was officially accompanied by a feminisation of the native, once again evincing that “knowledge of the unknown world was mapped as a metaphysics of gender violence  […]. In these fantasies, the world is feminised and spatially spread for male exploration, then reassembled and deployed in the interests of massive imperial power” (McClintock, 1995: 23; see Pratt, 1991). Therefore, and taken as a whole, “colonialism conceptually depopulated countries either by acknowledging the native but relegating him to the category of the subhuman, or simply by looking through the native and denying his/her existence” (Tiffin & Lawson, 1994: 5).

Elle’s abandonment can only be understood by looking at a colonialist politics of surveillance on women’s bodies and their borders. Her free ride of her sexual desire jeopardises the enterprise of conquest and settlement. Not in vain, the control of women’s sexuality ensured maternity, and the racial purity of the new empire builders. In the end, it was a question of the “health of the male imperial body” (McClintock, 1995: 47). On the contrary, female “body boundaries were felt to be dangerously permeable and demanding continual purification”. Consequently, “women’s sexuality, was cordoned off as the central transmitter of racial and hence cultural contagion” (McClintock, 1995: 47). As McClintock underlines, for the 16th century explorer and coloniser, women, of any race,  needed to be mastered for being embodiments of nature, and the unconquered, but also for being ambivalent figures, thresholds “by means of which men oriented themselves in space, as agents of power and agents of knowledge” (McClintock, 1995: 24). And, as a matter of fact, Glover’s protagonist perfectly illustrates that position of threshold. On the one hand, she is between the old and the new world, being literally transported from the former to the latter and back, but also for her position as colonised and, though unwilling it may be, coloniser. She is taken care of for her role as reproducer, and when she cannot be mastered, left nowhere. She moves not only between places, but languages; loses her French in favour of muteness, and recovers her language, but now inflected by her travelling and dwelling in the stance of the other: “[d]id I once speak fluent French, read books? Now I am mute, or my words stumble as they come out of my mouth” (Glover, 2003: 147).

And, indeed, in this novel any roles are interchangeable; any position, contingent (see Wyile, 2003). Elle is the peripheral subject writing from the margin back to a centre that her own writing sets to deconstruct. Yet her status as a white coloniser makes of that periphery an unreal centre subject to immediate threats. Her memoir is also a feeble colonialist document, which, from the edge of genre, launches a powerful assault on the textuality of empire and its dissemination of pseudo-ethnographic travel accounts. Elle’s attack on colonialism and empire does not overlook the power of books, since she is prompt in defining herself as a product of her own reading, as in the end we all are. “I have made my mistakes”, she explains in her memoir. “I blame printed books for this, a recent invention which has led us to solitary pleasures: reason, private opinions, moral relativism, Lutheranism and masturbation” (Glover, 2003: 65). For all the assertions made in her writing, the grim truth is that her account vanishes, self-deconstructs and, therefore, goes as it came, leaving the reader valuing the connection between colonialism and gender and assessing the inflection of colonialism and its textuality on our daily lives.

—Pedro Carmona-Rodríguez



Appenzell, Anthony. 1976. “The Great Bear”. Canadian Literature 71 (Winter): 105-107.

Brady, Elizabeth. 1987. Marian Engel and Her Work. Toronto: ECW Press.

Engel, Marian. 1990 (1976). Bear. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Fee, Margery. 1988. “Articulating the Female Subject: The Example of Marian Engel’s Bear”. Atlantis 14.1 (Spring): 20-26.

Frye, Northrop. 1976. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard U.P.

Glage, Lyselotte. 2000. “Introduction”. Being/s in Transit: Travelling, Migration, Displacement. Ed. Lyselotte Glage. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V. Editions. ix-xiv.

Glover, Douglas. 2003. Elle: A Novel. Fredericton (NB): Goose Lane Editions.

Holland, Patrick and Graham Huggan. 2003 (1998). Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing. Ann Harbor: The U. of Michigan P.

Hernáez Lerena, María Jesús. 2007. “Surviving the Methaphorical Condition in Elle: Douglas Glover’s Impersonation of the First French Female in Canada”. Canon Disorders: Gendered Perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the UninitedStates. Eds. Eva Darias Beautell and María Jesús Hernáez Lerena. Logroño: Universidad de La Rioja / Universidad de La Laguna. 71-91.

Hernáez Lerena, María Jesús. 2009. “Visited Graves in Colonial Cemeteries: The Resurrections of Marguerite de Roverbal”. Canada Exposed /Le Canada à découvert. Eds. PierreAnctil André Loiselle and Christopher Rolfe. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang. 343-356.

Huggan, Graham. 1994. Territorial Disputes: Maps and Mapping Strategies in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Huggan, Graham. 2000. “Counter-Travel Writing and Postcoloniality”. Being/s in Transit: Travelling, Migration, Displacement. Ed. Lyselotte Glage. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V. Editions. 37-59.

Hutchinson, Ann M. 1987. “Onward, Naked Puritans: The Progress of the Heroines of Bear and The Glassy Sea”. Canadian Women Studies 8: 63-68.

McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Imperial Contest. New York: Routledge.

Osborne, Brian S. 1988. “The Iconography of Nationhood in Canadian Art”. The Iconography of Landscape in Canadian Art. Eds. Dennis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. 162-178.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese. 1991. Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence. Toronto: Mercury.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1991. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

Ryan, Simon. 1994. “Inscribing the Emptiness: Cartography, Exploration and the Construction of Australia”. De-Scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality. Eds./Intro. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. London: Routledge. 115-130.

Siegel, Christi and Toni B. Wulff. 2002. “Travel as Spectacle: The Illusion of Knowledge and Sight”. Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle and Displacement. Ed. Christi Siegel. New York: Peter Lang. 109-122.

Siegel, Christi. 2002. “Introduction”. Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle and Displacement. Ed. Christi Siegel. New York: Peter Lang. 1-9.

Tiffin, Chris and Alan Lawson. 1994. “Introduction: The Textuality of Empire”. De-Scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality. Eds. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. London: Routledge. 1-11.

Turner, Margaret E. 1994. Imagining Culture: New World Narrative and the Writing of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP.

Van Herk, Aritha. 1996. “The Map’s Temptation or the Search for a Secret Book”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31.1: 128-136.

Verduyn, Christl. 2008. “A Canadian Bear, A Woman’s Heart: Douglas Glover’s Elle and Marian Engel’s Bear,” TransCanadiana: Polish Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 1: 74-85.

Wyile, Herb. 2003. “Lost in Transit: A Rev. of Douglas Glover’s Elle”. Canadian Literature 182:

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Annual meeting of the Spanish Association for Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) at the University of Huelva (Spain) in December 2006 and published in Proceedings of the 29th AEDEAN Conference: Universidad de Jaén 15 al 20 diciembre 2005. CD-ROM. Ed. Alejandro Alcaraz Sintes et al. Jaén: AEDEAN / Servicio de Publicaciones U de Jaén, 2006. 539-45.
  2. Marian Engel’s novel Bear (1976) and its many echoes all the way through a thirty-year-old tradition of Canadian writing are decidedly present in Elle. Here, as much as in Engel’s text, the bear is not only the savage symbol of Canada that needs to be tamed to ensure the human mastery of the landscape. In both novels, the bear is the other, near but not quite; distant but at hand to assert by opposition issues of national and personal subjectivity. In Elle, like in Bear, a too close contact with the animal brings an imminent danger for the human. Additionally, it is women that in the two novels flirt in different ways with the wild icon of Canadianness, and it is them that in distinct forms go back to a civilisation whose appearance has been remodelled by the contact with the savage lands of Canada (see Appenzel, 1976; Brady, 1987; Hutchinson, 1987; Fee, 1988; Verduyn, 2008).
  3. And indeed, it is quite late in the course of the novel when we find Elle saying “I tell you now that I am very old and writing this memoir in secret, knowing that it may be used to light fires when I am gone” (Glover, 2003: 113). Her document goes through a process of demystification similar to the one undergone by other European texts. Thus, in the early stages of her period on the Isle of Demons, she acknowledges “we have eaten the books, using the bits we found inedible to kindle the fire in desperate circumstances […]. I keep only the English Bible, much chewed by rodents, for its strangeness and the vulgar force of its language (Glover, 2003: 49). From pseudo-ethnography to European religion, all goes through an immediate act of mockery that diminishes their cultural relevance, while recognising their presence in the postcolonial imaginary.
  4. Holland and Huggan have appreciated a certain similarity between travel narratives and what they term “displaced romances”, but preserving the distinction between “the picaresque mode of comic misadventure and the pastoral mode of contemplation and elegiac reverie” (2003: 10). In its blurring of defining categories, nevertheless, Elle fluctuates between one and the other, and, whereas it is true that the comic predominates, it hardly avoids being grotesque and sad.
Mar 032011


Science is in a strange predicament these days.  Political rhetoric for math and science funding abounds, but creationism, in some corners, has equal footing with evolution.  Science is set forth as the savior of the nation: we will innovate our way out of this recession, our ingenuity is our greatest asset.  But from the same mouths come cuts in funding for basic research, or else strings attached.  Such fact-centrism unfortunately sets science at odds with the arts, which are being cut even more deeply.

In 1959 British novelist-scientist C.P. Snow called this dichotomy “The Two Cultures,” a phrase Loren Eiseley references in “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” which appeared in The American Scholar in 1964.  In his essay Eiseley, himself an anthropologist, distills his core belief:

It is because these two types of creation—the artistic and the scientific—have sprung from the same being and have their points of contact even in division, that I have the temerity to assert that, in a sense, the “two cultures” are an illusion, that they are a product of unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding.

That theme—that science and art are born of the same mind and are therefore inseparable—permeates Eiseley’s writing and reverberates today.  Eiseley was one of the earliest practitioners of, shall we say, philosophical science writing.  He didn’t just examine the natural world and illuminate it in layperson’s terms, he considered the symbolism in scientific happenstance, and he ruminated on our true human place in the galactic flotsam.

The culmination of his career is The Star Thrower, a compendium published a year after his death in 1977.  Eiseley organized much of the book himself, drawing from magazine articles; unpublished essays and lectures; and his previous books, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Firmament of Time (1960), and The Unexpected Universe (1969).  The publication timeframe of those three major books puts Eiseley at the heart of the mid-century environmental discussion, right alongside Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and the other writers to be profiled in this series.  What makes Eiseley’s work unique among this group is his struggle with science.  He asks continuously whether is it all right for him, as a distinguished anthropological scientist, to feel.

The titular essay in Eiseley’s posthumous collection was originally published in The Unexpected Universe.  In it, he walks along a beach and comes upon a man throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean, an act Eiseley first sees as futile.  In the essay, he recalls the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Goethe; considers Darwin; and remembers the Biblical injunction “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  But, he writes:

I do love the world…. I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again…. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world. [This is] like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.

The next day he joins the man on the beach in lofting starfish to the waves.  If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of “The Parable of the Starfish,” which took off in the 1980s and likely originated with Eiseley’s essay.  But while the parable’s moral is about making a difference in the world, Eiseley’s story is more complex.  As a scientist, he knows he should have no compassion for those starfish, he should not anthropomorphize them into beings that care whether they live or die. But he does.  “It was as though,” he writes, “at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.”

That self-given permission to feel, in the context of scientific observation, allows Eiseley’s work to glide through long pages of evolutionary theory and the history of philosophy, then return to personal moments in nature: Eiseley rescuing, somewhat humorously, a snake and a desert hen, which had entangled themselves in an inadvertent death-struggle; Eiseley being joined for lunch beneath a dock by a muskrat; Eiseley wrestling playfully with a young fox, as if it were a puppy. And he lets himself edge toward fiction.  The previously (until The Star Thrower) unpublished “Dance of the Frogs” and “The Fifth Planet” have a touch of the mystical. The former features a scientist skipping along a road in the presence of barely seen giant frogs; the latter tells of an amateur meteorite hunter obsessively seeking fossils of extraterrestrial life.  These remind me a lot of Barry Lopez’s fiction: in particular Desert Notes (1976, one year before The Star Thrower) and Winter Count (1981)

This mixture of science and art also gives birth to an exciting and varied language.  In one place (noticing a resemblance between eroded rock and the human brain) Eiseley trots out this tortured staccato:

The human brain contains the fossil memories of the past—buried but not extinguished moments—just as this more formidable replica contained, deep in its inner stratigraphic convolutions, earth’s past in the shape of horned titanotheres and stalking dirk-toothed cats.

And elsewhere, on the same general topic of human-nature correspondence, he keeps it simple:

For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider.

So where does Eiseley sit in the pantheon of Eco-Lit?  He’s an outlier, his name not often said in the same breath as Edward Hoagland’s or Carson’s.  But The Immense Journey sold a million copies, making it an early anchor, just after Carson’s and Joseph Wood Krutch’s initial works and before Abbey and Wendell Berry.  His work is perhaps less accessible than the others, prone to long probing philosophical passages that smack more of Ivory Tower than beachcomber.  But always, just when he’s gone almost too deep into the mind, Eiseley, with the subtlest of transitions, lifts from his own experience an unforgettable tangible moment, rich with sensory detail.

Eiseley could be considered an unwitting instigator of what John Brockman calls “The Third Culture:” scientists that are also literary giants.  This is a hot subject today.  The Best American Science and Nature Writing is in its 11th installment. Brian Greene (Mr. String Theory) regularly publishes physics books for the masses (he’s got one on the NY Times Bestseller list right now).  Neil deGrasse Tyson has brought the stars down to earth with provocative titles like Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries.  Mike Brown’s recent How I Killed Pluto interweaves the story of the ninth planet’s demotion with Brown’s own infant daughter’s first years.

I read The Immense Journey in college, while studying landscape architecture and also, for fun, taking courses in anthropology, cooking, raquetball, and nature writing.  Back then Eiseley went over my head, but I picked up The Star Thrower this winter.  I was reminded of an experience from a year ago.

Last March, during yet another cold weekend when I wished the long northwoods winter would just be over already, I took my toddler son to the zoo and lifted him up so he could reach into the tidepool exhibit and touch starfish and anemones.  Ethan was utterly gleeful, maybe about the strange salty water, maybe about the leathery skin of the starfish, maybe about the way the anemone tentacles stuck to his fingers like tape, but certainly about nature.  There was no scientific inquiry there, only feel. That’s what we are born with.

Science can either make us forget how to feel, or can augment our ability to feel by adding in the details, broadening connections to other things, creating excitement at the unusual.  Art and knowledge, science and literature: Eiseley’s message is to keep both vital.

Proceed to the next essay,  on Edward Abbey—the provocateur, or return to the Table of Contents.

— Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 022011

Artist Paula Swisher (photo by Andrew Huth)


The Quirky Bird Art of Paula Swisher

text by Anna Maria Johnson, bird imagery by Paula Swisher

I was privileged to meet Paula Swisher in 1997 while she and I were both studying art at Houghton College in rural western New York.  Many late nights, we stayed up painting, drawing, and sharing our life stories.  Paula is probably the hardest-working visual artist that I’ve met, and in the past decade or so, has created a rich and wide-ranging body of work in a variety of media–painting, drawing, graphic design, web design, and most recently, interactive media.

In light of recent NC community posts about the relationship between text and images, notably Wendy Voorsanger’s “An Exploration of Poem Painting,” I thought it would be appropriate to share some of Paula’s images which she painted directly onto the pages of discarded business textbooks.  Many of her images are direct responses to the pre-existing graphs and phrases from these textbooks, but she re-interprets the business-speak through the lens of her personal experiences to say something entirely new and different.

For instance, Paula Swisher began this particular bird-and-text series during an extended bout of unemployment.



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Mar 022011


Deforming Forms: Outlier Short Stories and How They Work

By: Richard Farrell


I once spent an entire day at The Art Institute of Chicago, wandering alone for hours through the vast museum.  I began in a gallery filled with artifacts from ancient civilizations and moved chronologically through the collection, passing the pharaohs’ coffins from ancient Egypt, the shards of classical Greece, the religious art of late antiquity, the medieval tapestries, and the Renaissance sculptures.  I marveled at the massive rooms filled with Impressionist paintings, and eventually ended the day in galleries filled with the strange pieces of ‘modern art’, the often abstract objects, difficult to categorize or comprehend.  I never studied art or art history in school—Annapolis tended to ignore the humanities in favor of the art of war—so what I knew of art came mostly from pop culture.  I recognized the famous Seurat painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte because I had seen it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Though embarrassed by my ignorance, I began to experience a visceral understanding of the progression of styles as I moved through the collection.  I became aware that these shifting styles related to one another, that classical forms evolved slowly into more modern, abstract expressions. Standing in front of a Kandinsky painting, with its strange geometric shapes, or a Jackson Pollock painting, with its seemingly chaotic splashes of colors, felt very different than standing in front of a painting by Pissarro.  Yet the essence of what I experienced felt connected.   I kept asking myself the question: What makes something a work of art?

Modern abstract art had always seemed inaccessible before this experience.  I was guilty of appreciating works of art for little more than what Douglas Glover calls “the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes.” (Notes Home from A Prodigal Son)

Standing in the modern gallery that day in Chicago, I learned that the formal aspects of art accomplish more than recreating a sense of reality.  Though I saw connections to historical forms and styles, I had no context for the experience, no intellectual background to support my emotional reaction.  This glaring hole in my intellect (one of many) has continued to gnaw at me ever since.

As I’ve begun to study writing more seriously, my interest has focused on the aesthetic principles that make a story or a novel work.  And just like in the museum, there is a vast continuum of story-types, stories which refuse to follow traditional models.   I’m particularly fascinated by stories which stretch the boundaries of storytelling.  Call them experimental, avant-garde, or ‘outliers,’ but some stories refuse to follow long-standing techniques.  I should say up front that I enjoy stories in the realist tradition.  I enjoy writing that creates a strong sense of verisimilitude and stories that rely on conventional devices.  Well-made, conventional stories are the stories I most often read and try to emulate when I write, but I have to admit, I’ve never asked myself why.  The premise goes unquestioned.  And not questioning convention can lead to bland, unthinking products.  By exploring the unconventional, the outlier in short story form, I hope to arrive at a deeper appreciation of story architecture in all its varied forms, conventional and otherwise.  I hope the following pages will help re-envision the idea of a story and expand the boundaries about what makes a story.

 From the Conventional to the Outlier:

The well-made, conventional short story rests on certain structural foundations, and though there is no strict definition, those foundations typically include point of view, character, plot, setting, and theme.  These devices create a recognizable pattern for the conveyance of meaning to the reader.  Most stories I read employ these devices rigorously, so much so that when I come across an outlier, the effect is startling.  Glover, in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, talks about these assumptive structures in an essay on a Leonard Cohen novel, Beautiful Losers:  (These same conventions hold true for short stories as well as novels.)

“The conventional view of the novel has it developing out of the late Renaissance picaresques.  It becomes the literary vehicle of the rising middle class in England and elsewhere, and, in the nineteenth century, the novel becomes, for the capitalist bourgeoisie, what the Gothic cathedral was to an earlier version of Western civilization.  The novel expresses, often ironically, the bourgeois ethos with its will to power and its will to love, in short its conflicted and inauthentic soul.  But the bourgeois, conventional novel itself, with its emphasis on plot (a unidirectional series of causally related events), character (based on a common-sense theory of self, the individual and personal identity), setting and theme—on verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real—challenged the middle class only ever so slightly.  The assumptions of the novel—in structure and presentation—remained the assumptions of its primary readers.  In other words, the novel is a modern art form and its structure reflects the assumptions of modernity, the individual and bourgeois capitalism.”

Within the conventional story, devices can become so ingrained that they disappear into the background, and a dangerous assumption (one I’ve made) can occur: that these devices, these methods of writing, are mistaken for rules, for ideology instead of methodology.  The devices, “the assumptions of the novel” (or story), once expected, go almost unnoticed, “reflecting the assumptions of modernity,” leading to what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in Theory of Prose calls “automatization,” the inability to see what is before us.

“The object passes before us, as if it were prepackaged.  We know that it exists because of its position in space, but we see only its surface.  Gradually, under the influence of this generalizing perception, the object fades away. “

Conventional stories rely on these devices and the reader expects them.  And conventional stories remain a predominant form in fiction.   As these devices gain ascendancy in the creation of conventional stories, they easily fade from our awareness.

At this point, another dangerous assumption can occur (and again, one I’ve been guilty of making): that these devices, these methods of writing fiction have arisen naturally, that they are inextricably linked to the act of writing fiction itself.  Terry Eagleton, in Literary Theory, talks about the dangers of ‘naturalizing’ social realities, which could include things like fictional devices.

“It is one of the functions of ideology to ‘naturalize’ social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself.  Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the ‘natural’ sign is one of its weapons.  Saluting a flag, or agreeing that Western democracy represents the true meaning of the word ‘freedom’ become the most obvious, spontaneous responses in the world.  Ideology, in this sense, is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm which has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative reality.”

Now I do not suggest that there is a sinister conspiracy behind conventional fiction.  I don’t think that the progression from assumptive forms of story construction will lead us to the lockstep mentality of fascism in writing.  But if Harry Potter is a commercial literary phenomenon, the merits of which are highly debatable, it is also a phenomenon that has created a cottage industry of wizardry and magic books around it.  The marketplace demands uniformity, and repetition is the model.  It craves methods that go unnoticed, unquestioned and unchallenged.  Like medieval bishops selling indulgences to raise money for grander and grander cathedrals while the peasants starve, the contemporary publishing industry sells its brand of indulgences in the form of homogenized books, driven by a relentless march toward the bottom line, the capitalist equivalent of Judgment Day.

One function of art must be to resist this automatization and present alternatives to the expected, to fight assumptions and to force the reader to see freshly, leading to what Shklovsky calls a “vision” of the object, rather than a “recognition.”  Shklovsky again:

“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition.  By “estranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and laborious.  The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest.  Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity.  The artifact itself is quite unimportant.”

This leads me to the topic of outliers, to stories which might be called experimental or unconventional, where some estrangement of the expected form is at work.  In these stories, the conventional devices of plot, character, setting, point of view and theme are altered, often radically.  Yet these stories still function and meet the expectations of a story, as opposed to a poem or an essay.   In outlier stories, the goal remains to create what Leon Surmelian calls “a coherent account of a significant emotional experience, or a series of related experiences organized into a perfect whole,” but with the conventional forms ‘deformed’ into something that challenges the reader’s understanding of a story.   It requires labor and effort to apprehend.  The outlier story asks the reader to read as if for the first time, as if discovering something entirely new.

Glover, In Notes Home From a Prodigal Son, refers to this deformation of structural devices in his essay on the Canadian writer Hubert Aquin:

The primary devices of the well-made novel—plot, character, setting and theme—are designed to imitate the structures of this so-called reality.  They situate and reassure the reader by promoting verisimilitude, the quality (or illusion) of appearing real.  By emphasizing the difficulty, or even impossibility, of producing meaning over meaning itself, by piling up alternative but equivalent semiological systems, Aquin obliterates these conventional novelistic devices.

Notes Home from a Prodigal Son

The outlier story piles up alternative but equivalent systems to replace the absent devices.  It works against convention, like the construction of a different type of cathedral, using different blueprints, different materials, but with the ultimate goal still the same.  The risk, of course, is that such variance can lead to unstable, unsatisfying, or incomplete stories, a cathedral which collapses under the weight of its own design.  The alternative methods risk making the story so abstracted that it becomes unreadable.  Glover addresses this too:

For Aquin, difficulty resides in substituting the proliferating unsystematic, non-structures of “institutional delirium” for the conventional structures of the well-made novel.  But this does not mean his novels are insane, nonsensical, unstructured or impossible to read.  The phrase “institutional delirium” is itself a trope, a metaphor for the kind of structure Aquin uses to oppose the structures of the conventional, well-made novel.  His novels only appear to be unstructured so long as we apply to them the same criteria for structure as we apply to the well-made novel.  In fact, Aquin’s novels do have plots, characters, settings and themes; it’s just that when Aquin uses a conventional novelistic device, he deliberately and relentlessly deforms it in order to prove that he doesn’t need it.  In the jargon of the Russian Formalists, Aquin makes things strange.

By estranging the conventional device, by bringing attention to it, or by directing attention away from it, the writer creates an equivalent structure that reinvigorates the reader’s awareness of form.   By de-emphasizing conventional devices, by eliminating characters, narrators, settings, conventional plots, the reader is challenged to discover new criteria for the judgment of art and to reexamine the very idea of a story.  If done well, I would argue, the outcomes of the well-made conventional story and the well-made outlier story are the same:  the “perfect whole.”

In the following stories, each author has manipulated conventional devices and attempted to create an alternative version of a story.  With varying degrees of estrangement, playfulness, cleverness and success, each of the following stories reorients the reader’s expectation.  Yet outliers do not indict the conventional story.  They are oppositional, but also complementary.  They force the reader to acknowledge form as different, and hopefully to consider the purpose behind form.  Glover puts it this way in The Enamoured Knight:

What seems to be the case with experimental fiction is that it is always written with other, more conventional books or conventional notions of reality in mind; one of the primary effects of experimental works is the denial of expectation, the surprise the reader feels when form is inverted or twists back on itself or is in some other way subverted.  Most commonly the experimental artist does this simply by drawing attention to the work of art as a work of art.  A painting isn’t about the image it represents; it’s about surface, shape and colour.  A book is a book.  In this way, oddly enough, the experimental novel is tied to the strict realist novel, the same but opposite, like the right and left hand.  They are both committed to a species of honesty, authenticity, or “realism.”  But the larger novel tradition swears allegiance to verisimilitude while the experimental tradition diminishes the importance of illusion and highlights the reality of the work itself, its materials, tools and process.  The goalposts, as I say, have been moved.

Rather than goalposts, I’ll return to the religious metaphor: the pilgrim is asked to look beyond the walls of the Gothic cathedral, past the rituals of the mass, and into the realm of a different church, one that reminds him of the reason for all this prayer and devotion: not the building, but of the great mystery of being which the story tries to understand.  It’s the reason for all the bricks and mortar in the first place.

“In the Fifties” by Leonard Michaels

Leonard Michaels’ six page, first-person short story “In the Fifties” uses an unnamed narrator to recount a list of events that happened during the eponymous decade.  The story is told as a fragmented series of episodes from the narrator’s life, not unlike the structure of a list.  No apparent chronological order exists in recounting this list beyond a loose geographical orientation (he mentions New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and California as places he lived) plus the assumptive time period of ten years.  Certain patterns repeat throughout the story: women, sex, roommates, an anti-establishment sensibility, language, academics, violence and suicide.  At four points in the retrospective story, the narrator establishes a present narrative time period with the word ‘now’ or with a present tense verb construction, so that the reader knows the story is being told reflectively.

The story opens with the narrator learning to drive a car, studying, attending college, reading, having personal relationships, meeting card sharks and con men, and interacting with women.  When a respected teacher is fired at NYU, the narrator expects an uprising that does not happen.  He moves to Massachusetts and works in a fish-packing plant where he notices old Portuguese men cleaning the fish.  He falls in love (though it is unrequited), becomes an uninspired teaching assistant, is arrested, does drugs, witnesses an abortion and drives a car recklessly through the fog.  After this, the first named character, Julian, appears.  Julian and the narrator spend a period of time as friends.  Then the list resumes, and the narrator remembers playing basketball and shooting a gun.  He then lives with a roommate who ‘suffers’ from life and eventually kills himself.  The narrator then works as a waiter in the Catskills, lives the life of a hipster in Greenwich Village, and moves to California.  After this, the second named character enters, a man named Chicky, who burns his face and wants to kill himself because his girlfriend is ugly.  The story concludes with the narrator going to a demonstration in support of a friend who has been arrested.  He witnesses a large crowd gathering to protest this injustice (the friend has been arrested for wanting to attend the HUAC hearings) and he hears a mother telling her little kid not to unleash a bag of marbles under the police horses.  Within the chronicled ten years, the narrator experiences a range of events, including rigorous study, teaching, passion, despair, death, disillusionment, and maturity.

This story posits a number of difficulties for the reader expecting a traditional, realist story.  The first challenge I’ll examine will be Michaels’ unconventional method of character development. The pattern in a conventional story typically involves two (or more) characters thrown into repeated conflicts, the progression of which gradually reveals more about each character.  Michaels turns this convention around, primarily through an ironic foregrounding and backgrounding of characters.

While the first-person narrator’s presence dominates the pages, other characters exist mostly as un-named figures who weave in and out of the narrator’s awareness.  Only two fictional characters are actually given names, Julian and Chicky, though twenty historical figures are mentioned by name. (A third character, Leo, is mentioned by name by never appears in dramatic action.)  While this story involves a large cast of characters, most remain in the background because the narrator refuses to name them.  They are called variously, “my roommate,” “a fat man,” “a man,” “two girls,” “a sincere Jewish poet,” “three lesbians,” “a friend,” and “a girl from Indiana.”   Even though the narrator says “Personal relationships were more important to me than anything else,” very little about most of the characters in the story appears personal.  Is there anything less personal than refusing to name a character?

Even the narrator remains elusive.  We learn about events that happened to him, not how those events affected him.  We do not know where he is now, how he views these events, nor how these events have shaped his character.  Though present significantly on the page in the form of the pronoun, “I,” he remains hard to define.  Curiously, he is more easily understood by his absence than by his presence.

About halfway through the story, a shift occurs.  One character is given a name, another character is foregrounded, and the narrator begins to recede.  This is first noticeable in a subtle point of view shift that occurs when Julian enters the story.  The relentless first-person singular narration momentarily switches into the plural:

I drank old-fashioneds in the apartment of my friend Julian.  We talked about Worringer and Spengler.  We gossiped about friends.  Then we left to meet our dates.  There was more drinking.  We all climbed trees, crawled in the street, and went to a church.  (Italics mine)

This run of plural pronouns occurs after a string of fifty first-person, singular ‘I’s’.  The effect is striking.  The only other time ‘we’ is used in the story occurs at the story’s end.   I will return to this point below.

The narrator (and the story) appears suddenly conscious of other people besides himself.  Soon after the Julian section, the narrator returns to talking about himself, about his basketball scholarship and his classes, but then another character takes the stage.  His roommate (unnamed) suddenly comes forward for an extended sequence.  There is a run of twenty-three verbs all directly linked to the subject of his roommate.

Though very intelligent, he suffered in school.  He suffered with girls though he was handsome and witty.  He suffered with boys though he was heterosexual.  He slept on three mattresses and used a sunlamp all winter.  He bathed, oiled and perfumed his body daily.

This section ends with the simple statement: “Then he killed himself.”  The entire paragraph centers on this roommate.  The narrative “I” does not appear once.  In a sense, this section operates as an inset story, a brief but complete story on its own and focused away from the narrator.  It would seem that the narrator has slowly become aware of other people, and this trend continues.

One of the most stirring, un-self-conscious passages comes soon after this ‘roommate string’, when the narrator sees Pearl Primus dance.   The images expressed are carefully composed as he watches her dance accompanied by an African drummer:

Pearl Primus

“I saw Pearl Primus dance, in a Village nightclub, in a space two yards square, accompanied by an African drummer about seventy years old.  His hands moved in spasms of mathematical complexity at invisible speed.  People left their tables to press close to Primus and see the expression in her face, the sweat, the muscles, the way her naked feet seized and released the floor.”

Absent from this passage is the narrator’s recurrent narcissism.  Gone again are the “I’s.”  He was captivated by what he saw, and we are captivated by his description of it: the spasms of the drummer, the seizing and releasing feet of the dancer.  These images hearken back to the Portuguese men in the fish factory, as something that affects the narrator more deeply than the rest.

Michaels uses these shifts in narration to reveal the narrator’s character more deeply.  When the narrator comes forward significantly, we learn only facts, nothing of depth.  Though none of the other characters, named or otherwise, compete for the reader’s attention, true development of the narrator’s character occurs by omission.  By repeating the first-person, singular pronoun, ‘I’ over ninety times in this short (maybe 2000 words) story, and by making the narrator appear simply obsessed with himself, especially in the beginning of the story, Michaels generates an effective pattern: when the narrator recedes, the readers understands more.  Character growth occurs.  Michaels makes the first-person narrator such a prominent aspect of the narration that the effect, when ‘I’ is not used, is jarring.  It becomes what Glover calls an “anti-structure,” a structure that works by its absence rather than its presence.

Closely related to the way Michaels manipulates character development is his deformation of point of view.  There are two distinct ways that the point of view shifts.  The first way has to do with time, the second with perspective.

The majority of this story is told in the past tense.  “In the fifties I learned to drive a car.  I was frequently in love.  I had more friends than now.” Michaels signals at the opening that the story is being told from a distance, but this narrative perspective remains vague.  It could be six months or it could be twenty years.  The reader never learns.  The story continues to use this narrative distance until the narrator breaks in from his perspective a few more times in the story.

I knew card sharks and con men.  I liked marginal types because they seemed original and aristocratic, living for an ideal or obliged to live it.  Ordinary types seemed fundamentally unserious.  These distinctions belong to a romantic fop.  I didn’t think that way too much.

The shift in tense here on the verb ‘belong,’ acts again from the narrative present-time.  The sentence works thematically, shedding light on the story.  Are we supposed to think of this narrator as a ‘romantic fop’?   There does seem to be a disowning here, a disavowal of the younger, more isolated self from the perspective of the future narrator, the narrator looking back for purposes of telling this story, but the narrator quickly undercuts the disowning by telling us that he “didn’t think that way too much.”  The use of the present tense also reminds the reader that this narrator is out ahead of this story somewhere, but the narrator remains vague and unclear, almost detached from the story he is telling.  The present-time narrator interrupts the flow of the recollection four times but offers no real commentary or perspective on who he is now, or how this story has affected him.  The effect of this interruption forces the reader to ask a lot of questions that will go unanswered in the story.  We will never learn who this narrator is ‘now.’  We will never learn what effect these chronicled events have on the present narrator.  We will only have questions, but the effectiveness of this story rests more on the questions it raises than those it answers.

Michaels also manipulates point of view with respect to the narrator’s perspective.  Again, the abundant use of the pronoun ‘I’ creates an unusual effect in the story.  There are two points when the narrator’s consciousness seems to merge with the circumstances around him, when the ‘I’ becomes a ‘we,’ and these two instances indicate a significant shift in perspective.  The first, already mentioned, occurs with his friend Julian.  The use of ‘we’ in this small section is underscored by the fact that this is also the first named character in the story (other than the aforementioned historical characters.)  The use of ‘we’ occurs only one other time, in the penultimate sentence of the story, after he has gone down to the courthouse to protest the arrest of a friend.

I expected to see thirty or forty other people like me, carrying hysterical placards around the courthouse until the cops bludgeoned us into the pavement.  About two thousand people were there.  I marched beside a little kid who had a bag of marbles to throw under the hoofs of the horse cops.  His mother kept saying, “Not yet, not yet.”  We marched all day.  That was the end of the fifties.

Michaels’ whole story builds to this tiny point of view shift.  The narrator’s expectations are confounded; instead of forty like-minded people, there are two thousand.  He notices the kid, and for the first time, he uses attributable dialogue, then the shift in narration:  “We marched all day. That was the end of the fifties”  This merging of the narrator’s sensibility with that of the other protesters reflects a structural complexity that, while anti-conventional, works to achieve an important effect.  These narrative ‘wobbles’, whether in tense or number, signify shifts are occurring.  Were this story told without them, its effectiveness would suffer.

The final variation from the conventional story involves plot.   Michaels writes this story as an extended list.  There is no apparent causality, no apparent connection between the events.  What he substitutes for plot steps, however, are thematic repetitions.  There are several examples of this in the story, but social unrest is one of the most important, and I think it works as one of the thematic repetitions that stands in for the absence of a conventional plot.

The fifties were a time of growing social discomfort with the established institutions of American life.  The tension between the old and the new social realities may have exploded in the following decade, but the roots of that social discord reach back deeply into the decade Michaels chooses to examine.   I think this history, though outside the text, is important to the consideration of the thematic repetitions I’m about to examine.

In the second paragraph, the first example of this social-discord occurs, and this example is related to the House Un-American Committee, or HUAC.

I attended the lectures of the excellent E.B. Burgum until Senator McCarthy ended his tenure.  I imagined N.Y.U. would burn.  Miserable students, drifting in the halls, looked at one another.

The narrator expects the campus to explode, but instead, there are only sad looks.  Two curious things occur: the intrusion of the conservative government into the life of the narrator, and the impotence of the response (especially on the part of the narrator.)  Later, the narrator is arrested and photographed, and though the alleged crime is not mentioned, we can surmise that it had to do with his growing social awareness.  He has likely done something subversive, but nothing so bad as to merit the arrest. “In a soundproof room two detectives lectured me on the American way of life, and I was charged with the crime of nothing.”  The soundproof room, the crime of nothing, juxtaposed with the American way of life, point to a growing dissatisfaction, however muted, growing.  The next example involves Malcolm X, and how the narrator no longer had black friends after the black activist became prominent.

In Ann Arbor, a few years before the advent of Malcolm X, a lot of my friends were black.  After Malcolm X, almost all of my friends were white.  They admired John F. Kennedy.

The unstated premise is that the black friends became active and followed their ideals, while the white friends placed their hopes in the system.  Later, the narrator mentions meeting Jack Kerouac, an iconic figure of the counterculture.

The final paragraph though, is most interesting.  A friend is arrested at the HUAC hearings.  He goes to protest this arrest (the second act in a row of supporting a friend) and “expected to see thirty or forty people like me,” but instead finds that “about two thousand people were there.”  Compare this scene to the earlier encounter with the HUAC, when he “imagined NYU would burn.”  By the end of the story, he acts.  And others are acting with him.  He joins the swirling mass of protesters.  He becomes subsumed by them.  The last lines of the story underscore this transformation.  “We marched all day.  That was the end of the fifties.”  After ninety references to “I,” the story and the decade closes with “we.”  His idealism, his expectation to be part of a small (thirty or forty) group, is met with the reality of a huge crowd of people.  Suddenly, the narrator is reduced.  He disappears and is absorbed by the crowd, and perhaps by the decades which follow.  These ‘steps’ are not created through traditional plot devices, but rather through a subtle repetitions of social disharmony, most clearly represented by the two instances where HUAC is mentioned and by the references to counter-culture figures or circumstances.

Michaels radically alters the form of the short story in a number of ways.  By turning conventional devices of character development, point of view and plot into alternative structures, he creates a difficult but emotionally ‘whole’ story.  The specific images are all grounded in realism, but the structural devices of conventional stories are manipulated and deformed to create an anti-story, a story that works off of a list rather than a plot, a story that works without named characters, and by raising many more questions than it answers.

“Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar

“Axolotl” is a seven page short story told primarily by a first-person narrator who visits animals in a Paris zoo until he turns into an axolotl (a neotenic species of Mexican salamander.)  Most of the narration occurs in the past-tense, though at times the story shifts into the present tense and also into the third person.  During these shifts, the narrator-as-axolotl shifts also occur.  There are only two characters in the story, the narrator and a zoo guard.  The primary setting is the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and except for a short description of the city itself and a brief description of the library, the setting does not shift, though the perspective of that setting does, from outside the tank to inside the tank.  There is only one line of dialogue in the story, spoken by the guard to the narrator.

The story opens with the narrator thinking about the axolotls then stating that he has turned into one.  Then the narrator explains how he came to discover these creatures inside the aquarium at the Paris zoo.  He feels an immediate and deeply personal connection with the axolotls, and he goes to the library and researches them.  He begins to obsessively visit their tank, staring at them through the glass.  His obsession at first seems mysterious, artistic, even resembling a love story.  He visits daily, sometimes twice a day.  The only other character, the zoo guard, coughs, and makes only one comment.  The narrator begins to identify with one axolotl in particular, then, in a strange sequence, the human narrator becomes an axolotl.  After this, a climatic reversal occurs, and the object (the axolotl) becomes the subjective narrator commenting on the new object (the human narrator from the first part of the story).  The story ends with the narrator-as-axolotl looking out from the cage at the narrator-as-human, now transformed.

Cortázar creates a dramatic and narrative metamorphosis with the use of a shifting narrator.  He accomplishes this playful transformation by manipulating the narrative consciousness of the story in very un-conventional ways.  The point of view ‘bounces’ between the narrator-as-human and the narrator-as-axolotl—a transformation that occurs in three distinct steps.  The dramatic, physical metamorphosis, from human to axolotl, parallels the actual physiologic metamorphosis of animals (and it represents an ironical reversal of reality, since the axolotl never undergoes metamorphosis and the creature remains trapped in a juvenile stage of development.)  The narrator’s metamorphosis is dramatized through a sequence of narrative shifts until the transformation is completed.  As the point of view shifts, the character shifts, the subject-object orientation shifts, and reversals of perspective take place.  All these things occur in unconventional ways through the deformation of the point of view, a typically conventional device.

In the beginning, the narrator-as-human appears to be a typical first-person narrator:

There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.  I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements.  Now I am an axolotl.


From this opening paragraph, the reader might conclude that the narrator could be insane, he could be ironic, or he could be joking.  The reader simply doesn’t know.  What follows this opening statement are seemingly rational statements about the narrator’s growing obsession with the axolotls.  While strange, nothing about his obsession is unconventional, except for the closing sentence of the first paragraph: “Now I am an axolotl.”  This sentence triggers the reader to think that something very unusual is going on, and Cortázar’s decision not to comment on it underscores the weirdness of the story.

The next distinctly odd shift comes in the form of a parenthetical statement amidst a description of the animal cage:  “The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) floor of moss and stone in the tank.” Which ‘I’ is talking?  The narrator-as-human wouldn’t know this fact, but the reader can’t be sure (yet) whether or not the narrator-as-axolotl will appear as a distinct voice.  We’ve begun to see a narrative metamorphosis, the transformation from human narrator to axolotl narrator, but in this stage, both narrators coexist.  Another example of this larval stage occurs when the narrator-as-human is staring into the cage and the perspective flips:

Once in a while, a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss.  It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness.  The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.

It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls.

The first sentence is in the human perspective.  He’s watching the movement from the outside.  Then the divide is crossed and the perception becomes that of the narrator-as-axolotl.  The point of view is now fluidly jumping across the narration divide between human and axolotl but the two narrators remain distinct.   Then he breaks the paragraph and immediately returns to the narrator-as-human point of view.  ‘We’ is replaced with ‘them.’

The final shift occurs near the end of the story.  The narrator says, “So there was nothing strange in what happened,” though the clear irony of this statement makes the next sequence all the more strange.  Once again, the narrator-as-human is staring into the tank of axolotls, his face pressed against the glass, when the final transformation occurs:

“Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.  To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate.  Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls.  I was an axolotl and I knew that no understanding was possible.  He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank.  Recognizing him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world.”

The narrator-as-axolotl now refers to his human self in the third-person construction.   The possessive pronouns shift again, from ‘my face’ to ‘his thinking.’  This metamorphosis completed, the narrator-as-human recedes entirely, becoming the object—the perceived animal—and the narrator-as-axolotl takes over as the subject for the rest of the story.

Cortázar has taken a traditional device, point of view, and deformed it radically.  The narrator shifts occur fluidly, without any real conventional transitions like section breaks, scene shifts or asterisks.  The transitions occur in mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence.  Cortázar deforms the traditional device of consistent point of view and establishes a pattern that parallels dramatically the physical metamorphosis of nature.

But point of view shifts are not the only ‘deformations’ that occur in this story.  Consider what other conventional devices are absent or backgrounded in this story:  1.) Characters.  There are no real characters except for the narrator, and even he shape-shifts early and often.  We know almost nothing about this narrator’s life outside the aquarium and no other people are even mentioned, such as family, friends, or lovers.  2.) Conflict.  No force resists the narrator’s movement.  The guard offers only the slightest resistance but does nothing to intimidate or stop the narrator.  Nothing else (such as reason or science) interferes or prevents this most unusual transformation.  3.)  Time.  While there is forward movement of time in this story, it’s unclear when these events have taken place.  We don’t know where the narrative time grounds itself with respect to the dramatic events presented in the story.  4.)  Plot.  While there is a semi-plot in the conventional sense, (“A unidirectional series of causally related events”:  He obsesses on, then becomes, an axolotl.) the only real action in this story is staring, looking and gazing.  There is very little physical movement, very little in the way of dramatic action.  With so much missing, it becomes important to understand what stands in place of these holes, what works to undergird the missing framework.

Cortázar builds this story by the careful selection of recurring images and by ‘splintering’ those images to create a web of related images that effectively stand in for  character, conflict, time and plot.  Cortázar uses patterns instead of more recognizable devices and Glover, in his essay “Short Story Structure,” says that the patterns can help establish a quality of literariness in a story or novel, which works against verisimilitude.

“Now add to this some sense of how image patterning works: an image is something available to sensory apprehension, or an idea, as in Kundera, which can be inserted into a piece of writing in the form of word or words.  An image pattern is a pattern of words and/or meanings created by the repetition of an image.  The image can be manipulated or “loaded” to extend the pattern by 1) adding a piece of significant history, 2) by association and/or juxtaposition, and 3) by ramifying or “splintering” and “tying-in”.  Splintering means splitting off some secondary image associated with the main or root image and repeating it as well. Tying-in means to write sentences in which you bring the root and the split-off image back together again. “

One pattern we’ve already seen in Cortázar is a point of view shift.  The next pattern will be in the form of a primary image, the eyes, which Cortázar splinters and effectively ties-in repeatedly throughout the story.

“Above all else, their eyes obsessed me,” the narrator says. “‘You eat them alive with your eyes, hey’ the guard said laughing.”  (Notably, this is the only line of dialogue in the entire story.)  The word ‘eye’  repeats seventeen times, then splinters off into a variety of forms, including disc, orb, orifice, brooch, iris, and pupil.  The main image also splinters into images of glass, transparency, color (especially gold, pink and rose) and shape.  The verb ‘to see’ is repeated fifteen times, and splinters into other verbs, including watch, observe, look, peer, notice and gaze.  The narrator’s obsession centrally recurs through images associated with seeing, which, in the end, leads to his metamorphosis.  The earlier point of view shifts also occur through a primarily visual transformation.  The narrator-as-human, which opens the story, observes intently the axolotls in their cage.  The story concludes with the narrator-as-axolotl watching the human through the glass until he disappears.  “The eyes of axolotls have no lids,”  the narrator says at one point, a most fitting image to close out this reversal.

The reader is meant to witness a transformation, to read (visually) a story about a man turning into an axolotl and pronounce a judgment about the story.  This would seem to be, in a thematic parallel, the fate of the fictional axolotl as well:  “The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges.  I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes.” (p. 7) Cortázar renders this transformation through a shifting point of view and through repeated and splintered visual images.  He concludes this story with a wonderfully playful passage that reflects back on the strangeness of the story that has been told.  This passage occurs in the narrator-as-axolotl mode:

“I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance.  I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he.  And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.”  (p. 9)


Outlier stories work in defiance of conventional forms.  They operate without the formal architecture and yet still attempt to function with the logic of a story.  They are, after all, not essays, not poems.  For all their deforming variance, the consciousness of the outlier remains a story.   At times they alter conventional devices in strange ways, as both Michaels and Cortázar do with point of view.  At other times, they substitute patterns and repetitions to stand in for conventional forms.  Glover summarizes this well when discussing aspects of the experimental novel in The Enamoured Knight:

Essentially, experimental novelists do what Bakhtin did and flip an aspect of the strict realist definition to make a new definition.  The late American experimentalist John Hawkes once said that “plot, character, setting and theme” are the enemies of the novel, while “structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer.  Related and corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute essential substance and meaningful density of writing.”  Generally speaking, plot, character, setting and theme are the structures that promote verisimilitude in a work of fiction, whereas repetitions, image patterns and subplots, the sorts of repetitions and correspondences Hawkes is referring to, while necessary in a work of art, tend to undermine verisimilitude.  Such structures promote coherence, focus and symmetry in a way that insists on the bookishness of the work rather than concealing the author’s guiding hand.

“Experimental novelists intensify these aesthetic patterns or accentuate literary process and technique or invent anti-structures designed to destroy the structures of verisimilitude.”

These substitutions, deformations and estranged methods can lead to a new way of appreciating the conventional story and can lead to more expansive understanding of the story form itself.

—Richard Farrell

Works Cited

Cortázar, Julio.  Blow Up & Other Stories.  (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985)

Eagleton, Terry.  Literary Theory.  (Minneapolis: The University of Minneapolis Press, 2008)

Glover, Douglas.  The Enamoured Knight.  (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2005)

Glover, Douglas.  Notes Home from a Prodigal Son.  (Canada: Oberon Press, 1999)

Glover, Douglas.  “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise.”  (The New Quarterly, No. 87, Summer 2003)

Michaels, Leonard.  A Girl with a Monkey.  (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2000)

Shklovsky, Viktor.  Theory of Prose.  (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1991)

Sumerlian, Leon.  Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969)

Mar 012011

David Levithan’s Argot of Arousal,

A review by Darryl Whetter


The Lover’s Dictionary
David Levithan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 9780374193683

Frontispiece, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Colburn and Bentley, London 1831

Mary Shelley and her progeny know that novels need more than just bone, muscle and skin; they also require that elusive spark of life. David Levithan’s interesting but patchy novel The Lover’s Dictionary definitely isn’t another atrophied non-story du jour. In places, the skin of prose also glows with ruddy life. Its familiar but relevant romantic trajectory gives it a strong, able skeleton with cheekbones of infatuation, flirting hands and a breadth of shoulder willing to take the weight of romantic cohabitation. Despite these strengths, however, the novel’s dictionary structure leaves the body of this story unfinished, as if constructed during fitful labour shortages. Between the islands of gleaming flesh, too much glaring white bone is left exposed to the air.

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