Dec 142012

“Keep the Change” is an exclusive excerpt from William Gillespie’s new novel experimental Keyhole Factory, published in November by Soft Skull Press. The novel is about a virus that comes close to destroying the human species. In “Keep the Change” the text replicates, as it were, into columns, more columns on each page as the virus gets worse (as in, the text replicates as the virus replicates). Gillespie is particular sort of experimental writer; he leans towards the Oulipo school of writerly constraint, as in the author adopts some self-limiting device that (de)forms his or her text. Any form is a source of constraint, but in the Oulipo mode constraint becomes the form. Thus Christian Bök’s book Eunoia consists of five chapters and in each chapter he uses words containing only one vowel. E.g. Chapter A uses words that only contain the vowel a. And Georges Perec’s novel A Void is written without the letter e. In preparing this excerpt for publication, Gillespie showed me another piece from the novel that is written like a musical score (we tried to figure out how we could publish it horizontally — as Gillespie said, “The page breaks are a necessary evil.” — instead of vertically but could not crack the formatting dilemma). It’s useful to point out here that much literary experiment is essential playful, fun. And Gillespie’s novel, despite being about disease and the the near total destruction of mankind, has a (ever so deliciously macabre) hopeful side. As the author says in an interview with John Warner at Inside Higher Ed:

There are methods to the madness, but “play” is a fun description of what I did. Regarding glimmers, I see it as a hopeful story, in that the sudden near-total extinction of mankind offers hope for survival of the ecosystem. My book is ambivalent whether it’s about a virus that kills humans, or about humans as a virus killing the earth.

It’s a great pleasure to present his work on Numéro Cinq (and I owe Philip Graham a beer for bringing William Gillespie to my attention; see Philip’s interview with Gillespie at FictionWriters Review: Zombies Are Not Real: An Interview with William Gillespie).









—William Gillespie


William Gillespie has published ten books of fiction and poetry under six different names. He is co-author of the world’s longest literary palindrome (so declared by Paul Braffort of the Oulipo) and an award-winning hypertext novel. He works for the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois.

The story “Keep the Change” is an exclusive excerpt from Gillespie’s new novel Keyhole Factory, published in November by Soft Skull Press.



Dec 132012

Here’s a brief, sweet essay/memoir/story — an uncategorizable something, if you will — from my friend/former colleague/now Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who has a knack for being able to extract meaning out of a glancing contact, the briefest of interactions. When he sent this to me, he was himself somewhat uncertain. Perhaps, after all, it was only an anecdote. But I read it and worried on it (like a dog with a bone — Sydney and I tend to talk about dogs when we meet) and then got excited about the way the text keeps surging. Some secret here, I thought, about the nature of good writing, how the text begins with a stranger barging, by mistake, into the wrong room, then quiets, then surges ahead with an even more unsettling invasion. The pattern keeps repeating. Now “the writer,”  disturbed, can’t forget the interloper. Details emerge: a melancholy story, alcohol, waiting for a daughter. But again the text quiets; the tired writer returns home to his wife, falls asleep, dreams. And in his dream (the text surges again) he meets his daughter and finds a moment of immeasurable peace. The story works by obsession, image and transformation. The stranger is a mythic other, lost, befuddled Everyman insisting on trying to get into a room that is no longer his. At the end, in his dream, “the writer” metaphorically transforms into the stranger and finds his daughter, that image of love and bliss, and feels at peace. Something very beautiful in this sequence, reminiscent of Chekhov.



As the stranger pushed open his door at the Longhorn Motel, the writer noticed the befuddled grin. “Oh, this is the wrong…,” the man muttered, trailing off and backing out. The writer had long hours to wait before he flew back east from Denver, so, seated at the chipped formica table, he’d been trying to rough out a poem. He’d had small success, and so, as if it would help his efforts, he locked the door against further distraction, even benign as this petty mistake.

A few minutes later, though, the knob began to rattle. The writer slid the bolt.  “What’s the matter?” he snapped when he saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-Oh-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other man didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, holding an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands. “Get the hell out of here!” barked the writer, as now the other started leaning against him. The interloper was younger than the writer, and he wasn’t small, but smaller than the man who belonged in the room, who put both forearms under the other fellow’s chin and shoved him hard enough that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy beige blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight in other circumstances.  The writer relocked his door.

His poem continued to go nowhere at all, so in spite of the time gaping before him, he decided to repack his own clothes. He couldn’t make that little chore last very long, however, and soon he stepped out to grab a styro cup of bitter-end coffee from the office vending machine. Once more he spotted the other man. He was up on his feet now, at the very spot where he’d been knocked down, his odd bundle of garments regathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.

The one who’d shoved him asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story on that guy?”

“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I give him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 106.”

“My room,” the writer mused, stressing the obvious.

“I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, tossing his head and turning back to his affairs.

The writer left room 106 and went out for breakfast. He dawdled over his meal for more than an hour at a place called the Country Fare. When he returned to the Longhorn, he found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 106, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. He walked back to the motel office. “What became of our friend?” he asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 106 and not 124, the room he’d rented.

Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”

In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk called the police. The cops summoned the rescue squad. The author of poems doesn’t know what happened after that because he abruptly left for his flight, much earlier than he needed to. On the way toward the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne in the plane, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, he couldn’t help feeling rotten about how he’d heaved that poor trespasser onto his backside. He understood how guilt might bother him, and it did; but he couldn’t quite name the other things beyond guilt that he suffered. He tried to console himself, of course. How, after all, could he have known what ailed the other man? How could he know even now?

Yet even these weeks later, he senses the same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, his troubling state of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it will last him lifelong. Maybe at least he can write about it. Maybe he has always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.

He remembers arriving home that night dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with his wife, going up to bed; but there’s a more powerful memory, a dream he had some time toward dawn, in which that wife stood with him and the second of their three daughters next to a splendid bonfire. Someone had lit it at the end of their woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes: the one which passeth all understanding. For a moment, still mostly asleep, he arrived at a warming conclusion: that such peace might actually remain in the world even after he left it, and that somehow it might be available to any person in sufficient need of it. Awake, he felt desolate to dismiss the notion as fantasy.

There had been times when the writer needed it for himself, and there would be other times to come. He knew that.

He didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn just then, though later he saw that he might have.

—Sydney Lea



SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was just published by the University of Michigan Press in September. In January, Skyhorse Publications will issue A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in  April 2013,  his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Dec 122012

These are a scatter of The April Poems, not many, and Leon Rooke has a whole book of them coming out in, well, April, with The Porcupine’s Quill. April is the eponymous heroine of this book, these poems, the words of which Leon channels with oracular aplomb.

April always wrote in a good clear hand:
Grass is first to hold the snow.
Blue lilac on my window did grow.
The girls drove me crazy today,
So did so and so.

April has three daughters who drove her crazy and still do, her past is dubious and fraught, but former admirers dog her with passion.

next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.

Rooke writes with a mix of the vernacular, the colloquial, and the intimate informal, salted with speech rhythms from his North Carolina roots and an aphoristic flair that makes every line a surprise and a delight right up to the point, the quintessential Rooke moment, when the words become other than what they seem and he reaches for some extraordinary truthful mystery.

Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone, Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut
bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

The cover image is from one of Rooke’s own paintings, a sampling of which you can find on the NC Art page.




39.  April and the Bad Bees

A woman in the laundromat said to April, The bees are truly nasty this year.
April was quite at a loss in what manner to reply, then noticing the speaker
was addressing another woman to her rear, though only because this other woman
replied to the first, Yes, I have never seen them so bad as this year. I do not believe
these are our standard-type bees.  No, these are mating bees, said the first, both
women then settling heavy glances on  April and her triplet daughters occupying
a three-seater pram.  April inserted another quarter in the drier. The women sat in
green plastic chairs, talking away about the nasty copulating practice of these
repugnant bees, being quite explicit, even vulgar, even pornographic, was April’s
thought, not liking either the glances coming her way, as though she personally
was to blame.  They swarm a person, this one woman said, they hold her down
until all have had a go at her, and then they swarm away and do the same
to someone else and no one says a word. Yes, the other said, it is even worse
at my house. They tie us to the beds, they sup on our toes, they regard us as slaves,
even the mites have noticed. Whereupon the women fell silent for some few moments,
content to watch clothes swirling in the driers. April’s triplets whimpered.
Then the one woman said, What I think is that this queen bee business
is a lot of rubbish. No queen in her right mind would permit such appalling
behavior.  You think it is a king, then? asked the second.  Why, of course,
came the rejoinder, some nasty despot king, have you not known them by the
thousands?  The two women at this point rutting a final malevolent glance
upon April, then lifting their wings and flying off into abysmal night.


40.  April’s Clunker Car

conked out on a high rise
not that far from Indian Country,
where she knew people. A tow-truck guy,
there in an instant, said he’d noticed her  condition
round about the Tonawanda River
up by Singalong, the best part of three days ago.
April in the cab beside him, he confessed
he’d been on her tail pretty much the whole of her life.
I ought to have married you and not that other party,
he said, not to claim I could have done any better
at the time and not that there’d  been any chance
of getting out of the thing
without losing my kids.
They are doing okay, he said,
about the same as yours.
Nice to see you holding up so well.
Yup, well, here you go, he said,
pulling into a hustling hub,
next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.


41.  On the Ropes

Love needs new shoes
but is out of work.
Last night love was arrested,
Drunk, Your Honour,
leaning against a lamppost.
Did she resist your advances?
Yes, she did, now you mention it,
plus she spat on my boots,
vile language, too.
Take her to an alley, the judge said,
beat her to a pulp.

Love staggered away blind
hot wires barbed in her breast
some bones broken
and now naked of foot
in fact naked head to toe
bleeding rather a lot.
Not that anyone much looked:
pretty autumnal day
old bruised ugly broad
bent like that.


42.  April’s Deep Remorse

has as cause three grown-up daughters
who last night received a lifetime ban
from the Epicure on Queen Street.
They claim innocence: we were meek ravens
with barely a chirp. It was that theatre bunch
settling old scores, flit and flame
and hands up the dress. Troubled Gertrude,
hemlock ear, Cassandra’s bitter tongue:
your mistresses do nothing but eat ice cream
all day! You  would not cross the room
to spit if my very heart was on fire!
Your Master splits His own tongue!
His flaws are greater than the sum of yours!
Seven police cars racked the chains on twelve.
Lady, didn’t I just arrest you? The Epicure
is the latest haunt hobbling April’s troupe.
Not even the Brunswick House
will have them.  We can’t go anywhere.
Devout Muslim, Devine Bastards,
kicked us out. Ratsuck Tim Horton’s too


43.  April Affirms She Married Well

I was his pearl of a girl
his twenty-piece orchestra
with perfect legs
his long hedge with naughty blooms
lithesome gypsy curse
spritely gin fizz
his bright sun
…….every pane


44. Thou Beside Me Singing

April’s friend, Tate, wanted to know
where went the lofty rhymes, the shimmering radiance
in a poem’s long ago.  He liked those words cadenced light as a bird,
say one of those that can hold still against raging wind, stop and start
words from an eloquent brain, a humming bird, April thought he meant.
Fancy syllables espaliered onto a page
like a peach tree clutching a drain? Yeah, something like that,
Tate said, but making sense, you know, ordinary sense, like
I don’t have to get out my Ph.D.  Pretty words, like you’re the critic,
where did they go?
……April always wrote in a good clear hand:
……Grass is first to hold the snow.
……Blue lilac on my window did grow.
……The girls drove me crazy today,
……So did so and so.
April said to Tate, I keep my best words in a drawstring bag around my neck.
Those were the days.
She didn’t say when.
She was ever at us, this intelligent woman poking the hornets’ nest.
Don’t wake the triplets. They’ll never get back to sleep.
Those girls sleep too much.
If you had to chase them you wouldn’t think so.
I wore myself out chasing you.
Liar, liar, what’s on fire.
Tate is waiting. Tate, the dolt.
Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone,   Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut

bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

—Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.


Dec 112012

“A Cut” is a very short story, allegorical, if you will, mordant and slyly ironic in the modern mode, representing a clash of values, a clash of the new and the old, with the voice of tradition coming in the words of the teacher trying to keep control of his classroom, inhumanely and blindly reciting the former courtesies in the face of contemporary social realities (chaos and violence). “A Cut” is Catalan writer Quim Monzo‘s second appearance in Numéro Cinq (see his earlier story “Gregor” here). The story is excerpted from Monzo’s collection A Thousand Morons, translated by Peter Bush, and just published by Open Letter Books. See NC Senior Editor Richard Farrell’s review of A Thousand Morons here.



Toni dashes into the classroom with a look of terror in his eyes and a gash in his neck. It is a deep, broad cut, spurting blood that is bright crimson rather than red. One would say, on the evidence of a glance, without a proper investigation, that, now that the flesh has opened up, the gash—that in principle should be no more than a millimeter wide—is two to three centimeters across. We might estimate its length at twenty to twenty-five centimeters, given that it starts under his left ear, goes down his neck, and ends level with his chest, slightly to the right of his sternum.

“They attacked me with a broken bottle.”

Blood is seeping down his neck, staining the white shirt of his uniform. His jacket collar is equally soaked in blood.

“Come on, boy. Is this any way to walk into the classroom, Toni?”

“Sir, Ferran and Roger got hold of a broken bottle next to the vending machine, stuck it into me, and . . .”

“How does one enter the classroom, Toni? Is this how one comes into a class? Does one enter any old way? Does one enter without saying ‘Good morning’? Is this what we have taught you at school?”

“Good morning,” says Toni, putting his right hand over the gash to try to staunch the flow of blood.

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution? I know that many other educational institutions practice a much laxer form of education, and that, as it is impossible to totally isolate each individual, and being aware of the tendency of the youth to mingle and fraternize, I know, for all these reasons, that, however much our institution strives to educate you in exemplary fashion, if we are the only ones inculcating any norms, you have too great an opportunity to be polluted by the lax mores of others.”

“Sir, I’m soaked in blood.”

“So I see. And I can also see the dreadful mess you are leaving on the parquet. Not to mention your shirt and your jacket. You know by now that I like your uniforms to always be spotless. But we will leave that for tomorrow. Now go to reception and ask Mr. Manolo for a mop and a bucket of water and try not to splatter blood all down the corridor, as you will have to clean that too.”

—Quim Monzo


Quim Monzo is an award-winning Barcelona based writer. He has written novels, story collections, essays and journalism. His short story collection, A Thousand Morons, translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, is available from Open Letter. Bush’s sharp and flawless translation brings together 19 stories and shorter fictions from one of Catalonia’s leading writers. Monzo’s short story “Gregor” can be read here at Numéro Cinq.


Dec 102012

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the light. But I encourage you to see the dark as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray

In Ekaterina Vorobyeva’s “Entire World is Mine” a small boy wanders through a snow-filled, winter day, filling time before his mother gets home. There are no subtitles but they are unnecessary, the story’s matter is perfectly visual and relatable.

There’s melancholy to this boy’s solitary day, certainly. But there’s also pleasure generated by a string of sensations and subtle cues: his bare fingers on ice, then run under water to warm them, hot needles piercing the coldness away. The taste of juice. The lamp pushing away the growing dark. It’s a child’s world, both simple and large, everything important in the universe caught in a series of small sensory moments.

This style of focusing on small moments of sensation is a great way of representing the simple concentration and focus of children in visual storytelling. In Alicia Duffy’s “The Most Beautiful Man in the World,” it is the sounds of the TV, the dog breathing, the crickets in the grass.

And in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, the protagonist who is essentially an adult child full of wonder, it is her simple sensory pleasures that are represented the same way: she likes dipping her hand in bins of grains, cracking creme brûlée with a spoon, and, skipping rocks at St Martin’s canal.

There’s something Proustian in this largeness contained in small things, something akin to petites madeleines or mother kisses at bedtime. It’s about remembrance and bodily memory. In “Entire World is Mine,” when the boy puts his hand under the water he could just be washing. Only my own memory of wet frozen fingers under hot water makes me remember and imagine the boy’s fingers must feel needled as they warm up suddenly.

Film stories about children told this way offer the opportunity for us to be more present, more aware of the sensations of the moment. We can guess that this boy is waiting for his mother to come home and this is confirmed by how he calls out to her when she comes through the door. But this isn’t a story about a reunion or absence even. The boy’s ability to fill his moments with living encourage us to do the same. And in the chaos of this coldest, darkest month of the year maybe this is the perfect reminder.

–R.W. Gray

Dec 102012

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the dark. But I encourage you to see the light as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray

In Andreas Pasvantis’s “December,” we are taken on a terrifying journey of kidnapping and trauma, with a festive finale. All the aesthetics are decidedly horror-ific: the low camera angles, the washed out lighting, the dirty focus, the constant Dutch tilt shots (so the POV seems horizontal or lying down) all build our anxiety. The point of view shots limit what we can see and alter focus so we are inescapably in the action but do not know who we are.

The action is sudden and unexpected: we are attacked with an axe, dragged, covered up, sold into what will certainly be more horror, complete with a chainsaw attack. And what builds our feeling of helplessness is not just that the action comes at us, it’s that we are seen by the people in the film. We are attacked and looked at directly, and this coupling of violence and seeing establishes that we are in a world without compassion.

All along this chain of violence lies the question “how badly will this end?” We are decidedly in the horror genre so we are aware from the start that the ending will be bloody. The last shot is absurdly festive, though, full of beaming faces smiling at us. This scene is perhaps even more violent than the ones before it because all the violences that preceded it build to this insensitive holiday moment. A series of acts of violence and pain that culminate in a festival of insensitivity and smiles.

Holiday movies routinely play off this central tension; the anxiety of the holidays serves both comedy (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and horror (Black Christmas). I think, though, there’s a more thematic interest here, too. The holiday occurs not long after the darkest day of the year, the lights and gay apparel used to cloak what otherwise might be the most lifeless days of the calendar year. That which is repressed will rise up. This, I suppose, is why we also eat our way through the holidays, to cover up the eventual return of the repressed and stave off the cold and dark waiting outside.

In “December,” we are guided to see the glee and yuletide smiles with a sort of irony; we have seen all the horrors that this holiday scene represses. And because of the use of point of view shots it is our trauma that is covered up with decorations and awful sweaters. But there’s something reassuring about this irony, like finding surprise rum in your eggnog. And this recognition of darkness underlying the holiday lets a little of it out and makes room for the light.

–R. W. Gray

Dec 102012


Are there no longer any ants in Barcelona? Have they exterminated them all? Have they gone into hiding? Have they migrated to the suburbs?

—Quim Monzo

A Thousand Morons
Quim Monzo
Translated by Peter Bush
111 Pages; $10.35
Open Letter
ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-41-2

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote that when we lose the relationship between the real and the map, between the referential thing and the simulation of it, we enter a strange, confusing space, something he called a second order simulacrum.“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality; a hyperreal.”

Innovation and technology have brought abundant wealth and convenience into the world, but at what cost? We gorge on steady diets of advertising, steroid-fed athletes, and derivatives of something un-ironically called reality TV. (Even the joke is lost now, reality TV no longer being oxymoronic, perhaps only moronic). Our food is more abundant and readily available than ever, but it is also pre-processed and genetically modified. We connect instantly with friends and family across vast distances, but our online presence has robbed of us of privacy and silence.

Entire libraries of books can be carried around in our hip pockets, yet who has time to read? The ever-accelerating human narrative seems to be squeezing out nuance and complexity in favor of 140 character messages with hashtags and 3 million followers, but no actual person ever at the end of it all. Could Donald Barthelme have been right when he wrote that fragments were the only trustworthy form?

Surely we still need important voices crying out from the margins. The very best of our poets and writers always hover just inside Plato’s allegorical cave, somehow still able to witness and report that the culture of the hyperreal is an increasingly spurious one, not built from shadows of real beings dancing in front of the fire, but, more and more, from shadows of the shadows themselves.

The Catalan author Quim (pronounced “keem”) Monzo might well qualify as one of those voices. His fiction has been called surreal, hyperrealist, and highly original. He has written stories, novels, essays and translations throughout his long career, and he has worked as a journalist for various Barcelona newspapers. His brand-new-in-English story collection, A Thousand Morons, just published by Open Letter Books, wonderfully translated by Peter Bush, is filled with a dazzling lineup of stories, many of them awhirl in the transitional spaces between tradition and modernity.

Its characters and the places they inhabit are often nameless, shapeless, entities; many are merely pronouns, wandering through half-familiar territories. It might be one mark of the hyperreal world that proper names have become redundant: “The boy is walking down the street with a rucksack full of fliers hanging over his shoulder on a single strap and a roll of sticky tape in one hand.” Thus begins Monzo’s short story “The Boy and the Woman.”  Does it matter what we call the boy? Have we all been likewise reduced in our over-crowded world? Even the slightly misanthropic title of Monzo’s book serves as a gentle (if playful) accusation, though it could’ve been more damning: Monzo could’ve titled it 7 Billion Morons and been done.

Written at the intersection of old and new, A Thousand Morons pulses with the current of time running through its sentences. In old age homes, mothers and fathers rot away and wish only for death. In refigured fairy tales, the prince rapes the sleeping maiden. There’s a certain madness about it all, with perverse gestures of love, misguided fools and ophthalmologists who can’t see. At every turn, absurdity and contradictions abound, as do humor, wit, and an enchanting spectacle of language. The sand shifts beneath your feet, and leaves you unsteady, shaken, wondering what it all means. The world is changing, Monzo seems to be saying, stand back and watch it with me.

In “Things Aren’t What They Used to Be,” Marta remembers her childhood, when, “though they had a television, her father, mother and nine siblings sat around the table at suppertime and nobody dreamed of asking for the television to be switched on.” Later, when she’s a mother herself, Marta regrets the way television has come to saturate her family life. Dinners pass in silence, her son and husband watching the news or Formula One races at the table. But before long, “Marta had begun to wax nostalgic even for those times, when she, her husband and their kid spent the night in front of the television.” The husband and father now lock themselves away with their computers, leaving Marta to miss the good old days when they at least occupied the same space, even one backlit by the television’s flickering blue lights. In two just two pages, Monzo creates an atmospheric tension about the rapidly changing world, making it humorous and heartbreaking at the same time.

But Quim Monzo is no Luddite; he’s not so much lamenting the passing of tradition as he is dissecting it and leaving its corpse on the table for us to examine. In some cases, he seems to willfully bid a fond farewell to the old ways. In “The Cut,” a boy enters a classroom with a gaping, bleeding wound in his neck. While he pleads with his teacher for help, the teacher upbraids the injured boy:

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution?”

All these words while the blood pools around the boy’s feet. Absurdity abounds, past, present and future.

Monzo’s ability to reconfigure and challenge allows him to pack a literary punch with brutal efficiency. In the 150-word story “Next Month’s Blood,” the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and proclaims God’s intention to impregnate the young woman. But Mary refuses the holy annunciation: “’What do you mean no?’ asked the archangel at a loss. Mary didn’t backtrack: ‘No way. I don’t agree. I won’t have this son.’” Putting aside the humorous, contemporary dialogue between the two, the story reflects not only the changing role of women in the world, but the rejection of the hegemony of the Church, as well as some sort of weird empowerment and demystification of the Madonna, one of the most iconic figures in all of Spain.


A Thousand Morons is divided into two sections. The first section contains seven traditional length stories, and the second is made up of twelve shorter stories, what might be called ‘flash fiction’ pieces, some less than a page in length. Throughout both sections, Monzo interrogates the changing landscape of storytelling itself.

In “Thirty Lines,” an unnamed narrator explores how to tell a story using only thirty lines of prose. “It’s like asking a marathon runner to run a hundred meters with dignity,” the narrator says, even as he writes. But by the end, he accomplishes this ungainly task of compression, and the narrator (and presumably Monzo behind him) defeats the assignment by turning the task against itself:

He has only seven to go to reach thirty. But, after he has registered that insight—plus this one—even less remain: six. Good God! He is incapable of having a thought and not typing it, so each new one eats up a new line and that means by line twenty-six he realizes he is only four lines from the end and hasn’t succeeded in focusing the story, perhaps because—and he has suspected this for a long time—he has nothing to say, and although he manages to hide this fact by dint of writing pages and yet more pages, this damned short story makes it quite clear, and explains why he sighs when he reaches line twenty-nine and, with a not entirely justified feeling of failure, puts the final stop on the thirtieth.

Monzo’s spare prose leaves little room for context. Explanations and motivations remain elusive. Yet there are echoes of wisdom, and the absurd becomes more than just whimsical commentary on the world. In the opening story, “Mr. Beneset,” Mr. Beneset’s son arrives at an old age home to visit his ailing father. He walks into the room only to discover his father putting on “black and cream lingerie, the sort the French call culottes and the English French knickers.” What’s most startling about this set up is that Monzo provides no details, no clues to the reasons for what’s happening.  We don’t know if the father has simply lost his mind or if he’s been cross-dressing his whole life. The son makes no comment about the odd behavior. Mr. Beneset puts on tights, a skirt, applies his makeup and then heads out to the backyard where the other residents of the old age house “gawp vacantly” at the two men.

But perhaps the quiet wisdom of the story rests on the way love is offered without stipulation, even while the other residents gape at the strange old man. At the end of the visit, as Mr. Beneset and his son say their goodbyes, “they kiss each other, the son turns around, walks away, stops by the door, turns around, waves goodbye to his father, closes the door and uses the handkerchief to remove the lipstick the kiss left on his cheek.”  Is this not a nearly perfect example of love?

By toying with expectations, by working against logic, Monzo creates sharp instabilities in his stories. We are enchanted, confused, even a bit angry at ourselves for not understanding. At times, we can’t help but wonder if we have suddenly become one of the thousand morons.

If there is a shortcoming to this book, it’s that Monzo’s characters often feel overly disembodied. There’s a frigidness about them, a parchment paper quality that makes them dry and brittle. It’s hard to feel compassion or empathy, but then again, that might be exactly the point. Monzo’s characters reflect the contemporary zeitgeist, an age when men and women will drive by and honk if your car breaks down on the side of the road. But their derision is not borne out of cruelty so much as it is out of conviction of certainty about their world. They wish you no harm as you stand there on the side of the road waiting for help; they simply expect you’ll have a cell phone and already have called for a tow truck.

Almost fifty years ago, John Barth wrote about the literature of exhaustion. Today, we flirt not just with exhausted literature, but with the literature of the comatose, the persistent vegetative state that is becoming our civilization, dominated by media moguls peddling pop culture, best sellers and Pepsi Cola across vast, global landscapes with little regard for anything besides profitability. A Thousand Morons was originally published in 1997, just as the twenty-first century was about to dawn, as the new millenium’s Everyman was about to rise from his bed, stretch his arms and head off for work. Except he wasn’t a man anymore, he was an IP address, and he wasn’t heading for the office, but for the local Starbucks, and whether he was in Mumbai or Manhattan, Cairo or Kuala Lumpur, the menu remained the same (and in English). He ordered his venti  frappuccino — words  themselves now part of the hyperreal lexicon — sat down at his wireless hot spot and connected to the world. Except he couldn’t connect to anyone real, only to a host of other disembodied, genderless abstractions, avatars lost in cyberspace, that ever- accelerating multiverse of 4G networks, pre-packaged apps and unlimited texting.

Monzo indicts us all, participants in our own demise, as we drift further and further away from the things which anchor us to the ground. We are being crowded out, Monzo says, most poignantly in “Shiatsu” the final story in the collection “It’s a great bar,” the story opens, “a favorite in the neighborhood, with maybe the finest ham in Barcelona, and hocks—done in the oven with onion, tomato, pepper, white wine, and cognac—of the highest quality.” Three men are enjoying breakfast at the bar, until they forced to leave by a crowd of newcomers. These loud, jovial people appear to be outsiders. Under their arms, they carry (ironically) folders from the “Institute for traditional Chinese medicine.” One by one, the original three men in the café give up their seats and are squeezed out by these newcomers, until only one of the original three remains. The newcomers (for some reason, I picture them as hipsters, in skinny jeans and carrying the latest version of the latest smartphone) are eyeing this last man’s table, hoping he’ll leave too. He endures for a while, but they are bumping past him at the bar:

But soon the accidental knocks become deliberate and increasingly outrageous, and so they pile on the pressure—now he hears them pushing to shouts of ‘Come on, altogether,: wow, wow, wow!’—he gets up and pays. As he is going into the street to the gleeful victory cries of the throng inside, he has to move aside yet again because three more individuals sweep in with their folders from the institute for traditional Chinese medicine, masters now of the whole of that bar they have finally succeeded in making their very own.

How odd that the men in the bar yield to the crowd so passively. How quickly they are replaced and vanquished, though perhaps this has always been the way. Out with the old, so the saying goes.

In Barcelona, where ham cures on the hook above the bar, ordering a plate of jamon y queso means that the diner sits just inches from the kneecap of the sacrificed animal. Try putting a meat grinder in the deli aisle of your local Trader Joe’s and see how quickly the store empties out. It’s not that Monzo possesses some exotic birthright which helps him stay in better touch with the world. He simply understands the clash between the real and the simulacrum, and is thus able to dramatize it in his stories. Monzo reminds us that there is a cost to all this change, and if  contemporary culture represents a buffet table for the hyperrealist, then A Thousand Morons is like a literary tapas bar, offering up its small plates with distinctive flavors, but hardly enough to fill the belly.

Perhaps it helps that Monzo is homeported in a place where cultures and languages collide. Barcelona: The city where the writer can probe the battle between tradition and change right there in the streets. Barcelona: Where Gaudi’s surreal cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, rises out of a modern skyline like some twisted anachronism, half-old, half-new, the church still under construction some hundred and forty years after it began. Barcelona: The dreamscape city, an amalgam of the real and the hyperreal, of fiction and truth.

Monzo’s strange delicacies reflect the geography and history of the city itself as much as they do the plight of contemporary humanity, full of absurdity and humor, heartbreak and despair, and, in the end, full, too, of beauty.

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell earned my B.S. in History at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and an M.F.A. at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. In 2011, his essay, “Accidental Pugilism” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year In Ink.  He is a full-time freelance writer, editor and a faculty member at the River Pretty Writers Workshop in Tecumseh, MO. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children.

Dec 072012


Ian Fleming & the first James Bond, Sean Connery

The newest James Bond movie, Skyfall, opened last month while the press and the blogosphere celebrated the 50th anniversary of the film franchise. Cover stories blossomed describing the various James Bond actors, from Sean Connery and Roger Moore to the newest incarnation of Ian Fleming’s hero, Daniel Craig, along with Bond’s girls, from Ursula Andress to Berenice Marlohe, and Bond’s high-tech toys, from exploding briefcases to invisible cars. Nostalgia buffs of a certain age recall the Mad Magazine Man from U.N.C.L.E. parody where Sean Connery showed up at the end to brusquely inform Robert Vaughan (As Napoleon Solo) that he got more girls in one movie than Solo got in a whole season of the knock-off spy drama. We recall our chagrin when George Lazenby took over for an ungrateful Sean Connery (Bond was constricting his talents) and ruined what might have been the best of film of them all, On her Majesty’s Secret Service.

 “This never happened to the other guy” Lazenby remarked with cheeky meta panache after getting beaten up in the opening action sequence.

You said it, fella.

Despite my own fondness for many of the movies  — they were a family Christmas day tradition for most of my childhood and my favorite part may have been the end of each one where a final note in the credits said  “The end … but James Bond will be back …” – someone has to say it: we’re all celebrating the wrong anniversary.

The correct one: April 13th, 1953. Yes, we’re still five months away from the crucial date, the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ian Fleming’s very first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Fleming has become the forgotten man as the hoopla about his character’s ongoing life in the cinema ramps up. Most people seem to regard Fleming as a hack with a taste for fine liquor and high tech gimmicks. He liked to drink, no question about it, and the famous “shaken but not stirred” prescription for the perfect martini first appeared in Diamonds are Forever, published in 1956. But the obsession with “Q branch” and elaborate weaponry was entirely the product of Hollywood.

This lovely moment in From Russia with Love makes the point with typical brio. Bond, headed for Belgrade on the old Orient Express, finds himself at the mercy of SMERSH agent Donovan “Red” Grant, played in the film by Robert Shaw. In the book, there is no fancy exploding briefcase or any other gimmick to save Bond. Fleming notes this, with ironic regret: “He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man’s face! If only his service went in for those explosive toys!”

Ian Fleming’s Bond books in general, though fanciful and romantic when compared with the works of John LeCarré or Len Deighton, seem almost mundane next to the continuously escalating madcap extravagance of the films, which lapsed into self-parody for more than a decade in the seventies and early eighties (still ruefully known as “The Roger Moore Years”).

Fleming’s James Bond was grounded and practical, a sybarite but also an ascetic, equally fond of sea-island cotton shirts and cold showers.  And he had an imagination, which no film has ever managed to portray and no film-maker seems to have noticed.

Here, in Diamonds are Forever, Bond witnesses the villain’s death, Jack Spang — Mafioso and international diamond smugggler  — crashing in a disabled helicopter:  “Yes. There he was. Only about a thousand feet up now, engine roaring and the great blades whirring uselessly as the tangle of metal pitched and yawed down the sky in long drunken staggers.”  Fleming captures the scene vividly, through Bond’s merciless camera-eye:

Bond could imagine the narrow cockpit, the big man holding on with one hand and wrenching at the controls with the other as he watched the needle of the altimeter dip down through the hundreds. And there would be the red glare of terror in the eyes, and the hundred thousand pound pocketful of diamonds would be just so much dead weight, and the gun which had been a strong right arm since boyhood would be no comfort.

About the possibility of a similar fate befalling him, Bond allows himself a few typically hard-nosed philosophical musings, in flight over the Caribbean early on in Live and Let Die:

No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down into the sea or onto the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea.  Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon, who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death.

Fleming was the first writer I encountered, reading for pleasure, who made me realize that the hero in a book could have an inner life, that the book itself could have a vivid sense of place and a unique sensibility. In other words, Fleming was my introduction to literature. I must add, by way of explanation that I was ten years old at the time and my primary reading, outside of Spider Man comic books, consisted of Albert Payson Terhune dog fiction and the Hardy Boys.  Formulaic as those stories were, they led me to Fleming and Fleming led me directly to Chandler and Hammett, and from there to Hemingway and Camus and beyond.  I learned my first lessons in fine writing from the way Fleming He sprinkled his prose with little  grace notes of description —  the sea  ‘lisping’ on the flat sand, the ‘straight white feather’ of a fishing boat’s wake, viewed from above.

Fleming was a world traveler and he made his settings come alive in a way that some more serious authors might envy.  One of the last of the books, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, begins this way:

It was one of those summers when it seemed that the summer would never end.

The five-mile promenade of Royale-les-Eaux , backed by trim lawns emblazoned at intervals with tri-color beds of salvia, alyssum and lobelia, was bright with flags and, on the longest beach in the north of France, the gay bathing tents still marched prettily down to the tide line in big-money making battalions.

And here is the view of Istanbul from a shabby hotel window, soon after Bond arrives in the city, in From Russia with Love:

Bond got out of bed, drew back the heavy red plush curtains and leant on the iron balustrade and looked out over one of the most famous views in the world – on his right the still waters of the Golden Horn, on his left the dancing waves  of the unsheltered waters of the Bosphorous, and, in between, the tumbling roofs, soaring minarets and crouch mosque of Pera. After all, his choice had been good. The view made up for many bedbugs and much discomfort.

In most of these places, Bond encounters men who become his friends — generally the same kind of man: shrewd, tough adrenaline junkies, with firm dry handshakes and few illusions.  From Darko Kerim, the head the Secret Service’s Istanbul Station, a cheerful cynic who treats spying in the Balkans as a teeming family business, to Corsican gangster Marc-Ange Draco, who briefly becomes Bond’s father-in-law, to Jamaica bone-fisherman Quarrel, and sturdy self-effacing CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond has a knack for finding kindred spirits. But Bond is a dangerous man to know: most of his allies and companions fall by the way-side, shot, stabbed to death or in Leiter’s case, half eaten by carnivorous fish. Fleming had a streak of sadism and a taste for cruelty, tempered by the essential decency of his much battered, imperfect, hero who often bungles every attempt but the final one.

Fleming’s estate in Jamaica & his study

Fleming himself seems like the icon of an extinct brand of personal style, from his mysterious history with MI6  to Goldeneye, the sprawling beach estate in Jamaica where he wrote most of his books, to the ever present cigarette in its long holder, he possessed a level of personal style that modern thriller writers don’t even aspire to. This was a man who claimed to have seen every sunrise in his adult life, who remarked “I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them,”  and dismissed Sean Connery with a tart “I’m looking for Commander James Bond, not an overgrown stunt man.”

The James Bond movies relentlessly update the character and his world with the cold war dissolving into the war on terror, new actors taking over the role, the gadgets and gizmos becoming ever grander, the tech ever higher, the tropes and traps more topical. The villains use parkour and iPads now; the text has replaced the cable. This is necessary in the big-ticket Hollywood that feeds the international film market, where everything must take place in the immediate, indeed the imperative, present tense.

But the charm of Fleming’s novels is the precise reverse of this passion for the up-to-date. Moldering on the used book store shelf, or awkwardly clustered in the cloud-based queue of my Kindle e-reader, they remain unapologetically documents of their own time, endearing period pieces from an era that baby-boomers like myself regard with a fierce wounding nostalgia.

It was our parents’ time, a time of cars with fins, telephones with rotary dials, when America was still the most powerful nation on earth, riding the storm surge of power and wealth from World War II. Yes there were cracks and fractures in that world, but they were easy to ignore. Everyone smoked and nobody cared. Nothing was fading away, nothing was running out, and no listened to Rachel Carson.

Our fathers wore blocked hats parties and drank from flasks of rye at football games; and our mothers gave big cocktail parties and joined the PTA. We protested and demonstrated and smoked weed and ended the war in View Nam and brought down the President.

Heady times.

Who could have guessed that our swaggering parents would get lung cancer from the smoking and cirhossis from the booze, and that we would become the safety first, rules-making, no-kid-rides-a-bike-without-body-armor scared of its own shadow generation, about to drag the world into insolvency with our collective Medicare and Social Security costs?

What did faded movie star Norma Desmond say in Sunset Boulevard ? “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Well, it’s the whole world that’s shriveling now. We live in a diminished, attenuated world, one that seems to be running down like a hand cranked sewing machine. There are too many people, and too little of everything else – food, water, oil, education, breathing space. There was a kind of power moving through the world that Ian Fleming inhabited, like the immense pulses of energy that move through the Pacific from the great Aleutian storms, creating the giant waves that break in Hawaii and the Northern coast of California. That energy has drained from the world somehow. We’re all sitting in inflatable rafts in swimming pools, our new world tiny and tame and chlorinated. The power surging through Fleming’s mid- twentieth century made his success and charisma and swagger possible. It might not have created his stature but it gave him a place to stand.

Okay it was all an illusion, but it was a grand illusion and I miss it and I feel the touch of it on my shoulder every time James Bond lights one of those hand- made cigarettes from Morland’s with the three gold rings above the filter.

That time is gone and Fleming is gone, but the books remain, still more substantial and enduring than the movies they inspired, still wildly inventive  and engrossing, still deliciously preposterous, still as quirky and eccentric as the man who wrote them, sixty years on and still counting.

—Steven Axelrod


Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp.  A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.

Dec 062012

Herewith a sequence of tiny beautiful woodcuts from Saratoga Springs artist/poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a friend for years who, yes, can remember vividly my sons as little boys, furtively writing her secret notes in the library and running up to deliver them (I am ever grateful for such memories). We have not just the woodcuts themselves but a multi-media cross-pollination event. The woodcuts are inspired by a W. B. Yeats poem (“The Two Trees”) and the poem has inspired other artists (Loreena McKennitt). You put them together and you have an experience that is aural, visual and intellectual, which is one of the lovely things about Internet publishing. And beyond that I love the artist’s own words, her heart-of-the-matter reflection on the repetitive, obsessive, persistent nature of the creative mind.



These very small works, the largest of which measures four by five inches, are woodblocks. The series is titled and inspired by Yeats’ poem The Two Trees.”[1] Singer, songwriter Loreena McKennitt recorded a haunting version of this piece. Because we humans are prone to fear and creatures of habit, some would argue that we struggle with “the same problem” our entire lives. With one step forward, two steps back, we rewrite the same story. Or write the same poem. Paint the same painting. Enter the same relationship. Start the same job. In the film The Last Temptation of Christ, the Girl Angel/Satan says to Jesus, “There is only one woman in the world. One woman, with many faces.”

As an artist and poet, I process my “ravens of unresting thought” through my work, and I find this metaphor of The Two Trees particularly meaningful. Yeats begins, “Beloved gaze in thine own heart,” suggesting that relationship, indeed all emotions, all answers are rooted there. Perhaps the other is often a mirror. Expand this notion to include the possibility that only in deeply knowing ourselves can we completely engage in relationship. I am not suggesting by this that we become narcissistic. Far from it. Yeats closes with, “Gaze no more in the bitter glass.” More often relationship (to ourselves, others, and our creative work) requires an emptying, an opening. Surrender. An entire abandonment of the self.

Multi-color woodblock prints are typically made by carving, inking, and printing a separate block of wood for each color. In a “reduction print,” (those shown) only one block is used. The artist must print the entire edition in the first color, then re-carve the same block for the second color and print over those first impressions, etc. etc. for the complete number of colors the work will contain. The most challenging and freeing aspect of this technique is that the artist can never reprint the edition; can never go back to a previous version of the work; can never correct or rethink an action taken. For this reason it is also referred to as the “lost block” technique. Because printmaking is such a physical, painstaking, sequential, subtractive, and meditative process, for me it becomes a balm, much like writing. And although it may seem as if the “problem” is repeated over and over, I believe what Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice…”

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Mary Kathryn Jablonski

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski


A gallerist in Saratoga Springs, visual artist and poet, Mary Kathryn Jablonski is the author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008), and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. She recently completed her first book-length collection of poems and two additional chapbook manuscripts. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Two Trees

    by William Butler Yeats

    BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
    The holy tree is growing there;
    From joy the holy branches start,
    And all the trembling flowers they bear.
    The changing colours of its fruit
    Have dowered the stars with merry light;
    The surety of its hidden root
    Has planted quiet in the night;
    The shaking of its leafy head
    Has given the waves their melody,
    And made my lips and music wed,
    Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
    There the Loves a circle go,
    The flaming circle of our days,
    Gyring, spiring to and fro
    In those great ignorant leafy ways;
    Remembering all that shaken hair
    And how the wingèd sandals dart,
    Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
    Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

    Gaze no more in the bitter glass
    The demons, with their subtle guile,
    Lift up before us when they pass,
    Or only gaze a little while;
    For there a fatal image grows
    That the stormy night receives,
    Roots half hidden under snows,
    Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
    For all things turn to barrenness
    In the dim glass the demons hold,
    The glass of outer weariness,
    Made when God slept in times of old.
    There, through the broken branches, go
    The ravens of unresting thought;
    Flying, crying, to and fro,
    Cruel claw and hungry throat,
    Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
    And shake their ragged wings; alas!
    Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
    Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

    “The Two Trees” is reprinted from The Rose. W.B. Yeats. 1893.

Dec 052012


George Singleton lives in South Carolina and teaches at South Carolina Governor’s School For The Arts & Humanities. He is the author of two novels—Work Shirts for Madmen and Novel—one book of writing advice, and five books of short stories, including The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Drowning in Gruel, and Stray Decorum. In 2009 Singleton was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers.

It was a real treat to talk to George Singleton, a writer I’ve admired since early 2004, when the friend I was with at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, Tennessee, put a copy of The Half-Mammals of Dixie in my hand and told me how great it was. I sat there in the store and read “It Itches, Y’all,” a story about a kid whose life is ruined after staring in an educational video on the prevention of head lice.  His life-ruining line: “It itches, y’all.”

While talking to Singleton, he reminded me of what another Southern writer, Harry Crews, once said, “Stories [is] everything and everything [is] stories… It a way of saying who [you are] in the world.” George doesn’t have answers to questions—he has stories, stories to illustrate the question and dramatize it. From everything to his stray dogs to his Whitmanian list of items on his desk, George Singleton is the real deal—modest, funny, individualistic—a writer hell bent on preventing you from becoming a rhinoceros.


Jason DeYoung (JD): Let’s talk about how Stray Decorum came about.

George Singleton (GS): I have to go all the way back to about 2005 or 2006.  I had this copyeditor who was great, but he had to go off for a while.  He subcontracted my manuscript out to an eighty-five-year old woman who used to work at The New Yorker.  So, she sends back my manuscript—this was for a novel called Work Shirts for Madmen—and she had really changed a lot, especially the voice. One of the big things she changed was when one of the characters said something like, “I only want to go home and take a nap.”  She’d change it to, “I want only to go home and take a nap.”  She kept changing that “only” word—I didn’t realize how often I used it, and evidently incorrectly. And she wrote about the third time I’d used it: “Do you people in the South not know this rule of grammar?”  So then next time she marked it, I wrote “I want only to kill you,” off in the margins.

Well, as I was correcting her corrections, I’d been writing stet. stet. stet. forever.  [Stet being an editorial term for “let it stand.”]  And I mean forever. A bunch of them.  Like if I’d written, “I ain’t got no money.” She’d corrected it to “I have no money.” (Sighs) I’d write: “stet.”

And so I decided to write a bunch of stories about this character named Stet.  And I wrote like fifty of them, and about thirty-five came out in magazines, and I got a collection together, and I sent them to my agent—about 450 pages of short stories.  She said,  “No one is going to publish this.  (And, by the way, George, I don’t even want to try to sell another collection of yours until you write a novel I like.)”  So, I said, “You’ve never liked anything I’ve written, so I break up with you.”

Now I’ve got a new agent—her name is Kit Ward. And she said, “No one is going to print 450 pages of short stories. But you’ve got all these dog stories.” And I said, “I’ve already written a God-damn dog-story book, you know, called Why Dogs Chase Cars.”  And she said, “You can write another one, you idiot.”

So, she’s the one who got Stray Decorum together. And then next year No Cover Available will be coming out, which will be the rest of the stories.

JD: Let’s talk about opening paragraphs. In your story “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got,”—one of my favorites—you start with what amounts to a page-length paragraph, in which you smash together about eight or ten topics. How do you think about opening paragraphs?

GS: Sometimes, when I’m starting off a story, and I don’t really know what I’m going to write, I’ll just start writing real fast, like a 500-word sentence or something, just to see what comes out of my walnut-size brain. A lot things will show up.  And then I go back, in that 500-word sentence, and say, “Okay, where’s the main conflict?”

What I want to do, most of the time—and it’s kind of cheating—is just get some of that journalistic who, what, where, how, why into the first paragraph, so that the reader will say “I see the direction of this story, and I’m comfortable with that.”  Normally, I do a reader-friendly first paragraph.  Except “I Think I Have What Sharon’s Got” doesn’t follow that model. (Laughs)

JD: I’ve been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In it he talk about how music is often written sonically for the particular space—a club, a cathedral, a car stereo.  Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write, a particular place you have in mind for that reader to be in—including perhaps a particular “head space”?

GS: The reader I have in mind is probably me. And I’m just writing, thinking this may not get pass the vacuum.

I’m not sure there are a whole lot of people out there—and I hope there aren’t—who are like me. So, my reader, in my mind, is a liberal, probably a democrat, probably scratching his or her head, going what the hell is going on in America—this doesn’t make any sense.

You know, I went to see a production of this play, The Crucible. And I thought, this is what’s going on right now in America: People caught up in a fervor. Reminds me of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, where everyone is turning into rhinoceroses.  Why can’t we step back and say, “This doesn’t really make any sense.” The reader I’m looking for is that person: the one who is stepping back saying, “This world isn’t making a whole lot of sense.”

JD: And how do you think about structure and building a story?  What’s your “habit of art”?

GS: Consciously I don’t sit down and think, “okay, word 4,000, I need a climax.” Normally, what I’m doing is in my opening paragraph is trying to get the reader accustomed to the water’s temperature and then I usually start off with some dialogue between two characters, and that causes some kind of action, some kind of conflict going on. And then I just kind of see where it goes.  Rarely do I know where it’s going to go, except I usually have a vague sense of the ending.  For instance, if I start a story off in a used car lot, it’s either going to end in a used car lot, or with the characters talking about a used car lot, or driving pass a used car lot.

JD: So, how much revision do you do?

GS: I sort of rewrite the whole time, rereading what I wrote the day before, and then rewriting as I reread.  And then I’ll send it off to a magazine. And the editor will say, “I love the beginning but the ending sucks.” And I’ll send it to another magazine, and they’ll say, “Hated the beginning, but I loved the ending.” And then I’ll go, “You sons of bitches.” And then I might tinker with it some more.

JD: You’ve published five books of short stories and two novels, are you still being influenced by writers you read? And, if so, who are the most recent?

GS: Yeah, of course. When I read a short story and go “God-damn, I wish I’d thought of that,” that’s my highest compliment.  I read like crazy. Just finished a collection by Dan Chaon, and went, “These are great stories.” I’m reading an advance readers’ copy of Jamie Quatro’s new book, I Want To Show You More, and I keep saying, “God almighty, that’s a great story” after I finish one. I read a book of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead, which has a great voice.  But also my buddies like Ron Rash and Tom Franklin.  I read a lot of people who aren’t similar to me. They’re kind of darker, more gothic, and usually not very comedic.  Lewis Nordan is just great.

JD: While we’re on books, what book or books are you an evangelist for?

GS: The Complete Flannery O’Connor I reread over and over.  And, oddly enough, John Cheever, who from a technical point of view is just brilliant.  A lot of times, I’ll ask while writing, How am I going to go from point A to point C?”  And how I do it is a section break, and how Cheever does it is just seamless. But there’s a bunch more—William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver—and they all, in a way, feed me well.

JD: Some of your best stories, in my opinion, are about fathers and sons, and in these stories the father is usually off-kilter somehow.  I’m thinking here of “The First to Look Away” and “Perfect Attendance” in Stray Decorum but also some stories in previous collections.  What is it with fathers and sons?

GS: When I was about forty years old, I wrote my very first dad-and-lad story, and The Atlantic took it. And I went, Jesus Christ, why hadn’t I written any of these stories before?  They’re so easy. I can dip into the well of my childhood since my father was kind of eccentric.  My father died when I was twenty-four, and he had gone through a shitload. He’d had cancer in 1960 when he was thirty-five, he’d fallen forty-five feet into the hold of a Merchant Marine ship when he was thirty-eight, breaking his hip and back and a number of other bones.  He was a morphine addict. He was an alcoholic.  He had all these artificial hip operations.  And he was kind of nuts—in a good way, though. He made sure I met people in different stations in life. We were a lower-middle class family. So, I don’t have to use much imagination to remember these feelings of a kid—a little bit embarrassed by his father, a little bit curious about what his father is doing—which makes the dad-and-lad stories easy to write and fun.

JD: In “Perfect Attendance” the father gives his son several pieces of advice, one of which is “always have a dog with you…get a stray… don’t go buying some kind of fancy pedigree.”  Is this good advice?

GS: That’s probably just autobiographical. (Laughs) In my experience, stray dogs—and I’ve had a zillion—have been loyal, smart, and not finicky. They’ll eat anything. They’ll eat the worst dog food—George Jones Dog Food or whatever.  Also, it makes me feel better about myself for taking in a stray instead of buying some thousand dollar spaniel. Strays have just been good.  Like us, they seem to be animals who are doing the best with what they’ve got.

JD: You talk about rifle writers and shotgun writers in Pep Talks—which are you? Is one better?

SG: Not sure either’s better.  I’m a shotgun writer because I’m just writing story after story. If I were a baseball player, I’d be a solid .250 hitter.  A rifle writer will bat .500, but it takes a long time. I’m not going to spend six months writing a story, which I think is crazy.

JD: In Pep Talks you tell your reader to keep certain items on their desk—an Allen wrench to remind yourself to tighten up sentences; a picture of a chimpanzee to remind yourself to proofread; a whetstone to remind yourself to keep your wits sharp.  What’s on your desk?

GS: (Laughs) I’ve got my father’s first artificial hip.  I’ve got something called a Cherokee marble that I found in the Reedy River.  My father’s old pocket watch.  I’ve got something… (Laughs) Oh, man, I shouldn’t tell you this. Okay, this comes from a printing press, and it’s from where you put the letters up, and this thing is called a butt plug, and an Allen wrench goes into it to hold the frame onto a printing press. I have a mouthpiece to a tuba I found on Kure Beach. My old stopwatch. A knife. But you know what I’m missing? My grappling hook. I think my dog sitter stole it. Let’s see… A baseball signed by Charlie O’Brien, saying “catch you later,” which kind a cracks me up.  Old feathers.  A Playboy Mansion swizzle stick. An old cat’s paw. A bunch of dog chews for when the dogs come back here.  I have an arrowhead.  My zippo lighter, pens, a dictionary, my father’s other (second) artificial hip—he had a lot of artificial hip operations. I’ve got the top off of something called Begonia Salad that I got in Kentucky—I think they meant baloney salad.  Up above me I have a Howard Finster plywood cutout of Santa Claus, and on it, it says “Santa in the kids’ world. He only teaches kids to be good. He is just another toy.” I don’t know what that means. (Laughs) Is that enough?

JD: Yeah, thanks. I heard that for The Half-Mammals of Dixie you hung around flea markets. Were there places you hung around for this collection?  There are a lot of original bar scenes in this book.

GS: No, not really.  I don’t go to bars anymore, like in town.  If I’m out of town, I’ll go to a bar.  So, I try to get out of town four or five times a week. (Laughs)

No, these stories just kind of came to me.  It’s funny you should mention that about the flea markets, because I’m kind of out of ideas, and have been thinking I should go hang out in bars. But basically I get ideas in Wal-mart, K-Mart, Bi-Lo, which is the closest grocery store. I’ll just walk through there, pick up on the odd things people are saying, and I’ll go, “Oh, I’ve got to go home and write.”

JD: You’ve written and talked about how literary fiction doesn’t sell well.  Why do you think the figures for literary fiction stink?

GS: I don’t know, but I came across this guy the other day who has this novel out, and it’s a detective novel (and I’m not going to say his name or anything).  It’s the worst written thing in the world, and this guy was telling me how to write. He said, “What you want to do is take out all of your adverbs”—which I don’t use that often—“and you only want to say ‘said’ when writing dialogue.”  And then I looked in his book, and everything was “he sputtered,” “he opined,” nothing was like “he said.” So, what the guy was telling me he didn’t do himself. And this book of his is selling well.

My only theory on this… my only analogy is that people in the United States eat a lot more baloney than they do filet mignon, but that doesn’t mean baloney is good for you.  For some reason, people read and eat a lot of baloney.  And I know that sounds highfalutin, and I feel bad about it, but sometimes I just go “Good God, what are these people buying?!” And it’s bad.  And it’s going to get worse because all the independent bookstores are dying off, the newspapers are dying off along with their book review pages. There’s just going to be people going into a big chain outfit and buying whatever they see on that big stand, saying “I’m a big rhinoceros and I’m going to do what all the other rhinoceroses are doing, etc.”

JD: I’m going to ask forgiveness for this next question in advance. You have a lot of scamers in your fiction—at times it seems everyone is on the make.  Is fiction writing a kind of scam?

GS: (Laughs) Man, that’s a good question. (Pause) I guess in a way it is.  You’re trying to put something out there in the world; you’re trying to say, “Hey, this is something you need to read.” Just in the same way, like in an info-commercial, you’re saying, this is a pill you need to take, or this is a chair you need to sit in. In a weird way, it is.  It’s like holding a Tupperware party.  And I’m saying, buy this book, because this is going to be more laughs than you’re going to have otherwise.  Man, I’ve never thought out it like that. Geez, thanks a lot. I’m going to commit suicide—I’ve been a prick all my life. (Laughs)

JD: I didn’t mean to make you re-think your life. But it reminds me of what Annie Proulx says, “I try to make the stories I write interesting and entertaining. I don’t write to inspire social change.”

GS: What I think is that there’s a weird continuum.  If you had a big spectrum, you’d have entertainment on one end and knowledge on the other end, and somewhere in the middle you have what I’m trying to do.  I’m trying to make you laugh and teach something about humans.  I’m trying to get in that middle area.

—George Singleton and Jason DeYoung



Dec 042012

In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight.  With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage.   —Jason DeYoung

Stray Decorum
George Singleton
171 pages
Dzanc Press, 2012

“Your good, heroic characters are mixed-breed, lovable, loyal mutts adopted from The Humane Society. Your antagonists are AKC-registered purebreds with all the quirks, limitations, and personality flaws inherent to such inbreeding.”[1] Such is George Singleton’s aphoristic writing advice. Such are Singleton’s sympathies for strays.

What’s a stray? A domestic animal wandering at large or lost, right?  In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight.  With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage.  And what of the actual dogs in this collection? They are all strays, beasts without pedigree, sired by men without direction, raised by women of grit.

George Singleton has published a total of eight books—two novels, five collections of stories, and one book of writing advice. While his novels make for outstanding reading and his book on writing is one of the funniest how-tos I’ve read, it’s Singleton’s short fiction that always leaves a mark on me.  Most of the stories in Stray Decorum were originally published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Oxford American, and Ninth Letter. Stray Decorum is the first half of a longer series of short stories, and Dzanc Press plans to publish the second half in 2014 in a book titled No Cover Available.

Although born in Anaheim, California, George Singleton was raised in Greenwood, South Carolina, and he is a Southern writer who understands his rural characters well: “For the record, I would rather be in a bar with a possible gun toter on the loose than with a drifter book critic.”  And his fiction brings to mind the work of Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin, and William Gay.

Singleton graduated from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, with a degree in philosophy and attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for his MFA.  He currently teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.  In 2009, he was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers. (By the way, you can go here to hear Singleton tell his Rube-Goldberg-like beginnings as a writer.)

Stray Decorum leads off with a story called “Vaccination.”  Here are the opening few sentences:

My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention.  It had been two years since she received annual shots. I read somewhere that an older dog can overdose on all these vaccinations, and I have found—I share this information with every dog owner I meet—that if you keep your pet away from rabid foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats, and people whose eyes rotate crazy in their sockets, then the chances of your dog foaming at the mouth diminish drastically. I also believe that dogs don’t need microchips embedded beneath their shoulder blades…

Wry, opinionated, suspicious first person narrators dominate this collection (though there are a few stories in the third person). Within these stories the reader is secluded with a narrator who is convinced of certain concepts or views that are askew from those around him.  Most of the time, their world-view derives from isolation, as in “Vaccination,” the narrator’s only companion is his dog, Tapeworm Johnson.  Of course, the madcap conflict of the story comes from him meeting another isolated, off-kilter person: “What should a divorced basket weaver do when tempted by a microchip-believing hippie woman intent on drinking before noon?”

With his narrative sensibilities grounded in Samuel Becket and the Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, many of George Singleton’s stories are predicated on absurd themes and he locates his narrative pathos beneath the humor in human misery. In “Durkheim Looking Down,” a pair of couples try to hide their proclivities and eccentricities from each other, only to have their deepest fears revealed during one drunken night—spoiler, the couple that wear the no-bark collars to bed turn out to be the normal ones. Absurdity takes fuller shape in “The First to Look Away,” when a father conscripts his son’s fifth grade class to dig a moat around the family’s log cabin.  He tells his son’s teacher that the children are there to “dry mine” for rubies. The Mao-quoting school principal cheers the children from the moat’s edge: “‘To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses.’”  Digging disinters several of the father’s childhood dogs, and as the father grieves afresh for his losses, his son sees his father’s humanity for the first time.

Excess absurdity gets toned back in some of these stories, and we see Singleton’s talent and sensitivity for writing finely textured works about human misfortune and spirit. In “What Are The Odds?,” the narrator goes out searching for his missing dog sitter who has stolen his social security card and driver’s license.  Unemployed, addicted to playing the lottery, unhappily married the narrator wonders, “What are the odds of someone wanting to steal my life?” And in “Perfect Attendance,” the best story in the collection, a boy who has never missed a day of school his whole life takes a second look at his loser father and the podunk community he grew up in and realizes that perhaps they are not as bad as his mother would have him believe, that always doing “right” and getting your pats on the head aren’t what living is about.

For all of its deadpan humor, non-sequiturs, and oddities, Stray Decorum is overall a collection about feeling that often-overwhelming desire to be accepted and understood.  And the final story in the collection, “Humans Being,” may contain the best paragraph in the whole book that clearly defines the stray’s vision:

I could see, for once, in the future, where I’d drive around in my truck with this great dog who would be loyal and trusting. We’d cruise around the entire country, erasing what young men and women thought necessary to exclaim, or about their territory, or unrequited love. I would tell Tennessee to stay on the bench seat, and she would. We’d go through drive-through windows and I’d buy her hamburgers without onions or condiments, plain hot dogs, the occasional stand of French fires.  I envisioned our taking a vacation together and driving to the coast where she could chase gulls and dig for whatever mollusks relished living underground.

Here, we get the humor and compassion that defines Singleton’s fiction. In this story the narrator’s wife has left him, and he’s living in a house full of his ex-brother-in-law’s stuff.  He is without. Not shelter, per se, but loyal companionship.  In the story, a woman comes to his house under the pretenses of looking for her runaway dog, but she is really there to get something that belongs to her from the boxes filling the narrator’s home.  The dog returns, but it’s clear that she has no strong love for this animal. The narrator sees something of himself in this dog who has the “eyes of a good nun, of a grieving Appalachian widow, of a disappointed vintner.”  He trades the woman her gold panning equipment for this downtrodden pooch.  It’s a symbolic trade—wealth for loyalty.  He fantasizes early in the story something like this could happen between him and the woman, but as she reminds him in a sentence that takes on double meaning—“It’s you and me against the Humans.”  And that is what binds these stories together: the restless need we feel for wanting to be found.  The wisdom of this collection is that we can find a home amongst the strays.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, George Singleton. Writer’s Digest Books. 2008.
Dec 032012

Sharon McCartney doing CrossFit workout

Editor’s Note: Sharon McCartney’s poem “Deadlift” has been selected for Best Canadian Poetry 2013 by editors Molly Peacock and Sue Goyette.

Sharon McCartney‘s last contribution to Numéro Cinq was reprinted in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 and now she looks for a repeat with a stunning poetic sequence that makes a metaphor out of weightlifting and love. I thought of a lot of puns I could use in this introduction: Sharon McCartney’s poems are muscular, explosive, sinewy, lean — but then I thought, Stop. These are beautiful touching poems replete with incisive perceptions about the relationship of love and pain, about the struggle of life. The Greeks called it agon. The Greeks saw no distinction between athleticism, art, philosophy, politics and love. They didn’t compartmentalize the way we do. Sharon tries here to reconnect art, emotion and the body.

I have only one small personal comment.  Would you LOOK at how much weight that girl is lifting! Go, Sharon!



Double Unders

As in love, it’s important to loosen the grip,
not to resist, to harden into clumsy condemnation.
If you think too much, you’ll stiffen and trip.
Flicking the silver cable faster, through two
revolutions rather than one. Forget the details.
Banish pedestrian mores. Embrace the higher
leap beyond petrification to delimitation, forgiving
the forgiveable, his petty flirtations. Outpace the
orderly, grasping mind. Allow the larger rhythms,
spontaneity, to flow. We’re liquid after all, flux,
especially now, this escalation roping a blue Nile
of salt-licked sweat from my candescent brow.



Lift that dead weight, my sister’s suffering,
the abominable pain of a teenager’s cancer,
how she longed to die, lobbing obsolete toys
at the obsidian-flowered bedroom walls, her
knobby fists on the chic white shag, and me,
ten years her junior, five or six, witnessing
the recurrent melees, squad cars in the driveway,
sedative syringes, a night ambulance strobing
the red windows. Our stone-faced mother so
calm under her beehive. An obligatory facade.
Lift my father sobbing beside the green Chevy,
not so much raising the plates as pushing the
floor away, slowly, patiently, shoulders slung
back, chest up. The pity, my mother’s burden,
a grief so poisonous it had to remain hidden.
How hard it is even now to forgive my sister.
Once called the “health lift,” hitting the glutes,
hamstrings, quads and core. Lock out tight
and straight at the top, loopy-eyed, vertiginous,
every cell in your body about to pop and
then drop the bar, a cold cadaver clattering.



Rest and Recovery

Fatigue disguises itself as need, saying work harder,
don’t give in. An intramuscular discontent, achiness,
disrupted slumber, eyes wide at 3 a.m., that brittle,
burnt, racing-pulse aftermath of excess adrenalin.

What is it in us that resists what we ultimately
require? The overtired infant startles awake,
wailing, after just two hours. My sad friend,
whose marriage implodes, is online instantly
pursuing another.

                               Reaching the furthest for what
we need the least. The closer I cleaved to him,
the lonelier I became. More squats and deeper,
more intervals and faster, until something
fractures, a scapula, a heart.



The bicep’s the starlet, pouty sex-pot, Bardot
or Loren lounging in limousines, but if colossal
arms are what you want, the tricep’s your man,
tuxedo-clad, blasé, smoking behind a pillar.
The larger of the two muscles, yet elusive,
easily over-looked, downstage, its horseshoe
cocked out of sight. To work it, think backwards.
Push, not pull. A subtle, focussed movement,
lacking the curl’s sideshow bombast. Or lie
on the bench, face up, a dumbbell socketed in
your palm, elbow raised, and lower the weight
to your brow, the tricep dragging. It’s your stay,
your guy wire, invisible block and tackle that
snags the heft, preserving your skull. Painful,
yes, and vaguely frightening, yet worthwhile,
like unveiling a shadow, the televangelist’s
sordid sex habits, the financier’s Ponzi scheme.
Behind the bicep’s facile he doesn’t love me
lurks the tricep’s harder truth: I don’t love him.


Poet Sharon McCartney


Hard Ass

150 Smith machine squats over an hour, sets of 10,
alternating with biceps and triceps, not too much
weight, but as low as possible on the declension,
and, on the upthrust, envisioning Atlas, Pythagoras,
even that pea pod in grade 8 science, how it shoved
the crust of loam aside as it unfurled. Stiff-legged
deadlifts. Walking lunges with 15 lb. dumbbells,
spine erect, each bruised knee smacking the floor.
Hamstring curls, the glute machine’s equine kick-
back, finishing it off with the lying bridge, a 30 lb.
plate on my hips, lifted and held to a count of 20,
10 times, 2 sets, the goal being overload, quaking,
tearing and scarring, and, in the end (pardon me),
an ass like rock, monolithic, enduring as hatred,
that unseen core of silence that remains unswayed,
undeceived, beyond hypocrisy or triviality. The
unshaken ground beneath me, the darkness that I
fall back on, the depth that elevates, propels me
through the salt-dappled double doors of the 24/7
gym into the light and strength of each damned day.


Poet Sharon McCartney

— Sharon McCartney


Sharon McCartney is the author of For and Against (2010, Goose Lane Editions), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007, Nightwood Editions), Karenin Sings the Blues (2003, Goose Lane Editions) and Under the Abdominal Wall (1999, Anvil Press). In 2008, she received the Acorn/Plantos People’s Prize for poetry for The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her poem, “Katahdin,” which appeared in Numéro Cinq in July 2011 was selected to appear in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 (Tightrope Books). These poems are from a new book to be published in the Spring of 2013 by Palimpsest Press.

The pictures are all courtesy of the good people at Crossfit Fredericton.

Dec 022012

Herewith stunning and mysteriously timeless photos of the Vermont College of Fine Arts green, College Hall, and Alumni Hall, caught with a smartphone camera by John Solaperto who renders the familiar strange and other-worldly, out of time. He doesn’t just snap a photograph; he completely alters our perception not only by the common techniques of framing and point of view but also by his canny and original use of black-and-white and a photo app that makes new things look old. As John aptly points out, the photos look like they date from the 1920s, but they were taken last winter. I don’t know — this stuff knocks me out; I love how art twists the neurons in my brain, and these photos do that. And, frankly, I just warm to a real, down to earth photographer who doesn’t make a fetish out of gear and renders the world beautiful with whatever comes to hand.

John is an old friend from many a VCFA residency. Some of you know him as an amiable, intense, helpful presence at lectures and public occasions. It’s a pleasure to discover his art.



There’s an adage among photographers that “your best camera is the one you have with you.” My experience with the camera on my smart phone over the past two or three years has really driven that home for me. I’ve limited myself to only two camera apps, but there are dozens available.

I’m particularly taken with one called Hipstamatic, which lets me choose a lens and film combination that produces a black and white image with enough pixels that I can make a decent inkjet print at approximately 6”x6”.

The configuration with which I’m shooting produces an image in a square format. The camera is set up so I can’t see the entire scene in my viewfinder. Such a configuration adds an element of chance that I like. It’s an image capture process reminiscent of the plastic cameras popular in the 1980s and 90s that used 2”x2” black and white film. One must make a lot of images to get something usable in terms of content, tone, and sharpness. This particular series of images has a rather specific target audience, namely those associated and familiar with the Vermont College of Fine Arts community. I’d like to think, however, that they also have the potential to engage a wider audience of viewers in visual narratives more specific to the context of their personal life experiences.

The two images of skaters at ground level were shot late in the day on a rather cold Sunday afternoon in late winter. They were chosen from nearly 200 exposures, made as I walked around the rink on the college green. Besides the action of the figures, the photo has a certain quality of light that I find engaging. College Hall, functioning as a backdrop, adds to the nostalgic, period quality of these images. They look as though they could have just as easily been captured in 1912.

The aerial images of skaters were shot a few days later from a second floor window of College Hall. I was aware of the figures but thought of them as secondary to the composition of the other elements of the scene, i.e. the flag, sky, tree, and light post. As it turned out, the interaction of the figures with each other provides an even stronger visual interest  than the interaction of the figure with the other compositional elements. As a photographer, I feel that the image of the child with outstretched arms was an especially wonderful gift.

The aerial shot devoid of figures is included here as related to, but not really part of, the “skater series.” It was shot from the highest window I could reach in College Hall. While speaking with a colleague, I noticed the long, thin cloud or patch of fog moving rather quickly from south to north, just below the horizon. My colleague very graciously allowed me to open her office window to shoot. Of the 30 or so exposures I made to get this image, most had some part of College Hall’s architecture intruding into the composition. The one included here does not.

The night image of College Hall is an experiment in pushing the limits of available light. I think that the overall quality of light in the image, the footprints in the snow, and the diagonal motion created between the Christmas lights on the portion of the lamp post along the left edge of the image and the face in the clock tower, as well as the light in the doorway below the tower and the lamp post that lines up with the window in the center of the image, all work together to form a strong composition. The overall effect is eerie but pleasing.

All of these images represent the study of alternating patterns of light and dark tonalities. They’ve been edited with software, but not in a manner that is inconsistent with traditional dark room practice, i.e. I have made just basic tonal adjustments in all photos, and in some cases, I’ve done a lot of dodging & burning.

—John Solaperto


John Solaperto is a digital photographer and vocalist from Worcester, MA. He currently lives and works in Worcester, MA with his daughter and two grandsons. He is the Learning Resource Manager for the Applied Arts Program at Quinsigamond Community College and teaches Digital Photography in an adjunct capacity, evenings and online. He also spends approximately 12 weeks a year in Montpelier, VT serving as a media coordinator for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ two MFA in Writing programs and its Visual Arts program. He has an undergraduate degree from Clark University’s Studio Art Program (1993) and an MFA from VCFA’s MFA-V program (1995).


Nov 302012

Brooklyn Rail Fiction Editor Donald Breckenridge


This is very cool, very strange. Also very exciting. It’s the opening of Donald Breckenridge’s new novel (so new it is yet to be named), an opening that amounts to a prose translation of Jean Rouch‘s short film Gare du Nord. The film splits into two parts. The first part is a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are tired of each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away into a life of adventure. But she’s too, what?, bourgeois, timid, polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death. Thus, in an even shorter form, I have replicated Breckenridge’s summary.

But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? I give you here also the movie. And it’s in French without subtitles. The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.

First, for your delectation, we have the film, in two parts, and then the novel.






The film begins with a panoramic shot of the skyline above the 10th Arrondissement in Paris and is accompanied by the drone of jackhammers. The camera pans the horizontal jib of a large red crane suspended above a construction site then lingers on a young woman watering the flower box on a narrow windowsill overlooking the site. The interior scene opens with the young woman, attractive with shoulder length dark hair and wearing a yellow bathrobe, having breakfast with her husband who is dressed in orange pajamas. The husband is heavyset with tousled hair. He has the gruff demeanor of someone who did not get enough sleep.

Breakfast consists of soft-boiled eggs, a baguette with butter and two bowls of black coffee. Their conversation is warm while recounting a weekend outing with friends, although he yawns through some of his lines, then grows contentious as they discuss the grind of the workweek. She wants to know why he thinks her desire to travel is so ridiculous. He says that it isn’t ridiculous. She wants to know why he thinks her fantasies about escaping their everyday existence are so unrealistic. He assures her that there is nothing ridiculous or unrealistic about wanting to travel then adds that millions of young married couples around the world have found themselves working for meager salaries at entry-level positions in large corporations while living in small apartments. She reproaches him for what she perceives to be his condescending attitude then insists that they are trapped in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment in a dull part of the city, which is clearly ruining her life and destroying whatever chances she has of ever being happy. He is visibly annoyed by her proclamations. Their morning routine is poisoned by a festering resentment as the alternating volley of diminished expectations begins in earnest. They move through the apartment exchanging insults. The casual resignation the actors employ while delivering their lines conveys the impression that the melodramatics on display are as much a part of the couple’s daily routine as brushing their hair and teeth every morning before leaving for work. While shaving, the husband inquires, over the muffled drone of jackhammers from the nearby construction site, as to why he is entirely to blame for their current financial predicament. She sarcastically compares the crane looming outside their bedroom window to the Eiffel Tower. While stepping into a knee length skirt, the wife declares, that this passionless marriage is the ultimate source of her unhappiness. Didn’t she known exactly what she was getting into before they married? What an ungrateful oaf she has had the misfortune of marrying—lazy, unlucky, a real slob. He claims that if he had known she was this shrill and superficial he would have never married her. She says that this stifling middle class existence, having to live in this tiny apartment and her horrible position in an airless office are to blame for making her shrill and miserable. He says that she has never been interested in resolving their conflicts, and yes, her unrealistic expectations feed a boundless narcissism, this constant fighting is nothing more than a selfish and destructive form of entertainment. The future looks grim, and she is now running late for a job that she despises. While buttoning up her blouse she tells him that they are finished. And how, the husband demands, is he to blame for that. She slaps him, after making the bed, and then walks out. The husband follows her out the front door and down the hall where he is willing to give up a little ground—you’ve blown this out of proportion but maybe we have taken things too far. She refuses to reconcile and leaves him standing before the cage-like lift, repeatedly calling after her, as she descends through the building. The splice leading into the second part of Jean Rouch’s short film, Gare du Nord, is hidden in darkness. She passes quickly through the lobby and into a Parisian spring morning circa ’64. The 16-millimeter camera follows over her left shoulder as the morning sun highlights the dark green velvet ribbon in her auburn hair. The sound of her heels moving rapidly along the pavement accompanied by that of passing traffic. While crossing the street she is nearly hit by a car. A tall man in a black suit appears and apologizes for almost running her down. She is going to be very late for work. Can he give her a lift? She politely refuses. The man abandons his sports car in the intersection and follows her up the street. He is a handsome, Belmondo-type, with the somber demeanor of an undertaker or a down on his luck aristocrat. Although she says she has no time to talk, she engages him in an earnest conversation while walking up the street. The man says modern society has driven him to despair and claims to be seriously contemplating suicide. His confession doesn’t shock her. He presents her with a highly implausible invitation—run away with me and we will live an extraordinary life of adventure, a life of unlimited love and endless freedom. He insists that they will never worry about money or be dragged down by the banalities of everyday existence. She is bemused by his offer and inquires as to how such a life with him would be possible. He quietly assures her that his family possesses vast wealth—serenely adding that having a lot of money is meaningless when you don’t have someone to share your life with. Fleeting temptation crosses her expression before she politely refuses. When she claims that they don’t even know each other it’s implied that anyone this impulsive is clearly unstable, and yet she confesses her desire to travel, then relates her fantasy of just getting on a plane one day to start over again somewhere else as another person. They are walking along an overpass. There is the sound of a commuter train rushing below. The man tries to convince her to run away with him. She graciously refuses. And now he is seriously threatening to kill himself at the count of ten if she doesn’t accompany him. She apologizes for saying no, and begs him to stop, because what he wants from her is simply impossible. They continue walking as he calmly counts up to nine. At ten he climbs the railing of the overpass. She pleads with him to stop as he jumps to his death. The long distance shot of the screaming woman pulls back to reveal a motionless body lying face-up on the tracks. A loud train-whistle echoes her screams as the film ends.

— Donald Breckenridge


Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95, You Are Here and This Young Girl Passing. He is working on his fourth novel and editing a second Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.


Nov 122012

Numéro Cinq is honoured to publish here a wonderfully informal yet riveting and eminently astute (also frank and even funny — that orgasm/musk ox thing) interview with the poet and former Poet Laureate of the United States Donald Hall. The subect matter leaps from sexuality to ageing to metrics to ambition and old friends now gone — just what you might expect from an elderly but seriously ALIVE poet. Anne Loecher is a wonderful interviewer — she holds a poetry MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives not so far away, so she still drops in now and then at residencies which is always a delight. She also knows how to shape an interview, give it an emotional plot, a rare thing.


On an early afternoon in early May I arrived at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire to interview Donald Hall. Hall, born in 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut and raised in suburban Hamden, summers at Eagle Pond, home of his maternal grandparents and place of his mother’s upbringing.  Eagle Pond operated as a farm for generations, up until his grandparents’ time. Rows of bright daffodils lined the driveway, planted there by Hall’s late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, daffodils being among her favorites.

Hall published his first poem at age sixteen, graduated from Harvard in 1951 and earned a B. Litt. degree from the University of Oxford in 1953. He subsequently served fellowships at Stanford and Harvard, and in 1958 began his teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he met Kenyon, who was a student of his.

In 1975, Hall left his tenured position at Michigan with Kenyon so both could dedicate themselves to writing fulltime. After nearly twenty years together on the farm, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia, and died in 1995. Hall has remained at Eagle Pond since, continuing to write.

Across his writing career, Hall has published numerous books of poetry, prose, literary essays, sportswriting, and children’s fiction,  and amassed a lengthy list of honors and awards including the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Edna St Vincent Millay Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships (1963–64, 1972–73), the Caldecott Award (1980), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award (1983), Poet Laureate of New Hampshire (1984-89), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1987), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the National Book Critics Circle Award (1989), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry (1989), and the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver Medal (1990). He has been nominated for the National Book Award on three separate occasions (1956, 1979 and 1993), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement (1994) and appointed U.S. Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate (2006). Most recently, Hall was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010.  Writing in a pre-interview email that he might tire out during our chat “If there is one thing I’m constantly aware of – it is that I am old!” – Hall was energetic and animated as we discussed the topics of posterity, reputation, and the conclusion of his poetry writing career.

—Anne Loecher


INT:   I’ve been considering the careers of several poets who have drifted in and out of popularity. I wanted to ask you about posterity, obscurity, popularity, and how you feel about it with regard to your own work and reputation.

DH: I have seen so many people become famous, and disappear. If I live to be 300, I’ll see some of them come back. I mentioned Archie MacLeish, who was my teacher. I have doubt that Archie will come back, although he won three Pulitzers.

There were famous young poets when I was at college – Wilbur, Lowell and Roethke. Dick Wilbur is alive at 91, and in January he had a wonderful poem in The New Yorker.

I wrote Dick about the prosody of his poem. The second line has a caesura, after two syllables, the second after four syllables, then after six syllables, after eight syllables. I asked how many people would recognize that metric.

But, there’s William J. Smith, who is older than Dick and lives in the same town as Dick. Back around 1950, Smith was famous as a poet. I don’t think I’ve heard his name out loud since 1970.

Have you ever looked in the list of Pulitzer winners? I think they begin in 1932 or so. See how many names you recognize. There are many I don’t recognize, and you won’t recognize because of your youth.

INT: I’m not so youthful!

DH: Reputations go up and down.

INT:  You’ve talked about The Back Chamber being your last collection of poetry. Did you know it would be, as you were writing it?

DH: Toward the end of the volume, the last two poems that I started for it both began in 2008. I did well over a hundred drafts, and I realized that this was the end. I felt it coming.

INT:  The Back Chamber does not hold back from addressing sexuality, alongside ageing.

DH:  Poetry is sex. And the engine of poetry is the mouth. Not the eye, not the ear. The ear and the eye are perfectly fine, but poetry originates in the mouth. Obviously the mouth is used in sex, beginning with the kiss.

The spirit that infuses me in reading a poet of beautiful sounds, like Keats, is sexual feeling. My poems had a lot of personal sexual feeling well into my seventies, but then I think the testosterone diminished. I felt the horniness going away, for two or three years. I rubbed testosterone into my chest, and it came back for awhile. That’s when I worked on later poems. But the cream diminished in its powers so I stopped.

There was an early poem that Janey (Kenyon) always liked — “The Long River.” I wrote it when she was eight years old. It’s the first poem I ever wrote which began without any notion of where it was going to go.

The Long River

The musk ox smells
in his long head
my boat coming. When
I feel him there,
intent, heavy,

the oars make wings
in the white night,
and deep woods are close
on either side
where trees darken.

I rode past towns
in their black sleep
to come here. I passed
the northern grass
and cold mountains.

The musk ox moves
when the boat stops,
in hard thickets. Now
the wood is dark
with old pleasures.

It’s about orgasm. It’s not about a musk ox. But musk ox is there because it is “SK, KS”. Actually, there’s a kind of meter to this poem, which I’ve never used elsewhere. In English verse, you’re counting volume when you’re talking about stress, or you’re talking about greater volume. “Con-tent” is iambic, and “con-tent” is trochaic. But in English, rather than Greek verse, which the Latins learned to imitate, it was the length of the vowel, not the length of the syllable you counted. In this one, it’s – short, long, long, long/ short, short, long, long/ short, long, long, short, long/ and, short, long, short, long/ and then  short, long, long short.

There are a few lines when it doesn’t really work. I first had “the musk ox in his long head” and I was captivated, and kept going. And toward the end, working on it, or even after I’d finished it, I figured out what it was about. People have not used a sexual word to describe it, but found it sensual.

INT: Was that the first experience you had of moving through a poem without knowing what it was really going to be about?

DH:  When I wrote a poem in my early twenties, I had to know what I was writing about before I started. Stupid: one of the poems from that time came from a definite idea, and it’s there. What the poem’s really about is something I never understood for years. Five years after I wrote it, somebody wrote an article about me, and explained to me what I really meant. It’s called “The Sleeping Giant,” which is the name of a hill, near where I grew up in Connecticut. I had the thought, that if a little kid believed it really was a sleeping giant, it would be pretty scary. Then he’d grow up and know it wasn’t. It was a poem, I thought in my head, about illusion and reality.

The Sleeping Giant (A Hill, so Named, in Hamden, Connecticut)

The whole day long, under the walking sun
That poised an eye on me from its high floor,
Holding my toy beside the clapboard house
I looked for him, the summer I was four.

I was afraid the waking arm would break
From the loose earth and rub against his eyes
A fist of trees, and the whole country tremble
In the exultant labor of his rise;

Then he with giant steps in the small streets
Would stagger, cutting off the sky, to seize
The roofs from house and home because we had
Covered his shape with dirt and planted trees;

And then kneel down and rip with fingernails
A trench to pour the enemy Atlantic
Into our basin, and the water rush,
With the streets full and all the voices frantic.

That was the summer I expected him.
Later the high and watchful sun instead
Walked low behind the house, and school began,
And winter pulled a sheet over his head.

People reading the poem in the New Yorker liked it best among my poems.  I was jealous for my other poems. Then someone wrote an essay, saying that I had written many poems about fathers and sons, but the best one was “The Sleeping Giant.”  It had not occurred to me. It was classically Freudian. When you are a baby, an enormous figure stands over you, not handing you a breast. It’s scary because it’s big. When I read the essay, I was stunned, and I agreed. I hadn’t known what I was writing about. I think that the people who preferred it to other poems didn’t know what it was about any more than I did. It communicated. It’s mysterious, how you can communicate by images, to another person. You can’t do it on purpose.

But, on purpose, you can write something in which you don’t know what’s happening. You can always cross out and throw it away. But that part of poetry – the part where you write things down, that feel right, but you don’t know why they’re right – left me as I got older. I was about eighty. As I said, it’s testosterone. (I tell that to a lot of people, and they want to look away.

INT: I understand that. I write about loss, but I wonder, as I say that, what I would find within my poems if I looked more closely?

DH: A great deal of poetry is about loss, love and death. Death is loss. My poetry has been called elegiac. I can be praising the old farm life, but then something is gone. The praise is love, the elegy is less, in the same poem.

INT: Regarding the issue of posterity, again, in your new poem “Poetry and Ambition” from The Back Chamber there’s a line “…If no one will ever read him again, what the fuck?”’

DH: Nobody will ever know about future reputation.  I began writing very young, with ambition. I certainly wanted to be a great poet. In my day, or my generation, there were so many of us. At Harvard, weirdly enough, I knew Adrienne Rich. We double dated. We got to be good friends, later, not at that time. Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch; I’m missing some. We had the notion – and I wrote of it in an essay called “Poetry and Ambition” – that there was no point in writing unless you were going to be a great poet. It took me some time before I realized that nobody ever knows how they will seem in the future.

Ambition begins when you want to publish a poem in a magazine. Well, I did that when I was sixteen. And then, you wish that you could be published in the New Yorker. Then, you want a book. Then you want a second book, then you want a selected poems. It could certainly all be called ‘careerism. It can also be called ambition, and an eagerness to get better.

My father was the elder son of a self-made man who went only through the fifth grade, and worked for ten cents an hour, then was successful with his dairy business. And my father, being the elder son, could never do anything right. He was beaten down his whole life, which was short. He could never do anything right, and he was discouraged.

My mother came from this place – New Hampshire, where I live. In rural places, women worked as many hours a day as men did. Good God, my grandmother made soap. She churned butter. There was Monday washing, Tuesday drying, Wednesday baking. And at night time – do you see there, in the middle of the ceiling? In every room, there are lights in the middle of the ceiling. Do you know why?  There would be a table in the middle of the room, and a great, big kerosene lamp, and the whole family would be around it at night, the single source of light. My grandfather would read books, not good ones, but books. And as the women talked; they were darning socks, they were tatting, or knitting. They never stopped. That was the way people lived.

So my mother then moved in 1927 to the Connecticut suburbs, where women didn’t work. No married woman was allowed to work. She wanted to ‘pass’. Her New Hampshire accent stayed with her – she said ‘Coker Coler’. She wanted to be a suburban wife, like everybody else, she grew up the oldest sister of three girls. She was the oldest sister to the universe. She was full of ambition. None of it had anywhere to go. So it went to me.

I was an only child. She was ambitious for me, and always pushing. When I started sending poems to magazines at fourteen, they would come back with printed slips. My mother would say, “Oh, there’s a rejection today, Donnie,”   That was the beginning of my career.

When my first book came out, it was reviewed everywhere, instantly, reviews that praised it. And it’s no good. There are two poems in that book, one called “My Son, My Executioner” and “The Sleeping Giant” which I told you about. After the first reviews of praise, there was a second wave, responding to the first wave, that tended to be negative. Some of the negative reviews were certainly right, and they had me walking up and down.

All through my life I have written and published poems which I thought were good and which turned out to be terrible. And it’s hard to believe why I thought they were good at all. Some have held up for me.

INT: Is it possible that it’s a matter of your tastes having changed?

DH:  Oh, it’s also being dumb about your stuff! There was one time I remember sending poems to Alice Quinn, who was the editor at the New Yorker. I had one poem that I was afraid was no good, and I almost did not send it to her. I decided at the last minute – what did I know? It’s called “Affirmation.”  She took it, and published it about a week later. And people all over the country wrote me about it and told me they’d cut it out and put in on their refrigerators, and so on.

INT: What do you think of that poem now?

DH: I was kind of shocked, and convinced that it must be some good. I think that there are two opinions about the ending of it. I thought that one direction was obvious. And then most people took it the opposite of what I thought I’d said. And so many people took it the opposite of what I thought, that I decided it must have been one of those occasions where I was writing with the wrong idea of what I was writing. It begins:

“To grow old is to lose everything.”

I don’t think I was seventy when I wrote that. I’m eighty-three! It’s funny to read. What did I know?


To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

When I wrote it, I thought when I said, “it is fitting and delicious to lose everything” that my sarcasm was obvious, and that it was all in the one direction, of a lamentation. And then I discovered that people took the word “affirm” as a positive, the reversal of what I thought I had said.

INT:  That’s how I understood it. I didn’t understand it as sarcastic at all. So, if you can never know, does it also mean you can never know if your poem is good?

DH: I guess I’m saying so. A friend to wrote me about it, believing “affirmation” as positive, and telling me I was all wrong, I was sentimental, to be affirmative, because really, only the negative was true. That’s really what I thought I was writing, and that’s why I thought it wasn’t good. Who knows?

INT:  You make some pretty striking points about ageing in your recent essay “Out the Window.”

DH:  In almost any poem that I care for, there has to be a contradiction. If there’s ‘north’ in the poem, there has to be ‘south’ in the poem, or it’s no good. Oppositions. This was a snowy winter, and I kept sitting in this chair, looking out at the birds. I was writing about looking, thinking ahead to spring and the flowers, and it was all very lyrical. I thought: this essay doesn’t have any counter-motion in it, any north to go with its south. Then I went to Washington, and that fucker said, “Did we have a nice din-din?”  I’m so grateful to the idiot. It’s what I needed. That condescension is totally other than the pleasant lyricism of looking out the window. And I think it  made the essay. People say – did you bop him? I didn’t get mad. I was grateful. To Linda he says “Did you have a good lunch?” and he leans down to me and says “Did we have a nice din-din?”

INT: Are you working on more essays now?

DH:  I’m going to do a book of essays. I’ve got a wonderful one I’ve just finished, I think, which is about smoking, when everybody quit. Playboy bought it.

The first essay in the book will be “Out the Window” which was all about being old. The others all will include aging. There’s another one I’m trying to write about poetry readings, where I find it hard to climb up to the stage. I have to sit down when I read now.

INT: When I was driving up here, I noticed the stone fence, and the cemetery down the road. So beautiful. Are there any family members buried there?

DH: No. It is beautiful, this is Wilmot. That graveyard was the beginning of East Wilmot. They were going to build a church – I think it was Methodist – and they started their graveyard before they had built the church. But New Hampshire shrunk. The population was at its greatest about 1855. It went way down, and it’s up again, but it’s all southern commuters to Boston. Early, it was single farms, every quarter of a mile, and pasture land up the mountain. The population dwindled, and East Wilmot never happened. About a mile farther down, there’s another graveyard, and on the right, there’s another church, the South Danbury church. In the South Danbury graveyard, I have a great grandfather and great grandmother. He fought in the Civil War and died in 1927.

When Jane and I were first here, we loved our place so much that we knew we’d stay here forever and that’s why we bought a graveyard plot. It was a positive, not a negative – love and death, this is where we’ll be. She died right in there (motioning to the back bedroom), and I will die in the same bed. My kids and doctor know that.

Five miles the other way, there is another old cemetery right next to the road, where I have great-great-greats. A little farther there’s a big cemetery, begun early in the nineteenth century, holding my great grandparents as well as Jane. There’s Jane Kenyon, 1947 – 1995, and then Donald Hall, 1928 – _,  in a plot at the edge of the cemetery with the great trees above it.


Anne Loecher is a former Creative Director and copywriter who fled Madison Avenue advertising to work in non-profit communications. Having recently completed her MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is currently revising her poetry manuscript and writing her first screenplay. She lives in Maple Corner, Vermont (yes, that’s really the name of the town) with her husband, teenage daughter, her OCD beagle and ADD cat.



Nov 112012

The riddle is an ancient and persistent literary form. In Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar Viktor Shklovksy writes about riddles:

Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that “the riddle belongs to conscious symbolism.” What is the riddle’s answer? It is derivation of meaning. According to Hegel, the riddle consists of “individual traits of character and properties drawn from the otherwise known external world and, as in nature and in externality generally, lying there scattered outside one another, they are associated together in a disparate and therefore striking way. As a result they lack a subject embracing them together [as predicates] into a unity . . .” This disparity of signs hinders the immediate solution as to which whole they all belong to.
 In veiling the whole, the riddle forces us to rearrange the signs of a given object, thus showing the possibility of diversity, the possibility to combine the previously irreconcilable in new semantic arrangements.

Herewith we have a shrewd, clever, witty and expansive essay on the riddles and riddle poems in (mostly) Western literature from The Book of Exeter to Harry Potter and J. R. R. Tolkien and Emily Dickinson. It’s partly a highly suggestive craft essay and partly an informal history of ideas, also a refreshing sort of literary criticism, the kind that takes a long and inquisitive look at the words on the page.

Julie Larios is a friend, an esteemed colleague in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program and a gifted poet whose work has already graced these pages more than once (here and here). It is always a huge pleasure to have her back.



I’m not much of a “main highway” kind of person when it comes to thinking about the craft of writing.  I go down lots of sides streets, I let my mind wander. Sometimes even a side street feels too wide. And I’ve been thinking lately about a small alley named “Riddles,” a deceptive short cut (sometimes filled with broken bottles and garbage cans) between one street and the next. I have the feeling deception is important. “Most felicitous sayings rely…on a capacity to deceive beforehand…” said Aristotle. “We have even more obviously learned something,” he said, “ if things are the opposite of what we thought they were, and the mind seems to say to itself, ‘How true. I was mistaken.’”

Riddles are all about questioning our own grasp of the world by questioning the nature of things, casting a new light – thereby casting new shadows –  and I believe that thinking in riddle-mode can help us be better writers. After all, don’t riddles follow the pattern of all great works of literature by asking large questions of us like “Who am I?” and “Are things what they appear to be?” and – perhaps the most important question of all – “When is a door not a door?”  Ah, yes, one of the great questions of Western literature.  It has survived the test of time, as has its existential answer – “When it’s ajar.”

I remember the first time I heard this riddle, I was in Mrs. Frizzy’s second-grade class at Booksin Elementary, standing outside the cafeteria in the lunch line.  A boy named Dickie, who was in line in front of me, turned and asked, “When is a door not a door?”

I repeated the riddle out loud. “When is a door not a door?”

Dickie waited as I turned the riddle over and over in my head. Well, I thought, maybe it’s not a door if it’s like a –what do you call it? – one of those swinging things you see in the movies; cowboys push through them when they walk into an old-time saloon, like Gary Cooper did in High Noon, or maybe John Wayne in something?You know, not a door but like shutters on hinges.  I didn’t say that, because it didn’t seem to me like Dickie was waiting for that particular answer.  So I repeated the riddle with more emphasis.

When is a door not a door?”

Dickie looked annoyed, so I gave him what he was waiting for: “I don’t know.”

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

What?” I asked, which is actually a good question the first time you hear a riddle like that.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

A jar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Dickie, snickering.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie repeated.

“What do you mean, when it’s a jar?” I asked.

“Ajar,” Dickie said.

I said nothing.

“Ajar,” Dickie said again.

“Oh,” I said, as if I understood. And that was that.

I think it was my father who explained the answer to me. I bet my mother groaned, but my father probably thought it was funny, and I was left at 7 ½ years of age wondering about the world of discomfort and flat-out deception that the English language might inflict on me for years to come.

And that was my introduction to riddles. I didn’t like them. They weren’t funny. They made me feel stupid. I don’t remember ever telling them to my friends. I don’t think I ever checked a riddle book out of the library. Some people groan when they hear punning riddles, other people laugh. For a long time, I didn’t laugh, I groaned.  Now, if I’ve never heard the riddle before, I usually laugh and groan.

“What’s black and white and “red” all over?” Answer, of course, a newspaper – black and white and “read”– r-e-a-d-  all over.  

This category of riddle is also called “Shrewd Questions.” The riddle of the Sphinx is a shrewd question in an answer-this-or-you-die way. Basic shrewd questions and punning riddles are the riddle forms most children are exposed to, and I think it’s fair to say some of these shrewd questions are shrewder than others.

What did one wall say to the other wall? (Meet you in the corner.)

What birds are always unhappy? (Bluebirds.)

How do you make a lemon drop? (Hold a lemon up and let it go.)

If there were no food left in the city, what would you eat? (A traffic jam.)

I particularly like that last one.  It turns the word “jam” so steeply and suddenly on its head that the reader thinks immediately, “Traffic jam – what a strange phrase.” Anything that slows us down and makes us hear language in a fresh way is alright by me, though I didn’t believe that when I was seven.

I do remember liking the following shrewd-question” riddle, even when I was young: What flies but has no wings?  The answer –most of us know this – is Time. That riddle is elegant – it moves away from goofy wordplay and into the territory of poetry. Emily Dickinson, whose poems were sometimes riddles and sometimes what appear to be their opposites – definitions –  knew this when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” To turn that definition into a riddle, all you do is reverse it – “What has feathers and perches in the soul?” One answer could be Hope. That’s the kind of riddle I’m interested in.

Listen to the lovely beginning of this “riddle” by Ms. Dickinson:

She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife// in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond.

Who is the Housewife in the Evening West with her many colored Brooms? She’s the sunset. Dickinson’s poetry is full of definitions and riddles. What house has no door? “Doom,” Dickinson answers.

At the very least, riddles help us understand that definitions are elastic, as is identity itself, and language is delicious and strange, not to be taken for granted. As a creative writing teacher, I like encouraging fiction writers to taste them – words – once in awhile. Like blueberries, they are good for you, full of antioxidants.  It’s a fine approach, slowing down and thinking about word sounds, word choices, and how language either flows or gets tangled into traffic “jams,” or – and this is a shame – how it loses its luster and becomes dull, rusted out by cliches.   I believe we write better fiction when we balance forward motion (plot) with attention to language.  And I could justify studying riddles that way, hoping they would be seen as evidence of the nutritional value of wordplay.  Acquire a taste for wordplay and see where it takes your prose. If it takes you too far, step back – no need to go overboard, and certainly no need to go beyond wordplay and overwrite the thing, no reason for your language to get fancier than the story requires it to be.

But I‘m actually more interested in how our minds use language as a way to organize the world – that is, the way the mind searches for stability by creating categories and classifications, and the way it makes meaning. I’m quite serious in saying that the study of riddles – their long history, their presence in nearly every culture of the world in every age, their subversive nature – affects our mode of thinking. Riddles interrupt our human inclination to stash things in well-defined cubby holes, to insist upon order and to find “solutions” to things that puzzle us. Riddles ask us sometimes to live comfortably without firm solutions. At their best they can teach us to think metaphorically, to find fresh ways to say things, to think about indirection as a writing strategy, to build a tolerance for alternative meanings and contradictory truths, to turn away from infallibility and learn to live with our own stupidities, and to question assumptions – something every writer, not to mention every good citizen in a participatory democracy, should know how to do. For example, here’s a riddle which is not poetry but which I do like:

A bus driver was heading down a street in Colorado. He went right past a stop sign without stopping, he turned left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign and he went the wrong way on a one-way street past a cop car. Still – he didn’t break any traffic laws and didn’t get a ticket. Why not?

(Because he was walking.)

Our assumptions are wrong from the beginning, and the person who framed this riddle understood how to manipulate the reader into believing one thing (a bus driver only drives) while many alternative things about a bus driver are true – for example, a bus driver can walk. Riddles obstruct our desire to pigeon-hole people, objects and events, and to keep things neatly organized in categories. They make us rethink our assumptions.

I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the interruption of assumptions as a technique of fiction. We lead people to believe something, based on the preconceptions they come into the story with. Then we turn those preconceptions on their head, and we take our readers someplace unexpected. Neither our characters nor our readers have to go where stereotypes, clichés and assumptions push them – they don’t have to file things into orderly little categories like “bus driver” or “walker” or – more irritatingly – “bad guy” or “good guy.” Characters can be more complicated, readers can be asked to leave their assumptions behind. And as both readers and writers, we can say, as Aristotle wants us to say when we learn something new about the way the world works, “How true. I was mistaken.”

Sure, there’s a level of discomfort associated with admitting we are fallible. But being convinced of our infallibility will ultimately make us miserable (along with our readers, our spouses or partners, and our children) due to a little thing called hubris. Believing as an author that you have a lesson to teach, that you know the truth, that you are infallible, can be lethal to your storytelling.  For starters, it usually produces boring stories.  It also assumes your readers are children in need of guidance – not bad if they are children (after all, five-years-olds are probably not quite ready to be knocked senseless by the blurred line between good and evil) but not great if they’re young adults and fully-grown adults.

One solution to being boring and pedantic is getting into a riddling frame of mind – admitting that answers are hard, that tricks are played, that situations and people are not always what they appear to be, that the “right” answer sometimes proves to be wrong, that we’re not the only ones who head one way and then have to circle back or start over in order to understand.

I grew up thinking riddles were only puns and plays on words. I moved from the typical groan to a kind of bemused admiration for the best punning riddles, and lately I’ve felt true affection even for the worst ones. Especially for the worst ones, actually. But punning riddles and “shrewd questions” are only a small part of the whole idea of riddles.

I took several classes at the University of Washington with the poet Richard Kenney, whose delight in word play, proverbs, charms, curses and blessings was infectious. He mentioned in passing one day that his favorite riddle was a medieval one, traced back to the 1300’s: Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window.

I’d never heard a riddle like that, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was a riddle, yes, but it was also mystery and a story, and it was also poetry. Who or what was going around the house? Why more than once? Who did that white glove belong to, why was it at the window, what was happening? Could I conjure up a narrative to stand alongside this riddle? A girl who is pushed…is it sorrow that spins her round and round, is there something of herself she leaves behind? Something that says, “I was here”? Or something that asks “I was here, but who was I?”

Professor Kenney told us one answer to that riddle, of course. What was swirling around the house was snow, and it left a white glove – a small drift – at the window.  But he wasn’t as interested in answers as he was in questions.  He believed, as Samuel Coleridge did, that “In a complex enigma, the greatest ingenuity is not always shown by [the person] who first gives the complete solution.”

I thought about that riddle – Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window – as I went to sleep that night. Along with all the other questions I had, I began to think about another person – the one inside the house, looking out.  What is that person doing or what is happening to that person? I loved how far I could take this riddle, loved feeling haunted by it, loved trying to make sense of it and loved its changing perspective.  Good poetry makes you do that, makes you wonder. Wondering was what I enjoyed, not the “solution.” And the riddle didn’t say, “Snow is like someone going around and around the house and leaving an accumulation at the window frame that is similar to a white glove.” And it didn’t say “Snow IS a white glove at the window frame.” Those imply a more direct approach to metaphor and simile. I’m interested in the leap – the method to the madness– and in what we don’t see.

The snow riddle’s method is indirection – another term for “sleight of hand” – the trick of magicians and con men who convince their audiences to pay attention to one hand while the other hand is hiding the card up the sleeve.  Indirection is what Archibald MacLeish was talking about in his poem “Ars Poetica” when he said that for “all the history of grief” you could substitute “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”  This ability to direct attention somewhere else – to describe something by describing something else – is the key component of poetry. Taken larger, and sustained a bit longer, it becomes T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Basically, it boils down to this: You turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and observable, in order to understand something deep, emotional and invisible. Grief exists, yes, but it’s an emotion, an abstraction, while an empty doorway is touchable and real – much more powerful for a writer to use, because it gives us an image rather than something ephemeral or intellectual.  What we encourage our readers to do, when we use this strategy, is to think about convergences: “How and where does this touchable object intersect with that emotion or idea?” But we don’t ask the question directly. We simply turn to the physical world and evoke it. We let readers understand, either immediately or later, on closer reading, that we directed their attention to this other thing for a reason. This is the point at which the writer makes a leap of trust –we trust our readers to notice and to make meaning.

One reason we use indirection is because it’s more subtle. No one wants, hopefully, to hit a reader over the head with a 2×4 to get a message across. We don’t say, “Hey, that maple leaf, it’s grief, get it?” Instead we want the reader to intuit that when a character turns to look at something – let’s say it’s a bird flying – the bird stands in physically for an invisible desire. Perhaps the character wants “to fly,” to break out of his or her oppressive world.  The repeated trope of the flying bird becomes an objective correlative, triggering this convergence automatically. Granted, a bird standing in for freedom is a cliché; writers should be able to come up with something fresher than that.  But cultivating a riddling frame of mind helps us turn from blatant telling to subtle showing, via correlatives – things that correlate –  and that’s an important tool for our writing toolbox.

At the heart of riddle-making are the concepts of correlation and equivalency. A equals B. That sounds more like basic math than story, doesn’t it? But math is not the opposite of story, because math, like much of human behavior, is about patterns. Metaphorical-thinking is also a matter of patterns and convergences – A and B overlap and intersect like harmonies in music.  Or, in chemistry, A and B exhibit the same properties when reacting to C.  Or maybe it’s alchemy – base metal (the story’s bones) turn into gold (the story’s beauty.) By thinking of a story that way, I can create a riddle:

Bones in my body, that’s how I stand.
Beauty as I move, my sleight of hand.  
Who am I?

Does my riddle-poem have an answer? Well, one answer could be “a good story.”  Her bones and her body are structure and plot – without them, she can’t stand.  The beauty and sleight of hand are language and metaphor – without them, there’s no magic, no elegance, no “liquefaction of her clothes” to borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Herrick.

You can notice freshness of thought in something as simple as a Mother Goose rhyme describing a candle: Little Nanny Etticote in a white petticoat and a red nose. The longer she stands, the shorter she grows. In this ditty is the most basic of all lessons about writing: “Say it new.”

After taking Rick Kenney’s class, I started collecting “Who Am I?” riddles. I love the idea of identity being hidden behind the mask of metaphor.  It’s a little exciting, a little creepy, a little Carnivalesque. Reality with some slippage into the dream-world, that’s what the language of many riddles is like. Here for example:

Always old, sometimes new, never sad, sometimes blue. Never empty, sometimes full,
never pushes, always pulls. Who am I?

One answer is “the moon,” which is old, yes, but sometimes we see a “new” moon, we see a blue/sad moon though never a blue/blue one.  How lovely, in this case, to find identity in contradiction. Not a bad thing for people to think about, that contradictory things can both be true.  There’s the moon, a large stone in the sky, supposedly dead and cold.  And yet, it glows, it pulls.  That feels like something to put into a story, a very human story, something that turns to the sun and says, “Did you do that?”

In my hunt for “Who Am I?” riddles, I found a huge encyclopedia of Indian Literature offering up these three Punjabi riddles:

I’m the son who can climb to the roof before his mother is born. (Smoke)  

See her coming, see her going, thinner than water, sweeter than sugar. (Sleep) 

Tied in a blue cloth, a handful of rice –  lost in the daylight, found at night. (Stars in the night sky.)  

Compare that last riddle to one from the Aztec culture in Mexico, transcribed by early Spanish explorers – same answer, but it goes like this: A blue calabash sprinkled with toasted kernels of corn.

Here is a lovely riddle from the Congo: Who am I that when I fall, I make no noise?   (Night.) To me, that feels like the beginning of a story. It encompasses the Zen idea of satori which, by means of a koan – a kind of riddle –  produces first, hesitation, then, self-revelation.

It’s curious how the Western mind puts objects and people into well-defined hierarchies of classification,  just as pre-determined as those used in museums of natural history. The famous cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker calls categories “fuzzy similarity clusters” and the key there might be the word “fuzzy.” The edges are not always as well defined as we want them to be. When is a door not a door? If we think too rigidly, in “unfuzzy” similarity clusters (in this case doors) we can’t come up with solutions. The more determined we are to sort things according to the closed cluster we assume they are in, the more we fail.  If something is a door, it can’t NOT be a door, right? If something is a son, it can’t be smoke, can it?  Well, what if we learn to think of fire as a mother? Is smoke her son? We’re re-clustering when we try to understand the relationship of fire and smoke to mothers and sons. George Lakoff, who knows a thing or two about metaphor, says that putting things in categories is a “bad habit” left over from the days of Aristotle. Lakoff says “pristine categories are a fiction.” So if we want to move over from Aristotelian territory into a landscape where categories are fuzzy, maybe we need to change the way we think and the way we use language. As the wonderful poet Richard Wilbur said, riddles are the “confounders of categories.” Deception is not only the riddle’s method but the riddle’s glory.

The language of literary riddles can cross over into a dream-world in the same way charms, incantations, curses and blessings do, as opposed to punning riddles where much of what confuses us and makes us hesitate is a trick. Many of the great writers of fantasy, interested in the dream-world, have been interested in riddles. That’s because one essential question of fairy tales, legendary quests or shape-shifting is “Who am I?” Looking at the Harry Potter series, an extended journey where Harry moves from innocence to self-knowledge, we see a world filled with riddles, including at the most unsubtle level, Lord Voldemart’s original name, Tom Riddle. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, whose characters Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit engage in a riddle duel, using along with traditional folk riddles some examples written by Tolkein, like the following about the wind: Voiceless it cries,/  Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters. And this, whose solution is Time: This thing all things devours: / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; / Gnaws iron, bites steel; / Grinds hard stones to meal;/ Slays king, ruins town, / And beats high mountains down.

Imagine yourself as a twelve-year old again, reading The Hobbit for the first time, trying to figure out the answers to those riddles.  The more committed you are to finding a single solution, the more you must learn how to de-code, looking for words that block you and send your thinking into the orderly, tidy world of classifications and categories, rather than into the messier poetic world of overlapping meanings and metaphors.

De-coding is a valuable thing – nothing wrong with looking for the trick that’s being played on you. But it’s a familiar undertaking, and it treats storytelling as if it were a standardized test.  Find the right answer, fill in the bubble. The thinker who stands outside the box and see alternatives that are equally interesting or plausible traditionally does the worst on that kind of test.  Do we want always to encourage the decoding approach? Stories are not information, there are not right answers. A story haunts us not because it can be decoded but because it can’t. Not quite, anyway.

This is another thing the lowly riddle reminds us of: Good readers – and the good editors and good critics who judge them – don’t always want the most easily de-coded narrative. They often want something innovative. They don’t always want to know exactly how the story is built and where the story is going; they want surprise, whether in structure, language or plot.   As Emily Dickinson said: The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise —/ Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise —

Some riddles, like some very good stories I know, are not meant to offer solutions; they’re only shaped to make us wonder.   Part of the pleasure derived from them is in the hesitation they produce – that “satori” I mentioned. Hesitation, failure of the author to spell it all out, drives readers who want easy answers crazy. What on earth are those bears about in Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels?? Lanagan wants us to hesitate – she expects us to make a guess, she wants us to make our own meaning from her story. Some riddlers and storytellers take such a lot of pleasure in the hesitation that they offer no answers at all. “How is a raven like a writing desk?” is one of the riddles Lewis Carroll posed in Alice in Wonderland, and it’s never actually been “solved.” Carroll did come up with an answer, but it was after the fact; he never intended the riddle to have an answer, and the one he made up later is pure nonsense. Northrop Frye, in his essay Charms and Riddles, says that Carroll’s riddle tactic was often to overwhelm sense with sound. I think that’s true, and not all of us want to overwhelm sense with sound, at least not all the time, though you’ve got to admit “Jabberwocky” is a lot of fun.

If we look up the word “riddle” in the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace it back to the Old English root “rede” – meaning counsel, opinion, or conjecture. We come back again to the idea of interpretation. If riddles with no firm answers, and fiction open to interpretation and conjecture, can move us toward actively making meaning, that’s got to be a good thing, right? Most of us would be proud to help our readers do that. One of my students recently shared a quotation with me by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus: “Writers are people who can make riddles out of answers.” If that idea appeals to you, you are in a riddling frame of mind.

And what if the answers to the riddles are lost? For over a thousand years, people have been offering up solutions (the answers have disappeared) to riddles in The Exeter Book, written between 960 and 990 A.D. by Benedictine monks. Some answers seem guessable: A wonder on the wave / water became bone. Could it be ice on a lake? Possibly. Some are more difficult:

I was locked in a narrow nest,  / My beak bound below the water
In a dark dive; the sea surged / Where my wings work – my body quickened
From the clutch of wave and wandering wood. / Born black, streaked white, I rise
from the womb of waves on the wind’s back,  / Sailing over seals’ bath. Who am I?

Bright people, many of them doctoral candidates working hard, have guessed at the solution over the centuries: Maybe it’s an anchor, a bubble, a barnacle goose, a water-lily, a baptism…? We just don’t know. Besides, dissertations notwithstanding, aren’t we better off swimming in that lovely poem and not knowing the answer?

With literary riddles, we sometimes learn to let go and say, “There might not be an answer I understand,” or “There might be more than one answer.” If you can be comfortable with that, then you’ve learned a very large and important lesson for writers, which John Keats described as “negative capability” – the ability to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s another lesson riddles can teach us – to live in uncertainty, to shrug and say, “I’m not sure I can come up with anything more than my own answer.” What we give our readers is not a possible answer, and not even a partial answer, but wonder.

Overwhelmingly, English teachers unfamiliar with poetry present it to their students as a process of decoding and finding an answer. “Here’s a poem; let’s decode it, let’s figure out the solution to the riddle.” That’s not bad exercise, actually – certain muscles build up. But one problem about this approach is that readers want the solutions to come fast. It’s a fast world, there should be fast answers. That’s a problem, because the best riddles (the best stories) don’t have easy answers – the reader works to make meaning.  The biggest problem is when a teacher says, “There’s only one right answer to this riddle – one proper interpretation of its meaning.” Admitting to alternative interpretations, admitting there might be NO answer, understanding that the joy is in the wondering, is essential in the classroom.  And it’s just as essential when it comes to the fiction we write.

It’s especially important to get into a riddling frame of mind for writers who are vulnerable to the super-virus called didacticism. If you have learned to live with uncertainty (that is, no single answer to the Big Riddles) it is very, very hard to be pedantic. We may offer up a scenario or a guess, but remaining open-minded is vital to being a good writer. There are so many ways people deal with adversity and try to live meaningful lives and make good choices in this world. Writers tell stories about the choices people make, and the changes those choices provoke, and the end-product is empathy. We don’t want to be “right,” necessarily – I don’t like to think of myself as a judge, coming down with the gavel and startling everyone in the courtroom. The economist Daniel Kahneman theorizes that people have two different systems for processing input – System 1 is the knee-jerk brain, the one that makes fast and easy choices based on biases and assumptions. System 2 is thoughtful and open to new perspectives and new information. I want to write a good poem or tell a good story that is filtered in by System 2.

After all, the effort to make meaning is often more valuable to us than what particular meaning we make. As writers, we present people with the stories that will help them pick up cues, think about behavior, think about complications, assumptions, categories and – bottom line – will encourage them to take all that System-2 thinking and make meaning with it. We give readers compelling situations and complicated characters. We give them a well-shaped story arc. We do it, hopefully, with some attention to well-crafted prose. That’s our part of the job. Then we let go. Our readers make meaning. And good for them for doing it.  A little work, a little lost sleep as they try to puzzle out their particular perspective on a story – isn’t that a good thing? It’s just as valuable as saying, “I’ve written a book that will tell you the answer about the right way to live in the world. I know who the bad guys are. I know who the good guys are, I know the solution to the riddle.” If you find yourself in that frame of mind as you write, feeling wise, feeling certain, feeling smug, get up from your desk and take a walk. Relax, come back later, when you remember that you don’t really know much.

So, I’ve been thinking about thinking. As I said, I go down not just side streets but narrow alleys when it comes to wondering how fiction and poetry work. For a moment, let’s allow  the vista open up on Heraclitus, the 5th-century B. C. Greek writer known as “the father of the riddle.” He came up with the idea of “logos,” which has at its core the idea of flux. In flux, the nature of things is not fixed and everything is in process. Heraclitus famously suggested that you can’t step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly moving and changing.  He also suggested that despite attempts to understand our world, “Things keep their secrets.” I like that idea. I find that satisfying because it humbles me. It encourages me to write poems, not teach people lessons. It allows me – and my readers – to guess. As Northrop Frye once said, “Guessing is an integral part of the poetic experience.”  And as Emily Dickinson once wrote to her sister-in-law, “’In a life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home.”

So, here we are, embracing the common riddle. Riddles are common to all language groups, all cultures, all parts of the world from all periods of time. How is that possible? Why do riddles in cultures with no contact share motifs and have, more often than coincidence can explain, near-identical phrasing and similar patterns of musicality?

Well, it has something to do with the nature of a world in flux and the phenomena of synchronicity. The riddle scholar Craig Williamson says, “All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.”

This synchronic system – of patterns, events and objects that mirror each other and that are grouped not by cause and effect, but by similarity of meaning – sits on the opposite end of the seesaw from Causality – Cause and effect – the stuff we are told drives plot. Now we’ve entered the world of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell. The books they’ve written belong on our shelves as much as any traditional how-to books about fiction, because they offer writers examples of a different way to organize the world – possibly more ancient, more a part of the dream-world, shared by other cultures. How exciting a tool is that in our writing? Jung believed that synchronicity shared something with the idea of the “intervention of grace,” a kind of spiritual awakening, and you can’t get much bigger than that.

Maybe the vista has gotten a bit too Big and Grand now. I’ve arrived at the doorstep of what I sometimes point out to my students as a BPM, a Big Poetry Moment. At those dangerous and inflated moments, when spiritual awakening is accompanied by the call of trumpets, crashing waves, fluttering flags, sunsets, rainbows and a grandmother’s tears,  I usually ask students to step away from the vehicle, put down their weapons and take a deep breath. Instead of talking anymore about these large ideas, I want to leave you with two riddles  –  the first from The Real Mother Goose:

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The second is by children’s author Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Sliver of moon / slice of a star. / Rhinestone in / a jelly jar.

If we can learn to think that a firefly is a rhinestone in a jelly jar, learn to think of the golden apple of an egg yolk and the marble walls of an eggshell, our stories will be richer and deeper.  Next time you put your head on your pillow, listen – can you hear night falling? Can you imagine a girl who, like the night, makes no noise as she stumbles in her life from daylight into darkness? A girl who asks, like the best riddles, “Who am I?” I think you can. After all, you’re a story-teller.  Train yourself to listen carefully, see if you hear the wind muttering without a mouth. When you can hear it, that’s when you sit down to write.

—Julie Larios


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

Nov 112012

Artist Photo by Marianne Barcellona

China Marks began her art career as a sculptor but now she has gravitated to some strange,  dreamy half-world between drawing and sewing and poetry; the fabric, the stitching, the colours, the words and the images create an interplay that seems to let her imagination loose in a  gorgeously witty explosion of ideas. You look at a Marks “drawing” and automatically your mind goes to Marc Chagall or Heironymous Bosch; the world of her picture-scapes is busy and populous with little plots (for want of a better word) — whimsical, anarchic. And everything is in some state of metamorphosis; her birdfeeder takes on human features, her birds turn part-human, everyone talks (the birds talk in, what? — I asked Marks and she wrote back: “It’s calligraphic Japanese writing, which when I found it felt very birdish, somewhere between a chirp and a scratch scratch scratch. Though I don’t know what it means, I took care to keep it right-side up. And I’m sure someone will tell me what it means soon enough.” I like that word “birdish.” Even the words, the message, are in a state of flux and play; the words themselves become images. Marks’s media are fabric and thread — you can see pictures of her sewing machine on her web site. Wonderful to have her here.


I buy patterned and printed fabrics all the time, whatever appeals to me, usually no more than a yard of any one fabric, sometimes just half a yard, to use in my work. People also give me pieces of fabric that they think I might be able to use, and sometimes I do. Two or three months months ago, an old friend arrived at my studio with a souvenir tea towel of “Irish linen,” brightly printed with an unlikely assortment of birds at a bird feeder, wonderful, right up my alley! At the time, I was working on a one-of-a-kind ten-page book as well as a drawing associated with the book, but in mid-September, after I’d finished that, I started cutting up the tea towel, which proved to be very difficult to work with, fraying even at a glance, but worth all the trouble. Deciding to use the bird feeder whole, as a kind of weird head talking a blue streak, of course, was just the beginning of it.

—China Marks


The Drawing


 Photo by D. James Dee










—China Marks


China Marks was born and educated in Kansas City, MO, earning a BFA in Sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute. A Fulbright-Hayes fellowship took her Katmandu, Nepal, where she spent sixteen months constructing a major installation out of local materials. On her return to the United States, she was awarded a graduate fellowship by the Danforth Foundation. In 1976, having received an MFA in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, China moved east to make art. She has received numerous grants and awards, including three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a Mid-Atlantic Arts fellowship, two George Sugarman Foundation grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, most recently in 2011, when she was also named a Gregory Millard Fellow. Since 1999 China Marks has lived and worked in Long Island City, a block and a half from the East River. Her work is shown in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe.

Nov 092012

—Author Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker

I have known Elise Levine since 1994 when my co-editor Maggie Helwig and I included three of Elise’s stories in our annual anthology Coming Attractions (now edited, by the way, by Mark Anthony Jarman who has appeared often on these pages). Oh, she can write! She has a hip, dark, extravagant flair for language, an alienated edge, a way of making the bourgeois world look, oh, so dull. In other words, she makes you stand up straight and look at yourself. Her story “Angel: starts: It was midnight, Angel, and I’ll never forget. We did it in the doorways up and down Church Street, my back against rotting wood or my hamstrings hurting, crouched down on grey concrete, the club where I’d cruised you receding as we twisted down alleyways and across half-empty parking lots. And then a decade later, actually 2005, I put an Elise Levine story in Best Canadian Stories. She is that good that you are always curious about what she is doing NOW. And so just so you know, here is a video poem, an example of what she is doing NOW, where her questing mind is taking her. City street sounds, pigeon wings, hand-held video, the words coming in bursts or sound and image, the strange beautiful “no, about, no” turning your toward home.


I’ve always been attracted to hybrid literary forms, little monsters like the prose poem, the lyric novel — the way they embody neologism and thus the desire to transform, transfer, mutate. The video poem offers yet another opportunity to ironize and complicate. Layering audio tracks, images and text amplifies the words, creates larger resonances.

—Elise Levine


 —Elise Levine


Elise Levine is the author of the story collection Driving Men Mad and the novel Requests & Dedications. Her work has also appeared in publications including Joyland, Sententia, Hotel Amerika, Gargoyle, Coming Attractions, Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Anthology, and Prairie Schooner. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College, she is currently an Assistant Professor in the MFA in Creative Writing Program and the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC.

Nov 082012

A record snowstorm buried eastern Pennsylvania in December of 2010. While the snow piled up, Ian Thomas, on break from the University of Missouri, slipped back into familiar routines. He slept late, hung out with high school friends, watched football games with his father and helped decorate the Christmas tree with his mother. Ian passed the days scribbling in a notebook. Flopped on a couch as the Philadelphia suburbs disappeared under almost two-feet of fresh powder, Ian wrote out the draft of a short story. He titled this story “The Freak Circuit” and, for the first time, he expressed a desire to seek publication for his work.

This short story also was the last one he ever wrote. Less than two months later, Ian Thomas was dead.

“The Freak Circuit” is a 12-page story about an exceptionally talented high school basketball player named Tim. Though a highly touted recruit, Tim houses a debilitating secret: he is a closeted gay teen on the verge of entering the world of high power, big money athletics, where few (if any) openly gay male athletes exist. Told in one nearly breathless paragraph, with images that tumble and cascade at a breakneck pace, so much of the story looks outward, gazing into distant campuses, into a coming athletic career that seems certain for success and destined for heartbreak. Tim dribbles and shoots, imagining World War II battles and the skinny red-haired boy he once kissed at a frat party in Tennessee. Everything hinges on possibilities. Where will he go to school? Which coach will he play for? How will he hide his homosexuality? The story pivots like a point guard, calculating, choosing. There are doors to open, opportunities to explore, peril at every turn. Precariously balanced between hope and despair, Tim is at once blessed and cursed:

Tim is outside again, thinking about the Battle of Iwo Jima while pounding a deep orange Wilson basketball into the backyard patio’s cracked, uneven stone surface, bounce, bounce, concentrating deeply, thinking of February 1945 while calculating the days until the ball will become smoothed out and useless, its thousands of tiny hills flattened by four hours a day, bounce, six days a week, by gravity and by patio. He’s under strict and emphatic direction from his high school head coach, an aging, wool-haired basketball lifer who can smell, in one’s sweat, the difference between the assigned four hours of home practice and three and a half. Tim thinks about Tennessee and closes his eyes.

In January, Ian returned to school and started sending out “The Freak Circuit.” He submitted to twenty magazines. Ian’s roommate, Dan Cornfield, tells me that most days Ian was a typical college student. He dressed up in black and gold and went to basketball games at the Mizzou Arena. He attended class, went to parties, and played video games at home.

“He never did homework,” Dan says. “If I was trying to study, he’d pester me until I gave in and stopped.”

Ian also suffered from depression and could spiral into darkness. Locked in his room, he would skip class and go days without eating. His friends and family knew about his about his struggles with rage and sadness. And his pain would have been doubly saturated at college, where all around the perception was that life thrummed along. Ian didn’t resemble the tall, lean and muscular ideal that our campus culture demands from its youth. At less than five-and-a-half feet tall and stocky in stature, Ian wore his hair thick and curly, adding bulk and height to his frame. His face was round and his eyes were dark. More often than not, he wore an Eagles’ jersey or a Phillies’ cap. He survived on his wit and a biting sense of humor. Most times, it was enough to keep him going. But when he slid into the darkness, the isolation must have been debilitating, extreme, feeding on itself.

Ian must have felt a part of his own freak circuit.

On January 26th 2011, less than three weeks before his death, Ian submitted the “The Freak Circuit” to upstreet magazine. Most national literary magazines receive hundreds if not thousands of submissions during a cycle. The odds of a story rising through the slush pile and being published are astronomically low. Vivian Dorsel’s magazine is no exception. For its seventh issue, upstreet received 1,119 fiction submissions. From this lot, they would publish only six stories. This means that a submitted story stood far less than a one out of a hundred chance of being accepted. Like many magazines, upstreet selects only the very best stories from its submissions pile. Like many magazines, upstreet is a non-profit. The recompense for the successful author, chosen against these astronomical odds, is two free copies of the magazine. (I should point out that I am the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet, but I did not play any part in the editorial decisions with fiction submissions. I first read “The Freak Circuit” in October of 2011.)

At upstreet, “The Freak Circuit” moved quickly up through the slush pile. On February 2nd, a fiction reader forwarded the story to the fiction editor with a positive recommendation. On February 9th, the fiction editor read the story and also recommended it. She sent the story back to Dorsel for a final decision. Five days before his death, Ian’s short story was sitting in the front of the magazine’s editor and publisher, awaiting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote for publication.

Maureen Stanton, Ian’s writing professor and mentor at Missouri, tells me that Ian was considering graduate school; she says that he was eager to begin sending work out, even ready to start receiving rejection letters. She describes Ian as one of the most gifted students she’s ever taught.  “I’d seen him that Thursday before he died,” Stanton says. “He was excited about summer writing workshops and applying to MFA programs. He’d stopped by my office to pick up a copy of a magazine I’d saved for him with a list of the best workshops and we chatted for about 20 minutes. I wish I’d had more time to talk to him.”

At times, Stanton’s praise for Ian might be misconstrued as eulogistic. The glowing terms she uses—words like visionary, charming, poetic, extraordinary—outshine the complex reality of any twenty-one-year-old undergrad with a non-existent publication record and middling grades. But the more we talk, the more Stanton’s sincerity seems unforced.

 “His voice was lyrical and poetic,” Stanton tells me.  “He had an extraordinary command of vocabulary, the rhythm of sentences. He could explode ideas—break them open and challenge.”

Stanton also talks candidly about Ian’s struggles with depression, his self-centeredness, his sensitivity to criticism. A bad workshop could send him spiraling back into dark places. In the privacy of Stanton’s office, he would be harsh on other student writing. He could be cavalier in class, opinionated, hard to manage.

He thinks about Henry VIII very quickly before thinking about Ray Allen and How to Line Up the Perfect Three Pointer, The Pro Way©, the way Ray taught him at the elite camp in Boston, bounce, he spreads his feet about a foot apart and lines them up directly parallel to his shoulders like he’s supposed to, but he remembers how, at that same camp, he missed fifteen of twenty three-pointers the Ray Allen Pro Way© (and failed to hit the rim on seven), so he squats lower than he should and jumps higher than he should with his feet where they shouldn’t be, all pressed together with the right side of his left shoe’s toe resting on the toe of the left and the ball sails in.

At 6:45 in the morning on Valentine’s Day, the phone rang in the suburban Philadelphia home of Linda and John Thomas. Linda answered. On the other end of the phone, Ian’s friend, Chris, told Linda that her son had been rushed to an emergency room in Columbia. Ian was still alive, but he was intubated and had already coded once. For a while, in the stillness of their kitchen, Ian’s parents held out hope that their son might pull through. The next phone call obliterated that hope.

So much of the future is assumptive. We assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that our children will grow up and go to college, that hard work will pay off. But often, those assumptions rest upon the frailest of armatures.

During the many times I speak with Ian’s father, I never directly ask him how Ian died. John Thomas refers his son’s death as an accident. John also candidly talks about his son’s depression.

John flew to Missouri on Wednesday, February 17th, two days after Ian’s death.  He talks about the open friendliness of Midwesterners. He speaks of this quality as if it were due to some fact of geography, and not by the grim reality that John had gone there to retrieve his son’s body. Ian’s mother, too grief-stricken to consider travelling, stayed home in Pennsylvania.

Ian’s roommate, Dan, describes the days following Ian’s death:

“Our apartment was just full of people,” Dan says. “My mom drove down from Chicago to be with us. My brother was sleeping on the couch. People just kept showing up. We had more brownies and cookies than we could eat.”

A lingering note of innocence tinges Dan’s voice. The shock, the disbelief, the sheer magnitude of losing a close friend at twenty-one is still settling in almost a year after the fact. He tells me that after a few days, his roommates cleared everyone out of their apartment. They wanted to be alone when Ian’s dad arrived on Wednesday.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Dan says. “None of us did. There were these long pauses. The whole time, Mr. Thomas tried to make us feel comfortable.”

John met Ian’s college friends for the first time on that trip. He would also meet Maureen Stanton. People gathered, cried, told stories, and shared laughs. On Friday, John packed up the last of his son’s belongings. He collected Ian’s clothes, books and notebooks. He packed up his laptop and, for the very last time, stripped his son’s bed. Then John flew back home with Ian.

He thinks of the peculiar way his stomach burned and twisted and ached and how he nearly soiled his compression underwear under his black mesh shorts when that huge black center at the Mississippi elite camp looked Tim in the eye and said you know, white boy, you shoot like a fucking faggot, how he almost burst into powder at that moment, how he almost booked his own last minute flight home, back to the safe dull colorless center of Pennsylvania, how he nearly collected every basketball and every piece of equipment he owned and every signed jersey and every letter of interest from every big-time American basketball university and every framed photo of NBA stars and neatly piled all of it in the middle of the cracked stone patio and burned it, doused the spot in lighter fluid and burned it to fucking hell. Bounce. He thinks about the eerie exhibitionism of this whole freak circuit, his leisurely (borderline immoral) little traipse from university to university, how they can all see through him (probably), how his coaches and maybe even his own father are carving what Tim thought Tim was into a 21st– century kind of bearded lady.

On February 23rd, nine days after Ian’s death, upstreet’s editor, Vivian Dorsel, read “The Freak Circuit” and decided to take it for publication. She sent a congratulatory email to Ian.

Dorsel then waited over two weeks for Ian’s reply, which never came. On March 7th she sent another email, but there was still no response. Two days later she did a Google search and found an Ian Thomas on the University of Missouri website. Ian was listed as an English major, a senior, a staff writer on the student newspaper. She found his university email address and contacted him yet again: “If you are the Ian Thomas who submitted a story to upstreet in January,” Dorsel wrote, “please get in touch with me. I have sent you two messages and you haven’t responded.”

Later that same day, Dorsel called the university’s English department. They passed her on to an undergraduate advisor who provided Ian’s home phone number and address in Pennsylvania. No one at the university told her that Ian Thomas was dead.

Dorsel’s pursuit of this story seems paradoxically single-minded. Why did she care so much? Aren’t editors, with a thousand stories to wade through, cold and unyielding? Editors read until the first mistake, or so goes the old adage.  Dorsel describes her interest in “The Freak Circuit” this way:

What struck me about “The Freak Circuit” was the voice, which I found intense, compelling, and consistent throughout. William Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, spoke of “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I think Ian’s story is an example of what Faulkner was talking about, and it is a very sophisticated and well written piece of work for someone so young; I also thought the ending was perfect, which is rare. I was so convinced it was right for upstreet that I was not willing to give up until I had exhausted every possibility. When I was laying out number seven, I decided to lead the issue with “The Freak Circuit.” It just seemed like the right thing to do.

On the evening of March 9th, Dorsel called Ian’s parents at their home. John Thomas answered and informed her that Ian was dead. He also told her that he wanted upstreet to go ahead and publish the story. It would mean a great deal, he said, to see his son’s story in print.

Over the course of several months, Johan Thomas and I exchange a flurry of emails. I also talk with John Thomas twice on the phone. The first time is on Halloween, eight months after burying his son. It is a gray Monday in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, where John and his wife, Linda, live. The Philadelphia suburb has just received its first dusting of snow, a full six weeks before winter officially begins. When John and I finish talking, I will drive beneath San Diego’s seventy-five degree blue skies to pick up my kids at their school. We will come home, have an early dinner, and go out trick-or-treating.

John puffs on a cigarette as we speak. He and I are, for all intents and purposes, strangers. In the background, I hear voices from a television. I picture a living room, a recliner, a smoldering ashtray. We talk for almost two hours.

“He was born a writer,” John says with a father’s recalcitrant pride. “He wanted to write since he was three.”

John is a youth crisis counselor, but hasn’t worked since the summer, when his hospital was all but destroyed by Hurricane Irene. Repairs at the hospital are on-going, but he doesn’t know when he is expected back at work.

“Sometimes I think it would have been easier,” John says, “if we’d had more kids. But who knows?”

It’s difficult not to wonder about the suffering imposed on people like John Thomas and his wife, the Job-like quality of their despair and the bare-knuckled perseverance in the face of it.

John is also a craftsman. He makes stained glass windows and sells them at trade shows and craft fairs. Only in the last few days, more than eight months after his son’s death, has John returned to his studio and begun working again.

“It’s a destructive art,” John says of working in stained glass. “You’re always cutting and breaking and splintering things.  You’re always covered in shards of glass.”

We talk about simple things, about sports, the Mummer’s parade in Philly, cheese steaks, the Phillies and the Eagles. He tells me about Ian’s decision to switch majors at Missouri, from journalism to creative writing. John dallies in the banal before stepping over into the abysmal horror of what has happened.

“Everything gets filtered through it,” he says.  “But what can you do?”

The University of Missouri lost eleven students during the 2010-2011 academic year. This number seems staggeringly high. What was happening in Columbia to cause so many young people to die? This is only one of the many questions which will never be answered for me. When talking to John Thomas, I realize how little I will ever know of Ian, or of the particular pain that his death has brought.

“There is no name for this,” John says. “For this kind of grief, when a parent loses a child.”

Thinking too much too closely, holding it all too close to his body. He thinks of Tennessee, the funny long shape of it on the huge map in his room, the boy who kissed him in the orange. Tim takes two more steps backwards and launches his deep orange ball towards the black rim with that shot, that unique hurricane of elbows and limbs mashed together, and watches it slip through the net without making a sound, without even a little swish.

John and I speak again in January. He tells me that the holidays were brutal, that the time since Thanksgiving has been especially grim. He and his wife didn’t celebrate. They didn’t even put up a Christmas tree.

He tells me that Ian never had a curfew, never had a bedtime. John is trying to paint a picture for me, a picture in words and anecdotes, of his son. He tries his best to make the image real.

Again, the conversation swings wildly, from seemingly normal chit chat to raw grief. John switches in and out of the most emotional topics quickly. The conversation turns back and forth, from stories of Ian’s struggles with math assignments to his lingering battle with depression. John tells me about his son’s eagerness to receive rejection letters.

“He figured that it was part of the job. That getting rejected would make him a real writer. He didn’t want to be a writer,” John says, stressing the indefinite article.  “He wanted to be the writer.”

John also tells me that Ian ripped out “The Freak Circuit” in no time. Only a year earlier, Ian was home over winter break, lounging around on the couch as the snow fell, writing in a notebook.

“He just was playing around with it,” he says.  “He didn’t even write fiction most of the time. Who knew it would end up getting published?”

John concludes our conversation by asking me to throw a ball with my son, a mundane acts which suddenly explodes with significance.

“I miss him,” John says. “He was a good kid.”

At Ian’s elementary school, his parents have established a writing award in their son’s name. Etched into the plaque for the award are the famous words of Maya Angelou: “The bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, the bird sings because it has a song.”

Perhaps those who knew Ian can seek and find solace in this, in the gesture of young writers being touched by Ian’s memory and in the words of a poet who speaks to the ineffable mystery of life and death. Angelou also wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

At least Ian’s story gets told. “The Freak Circuit” defies the odds. This speaks to Ian’s abilities and his devotion to writing. It also speaks to the dedication of people like Dorsel and Stanton who championed the work of a young writer still taking his tentative first steps.

But these conclusions are hollow and arc toward sentimentality. I have no doubt that John Thomas, Dan Cornfield and Maureen Stanton and everyone else who knew Ian would happily trade every one of his words, published and unpublished, for a few more days with him.

If I find any possible conclusion, it might be in the twenty-five pages of “The Wellbutrin Diaries.” This long essay, written by Ian the autumn before he died, traces a season in the life of Ian Thomas. It was written in Stanton’s non-fiction seminar and it is Stanton who sends it to me. In places angry, in places broken and shattered, in places sublime, the diary is an intimate look into the mind of a young writer whose talent and passion seemed to grow the more I searched.

If there is to be an epitaph for Ian Thomas, it must be through his words. If there is to be even the hint of an answer for his family and friends, it must gesture out from that darkness, the darkness of depression, from the struggle of a young man trying to create something beautiful.  Ian’s words once announced a certain talent, a raw voice which spoke with clarity and wisdom, cut down long before that voice could sing. If there is to be a conclusion, it must belong to Ian:

One day, though, it will happen. Simplicity will win, or at least tie. I will write—and think—like my mind is at peace. Shit, maybe even it will be. I can see it manifested and it looks like this: I’m on a boat, in the middle of a pond, in the middle of the night. The water is still, and the moon is casting an ivory glow over me as I row, as I maneuver into silence. I see it like it’s in front of me right now. My thoughts will be short, and they will be happy, and I know, for however long the ride lasts, I’m in the right place, on the right planet, in the center of the right universe. For good. I’ll make my own kind of comfort. And I’ll think (no, I’ll know). It’s all just that easy.

— Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell earned my B.S. in History at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and an M.F.A. at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. In 2011, his essay “Accidental Pugilism” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year In Ink.  He is a full-time freelance writer, editor and a faculty member at the River Pretty Writers Workshop in Tecumseh, MO. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and two children.


Nov 072012

Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell is a transplanted Englishman who seems to have found his Inner Arkansan. Or he has that Nabokovian gift of mimicry coupled with a fascination for Americana. “The Perfume Trees of Arkansas” is a short story about an Iraq War veteran nicknamed Jesus who drinks too much and doesn’t exactly WANT to die but doesn’t care much either which leads him to a stunning act of self-renunciation that is, well, oddly transformative. “The Perfume Trees of Arkansas” is funny without exactly being hilarious; it’s also immensely sad (with the sadness of all that lost, drug-polluted and under-educated underclass America that is yet human and oddly hopeful) without being depressing. The author lavishes much attention on his milieu — you think he must have grown up there, too.



The night shift is over at Michel’s, and Nordic Jesus sweats in the Chariot of Doom, smoking a joint and wishing he could see real bright colors. Beyond the parking lot, in the lamplight, the brick boutiques, coffee shops and antiques stores of the Heights have the muted hues of a vintage monochrome photograph that has been artily tinted. Nordic Jesus feels that life has become remote, like a movie playing on a cell phone screen. He can see the world but he isn’t in the picture anymore. From the day his HumVee hit an IED on the airport road in Baghdad, it’s as if he never got over the concussion and what happened to Doug and the others. After the explosion his buddies joked that he’d risen from the dead and started calling him Jesus; when the 39th returned to Arkansas the nickname followed him. Nordic Jesus, his friend Elijah dubbed him, when his orange hair and beard began to look like a Viking’s, and the moniker stuck. Owen has even started calling himself Nordic Jesus now, mainly because he finds blasphemy funny—it’s one in the eye for his dad, a Church of Christ preacher—but also because he’s just superstitious enough to hope that some of the magic of the man from Galilee might rub off on him. He wishes he would just wake up; so far it hasn’t been much of a resurrection.

Yalla, he coaxes himself in Arabic, Come on. When he hears the steel door of the kitchen slamming, he turns his head to see Michel locking it, then stumbling across the lot toward him.

Nordic Jesus likes his boss—Michel doesn’t piss him off, anyway, like most people do—and Michel’s accent and manners amuse him. He’s a genuine French chef, short, fat, dark and alcoholic, and plays the part to the hilt.

“Go home, Jesus,” he says, smacking his employee’s car. It’s an ’89 Chevy pickup with hand painted flames on the sides, the legend ‘Chariot of Doom’ in big black gothic letters across the rear window of the cab, and a bumper sticker that reads Jesus is Lord. “You have enough trouble with the police lately, I think,” Michel adds, pinching his assistant’s cheek and slapping it for good measure.

The hash is taking effect. The Heights are turning into a town in the South of France, the streetlights are Van Gogh fireballs, and Michel’s parting words are imbued with significance. “Sois sage, Michel says, before staggering away and flopping into his car. Be good, Nordic Jesus thinks, remembering his high school French. But doesn’t sage mean ‘wise,’ too?

The Chariot of Doom starts with a smoker’s cough. Nordic Jesus finishes the joint and wishes he could die. The dogwood trees and crape myrtles that form a canopy over the parking lot are blooming, and their scent reminds him of women, makes him yearn for one again—it’s been months. It’s strange that his sense of smell has remained acute; maybe that’s why cooking is the one thing he still loves. Through the open window he breathes in the air that steams around him like a fragrant gumbo, and the aromas of the evening’s dishes linger in his nostrils: garlic, onion, sour cream, prawns, orange sauce. The lady who called him out tonight to congratulate him on his roast duck was wearing a sweet, tart perfume, as if it were made with oranges, and Nordic Jesus was so overwhelmed that he almost fell on her neck and kissed her.

He doesn’t exactly want to die, he realizes; he’s simply tired of living.

Every night he has the same sensations, the same thoughts. At work, he is absorbed by what Michel teaches him, but then come the long silent hours in his grandmother’s house. He can’t sleep. He watches the cooking channel, tries out new recipes, plays his guitar, drinks bourbon. Most nights he goes for a run to tire himself out, and finally falls asleep, drunk, around dawn. Other nights, when the river runs like the Congo through the jungle and tropical smells are swirling in a crazy cocktail in his skull, he feels the urge to do something reckless. He drives to Stiff Station, where the crack houses are. Elijah, who was in the National Guard with him and now makes the desserts at Michel’s, has warned him about venturing there alone—Don’t be gone where you got no allies or alibis, white boy—but Nordic Jesus reminds him that he’s been in a war zone; he’s seen children’s bodies charred like barbecued chickens, and brains splashed like vomit on the sidewalk. This is Little Rock, for God’s sake. Besides, he is the Son of Man. No one can harm him.

He’s cruising along Kavanaugh, the radio tuned to a jazz station, Coltrane’s saxophone coiling like a dervish in his brain, when he sees a white woman wearing a batik dress and one sandal, limping and looping past homeless men who wave bottles, inviting or threatening her. She’s carrying her other sandal and a denim purse. She has long legs and bare arms, tattoos and dreadlocks. He slows down. Right here a couple of weeks ago Nordic Jesus was passing three junkies shooting up on the sidewalk, when he saw a black boy, no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. He offered him a ride; the boy gave him the finger. Tired of playing the Good Samaritan and getting no thanks, Nordic Jesus has made up his mind to drive by, when the woman lurches into the street and freezes like a rabbit caught in the headlights. He stamps on the brake.

The Chariot of Doom comes to a slippery, screaming halt. The woman folds herself over the hood and throws up on it.

Nordic Jesus laughs aloud for the first time in months.

“Feeling indisposed, ma’am?” he calls out the open window.

She looks up, startled or scared. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I truly am.” She has both palms flat on the hood, as if she just pushed it down. She’s dropped her purse and sandal. With her head sagging over her sick, and drool dripping down onto her chest—she’s stacked, he can’t help noticing—she looks like some creature from the netherworld. He recognizes her all the same. He saw her on one of his nocturnal runs, yelling at a man on a lawn in Levy.

Nordic Jesus opens his door, drops out of the cab. “Need a hand?”

“Why, sir, you are a gentleman,” she says, in tones as thick and sweet as molasses, as ladylike as Scarlet O’Hara’s. Pity about the dreadlocks, tattoos and puke-spattered tits, he thinks. She pushes against the hood, but her hands are glued to it.

Nordic Jesus grabs a box of tissues—grandma likes to have some handy when he takes her shopping—and after prying the stranger off his car, dabs her face. Her smile is vacant and her features ordinary, but he finds himself liking her. Or maybe he just feels friendly because of the pot he’s smoked, and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape he’s been drinking at his own expense. He hands her the box so she can swab her chest. And then, though he knows it will mean trouble, and he is being far from sage, he hears himself asking if she could use a ride.

“I could.” The woman sways before him like a slow metronome. “But I don’t know if I should.”

“I don’t mean you any harm.”

“I heard that before,” she snaps. “But to tell you the truth, I’ve always liked men with red hair. And I think I seen you before. Where d’you live?”

“Levy. I’m staying with my grandma over on Texas.”

She opens her mouth as if she’s about to yell ‘oh!’ She takes a step forward; he has to catch her. Nordic Jesus hasn’t touched a woman since Whitney dumped him just after he got back—a year and three months ago now—and it feels real good, or would, if the chick didn’t smell like a Friday night frat-house party.

“I know!” she says. “I seen you running past my house on Arizona. You was near naked.”

“I get hot when I’m running.” He’s hot now, sweat streaming down his neck and back, his boxers damp, the insides of his thighs sore. It was a hundred and fifteen in the kitchen tonight, and it’s ninety-eight or nine now, outside.

She pokes his chest. “You didn’t have nothing on but shorts and sneakers. You’re buff, dude.”

“I lift weights.”

She staggers back, out of his arms, and looks him over. “Yep, I can tell.”

At the end of the street a police cruiser is approaching. They eye it apprehensively, and she says she might as well come with him. She stumbles around the front of the truck, swinging the denim purse and sandal he’s picked up for her, and collapses into the seat beside him. “Thanks, sweetie,” she says, sliding down as if she can’t stay upright. She sits with her legs apart like a little girl. She has rings under her eyes and her breasts sag. Still, when her dress rides up, her long white legs make him swallow.

He pulls away, taking the first turn before the cruiser can reach them.

“So what’s your name?” he asks.

“Honeysuckle. My folks were hippies. Came from Pennsylvania in the sixties. Lived in a tepee in the Ozarks till the locals chased them out.”

“I’m Owen, but they call me Nordic Jesus.”

 “I can see that,” she says, cackling. “Well, I guess we both got funny names.”

 A liquor store and a pawnshop slide by—GUNS GUNS GUNS, the neon sign blares—and in the sodium light the city looks like tarnished brass. “Where’m I taking you, Honeysuckle?”

 “I oughta go home or Dwayne will be mad. Fact he already is mad ’cause we had a argument and he’s kind of psycho. He’s an ex-con. He sees me with you, he’ll kill us.”

 “How come you’re on your own, then? What happened to you tonight?”

She explains: They were scoring shit in Stiff Station and Dwayne went off on her on account of he thought she was making eyes at some black dude—Nordic Jesus interrupts to ask if she was, and she giggles and says, maybe—and not long after that she passed out. When she woke up, the sonofabitch was gone.

 They are crossing the Arkansas River, a broad band of mercury in the moonlight. When he was a kid, it made Nordic Jesus think of French trappers in deerskins and Davy Crockett hats; it always gave him a pang. Not any more, though. To their right, the girders of the bridge are a metal net and the Clinton Library looks like a doublewide. He wonders if Little Rock is pretty or ugly. In the rearview mirror it’s mostly glass towers, like any other American city.

“Your boyfriend sounds like an asshole,” Nordic Jesus says.

“He’s an asshole, all right, but I ain’t much, either.”

“You’re OK.”

“You don’t know me, Jesus.”

“Jesus know everybody,” he says, imitating Elijah’s accent, which is Little Rock street with Delta undertones.

She gives him a dopey grin that reminds him of how Whitney used to smile in high school. When he came back from Iraq, she still looked like a cheerleader: long blonde hair, heavy makeup, crop-top, low-slung jeans, high heels. But she seemed sillier than ever: all she talked about was movie stars, American Idol, shoes, her Spyder sports car. She was studying at UCA but he never saw her open a book—not that he cared, but it seemed like she was just going through the motions in everything she did. She wasn’t really alive. He thought she’d changed; she said he was the one who had changed. He was no fun anymore and he never brought her flowers or said he loved her. He just wanted to fuck her, not make love like they used to. What the hell was the difference? he wanted to know. He didn’t feel tender. He’d been a sniper in the Sunni suburb of Sadr City and had killed seven men. That was one video game he couldn’t get out of his mind. Draw a bead, hold your breath, squeeze. Jolt, crack, exhale. The guys never screamed. It was only up close, when you saw their faces, that it got to you. He tried to explain it to Whitney once, while she was watching Oprah, but she thought he was being morbid, told him he could leave if he couldn’t talk about something normal. He did just that, got up and strode out. Hasn’t spoken to her since.

“I don’t know as I want to go home just yet,” Honeysuckle says. “You got anything to drink at your place?”

“Just beer and bourbon.”

“That’ll do.”

“We’ll have to be quiet,” Nordic Jesus says, “or we’ll wake Grandma.”

“I’m sorry I’m not as beautiful as usual tonight,” Honeysuckle says out of the blue.

As far as he can tell, she isn’t making a pass. “You look fine,” he tells her.

In fact she looks pretty fucked up. She makes him nostalgic for the world he’s lost, when Arkansas always seemed to beat Texas at football, The Eagles played constantly on the car radio, America fought for freedom, and God was the nation’s CEO. Honeysuckle gives him a coy look.

“I don’t got no makeup on and I ain’t wearing underwear, either.”

A trickle of sweat runs down his back. Is she a tease? He can’t make her out. Hold tight, he tells himself. Pretend you’re on night patrol. Straightaway he is back in Al Sadr City, padding past white villas, his eyes scanning every wall, steel gate, and roof for gunmen. He switches off his feelings. Someone is pounding his heart with a steak mallet, but he’s not scared. It’s like going out to play football and knowing his dad and Whitney and the coach are all watching: you can’t mess up. If you stay alert, you’re more likely to survive. Yalla, he urges himself again.

He’s surprised to find they’re already in Levy. After the burnt ochre, orange and brown of the desert, Arkansas is a hallucination of heaven. The Chariot of Doom rattles past oaks and maples, azaleas, dogwood and hibiscus, magnolias and mimosas, crape myrtles and bougainvillea, all the perfume trees of Arkansas. White blossom, pink blossom, violet blossom—all dull, drained. With his window down Nordic Jesus can smell the feminine scents, although the odors in the car remind him of keg parties at U of A in Fayetteville, where he had a football scholarship for a year.

He draws up outside a nineteen forties brick dwelling, single story, with a porch supported by white wrought-iron ivy. A maple tree stands in the front yard and bougainvillea blooms on the trellis. He feels zingy, the way he used to when he played in an important game.

Nonetheless, although sex is clearly a possibility, the prospect doesn’t thrill him. “I only have a twin bed,” he says as he unlocks the front door and leads her through the cat-scented darkness of the living room. “I guess you can take it and I’ll sleep on the couch.”

He turns on the light in his bedroom. The floor is a swamp of sour clothes, the mattress a sinking raft, its sheets twisted and tangled like cypress roots. A Hogs pennant and posters of nineties grunge bands hang on the walls.

“We could share the bed,” Honeysuckle says, her expression unchanging, “if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind.”

He puts some alternative country on the stereo, so low that he can still hear the crickets and katydids through the open window, and Honeysuckle lifts her dress over her head. He turns off the light and takes a long pull on a bottle of Southern Comfort before stepping out of his clothes. In the radioactive glow of the streetlighting, Honeysuckle looks as if she has jaundice. She sits on the bed and stares at him. Not with desire, as far as her blurred features show, or even curiosity—she’s just staring like a cat. Nordic Jesus takes another swig of whiskey and hands the bottle to her.

“I can’t get to sleep if I don’t drink,” he says, lying beside her on the bed.

She takes a long swallow, sighs and leans back on her elbows. They haven’t touched yet. “That’s something else we got in common,” she says.

“Orange is my favorite color,” Nordic Jesus tells her.

“Oh yeah? That because you got orange hair?”

“Yes! How did you know that?”

“I may be dumb but I ain’t blind,” she says, misunderstanding him. He doesn’t try to set her right. She lifts one foot and places it on his leg. He tells her that when he was a kid he used to wear orange clothes and his dad painted his bedroom orange for him; he loved carrots, Cheetos, egg yolks, orange juice, apricot jam. He’d steal the orange pills from the medicine cabinet and eat them. Nearly killed himself once. Honeysuckle laughs, drinks, laughs again.

“I’m kind of drunk,” Nordic Jesus says, taking a good burning swallow, “but don’t you think that blossom in the yard smells kind of like oranges?”

She turns on her side to face him, then sits up with surprising swiftness and agility. “Didn’t see no orange trees outside.” She smells as though she’s made of Cheddar cheese.

The music drips in his ears for a couple of hours or more, but when she finally leans toward him and sucks at his mouth he tastes citrus and his blood stirs. A soft current pulses through him, electric, crackling and popping, and through his thoughts flit bright birds, blue jays, cardinals, orioles, and although his sensations don’t seem to fit or go together—cheese and slide guitar, whiskey and orange, throbbing and sweat and shock and awe and feathers—it’s like a jambalaya; it makes no sense but somehow it works. Yalla, habibi, the blonde whore told him in that stinky hotel in Dubai, come on, baby, hamdulillah, fantastic. Why did she keep speaking to him in Arabic? She was European, Russian or Romanian or something. Honeysuckle straddles him and goes straight into a frenzy, gyrating so fast and hard that he’s immobilized. He just hopes he can hold out. The bed bangs and creaks and Honeysuckle hollers as if Judgment Day has come.

Nordic Jesus doesn’t hear his grandma’s footsteps in the corridor, or the door opening, but there she is all of a sudden, four foot ten and bent like a bush in a storm. Mad as all get-out, too. “Out of my house, you little hussy!”

Honeysuckle freezes.

“You get off of him right now or I’ll flay you alive!” Grandma says, waving a limp claw at Honeysuckle as if she’s batting flies away.

Honeysuckle turns her head but keeps her seat. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“You will be, girl, if you ain’t out of here in ten seconds flat.”

Honeysuckle dismounts, stands, and gapes back at grandma, too dazed to cover her nakedness. She takes her dress and searches for the armholes for about five minutes. Nordic Jesus waits for his grandma to leave—she makes a feeble attempt to slam the door—then he pulls on his checked chef’s pants and greasy T-shirt. Although he didn’t even come, he’s relieved that it’s over.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t matter. Dude, you’re a strong lover,” she says, to his amazement. It was little more than a feat of endurance.

As they step out the front door the fragrance of the trees crashes over him like a wave. “Take a deep breath,” he says. “Smell that blossom.”

“Man, I’m still wasted. I wouldn’t a noticed it if you wouldn’t of said. If you don’t mind,” Honeysuckle goes on, once they’re in the Chariot of Doom and pulling off, “we’ll go by my place and if the truck’s in the drive you better drop me off round the corner.” She sounds as if she’s just coming round after being heavily sedated.

“He got a gun?”

“You kidding? He was inside for armed robbery, only they let him out early on account of he was only sixteen at the time. I never knew a guy didn’t have him a gun, except my dad. But even he got himself one now. Don’t you got one?” Before he can answer that he doesn’t, she gabbles on. “Dwayne ain’t much good with his, though. Other day, during that thunderstorm, there was two copperheads on the porch banging their heads on the glass door, trying to get in. So Dwayne stomps out, drunk as a skunk, and blasts at ’em with his twenty-two. Never did hit the sonsabitches.”

“I hope we don’t run into him, anyway.” Nordic Jesus is out of patience for rednecks—even if he has become one, as his parents seem to think.

Little white frame houses drift through the trees. On a porch, short Latinos pass a bottle. In a driveway, two black dudes in baggy basketball outfits, beer cans in their hands, lounge against an eighties Oldsmobile that looks like it’s been flattened out by a steamroller.

“We’re in luck,” Honeysuckle says, pointing to a surprisingly neat place. “He ain’t home yet.”

Nordic Jesus almost expects to see a Confederate Battle flag, but there isn’t one, or a truck on chocks either. The drive’s empty.

She leans across the bench seat and kisses him. “Well, thank you, Jesus.”

He deadpans the verse: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

She hoots. “Amen,” she says, and hobbles away, carrying the sandal that had come off. So that’s that. He’s already pulling away when he sees a pickup approaching and Honeysuckle running back toward him. Left her purse on the seat, goddamnit.

He considers driving off; he could always bring it back tomorrow. He hears thrash metal, a rage-filled roaring and guitars that sound like overworked machines. But he brakes and backs up. By the time he’s out of the Chariot of Doom, proffering the purse to Honeysuckle, the white truck has screeched to a halt and out jumps a guy even bigger than he is, with long, thinning hair, and tattoos. He’s wearing a tank-top, camouflage pants, and sneakers. And holding a pistol.

“Who the fuck are you?” Dwayne says, glowering at Nordic Jesus and pointing the gun at him.

“The Son of Man,” Nordic Jesus sniggers, still stoned.

“You laughin’ at me, boy?”

“No sir,” Nordic Jesus answers as if he’s back in Junior High: the more he tries to repress his grin, the more obstinately it asserts itself. He reminds himself that an enormous man—an enormous wronged man—is pointing a gun at his heart. It doesn’t escape Nordic Jesus that he’s been wishing he could die. This is your chance. All you gotta do is wind up boyfriend here a bit more.

“He’s just a friend, Dwayne,” Honeysuckle pleads. “He done give me a ride.”

“I bet he did,” Dwayne replies. “I see you, bitch, whored up like you had a mile of dick run through you.” He turns to Nordic Jesus again. “You screw my woman, asshole?”

Nordic Jesus draws a deep breath, as if he’s sucking on a joint, and his lungs fill with the scent-drenched air: crape myrtles, magnolias, wisterias, hibiscus and honeysuckle vine. For a moment it feels good to be alive. “I sure didn’t,” he says hopefully.

“Was you fixing to?”


Dwayne frowns. “I bet you’d like to, though, wouldn’t you?”

Nordic Jesus glances at Honeysuckle and grins—his Huck-Finn-Grin, Whitney used to call it. Honeysuckle isn’t in the same class as Whitney, in fact to be honest she looks more like a truck-stop whore than a cheerleader, but she smiles back, kind of embarrassed, and gallantry compels him to say: “I sure would.”

“That right, smartass?” Dwayne cocks the pistol with his thumb; the safety is off. “I might could blow you away.”

I don’t have to lift a finger. “Do it, dude.” Yet even as he speaks it occurs to him how bizarre it is: facing death, all he can think of is perfumes and washed-out colors. Just one more time, he’d like to eat a meal cooked by Michel and see the world in the pure primary colors of the child’s paint-box.

“You don’t think I would, do you?” Dwayne rasps.

“Nope.” And know the love of a good woman. That’s all I’d ask for.

“Oh yeah?” Dwayne holds his pistol arm out straight and shaking, eyes bugging as if he’s seeing the ghost of General Sherman.

“You gutless bastard,” Nordic Jesus hears himself saying. “Why don’t you go ahead and shoot me if you’re going to? You can’t do it, that’s why.”

“I can’t do it?” Dwayne’s voice rises to a squawk. “You think I can’t do it?”

“That’s right. You ain’t got the balls, man.”

“I ain’t got the balls? You saying I ain’t man enough to kill you?”

“You got it.”

Honeysuckle is moaning like a sick dog, but Nordic Jesus is looking right into Dwayne’s eyes. He doesn’t see anything but confusion. The dumb fuck might actually pull the trigger. Dwayne tries to speak but is so worked up he chokes on the words.

“I told you, do it,” Nordic Jesus says. He grabs the barrel and pulls it against his heart. “You can’t miss.”

“Jesus, Jesus,” Honeysuckle groans, and he isn’t sure if she’s invoking him or his heavenly namesake. She makes a sound halfway between a yelp and a squeal.

What the hell, looks like I am going to die after all. He tells himself he doesn’t care, even finds it funny, but his heart is fizzing, blowing fuses, and he can’t kid himself any more. He wants to live.

“You’re nothing but a wife-beater,” he goes on in spite of himself. Dwayne’s eyes are popping and sweat pours down his face. “You ain’t a man,” Nordic Jesus sneers, remembering how his daddy used to look when he whipped his mother.

“Do it!” he roars.

Dwayne’s face twitches like an epileptic’s. This is the last thing I’m ever going to see. Nordic Jesus pictures his mother, her halo of white hair and pursed lips, stout, in a purple skirt-suit, a Church of Christ matron who smells of bleach and banana-bread. He feels the briefest pang of love and remembers what she said last time she saw him, two months ago: You’re bound for hell, Owen boy.

He feels a sharp prod, then nothing.

“Goddamn,” Dwayne says, his gun-arm drooping. “I can’t do it.”

Nordic Jesus’ right fist lashes out of its own accord, cracks against Dwayne’s forehead and sends him sprawling.

“Holy Moses,” Honeysuckle says. “He’s out cold.”

Lights are coming on in the neighborhood and sirens wail in the distance.

“Someone musta called the cops,” Nordic Jesus says. “Let’s get outta here.”

The Chariot of Doom careens around a corner as if they are under mortar fire. “Dude,” Honeysuckle says, “Dwayne coulda killed you back there.”

“Sure, if he’d had the balls.”

“You got balls, though, dontcha? You’re brave, man.”

“Brave? Nah, I just don’t care no more.”  He tells her how he joined the National Guard after he lost his football scholarship, not expecting to find himself in Iraq, and describes some of the things he’s seen: women and children screaming and crying when the soldiers burst into their homes in the middle of the night and threw their men on the floors; his friend Doug with a glass dagger in his eye when the IED went off; the little boy hit in the leg, caught in the crossfire. Coming back from Iraq, he was looking forward to being out of harm’s way again, but it seems you can’t escape violence. The world is going nuts. “Hey, where you want to go?”

She looks at the clock on the dash, tells him she’s on the early shift at Shipley’s Donuts on Cantrell, and asks if he could drive her there.

Light is leaking through the leaves, seeping from the sky, soft blue and grey. The Chariot of Doom smells of beer, bourbon, sweat and marijuana. They drive through Burns Park, a fairytale of firs and blue hills, with luminous white cottages, then pick up the freeway and swish past road works, billboards, bougainvillea, fields. Life’s an Irish stew, Nordic Jesus realizes. You can’t just pick out the bits you like.

“Ever think about getting sober?” Honeysuckle asks him.


It might be sweet to find a woman, settle down and have kids, but he knows he isn’t strong enough yet. One day he’ll have to stop drinking and doing drugs. One day he will face the bullshit on his own. If only there were dazzling colors, like the plumage of the birds in his mind; if only he could see the way he can smell. He feels more like Lazarus than Jesus: brought back from the dead, but already decaying, only half-alive.

The grey sky glows like a hotplate warming up as they cross the I-430 Bridge over the Arkansas River. Nordic Jesus recalls how he used to spring out of bed on Saturday mornings when he was a kid, eager to discover what the world held in store for him. The water shimmers and flickers and flashes, as if the surface is made up of millions of metal lights. Steel, silver, brass and bronze and copper, gleaming, glimmering, glinting as the sun bobs like an orange buoy on the river to their left.

“You think it’s worth it?” he asks Honeysuckle.

“Getting sober?”

“I mean life,” Nordic Jesus says. “Is it worth living?”

“Hell, I don’t know. You just keep on doing it, I reckon.”

“Yeah, you do.” He looks at her and she looks back at him, her face framed by the window and the river and the sunrise, and although she isn’t exactly pretty when she shows her stained teeth, although he doesn’t love her and will not spend another night with her, although or because he’s weary of nights like these—he has been neither good nor wise, he reflects—and sex with her was far from scintillating and he’s still kind of numb, he feels sorry for her, understands she’s in pain and isn’t a bad person, just weak, like him, and he finds himself smiling, with something akin to tenderness. Honeysuckle’s face is lit by a tangerine sky, the river blazes, and if only for a moment, he can see the colors once more.

Nordic Jesus turns onto Cantrell and drives into the sunrise, hoping he will be able to stay awake.

— Garry Craig Powell


Garry Craig Powell‘s novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil has just been published by Skylight Press. Powell is an Englishman who lived for long periods in Portugal and the United Arab Emirates, and shorter ones in Spain and Poland. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Central Arkansas in the USA. For more information, visit his website where you can also find his blog about life in the Persian Gulf.

Nov 062012

(photo credit: Don Denton)

These most recent poems from Nicole Markotić are raunchy little imp dances; they’re a lover that won’t stop punning, half love, half madness. Each “sentence” gives and then takes away, coy perhaps, but in charge. No Scheherazade poetics here you’ll see soon enough; there’s a painfully lovely dawning awareness that we’re the ones who dance here, and we dance for her.

— R W Gray


Staying In

a boat skims the surface, plastic rudder aligns with the pond’s sundial, the canons prepped and
aiming. toys for US

who let the cat into the bag?

curtains drain the sun, your air conditioning follows Mars. I’ll bet it’s noon, now. I’ll bet it’s
break-time in Copenhagen

worry from your lower back, down. a crisis of German emerges from the ankles up

do you fing-er, or do you fing-Ger? long-er, or long-Ger?

aqua naps help cut the string that pulls maps closed

but only by name tag

there’s been a pneumatic leakage, a quarantined seepage, lay people lay about, their intention is freakage

my angle, usually indigenous, remains bent at the elbow

thigh high, my big toe plays abacus in the cricket park, a bat per person

we’re all thumbs today, meaning my finGers are toe-like

close every ocular door with a deaf testimonial, and remind the lip-reading alligators that kennels proliferate

ken you ken where I’m kent?

hurry and ketchup, the sundial’s ticking


wrinkling the cut-offs

Not only Echinacea Purple Cone, but dried Arugula and Potato Vines. A berry crawls across the rough cement, thirty-seven moths sneeze irregularly, and succulents refuse to believe in westward shade.

Calandis blows on her Peruvian flute, covering the middle tubes with her mouth, and Shao-Chiu
wears his spider-man mask. It’s too big, so his nose hole sits on his forehead between the insect-
blue eyes. She climbed the windows, he lurched from the television. Pleats in their shirts mean
ironing might be closer than you think. A popsicle during the heat wave simply

Motor vehicles insist that twelve times twelve equals, but does today count if it’s past midnight?

I meant to look up IESB, but Firefly parodies took over.

A racket of scrambling, a drip of Shala-sweat, a wrist-bone releases, and fingernails flutter to the tiles. I have counted up the list 49-million times and the answer always equals.

Sonnets breathe 14 yoga inhales. Each one a pause, pause in German. Rush home while the rushing’s good. Ghosts slip up as often in the mortal world. Could you walk that way? Do you bury saws? Two screws in the lawnmower, one above the kitchen counter. Check. Don’t dismiss this information as poetry.

I’m still stopping.


at risk or at least?

sloping from the TransCanada:

a road crew to repair the prairie rain that slid the hill down the sidewalk

three riders on one wheelchair, chasing cross-traffic

a pedestrian bridge where kids leap up, just as the cars pass beneath

used spiderman webs, dangling from rescue trees

wading pool asthma

and three blackbirds, pecking at peanut shells beside the hot yoga shala

could tomorrow pack in murderball and taxes, a porch sonata and processed wedding speeches, emails to two Karls, and leg passports?

when didn’t hot-and-bothered last all night?

but how much ink on paper defines a thorough edit?

A Voice, then a Crow.

friends fly east, west, and north. I sit facing south, in the shade, late in the evening, on a flat piece of cement, dying for loopholes

and when tomorrow isn’t what the early-bird brings?


Count Down

Bamboo sheets and then the covers, in waves. Soft and caramel, but only in the morning. A dripping and a placebo. Misty. We’ve stroked the fibres of thick thickness, and double for tissue need, but not on weekdays. Whoever could have? A cardboard box, a cardboard railing, a cardboard pre-packaged breakfast extravaganza. And yes, just as good! Fourteen raisins and three eggs and five pills and the dregs off loose tea. One mug. Not my nose, not my shoulder, not the kneecaps, not seven of the toes, not the light switch instead of paint-stained berber. Elevator doors, but only on the way down. Remind me to pulse a few times on the 13th. Remind me to swallow. Did I ask?

Yes, swishing air, but not so’s y’d notice.

A metal handle, four car keys, and the wheel inside the wheel, ever-burning. Four times a scratched nose, and sixteen hair-flips but who says for show? The inside of an orange peel, but only twice by accident. Seventeen times on the radio, six on the computer. Ahem.

A sneeze that twirled inside niacin. But basically because Benjamin demanded diced celery at the precise corner of Pine and Windy. I’m not making this up. Too many buttons, or knobs, or “press one for”s or keypads or take-out packets to list. I’ll list as I lean. Lean as I learn. Learn from the fingertips, in. Yes, the bah dies. Bathe eyes.

A series of pages, not all poetry, but enough to justify the gutter restraints. Tainted by re. Re-up the upside, or the insect, or the smash-up. Windsor rain, on the downside. Seven doors. More books, in retail. More pens, in trade. More sleeves and file folders and dust that doesn’t count and counter surfaces that do. A penultimum of half-price merchandise.

And finally: each other, but as explicitly as yummy digitals.


“Thefts, Contortions, & Yogic Breathing: Nicole Markotić’s Trickster Poetics”

Nicole Markotić’s poetry is kinetic. In both of her collections, Minotaurs and Other Alphabets (1998) and Bent at the Spine (2012), her aesthetics torque the prose poem until it transforms into something hectic, witty, and earnest. For Markotić, the loosely structured versification of the prose poem avoids the “and/or” pitfalls that Western traditional poetry and prose rely on. By disregarding formal line breaks and punctuation, her prosody conveys a more natural pause. This genre-crossing makes for a paratactic exploration that broaches complex questions concerning nationalism, feminism, and language.

She further complicates this exploration through her inclusion of overheard conversations. These dislocated voices often become her titles. They underscore her interest in multiple perspectives and reveal how her attentive eavesdropping comes from being preeminently concerned with physical and metaphorical margins—margins which locate the cultural idiom through sound bites, double entendres, and puns that stack the poem with polyvocal suggestion. Markotić’s work exhibits a trickster quality in that she steals language and then returns it in altered forms. Her intertextual links rework language within the poem and provide a way of listening attentively to the world.

As the selection below attests, her poetry grows out of the sentence. It is the “sentential piece,” in her words, that encourages “plasticity resistant to notions of purity in either prose or poetry.” Markotić’s use of the prose poem is her way of subverting the Western traditional poem, the poem that she deems a patriarchal device that doesn’t provide ample space for marginal voices. “I’m always stopping,” she remarks as though her thoughts cannot be completed because the medium does not encourage it or because she is hesitant in her own abilities to speak through the tradition. She reinforces this difficulty, in the selection here, in a variety of ways. In two of the poems, for example, she evokes “shala.” as “the hot yoga shala” and “Shala-sweat.” As it’s unclear if she is referring to the war goddess Shala, or to the Sanskriti word for yoga studio, she emphasizes the arbitrariness of language. Both meanings, however, may be anchors—avatar and shelter—for celebrating Markotić’s assertion that subversions of language demand closer attention. “Too many buttons, or knobs,” she reminds us in another place, “’or press one for’s or keypads or take-out packets to list. I’ll list as I lean. Lean as I learn.” And here the word play on “list” suggests lists of problems in a techno-centric world that no longer provides person-to-person encounters. “List” also alludes to listening, enclosing an area for battle, desiring, accepting a challenge, stitching something together, and, among still others, to leaning to one side or losing equilibrium. All of these definitions add complexity and suggest that there are no absolutes.

Because Markotić’s world is without absolutes, she often alludes to uncertainty.  Even ephemeral elements play an important part in her explorations. As she observes in “wrinkling the cut-offs,” “Ghosts slip up as often in the mortal world.” Through this statement, she subsequently generates the question: “Could you walk that way?” The question confounds and conflates. It is unclear if it responds to the statement, meaning should we act as ghosts when we make mistakes? Or is her question an independent thought, a tangent triggered by something physical in her periphery, something that interrupts the previous thought?  This is one way she keeps her language in motion.

The physical body is also essential to her re-workings of language and movement. It is often a field for converging discomforts, emphasizing that, for her, “the prose poem is a poetic strategy embedded within the structure of narrative, and a feminist response to patriarchal language and forms.”  Even the title, Bent at the Spine, suggests physical contortions, a doubling, as well as splitting something, such as a book, in an irreparable way. “Staying In,” from this selection, is a good example of how Markotić slides from the personal and physical to global concerns through her stylistic and formal innovations. The sentence, of course, provides interconnectivity for her shifts between lenses. She writes, “worry from your lower back, down. a crisis of German emerges from the ankles up.” Elsewhere, she writes, “Sonnets breathe 14 yoga inhales,” thus becoming a manifestation of body and language.

Her line breaks and tumbling thoughts are also physical impositions onto the poem. They embody the reader, highlighting her inclusive project. By incorporating colloquial language and found speech fragments from public places, she beguiles the reader into a kind of subtext to the dialogue. On a re-reading, however, the strangeness and ragged breathing patterns that may have been overlooked the first read, pushes through. She asks in this selection, ”Do you bury saws?” And before we have a chance to find our footing and an answer, she’s off on a strangely domestic and disconcerting check-list that sounds vaguely familiar: “Two screws in the lawnmower, one above the kitchen counter. Check. Don’t dismiss this information as poetry.” The essential nature of Markotić’s world is made up of these glimpses and fleeting moments.

While this discursiveness is present in Minotaurs and Other Alphabets, Bent at the Spine is much more fractured and concerned with accommodating more voices. It is perhaps an ethical turn: by situating her own voice as one among many, she encourages autonomy and community.  By fusing these voices to both her attention-deficit sentence and to the body, she conveys the repressiveness she feels in having to lock down her thoughts. Marcotić isn’t interested in polite, normative poetics and she doesn’t meander on the neat path through traditional structure. Her sentences stand discursive beside each other in order to capture the rhythms of an uneasy urban vernacular. If we have normalized our isolations and shortened our attention spans to cater to dramatic transformations of movement and interaction, then poetry, for her, is panacea for jarring us out of this state of quickening. So that patch of Trans-Canada, that hot yoga studio or that hard rain is familiar to us but still strange. It’s Marcotić’s plasticity again, her resourceful poetics steeped in re-mapping the phenomenal and outcries of the body in order to prompt you: Look again. Take none of this at face value.

–Tammy Armstrong

Tammy Armstrong’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada, US, Europe, UK, and Algeria. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and short-listed twice for the CBC Literary Prize. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, working in Critical Animal Studies and North Atlantic Poetry.

Nov 052012

In “Un Rendez Vous,” director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) creates a commercial/short film hybrid that is as potent with sexual tension as the aroma of the product on display. Jude Law (Road to Perdition, The Holiday) and Slovakian fashion model Michaela Kocianova are entangled in a mysterious, noir-like affair that becomes more playful and erotic as the story’s secrets slowly unravel. While this short is no doubt about a particular product, Dior Homme fragrance, it is ruled by the peculiar way the film’s hypnotic style wrestles to dress up the primal instincts of the protagonist and the woman he seeks.

First and foremost, “Un Rendez Vous” demands repeat viewings. Ritchie gives the protagonist ambiguous dialogue and this initially gives misleading genre signs. When Law says into his phone “I know who you are” and “you’re going to wish you’ve never been caught” the film starts to seem like it might be about a heist gone wrong or that it is building up to a James Bond action sequence. Then we hear that it’s a woman’s voice on the phone and this instead suggests Law is hiding a secret love from the woman he’s with and we are potentially watching an erotic thriller or a torrid romance about a love triangle. Mixed signals to say the least.

These layers of ambiguity do however eventually fall away, revealing the truth about the man and woman’s relationship: Kocianova’s appearance in the hotel room is really a part of Law’s imagination, his desire. He fantasizes that she helps him get ready, seductively buttoning his shirt, fastening his cufflinks, and this suggests that his preparation is designed with only her in mind. The scene acts as foreplay to their impending physical encounter. The ambiguity then, in hindsight, is not just about genre, but is the very structure of their desire: uncertainty quickens the game being played out between the two of them. When the montage hits, the fantasy falls away and we see the characters as they prepare for their imminent and real world rendezvous.

Accentuating and overplaying the smallest of sounds, Richie brings the viewer closer to the characters and the stillness of film’s intimate atmosphere. The sound design exaggerates the sounds of Law’s feet shuffling as he gazes into the mirror, the grip of his hand on the phone, and the sliding of the cufflinks as Kocianova removes and fastens them. This fetishistic attention to sounds places us in the same rooms as the characters, between them, and highlights the desire between the two. The montage sequence, featuring a track called “Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture)” by the English rock band Muse, creates a mysterious and sensual feel to the already loaded short. The song brings a mesmerizing element to the final sequence as the grungy guitar riffs howl over the soft violins, a similar tension of opposites symbolizing the conflict between style and primal instincts throughout the film.

At the rendezvous itself, Ritchie causes desire and the primal body to collide. The man and the woman must rely on their senses, specifically their sense of smell, to find and recognize one another. The preceding events suggest that the other senses fail the characters in some fashion. In the hotel room, Law can fantasize that Kocianova is physically with him but is unable to touch this illusion. He cruises through the city with a piercing stare yet cannot see her. The sound of her voice on the phone connects them but only tenuously, on an unsatisfying level. And the kiss he plucks on her shoulder is a false taste. When Kocianova asks how she will recognize him, Law reassures her, “you’ll know when I’m there.” As his tie dances in the wind and her coat elegantly bursts open, it is their scents that assure them they have found one another. Ritchie structures the film to move from its ambiguous start to this certainty found through the characters’ sense of smell. There is only one way Kocianova can know he is there. Dior Homme.

Numero Cinq has featured several of these commercial/film hybrids including Roman Polanski’s Prada commercial, Ang Lee’s BMW short, and Lucrecia Martel’s fashion advertisement for MiuMiu.


Jon Dewar is a grad student at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and is working towards a degree in education. He is an avid film fan, interested in both film analysis and filmmaking. Some of his inspirations include directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Martin Scorsese. Jon has written numerous screenplays and is working towards eventually producing some of these projects.

Nov 042012


Joanne Lyons is a Saskatoon video and installation artist. Childhood memories often inform Lyons’ art; she began a recent series on “lightness” by playing with a video of her five-year-old self chasing a butterfly. Lyons had watched the video with her family many times. “It came to me one day that it would be a good way to symbolize that feeling [of “buoyancy]. When I was copying the film to video and it started degenerating — that breaking apart…with spaces between everything…created an openness and airiness.”.

In Play Things, two red balls knock rhythmically and randomly against each other. Kaleidoscope uses video projections of crocheted doilies Lyons collected in thrift stores and garage sales to make shifting patterns on a child’s toy. The same crocheted collection inspired At the Bottom of Memory, a diorama of mysterious cutout creatures that evolved from graphite rubbings of the doilies..

“I love the kinds of things that you can do with technology, especially the video projection, but sometimes I have to spend a lot of time learning how to do something in order to get what I want. I like figuring things out and…will spend inordinate amounts of time…[on] some difficult technical problem and then I think, this is kind of silly, I should be making art not figuring out these little problems, but I can’t get away from it because it’s part of what I do.

“In a piece like the Corridor installation for instance, there was quite a bit to figure out, even little things like the exact distance the projector had to be from the screen and how…to do the masking. With installation art, there’s more problem-solving than in any other medium….You learn how to think on your feet because you have to come up with a solution. Artists are very good at that, and at doing it economically. You start haunting the hardware stores, looking for all kinds of materials that are really not art materials at all, and then talking to people, getting advice.”

Lyons began as a painter but says, “It was a real inspiration to me the first time I saw mixed media work. I hadn’t really been exposed to it that much so when I saw that people could use items of clothing, for instance, as art, and the way that images could be caught up and put together again and collaged…was influential and exciting.”

The concept of beauty, Lyons says,  is “essential to my art practice and to my life…Every project that I’ve done has some sense of that…the work gets more and more that way. If things aren’t going well for me, I have to search out [beauty]…I get desperate to see something beautiful. To not use beauty in your work when it’s absolutely essential in your life would be crazy.”

—Kim Aubrey


Corridor, 2008, mixed media installation, 36′ x 8′ x 6′ (video projection, looped video 19:25, coroplast, mylar, mirrored mylar)


Corridor, 2008, (interior)


Corridor, 2008, mixed media installation

Kaleidoscope, 2009, mixed media installation, 5′ x 1′ x 1′ (video projection, looped video 9:08, mirror panels)



At the Bottom of Memory, 2011, mixed media installation, 7.5′ x 9′ x 8′ (variable) (approx. 200 graphite drawings on translucent mylar, painted in transparent inks, reflective mylar, metallic thread, and air circulation)


At the Bottom of Memory, 2011, mixed media installation (detail)


At the Bottom of Memory, 2011, mixed media installation (detail)


Joanne Lyons has a diverse art practice that includes video, photography, drawing, and mixed-media installation. She has exhibited nationally in solo and group shows and has work in public and private collections. Lyons received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan and continues to live and work in Saskatoon.

Joanne’s video, Play Things, is featured in the Fall, 2012, issue of Hamilton Arts and Letters.



Nov 032012


Photo by Kevin Cosgrove.

NC has a special place in its heart (okay, really, the magazine doesn’t have a heart perhaps, but in the editor’s heart) for mixed forms, hybrid forms and old forms gone out of fashion. They don’t teach sermon-writing in the college workshops, but the sermon is a great and ancient nonfiction form (books of sermons used to be bestsellers), and we have published several on this site. This is the first sermon Hilary Mullins ever gave and dates back to 2000 when she lived in Oakland, CA. She now lives in Bethel, VT, and is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program and writes and teaches and washes windows in the summer. Her most recent contribution to NC was an essay on her experiences during Hurricane Irene. This her second sermon on NC. See the first here.



One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?  — Rumi

I’m no dervish, no Sufi mystic. I’m just a writer. And though like Rumi, I too sometimes conceive of God as a baptism of fire, I find that when I sit down to write, water is the vision that keeps returning to me. I’ve been writing about water my whole life. It’s not my only metaphor, but it may be my most frequent. I’ve written poems about rivers and brooks, about lakes and skating on lakes. I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the lake back in Vermont I grew up swimming in, the hours and endless hours I spent in that water.

Especially I remember swimming underwater: nosing around submerged parts of trees for the sudden sparkle of a fishing lure, or better yet, pulling myself with wide arm-strokes down the mysterious, green-dark slope where the real depths began.

Experiences like this get under our skin, making a metaphorical sense that sticks with us, informing our lives. Though as a writer, I’m probably more aware than most of the metaphors I use, I think everybody uses them.

And I’m certainly not the only one who thinks this. University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff thinks so too. Lakoff has been championing the importance of metaphor for quite some time now. In a recent book with the delicious title, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Eugene philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not a mere matter of the words we use. In fact, they claim that metaphors structure the ways we conceptualize our most fundamental experiences.

And furthermore, they say, reeling in abundant evidence from the cognitive sciences, this metaphorical structuring of meaning is largely unconscious and inescapable, the result of our embodied existence.

Let me give you an example. When we are babies, picked up and held, we learn to associate affection with the actual warmth of embrace. And ever after—so the argument goes—those two things become associated in our minds: we think of affection itself as warm, though literally of course it is not.

This linkage, which occurs in the brain, this conceptualization of affection as warmth, Lakoff and Johnson call a primary metaphor. And we have many, many of these metaphors. Think about it: we talk of happiness in terms of being up, we think of intimacy in terms of closeness, of knowing as seeing, of understanding as grasping.

None of this is literal. For instance, happiness, as an emotion we feel in our body is not actually up or down; it has no location in space that way at all. And yet this is how we think of it and therefore how we experience it: happiness, for us, is up.

One of the implications of metaphor theory—if you find it convincing and I certainly do—is that we are not the transcendent rational creatures we have taken ourselves to be for a very long time. To the contrary, Lakoff and Johnson argue that reason is not a transcendent entity somewhere “out there” like some supernatural deity we can commune with through our rational faculty. They claim instead that what we think of as “reason” is actually  a product of our bodies and the ways that we, these bodies, interact with the world. As a result, our reason is largely metaphorical and imaginative.

As someone well-acquainted with the power of metaphor in my own work, I take this to be good news. For I have long noticed that the introduction of a good metaphor can transform a piece of stagnant writing into something else all together, into something with a pulse, something with movement, direction.

For example: Let’s say I tell you about a period of major transition in my life. Let’s say I list the feelings I had during that time, that I describe to you my resulting indecision and hesitation. There’s nothing wrong with such a retelling of course. I could convey something important this way.

But, let’s say I use an image instead, an image about riding a train. Let’s say that I’m standing in an open doorway on that train, straddling a gap between cars, that I’m gazing down the rattling, serpentine-length of that train, all its doors open, the swaying of its motion along the tracks rocking me gently towards my next destination. Yes, let’s say, held in the belly of that train, I am rocked and carried along.

Something in us perks up when we speak of our experiences this way, something vital in us begins breathing, resonating. This is no small thing, for I believe it brings us closer to where we live, which is another way to talk about the search for meaning in our lives, or if you will, the search for God.

But there’s more that I think metaphor can do. I think it can transform us as well.

Let’s think about the train some more. The fact is though my description of riding that train may be imaginative, my actual choice of the train as a metaphor is not. It’s not that I’m criticizing my originality. No. What I want to point out is that trains, planes, and automobiles are metaphors people frequently reach for when they are speaking of their lives.

I remember when I used to work at a teen center, we often played a board game called Life. On the board, point by point, along a curving, broad path were laid out all the conventional mileage markers of  a life: birth, school, first job, marriage, house, children. And each contestant piloted her or himself along this yellow brick road of expectation in a tiny, plastic car.

Of course, it seemed silly, putzing in plastic through a life like that, but the fact is that that board game was a good mock-up of our culture’s concept of life: which is to say we hold life to be a journey, one complete with itinerary, destinations, and  obstacles to those destinations. This can be a useful way to think of life.

And yet it has its obvious drawbacks as well. For conceiving of our lives this way leads us to make judgments about whether we have at any given point in time made it to the “mileage markers” we or others think are appropriate to that period in our lives. People who are obviously successful when they are young, look good according to this reasoning, while some of us late-bloomers can look pretty lackadaisical.

But this is just one way of looking at things. In other countries, people don’t think this way at all. In other countries, there is no journey—there’s just you, living your life.

Lately, with seven years and counting between my first and still unfinished second novel, some of these other countries are beginning to look pretty appealing.

But maybe I won’t have to move. Maybe I can start with countering the concept here, now, in myself. I think to some extent this is possible. We may not have much choice, ultimately, about whether we experience happy as up or affection as warmth (Lakoff and Johnson contend that we do not), but it is possible, I think, to grapple with some of our culture’s more complex metaphors if we find that, rather than bringing us along in some way, they are holding us back.

Think about the ways we talk about our relationships. Again journey metaphors abound. That is, we tend to think of love as a journey, of lovers as travelers with common destinations or paths. Fact is the little plastic car on the Life game board says it pretty well: we think of our relationships as vehicles on this common journey we undertake together. Sometimes our relationships “spin their wheels”, sometimes they “run out of gas”. Or sometimes they hit a “dead end.”

Haven’t you ever hit a dead end in a relationship? A lot of us have. That is, we’ve thought about it just that way. And so, then, did we decide that the whole thing had been a waste of time? A useless trip? The love-is-a-journey metaphor itself could very well lead us to that conclusion.

But what if we conceived of relationships in a different way? What if, as Lakoff and Johnson have suggested, we think of love as a collaborative work of art? Imagine that. Then ask yourself this: is art ever a waste of time?

And yet though I especially like the notion of collaboration that this metaphor offers, I find myself still wanting to salvage the journey metaphor. I like the motion in this image, the sense of distance traveled. Lately though, my own mileage markers don’t have much to do with the conventional signposts on the Life game board. Instead I find myself marking the miles with lessons learned. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of miles so much as it is the depth I’ve managed to get to, whether by myself or in the company of another. Being in relationship with another person for me is sometimes like going for a swim, an underwater dive.  I want to see how deep we can go. And swimming for me is never a waste of time!

This is why I believe the metaphors we use really do matter. Though it may be true that most of them are engrained and automatic, I still think that if you start nosing around in the ones you use, you can sometimes open up a little light in what might be a pretty dark corner. Or you can just as well notice one that’s always been a taproot for you and make more of it.

Some of you may remember a sermon Rob Hardies gave a few months ago where he argued that for religious liberals, thinking about God metaphorically is the way to go. Well, I for one have started to think of God as a writer.

Now thinking about God as a writer is not necessarily helpful to me on a night when I’m feeling lonely, or on a morning when I have something to do that makes my spirits sink. Lately when I’m feeling that way, I imagine God as a massive live-oak tree, someone I can climb into, a place I can rest.

But when I’m in motion, and wondering what to do next in my life, I like thinking of God as a writer. For as a writer myself, I know how important it is to get in tune with the story I’m writing.

This is not a matter of knowing where the story is going, how it will end, or all of what will occur along the way. Indeed, I find that when I try to force the outcome, the whole thing breaks down, that me and my story get flat-out stuck, going nowhere fast.  I find instead that to do well when I’m writing, a certain sort of surrender is required, a trust that the unfolding story itself will take me where it needs to go. I have to strike a balance, as if I were on a bike. Sometimes it even feels like I’m riding with no hands.

So I like to think of God that way, like me, but at the same time not like me at all. I like to think of God as an author writing the world. And in that writing, he’s present but divinely absent-minded too, somehow manifest but not at all embodied.

God the writer. He writes a world with all us characters in it. All of us. It’s not that he winds this story-world up and lets it go, as if it were a Newtonian script. No, writers have to keep writing to keep their stories going. But as any writer will tell you, those stories have a life of their own, a kind of creative free-will. And I have found recently that things go better with me when I pray to find some way to get in tune with the unfolding story—with my own and with the larger one, the multitudinous one I am just another piece of.

This is no guarantee, of course, that things won’t go wrong, that even terrible things won’t happen to me at some point when I’m living from this point of view. The way I look at it, all the characters in this story—God’s story—have free will. Speaking to this very same point, the writer Virginia Woolf once commented that nothing can be done about a drunk with a bat. Me, I’m not as fatalistic as all that—perhaps because I haven’t  live through WWI and II in England, as Woolf did.

Nonetheless the drunks with bats are still out there, and the fact is that we often fail, for one reason or another to stop them. In the face of such possibilities, we might do well then to pray we’ll be able to duck in time.

But if it just so happens that we are not able to get out of harm’s way, then perhaps that will be the day we call on God the shepherd, God the healer. For I think that when God appears, she comes to us in the form we most need at that time.

Let me give you one more example. I once wrote a story about a bear who appeared to me at nightfall, silently challenging me to follow her up a mountainside. In the story—after some hesitation—I met her challenge and tore up the mountain, trying to catch up to her.

Now imaging God as manifested in this great mother bear had wonderful poetic implications for me. For this goddess could take me into her den, surrounding me there with the embracing warmth of her massive body. She could lick me down like the needy cub I was, she could send me off in the morning, reborn, my old skin shed.

Of course it was just a story. But it was more than that too. For though I never literally saw that bear, she was nonetheless a vision. And though I can’t tell you if that bear was a spirit guide, or a gift from what the Jungian psychologists call the collective unconscious or even just the result of hundreds of thousands of nerve cells firing in my brain, I can tell you that this divinely imaginary bear helped me change my life at a time when I badly needed to begin anew.

One dervish to another, What was your vision of God’s presence?

You may not be a dervish either—I bet you aren’t—and yet I am suggesting this morning that you let yourself become more aware of the ways God comes to you. Pay attention! Let your own visions, your own metaphors bubble up.  Live with them. Notice how they live in you. Notice how they move.

For metaphors aren’t stagnant; they evolve. And it is through this transformative power that they transform us. So if God is your shepherd, leading you beside still waters, take a few minutes to enter that scene. Smell the water, feel the good ground under your feet, and let yourself be led.

Let yourself be led.

We can none of us know where our stories are going. But we can try to live in them more deeply. So if God is fire, throw yourself in a while. Burn a little. But if God is water, take a swim. Dive in, let your head break the surface. Pull yourself down as far as you can go, keeping your eyes open for sudden sparkles in the submerged trees. Let yourself slide down that mysterious green-dark slope. And trust that even in those times when you feel you are drowning, God—the source of your inspiration—will show you how to breathe.

Amen and blessed be.

 — Hilary Mullins


Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

Nov 022012


Jacob Glover contributes a short essay on the mightily influential philosopher Herbert Marcuse whose books were once required reading on the barricades of the counter-cultural movement in America and Europe. The frame of Marcuse’s argument is slightly dated; the positivist slant of academic philosophy in those days lent itself to linguistic analysis which as Ludwig Wittgenstein said should only deal with the world as we find it and the language we use to describe it. The ancient concepts of God, the Good, Truth and Beauty, the universals and absolutes of an earlier era have become mere ghosts[1]. But the fact that linguistic analysis has largely been swept away by other academic trends doesn’t mean the problem disappeared. Marcuse spoke of ghosts; Derrida coined the pun “hauntology.” The great God Pan is dead, and the miraculous wonder of existence is subdued by the mundane clutter and noise of contemporary fetishistic capitalism and the message loops of the media. And  yet we remain haunted; there always seems to be more to what we see than we can say. Jacob Glover has contributed poems, songs, essays and translations to Numéro Cinq from the very beginning of things — including essays on Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Spinoza.



Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a major figure in the Frankfurt School, the fountainhead of critical theory and neo-Marxist culture criticism. He left Germany in 1933 and became a citizen of the United States in 1940. His work in social criticism and social research generated the foundations of American Marxist movements and fueled a good deal of the counter-culture rhetoric of the 1960s student revolt and black power movement (Angela Davis was one of his more famous students).

His book One-Dimensional Man (1964) is brimming with a frothy mixture of ressentiment, intelligence, pity and hope. Just take, for example, the chapter entitled “The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One Dimensional Philosophy” — a complex statement about the state of the thinking world. Marcuse examines intellectual life and academia and sees a group of people who have successfully deluded and precluded themselves and the rest of the world from any sense of reality. The problem, as Marcuse sees it, is a radical hyperanalyzation of the commonplace. This hyperanalyzation coupled with a refusal of metaphysics creates a sort of pseudo-cure for the trauma of reality.

So what is reality? What are we missing?

The larger context of experience when Marcuse wrote his book was still that of the gas chambers and concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of American Cadillacs and German Mercedes, of the Pentagon and the Kremlin, of the nuclear cities and the Chinese communes, of Cuba, of brainwashing and massacres.

All of these examples correspond to conflict and unrest. The concentration camps evoke direct images of suffering. But even American Cadillacs together with the German Mercedes remind of us the strife between the America and Germany—perhaps not by killing one another anymore; international economic competition seems to be the new trench warfare these days. (This is especially true when we consider that wars are being fought today in order to ensure gas and oil prices, or, in the words of American politicians, freedom.)

Marcuse writes in reference to the long list of traumatic conflicts that “the empirical world is also that in which all these things are taken for granted or forgotten or repressed or unknown, in which people are free” (180). For Marcuse the real world is traumatic but the trauma is “taken for granted” or “repressed.” Or he is offering two definitions of reality, i.e. there is the actual traumatic reality and there is the filtered and padded reality. The way academia analyzes the world and spits its demythologized version of reality at the non-academic world creates a barrier in which images which should evoke ideas are, at times, merely attached to a definition and forced into a rote-memorization machine known as a high-school student.

The juxtaposition of traumatic reality with a filtered and padded reality creates an interesting conflict.  It is as if Marcuse is presenting you with an ethical choice: there are two ways of looking at the world—now choose. But to me this is similar to looking at a picture of a refugee about to be shot by a soldier and asking: who would you rather be? There is no right answer of course because either you’re a monster for wanting to be the soldier or you are lying because you claim you want to be the refugee. Marcuse sets this distinction up so you can’t answer; his point is not to choose a definition—the point is to escape the delusion.

The question is: How? For Marcuse the problem is hyperanalyzation.  He writes:

Thought is on the level with reality when it is cured from transgression beyond a conceptual framework which is either purely axiomatic (logic, mathematics) or coextensive with the established universe of discourse and behavior. Thus, linguistic analysis claims to cure thought and speech from confusing metaphysical notions—from “ghosts” of a less mature and less scientific past which still haunt the mind although they neither designate nor explain (170).

In this passage Marcuse presents two theoretical options. On one hand there is linguistic analysis while on the other there are “metaphysical notions,” or my new favourite word for the traditional ideas of the Good and God, “ghosts.” Marcuse thinks that in response to world trauma (e.g. WWII and the Cold War) people could no longer handle the faith-requirement of metaphysics, that is, he diagnoses current philosophical movements psychologically. This is why he uses the words “cure” and “therapeutic.” To Marcuse, philosophy has turned toward the “removal of obscurities, illusions and oddities” (170) as a cure or as a form of therapy in the face of the trauma of the real. But also, in this passage Marcuse is explaining that linguistic analysts avoid transcendence. To intellectuals of this kind the world and language are what should be studied not concepts which have no empirical correlate.

Marcuse’s use of the word “transgression” is important because it points to the multiple layers in his discussion. For the most part Marcuse is talking about two competing modes of philosophical thought, but philosophy is also political. The word “transgression” captures this distinction perfectly. To intellectuals who work within a rigid conceptual framework any thought which transcends this framework is transgressive. Thoughts that point outside the framework are not only impossible to explain within the framework but point out the framework’s finitude; they expose the limits of that particular analyzing discourse. I think that is what Marcuse means by his use of the word “haunt.”

Academic philosophers, according to Marcuse, have tended toward linguistic analysis which “identifies as its chief concern the debunking of transcendent concepts” (171).  In other words, linguistic analysis sets itself up directly opposed to metaphysics. Or as Marcuse says, “…philosophical thought turns into affirmative thought; philosophical critique criticizes within the societal framework and stigmatizes non-positive notions as mere speculation, dreams or fantasies” (172).  And what he means is that after the linguistic turn in philosophy, i.e. the move away from metaphysics proper, philosophy begins to focus on direct affirmation of a certain version of reality that leaves no room for those pesky ghosts like God, Love or Truth. These sorts of metaphysical ideas do not offer any empirical manifestation, that is: they cannot be confirmed empirically. Moreover, linguistic philosophy is a bully; any thinker who does not conform to the framework in which the linguistic analysis works is not doing philosophy. Rather, he is, according to the linguistic analysts, dreaming.

But let’s go a little deeper. What exactly do these philosophers do, if not metaphysics? These are the philosophers who demand to control nature which now “appears within the reaches of scientific and technical progress” (172). This is a philosophy toward an end of philosophy. This is what we looked at in chapter 5 when Marcuse says that Eros is eclipsed by Logos. Marcuse uses Wittgenstein’s obsession with the phrase “my broom is in the corner” to point out that this sort of philosophy does indeed free us. It frees us from hard questions: like what is justice? And it replaces them with banalities about empirical location and sensation (e.g. the taste of a pineapple). Marcuse also quotes at length a passage from J.L. Austin in which the British linguist strips down to its most bare essentials and particularities the “two rather different ways of being hesitant” (Austin, Logic an Language, 137). Marcuse lauds this passage for its clarity and exactitude but then swiftly pronounces that “not only [are clarity and exactness] not enough, but [they are] destructive of philosophic thought, and of critical thought as such” (176). Now Marcuse is not saying that philosophers should not write clearly but that Austin’s attempt to understand what it means to be hesitant is so constraining to the idea of hesitation that it destroys it. Marcuse thinks that the way linguists treat language voids it of its referential nature and strips it of content.  To my mind, this is a lot like saying a word until it loses meaning.

To Marcuse the way that linguistic philosophers control language and therefore discourse is what hamstrings philosophy. He quotes Wittgenstein who wrote in Philosophical Investigations that “philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language” (178).  But for Marcuse there are two kinds of discourse at work and so there need not be any interference.  To Marcuse “everyday language” uses sentences which have an immediate function by “causing behavioral results” (179). On the other hand, in philosophical discourse “the word remains, as it were, unfulfilled” (179), i.e., words in philosophical discourse do not imply or suggest a response which could be given in the empirical world. Rather philosophical discourse is meant to evoke and “give rise to other thoughts” (179). To Marcuse, the hyperanalyzation of linguistic analysis in academia has cut us off from the philosophical discourse which conjures “ghosts.” (I wonder if perhaps, it is not that philosophy shouldn’t interfere with the use of language but that normal language should not interfere with philosophy.)

What is the nature of this veil which occludes philosophy from metaphysics? What does linguistic analysis do that makes metaphysics inaccessible? Marcuse claims that the linguistic turn in philosophy manages to establish “a self-sufficient world of its own, closed and well protected against the ingression of disturbing external factors” (182). To explain this quote we need to return briefly to the therapy metaphor. Remember that to Marcuse hyperanalyzation is essentially the psychological defense mechanism of the academic culture in response to the trauma of WWII, i.e., in this traumatic world it is better to deal with empirical data than with spectral metaphysical ideas. And this is where the phrase “self-sufficient” becomes so important. Linguistic philosophers tend to see metaphysicians as so dissatisfied with the empirical world that they need to go beyond it and conjure ghosts to explain it to themselves. According to Marcuse, by focusing on the empirical world and emphasizing the use of the everyday language, linguistic philosophers enclose themselves within a framework that seems to dispense with need for metaphysics to produce answers. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: it just needs a little rearranging.

Linguistic philosophers turn the focus of philosophy away from metaphysics because they are searching for empirical certainty in light of the disaster and suffering brought on by war and international strife. They sequester themselves in a bubble of safety which avoids the trauma of the real world and disavows the importance of metaphysical notions. They do all this so that, within the safe confines of hyperanalyzation, there can be answers.

But in the end the world is not explained by simple and clear language. Instead, Marcuse says, “We understand each other only through whole areas of misunderstanding and contradiction. The real universe of ordinary language is that of the struggle for existence. It is indeed an ambiguous, vague, obscure universe, and it is certainly in need of clarification” (198-9). He talks about the way that poetry and literature cannot fully function in a world in which “the explosive historical dimension of meaning is silenced” (198). The linguistic philosophers of modern academia magnify the immediate world to the point that nothing has meaning anymore, and, in their wake, as Marcuse puts it, they leave “a ghost more ghostly than those which the analysis combats” (194).

The real task of philosophy, Marcuse suggests, is to “make the established language itself speak what it conceals or excludes” (195). In other words, the mission of philosophers is not to try to make what’s immediate and empirical say more but to make what’s hidden behind language come to light.

Marcuse is probably thinking of Heidegger’s aletheia here, a truth achieved through ontological revealing rather than empirical confirmation. But it is important that Marcuse encourages a philosophy which does not shy away from reality. The trauma is there, but hidden beneath it is the cure. Heidegger quotes Holderlin: “But where the danger is, grows/ the saving power also.” (The Question Concerning Technology, 28).  And I think that this is close to what Marcuse himself wants to say. We should not attempt to escape the traumatic reality behind hyperanalysis. Rather we must remain critical of establishment thinking by embracing the trauma and by believing in ghosts.

— Jacob Glover


  • Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Perennial, 1977.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964


Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Oct 312012

The book is a gentle rhythmic meditation on life, on youth and adulthood, on loneliness and the constant struggle to keep it at bay. Bright, colorful descriptions abound; the reader can almost smell Auckland in the spring, can feel the sky high and cloudless above. If nothing else this novel seduces its reader into the world Perkins builds with words, physical, lonely and yet absolutely beautiful. — Erin Stagg

The Forrests
By Emily Perkins
340 pages, Bloomsbury Circus, $15.00
ISBN 978 1 4088 0923 5

From the first page of The Forrests Emily Perkins immerses the reader in a world overwhelmed with the sensual experience of living. Colors abound. Bodies swell and diminish. The characters are constantly kissing, caressing and rejoicing in physical contact. Even inanimate items such as sidewalks and movie cameras bulge and undulate. Emily Perkins uses this carnal imagery to tie her novel together, creating continuity throughout. But Perkins also uses physical imagery to insulate her main character Dorothy Forrest from the ugliness and difficulty of death, poverty and loss, thus creating tension.

Emily Perkins is a New Zealand writer who spent her youth waiting tables and trying to carve out a career as an actress. In 1993, however, she studied creative writing at The University of Victoria Wellington, and three years later she published her first collection of short stories. Since then she has lived in London, moved back to New Zealand, and won various international awards including the Buddle Findlay Frank Sargeson Fellowship and a Montana Book Award in 2009. The New Zealand Herald has referred to her recently “the darling of New Zealand literature.” She now lives in Auckland where teaches writing and hosts a evening literary TV Program called The Good Word. Since the publication of her earlier novel, Novel About My Wife, Perkins has established herself as one of the most popular writers working currently in New Zealand.

The Forrests recounts the life of Dorothy Forrest from childhood to old age. The novel opens with Dorothy’s father filming her and her siblings as they play in the back garden with a cardboard box. The family has recently moved from New York to Auckland, New Zealand, so that, as their father puts it, “they can live in a cloudless society.” Throughout the novel Dorothy’s family ebbs and flows around her. Her four siblings come and go, moving across the world and coming back to New Zealand again. Her connection to them strengthens and then weakens again. She becomes sexually and emotionally involved with Daniel, a boy who moved in with the family at thirteen and effectively established himself as a sort of adopted sibling. But Daniel leaves to travel the world and Dorothy’s sister Eve follows. Her parents return to New York, taking the youngest sister Ruth with them. Michael distances himself from Dorothy and they lose contact. Eve passes away. And so Dorothy fills the gap, “the love gap,” with babies of her own.

Yet her family continues to come and go from her life. She sees Daniel at a high school reunion but then he disappears again. As part of a therapy program Dorothy gets back in contact Michael and helps him come to terms with his failed company and lonely existence but he moves away to a commune. Her parents die. Her children move away and her husband Andrew divorces her. And so Dorothy is left entirely alone as she dips towards old age. She survives her solitude as she has everything else, by insulating herself with the physicality of the world around her, its smells and colors and tactile pleasures. The novel follows the course of Dorothy’s life chronologically, although spotted with memories that serve as backfill, and is written in the third person point of view, staying mostly close to Dorothy although there are chapters in which Perkins moves the narration to Eve.

Perkins uses references the body to create continuity into the novel. She writes about her characters’ hair, how it is done up and how it changes. Dorothy, for instance, gets gum caught in her hair on her first day of school and her “long blond new-girl American hair” must be cut. Eve cuts hers to match.

Their mother slowly sobered as the haircut progressed. In the small bathroom, Evelyn, still wheezing, watched with solemn interest. When it was done Dot looked like a windblown pixie, and without stopping to study the effect Lee gathered the clippings in a sheet of newspaper and went to make dinner. Eve picked up the scissors from the windowsill, turning their flashing points in the afternoon sun. She bumped Dorothy out of the way of the mirror, lifted a strand of her own hair and began to snip, pausing every now and then to cough. When she’d gone round the front she handed the scissors to Dorothy. ‘Do the back?’ The amount of hair felt alarming in Dot’s hands, but she did it. Eve covered her smile with her palm, and looked at Dot in the mirror, her eyes glazed with croup and anarchy. The room orbited slowly around the scissors. When Eve was well they would go to school together and then look out.

The imagery of hair appears and reappears throughout the novel, tracking and identifying the changes the characters have undergone or are in the process of undergoing. Hair is constantly being cut, clipped, combed, touched, held and dyed pink. When Eve returns from Canada, recently abandoned by Daniel, Dorothy observes her “tawny hair, the energy rising off her like tendrils of smoke, her undeniable fuckability and said, ‘Do you regret coming back?’”

Change is everywhere in this novel. Perkins uses the images of hair, and of the body, to show her characters changing as they live. Dorothy’s ever-changing body grows out of childhood into womanhood and then swells with motherhood, driving the novel forwards.

With the first baby Dorothy had been small enough to fit inside the cot too, to curl up and comfort Grace when she wouldn’t stop crying, and then she got bigger and bigger until now so much of herself pressed against the cot sides while she leaned down that it’s bars creaked and scraped against the wall. A little rubbed line was appearing in the paint.

But these changes are not only physical, in fact the physical change is merely a superficial means of showing the deeper, growing changes that occur within the character’s minds. The changes are the main focus of the tension in this novel, people growing apart and close again, always yearning for someone to keep loneliness away, someone to fill “the love gap.” The only character who welcomes change seems to be Daniel, the wandering, semi-adopted brother who disappears and returns to Dorothy’s life with a tidal consistency.

Nothing out of the ordinary occurs in this novel. Its beauty, perhaps, is that Perkins uncovers the extraordinary in the ordinary. The book is a gentle rhythmic meditation on life, on youth and adulthood, on loneliness and the constant struggle to keep it at bay. Bright, colorful descriptions abound; the reader can almost smell Auckland in the spring, can feel the sky high and cloudless above. If nothing else this novel seduces its reader into the world Perkins builds with words, physical, lonely and yet absolutely beautiful.

—Erin Stagg


Erin Stagg is a freshly-minted graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. She grew up in Taos, New Mexico, studied Spanish at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and now lives in New Zealand where she teaches skiing in the winter and works in retail in the summer. She was awarded the 2002 Wellesley College Johanna Mankiewicz Davis Prize for Prose Fiction. Her short fiction has also appeared in The Battered Suitcase.

Oct 192012

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Casper David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Contributing Editor Pat Keane goes from strength to strength; sometimes I feel that inviting him to write for NC I unleashed one of those Platonic demons — a torrent of thought, word, reference, and wit has erupted. This time he has outdone himself — “Mountain Visions and Imaginative Usurpations” is my favourite of his essays so far. He begins with Columbus sighting America but only uses that as an occasion, as a peg upon which to weave a gorgeous meditation on mountains, mountains in literature, sublimity, and poetry. Pat has more than a way with words and the gift of intelligence; he has vast reading and an astonishing memory — he seems to live in a house of words (in his mind), reaching this quotation and that off the shelf at will. Focused primarily on Wordsworth’s The Prelude, the essay leaps also from Petrarch (climbing a mountain) to Augustine, to Keats, to Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli” — see image below), to Emerson, to Kant and Nietzsche, and every reference is cited with intimate familiarity as if the author’s mind and the culture of ideas have somehow melded (think Vulcan mind-meld). Such feats are a deep pleasure in the reading. Hell, I am editing and publishing this AND I keep taking notes on the side for myself.





This essay was completed on the first day of October, 2012. Five hundred and twenty years ago almost to the day, a man saw something, a kind of vision. “About 10 o’clock at night, while standing on the sterncastle, I thought I saw a light to the west. It looked like a little wax candle bobbing up and down….The moon, in its third quarter, rose in the east shortly before midnight…. Then, two hours after midnight, the Pinta fired a cannon, my prearranged signal for the sighting of land. I now believe that the light I saw earlier was a sign from God and that it was truly the first positive indication of land.” The flash of light Christopher Columbus saw from the sterncastle of the Santa Maria on the night of October 11, 1492, transformed human history, mostly if not always for good. Even for those of us open to the ideal vision of America as a City on a Hill, or as earth’s last best hope, there are moments when mindless chants of “USA! USA!,” accompanied by an increasingly jingoistic insistence on American “exceptionalism,” make us appreciate, if not quite endorse, Mark Twain’s sardonic entry for the traditional date in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar: “THE DISCOVERY. It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been even more wonderful to miss it.”

Columbus’s Diario or log reveals a man of single-minded intensity, though hardly one with the elevated perspective marking the genuine visionary. I’m interested on this occasion in what I’m calling mountain vision; and, symbolically speaking, Columbus’s shipboard tower or sterncastle simply wasn’t high enough. He took the Bahamas for China and Cuba for Japan, and can hardly be said (anymore than the Norsemen 500 years earlier) to have “discovered” a world populated for millennia by native peoples, for whom Columbus’s voyage proved to be anything but a “sign from God”—emerging, instead, as a negative form of what William Wordsworth, describing the relation between the physical sight of mountains and the transforming power of imagination, termed “usurpation.”

And yet, in the full sense of the word, it was obviously “wonderful” to find America. The European Renaissance, an exciting Age of Exploration and Discovery, had a kind of rebirth in the Romantic period, which in many ways replicated that earlier explosion of science, exploration, and wonder-struck literature. The title of Richard Holmes’s splendid 2008 book seems inevitable: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The discoveries discussed by Holmes—by men like Joseph Banks, William Herschel, and Humphry Davy—were, of course, anticipated by the discoveries of such Renaissance and post-Renaissance men as Robert Hooke, Andreas Vesalius, and Isaac Newton. As if to confirm the link between the two Ages, Wordsworth added some lines to the epic poem that would be posthumously published as The Prelude. Recalling the statue of Newton at Cambridge, “with his prism and his silent face,” the poet paid tribute to the range of Newton’s extraordinary and solitary genius: “The marble index of a mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” (III.62-63).

Wordsworth added those magnificent lines in 1838. In October, 1816, a younger Romantic poet, John Keats, evoked an adventurous quest for knowledge resembling that attributed by Wordsworth to Newton, and also connecting Romantic-era science with the age of European Discovery. Writing more than three centuries after Columbus, the young Keats unforgettably recaptured that initial sense of wondrous exploration and revelation. In the octave of his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats depicts himself as an explorer of “goodly states” and islands dedicated to the god of poetry. But for a young reader ignorant of Greek a vast continent or ocean lay unexplored:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
………..And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
………..Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
………..That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
………..Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.

Seeking analogues to express the sense of unexpected discovery he experienced on first reading Homer in the vigorous Elizabethan translation of George Chapman, Keats, in the sestet, deploys ocular images, astronomical and exploratory, of sudden revelation, stunned vision. He begins by evoking the discovery in 1781 of the planet Uranus by William Herschel, about which Keats had read in a book given him as a school prize: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken…”

But his second and clinching simile reflects his reading about geographical discovery in the Americas. Keats may, like Columbus, have been mistaken in details—it was not Cortez but Balboa who looked out upon the unexpected Pacific from the mountain at the Isthmus of Panama. But no one has better captured the awestruck moment of mountain vision, of revelation from the heights. Keats envisions the heroic conquistadore,

…………………….when with eagle eyes
…………..He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
…………..Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Poetic technique and form alone cannot account for that breakthrough into the Sublime—the assonance, alliteration, and double caesura that produce that final catch-in-the-breath moment, with its attendant sense of monumental tranquility. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that Keats should cast his revelation in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (rhymed abbaabba cdcdcd). The Italian Renaissance humanist, poet, and scholar Francesco Petrarca not only established an enduring form for the sonnet; he may be said to have initiated the modern sense of mountain vision. Keats depicts the discoverer and his men atop Mount Darien, that peak on the Isthmus of Panama. On April 26, 1336, Petrarch and his brother climbed a 6,000 foot peak, Mount Ventoux. His “only motive” for making “the ascent of the highest mountain in the region,” he writes a friend, “was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” In his letter he describes the ascent in realistic detail. Unlike his brother, Petrarch tried easier, more circuitous paths up the mountain before realizing that, ultimately, he had to face the difficult ordeal of a tough vertical climb. Suspended between Medieval allegory, Renaissance symbolism, and the sheer exertion and exhilaration of the climb and the final prospect from the heights, Petrarch gives us a version of the old dialogue between body and soul, flesh and spirit, the outer and the inner worlds. In short, the climb, as literary as it is actual, is a spiritual as well as a physical ascent; and in describing it the great humanist pays no less tribute to the classical writers of pagan antiquity than he does to Christian saints.

Appropriately, however, since the friend to whom he wrote this letter was an Augustinian monk, Petrarch emphasizes Saint Augustine, a small-sized codex copy of whose Confessions, given him by his friend, he took with him on his ascent. Once atop the mountain, Petrarch took out the book and, he swears, opened the text (as Augustine himself famously had, turning at random to Romans XIII.13:13-14, at the moment of his conversion) to a revelatory passage. The words Petrarch opened to occur at Confessions, X. viii. 15: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” Brooding on Augustine, Petrarch “thought in silence” of we who “neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within.” Clinching the analogy between his initially meandering route up the mountain and his final direct ascent, Petrarch ends his paysage moralisé by requesting his friend’s prayer that “these vague and wandering thoughts of mine may sometime become firmly fixed, and, after having been vainly tossed about from one interest to another, may direct themselves at last toward the single, true, certain, and everlasting good.” (Letter to Dionysio da Borga San Sepolcro)



For more than four centuries, for reasons elaborated in Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959), the human view from and of mountains, thought to be deformed expressions of God’s wrath, was largely eclipsed in Western literature. Perhaps recalling Moses on Sinai, John Milton has several supernatural “mountain” scenes in Paradise Lost. In Book V, his archangel Raphael, describing at Adam’s request the revolt in heaven, depicts “the Father infinite,” together with his Son, announcing his decision to appoint that Son Lord and vice-regent, “as from a flaming mount, whose top/ Brightness had made invisible.” This luminous eminence is echoed later in Book V, when Raphael envisions a third of the angelic host approaching Lucifer-Satan on his “royal seat/ High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount/ Rais’d on a mount,” with the chief of the rebelling angels “Affecting all equality with God,/ In imitation of that mount whereon/ Messiah was declar’d in sight of heaven” (V.596-99, 756-58, 764-65). Still later, in the final Book, Milton’s angel Michael, a “seer blest,” reveals the far future to fallen Adam from a height, assuring him as they descend that, thanks to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the Eden lost by Adam and Eve despite Raphael’s warning will be replaced by a “paradise within thee, happier far” (XIV..587).

Benjamin Robert Hayden’s 1842 portrait of Wordsworth (then 72), posed against Helvellyn Peak, a Lake District mountain (the third highest in England) often climbed by the poet). The painting was inspired by a Wordsworth sonnet commemorating one such climb.

This seems a version of the Petrarchan quest for “what is to be found only within.” But it took Milton’s great heir, William Wordsworth, to return poetry to human heights and to secularly redeem the false sense of “divinity within,” an autonomous instinct that proved lethal to Adam and Eve (Paradise Lost IX. 1010), but which defines the creative Imagination for poets in the Romantic tradition. Naturalizing supernaturalism, and fusing the power of Milton, and of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant on the Beautiful and the Sublime, with his own climbing experiences in the mountainous Lake District of England, in Wales, and in the French Alps, Wordsworth gives us, at two climactic moments of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, unforgettable examples of mountain vision.

Those symbolic moments (in Books VI and XIV) are foreshadowed in the opening Book. Dramatizing the fair seed-time in which he “grew up/Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” Wordsworth describes, among his boyish sports, stealing birds’ eggs from mountain nests. Though the object was “mean,” the outcome “was not ignoble.” In a terrifying but thrilling moment of enhanced sensory apprehension, the solitary climber, hung perilously on the cliff, is caught up in that sublime “motion” that, for Wordsworth, animates the vital universe. The descriptions are virtually identical in the 1805 (lines 341-50) and 1850 (lines 330-39) versions of The Prelude. Here I cite the 1850 text:

……………….Oh! When I have hung
Above the Raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill-sustained; and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag; Oh, at that time,
When on the perilous ridge, I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears! The sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

Registering the ministry of fear more than of beauty, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would echo these lines in one of the “terrible sonnets” of 1885. “Pitched past pitch of grief” in the dark night of his soul, he interiorized Wordsworth’s moment “hung” on the cliff: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap/ May who ne’er hung there.” As Hopkins knew, mountain terror rears its head elsewhere in Wordsworth’s accounts of his youthful activities in this first Book of The Prelude. In the famous boat-stealing episode, the boy (whose stealth and guilt echo that of pear-thieving Augustine in the Confessions), is not only surrounded by “mountain-echoes.” As he rows farther from the shore, his changing perspective reveals “a huge peak, black and huge,” which, hitherto hidden below the horizon, now “towered up between me and the stars,” and “strode” after him, “with purpose of its own/ And measured motion.” The memory of this terrifying spectacle—self-created by the rower yet soul-fostering” and sublime in its effect—plunged him into a world of “unknown modes of being,” with no familiar or pleasant shapes, but “huge and mighty Forms” that “moved slowly through the mind/ By day, and were a trouble to my dreams” (1850: I. 356-400).

Sublimity supersedes fear in the crossing of the Simplon Pass in Book VI. Traveling in revolutionary France in the summer of 1790, Wordsworth and a fellow climber, Robert Jones, journeyed to the Alps, the majesty of the mountains further inspiring their revolutionary hopes. The great passage is foreshadowed by a brief but telling description of how they “first/ Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved/ To have a soulless image on the eye” (the actual sight of Mont Blanc), which “had usurped upon a living thought/ That never more could be” (VI [1805]453-57). The living thought temporarily  “usurped” is Wordsworth’s imagination of the great mountain, its summit more dramatically “Unveiled” in the 1850 version, but its merely Alpine sublimity still inferior to the imaginative power of what Wordsworth’s perceptive admirer Keats would later refer to as “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.”

That usurpation will be repeated, and crucially reversed, seventy lines later. Climbing along the “steep and lofty” Simplon Pass, ascending with eagerness, Wordsworth and his friend lose both their way and their comrades. At length, they encounter a peasant who tells them that they must “descend” to the spot where they first became perplexed, and that “their future course, all plain to sight,/Was downwards.” Reluctant to believe what they so “grieved” to hear, for, as Wordsworth emphasized in 1850, “still we had hopes that pointed to the clouds,” they question the peasant repeatedly, yet every word, augmented by their own feelings, ended in the fact (italicized in 1850) “that we had crossed the Alps” (524).

And here I pause to report another kind of “discovery.” On the very day I thought I had written the final version of this section of my essay, a newly-published book arrived in the mail: English Past and Present, edited by Wolfgang Viereck, consisting of papers selected from an IAUPE conference held in Malta. One essay caught my eye: “Constructions of Identity in Romanticism: The Case of William Wordsworth,” written by a distinguished German Romantic scholar and friend, Christoph Bode. To my initial dismay and eventual delight (an appropriately Wordsworthian trajectory), I discovered that he, too, was examining, with characteristic brilliance, the mountain episodes in The Prelude. Though relieved that we took the same general position, I was humbled by the ingenuity of his nuanced discussion.

For example—to return to and refocus on that crossing of the Alps—Bode persuasively argues that “it is almost as if, contrary to what the preceding lines say, Wordsworth is immensely relieved to know that from now on it is downhill.” While there is surely some disappointment (including Wordsworth’s feeling of having been betrayed by bodily senses and instincts that should have informed him when he was at the high point), compensation, though it came in retrospect, takes the form of a glorious rhetorical outpouring which is, as Bode says, “one of the most impressive apotheoses of the imagination in Wordsworth’s entire oeuvre.” The experience in the Alps was then, 1790. Now, a decade and a half later, its hidden significance is revealed in a visionary experience that apparently came to Wordsworth primarily if not exclusively in the act of writing about that Alpine crossing. Though I prefer the 1850 version, the layering of time requires citation of the 1805 text:

………………..Imagination! Lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my Song
Like an unfathered vapour; here that Power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me; I was lost as in a cloud,
Halted without an effort to break through.
And now, recovering, to my Soul I say
I recognize thy glory; in such strength
Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes, that have shown to us
The invisible world, doth Greatness make abode,
There harbors, whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be. (525-42)

What Wordsworth, that preeminent prophet of human hope, realizes in retrospect is that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. For Romantics enlisted in the visionary company, the glory of the human spirit consists, not in attaining the attainable but in striving for the infinite, even if our mortal capabilities are necessarily finite. Reversing the previous “usurpation,” in which the physical sight of Mont Blanc imposed upon an imaginative vision, Wordsworth, “recovering,” can say to his more conscious soul: “I recognize thy glory.” It is the glory of that “awful Power” which, through “sad incompetence of human speech” (1850 version), we call “Imagination.” This is the creative Romantic Imagination, whose “strength/ Of usurpation” succeeds and supersedes the mere “light of sense,” extinguished “in flashes” that reveal to us “the invisible world.”

The lines immediately following confirm the political analogy. Once ardently committed to the French Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!”), Wordsworth in effect revokes that delusory dream of a material, external Eden in favor of a paradise within:

The mind beneath such banners militant
Thinks not of spoils or trophies, nor of aught
That may attest its prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in itself, and in the access of joy
Which hides it like the overflowing Nile. (543-48)

Later readers have often been distressed by Wordsworth’s increasingly orthodox religiosity (traceable in the 1850 version of these lines, where the “mind” becomes “the soul,” and that overflowing “access of joy” a more pious “beatitude”). Some will also deem his personal conversion of politics into a cognitive, imaginative revolution less courageous than a retreat to quietism. Here, it seems powerfully validated by those intuitive “flashes” (recalling the Intimations of Immortality Ode’s “master light of all our seeing”) revealing both the invisible world and a “greatness” that transcends any merely external triumph. The language remains martial, but, as Yeats would later ask in an unpublished lecture titled “Friends of My Youth”: “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle? a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” Writing in 1805, at the apogee of the empire of Napoleon, that usurper of the Revolution, who had by then twice exploited the strategic significance of the Simplon Pass (the shortest route between Paris and Milan) by building suspended bridges across the ravine), centripetal Wordsworth is no less dismissive of external battle, its spoils and trophies, and equally insistent on inward strength. Like Paul, Milton, Blake, and Yeats himself, Wordsworth elevates spiritual or imaginative struggle over “corporeal warfare.”

Having recorded the inner reward of mountain vision, the poet returns to the initiating experience. Overcoming the “dull and heavy slackening” that ensued on hearing the peasant’s news, Wordsworth and his friend hastened down a narrow chasm, their pace slowing as they descended. What Wordsworth sees and hears (rocks muttering, crags speaking “as if a voice were in them”) in the Gorge of Gondo is at once natural and epiphanic. The clash of polar opposites is apocalyptically reconciled, natural flux ending in permanent form, tumult in a final peace:

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And everywhere along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, the region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end. (VI. 556-72)

The Alpha and Omega of Revelation is fused—though, in Wordsworth’s case, with no reference to God—with Adam’s prayer (Paradise Lost V. 153-65) that the things of this world should extol their Creator, “him first, him last, him midst, and without end.” Though the revelation, at last, of the natural sublimity of the mountain landscape is revealed when Wordsworth is descending, we may be reminded of Petrarch, meditating on his ascent of the mountain and seeking his friend’s prayer that his “wandering thoughts” may become “more coherent” and, having been “cast in all directions,…may direct themselves at last to the one, true, certain, and never-ending good.” Both poets are internalizing the external mountain scenery, but while Petrarch’s terms are specifically Christian and moral, Wordsworth’s language, though echoing the Bible and Milton, remains nonsectarian, mysterious, Sublime. There is a striking resemblance (coincidental or a reflection of Coleridge’s Kantian influence on his friend) to Kant’s theory of the sublime, a feeling experienced when, however overwhelmed or even terrified as a merely sensual being, one realizes that, through the power of Reason, “a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense,” one is able to form an idea of the Infinite. As Bode notes of Wordsworth’s Alpine descent, now that the mountains, with all their “infinite grandeur,” are “identified as the external representation of something internal, they are no longer terrifying, but [in a serious pun] downright uplifting. The landscape does not praise God, it praises Mind,” in its most exalted, or intuitive, form: that of the creative Imagination.



Appropriately, inevitably, the final Book of The Prelude gives us, along with Wordsworth’s climactic mountain vision, his re-assertion of the even more sublime power of the creative imagination, that glorious faculty (to quote the final lines of both versions of The Prelude) almost infinitely “more beautiful than the earth” on which “man dwells, above this Frame of things,” in “beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of substance and of fabric more divine.” Since in this case, and in both versions, the inner meaning of what was seen and heard on the mountain was recognized during the climb rather than retrospectively, and since in this case the 1850 version is rhetorically superior, I will quote the later text.

Accompanied again by his friend Jones and a third companion, the poet ascended at night the highest peak in Wales, “to see the sun/ Rise from the top of Snowdon.” Climbing with “eager pace, and no less eager thoughts,” Wordsworth was in the lead, when suddenly “at my feet the ground brightened,/And with a step or two seemed brighter still.” No time was “given to ask, or learn, the cause;/ For instantly a light upon the turf/ Fell like a flash.” Unlike the inner “flash” of Imagination revealing “the invisible world” in Book VI, this flash of light comes from above. It is not, however, the rising sun, the spectacle that motivated this nocturnal excursion, but the lunar recipient of the sun’s reflected light:

………………..lo! As I looked up,
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist. (XIV. 5-6, 35-42)

The vapors project over headlands and promontories, “Into the main Atlantic, that appeared/ To dwindle, and give up his majesty,/Usurped upon as far as sight could reach” (46-50). But the mist does not encroach upon the heavens, dominated by “the full-orbed Moon,/Who, from her solemn elevation, gazed/ Upon the billowy ocean, as it lay/All meek and silent,” except for the noise audible through a rift in the clouds. Through that rift (in lines recalling the Gorge of Gondo, though reversing perspective) “Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams/ Innumerable, roaring with one voice!” (50-60). Once reflected upon with “calm thought,” what he describes as “That Vision, given to Spirits of the night,/And three chance human wanderers,” appeared to the climber “the type/ Of a majestic intellect.” As Wordsworth’s language reveals, that emblematic Mind is a secular variation on Milton’s Holy Spirit “brooding” dove-like over the “vast abyss,” making Chaos fruitful (Paradise Lost I. 20-22):

There I beheld the emblem of a Mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege. (70-77)

While the mountain scene is natural, and we mount to vision through the senses, those truly gifted recognize the transcendent power of the mind, its capacity to creatively mold and convert sensory apprehensions of the outward show of innumerable and ever-changing phenomena into ideal and emblematic forms, permanent and unified. The initial project, “to see the sun/ Rise from the top of Snowdon,” is now utterly beside the point. Even the moon, “hung in a firmament/ Of azure without cloud,” beautiful as it is, is secondary not only to its source of light, the sun, but to another power that bathes the world in luminous meaning. This transforming, or “usurping,” power is, as always, that of the human mind in its highest form, “intuitive Reason” (120), by which Wordsworth—like Milton, Coleridge, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—means what Coleridge called the “shaping spirit of Imagination.” For Coleridge and those he influenced, the Romantic Imagination—a faculty at once emotional, cognitive, and spiritual—echoes and alters the epistemological re-orientation announced in the “Transcendental Idealism” section of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: that “Copernican revolution” in which the shaping mind gives form to the external objects it perceives, subordinating things to thought, just as the sensual is ultimately dominated by the cognitive in Kant’s theory of the Sublime.

Reflecting his own Coleridgean reading of Kant, Emerson ended his seminal text, ironically titled Nature, by asserting “the kingdom of man over nature.” An equally Coleridgean Wordsworth, speaking directly to his friend, writes that, together, they will “instruct” others (in the concluding lines of this epic poem dedicated to Coleridge) “how the mind of Man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells,” being “In beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine” (1850: XIV, 450-56). In the Snowdon passage, struggling to depict the reciprocal relationship between the mind and external Nature, Wordsworth falls back on epistemologically slippery or at least paradoxical formulations (“mutual domination,” “interchangeable supremacy”), and an emphasis on the senses and emotion  before, inevitably, celebrating the power of the all-illuminating mind:

One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
‘Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things,
So moulded, joined, abstracted; so endowed
With interchangeable supremacy,
That men least sensitive see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel. The power which all
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus
To bodily sense exhibits, is the express
Resemblance of that glorious faculty
That higher minds bear with them as their own. (78-90)

The passage is complex, but what emerges is the supremacy of what Nature merely “shadowed there”—namely, that “glorious faculty,” the creative Imagination, in the exercise of which the highest human minds, at once reflecting and exceeding the orchestrating but limited power of Kant’s pure Reason, resemble Miltonic “angels stopped upon the wing by sound/ Of harmony from heaven’s remotest spheres” (98-99).



The Prelude has long been recognized as, next to Paradise Lost itself, the greatest poem of its length in English. Excerpts, including the crossing of the Simplon Pass, appeared during Wordsworth’s lifetime, but the poem as a whole became public only after the poet’s death, in 1850. The long poem known to his contemporaries was not his autobiographical epic, but The Excursion (1814), the poem intended to be second in the triadic structure announced in the prefatory poem:  “a kind of Prospectus of the design and scope of the whole” of his project, including the culminating epic, to be called The Recluse. This so-called “Prospectus” to The Recluse was of immense importance to Emerson, who reprinted its 107 lines in his anthology, Parnassus, under his own title, “Outline.” Emerson was also impressed by the poem it accompanied, The Excursion, a lesser epic which nevertheless contains several notable mountain visions. In his 1840 essay “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” Emerson remarked that “The Excursion awakened in every lover of nature the right feeling. We saw stars shine, we felt the awe of mountains….” He is recalling those moments in Book I (paralleling the formative personal experiences recounted in the opening Book of The Prelude) where the boy who would become the Wanderer interacted with the natural world. We encounter him, as Emerson remembered, as he “all alone/ Beheld the stars come out above his head” (128-29), and “felt the awe of mountains.” That boy knew his Bible; “But in the mountains did he feel his faith” (223), a feeling of sublimity in which “the least of things/ Seemed infinite; and there his spirit shaped/ Her prospects; nor did he believe,–he saw.”

…………..Such was the Boy—but for the growing Youth
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked—
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean’s liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him:–far and wide the clouds were touched
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love…his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation soul, and form,
All melted into him…in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life. (197-210)

At such times, the Wanderer was “Rapt into still communion that transcends/ The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,/ His mind was a thanksgiving to the power/ That made him; it was blessedness and love!” (215-18). It is hardly surprising that the American Transcendentalist, who most famously presents himself rapt in a still communion in which he becomes “a transparent eyeball” (recapturing as well the moment in “Tintern Abbey,” when “we see into the life of things”) should respond so intensely to such a transcendent moment, and even think that “obviously for that passage” the whole of The Excursion “was written.” Emerson had, as any one would, reservations about the didactic stretches of The Excursion (“This will never do,” Francis Jeffrey’s famous Edinburgh Review dismissal of the long-awaited epic, has resonated with more than a few readers). But there were other passages than the one for which the poem was “obviously” written that also haunted Emerson. At certain privileged and precarious moments (he recorded in his journal) the soul “in raptures unites herself to God and Wordsworth truly said, “’Tis the most difficult of tasks to keep/ Heights which the soul is competent to gain’” (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 4:87). Emerson often cited these lines (Excursion IV.139-40), most memorably in his late essay “Inspiration,” where he laments the unpredictability and evanescence of such moments on the “Heights”: “with us” there is “a flash of light, then a long darkness, then a flash again…This insecurity of possession, this quick ebb of power…tantalizes us.”

Emerson was also fascinated by a related moment of “sublimity” in Book II of The Excursion, a vision experienced, as Emerson records in his journal, by “Wordsworth’s Recluse on the mountain” (JMN 8:51). The blinding mountain mist momentarily parts and the Recluse (or Solitary) glimpses “Glory beyond all glory ever seen.” He has a vision of a heavenly city, a natural phenomenon revelatory of the supernatural, an intimation of immortality (II. 827-81). Emerson, along with John Ruskin (Modern Painters, 364), thought this the most sublime of Wordsworth’s mountain visions. But Emerson was also affected by the mountain perspective with which The Excursion ends: a vision of a magnificent sunset seen from a “grassy mountain’s open side,” an “elevated spot” surrounded “by rocks impassable and mountains huge” (IX. 570-612).

All of these Wordsworthian mountain visions were consciously echoed by Emerson, striving to attain an elevated, enlarged, more affirmative perspective, especially at times when he was desperately seeking consolation in distress. Emerson suffered many familial tragedies, among them the premature death in 1836 of his closest brother, Charles. For all his alleged, even notorious “serenity,” Emerson had, five years earlier, intensely mourned the death of his nineteen-year-old wife, Ellen. In the privacy of his journal he confronted “that which passes away & never returns,” almost fearing that “this miserable apathy” will wear off, and that he will resume among his friends “a tranquil countenance.” He may even, stooping again to “little hopes & little fears,”

forget the graveyard. But will thy eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers, & all poetry, with the heart & life of an enchanting friend. No. There is one birth & one baptism & and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men. (JMN 3:226-27)

Retreating to the solitude of the White Mountains, and then sailing to Europe to meet Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, Emerson had eventually recovered from that loss. But as he turned from Charles’s grave, he asked with an enigmatic laugh, what there was “worth living for.” Two weeks later, though he could say, “night rests on all sides upon the facts of our being,” he could also add: we “must own, our upper nature lies always in Day” (Letters 2:19-25). But in the immediate aftermath of the devastating loss of his brother, Emerson fell into a despondency relieved, he tells us, by intense reading of Wordsworth: “Tintern Abbey,” the Intimations Ode (his favorite poem), and, again, the speeches of the Wanderer in The Excursion. “Those who have ministered to my highest needs,” he wrote in his journal for May 9, 1836, “are to me what the Wanderer in The Excursion is to the Poet. And Wordsworth’s total value is of this kind.” Echoing the Ode, as he had in insisting that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” he describes men such as Wordsworth, who offer comfort in distress, as possessing “the true light of all our day.” Their “spirit” constitutes “the argument for the spiritual world” (JMN 5:160-61). Writing in mid-May, after ten days of “helpless mourning,” Emerson began, tentatively, to recover. “I find myself slowly….I remember states of mind that perhaps I had long lost before this grief, the native mountains whose tops reappear after we have traversed many a mile of weary region from our home. Them shall I ever revisit?” (JMN 3:77).

Here, in struggling to achieve that “most difficult of tasks,” to “keep” the Wordsworthian “Heights” or mountain tops he knew the soul was capable of gaining, Emerson was recalling, as a despairing William James later would, the mountain visions and hopeful “states of mind” dramatized by Wordsworth in The Prelude, as well as the consolation offered by his stoical yet enraptured visionary, the Wanderer, especially in the fourth and final Books of The Excursion. Comforted and “elevated” by the Wanderer’s urging of the grief-stricken to convert “sorrow” into “delight,” the “palpable oppressions of despair” into the “active Principle” of hope (Excursion IV. 1058-77; IX. 20-26), a grieving Emerson saw the “tops” of his own “native mountains” begin to reappear, to feel an influx of hope, power, and that “glad light” that is, as he says, “the true light of all our day.” In the journal-entry mourning the loss of Ellen, Emerson had feared that he was forever cut off from nature and from life itself, since there is only “one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth.” That imagery is related to his persistent evocation of the “light of all our day.” To quote the lines he repeatedly, almost obsessively, cites or paraphrases from Wordsworth’s great Ode, Emerson is struggling to recover

……………………………….those first affections,
…………………….Those shadowy recollections
…………..Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing….(Ode, lines 148-52)

Since the recollection of those “first affections” and the intimations of immortality inherent in that light “Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make/ Our noisy years,” including “all that is at enmity with joy,” seem mere “moments in the being/ Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake/ To perish never,” it is not surprising that, in quoting the lines, Emerson invariably elevated “a master light of all our seeing” to “the master light of all our seeing.” There is one other reason, immediately relevant to the theme of this essay, for my emphasis on the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Since we began with the “light” seen by Columbus on October 11, 1492, and have been emphasizing, beginning with Keats’s discovery-sonnet and Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux, the imaginative internalization of exploration, it seems worth adding that, for Emerson, Wordsworth’s great Ode was, above all, a momentous act of discovery. The poem was, he insisted, a “new” voyage “through the void,” representing the “high-water mark” the human mind “has reached in this age….No courage has surpassed that” of the Ode’s author, “this finer Columbus” (JMN 14:98). Emerson revisited that journal entry, reinforcing his variation on the imperial theme, a variation resembling Wordsworth’s sublimation of “banners militant” and “trophies” of war in the lines on the crossing of the Simplon Pass. Emerson concludes chapter 17 of English Traits by asserting that Wordsworth’s Ode added “new realms…to the empire of the muse.”



An admirer of the Ode, but a less likely reader of The Excursion, was W. B. Yeats, who set himself—as “a duty to posterity,” according to Ezra Pound, staying with him at Stone Cottage at the time—a Herculean task. He told his father in January 1915 that he had “just started to read through the whole seven volumes of Wordsworth in Dowden’s edition. I have finished The Excursion and begun The Prelude.” But the sententious Wanderer was too facilely optimistic for Yeats’s more astringently joyful taste. Locating himself among “the last Romantics,” Yeats never forgot his boyhood image of Byron’s Manfred, poised in solitude above the clouds on the narrow ledge of the mountain glacier: an image visually echoed in Caspar David Friedrich’s mountain-masterpiece, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted the year after Byron wrote Manfred. In turn, Yeats associated the Byronic hero with Nietzsche—accurately, since the youthful Nietzsche was no less enraptured than was Yeats by the solitary and autonomous Manfred, destined to become one of the principal prototypes of the Űbermensch. Unsurprisingly, Yeats’s ultimate mountain vision, epitomizing “tragic joy,” emerges under auspices less Wordsworthian than Nietzschean. I conclude with Yeats’s superb late poem, “Lapis Lazuli,” written in 1936—precisely a century after Emerson’s journal entries and six centuries after Petrarch ascended Mount Ventoux. Appropriately enough, the poem was published on the eve of World War II.

Writing, like Wordsworth, at a moment of historical crisis, Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe. To counter their consternation, dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents a panorama of civilizations falling and being rebuilt. In his famous “Ode,” Arthur O’Shaughnessy, noting that, while one age may be dying, another is coming to birth, claimed that poets “Built Ninevah with our sighing,/ And Babel itself with our mirth.” An echoing Yeats asserts that “All things fall and are built again,/ And those that build them again are gay”: visionary artists creating out of an ineradicable joy—Homeric, Shakespearean, Nietzschean—in the  face of tragedy. Specifically countering the “hysterical women” of the opening lines, Yeats presents Shakespearean heroines—Ophelia and Cordelia, with the glorious queen of the final act of Antony and Cleopatra in the wings—who “do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and a more specifically Nietzschean joy, the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn. He begins by describing the figures on the stone:

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli;
Over them a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man,
Carries a musical instrument.

In the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats’s empathetic imagination peaks in evoking scenes not pictured on the urn. Speculating about the origin of those in the sacrificial procession in the fourth stanza, he asks: “What little town by river or sea-shore,/ Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,” has been “emptied” of its people, now caught forever, frozen in stone and never to return. In a similar leap of imagination (even to the repeated ors), Yeats goes on to transform into natural aspects of an invented mountain scenery what were mere imperfections in the stone (accidents I almost added to some years ago, nearly dropping the piece of lapis while visiting the home of Michael and Grania Yeats):

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards….

Adopting, as Keats had, what Wordsworth calls the “usurping” power of that “glorious faculty,” the Imagination, Yeats not only transforms defects in the stone into features of mountain scenery; in describing what is depicted on the sculpture, he creatively imagines the immobile climbers (as frozen in stone as Keats’s urn-figures) having actually attained the gazebo they are depicted climbing “towards”:

………………………………and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky
On all the tragic scene they stare….

Once “there,” they attain, thanks to the imaginative intervention of Yeats, a prospect from which, like Keats’s explorers on Darien, they “stare” out, surveying “all.” One of the two Chinese sages requests music from their companion, who, though “doubtless a serving-man,” is the poem’s musician and resident artist. “Accomplished fingers begin to play,” producing silent music from a carved instrument played by a carved man. Addressing the musical instrument carried by the piper carved on the surface of the Grecian urn, Keats insists that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” This “soft” music (just, as it were, beneath the threshold of hearing) is addressed, “Not to the sensual ear,” but, more cherished, “to the spirit.” In both poems, we have an auditory as well as a visual leap of the creative imagination, and an appeal beyond the merely sensual.

The music in “Lapis Lazuli” contributes to the softening of what might have been an austere scene. A few years earlier, in his sonnet “Meru,” Yeats had imagined other mountain visionaries: “Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,/ Caverned in night under the drifted snow,” or exposed to dreadful winter storms that “Beat down upon their naked bodies.” While the poet of “Lapis Lazuli” asserts that all things fall and are built again, the Hindu hermits on their sacred mountain, having entered into “the desolation of reality,” know only that “day brings round the night, that before dawn,” man’s “glory and his monuments are gone.” In “Lapis Lazuli,” where the falling “snow,” far from battering naked bodies, seems indistinguishable from cherry blossoms, the tragic vision ends in tragic affirmation.

The melodies may be “mournful,” but, again balancing East with West, the final movement also registers what Yeats perceptively identified as Nietzsche’s “curious astringent joy.” There is even a conscious echo of the gravity-defying gaya scienza of Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra, who insists (I.7, “On Reading and Writing”) that “he who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness.” Though Yeats didn’t know it, Zarathustra was echoing Wordsworth’s disciple Emerson, in turn a formative influence on the life and work of Nietzsche, who considered him the finest, and most tonic, thinker of the age. Since Emerson himself had referred to the “gay science,” it seems only appropriate that the original epigraph to Nietzsche’s The Gay Science was taken from Emerson.  In a splendid passage of Twilight of the Idols (IX.13), contrasting Emerson with his friend Carlyle, Nietzsche pronounces the former “Much more enlightened, more roving, more manifold, subtler than Carlyle; above all, happier.” Illuminating rather than caricaturing Emersonian “optimism,” Nietzsche associates his mentor with his own Zarathustrian dismissal of the spirit of gravity: “Emerson has that gracious and clever cheerfulness which discourages all seriousness.” Here, at last, are the crucial concluding lines of “Lapis Lazuli,” but they require, as context, re-quotation of the whole of the exquisite final movement:

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

The fact that the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis, that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision. But that in itself also makes it the very epitome of a modern mountain vision, an affirmation, registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene,” in which the eyes, and the Ayes, have it. The eyes of Yeats’s Rembrandt-like Chinamen, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability yet still glittering with tragic joy, recall another Wordsworthian “flash”—the “flash” that breaks from “the sable orbs” of the “yet-vivid eyes” of the decrepit but enduring old leech-gatherer in “Resolution and Independence,” one of Yeats’s favorite Wordsworth poems. Those “ancient glittering eyes” evoke as well the famous “glittering eye” of the Ancient Mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Appropriately enough, Coleridge was the friend to whom Wordsworth dedicated The Prelude, that epic exceeding even the passages of The Excursion that haunted Emerson as the definitive celebration of the sublime glory of mountain vision.


In conclusion: the thematically crucial point is that, for all the high Romantics, early and late, what makes these mountain visions, actual or carved in lapis, truly sublime is that their sensuous, external glory is enhanced—indeed, usurped—by an even greater glory, one “to be found,” as Petrarch said, “only within”: namely, the transforming power of the human imagination. Emphasized in the finales of Emerson’s Nature, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and (as we’ll see in a moment) Keats’s “Ode to Psyche,” that priority is definitively established in the poem in which (as Emerson recognized in re-titling it “Outline”) Wordsworth laid out his entire canonical project. In the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, Wordsworth announces (lines 28-41) that he intends to surpass his master Milton by locating the arena of action in neither the supernatural nor the natural worlds, but within the human mind. Wordsworth is still thinking in terms of mountain gorges and mountain peaks; but, sinking “deep” and ascending “aloft” psychologically rather than physically, he will “pass” by heaven and hell and all other external terrors “unalarmed,” for nothing

………..can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,
My haunt, and the main region of my song.

Fittingly for an admirer of Wordsworth, when John Keats, echoing these lines from the “Prospectus” in the final stanza of the “Ode to Psyche,” declares that he will be Psyche’s solitary “priest, and build a fane/ In some untrodden region of my mind,” he surrounds the sanctuary in that interiorized mental landscape with the “branched thoughts” of “dark-clustered trees” that “Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.”

In context, this oracular landscape is necessarily Greek, which may remind us that in the first of his two break-through poems (the second is this Ode), the young discoverer of the greatest of Greek epic poets imagined, as the climactic analogue of his experience on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the eagle-eyed discoverer of the Pacific staring out, “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” Keats’s poetic temple dedicated to the one neglected goddess in Greek mythology is the autonomous creation of a young poet, as he insists earlier in the Ode, “by my own eyes inspired.” Necessarily, that temple is to be found only within, in “the Mind of Man”: Wordsworth’s “haunt,” and the “main region” of his poetry. When Keats locates his shrine to Psyche in a secluded “region of my mind,” the echo reconfirms that it is a mental edifice, a dome built in air. And yet, in the poet’s imagination—a creative imagination as delighted and fecund as Yeats’s in “Lapis Lazuli”—that shrine is surrounded by “wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.” In short, no matter how interiorized the “region,” it retains, perhaps inevitably given Keats’s reverence of Wordsworth, the vestiges of yet another of his precursor’s imaginatively-transfigured mountain visions.*


*A sad postscript. Keats thought The Excursion, including the “Prospectus” that introduced it, one of the few things “to be wondered at in this age,” and we know, from his friend Benjamin Hayden, that the passage he preferred “to all others” was the beautiful evocation of the world of Greek mythology in Book IV, reanimating the sun-god Apollo with his “blazing chariot” and ravishing lute, and the “beaming” moon-goddess, Diana, moving “across the lawn and through the darksome groves” (850-64). Yet when Keats, urged by Hayden, read aloud to Wordsworth his early “Hymn to Pan,” the older poet famously if somewhat ambiguously responded: “a very pretty piece of paganism,” apparently condemning with faint praise. Would Keats’s hero have thought the same of the far superior “Ode to Psyche”? Though one fervently hopes not, he may have, given his hardening Christian orthodoxy by then, and what Keats perceptively and, with equal ambiguity, designated “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” The “Mind of Man” that was the “main region” of his song was, after all, first and foremost the “mind”—of William Wordsworth.

—Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Oct 182012

Mary Rickert

Mary Rickert writes: “Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god…”  I wish I had written that. Mary is an old friend; she used to live in Saratoga Springs, New York, and once took a class from me at the University at Albany during which she showed me some amazing early stories in which blended myth and fantasy in startling ways. She went off and established herself as an award-winning speculative fiction writer (with two story collections Map of Dreams and Holiday to her credit — she publishes under the name M. Rickert); later she attended Vermont College of Fine Arts — this essay was her critical thesis.

“Angel on Fire: The Gothic World of Sophie’s Choice” is Mary’s summa, her analysis of the Gothic in contemporary literature, the cultural tensions that inform it, and the linguistic (craft) habits that define it. It’s a masterful analysis of an aesthetic that informs much of American  literature from the South, but it’s also Mary’s aesthetic, the thing that drives her compositions and tastes.



The sticky matter of Gothic literature’s standing, the sense that it cannot rise above a certain lowly state, resides in part in the fact that the very word used to define it carries a barbarous connotation.

The Goths were a German tribe who invaded Eastern and Western Europe between the third and fifth centuries. All that remains of this once conquering people is a fourth-century Bible translation, and their poor reputation. The first time the word Gothic was used to describe the architectural form, it was meant as an insult, a way to convey the horror of flying buttresses and turrets so offensive to the notions of good taste that in Oxford, undergraduates and young dons used to stop on their afternoon walks in order to laugh at Keble College, with its Gothic proportions, considered the “ugliest building in the world.”  (Clark 2)

Beauty, in all its forms, is not, in fact, a permanent state but a reflection of the society that defines it. In the eighteenth century, critics classified any deviation from conventional proportion and symmetry as “deformities exhibited by the absence of taste of a barbaric age.” (Botting 20)

Yet a building described as Gothic today is not automatically, or universally, considered an eyesore. In the realm of architecture Gothic has risen above the status of insult. What remains is a form appreciated or derided based on its own particular success.

Opera, obviously reliant upon language in a manner architecture is not, turned to classical myth as early inspiration, believing that music was the natural language of the gods. Yet opera, with its stage suicides, man-to-swan metamorphoses, spousal murders and spurned lovers, arguably populated by the same wide expanse of emotions as the Gothic, is held up as high art, a territory of those with refined or sensitive taste, while Gothic literature is routinely deemed a cheap, sentimental expression of the work of the lower classes. Even the terms associated with Gothic fiction – the “dime novel,” or “penny dreadful” – express this class element: inexpensively produced fiction with the “consequent implication that it is merely a literature of surfaces and sensations.” (Thompson 1)

Gothic literature is, by definition, a “writing of excess,” (Botting 2) “attacked throughout the second half of the eighteenth century for encouraging emotions.”(Botting 4)

While it can be argued that all literature is an art of emotion, consideration must be given to the relative value placed on its expression by the gate-keepers of artistic and social acceptance.

The values that gave shape and direction to the Enlightenment, dominated as it was by writings from Greek and Roman culture, privileged forms of cultural or artistic production that attended to the classical rules. Buildings, works of art, gardens, landscapes and written texts had to conform to precepts of uniformity, proportion and order. (Botting 22)

Distressing as this state of affairs is in a society still largely reliant on an order that has produced wars, genocide and a population which seeks meaning in things, it is particularly disappointing to see in the literary community. After all, who is better suited to break the illusion of “reality” than the artisans of the words by which it is defined?

And yet so febrile is the need to maintain accepted standards of what it means to be good that, as G. R. Thompson writes in the introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism,

classic works of fiction which employ Gothic conventions and subjects… tend not to be critically examined in the tradition of a Gothic mode but in some other, more acceptable tradition of the novel. (1-2)

In other words, if it’s Gothic, how can it be good?

While an exploration of this class divide and its lingering effect on the literary conversation is certainly worthy of attention and inquiry, what I’d like to focus on at this time is an example of the ultimate excellence the Gothic form can achieve. After all, Gothic literature, like all genres (and there are those who consider “literary” another genre) is defined by its content, but that content’s expression has as much opportunity for excellence as any other.

William Stryon’s novel, Sophie’s Choice is narrated by Stingo, remembering the summer when he was twenty-two and rented a Brooklyn apartment in a house painted an “overwhelming pinkness.” (Styron 35) Stingo, a young writer, finds there the source of inspiration for the novel in which we find him: Sophie, a beautiful, intelligent and tragic concentration camp survivor, her charismatic, controlling and dangerous boyfriend, Nathan, and an inheritance of evil that cannot be escaped. This is set, not in some distant era of darkly fantastic origin, but in the twentieth century with its prized rationality. However, Stingo clearly states that his interests and the interests of this novel rest in the Gothic realm:

In my career as a writer I have always been attracted to morbid themes – suicide, rape, murder, military life, marriage, slavery. Even at that early time I knew my first work would be flavored by a certain morbidity – I had the feeling in my bones, it may be called the “tragic   sense” (118-119)

Stingo doesn’t stop with this general allusion to the now famously dark matter of Sophie’s Choice to incite a Gothic reading, but offers several descriptions of characters and material as explicitly Gothic. When he writes of the Cracow of Sophie’s childhood, Stingo describes it as in “Gothic repose.” (95) Elsewhere, he alludes to his own childhood as being bound up “less with the crazy Gothic side of a Southern upbringing.” (220) The reader is introduced to the character Rudolf Franz Hoss as “a leading villain from Central Casting… a modern Gothic freak” (159) whose speech is described as bearing “clotted Gothic ratiocination.” (242)  Near the end of the book, when Stingo reads a letter from Sophie, he notes how the influence of German language has permeated her writing style like “Gothic stone.” (545)

The language of the Gothic tends to be reflective of the excess which defines the form. Gothic language is not tamed into docile sentences that bear little trace of their progenitor. Gothic language, by definition, bares teeth and claws, or as Foucault says in Language to Infinity, “The language of terror is dedicated to an endless expanse…It drives itself out of any possible resting place.” (Botting 1)

The language of Sophie’s Choice moves with liquid grace between the brutal (the first time Stingo meets Nathan he is calling Sophie a cunt) and the beautiful.

Later in the night’s starry hours, chill now with the breath of fall and damp with Atlantic wind, I stood on the beach alone. It was silent here, and save for the blazing stars, enfolding dark; bizarre spires and minarets, Gothic roofs, baroque towers loomed in spidery silhouettes against the city’s afterglow. (Styron 561)

Styron’s use of the poetic resonance created between the words “hours,” “stars,” “spires,” “towers” in conjunction with the flat tonal sounds of “chill,” “fall,” “damp,” “stood,” “dark,” “roofs” energizes this short passage so the reader feels that Gothic reach – grounded by gravity, seeking transcendence.

Styron also uses rhyme with its whimsical notes, for instance, as he does when listing Sophie’s relationship to food. “Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please.” (97) Rhyme is employed as well to direct the reader’s correct pronunciation of two different women’s names while highlighting an attribute of Stingo’s emotional connection with each. “…Maria (rhyming, in Southern fashion with pariah.)” (46) and “Leslie Lapides (rhyming, please, with ‘Ah feed us.’)” (129)

Nathan, Sophie’s troubled boyfriend, has a talent for mimicry used to both charm Stingo and mock his Southern upbringing. “His voice took on the syrupy synthetic tones of deepest Dixieland.” (58) Nathan’s talent is an opportunity to broaden the landscape of the novel, and to engage with the story of Gothic America, the experience of Southern Slavery, a reflective theme throughout. Every time Nathan uses his Southern accent the reader is reminded that Stingo is supporting his modest, yet privileged, lifestyle with old family money acquired from the sale of a slave. In this way Styron uses Nathan’s mimicry to direct the reader to consider that no single nation owns brutality.

Nathan isn’t the only one with a talent for language. Sophie speaks Polish, French, German, Russian, English and Yiddish. Her linguistic skill provides her with the temporary shelter of her own bed at Auschwitz. She keeps the anti-Semitic pamphlet she helped her father produce close to her body in hopes that it can be used as barter of some kind. Later, when she comes to America, Sophie finds a job working in the office of a Chiropractor, where she communicates to his patients in Yiddish. Sophie may have once had dreams of teaching music, but she is relegated to using her talent for sound to provide her with the rudimentary skills that allow her employment as a receptionist. From the work Sophie is able to acquire because of her talent for language, she is paid and from that money she is able to buy food, the rhapsodic source of that earlier cited list. Sophie, essentially, is fed through words; her survival as well as her guilt resides in them.

Sophie meets Nathan, the man whose character acts as both death and life force when he rescues her at the library where she’s come looking for Emily Dickenson and, confronted by the rude Shalom Weiss, faints. “Shalom Weiss may easily have thought that he had slain her with language.” (112) In the midst of this humorous connotation, Styron invokes the bedevilment that lurks on every page of this Holocaust novel; words shape the world, and their power for rejuvenation is measured against their destructive force.

When a Gothic novel fails in its use of language it is often through pushing the boundaries at sentence level alone, words as embroidery, nothing more. What Styron does so well here is make language visible in such a manner that it becomes almost unbound. The word is the stuff of the sentence, the paragraph, the story, but it is also the soundtrack, the landscape, the evil, and the good. Stingo, who bears witness to this tale of suffering, seeks its meaning within the very mechanics of that which induced the suffering – the word.

Why does the Gothic writer seek to make language visible when current fashion insists that to be visible is to be gauche? Well, first it must be said that by definition, to be gauche is not to care about it. More important, though, the Gothic writer believes that the way to move beyond language is not by hiding behind it but by moving through it to the sublime.

Gothic architecture pushed flying buttresses against notions of ideal form, not as an exercise in excess, but in order that, as Abbot Suger said about the intention of his design of St. Denis, “Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine, through the senses.”

Gothic literature reaches for transcendence by pushing against the architecture of language. Language is, after all, the dark heart of this story, not simply the structure from which it is hung, but the gallows and the god: “…for even then I was compelled to search, however inadequately, for the right word and suffered over the rhythms and subtleties of our glorious but unbenevolent tongue.”  (Styron 120)

Styron burrows into language by miming its force for generation as well as decimation. He uses language to reveal its beautiful potential as well as its foul. Through Sophie’s talent for languages he explores the mobile foundation of meaning. Through Nathan’s talent for mimicry, Stryon explores the susceptibility of language to corruption. Through his consideration of the Southern dialect, Stryon explores the landscape of evil.

Gothic writers know that no word is as flat as it appears. Every word is a geode. Break it open and there exists inside a small shining gem, like a star. What Styron does is break open language by burrowing into it, moving beyond its limitations to reveal its expansion, finally producing a galaxy of light.

What is now universally understood about the Gothic elements in architecture – that the introduction of flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows was meant to introduce height and light in an effort to create a medium between Heaven and earth – is frequently forgotten in consideration of Gothic literature.

In Gothic, Fred Botting sums up Edmund Burke’s APhilosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime by explaining that “while beauty could be contained within the individual’s gaze or comprehension, sublimity presented an excess that could not be processed by a rational mind.” (39) In Gothic literature, where the reach is for the sublime, much depends on the emotions.

While the Gothic form is fungible, responsive to the environment of the time that produces it, its source is rooted in the expansive emotions of Romanticism.

The marvelous incidents and chivalric customs of Romances, the descriptions of wild and elemental natural settings, the gloom of the graveyard and ruin, the scale and permanence of the architecture, the terror and wonder of the sublime, all become important features of the eighteenth century Gothic novel. (Botting 30)

The modern fairy tale is arguably the extreme romance of our time, generally founded on impossible beauty, perfect affection and happy endings. “Fairy tale” is not the term that comes to most readers’ minds when considering Sophie’s Choice. Yet Styron frequently employs fairy-tale imagery, as when Sophie tells Stingo how Nathan saved her life, calling him her “Prince Charming.” (168) Stingo and Sophie are sitting in the park when “clouds like creamy blobs, iridescent Disneyesque confections” float overhead. (169) Later, with much evidence to the contrary, Stingo, too, refers to Nathan as Sophie’s Prince Charming and her “redemptive knight.” (339)

Nathan is drawn as a figure of love and its explosive opposite. The first time Stingo meets Nathan he behaves abysmally to Sophie before abandoning her. While Stingo comforts Sophie, Nathan returns, not as the Prince or the Knight, but in the “phantasmal silence” (53) of a ghost, or at least a creature not entirely of the living. A neighbor tells Stingo that Nathan is a golem. (63) Eventually, Stingo observes that Sophie’s love for Nathan was “like dementia” (159) and Stingo wishes Sophie would choose him instead of Nathan. “The death force is gone,” thinks Stingo. “Love me!” (379)

In the dramatic pushing-the-boundaries fashion of Gothic fiction, Sophie loves Nathan and Stingo loves Sophie in the lusting, yearning, tortured manner of the virgin poet. The first time Stingo meets Sophie he falls “if not instantaneously, then swiftly and fathomlessly in love with her.” (49)

One would expect then that in the language of romance, Stingo would see Sophie cast in the same Disneyesque light in which Sophie has seen Nathan, but this is Gothic romance, after all, and Stingo’s first vision of Sophie is that of “someone hurtling toward death.” (49) Sophie, it turns out, looks very much like a girl Stingo once had a crush on, a young woman who, Stingo has just learned, killed herself.

Stingo’s love for Sophie is realized, not as the idealized vision of a woman made more beautiful than can be possibly true, but as the ghost of a woman who no longer exists. Later, when Stingo enters Sophie’s room as she stands before the mirror, he is shocked when she turns to face him as “an old hag whose entire lower face had crumpled in upon itself.” (142) Stingo has come upon Sophie with her false teeth removed, giving her the appearance of wearing a mask. While Styron does not cite the connection, the reader remembers Sophie, the way Stingo first saw her, as the “simulacrum” (49) of the dead Maria. Now, with Sophie’s face collapsed from its usual beautiful proportions to this frightening one, the effect produces a shudder. Surely this is a death mask, though in the manner of doubling so often a theme in Gothic fiction, it is difficult for the reader to shake the feeling that the mask is the revelation of what is “real” and not its concealment.

Throughout the novel, Sophie reveals herself to be a character who has suffered a cleaving so thorough she will never recover from it. The famous choice she is asked to make, to pick one of her children for death at Auschwitz, remains one of the most terrifying fictional horrors ever written, set against a backdrop of millions of true horrors, the scope of which, while achieved by humans, remains almost unimaginable by them. In this way, Styron’s story enters the dark depths of the Gothic, formed as it is by the monster that most people prefer not to consider, as if, by some mirror alchemy, to look at the monster is to become one. Styron seems aware of this reluctance to go to the mirror when Stingo writes, “the embodiment of evil which Auschwitz has become remains impenetrable so long as we shrink from trying to penetrate it.” (237)

David R. Saliba, Ph.D., the author of A Psychology of Fear, a book of literary criticism about structural developments in Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, maintains a website,, where he cites five characteristics that distinguish Gothic literature from other genres.

  1. 1.  There is a victim who is helpless against his torturer.

Certainly no one doubts that Sophie, in the concentration

camp, is helpless against the Nazis. What serves the Gothic nature of this story is that even when she is out of the camp, all the way in America, she is still prisoner. Sophie is tormented by brutal, inescapable guilt for having lived.

Sophie has been so thoroughly assaulted by evil that she comes to think of herself as the bearer of it. Near the end of the book, Sophie, in anguish, calls herself the Nazis’ collaborator. Stingo insists she was just a victim.

In Gothic fiction the distinction between opposites becomes uncertain. Just as language is broken open to reveal its reach, boundaries of good and evil are breached to reveal their permeability.

When Sophie first talks about her childhood, she describes storks that looked liked the storks in a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, as well as the crooked chimneys and church clock tower with the trumpet-playing men. Stingo tells the reader of his earlier accommodations at the University club, overlooking the “enchanted garden” below. (15) But when Sophie enters Auschwitz and becomes a member of the household staff of Rudolf Hoss, Stingo describes the family garden there as an “enchanted bower” (167) and the reader remembers that fairy tales, before they were co-opted by a cartoon world, were Gothic fictions most of all.

Were it only so easy that the very bad is always bad and the very good only that. Had Styron told the story of Sophie in the concentration camp, then brought her to America to live the wounded life of one who has been victimized and brutalized by the terrible other, it would not be the Gothic story it is. Or, as Stingo muses, “if Sophie had been just a victim, she would have seemed ‘merely pathetic.’” (237)

In Gothic, Botting cites the “loss of the human identity and the alienation of self” (157) as defining elements of the genre. Sophie is the victim who cannot escape the torturer because she is the torturer too. Sophie not only types her father’s anti-Semitic pamphlet in which he calls for the extinction of Jews, but distributes it as well. She doesn’t want to distribute it, and the memory of her father’s assumption that she will arrives with the realization of her hate of him, but she does distribute it. Later, while at Auschwitz, she keeps the pamphlet, hoping she might use it to secure some measure of safety.

The choice Sophie is required to make, where there is no redeeming alternative, creates a literal and mental severing that it is doubtful anyone could survive whole. To refuse to choose was to choose death for both children. It is easy to forget that in the midst of that terrifying scene, Sophie chooses life. Over and over again, Sophie chooses life with the tenacity of one refusing to release the thorned rose, though the grasp wounds.

Within the dark chambers of this Holocaust story it is also easy to forget that Sophie was a Catholic. Her loss of faith is reflective of her loss of self, the sense of abandonment she suffered. It is not at Auschwitz, however, that Sophie feels God turn away from her. She is angry at Him then, but afterwards, when she is freed, she goes to a church to kill herself because she thinks it would be a great sacrilege. At that point, Sophie still thinks there is someone to be angry at. Sophie, as a child, used to play a game she called “Looking for the Shape of God.” She is still playing that game when she goes to the country inn with Nathan and meets his demonic side there. Only then, after everything she has gone through, does Sophie see God leaving her, “turning his back on me like some great beast and go crashing through the leaves.” (375)

Sophie is a woman tormented by what she did for life. There is no redemption for her guilt. Nor is there any escape. Sophie uses Christian imagery to describe what she has become when she points to her heart and pulls away the imaginary veil there. “Only this has changed, I think,” she says. “It has been hurt so much, it has turned to stone.” (540)

Sophie is helpless against her torturer, first at Auschwitz, and then everywhere, because the torment she experienced was an internal corruption as violent as any of the Holocaust medical experiments.

  1. 2.  There is also a victimizer who is associated with evil and whose powers are immense and supernatural.

What would Sophie’s life have been like had the Nazis never

come to power? Her husband’s minor appearance in the novel reveals him as an unkind man, at best. Her father used her for her talent with language, liked to display her beauty, and had no apparent affection for her at all. Her mother seems an ineffectual person throughout.

Sophie, with her weakness for “getting along,” likely would have done just that. There is nothing to indicate she would have risen above her circumstances to find what we like all our heroines to find, true love and happiness.

Yet didn’t Sophie deserve the opportunity to make a mess of her life? Why couldn’t her poor choices have been relegated to the mundane reality of choosing the wrong man to marry, being loyal to a father that didn’t deserve it, emulating a mother who could not protect her own daughter?

The entire novel offers only a few scenes at Auschwitz. Styron turns to other sources to develop a picture of evil both vast and intimate. He quotes Hoss’s actual account, written in prison while awaiting his own execution: “My invariable answer was that the iron determination with which we must carry out Hitler’s orders could only be obtained by a stifling of all human emotions.” (166)

The sublime implies humans can, through feelings and language, transcend their condition. In other words, the way to arrive at the spiritual height the Gothic strives for is at least partly through the territory that separates human from beast, the realm of emotions.

Stingo, in his exploration of Holocaust horror through an examination of other texts (this text-within-text style is a frequent Gothic tool), turns to Richard L. Rubenstein’s book, The Cunning of History. The Gothic depravity of Sophie’s choice, the element that defines as well as consumes Sophie, lies in the immense power of the Nazis to siphon emotion so entirely that their victims became, as Rubenstein describes them in a term later used to describe a different fictional horror, the “Living dead.” (Styron 257)

The inclusion of elements of the supernatural is often the primary characteristic used to define Gothic fiction, and Stingo does allude to that realm. In describing the boarding house he writes, “…and had I been able to use a turn of phrase current some years later, I might have said Yetta’s house gave off bad vibrations.” (48) Sophie describes a premonition she had “and was filled with the slowly mounting frightful sensation.” (91) She tells Stingo that seeing two nuns is bad luck. A Russian fortune teller reads Sophie’s palm and tells her that “everything will turn out well.” (331) In fact so prominent is Sophie’s tendency towards belief in what most people consider the supernatural that Stingo writes, “Sophie had a confused and unformed belief in precognition, even of clairvoyance.” (440)

Yet the supernatural elements in Sophie’s Choice don’t rest in the meaning we most often associate with the word, but rather in the secondary definition as cited in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume Two: “Beyond the natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great.” (3112)

When Sophie points to her stone heart and says that only it has changed, she is saying everything has changed. What was once a human being is a human dying; the torment she suffers at the hands of the Nazis is not diminished by the removal of those hands. The Nazis are not inhabitants of a realm beyond earth. This does not make them less evil. Evil does not depend on the physical world. Its power, harnessed by the Nazis, went well beyond the natural or ordinary into the realm of super terror. In using Gothic elements to tell this story, Styron asks the reader to remember that the supernatural is not just the territory of phantoms, but humans as well, though its reach is beyond human reach. “Someday,” Stingo says, “I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world.” (560)

  1. 3.  The setting of the gothic story, at some point within

impenetrable walls (physical or psychological), heightens

the victim’s sense of hopeless isolation.

It is important to remember that when the Gothic fiction of castles and cathedrals was being written, those edifices were a common part of the landscape. Gothic fiction was once considered vital because it engaged with frightening aspects of the real world. The spiritual element of Gothic fiction, the secretive monks and frequent Catholic imagery, was potent because it tapped into the nature of fear in society at that time. What if the spiritual guide was the devil’s helper and not the angel’s? What secrets lived in the dark rooms of the castle on the hill? What if evil was amorphous?

Because of its transgressive nature, Gothic literature was not embraced by the establishment, and over time became associated with the less refined tastes of a lower class. The definition of Gothic literature became bound to the material of its past, and in that way, the Gothic became almost silly.

However, real Gothic literature is really frightening. What could possibly be more frightening than Auschwitz?

In Stingo’s investigation into the turmoil Sophie suffered he comes across a quote by Simone Weill that perfectly describes the guilt Sophie will not be able to survive.

Affliction stamps the soul to its very

depth with the scorn, the disgust and even

the self-hatred and sense of guilt

that crime logically should produce but

actually does not.

(Styron 158)

So it is that Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz, the man who tells Sophie he will let her see her son, and then changes his mind as though it is a matter of little importance, like changing his drink order, is able to write that he was “no longer happy in Auschwitz once the mass extermination had begun”  (166) while Sophie, with her love of music, her hungry appetite and her eager sexuality, is left to tap at her breast bone and say that all that is left of her heart is stone.

Sophie’s personal history, that of a Holocaust survivor, heightens her isolation. First, at a very basic, physical level; Sophie is, after all, an immigrant with no surviving family members. During the period Stingo writes about, the atrocities that happened in Auschwitz have been made public. Rudolf Hoss is in prison, charged with war crimes. When Sophie meets a group of Nathan’s friends they comment, out of her hearing, on her tattooed wrist. Nathan, in his dark temper, taunts Sophie with the question of what she did to survive when so many did not.

In this way, Stryon highlights the universal ownership of Sophie’s personal history, how it not only doesn’t decrease her isolation, but increases it. Even though Sophie chooses to tell Stingo what she’s told no one else, there is no sense that the sharing relieves her burden. Even Stingo, who loves Sophie, cannot reach through the dark of her past to place a light there. No one can. It is too dark, and the reach too far. So spectacularly does Stingo fall short of understanding what Sophie’s been through, that when he attempts to bring her south, he insists convention dictates they will have to marry. The reader is left to watch this exchange, knowing what Stingo does not recognize. No marriage can make Sophie less isolated, and in fact, this idea of marrying Stingo only highlights what Sophie realizes: her isolation is total, terrible and inescapable.

  1. 4.  The atmosphere is pervaded by a sense of mystery, darkness, oppressiveness, fear and doom to recreate the atmosphere of a crypt, a symbol of man’s spiritual death.

It bears repeating that the first time Stingo sees Sophie he is struck by how much she reminds him of his first crush, Maria, who he has learned recently killed herself. Shortly after this, Stingo hears Nathan tell Sophie that they are dying. Stingo describes the gloom hovering around Sophie as “almost visible.” (537) When they are on the train together, heading South, and Stingo loses Sophie, he finds her at the end of the car, “a bleak cage of a vestibule” (498) where Sophie gazes up at him and says she doesn’t think she’s going to make it.

Spiritual death exists here, not merely as symbol but as theme as well. Catholic Sophie has lost her religion so entirely she tells Stingo, “I know that my Redeemer don’t live and my body will be destroyed by worms and my eyes will never again see God.” (93)

Styron tells this horrible story and yet keeps us reading by using Gothic elements with great facility. For instance, much of the present story takes place in Yetta Zimmerman’s boarding house. Where a lesser writer might have made the locale as dark and gloomy as the story inside it, Styron paints the building pink. It glows throughout the novel like a stubborn sunset.

The house should be gloomy, but it is not. When Stingo first sees it, he is reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The reference is both pleasant and unnerving. Clearly, Styron is saying that we are entering a different world. The pink is wrong, but it is not intrinsically frightening. This is what Styron does so well with the Gothic elements. He knows how to use them adroitly. He doesn’t move away from the form to provide relief for the reader from the excess of Gothic, but rather, uses the form to its best advantage to keep the reader uncertain, but reading on.

Another aspect of the Gothic, not mentioned in Saliba’s list, is that of strange or unexpected juxtapositions. While an obvious example of the Gothic is a dark and gloomy castle, the gloom of Sophie’s Choice is no less prevalent without one. Under Stryon’s expert hands, gloom moves like a fog, creeping into unexpected corners, somehow made more pervasive by its uncertain travel.

The fairy-tale imagery and poetic whimsy in the midst of this Holocaust story, beautiful Sophie unmasked as the “old hag” Stingo spies when he sees her without her false teeth, the image Styron chooses to describe Emmi when Sophie collapses in the child’s room as “like that of a swollen fetus” (433) – all create a Gothic sense of disorientation.

In Stingo’s study of other texts as some foundation to explain what happened to Sophie, he refers to George Steiner’s perspective on “time relation.” After describing the brutal deaths of two Jews at Treblinka he writes that at precisely the same hour “the overwhelming plurality of human beings…were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist.” (234)

Stingo, aided by old letters from his father, is able to remember exactly what he was doing on the day Sophie arrived in Auschwitz, “a beautiful day,” she said, when “the forsythia was in bloom.” (509) Stingo was eating bananas in Raleigh, North Carolina, the realization prompting him to note that he became “for the first time in my life aware of the meaning of the Absurd and its conclusive, unrevocable horror.” (509)

The excess of Gothic novels serves to push the boundaries that keep us rooted in our human gravity, to reach beyond the body by exploring its inevitable limitations, to reach beyond language by burrowing into each word in recognition of the meaning that birthed it, to reach the sublime through the weight of being human juxtaposed against what most of us already know: nothing is certain but absurdity.

  1. 5.  The victim is in some way entranced or fascinated by the

inscrutable power of his victimizer.

Though much of its meaning has been diluted by the Disney-fication of “reality,” the Gothic writer is aware of the darker tonal aspects of the word, “fascinate.”  Embedded in the shiny bright thing it has become is the meaning to “put under a spell,” (Oxford Volume 1 932) the territory of witchcraft and serpents.

“I was fascinated by this unbelievable thing that was happening to the Jews,” (Styron 510) Sophie tells Stingo, hastening to add that her fascination was not composed of pleasure.

In the present arc of the story, Sophie displays little interest in the Nazis. Instead, Sophie’s fascination falls on Nathan. Though it is true that Sophie, perhaps infected by her father, married a man, her first husband, who was cruel to her well before the trauma of Auschwitz, it is also true that what she suffered there cleaved her profoundly. It is this woman, struggling, as Stingo says, “with the demon of her own schizoid conscience” (269) who falls in love with Nathan, a man who sings the libretto from Don Giovanni by heart, whose enthusiasm is infectious, who saves Sophie when she faints at the library. As Sophie says to Stingo about Nathan, “he was my savior…and I never had a savior before.” (170)

It is an alluring notion to think that Sophie, who has suffered so much, has been rescued by the grand emotion of love. But what few humans can escape is love’s mirror. The fear that to look at the monster is to become one is rooted in the primal knowledge that who we are fascinated by, or who we love, is fashioned from the material of our lives. In other words, the “other” is often the self.

Another prominent theme in Gothic literature is that of the double, the duality of good and evil usually expressed within a single character. It is easy to love Sophie who is beautiful, smart, and tragic. When she displays an ugly tendency, such as when she tells Stingo that she always did hate the Jews, it is easy to dismiss the sentiment, as Stingo does, as an expression of her distress, and not of her true spirit.

What the reader wants of Sophie is that she be made whole again, in some way, even if it be an imperfect wholeness. Where is such healing wrought but in love?

Sophie’s suffering, her damaged psyche, is manifest in who she loves, Nathan. Where the split in Sophie is a divide she cannot heal, it is made more horrible by her recognition of it. When her Prince Nathan appears, Sophie feels she is being saved, until he reveals his own double, his demon side. Sophie is tormented by what happened to her and what she did at Auschwitz, she cannot escape her self, her guilt, or her past, but the narrative arc of Sophie’s Choice does not rest in what she has done but in what she is doing, and Sophie is loving Nathan, a man who abuses her and then cries in her arms, begging forgiveness.

In Gothic excess, Nathan is the double of Sophie’s divided self. While Sophie is severed by what she has done, Nathan is severed by what he is, a paranoid schizophrenic, the embodiment of the human split.

When Sophie has the opportunity to leave Nathan, she is drawn back to him, as one is always drawn by what fascinates, though she cannot survive the fascination. Nathan is the flame to her moth, the destruction she feels she deserves.

Did Styron know he was writing a Gothic novel? It is difficult to believe he did not. His narrator, Stingo, cites his affection for Faulkner, generally accepted as a Southern Gothic writer. Styron even uses what any writer knows to be precious, the last page of the novel, to describe his “abominable dreams” after Nathan and Sophie’s death, “which seemed to be a compendium of all the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” (Styron 562) The community of great Gothic literature includes in its oeuvre Moby Dick. Surely Styron knew what he was doing when Stingo introduces himself to the reader with the phrase, “Call me Stingo.” (4) The many references to Gothic as a descriptor also offer in-text confirmation of the author’s intent. In G. R. Thompson’s excellent introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, he offers a description of the Gothic hero as “ultimately torn apart by demons,” one who “faces a world that he has no hope of comprehending and in which he cannot make the proper moral choices.” (Thompson 6) Minus the pronoun, this is an excellent description of Sophie.

Why is it necessary to locate Sophie’s Choice within the Gothic tradition? After all, doesn’t certain fiction rise above form to occupy that rarefied space reserved for works of genius?
Well, yes, and no. Sophie’s Choice is a great work and deserves to be placed amongst other great works. Yet we do a disservice to the literary conversation by not acknowledging its content. To dismiss the form as insignificant is to relegate all other voices in this conversation to the dark they engage with. To suggest, by censure, that true literature has no place for the Gothic is to propagate the idea that to look at the monster is to become one. It is ironic that Gothic literature, so often ridiculed as the work of superstitious minds, is censored by a lingering fear of looking at what is terrible.

Gothic literature is, by definition, a literature of excess; it can be sloppy, raw, and uncomfortable. The emotional space of Gothic literature is extreme, especially when read by a society that considers extravagant expression a sign of immaturity. Yet Sophie’s Choice, with its wide emotional arcs, carries within it the opposite poles, the life without feeling. Remember Colonel Hoss who wrote that he could only carry out his duties by stifling all emotions? Consider Sophie, who describes how, after the war, she could no longer cry and had no more emotions, equating the emotional life with the spiritual one when she says, “I couldn’t any longer pray to Him or could I cry.” (92)

In her introduction to Best American Mystery Stories 2005, Joyce Carol Oates writes,

I don’t think it’s an irony that as a writer, I am

drawn to such material. There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw, and irremediable harm,

but there can be art in the strategies by which

violence is endured, transcended, and transformed

by survivors…  (13)

Sometimes people wonder why anyone reads Gothic literature, heavy as it is with doom, dark with the certainty of the hero’s failure. What Gothic literature remembers is that every fiction has a ghost, the unseen reader whose power within the story is limited to watching it unfold. In Gothic literature, the hero falls, but there is always that survivor, the reader, who closes the book or exits the screen, who has engaged with evil without being destroyed by it. All great literature changes the ghosts who’ve read the fiction into the humans who survive and transcend it. The sublime reach of the Gothic is not achieved by the hero, whose fall is often spectacular as an angel on fire. Gothic fiction, such as Sophie’s Choice, works within the space between the gravity of being human and the height of those angels, seeking the numinous the hero will never reach, but the reader might.

—Mary Rickert

Works Cited

Botting, Fred Gothic. Routledge, 1996

Clark, Kenneth The Gothic Revival An Essay in the History of Taste.  Icon Editions Harper and Row, 1962

Oates, Joyce Carol (Editor) Best American Mystery Stories, 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company

Thompson, G. R. The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Washington State University Press, 1974

Styron, William Sophie’s Choice. Vintage International, 1992

Web sites:


Mary Rickert’s short fiction, which has been awarded World Fantasy, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson awards, has been collected in Map of Dreams and Holiday.

Oct 182012

It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.  — Jason DeYoung

Daniel Fights a Hurricane
Shane Jones
209 pages
Penguin USA, 2012

“The cry of terror called forth by the unfamiliar becomes its name.”
—Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

“Beauty in novels is important to me,” Shane Jones says in a recent BOMB interview. “I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.”  Wistful yet playful, Shane Jones’s novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane wrings out an unsettling story about madness and suffering for love.  It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.

Daniel Fights a Hurricane is Shane Jones’s second novel.  His first novel, Light Boxes (2009), is one of those rare books first published by an indie press (Publishing Genius Press out of Baltimore) and subsequently purchased and reprinted by a “big house” (Penguin Books, in this case). I’ve long admired Penguin for taking chances on gifted writers who don’t fit the mold, and Light Boxes is not standard big publisher fare.  It’s about a town—perhaps imaginary—under siege by February, who might be the author of the novel Light Boxes.  February is punishing the townsfolk for flying hot-air balloons. The townies, along with a group of rogue balloonists known as the Solution, go to war with February. It’s bonkers. But it’s a deeply felt novel about depression and hope, with characters emoting genuine reactions to their odd circumstances.  Along with Light Boxes, Jones has published two other books: A Cake Appeared, a book of poems; and The Failure Six, a novella

While Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Daniel) shares some spirited similarities with Light Boxes, it is a more fleshed-out novel. Daniel tells the story of a husband and a wife—Daniel and Karen—and it splits narratively between two different worlds.  One is the “real” world, a reality where Daniel works on an oil pipeline. The other is Daniel’s imagination, an imaginary world slowly taking over, perhaps because he wants it to, as he says, “[it] is haunting, but so beautiful that I want to live [it].”  When Daniel is fired from his job, his imagination grows larger, and he further removes himself from reality by living in a tipi in the woods.

Shane Jones says this about Daniel’s structure:

[O]ne part of the book, containing the sections with Daniel, is a tree. The tree is growing straight up into the sky. In this part, I can do whatever I want, I have total freedom in creation. The tree is uncontrollable and just insanely growing. The other part of the book—the one with Karen—is based on reality, and is like vines growing around the tree. The vines and the tree are separate but every once in a while, they cut into each other, and you have this intersection of the parts with Daniel and the parts with Karen.

So let’s start first with that uncontrollable imagination, which become more like hallucinations as the novel progresses.

In his dreamscape, Daniel is assembling a different sort of pipeline from the one he’s hired to build in reality. The fantasy pipeline is meant to go to the ocean to provide water for his imaginary town. Daniel is “responsible for the pipeline” and the town is thirsty; just the other day a baby died. True, you can’t survive on seawater, so one doesn’t know how this is going to help those parched children, so it’s best not to question Daniel’s dreamscape too much. Though sequence and consequence exists, his realm of pure imagination runs primarily on free association and self-suggestion.

Within his dreamscape a number of misfit characters help to build this pipeline. There is Iamso, a poet man-child, who writes poems to tell Daniel how he feels.  There is the Two-Second Dreamer, who sleeps for two seconds and dreams for anyone who needs a new dream.  There is the Man with the Tattoos, who is covered in tats of Daniel’s imagined town.  And then there is Peter, who is also known as the World’s Most Beautiful Man with the World’s Worst Teeth.  These characters beg for a Freudian or Jungian reading, especially with Iamso’s eventual take over.  (I am so. Get it?)  But, in fact, Daniel has this intoxicating feel of endlessness to it, and the novel as a whole contains such a mysterious arrangement of metaphor and contrast that it’s ripe for many readings and interpretations.

Pipeline construction, however, is just an impediment to Daniel’s search for his imaginary wife, the novel’s primary thrust.  In the real world, Karen Suppleton is Daniel’s estranged wife, who after years of dealing with his mental breaks from reality, has had enough, and has recently left him.  But, in the dreamscape, Helena is Daniel’s wife, and she has inexpiably disappeared.

Throughout the novel, Daniel has near misses with Helena, while other characters see her and point him in her direction. Daniel’s psychosis will not allow him to be happy.  In an effort perhaps to regain some dominance over his dream, Daniel decides to “take” a new Helena, yet his imaginary friends (side kicks? minions? gremlins?) concoct a ceremony in which Daniel closes his eyes, they spin him twice, whereupon he opens his eyes and the new Helena is gone: “Go and find her… She’s somewhere around the mountain,” says Iamso.  This doesn’t just make for a good way to nudge the plot along, but gets to something at Daniel’s core.  If his strongest desire is to live in his fantasy world—a world he finds so beguiling—then he has to remain unfulfilled. As Norwegian novelist Stig Sæterbakken once wrote: “We want to hold onto our strongest desires. We want to remain unfulfilled. We want to be alive.”[*]

Along with this cast of friends, what also keeps Daniel unfulfilled is the Hurricane. Even at the slightest hint of a breeze Daniel begins to worry. What is the Hurricane? “It’s my fear. It’s the fear,” Daniel says. Since childhood, the Hurricane has churned his madness.  But it isn’t a storm as we might think of it (though an actual hurricane does appears late in the novel). The Hurricane of Daniel’s imagination morphs, taking on different incarnations. At times it’s a garbage collector, a pack of wild children, a sky beast with claws, a faceless storm that “scream[s] ocean” and breaks “the sky in odd angles”—but no one knows.  Mid-way through the novel, one of Daniel’s imaginary friends creates more confusion by writing a list of what the Hurricane might be—“black magic, Godlike spirit, the horizon moving, everyone’s vision of death combined, optical-illusion hologram, mountain growing.” Whatever it is, it is usually a manifestation of something primal and terrifying.

Admittedly, I’m writing about the imagination section in broad strokes.  It’s a dream, a hallucination, a fantasy and its velocity is as such, turbulent, moving fast, taking odd turns, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes dark.  And it’s quite astounding how much adventure Jones packs into such a slim novel, taking his reader on a frenzied ride through Daniel’s imagination, which includes battles with the Hurricane, searches for lost loves, the invention of graffiti, identity switches, menacing spinsters, a man who calls himself a villain, and on and on, ever surprising:

“My skin sprouted dogs that ran from the beach.”

“The Hurricane throws a handful of mashed-together birds past the bedroom window.”

“I stayed up all night thinking about what’s real and what isn’t. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.”

As the tree of Daniel’s imagination reaches greater heights, the vine of Karen’s story coils the tree. Karen broods through much of the novel.  She sees their estrangement as her betrayal, and she is as tormented by her disloyalty as Daniel is by the Hurricane.  She searches within herself for the strength to go find Daniel, to save him from fantasy. As the novel progresses, her plot and Daniel’s become essentially the same. While Daniel is in his dreamscape looking for his lost wife, Helena, Karen is in reality searching for her lost husband, Daniel.  It gives the novel a finely tuned double-arced symmetry.

Not just the plots mirror, but imagery reverberates, too. When Karen goes to the grocery, she experiences the marketing spectacle of boom and mist as the spray system in the produce department freshens the vegetables.  During one of her soul-searching scenes, she meditates on the bubbles in spring water, while in the dream Daniel nearly drowns in seawater fighting the Hurricane.  Even their mental states echo, as they both share moments where they try to grasp their identities:

“My name is Karen Suppleton. And my ex-husband, mind [is] unraveling somewhere in a forest…”


“My name is Daniel. My wife is missing…”

These statements work two ways.  First they are a reminder to the reader of the individual plots, but they also give the two plots a kind of cohesion.  They are heartbreaking moments, when Karen and Daniel are separately trying to steady themselves within the chaos.

When the two finally reunite, they do not recognize each other.  Daniel has been living in his tipi in the woods for some time, hallucinating his heroic quest to find Helena.  When Karen approaches him, he sees her though the gauzy fever-dream of a starved man.   It’s a story that can’t end happily, and moments later the only “real” hurricane in the book hits and pulls them apart once again. As Daniel has done repeatedly in his imagination, Karen now has to fight to survive the hurricane, ironically named Hurricane Daniel.

For as complex as this novel is the prose and storytelling are sparklingly clear.  Jones weaves skillfully between the two worlds, keeping the logic and sense of both.  A different writer might have opted for odd or tortured sentence constructions to tell this story, but Jones has wisely chosen to keep things straightforward and unadorned:

I see the Hurricane as a monster who walks on water and bumps his head on the sky. He stops and unhinges his jaw. Underwater villagers put ladders up to his mouth. They climb up with burlap bags of salt slung over their shoulders and empty the knife-cut bags onto his tongue. When he’s had enough, the Hurricane walks again. The ladders fall away, and the villagers dive, splash, into the ocean. Clouds of salt dust fill the air that the Hurricane runs to gobble up, his feet smashing against the ocean in steel-drum echoes.

But Jones doesn’t mind tinkering with font size and presentation.  Lists and poems appear throughout the book along with glyph-like drawing which accompany the text. During one of the search party scenes near the end of the novel, an entire page is given over to the word DANIEL which appears six times, each in a different size font, each with a different letter repeated to denote the elongated intonations of Karen’s calls. On the other hand, the font might decrease a few picas when characters whisper.  In such an expressionistic novel as Daniel, these visual tweaks never feel gratuitous or strained.  Instead, they’re used to great effect as a pianist might play keys softly or righteously bang out a note. Additionally, Jones proves the notion of sticking to a singular point-of-view bogus by collaging first and third person with agility.

As in Light Boxes, there’s something extravagant about Daniel with its unabashed mythmaking, fantastic imagery, and whimsical plot turns. Daniel’s imagination is an electrifying and vast place, filled with exotic animals and pipelines, origami and strange weapons; it’s a place of curious freedom to indulge everything quixotic.  Daniel’s story is rich with odd yet sympathetic characters, too, which makes for engrossing reading and doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s imaginary.  Though paradoxically it’s all a work of the imagination. The densely twined dreamscape vs. reality puts the story of its “real” people—Daniel and Karen—in sharp relief.  Their story—about a man who doesn’t get the help he needs, and his wife’s betrayal and search for redemption—is quite different.  Daniel Fights a Hurricane is a trying and conflicting novel, at once beautiful and fun in its construction and storytelling, yet an astonishingly serious and sad story at its core.

[*] Stig Sæterbakken, “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music.” Music & Literature. Issue 1, Fall 2012. Tran. by Stokes Schwartz.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

Oct 152012

Todd Bartel

Todd Bartel is a renowned collagist and conceptual artist, and Nance Van Winckel is a friend and colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a poet, fiction writer and a creator of her own Off-the-Page works called photoems; the two of them combine here in a kind of extravagant show-and-tell operation, part-exhibit and part-interview. Bartel’s work, as you can readily see, is a gorgeous and complex amalgam of old books (in the first instance, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), old paintings, old photographs and frames, quoted, snipped, and translated, objects and their meanings separated and then reworked, colliding in a metaphoric phantasmagoria which creates yet more meanings and also manipulates the perspective/identity of the viewer/reader.

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of such interviews curated and conducted by Nance.


Nance Van Winckel: I appreciate in Garden Study (“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden) how the Hawthorne text itself invites the viewer to be a reader, to lean in and to take in the words themselves. Could you discuss your own ideas about this viewing/reading interplay? How does it happen? What makes it happen?

Garden Study (“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden), 2004

Two diptych puzzle-piece collages using 19th century paper and The Scarlet Letter remnants (Nathanial Hawthorne 2nd Edition, Riverside Press Cambridge MA 1978, Illustrated), with 20th Century matte and glossy paper, Filmoplast P90, pencil and lead letter type transfer. Arthur Dimmesdale’s collage (left side of frame) is translated from Ralph Albert Blakelock’s painting entitled The Spirit of Night, 1989. Hester Prynne’s collage (right side of frame) is translated from Fredrick Edwin Church’s painting entitled Twilight Short Arbiter, Twixt Day and Night, 1850. Mustard seeds, glass, etched glass, copper tape with patina, 19th century stereoview postcard (View of Salem and Vicinity), archival matt, in handmade (“bent”) frame that turns 90º in order to reside in both sides of a room corner. Each half of the bent frame measures 20 5/8” x 23 1/4” x 1 5/8”. Photo credit: Todd Bartel

Todd Bartel: In 2004, when I was invited by Lucinda Bliss—a direct descendant of Hawthorne and a strong artist herself—to create a work about The Scarlet Letter for inclusion in an exhibition that celebrated the bicentennial of his birth by focusing on his seminal, early American novel, I jumped at the chance to re-read it and to respond with a creation of my own. I started the book not knowing what I would make, and because I am a slow reader, I was glad for the six month lead time before the exhibition. I had no real idea other than I wanted to make a collage out of white paper, and I wanted to somehow involve an image of a landscape. I read the book in high school and enjoyed it, but I was just not prepared for the depth and the beauty of the book I found as an adult reader. My teacher at that time instructed us to skip the reading of The Custom House because it was not in the first edition. So this time around, I was curious to read it. I read it twice before I started the novel proper. During my first reading, I became interested that Hawthorne foreshadowed the portraits of his two primary characters, Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, through symbolic descriptions of light and dark, which pervade the text he inserted to his second edition. Despite the fact that neither of their names appear, they are nevertheless thoroughly invoked. As I reread The Custom House the second time around, I took copious quotes in a notebook I dedicate to the project. Once I had collected the quotes, I naturally read the rest of the book looking for connective clues, and I found an abundance. (I must not have been a very attentive high school reader, or perhaps my high school teacher did not appreciate well enough to point out one overwhelming observation I made as a return reader: Hawthorne’s novel is not a typical novel, but is actually a thoroughly haunting, detailed series of character descriptions, punctuated by a handful of key events.) I was astonished to realize that it is his readers who create the plot. And so, my quotes about each of his four characters ended up almost filling an entire notebook! (I also took notes on Hester’s husband, the doctor, and on Pearl, her illegitimate daughter, but those notes will inform a sister project that has yet to be realized.) In fact, as I was creating “A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden, it would take me an hour or more just to read my own notes on a single character! So deep and so rich are Hawthorne’s observations and descriptions of the human psyche, I decided to create an untypical and odd sort of collage that juxtaposed actual second edition cuttings of his text: key observations about night, darkness, and Dimmesdale with those of day, light, and Prynne. I bought two second editions, one to have and one to cut up. Normally, I juxtapose images as a collagist, but in this case, what is primarily juxtaposed are Hawthorne’s illustrations.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s selected text

Hester Prynne’s selected text











(A note about the term “illustration”: A few years ago I learned that “illustration” originally meant verbal descriptions and “exemplifications.” It wasn’t until 1769, when James Granger added blank pages at the back of his History of England volumes for his readers to supplement the text with “extra illustrations” or “cuttings”—pasted book engravings from other volumes or sources—that the term illustration evolved to mean visual information. See Extending the Book—The Art of Extra-Illustration. Granger had unwittingly invented the scrapbook! And since Granger, the sense of illustration being a visual term has eclipsed the original meaning as a literary term. Did Hawthorne know this, and to some measure was he responding to Granger by devoting his entire novel to illustrations of his main characters?)

Illustrations of dark

Illustrations of light

Selecting certain passages of Hawthorne’s text to juxtapose was like trying to edit Shakespeare! What do you take out? Ultimately, I had to choose quotes that could all live together while pointing to either one character or the other, but which would sadly, not be exhaustive—snippets that together formed an odd sort of paragraph, in the order it originally appeared, with a lot of editing between, but somehow, nevertheless, became page-like in order to illuminate attributes of the each individual’s essence while still referencing the book itself. It was the size and shape of the assembled quotes that altogether determined the dimensions of the shaped frame.

The idea of the shaped frame configuration—which I call a Synterial—came while reading the book, about midway through. Originally, I had set out to make a collage, not a Synterial. However, as it began to occur to me that Arthur and Hester did not live parallel lives—they only ever shared the same space a handful of times throughout the book—the idea of a flat collage was not enough. It seemed to me that their meetings were always events that were far and few between—they met at crossroads, at intersections, at right angles—and understanding that required an altogether different framework. When I realized this, the scope of my initial project expanded and I saw how I could create a shaped frame for the project. Hawthorne’s text had evoked an idea for a frame that could act as a kind of extra illustration of his work. Upon imagining this, it seemed essential for me to create a bent or “cornered frame” to symbolize the choices made by the two main characters. Another way to say this is that I decided to create a frame to house duel portraits by constructing a frame to straddle an actual room corner, which allows for placing one portrait on the left wall and the other on the right. Despite the separateness, both sides of the frame are inextricably bound. Thus, the cornered frame becomes a physical metaphor for Hester’s and Arthur’s choices to back themselves into a place, with nowhere else to move but away from each other.

“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden

“A”merican Sublime: Pioneers of New Eden

In addition to collecting and fusing the textual cuttings, I also selected two quintessential pairs of quotes that exemplified each character, and I used them in different ways. I used one set of quotes to impress into the white paper collages of period landscape paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock (Dimmsdale’s side) and Frederic Edwin Church (Prynne’s side), which flank each text collage. Both painters were alive during Hawthorne’s lifetime, but Blakelock’s painting was created well after the book’s success. Nevertheless, each collage of the selected landscape paintings—which I refer to as white paper translations or blank paper translations—echo the character adjacent to the text collage. Blakelock’s, The Spirit of Night, 1886–95, bears the phrase “joy unutterable,” and Church’s, Twilight, Short Arbiter ‘Twixt Day and Night, 1850, bears the phrase “beneath the open sky.”

Blakelock’s The Spirit of Night, 1886-95

Church’s Twilight, Short Arbiter ‘Twixt Day and Night, 1850

Text impressed into white paper collages using 19th century lead type, rubbed, bone burnished from the back of each respective collage

Dimmesdale refused to publicly share his secret while Prynne wore hers out in the open. Similarly, Church was widely known for his plein-air paintings, while Blakelock’s fame came from his paintings of the night sky, and although sadly appropriate, Blakelock went “mad” by the end of his life, which seemed compelling enough to reference for a portrait of Dimmesdale. The second pair of quotes was etched into the glass and reside over the respective text collages. Each was taken from that moment in the book when late in life they met in the forest and asked each other the following questions:

Dimmesdale: Dost thou yet live?

Prynne: Art thou in life?

Glass etched quotes

Those questions exist as if to say, “Was it worth it?” For me, this attitude of American passion seemed a defining characteristic of our culture. As one of the first widely published American novels, it seemed not a stretch of the imagination to claim this couple as America’s very own Adam and Eve.

NVW: I think the boxes themselves give these pieces such power and resonance. The encapsulated. The crypt-like. The one lifted out of the many. I’m intrigued too with your ideas about “Stynterials” and “coupling particular frames with particular verbal ideas.” Might you say a little about what’s inclined you to the “boxed”?

TB: In a wonderful essay on the boxed sculpture format, Donald Kuspit wrote, “Inner reality will always find a way to act itself out through external reality. This process is what the box sculpture epitomizes.”1 Kuspit’s observation is what allowed me to stay making boxed constructions when I was in graduate school and was heavily questioned about why I put my work in frames, behind glass. Cornell had epitomized the process and many others had come before me. Such history made it hard for me to find the wherewithal to attempt to contribute to the genre. But it was Kuspit who helped me to realize that whatever I put inside the box would equivocate my existence and my experience, something that is not reproducible. I began the Synterial series when I realized that the box does not need to be square. The first Synterial idea I developed was the notion of a frame with a bridge to another frame—an idea that stayed dormant until the day I took my five-year-old son to the Planetarium in NYC the early winter of 2001. At that marvelous museum in the first vitrine, which has a beautiful display of the elements from the periodic table, I found a quote from Walt Whitman alongside the rocks it contained: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of stars.” In that instance I saw the rationale for what it meant to create a frame with a bridge to another frame. Soon afterward I realized that all the other ideas I had for shaped frames needed to be informed by accompanying texts.

Todd Bartel, Garden Study (Pollination of Devonia), 2002, 55 3/8” x 22 5/8” x 1 1/4”

Computer-cut mat board, etched glass bearing the word “re member,” mustard seeds between three layers of glass and copper tape with patina in constructed wood frame; watercolor, ink, Craypas, tempera, charcoal, and blood on two pages from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, with collage on 19th century engraving; tempera and watercolor over Xerox transfers (text from Genesis 1–3, 26) on 19th century book end pages. Photo credit: Tom Young

First two elements over Genesis 1–3, 26

Mustard seeds over Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Bridge center with etched glass over mustard seeds

Elements of human biology and watercolor interpretation of Charles R. Knight’s rendition of the Devonian Era

NVW: Joseph Cornell. I know you were just part of a show of visual artists following in the Cornell tradition. So many poets have written poems to him or for him. Charles Simic has a whole book of prose poems devoted to his work (Dime Store Alchemy). What is it about Cornell’s work that you think speaks especially to readers and writers? And do you think that same “something” pertains to your own work, and if so, how and/or why?

TB: Cornell once wrote on a scrap of paper, “Nostalgia anyone?”

Cornell’s invocation says so much about his work, my own work, and I think collage in general. The past is rich beyond adequate expressiveness; to rekindle it is to offer another chance to see again. As a collage-based artist, I am always compelled to pull the past back into the present as a way of pointing out we are not done thinking about the thing that reappears. My current work is about landscape and cultural identity. Cornell’s work was always about the subject of wonder. I share an affinity for that aspect of Cornell’s universe, and often my study brings me to the same materials he used, particularly those of the nineteenth century. But my acute fascination surrounds the transition from the industrial age into the one we find ourselves in now and that is where my work separates from the twentieth century master’s.

1 Kuspit, Donald, On Being Boxed In, in Sculpture, Vol.10 # 4 , November–December 1991, p. 37.

— Todd Bartel & Nance Van Winckel


Todd Bartel received his BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1985 and studied in Rome at RISD’s European Honors Program between 1984-1985. In 1990, he was a recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship (U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.). He achieved his MFA in Painting from Carnegie Mellon University in 1993. Todd Bartel’s work assumes the forms of painting, drawing and sculpture in a collage and assemblage format. His work investigates the interconnected histories of collage and landscape and the role of nature and natural resources in Western culture. His work has been exhibited nationally in venues that include Palo Alto Art Center, Katonah Museum, Brockton Art Museum, The Rhode Island Foundation, Zieher Smith, Mills Gallery. He is the gallery director at the Cambridge School of Weston’s (CSW) Thompson Gallery, where he teaches drawing, painting, conceptual art, collage, assemblage and installation art.
See also:

Nance Van Winckel will have two new books out in 2013. Pacific Walkers, her sixth collection of poems, is due out from U. of Washington Press, and Boneland, her fourth book of linked stories, will appear with U. of Oklahoma Press. She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships, an Isherwood Fiction Fellowship and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. New poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She has new short fiction in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, and Kenyon Review. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her primary interest lately is Poetry-Off-the-Page, and she has had work in several juried art shows of her “pho-toems” (photo-collage with text). A solo show of this work opened in January at the Robert Graves Gallery in Wenatchee, Washington; examples may be viewed at: