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.