Sep 262012

Two great Irish poems, a debt to Wordsworth, and Patrick J. Keane‘s synthetic/syncretic mind teach us here how to draw value from humble things in time of trouble (our time, among others) and offer a plea for significance enacted in Derek Mahon’s line “Let not our naïve labours have been in vain.” This plea rings through the ages but also presently, here and now, with the economy in tatters, the 99% grinding lower and lower, the massive direction of things against us. Why write, why persevere, what point? Pat Keane, as usual, with his vast reading, snatches references and parallels out of the ether, but he never fails to draw a passionately political moral out of the poetic argument.

The Yeats photo above is by Pirie Macdonald and the Mahon photo is by John Minihan.



Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen
to fill our hives with honey and wax;
thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things:
sweetness and light.

—Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books


To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran,
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

—William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring”


The human cry for deliverance from pain and suffering, from violence and violation, whether personal or political or both, comes in many forms, some quite unexpected. Here are two poems written half a century apart. Both are by Irish poets, both have to do with the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and both radiate out from a focus on minute particulars to embrace universal meaning.

The first is by W. B. Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet and widely considered the major poet of the twentieth century. It is the sixth lyric in Meditations in Time of Civil War, a poetic sequence Yeats wrote in the midst of that tragic conflict, a war fought between supporters of the new Irish Free State, which emerged from the Anglo-Irish Treaty following the War of Independence, and Republicans who rejected the terms of that Treaty, ratified in January 1922. The anti-Treaty forces objected particularly to the required oath to the British king and to the partition between predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. To clarify the title: a “stare” is the west-of-Ireland name for a starling; the “window” is in Yeats’s tower, an ancient Norman tower he purchased in 1917 and restored for his wife. The poet, now 57, and his young wife and two children were living there during much of the Irish Civil War.

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O, honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The second poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” is by the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon. It was written soon after Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic protesters, initiating the violent stage of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Mahon wants his readers to associate that event with the Partition of Ireland back in 1922 and the subsequent Civil War. The poem is dedicated to J. G. Farrell, whose 1972 novel, The Troubles, has a scene including an old shed on the grounds of one of the many buildings burned down during the Irish Civil War. Mahon’s “disused shed” is on the grounds of “a burnt-out hotel,” burned down—like Farrell’s and like the “house burned” in Yeats’s poem—during “civil war days.” In the midst of destructive violence and embittered hearts, Yeats’s own heart reaches out to birds that nurture rather than kill, and bees that build rather than destroy. In an even wider historical context of exploitation, loss, and destruction, Mahon’s empathetic heart goes out, remarkably, to neglected mushrooms in a long-abandoned shed, “waiting for us” for precisely “a half-century, without visitors, in the dark.”

Mahon’s deeply humane, obliquely political poem is considered by many readers the single greatest lyric to have come out of Ireland since the death of Yeats—especially high praise considering the quality of the poetry produced over the past three decades by Ireland’s preeminent contemporary poet, Seamus Heaney, widely regarded as a worthy heir to Yeats. Appropriately, in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney celebrated Yeats, his predecessor as Nobel Laureate, singling out for special praise “A Stare’s Nest by My Window,” a poem often quoted (as he notes in his acceptance speech) by men and women during the later Troubles in Northern Ireland. Along with having particular resonance for those who lived through one or the other of the two phases of the Irish Troubles, these poems by Yeats and Mahon are of universal significance. Both have roots going back to Wordsworth, writing during the era of the French Revolution, and they seem relevant to our current troubles: to a world in economic, political, and ecological crisis, and to our own polarized nation, marked by increasingly bitter partisanship and a widening gap between the rich and the rest, the comfortable and a majority struggling to survive.

A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.
…………………………………..Seferis, Mythistorema

Even now there are places where a thought might grow—
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And, in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foeter of
Vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew,
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something—
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong—
“Elbow room! Elbow room!”
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half-century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

These poems speak for themselves; but, having briefly introduced both, I’d like to now venture commentaries on each, beginning with “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.”


Aside from the opening poem, “Ancestral Houses” (written in 1921), the seven lyrics that make up Meditations in Time of Civil War were written, Yeats tells us in his own note to the sequence, “at Thoor Ballylee in 1922, during the civil war.” As published in 1923, the sequence reflects upon, and dramatically records, the internecine violence swirling around the poet’s own tower in the west of Ireland, nowhere more poignantly than in the sixth poem, “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” Like Wordsworth before him, also writing in a time of war and personal crisis, Yeats, experiencing a sense of what he called “the common tragedy of life,” focuses on small, common things of nature—here, bees and mother birds that “bring grubs and flies” to their chicks. Living in a restored twelfth-century Norman fortress, the poet was fully aware that men in this region had “lived through many tumultuous centuries.” Now, having watched stacked coffins carted past his door and heard night explosions, Yeats, as he tells us in his Nobel Prize memoir, “felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature” (“The Bounty of Sweden” [1925], in Autobiographies, 579-80).

Surrounded by human destructiveness (young soldiers slaughtered, great houses burned), Yeats attends to the constructive continuities of the natural world: the bees that “build” in the “crevices” of his tower’s loosening masonry, and the life-affirming feminine principle in the form of “mother birds” who bring sustenance to their nested young. In the refrain, the poet, by nature a creative spirit, even if his own “wall is loosening” (here he merges the ancient tower with his own aging body) invokes related creative spirits: the “honey-bees,” comb-makers and confectioners of a substance associated with sweetness and light. The bees are to “Come build in the empty house of the stare.” It’s not quite clear if the stares or starlings, rather quarrelsome and rapacious birds, have abandoned their nest, to be replaced by other birds, or if the “mother-birds” are themselves starlings. What is clear is that (to cite John Keats’s depiction of nature’s continuity) “the poetry of earth is ceasing never,” and that Yeats associates the bird feeding her young with the honey-bee, an archetypal image of harmony and regeneration.

As a young reader of Walden, Yeats famously longed, emulating Thoreau, to “build” a small cabin on the Lake Isle of Innisfree, with “a hive for the honey-bee,/And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” That was Then; Now he is writing “in time of civil war.” Unlike instinctual creatures who build and nurture, “we,” even non-participants in the violence, are caught up in, and cut off by it. In the isolation of his lonely tower, the poet and his family are—rather like Mahon’s mushrooms—“closed in, and the key is turned/On our uncertainty.” In the fog of war, with communications down, facts are the first casualty, an “uncertainty” compounded by the nature of this worst form of conflict. As is made clear by the full sequence of which this lyric is part, Yeats (though he accepted the Treaty) was ambivalent about a tragic civil war that had pitted brother against brother, creating “a whirlpool of hate” for which he felt “both sides were responsible” (1923 letter to Lady Gregory). One can argue either side of the political division that led to the conflict; Yeats himself refused (as he said in the letter to Lady Gregory) to “take any position in life where I have to speak but half my mind.” There are, however, a few lethal certainties: While “no clear fact” is to be discerned, “somewhere/ A man is killed, or a house burned.”

One day Yeats saw “the smoke made by the burning of a great neighboring house,” and, along with stacked coffins, actually witnessed the incident presented in the third stanza, also described in a letter to the critic F. J. C. Grierson. His graphic specificity and use of the demonstrative pronoun create the stark immediacy epitomizing and particularizing the horror of war: “Last night they trundled down the road/ That dead young soldier in his blood.” That close focus on the dead, in sharp contrast to the equally close focus on the details of the life-affirming birds and bees, is followed by a third invocation for those bees to build. In “Lines Written in Early Spring,” Wordsworth had asked, rhetorically, “Have I not reason to lament/ What man has made of man?”  Yeats renews that Wordsworthian contrast between the creative harmony of nature and the destructive tendencies of man: man caught up in the political world that is too much with us, and so cut off from and out of tune with the vital, fecund universe.

In the great final stanza, Yeats out-Wordsworths Wordsworth, making himself complicit in the very violence he deplores. “We” are not merely the closed-in, passive endurers of heart-hardening brutality, but its inadvertent engenderers. The maternal birds bring their young substantial fare in the form of life-sustaining grubs and flies. But “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” Prominent among those “fantasies” were the potent myths, masculine and feminine, of Cuchulain and Cathleen ni Houlihan. In resurrecting both mythic figures, abstractions blooded, Yeats had fed Irish nationalism, a passion alternately ennobling and fanatical—all that delirium of the brave.

Having written a cycle of five plays based on Cuchulain, the Achilles of ancient Irish epic, Yeats seems, in his late poem “The Statues,” at once proud and disturbed that Padraic Pearse and some of the other leaders of the Easter Rising had made a cult of the ancient Irish hero Yeats had revived, in the process unleashing an uncanny power: “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,/What stalked through the Post Office?” To this day, Oliver Shepherd’s bronze statue of Cuchulain may be seen in the General Post Office, the building on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in which Pearse, James Connolly, and a youthful Michael Collins, among others, made their stand in the Easter Rising. In “The Man and the Echo,” another late poem, one written not long before his own death, Yeats posed another political question, perhaps the most famous in Irish literature: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” He was referring to Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), written for and starring his beloved, that beautiful patriotic firebrand, Maud Gonne; and the answer to the question is Yes. Young men inspired by that patriotic, even propagandistic, glorifying of blood sacrifice for Mother Ireland would later lose their lives in the Easter Rising (1916), or in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21).

“Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart,” Yeats reminded us in ambivalently commemorating (in his group-elegy, “Easter 1916”) the leaders of the Rising executed by the British. But then, their hearts still deeply moved, yet often brutalized, by mythic fantasies, Irish patriots would turn against each other in the Civil War, displaying “More substance in our enmities/ Than in our love.” In the form of sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestant, vestiges of love-eclipsing hatred survive in the not yet fully resolved Troubles in Northern Ireland. James Joyce had addressed the issue in Ulysses, set in 1904 but published in 1922, during the Irish Civil War. In “Cyclops,” the political episode of his novel, Joyce’s unlikely hero, Leopold Bloom, responds to the one-eyed Irish chauvinism he encounters in Barney Kiernan’s pub:

–But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is life.
–What? says Alf.
–Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.  (Ulysses, 273)

Having helped create a mythology that had turned into bloody reality, a lethal hatred “the very opposite of that that is life,” Yeats also envisions, nowhere more movingly than in “The Stare’s Nest by My Window,” the opposite possibility. As he put it in a letter written in the midst of the Civil War, “The one enlivening truth that starts out of it all is that we may learn charity after mutual contempt.” Enlivening: Life might yet issue from death, sweetness flowing into the breast once political bitterness had been cast out. In this sequence’s opening poem Yeats referred to “violent, bitter men,” and to “the sweetness that all longed for night and day.” This sixth poem in the sequence invokes creatures emblematic of that sweetness. Appropriately, the prayer for regeneration intensifies, and is most poignant, in the final supplicant refrain, with its direct and tender apostrophe: “O, honey-bees,/Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

This longing is a prayer for love among the ruins, plenitude amidst desolation; a cry from the heart for sweetness and light to replace embittered darkness. Filling emptiness, the honey-bees represent creative, natural, benevolent cyclicity in contrast to the destructive, unnatural brutality of civil war. What better image for a poem seeking reconciliation of civil enmity? “So work the honey-bees,” says Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury, “Creatures that by a rule in nature teach/ The act of order to a peopled kingdom” (Henry V, I.ii.187-89). It is no accident that Seamus Heaney, in choosing jacket art for Crediting Poetry, the published version of his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, selected The Bees (from the Ashmole Bestiary, circa 1210), an illustration intended to refer back to this poem by Yeats, a poem especially “credited” in the speech. Thinking of Yeats’s and Shakespeare’s honey-bees, perhaps of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, and surely of Swift’s praise of honey and wax emblematic of “sweetness and light,” Heaney notes the special significance of the honey-bee—“an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth” (Crediting Poetry, 44-45).


We encounter another image from the world of nature, though one far less conventional, in Derek Mahon’s poem, which replaces Yeats’s honey-bees with a commonwealth of mushrooms. The poetic means by which Yeats moves us go, of course, beyond the resonant image of the honey-bee. His poem is intricately and regularly rhymed, its strict abaab stanza form subtly nuanced by enjambment and oblique rhymes in the a lines of each stanza, anchored and stabilized by the single b rhyme on “stare” throughout the poem. Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” though far more loosely rhymed and even more colloquially enjambed, is also highly formal—and, as we will see, or hear, remarkably allusive. It consists of six 10-line stanzas, with lines varying between approximations of iambic tetrameter and pentameter. Yeats found his theme in a precise place (an “empty” yet life-filled crevice near the bedroom window in his tower); Mahon begins by enumerating various “places” where a “thought might,” almost organically, “grow.” Those he mentions, before homing in on the precisely-placed disused shed, adumbrate his themes of exploitation, loss, abandonment, and the slow passage of time.

“Even now,” there are, in his opening example, Peruvian silver mines, once teeming with natives forced to labor in the darkness by exploitative Spanish conquistadores, mines now “worked out and abandoned/To a slow clock of condensation,/An echo trapped for ever…” The ticking off of the hard cs (worked, clock, condensation, echo) is balanced by fluid ls, fricative fs, and short is: a haunting delicacy—“a flutter/ Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft”–reminiscent of Keats’s goddess of Autumn, her “hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind.” From these “Indian compounds” the Indians themselves have long since vanished; now only the “wind dances,” and a door bangs “with diminished confidence.” The challenge, for Mahon as for late summer’s oven-bird in Robert Frost’s poem of that title, “is what to make of a diminished thing,” especially given the even more unpromising sites in this opening stanza: lime crevices hidden behind rain-barrels, or remote corners where dogs have buried bones or feces (Mahon originally referred to “dog corners for shit burials”).

The first stanza, which concludes by casually introducing the titular “disused shed in Co. Wexford,” pivots syntactically into the second stanza, which locates that shed “Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel…” Mahon seems again to be echoing Keats, this time his Hyperion, which opens with fallen, gray-haired Saturn, found “Deep in the shady sadness of a vale/ Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,/ Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star…(1-4). The echo is sustained in Mahon’s description of the shed’s inhabitants, a “thousand mushrooms” crowded to a keyhole, the “one star in their firmament,” the “star” of that keyhole framing within it an actual evening star. Again, the question is what to make of a diminished thing. “What should they do there but desire?” Having survived “so many days” beyond even the evergreen rhododendrons, while the great world waltzes gaily and unconcerned in its amphitheater of cloud, the mushrooms “have learned patience and silence/ Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.” With the concealed effortlessness of an art great enough to induce the Coleridgean suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith, Mahon has brought us, amazingly enough, into the otherwise inexpressible, unconscious world of abandoned mushrooms, vegetative forms made as hauntingly real as the housed ghosts in Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.”

In fact, listening patiently and silently, they have been “waiting for us”—waiting for those who break into their shed in the penultimate stanza and those of “us” who read Mahon’s poem when it first appeared in 1972—for “a half century,” ever since “civil war days.” Back then, in 1922, the botanist who tended to them (the “expropriated mycologist”) was removed from those chores among the fungi, called to duty in the Irish Civil War. The mushrooms, always listening, mark his “gravel-crunching departure,” a departure that proved to be “interminable.” Presumably killed in action, he “never came back, and light since then/ Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.” Equally gently, and elegiacally, the years are telescoped. Through decades, while “spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew,” the abandoned mushrooms survive in their constricted shed, isolated and forgotten. Still, clinging tenaciously to their pitiably minimal existence, they listen in the darkness, and

Once a day, perhaps, they have heard something—
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

Not all these attentive auditors have survived the half century they have been patiently waiting for us. “There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking/ Into the earth that nourished it”; and “nightmares,” engendered by that decay and the nourishing and receiving earth. In this “grim/ Dominion of stale air and rank moisture,” the mushrooms nearest the door “grow strong,” struggling for their own mini-dominion: “Elbow room! Elbow room!” (This welcome note of jocularity is unlikely to derive from a recollection of King John, Shakespeare’s poisoned and dying wretch of a monarch, who cries out in the final scene of the play, “Now my soul hath elbow-room” [King John, V.vii.28]. Instead, Mahon is probably echoing the exuberant exclamation (popularized in a poem by Arthur Cuiterman) attributed to America’s expansive Kentucky frontiersman: “’Elbow room!’ cried Daniel Boone.”) Even in the claustrophobic shed-world there are winners and losers, the aggressive and the near-defeated. Those in the mushroom colony nearest the door grow strong;

The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

In this evocation of the pathos of mutability, diminished but still stubborn hope, and sheer survival among the crumbling and broken detritus, Mahon combines a question and answer from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” the Apostle asks, adding “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain until now” (7:24, 8:22). The mushrooms have been “so long/ Expectant” that they retain only the tendency to believe in their deliverance, only a “posture” or anticipatory attitude. Yet they remain poignantly open to that equilibrium of faith and tragic realization expressed in the final line of Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas”: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”

Yet, however expectant the mushrooms may be,  deliverance, when it comes, comes unexpectedly, as a shock—a sudden, violent, cacophonous violation of the silent loneliness of these long-neglected shut-ins:

A half-century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges.

In a remarkable fusion, the wise old “magi”-like mushrooms are compared to “moonmen” and sci-fi “triffids.” Sufferers racked “by drought and insomnia,” they are also depicted as “Powdery prisoners of the old regime,” victims resembling the few frail, long-forgotten prisoners released from the Bastille at the symbolic onset of the French Revolution. Reinforcing the allusion to that era, their survival is confirmed by a detail—“only the ghost of a scream/ At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with…”—that momentarily aligns the tourists armed with cameras with the French firing-squad of regimented automatons executing the Spanish rebels in Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May, 1808, in Madrid: The Shooting on Principe Pio Mountain. The victims in Goya’s painting are dead, dying, or waiting their turn; the focal point a white-shirted peasant kneeling on the bloodstained earth, his face and posture a remarkable mixture of human horror, pride, and fatalistic resignation in the face of death. Though the mushrooms, awakened by the camera flash, are being photographed rather than actually “shot,” it is not hard to imagine a memory of Goya’s great painting entering into Mahon’s description of the “posture” of his long suffering but dignified mushrooms, and the frightening effect on them of this “flash-bulb firing squad.”

And it is necessary that we again experience the mushrooms’ plight as victims since they have just been described, semi-realistically, as “Web-throated, stalked like triffids”—resembling, that is, the fictional plants in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Windham’s bestial plants are, like Mahon’s mushrooms, capable of rudimentary human behavior; indeed, able to uproot themselves and walk, even to communicate with each other. But they are malign, voracious creatures. Any vestigial negative connotation attached to the mushrooms is dissolved in this re-emphasis on their victimage, and in the profoundly moving picture that follows the quasi-military firing of the flash-bulbs. The sudden light wakens them, revealing them at their noblest, most human, and most poignant. Their “ghost of a scream”

Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

That magnificent last line is at once richly alliterative, paradoxically witty (frail heads lifted in gravity), heartbreakingly vulnerable, and a tribute to inextinguishable hope. What more is there to say? Yet Mahon risks everything in the final stanza, taking the chance that his poem might over-reach by incorporating the marginal life of these forgotten mushrooms, neglected “since civil war days,” within a larger moral and historical background of catastrophe: the human tragedy of Treblinka, the natural disaster of Pompeii. Silent auditors till now, they are given speech in the final lines—“wordless” speech in the obvious sense that the words are supplied (as in the earlier and amusing cry for “Elbow room!”) by the author. Risking all, specifically the danger that his poem’s pathos might sink into bathos, Mahon pulls it off, a rhetorical triumph whose glory is humbled by its Wordsworthian attention to the lowly and dispossessed, and by an empathy and in-feeling reminiscent, again, of Keats, whose Grecian urn, a foster-child of “silence and slow time,” suddenly bursts into utterance at the end of the ode. Mahon’s final stanza opens with his mushrooms on the verge of utterance:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.

They are begging us, all of us who read and permit ourselves to be possessed by this uncanny poem, to “do” something, anything; or, if we fail to act, to say something, to “speak on their behalf.” At the very least, they plead with us not to repeat their abandonment, “not to close the door again.” For a moment the mushrooms metamorphose into the victims of the modern Holocaust or of ancient Vesuvius, appealing directly to us–we mobile tourists and casual recorders of suffering—to bring them salvation, if only in the form of tragic remembrance. Mahon’s epigraph is from the Greek poet George Seferis, a Nobel Laureate who died the year before this poem was written: “Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.” Embodying the return of the repressed, those souls, in Mahon’s conscience-stricken expansion, include all those who, throughout human history, have struggled and suffered—isolated, abandoned, forgotten, deprived, dispossessed, destroyed, even incinerated—in a world groaning for deliverance:

Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

This cry out of darkness and pain evokes our noblest human instincts, empathy and compassion. That it does so is a tribute to the poem’s final “tone of supplication.” I borrow the phrase from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech. Concluding that speech, Heaney, having repeatedly connected the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Yeats’s “Stare’s Nest” poem, turns to lyric poetry’s “musically satisfying order of sound,” which he also illustrates by reference to this particular  poem. He finds the satisfaction he seeks in the repetition of Yeats’s refrain, “with its tone of supplication, its pivots of strength in the words ‘build’ and ‘house’ and its acknowledgement of dissolution in the word ‘empty’,” as well as in “the triangle of forces held in equilibrium by the triple rhyme of ‘fantasies’ and ‘enmities’ and ‘honey-bees’…” What Heaney says in the peroration of his Address, celebrating the “means” by which “Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does,” applies as well to the second of our necessary poems, one no less musically satisfying, and no less deeply humane. For Mahon’s poem, too, pivots between strength and supplication, with his cherished mushrooms’ endurance capped by their petition, “Let not our naïve labours have been in vain.” This, as Heaney concludes Crediting Poetry, is to

touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem…is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they too are an earnest of our veritable human being. (53-54)

Wordsworth, an abiding influence in the work of Heaney, informs both these poems focusing on seemingly insignificant processes of nature: plangent labors, and values, persisting even amid profound distress. William Hazlitt rightly said of Wordsworth, “No one has shown the same imagination in raising trifles to importance”; it was his “peculiar genius,” Walter Pater added a half century later, “to open out the soul of apparently little or familiar things,” especially the small, neglected, humblest details of the natural world. In doing so, he was able to move the empathetic human heart in ways that help account for the emotional impact on us of mother birds and honey-bees, even of neglected but persevering mushrooms. “Tears” are inherent in “things,” Virgil tells us, since “mortality touches the heart” (Aeneid 1:462). With Mahon in mind, though his words apply as well to the most moving of Yeats’s Civil War poems, Denis Donoghue noted “the consolation of hearing that there is a deeper, truer life going on beneath the bombings and murders and torture.” The parent text may be Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, a poem of loss and recompense even greater than these two great poems, and offering, in its final lines, the humanizing consolation attending our empathetic response, emotional and cognitive, to that deeper, truer life surviving beneath, and above, what man has made of man:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


By way of coda, I conclude with a poem of my own, not (needless to say) to suggest that it belongs in the company of Heaney and Mahon, let alone of Wordsworth and Yeats, but merely to record my debt to that tradition elegizing the seemingly least significant lives.

In Memoriam: Mug Rinsing

In charge of the files, a Senior Citizen
Whose life seemed just a daily coffee grind,
She finally let the filing fall behind.
A neighbor phoned to say, She won’t be in….

For a week now, the Company’s been bereft
Of the services of Miss–what was her name?
Pre-dated time-sheets blazon forth her fame
Somewhat ironically. One token’s left:

That skoal to the quotidian, her coffee mug,
Ringed with sludge and sour Half ‘n Half,
Squats in her Out Box, ugly epitaph
On an existence rounded with a shrug….

The desk will soon be cleared; those palisades
Of mounting folders scaled; her little hutch
Rifled of its sugar-packs and such
Accumulated junk as sad old maids

Hive against a cold retirement.
Another woman (proximately aged,
According to Personnel) has been engaged.
The pageant blurs, but files do not relent.

Her mug remains: a dull memorial urn;
But caustic soap and rinsing will remove
Vestigial stains, these final trophies of
Another unremarkable sojourn.

In Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, the understanding wife of the anti-hero pronounces the appropriately named Willie Lowman “a man to whom attention must be paid.” Wordsworth, with the Bible and Milton as precedent, is, of course, the preeminent poet of the lowly, even the “lowliest”—the revolutionary pioneer of a poetry attending to, and commemorating, things beneath the notice of poets before him. It is a poetry of petition: a call to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, the neglected who suffer even posthumous violation. It is also a poetry of epitaphs—inscriptions for those whose evanescent lives seem writ in water; or, as here, memorialized only by a coffee stain.

Of course, the real memorial is the poem itself. To avoid sentimentality, I employed an impersonal narrative voice, beneath which readers should detect a very different authorial voice. The elderly office worker of my poem may have left behind—at least from the perspective of an indifferent world (replicated in the narrator’s tone)—only that trivial token of her humble existence: a coffee mug whose vestigial stains will soon be washed away, part of this insubstantial pageant faded. Yet she, too, had her life to live, and I found myself, as her fellow-worker and eventual elegist, unwilling to simply let her disappear, her naïve labors in vain. If the poem’s title and stanza-form derive from Tennyson, Wordsworth and Mahon supply its human heart.


Afterword on Derek Mahon and W. B. Yeats

I just came across an engaging interview on “The Art of Poetry,” published in the Paris Review in 1981. In it, Derek Mahon made several remarks germane to the preceding essay. “Heaney is a Wordsworth man,” he said. “I’m a Coleridge man.” As a self-confessed traditionalist, Mahon was thinking specifically of Coleridge’s emphasis on “organic form” and the power of what he called in the Dejection Ode his “shaping spirit of imagination.” Asked about the tension between the “formal” and the “wild” aspects of poetry, what Nietzsche, borrowing from the Greeks, called “the Apollonian and the Dionysian,” Mahon described this as the combination that has the greatest potency, the hissing chemicals inside the well-wrought urn; an urnful of explosives. That’s what’s so great about Yeats, after all. The Dionysian contained within the Apollonian form, and bursting at the seams—shaking at the bars, but the bars have to be there to be shaken….That’s true of the ‘Shed’.”

The final reference is, of course, to “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” a whole history of dispossession and violence contained within six carefully-crafted ten-line stanzas. That craftsmanship may, paradoxically, have contributed to an afterthought expressed in this interview. Though he realized that “A Disused Shed,” his most honored and best-loved poem, “meant a lot to a lot of people,” he said that it “now” seemed to him “a rather manufactured piece of work.” Perhaps, as with Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or Van Morrison with “Brown-Eyed Girl,” he was momentarily wearied of being identified above all as the author of this one poem.

In any case, Mahon is precisely right about what was “so great about Yeats.” Consider, for example, all those great poems in which power is poured into and contained by Yeats’s favorite “traditional” stanza, ottava rima. In fact, it was the Apollonian-Dionysian antithesis in The Birth of Tragedy— the conception of chaos ordered, of Dionysian energy harnessed by Apollo—that first attracted Yeats to Nietzsche, that “strong enchanter” in whom he found what he described, with remarkable tonal accuracy, as “curious astringent joy.” In the late essay intended as a “General Introduction for My Work,” Yeats noted that “because I need a passionate syntax for passionate subject matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language. Ezra Pound [and D. H.] Lawrence wrote admirable free verse. I could not. I would lose myself, become joyless” (Essays and Introductions, 522).

This gladly- accepted bondage or disciplined joy—what Yeats, borrowing the term from Mahon’s mentor Coleridge, called “shaping joy”—is what Nietzsche meant by “dancing in chains” (The Wanderer and His Shadow) and being, “in most loving constraint, free” (The Gay Science). Writing to a close friend, Yeats explained this aesthetics of leashed power: “We have all something within ourselves to batter down and get our power from this fighting….The passion of the verse comes from…the holding down of violence or madness—‘down Hysterica passio.’ All depends on the completeness of the holding down, on the stirring of the beast underneath” (Letters to Dorothy Wellesley, 86). The beast must stir, must shake the cage; but, as Mahon notes, the “bars have to be there to be shaken.”

Mahon remarks, early in this interview, that one of his secondary school teachers, John Boyle, taught the poetry of Yeats as the work of “an historian of the time” in which he was living. In “A Disused Shed,” and many other poems, Derek Mahon is an historian of his time, though, in both cases, the response to historical events, however violent, is still cast in traditional form, metrical and stanzaic. In his own response to Irish history, the resurgence of the Irish Troubles to whose initial phase Yeats was responding, Derek Mahon, again like Yeats, refused to take sides if that meant repressing his openness to differing political and cultural perspectives.

Born into a Northern Protestant tradition he found not only limiting, but guilt-inducing, Mahon sought escape through travel and, in his poetry, through an empathetic  identification with the victims of history. Confronting the “horror” of the sectarian violence in the North, Mahon told the Paris Review interviewer in 1981, “you couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t take sides. In a kind of way, I still can‘t. It’s possible [ he continued, alluding to the “Disused Shed” poem] for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii—included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it.”

Why these two towns? In Maghera, 14 people were killed, 10 by the Provisional IRA, in the course of the Northern “Troubles.” And Mahon presumably singled out Dungiven because it was there, on 13 July 1969, that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary brutally batonned an elderly Catholic farmer. The man, Francis McClosky, who was completely innocent, died from his injuries: a death that many see as the event that initiated the violent phase of the “Troubles” in the North.

To end on a happier note regarding the poetry of Derek Mahon: Following a fallow period of several years, there has been a late flowering. Four excellent collections have appeared in as many years: Harbour Lights (2006); Somewhere the Wave (2007), Life on Earth (2008), and An Autumn Wind (2010), published as the poet was turning 70. It would seem that, like W. B. Yeats, who also experienced a burst of creative energy as he entered his seventies, Derek Mahon has retained his shaping spirit of imagination.

—Patrick J. Keane


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

Sep 252012

Darryl Gregory lives in Connecticut but has roots in Texas, plays country music on his lap steel guitar, and sings like a mournful soul. He can also write, and so we have here an analysis of the genesis and composition of an entire album, music and words. He tells a story about telling stories, eloquently and generously, and incidentally tells the stories again,  family stories. I love any insight I can get into the working language and practice of an art form other than my own. It always creates analogies, parallels and connections in my mind. While you’re reading, you can listen to the songs (click on the widget half-way down the page).

I met Darryl through his wife, Sophfronia Scott, who published an essay here last issue and is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She told me a delightful story about how they found each other during a football game when she was in the stands and he was the band leader. I tell you this because I like the family connections here on NC which in the end is very much about friends, families and students (this is one of the reasons so many of the author photos on NC have children in them — have you noticed?). Also I think talented people find each other.



I’m a songwriter. I’m also a storyteller—a raconteur with melodic intent. When I set out to write  a song, I want to guide a listener through my character’s state of mind as that character plays the hand I’ve dealt them. I use music to groove along with the words and to fill in for the fat I trimmed off when crafting singable lyrics. I doubt a novelist or a poet would or could do such a thing. But I can, in a sense, leave out some words that my lap steel guitar will intone with a reverb-ladened wail. That’s the really cool thing about being a songwriter, but you still need to tell a story and connect to the listener no matter how much reverb you soak in.

I say this all up front because as I began work on my latest album, Big Texas Sky, I had to keep reminding myself that I was a storyteller. I needed to tell a story, not just within each song, but over the entire album. What did I want to say and how could I string an album’s worth of songs together in order to convey it to a listener? I had a lot of songs to choose from as I had been writing consistently since my previous release in 2007. But which were the songs that told their own story and told a bigger story when played together with other songs?

Life, as it does with many a creative process, played a hand in answering that question. Last year as I began thinking about the process of writing and recording a new album, I was dealing with a boatload of family issues. I lost a very close friend and then my sister-in-law, attending their funerals in two different states only days apart. At the same timeI watched my mother’s health deteriorate as her age sapped her strength and will to live. I spent months saying my farewells to her. She passed away two weeks before her 86th birthday.

Last autumn I received a photograph in the mail from my Aunt Thelma, my father’s sister, who had just turned 95. She resides in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a photo of her, my other surviving aunt, their children (my cousins) and their children, all at the gathering for Thelma’s 95th birthday. As I looked over the picture a feeling of deep regret began to well up in my heart. Besides my aunts, I did not know any of the people in the photo. There were many familial characteristics that I latched onto (that man in the second row looks a lot like my brother) but I had no names and no story to go along with the photo. This thought truly saddened me.

So as I gathered songs for my then untitled album, I began to notice I was putting together a collection of songs about family. Consciously or not here was a group of songs that said something about how I was feeling. I saw the love and the regret in the words I had written, and those lyrics felt like unsent letters waiting to be postmarked.

From one of the songs emerged the phrase that would become the title of the collection and give me the way to connect all the dots. “Anywhere But Here” is a story about a young girl trying to escape one abusive situation after another. She curses her fate for being born under a big Texas sky. The image of a big sky overhead makes me think of God: the omnipresence, the spirit that is always there, watching as we live our lives. We either acknowledge it or not, but the fact remains that it is there. So for me the sky became a metaphor for God and Texas became a metaphor for family and these two ideas strung the beads together. After I saw this, picking the rest of the songs for Big Texas Sky became easy. Though I ended up with fewer songs than is on a usual CD these days, 7 instead of 10 or 12, I feel these seven songs are solid stories of family, life, spirit and love. Together they create a tableau the listener can comfortably insert themselves and feel right at home.

I’m very fortunate to have a recording studio in my basement. I built it when our family moved from cramped quarters in NYC to expanded-suburban-landownership in CT. I can go downstairs, shut the door and take my time finding the right way to record the songs I’ve written. For this CD I wanted to have a country/Americana sound throughout because I knew, even before I decided on the title, I wanted the album to be associated with Texas in some way. I was raised listening to country music: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings. I hated it all. I hated it all because my parents loved it. But I absorbed it through the pores of my musical skin and when I got very serious about songwriting I found that my songs were inherently country. Oh I can write a mean post punk power pop diddy, but country is where my heart is.

I don’t have an exact process to recording, but the general path goes something like this: first drums, rhythm guitar and bass, add in the lead guitar, keyboards and background vocals, top it off with lead vocals and mix it all together.

I like to spend a lot of time finding just the right sound for my guitar through different amplifier settings and just the right groove for the bass. When a musician talks about groove he is talking about a couple of integrated items — the rhythms that allow the listener to move along with the beat (can I dance to it?) and how the other instruments all fall within that basic rhythm. You know you’re playing with good musicians when they know their place within the groove.

That being the case, I will record those instruments first over a looped drum track, kind of like a metronome, but with more of a rhythmic groove from a bass drum and snare (no one likes playing to a click-click-click-click). Once I get the bass and rhythm guitars down, I will go back and record a real drum part. I’m not a great drummer, so I will call in a pro to play these parts.

Next comes a scratch vocal track. Scratch means that I know I’m not going to keep it and it’s just there as a guide, like a piece of scrap wood. I use the scratch vocal to help me record the lead guitars, keyboards, lap steel guitars, background vocals and anything else that plays off of the lead vocal. The reason for doing this is so that those instrumental parts do not get in the way of the vocals. It’s all about the words and the story in country music, so the voice is center and upfront. Next time you listen to rock or pop, take a moment to listen to where the voice is in relation to the band. It’s usually even with or a little in the back of the instruments. Not the case with country. The voice is always more prominent than everything else.

Now I go back and do many, many takes of the lead vocal part. I find singing to be deceivingly difficult. Especially when you go back into the control room of the studio and listen closely: swallowed consonants, odd sounding vowels, bad pitch, poor phrasing. I usually record 5 or 6 full passes of the song, then go back and record multiple takes of verses and choruses and bridges. The real fun begins when I try to find the best sounding bits from all that and edit it together onto a single track. Digital recording sure has made this easier, but it still comes down to singing the part right, knowing what you want the song to sound like an being able to tell the story while singing. By the way, I never use auto-tune. If I can’t sing in tune then it’s time to find another line of work.

Here’s a quick run-down of the songs on Big Texas Sky and the thread that strings them together. A complete set of lyrics is available at the Big Texas Sky web page. I’ll also include a few notes about the sound as well just to give you an idea of how the music pulls the story along.

Aunt Jean’s Piano

This a story that makes a connection through time using the piano once played by a long dead relative as a pivot point. Jean was my father’s younger sister and she was always described to me as “the talented pretty one” of the nine children. She died of a brain aneurism at the age of 19. I often thought about what might have happened to the piano she played.

I run my hands across the keys
Black and white and yellowed with age

What might it be like to come back to her house and play it as the ghosts dance in the room?

I feel her ghost inside the chords
As they drift around this room
I see her dancing on the porch
Singing an old Texas tune

The interesting thing about this piece is that there was no piano in it. It’s a song about a piano and yet, no piano. The song is stark with just a guitar, mandolin and fiddle to accompany the voice. Of course this bugged me to no end until I came up with the idea to record a prelude. In the lyrics there is a reference to Jean’s father loving the old Methodist hymns. I decided to begin the song with a hymn being sung by Jean and me (the storyteller). I pulled in a dear friend to sing Jean’s part way out of her range so she would sound like a young girl and I sang the alto part down an octave. It comes out well as a very cool effect.


Anywhere But Here

I wanted to write a story in the vein of Emmy Lou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl”. A story about a young girl who is trying to escape one abusive situation after another and not quite getting out.

She’s gonna run far
From this broke down life
Stepdaddy’s greasy hands
And his visits in the night
He ain’t gonna hold her down this time
She ain’t lookin’ back this time

The listener hopefully realizes that she’s never going to find peace because it’s always anywhere but here.

She got a ticket for a bus
Headed to Austin
Or is it Detroit?
Maybe it’s Boston?
As long as it’s
Anywhere but here

The guitars are special in this song. There’s a twangy-ness to them that makes me think of an East Texas Buddy Holly sound. Layered on top of this is a lap steel guitar played with a slide and drenched in reverb. If you’ve ever heard the Flatlanders you’ll know the sound I was aiming for.


Workin’ Man

This is my tongue-in-cheek poke at why some guys work so damned hard: for the pretty little woman at home.

Yeah work
Cause baby needs a penthouse view
I work
Cause baby needs caviar
I work
Cause baby needs a mink coat
I work
Baby don’t know why I’m broke

I usually perform this song as a talking blues or a work-song. A work song is the grandfather to the music we know as ‘the blues’. It’s sung or chanted without instrumental support (acapella) and usually has a rhythmic groove that would go well with swinging a sledgehammer. I wanted to add atmosphere to the song and that meant adding instruments. I decided to arrange it for this CD with a pounding bass, a dobro and junk percussion. Junk percussion meaning, well… junk: tin cans, metal bars, trash cans, pots and pans, etc. I recorded the voice and then ran it through an amp to make it sound like the singer is talking through a bull horn at a union rally. All of this is intended to create a mood and a groove for this guy to wail about his lot in life.


How Do I Tell Her

In my job as a music educator, I have been in the position of having my job eliminated as school districts try to cut the budget. It’s a fearful situation in so many regards, not least of which was having to go home and have a discussion with my wife about the possibility that I might not have a job in the coming school year. “How Do I Tell Her” relates the story of a man who is let go from a long standing job and doesn’t know how to tell his wife.

Now I feel like a thief in the night
Like a ghost in my soul I’m going out of my mind
I’m afraid to deliver disappointment
Collecting her tears in kind

He finds that his wife knows more about his fear than he does and together they have the strength to weather the storm.

Next to “Anywhere But Here”, this is the most ‘country’ sounding track on the album. I wanted to go for that late 60’s, early 70’s sound with the pedal steel awash in reverb and a male chorus of background singers. Sad sounding, but not too sad. This is the type of song that a guy would call up on the jukebox, order a shot and a beer and after having a listen he’d raise the shot glass and say – “Here’s to that guy… I know how he feels… Man, I wish I had a woman like that…”


What About Love

Picture a couple in their mid to late 60‘s. The children have moved out, the house is too big, they have their ingrained habits and the love may or may not be there anymore. The song is written as a duet where each person is questioning the other – Were you, are you, and will you be the one I love?

What about you
What about me
Was I your guiding light
Your rock of Gibraltar
Did I part the sea

I love a good country duet. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and Janie Fricky, Dolly and Porter Wagoner just to name a few. I asked a good friend of mine to come into the studio to sing the female part. We discovered that the really interesting thing about getting the right takes was in the vocal inflections. We had to make sure that as we sang to each other we sounded like we were in love and that these two characters were questioning their relationship and yet reaffirming it at the same time. A singer needs to be an actor.


Elegy for an Old Man

Death has been a constant companion for my wife and myself for the past year. I’ve thought a lot about it and written on it many times in my journal. This song is about dying from the point of view of the one who, while on his deathbed, realizes he never really thought about dying.

I was a man of broad shoulders
Never thought my strength would disappear
Death snuck up behind
Cause I paid him no mind
Now we sit here in familiar conversation

I drew inspiration from the old cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” in the way that the character laments some of the things he has done yet relishes the full life he did have. After I wrote it and listened to it a bunch of times I realized it was an unintentional song about my father. He grew up in Texas, served in the Navy, settled in Cleveland and was always a cowboy in my eyes.

A note about the arrangement. I wanted to originally have a very mellow piano and bass accompaniment interspersed with a very distorted guitar sound in the vein of RadioHead or Adrian Belew. But as I listened, I found that the sounds were very distracting (as I mentioned before, the vocals are job number 1) and so I opted for a more chordal distorted guitar that, in my mind, represent the old man’s fists coming down on the table in defiance as he is about to relate his story.


Prayer & Hallelujah

This is a very simple song as far as lyrics are concerned, yet when I perform it I always get a powerful response. The song starts slowly with two verses that are a prayer to the divine for peace, love and compassion.

 Give me peace
In my soul
Give me love
Let me rock-n-roll
I’m gonna reach up into heaven
And touch the light of an angel’s wing
Bring it all back to my heart
So the world can hear me sing

The song then breaks into a rousing gospel section with a repeating refrain:

May we all feel the light of a brilliant love.

I put this song at the end of the album to sum it all up by saying that we all need some spiritual connection to get through all that life hands us. It’s the connection to family and friends that allows us to sing a Hallelujah every now and then.

When I began writing this song, the guitar part in the beginning prayer section reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s song “Ramble On”. The more I played it the more it touched that musical memory so much so that I almost abandoned the song entirely. But I loved the way it grooved with the lyrics and so I kept at it and it found it’s way onto the album. I do tip my hat to the mighty Zeppelin song by emulating that great bass line of John Paul Jones that stands out as a melodic counterpoint against the voice and guitar.

So I’m turning 50 this year. 50 is a good number to make one look back and think about regret, or not. I’ve decided to make a list of things I want to do in my 50th year – a to-do list for the man peering over the edge. I think one of the top items on this list will be: Visit family in Texas, bring guitar, leave regret behind.

— Darryl Gregory


Darryl Gregory is a true multi-instrumentalist who honed his skills as a rocker and singer-songwriter in NYC in the late 1990’s and early part of the new century. He produces other songwriters in his studio (Blue Cave Studios) in Sandy Hook, CT. Darryl has composed music for many different types of ensembles including orchestra, band, brass quintet, string quartet and Javanese Gamelan. He has composed music for film as well as incidental music for several off and off-off Broadway theatrical and dance works. Darryl has degrees in Music Education, trombone performance and music composition. He lives with his wife and son in the backwoods of Connecticut.

Sep 242012

Herewith an excerpt from Mark Frutkin’s strange and wonderful new novel, A Message for the Emperor just published by Véhicule Press. Mixing the past and the present, Frutkin tells the story of Li Wen, a landscape painter of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), who is on a journey to deliver a message to the Chinese Emperor in the far-off capital city of Linan. His teacher has instructed him to paint four landscapes, one for each season, during the year it will take him to travel across China to the Emperor’s Court where he is to present the paintings to the Emperor as a long-life gift. Part historical drama, part fable, part picaresque, part cultural criticism, A Message for the Emperor follows Li Wen on a series of (artful) adventures (including burial in an ancient tomb).

Frutkin grew up in Cleveland before moving to Canada during the Vietnam War, settling there (he lives in Ottawa) and making his way as a writer. He is one of a brave band of American/Canadians of that era, many of whom had a profound influence on the development of a nascent Canadian literary brand in the 60s and 70s. For a lively recollection of his early years in the Great White North, read his 2008 memoir Erratic North, A Vietnam Draft Resister’s Life in the Canadian Bush (Dundurn).

His previous novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His most recent publication (September 2011) is a travel memoir, Walking Backwards: Grand Tours, Minor Visitations, Miraculous Journeys and a Few Good Meals. His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.




The curator of Chinese art swings open the door of his office at the museum, notes with surprise that the new paintings have arrived, places his take-out coffee on a corner of his desk and pries off the lid. He stares at the coffee a moment – brown as the sound of a cello – refusing to look up, in an attempt to delay gratification at the arrival of the long-awaited paintings.

He notices a message, unsigned, waits on his desk. Picking it up, he reads: No room in storage for these at the moment. I installed them here for the time being, figured you wanted them close by.

Finally, lifting his gaze, he considers the paintings – four Chinese landscapes – that hang down like banners from the ceiling. Spring, on the far left, ripples from an unseen air current.

Four Seasons in China by the Song Dynasty artist Li Wen comes with an intriguing provenance that caught the curator’s attention when he first heard the story. The paintings were recorded in the Imperial Catalogue of 1275, a thick volume which held a complete inventory of the Chinese Emperor’s artistic holdings. A later catalogue from the Ming Dynasty failed to include them. Somehow the paintings were lost, likely due to the chaos that followed the arrival of the Mongol armies in the south of China during the late thirteenth century. And lost they had remained until rediscovered the previous year rolled up inside a bamboo tube in the basement of a Chinese antique dealer’s in old Chinatown. Surprisingly well-preserved, each painting is exactly twenty-two inches in width by forty-eight in length.

The curator opens the top drawer of his desk and removes a rectangular magnifying glass, its handle cross-hatched with notches. He paces back and forth, considering the paintings, the magnifying glass in his right hand. He longs to examine them in detail, to explore their worlds, to wander freely through those landscapes. Pulling his chair close, he settles before the painting of spring and begins. By mid-morning, the curator’s arm has grown tired of holding the magnifying glass. He decides to switch to a more powerful lens. For close-up work he sometimes uses goggles with eye-socket loupes, a type favoured by jewellers. These he can wear mounted on his head, leaving his hands free. He finds the loupes provide an astonishing clarity.

Returning to the painting of spring, the curator delves back into the mountains, deep into their crags, crevices and ravines. Easing his way through shaded forests and gorges, he climbs twisting paths. He enters and begins crossing the broad valley laid out before him, divided into rice paddies. Through the long afternoon he wanders. By early evening, he is alone in the museum, lost in the never-ending forests of China.

Removing the goggles for a moment, he twists his head around – trying to loosen his neck muscles. Replacing the headset, he leans forward in his chair, focusing now on the landscape of autumn.

At the foot of a mountain, next to a multi-fingered lake, stands an open-sided pavilion surrounded by cassia trees. He can smell their faint evergreen-cinnamon scent. Inside the pavilion he sees a man—he’s bald so he must be a monk—sitting and talking to someone unseen. On a low lacquered table before the monk rests a cup of tea. With exquisite precision and subtlety, the artist has depicted the twisting thread of steam from the cup of tea as it drifts up into the mountains and forms a trail beneath the mist-shrouded trees, a thin grey line winding through patches of mountain spruce, larch, pine and oak.

He notices a figure walking along this trail with what appears to be an oversized load upon his back. At first the curator guesses the image is a woodsman bearing a heap of firewood but when he increases the power on the magnifying loupes, he realizes it isn’t firewood at all but a bulky, laden pack. Something straight and narrow with a furred end sticks up from its side.

The curator leans back in his chair. A brush, he whispers aloud, it’s a brush.



Li Wen hiked along the trail, the loaded pack weighing heavier and heavier as he climbed through the autumn mountains. Already half the leaves on the maples and oaks had fallen, and the pines and spruce grew darker with each passing day, with each night of lavish frost. As he tramped the path, Wen felt as if something was watching him from behind. Turning, he glanced back the way he had come. The previous day a hunter had told him that tigers were known to haunt these mountains. His heart thumping in his ears, he noticed back along the trail a patch of mottled bamboo shivering in a breeze. But he saw no sign of an animal. Breathing deeply and sighing, he trudged on.

Again he paused, gazed back into the forest, into the tops of the towering pines, and the river of blue silk sky high above. Suddenly everything felt upside down, as if the slit above was a rough stream rushing through a heavily wooded gorge. White mist drifted from the pines. With the vision of the mist came the memory of his master in the pavilion at the monastery. Everything that Li Wen knew about calligraphy and painting he had learned from his master, Fu Wei.

Wen’s last meeting with his master had taken place three days earlier. It had begun like a hundred other previous sessions. That afternoon, however, Master Wei’s cup of tea seemed to be emitting an unusual amount of steam. Wen considered that the steam from his own cup appeared rather meagre by comparison.

Wen had initiated the conversation: “One day I feel I am the greatest painter of the South and the next I believe I have never executed a single true stroke. I fear I must leave this place. It seems as if I have been doing the same painting over and over for the past two years.”

Master Wei nodded.

Fu Wei was a man of average height and stocky build, but he seemed larger than life, solid and immovable, with a core of iron. And yet, at times it struck Wen that Master Wei was hardly there at all, as if he could pass his hand right through him.

Fu Wei’s style name was One Tooth. How does one gain a sobriquet like One Tooth? Wen wondered, not for the first time. Especially as he seems to have most of his teeth but, in fact, has only one eye.

Li Wen continued his complaint. “I must leave. I am learning nothing here. I am the worst of students.”

Master Wei took a sip of tea, nodded again, said nothing.

“Perhaps because I am the worst of students, I am giving you a reputation as the worst of teachers.”

Fu Wei spoke: “I don’t require a student to make me a teacher.”

Wen persisted: “But what am I doing here?”

Wei countered with a question, as he often did. “What do you think?”

Their interviews were always like this, the push and pull, the struggle to arrive somewhere. But where?

Wen answered: “I don’t know. I just feel that I must leave. I believe I can learn nothing more here.”

Master Wei nodded, remained silent.

“I have drunk a thousand cups of tea in this room and today I feel as if I have learned nothing.”

This time, One Tooth did not nod, but sipped from his cup, his single eye piercing as he looked at his student. Finishing his tea, he turned his cup upside down on the low table. “You are correct. Our work together is done.”

—Mark Frutkin


Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). His most recent publication is a collection of short essays, Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Quattro, 2012).  Altogether he has published twelve books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. He blogs at


Sep 242012

Tom Bauer, a Montreal writer, pens here a brief, poignant addition to the NC Childhood Series. Bauer’s writing is telegraphic and elliptical, yet he manages with few words to evoke the mind and memory of a child: the inexplicable nature of childhood, the mythic adults, the fear and confusion. The photo at the top seems iconic (the father looming, in focus); the one at the bottom moreso (the author inhabits only a corner of the picture looking dazed and uncertain). Lovely to add this to the collection.



I was born in the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, 1963. We always had animals in the apartment at Roslyn Court: a skunk waddling along the long wooden hall, cats bounding on tables. My father taught animal behavior, my mother worked in a zoo.

My father liked to carry me around on his shoulders. I pulled his hair once so hard he cried. I was standing on the couch in his study. I’m not sure if he was genuinely hurt, or fake-crying, but I was afraid I’d hurt him. I felt sorry about it. I think I remember this because it jolted me with fear at the time.

My father liked to stand at one end of the long hall in the Roslyn apartments and send me to the other. He’d open his arms and shout “Tovarich!” and I’d run down the hall into his arms. It was one of my favorite things.

My father was German and his voice was sharp, his accent rough. In his study was a wooden Afghan stool made of yellow leather, a tripod stool. His chess set, which I still have, contains a roll-up chess mat made of vinyl. The pieces are large and wooden.

His books smell of cigarette smoke. I looked through them all throughout childhood, memories for each: issues of Avant Garde, books of cartoons by Mordillo, the drawings of Heinrich Kley. He had a big record collection with Indian music and spoken word recordings of various poets, and liked to cook curry and burn incense. There were always pungent smells, cooking oil and cigarette smoke, the smell of empty beer bottles.

At night I would sometimes sneak out and eat brown sugar from the bowl on the kitchen table and watch the woman across the way taking a bath. I got in trouble for things like that, getting out of bed, getting into mischief. They tied me in my crib when I was little. I don’t remember that, unless unconsciously, in my limbs, the occasional anxiety passing through. They told me about that later.

I remember looking out the window waiting for my mother to get home. It is getting dark, sunset on the river, an evening view from five floors up. I am anxious for her to get home, the kind of feeling one gets in a dream. It might have been a dream, I don’t know. Sometimes dreams and memories get all mixed up.

I remember riding in a car, must have been a friend of my parents as they didn’t own one, probably going to an Italian place, maybe on Lulu Street, where I snuck wine from my parent’s glasses when they weren’t looking. If I think about it now it must have been a game. They must have seen me take the glasses and sneak the sips.

Apparently I ran along the street afterwards leaping at low-hanging branches, snatching leaves, crying out: “It’s spring! It’s spring!” I don’t remember that, it was one of the stories that get told, but I’ve heard it so often it feels like a memory. I can see the tree, the early evening air, my father calling my name, can hear the sound of my boy voice.

Later memories, after I was five and we moved to Montreal, into a house, are stronger, harsher. My father’s angry face, his belt, and shouting, warning me not to steal again, the forbidden smell of my mothers purse, her wallet, the sick feeling of taking coins and later getting caught and punished. Sometimes he used a bare hand, which hurt too much. I preferred the sting of the belt, less severe. There are many memories like this, vivid, clear, my mother overseeing from the doorway of my room, the bare wooden floor, the window near my bed, books and clothes on the floor, a half-finished plastic tank model, the smell of the glue and not getting the pieces to fit right, watching from the doorway as I’m told to never do it again, promising through tears, begging, the sick feeling in my stomach as I fear the pending spank, and crying.

When we first moved to that house there was a vacant lot on the opposite block. It had been a Pom Bakery factory before we got there, torn down by then. Nothing left but yellow-earth, rubble, stones, some ruins at the far end of the empty lot. The kid next door, whose front door was painted white, was older. He had a basement full of stuff, including a BB gun, and a work area where he made things with tools and a vise. He was always inventing things. Many boys were like that back then, inventors of objects, tinkering with things in basements. Even I did a bit of that whenever we went to the suburbs to visit my mother’s parents, and my grandfather would let me into his basement with hammer and wood and I’d sit down there and bang nails in, smelling the soft odor of pine, the silvery smell of the nails and metal hammerhead.

The kid next door took me across to the field, around in the rubbly parts, digging out odd-shaped bricks of some kind of orange bubbly plastic, deformed, almost molten, like cauliflour billowing out around the basic shape of a brick. He told me it was “Hash man! Hashish!” At that age I didn’t know what hash was, which probably took all the fun out of it for him. He asked me once to stand on the street and wait for a police car to go by, then shout: “Ew, it’s the fuzz!” I did, and he laughed.

—Tom Bauer


Tom Bauer works in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel. He has had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec. His stories have also been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition. He lives and works in Montreal.
Author photo by Karin Benedict.
Sep 222012

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.



There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.


Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier


Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Sep 202012

It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt [in Jon McGregor’s stories]. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,”…the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. — Debra Martens

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You
Stories by Jon McGregor
Bloomsbury 2012, hardcover, 258 pages. U.S. paperback $16.00

I heard U.K. writer Jon McGregor read from his latest book, the collection of short stories This isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, at the Bloomsbury Institute in London last April during an event for their Year of the Short Story. This was just two months before lightning struck and he won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Even the Dogs, published two years before.

That night the soft-spoken McGregor read a couple of short shorts, including “She Was Looking for this Coat,” which represents his work in several ways. The story speaks in the voice of a first person narrator (a clerk at the public transport office in Lincoln), talks about an unnamed character “she”, and builds the story with an accretion of visual detail (“Herringbone was a word she used.”). The narrator hints “she” is suffering an anxiety beyond the loss of her father’s coat: “The way she was talking, I felt like asking her if she needed to sit down.”

In his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the characters are not identified by name but by the tag of a physical description: “Next door, at number eighteen, the young man with the blinking eyes leans out of his window and takes some final photographs of the street….” Half of the novel is told through this kind of description, through short passages that focus on inhabitants of a street by using both the scene frame and the zoom lens. The other half of the novel is told through the first person voice of a young pregnant woman, who is thinking back to that last day of summer while also moving forward into a new relationship. “And sitting here now, waiting, trying to be calm, all these things are rattling around inside my head, like coins set loose in a tumbledryer.” This novel is so good that I can’t believe it is his first.

McGregor continues to experiment in his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin. He builds the story through a catalogue of artifacts that are important to David, a museum curator – a brilliant blend of form and character. This accretion of story through short scenes is again used in his powerful third novel, Even the Dogs. In it, McGregor uses short sections within a section with great effect, giving us the various points of view and disjointed thoughts of those who knew Robert before his death. In all three novels, then, McGregor uses detail to open up a scene, and he prefers to keep his scenes short.

Of the 30 stories in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, half are under 1,000 words, and of those, six are under 500 words. The collection includes nine stories at the other end of the spectrum, from 3,000 to 9,000 words. The shortest story is “Fleeing Complexity” and it goes: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” This story is more complex than its length suggests. There is the situation, worrying us into wondering if the fire burns down a house or… There is the tough guy voice talking about “the little bastard.” What does the owner of that voice do to the little bastard? There is the title, which in turn was used as the name of a Granta competition for one-line stories, judged by none other than McGregor, who explains “what I’m looking for in a piece of fiction as short as this is something that gestures very simply towards a much larger story.” (Click here for his winning pick.)

What I look for in the short short story is the delivery of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney style punch. Like the opening story, “That Colour,” a two pager that conveys years of marriage in a bit of dialogue, and turns on the words that a character doesn’t say. She chatters about the autumn leaves; he asks her why she is surprised by something that happens every year. She says “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to.” And that is when the he of the story stops washing the dishes and comes to her, looks at the leaves and holds her hand. This is the same hopeful note that ended McGregor’s second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, the note that sounds our human imperfections and accepts them.

At the other extreme, the longest story (approximately 8,700 words) is also told in the voice of a tough guy. “I’ll Buy You a Shovel,” set in Marshchapel, is about two ex-cons who have been hired by a woman called Jackie to provide on-site security and maintenance. What they are working on, or not working on, is a ditch to improve a murky pond that its owners call a fishing lake. Beyond their caravan and ditch, there are two major events unfolding: a wedding celebration at the Stewart house and garden, and the preparations for war as shown by the increase of bombs being dropped on the Sands by the Tornados flying overhead.

The short sections in this long story cut between the present (the two guys going over to crash the wedding) and their pasts. The narrator talks about Jackie’s son Mark dying at war in a desert, that he and Ray knew Mark when they were young, when they were starting to do jobs that involved “the thing with the wires,” about the death of the narrator’s mother while he was in jail. As the wedding progresses and the Tornado bombings escalate, as the two men sit by a fire and drink while waiting for the right moment to crash the wedding, their anger bubbles up to the surface. There is a flatness to the narrative voice, that at once parallels the flat landscape (“Whoever called it Hilltop Farm must have had some sense of humour, round here.”) and mirrors the men’s emotions. It is as if they are cut off from the world and from themselves and the only emotion they know, can feel and express, is anger. Here is the narrator, finishing up his little story about his mother being buried in the wrong place.

Ray thought it was funny. The idea of moving someone like that, once they were dead. The idea of anyone giving a shit where they were buried once they were dead, was what he said. What he said as well was he’d buy me a shovel himself. That was when I told him to shut up. He said I will I’ll buy you a shovel. I said Ray, leave it. He said don’t worry about fucking legal process, I’ll buy you a shovel and you can dig up your mam. I said Ray fucking leave it, and I put him on his back and he stopped laughing then. p. 241

It is this flat narrative that puts a chill into such sentences as “Ray made sure he knew not to tell anyone.” Or when the narrator repeatedly says, on the wedding day, “Just the drinks, I say. Nothing else.”

I’ve been puzzling over why this story comes at the end of the collection. Each story is subtitled with a place in Lincolnshire and environs, on the southeast coast of England. Some of the stories take place in the fens, or marshlands that have been drained for agricultural use, a landscape cross-hatched by raised roads and ditches, by names like Sixteen Foot Drain. So, for example, the first long story in the collection, “In Winter the Sky,” features ditches and the use of a shovel by a man who is so unlike Ray and his friend that it hardly seems fair that his life is so affected by one wrong night. In this story, the wife’s poem runs on one side opposite the narrative, emphasizing the flatness of the landscape. An earlier version of “In Winter the Sky” was published in Granta as “What the Sky Sees.”

Apart from the obvious similarities, however, the collection as a whole is disquieting – rather like listening to the dark albums of one of McGregor’s favourite bands, Pulp. (He talks about his influences on his blog and in this Guardian article.)

It is as if something bubbling under the murk is about to erupt. The bullies in “Looking Up Vagina,” the little bastard firebug, the dad with an injunction on him to keep away from his family in “Keeping Watch Over the Sheep,” who is unable to understand that he is the one causing his daughter to look “pretty tearful and scared and what have you.” The angry neighbour in “What Happened to Mr Davison,” who does not regret what he did but admits “Clearly the eventual outcome of the resulting chain of events was tragically disproportionate.”

Nor is it only the men who simmer. The wife in “Which Reminded Her, Later” and “Years of This, Now” is angry with her vicar husband for years, because he doesn’t listen to her, because he is married to his work, and her eruption is all the more surprising. Because of this distancing anger, you cannot read “Wires” without feeling you are being mildly electrocuted. At face value, this is a simple story about Emily Wilkinson thinking she is about to die as a sugar beet comes through her car windshield. You read and you chuckle with her thoughts. And then it turns. She pulls over to the side of the road and two men come to her aid. Except that these two men could well be Ray and his friend. According to McGregor’s blog, the story borrows the title of a Philip Larkin poem about electric wires teaching cattle not to stray.

But the book is not only about angry people roaming around. There are other elements at work – such as rain. In “If it Keeps on Raining,” a modern day Noah prepares for the flood, while at the same time nursing his resentful thoughts at being separated from his children. “Supplementary Notes” is about refugees and “The Last Ditch” (playing on ditches of the fens and a last ditch effort) is a copy of civilian plans for disaster with commentary by the military. Finally, the last story is called “Memorial Stone,” and is a list of place names – perhaps those that will be flooded by the rising waters of climate change. Or as the narrator in “Shovel” puts it, “National emergency crisis or whatever…” And what he is telling us is that if we wear our anger at world inaction over climate change as a heavy coat that muffles our emotions, and take inappropriate action too late, then we could end up like Ray, burning our future for the stupidest of reasons.


Read more about Jon McGregor’s life and work on the British Council website. Here is coverage of the Impac prize.

Here him reading from his collection here or here.

—Debra Martens


Debra Martens writes at Canadian Writers Abroad. Her story publications include “A Change in the Current” in The New Quarterly (2006) and “The End of Things” in Grain, a winner of the 2002 Postcard Story Prize. Her story, “Waitress,” is forthcoming in Room. She lives in London.



Sep 192012

Poet Shane Rhodes espouses an aesthetic called Stray Dog Poetics. He specializes in found poems, quotation, adroit juxtapositions and typographical play — also political comment and comedy (um, those beaver dialogues). Herewith the first in a series of assembled texts put together by Senior Editor R W Gray, matching poets with critics, performance with commentary. In this case, the poet also comments on some of the poems. The effect goes beyond the astonishing poems themselves (found poems, hybridized texts, quotations) to create an echo chamber of comment and refrain. Wonderful to have on the pages of NC.



Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes‘s playful and subtly acerbic poems dramatize, scandalize and make demands. There is no safe place to stand. In an afterword to the poems here Fredericton writer Rob Ross’s delves into Rhodes’s self-proclaimed “stray dog poetics” and argues for what he sees as the poet’s “mongrel meandering.”

—R W Gray



Four Found Poems by Shane Rhodes


“Ludic Lucidity: Pro Pelle”

Beaver 1 (opening gambit):
NOW KNOW YE, that We being desirous
to be one Body Corporate in Deed
and in Name.

Beaver 2 (poetically):                     Plead, and be impleaded.
Answer, and be answered. Defend, and be

Beaver 1:                          Dear and entirely beloved
Cousin, discover a new passage
to southern seas — let us trade.

Beaver 2:                                 Besought,
incorporate, in Deed and in Name,
in entrance of my Streights. Have me with especial
Grace, certain Knowledge, and mere Motion . . .

Beaver 1 (interrupting):                 . . . break,
change, make anew, hence the same and no other.

Beaver 2 (the questioning one):
And we will?

Beaver 1:                                 And we do!

Beaver 2:                                                         At any publick
Assembly, being desirous and being
one? Take this corporal Oath and assemble
in my convenient Place.

Beaver 1 (boldly):
This, I shall well and faithfully perform
in free and common Soccage in all the Seas,
Streights, Lakes, Rivers, Creeks and Sounds, upon
the Countries, Coasts and Confines, the Inlets
and Limits.

Beaver 2 (questioning):      And not in Capite or by Knight’s Ser-

Beaver 1 (building intensity):

Beaver 2 (questioning):                  TO HAVE, HOLD, possess and

Beaver 1 (more intensity):

Beaver 2 (questioning, with emotion):              TO BE HOLDEN?

Beaver 1 (fortisimo, they embrace each other):                     HOLD!

Beaver 2:         Give and grant, Our dear —  aiding . . . favouring
. . . helping . . . assisting.

Beaver 1 (breathless, grunting with rodent emotion):
onet! On Land as on Sea – whatsoever.
My Lord! My 100 Pounds Prince!

Beaver 2:                                                                  O, my WILL!
My special license!

Beaver 1:                                      My Mayor! My Admiral!
My Bailiff!

Beaver 2:                           We do.

Beaver 1:                                             WE DO.

Beaver 1 & Beaver 2 (together, rodent voices breaking):

Note on the Poem

On July 14, 1970 the fourth Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Rent Ceremony took place at Lower Fort Garry. This time, in place of the “two Elks and two black beavers” stipulated in the Royal Charter as rent, Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a large glass tank containing two live beaver. During the ceremony and in front of the gathered dignitaries, the beavers frolicked in the water. Near the end of the ceremony, the beavers began to mate, the tank water sloshing from side to side. The Queen stopped the proceedings and asked HBC Governor Viscount Amory “Whatever are they doing?”  To which he replied, “Ma’am, it’s no use asking me. I am a bachelor.”

Pro Pelle takes place on the dais where the beavers were presented to the Queen. All words and phrases are taken from the 1670 Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Latin Pro Pelle means “for fur” and is from the HBC coat of arms: Pro Pelle Cutem.

The Requirement

The requirement is you sit still and listen
The requirement is you listen very well
The requirement is you not touch the wired-in speakers
The requirement is you must state the correct answer right now
The requirement is every word will be used against you, and the fighter jets overhead
mean nothing and the landing craft floating off-shore mean nothing as well

The requirement is you will be given a number and barcode and the barcode will be
tattooed onto your wrist and must not be removed even if your arm is removed
The requirement is you clean yourself, kneel and make the sign of the cross after it
has been done

The requirement is you hold the kneeling position for at least six hours
The requirement has been approved by the Minister in a briefing note of concurrence and
is to be read between commercials by the actor

The requirement is the actor have well-gelled hair and that, after he has read
the requirement, all stations will cut to a situation comedy already in progress

The requirement is brought to you by the following companies
The requirement is you are free to read the requirement; however, it is in a document to
which you have no authorized access

The requirement is you breath deeply from our generous gifts
The requirement is you don’t go digging in the jungles, forests, archives or libraries
The requirement is passivity holds its own promise
The requirement is your silence is a gold to be mined and smeltered to pay off the debt of
your speech

The requirement is a protest cannot be made under the stipulations of the requirement
The requirement is you sign the agreement if your fingers are broken if your hand cannot
write if you do not speak the language if you do not understand what it is we are saying,
we are authorized to sign the agreement for you

The requirement is an inquest will be held and report issued after it has been done
The requirement is you work with us to make the requirement better and better
The requirement is I speak no further of the requirement

Note on the Poem

El Requerimiento (The Requirement) was an edict created in 1510 by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a jurist with the Consejo Real, as a means to bely Spanish concerns that the indigenous populations of the Americas were being exterminated by the Conquistadors without due process. The Requirement was to be read to any indigenous population upon first contact. The Requirement gives a brief history of the Spanish Christian world, the Catholic church, and the 1493 papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI (the Inter caetera) that divided America into zones for Spanish and Portuguese conquest. The Requirement gave any listener  three options: convert, be converted by force, or die. The Requirement also absolved the Spanish crown and its army of fault.

Given the unlikelihood The Requirement would ever be understood (it was only read in Spanish or Latin) or heeded by indigenous populations, its use in the Americas approached macabre comedy.  “These wicked Spaniards,” writes Bartolome de las Casas in 1542, “like Thieves came to any place by stealth, half a Mile off of any City, Town or Village, and there in the Night published and proclam’d the Edict.”


Stray Dog Poetics: Found Poetry from Shane Rhodes — Rob Ross

Shane Rhodes poems brandish a startling array of found materials:  the shell-shocked ravings of a sixteenth-century friar, a blood-curdling edict from the Spanish Crown absolving its military from acts of genocide, and poetically excised government documents.   Rhodes takes these found or borrowed pieces and confronts their blatant and insidious violence, showing how European supremacy has been ruthlessly maintained in the so-called “new” world.  The often visually-striking forms presented here flow easily into their gory contents, allowing the reader to rip meaty themes from structural bones without choking on gristly ambiguities, and leaving a lingering and visceral aftertaste of the ongoing horror of colonial exploitation.

“Ludic Lucidity: Pro Pelle” is a dramatic dialogue between two beavers being presented to the Queen who decide to get it on for her Royal Highness.  A footnote to the poem reveals that this actually happened at a Hudson’s Bay Rent Ceremony (the colonial equivalent of the landlord visiting your apartment for his due, and a cup of tea). Fittingly, their juicy linguistic foreplay is comprised of excerpts from the 1670 HBC Royal Charter, which apparently had some kinky aspirations for the relationship between Queen and Country.  The HBC, of course, very much relied on frolicking beavers for its financial well being, but this ménage à trois reminds me of how fur traders married First Nations women in order to facilitate the trade of pelts.  Sex was literally used to legitimize British dominion over Hudson’s Bay in several ways.

In “White Out: Erasure Poem,” liquid paper is selectively used on an Indian Act application form, the piece of paper that both defines and excludes First Nations people from treaty rights. “In you the  / Act will numb / the vision,” the poem begins, and what categorizes one as aboriginal in Canada is turned into an exposé of how the Indian Act excludes people based on blood lines:  “If you fall / you are under the Act /  lost not Indian / Children of women / whose mother whose father’s mother / did not have us under the Act.”

The presence of both a background and foreground text is reminiscent of Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue, where faded descriptions of various crops from an actual seed catalogue lie behind the poem proper.  Kroetsch’s aim was to describe the difficulty of being a poet in western Canada (how hard it was to “grow” a poet, so to speak, in the harsh climate of the prairies), while trying to invent a poetic tradition as well, transforming the catalogue in the process Rhodes’s poem plays in a similar way, but to critique Canada’s assimilation policies that “whiten out” aboriginal cultures. Canada denies aboriginal status to people all the time with this registration/segregation form.  In selectively whiting out the language that selects people for treaty rights, Rhodes points to the ongoing cultural genocide perpetrated by our government through crafty bureaucratic red tape.

Shane Rhodes once described his writing method as “stray dog poetics,” a theory of composition “built on lightness, wander, wonder, hope, anger, inquisitiveness, love, hunger, lust.”  It is a practice open to multiple styles and influences, designed to accommodate the “mutt conglomeration of impulses” that Rhodes pursues in his work.  Such mongrel meandering lurks in these poems, but Rhodes’s focus on imperial relations, and their ongoing impact in Canada society, demonstrates a thematic coherence that does not fit comfortably with this philosophy.  If anything, he adapts his stray dog poetics here to a unity of subject, showing multiple approaches to the one, overriding impulse of exposing colonial injustice.

Shane Rhodes has written five collections of poetry: The Wireless Room (NeWest Press, 2000), which won the Alberta Book Award for poetry, Tengo Sed (Greenboathouse, 2004), Holding Pattern (NeWest, 2002), which won the Archibald Lampman Award, The Bindery (NeWest, 2007), which won the Lampman-Scott Award, and Err (2011). His poetry has also appeared in a number of Canadian poetry anthologies including Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets and Breathing Fire 2. He lives in Ottawa where he works with the federal government developing AIDS policies.

–Rob Ross

Rob Ross reads and writes in Fredericton.  Some of his work has appeared in The Manitoban, Nod Magazine, and Nonymous.

Sep 172012

Braided Worlds is something of a literary miracle. First the story: In 1979-1980 anthropologist Alma Gottlieb and her husband Philip Graham spent 13 months among the Beng, a small language/cultural group in Ivory Coast in West Africa. A decade later they published Parallel Worlds, a gorgeously conceived and beautifully nuanced co-discovery of the Beng, part ethnology, part narrative and part family conversation. In the intervening years, Philip and Alma have returned twice for extended stays with their friends, the Beng. They brought their children; they immersed themselves in the village. But wars and revolution have torn up that part of the world, too. Darkness descends. The result of these later visits is a brand new sequel to the first volume, the just-published Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

The literary miracle part comes from the neatly contrived cross-perspective of two gifted writers with different yet co-operative points of view. Both Alma and Philip bring different life interests, education and obsessions to bear: the one is studying the Beng with an arsenal of anthropological concepts and tools; the other is writing a novel while living amongst the Beng, bringing his literary sensibilities and his native curiosity to bear on his experience at every turn. The result is an amazing book, an amazing conversation, and a sense of life energized by difference, surprise, sympathy, respect and intelligence. (It’s needs to be mentioned that both Alma and Philip are very conscious of the debt they owe the Beng for their intellectual and emotional generosity and hospitality — all the royalties from these two books go to the Beng, not the authors.)

In the passage from Braided Worlds here published, through interweaving narratives, Alma and Philip recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of Matatu, a tormented young villager.







The air still chilly from an overnight rain, our village hostess Amenan stepped among the puddles in the compound to sit beside Philip and me and fill us in on village doings. I wasn’t surprised to hear her begin with a story about Matatu. Shortly after we’d left the village for our short trip to the capital, he came to our compound, and when Amenan explained that we’d gone to Abidjan, Matatu announced that he’d follow us. Soon, he picked a fight with his older brother over borrowing a bicycle. “His brother refused to lend it. Who rides a bicycle all the way to Abidjan? But Matatu grew so angry he attacked his brother with a machete.”

I sucked in my breath. Matatu’s madness had moved undeniably from eccentric to dangerous. After the failed assault, Amenan continued, Matatu fled and wandered around the Beng region. When a group of farmers heard he was nearby, they abandoned their fields and beat a quick path back to their village, terrified that Matatu might try to attack them too. They sent messengers to Asagbé, begging for strong men to bring him home.

“Once Matatu was returned to his compound,” Amenan said, “his older brother strapped him to a big log. That’s where he’s been for the past few days.”

Amenan paused to let the weight of her words sink in, then added, “But Matatu is trying to free himself. He’s pulled so much that his hand tied to the log has swelled up. They’ll probably free him even though he’s still crazy . . .”

“My god, this is terrible!” I burst out.

Philip said nothing, but I read misery on his face and imagined he was thinking that our presence in the village, our western goods had fueled Matatu’s deepening madness, his conviction that he was the prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire.  He deserved riches . . . and why not? But what else might come of Matatu’s longing?



I pounded at the typewriter keyboard, its slow clatter the soundtrack of my novel, when through the screen door I heard Germain’s voice offer his greetings in the compound, followed by Alma and Amenan’s responses. I decided to stay put in the work of this developing scene in my novel: the imagined setting of a model train museum, where a secret hid among a tableau of tiny plastic figures in a miniature downtown.

Alma peered inside. “Germain is here, with Matatu’s father, Yao. You might want to be part of this.”

I did. Here was another drama I felt bound to, however unwillingly, haunted by Matatu’s relentless wandering about the village with a sack of discarded, useless objects, which he presented as treasures to anyone who would listen.  I left my desk and sat beside Alma on one of the chairs set out in a circle.

With the typical Beng formality of a village elder, Germain began to speak for Matatu’s father, asking us to travel to Bouaké to buy medicine for his son’s madness. Alma and I had grown accustomed to Germain trying to squeeze some financial or political advantage out of any situation, though in this case he clearly employed his position in the village to represent Matatu’s family in their crisis.

I turned to Alma. “What do you think?”

She kept her voice low, even though we were speaking in English. “I don’t think drugs are the answer . . . ”

“I agree, they didn’t help him the first time. And anyway, after we leave, those pills or whatever would run out.”

“Maybe an African solution would be better,” Alma said, and she turned to Amenan. “Aren’t there good healers among the Jimini people,” Alma asked, now in French, “ones who can cure madness?”

Amenan nodded, pleased that the discussion had turned to an area of her expertise. “I know a Ghanaian man who healed a woman in Asagbé. She used to be mad, but he cured her. He’s very good. He lives nearby, in a little village, Kaklagbé. It’s between Wati and Bedara.”

Alma and I looked at each other. Since we felt certain that Matatu’s illness was deeply embedded in his own culture, maybe this was worth a try, at least for starters. We offered to pay for the healer’s treatment. Matatu’s father and Germain huddled into their own whispering, and then announced that the entire family would have to decide.

Their decision wasn’t long in coming. Matatu soon broke free of his hand chains, though he no longer seemed violent. I would drive with Amenan’s husband Kofi to Kaklagbé, where my friend would ask the healer to take on the case.



The next morning, Amenan greeted me with bad news: “Matatu’s not better.”

“Now what?” I sighed, afraid to hear details.

“Last night, Matatu came by and said, ‘Big Sister, you were very bad when you didn’t give me anything to eat this afternoon. I was hungry!’ I’d given him a snack a little earlier, but he wanted more and I refused. So he returned to complain. I told him it’s not my responsibility to feed him. I was nice enough to give him anything.”

“Of course,” I sympathized, silently admiring my friend for her courage in standing up to Matatu.

“The problem is,” Amenan continued, ”he doesn’t stay at his mother’s house long enough to eat. He just wanders around the village.”

“You should be careful,” I warned her. “He might try to hurt you if he thinks you should feed him.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” Amenan countered, “he can only hurt people in his family.”

I nodded, relieved by Amenan’s reminder that among the Beng, witchcraft worked only with relatives bound by matrilineal ties. Yet a nagging doubt remained. Would a madman like Matatu follow the cultural script?

“Still, he isn’t improving on his own,” Amenan observed. “We need to fetch that Ghanaian healer, so Matatu can start treatment.”



Scrunched in the back seat of the car beside Alma and Nathaniel sat Ajei, the Ghanaian healer who’d agreed to take on the case of Matatu’s illness, and beside me Kofi warned of especially impressive upcoming potholes, though I could easily see them myself. The French word for a narrow little trail like this was piste, but a true piste boasted superhighway status compared to this horror of crevises and fault lines that constantly required maneuvering, and the dirt banks on either side of this piste stood close enough to scrape the car. Whenever patches of sandy soil sucked the wheels to a stop, Kofi and I pushed the car from behind, while Alma gunned the engine and the healer and Nathaniel stood safely off to the side.

Too often we came upon a four- or five-foot-high termite mound in the middle of the trail that I had to squeeze around—sometimes with two wheels high on the edge of one of the raised banks. I had to apply constant attention to the slightest trick and trap, and the trail stretched on and on as if it would never end. I’d already driven back and forth to the healer’s village days earlier, to ask for his help and offer him a chicken as a sign of respect. Now here I was again on this nasty seven-kilometer stretch. Perhaps this was a minor hell assigned to me for all my sins when I drove a cab one long-ago summer in New York City.

Finally, after emptying everyone out once again for another termite mound so the car wouldn’t tip over when it angled against the trail’s raised bank, some tenuous constraint snapped inside me. With the latest obstruction safely behind us, and the car full once more, off we drove. But now added to the dutiful rrrrrr of the engine rose from me first a murmur, then a full-throated string of the worst insults in any language that I could summon, a rising and falling, a rolling along of a Frenbenglish twisted eloquence that surprised even me. Once started, with no internal ignition key to switch off my running road trip commentary, I couldn’t stop.

Alma normally would have bored a hole in the back of my head for this string of curses I let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but this was one of those moments that demanded cursing, a protest against this reprehensible road. In the rearview mirror I saw my son’s six year-old self hunched over his drawing pad, pen carefully applied to the page, deep in his own world of art. Even if he listened, he’d have to learn these words some time in his life, and what better pedagogical moment could there be than the provocation of this road? On and on it perversely re-revealed its unique features, as if egging me on.



I would have protested Philip’s string of curses let loose within hearing range of Nathaniel, but I suspected that my husband’s foul mouth was less a complaint against this path-in-the-guise-of-a-road and more an outpouring of pent-up sadness at his father’s death back home. So I took the diversionary tactic of talking to the healer about his life. I posed questions in English to Kofi, who graciously translated to the healer in Fante, then back in English—and Nathaniel had the rare experience of actually understanding what was said around him.

The topic piqued his interest, and at times he suggested new questions. At first, since the subject of the interview was so—well, adult—the mother in me didn’t want to upset Nathaniel. But my young son seemed to have developed his own anthropological curiosity. After all, he’d already accepted his new village name of Grandfather Denju, bestowed because he was considered to be a reincarnation of an important clan ancestor.

“Do you know why Matatu went mad?” I asked the healer.

“I do know,” the healer said quietly, after Kofi translated, “otherwise I couldn’t cure him. I can’t discuss it now. But I’ve spoken with Matatu . . .”

Ah, bon?” I commented, surprised. I hadn’t heard about any recent visits the healer had paid to our village.

“I heard Matatu speaking to me in my mind, just as a diviner would do. I could hear that Matatu speaks nonsense . . .”

Nathaniel looked up from his drawing pad. “What medicine will the healer use?”

I repeated the question to Kofi, who translated without having to raise his voice. By now, Philip had reverted to muttering.

“The same I use for any patient, though I have a very strong blend of herbs and plants for people who are very mad.”

“Ah-heh,” I said noncommittally. I’d expected some ritual approach to re-position Matatu in his social universe—not an herbal cure. Maybe the healer sensed my skepticism, for he added, “I can cure a lot of other diseases, not just madness. But I also tell a patient if I don’t know the cure for whatever disease they may have.”

Nathaniel joined in, and Kofi translated, “How come Matatu is crazy?”

“I might find that a disease is caused by witchcraft,” Ajei hinted ominously. “Then, one night while I’m alone in my house, I beg the witches to reverse the spell. I ask what they need, and I buy back the spell from them with whatever they ask for as payment. It might be a sheep, some money, or alcohol—or just a chicken or some eggs. Last night, I talked with the witches who bewitched Matatu.”

Ajei paused while this statement sank in. “I met the witches,” the healer continued, “and they said they wanted money, nothing else.”

“How come they didn’t get arrested?” Nathaniel asked me quietly.

“I think the healer meant they met invisibly. Like in dreams.” Accustomed to hearing of his dead grandfather appearing in our friend Kokora Kouassi’s dreams, Nathaniel nodded and once again bent over his drawing pad.

“The witches said they’d need 200 CFAs—all in small change,” the healer concluded. “To pay them, I’ll give the money to the children in the village–one small coin to each child–and the witches will un-do the spell on Matatu. Then, when I give Matatu my herbal medicine, the witches will allow the medicine to work.”

“But who are the witches?” Nathaniel asked.

The healer remained silent for a few seconds after Kofi translated, then said quietly, “Actually, the witch responsible for Matatu’s madness is his own mother.”

I should have been able to predict this accusation, since Beng witchcraft always operates within the maternal line. Still, I was impressed. Ajei must have lived long enough in the Beng region to be able to chart their paths of sorcery. I glanced at my son. What might Nathaniel make of this unexpected, perhaps unthinkable answer? A new set of especially bumpy bumps claimed our attention, and we were left to ponder the upsetting news in our solitude.

When we finally returned to Asagbé, Nathaniel tugged at Philip’s shirt and said, with an open-faced enthusiasm, “Dad, look at what I did.”  We both looked down at his sketchpad.

The page bristled with nervous, jagged lines, each one running from left to right, line after line, repeating down to the bottom edge. Philip stared, clearly trying to figure out what it was so he could praise it.

“It’s . . . ” he hesitated.

“It’s a seismograph,” Nathaniel said.

“A . . . what?”

“A seismograph. It’s a souvenir of the road, the bad road.”

We looked again at the drawing. I’d been so intent on my interview with the healer that I’d barely noticed Nathaniel’s determined concentration. With the drawing pad on his lap, he’d applied the pen lightly to the page and let the road do his work for him . . . and charted very twist, turn, rattle and shake we’d all suffered through. Seismograph! Where did he get that word? It certainly hadn’t been in any of the phrases Philip had employed while driving. Yet maybe my husband’s extended stretch of curses were recorded too on this drawing pad, in some pre-alphabetic stenography.

“Amazing. Thank you, Grandfather Denju,” Philip replied as he held the pad and examined that skittish map as if it were a record of all this summer’s surprises.

—Alma Gottlieb & Philip Graham


Alma Gottlieb is the author of eight books of anthropology, most recently The Restless Anthropologist, as well as The Afterlife Is Where We Come FromA World of BabiesBlood Magic and, with Philip Graham, Parallel Worlds and Braided Worlds.  She conducted fieldwork among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire for two decades, and is now studying Cape Verdeans with Jewish ancestry.  She is professor of anthropology, African studies, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon and the newly released Braided Worlds, co-authored with his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb.  His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, The Washington Post Magazine, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  Graham teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at

Portions of this excerpt from Braided Worlds first appeared in the anthology Being There (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Sep 152012

In Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is my Romeo?” a cinema crowd of women, weeping, watch the tragic ending to Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (click here to see it too). This is Kiarostami’s contribution to the Cannes organized anthology film Chacon son Cinema, where thirty six directors from around the world were invited to make short films of less than three minutes reflecting on their feelings about cinema.

Kiarostami’s work is often misleadingly simple, employing documentary techniques so that audiences might mistake the fictive for real. In “Where is my Romeo?” most of the women we watch tearfully watching the film are actresses. Does this undermine their reaction to the film, make the expression any less real? For Kiarostami, this short is thematically related to his next feature, Shirin, in which, too, women in an audience watch a film and weep. For that film Kiarostami, David Bordwell reports, “filmed his female actors . . . reacting to dots on a board above the camera! Indeed, Kiarostami claims he decided on the Shirin story [the performance only heard in the soundtrack of the film, never seen] after filming the faces.”

Similarly, Kiarostami has explained in interviews how in the films where he has a driver and a passenger talking in a car (Taste of Cherry, 10) he shot each part of the dialogue separately, half a conversation at a time, with him sitting opposite with a camera. Yet the dialogue in both films feels real, zinging with life and emotion far from any script or intervention on a director’s part. Why do we need the truth of the film to be based in reality and is it simply that we are left cheated voyeurs (they knew we were watching all along)?

Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle,” explores how, in his film Taste of Cherry, the director challenges the audience with ambiguity:

Kiarostami . . . draws attention to the way curiosity grows necessarily out of uncertainty and is indeed its counterpoint: here the spectator’s desire to know and understand is heightened by a conscious sense of uncertainty about even the truth or reality of what seems to be happening. And Kiarostami builds these spectator sensations into the aesthetics of his cinema, so the process of understanding (or not) is central rather than incidental.

This uncertainty is perhaps not as foregrounded in “Where is my Romeo?” coming second place to just the beauty of the actresses’ emotional reactions. Only when we wonder how the director could possibly have caught so many reactions to one screening of the film — wonder if he had needed over a dozen cameras — do doubt and uncertainty enter into it for Western audiences. Iranian audiences perhaps would recognize some of the actresses from the start, but, even then, could they be certain that these are not sincere reactions to the tragic death of Juliet (since, fairly, actresses have real emotions too).

Some reviewers cannot get past the emotions themselves. Nicholas de Villiers in his article in Senses of Cinema describes how Kiarostami’s short “lingers over the teary-eyed expressions of women watching the classic tragic romance (this feminine ‘weepy’ cliché is another common thread among several shorts [in To Each His Own Cinema], a rather hackneyed illustration of film’s power to move an audience).”

De Villiers misses the point though. Much of Kiarostami’s work plays with the boundary of public and private. When he focuses on women characters, he chooses to focus on women in public and finds, instead, private moments there. He composes his film 10 as ten short vignettes, conversations a woman driving in her car has with her son, her friend, a prostitute, a stranger. All very private conversations but while driving around Tehran. The actress who plays the protagonist in 10, Mania Akbari, was so inspired by this idea she directed and starred in 20 fingers, a film that is structured by various conversations a man and a woman have in public, mostly in moving vehicles too (a tram, a train, a motorcycle, a boat). De Villiers reads the emotions in “Where is my Romeo?” as a “ ‘weepy’ cliché,” and does not register this clash between the ostensible private moment of emotion in the public sphere of the cinema.

Richard Brody in The New Yorker sees even greater subtext in the choice of Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet:

I watched it in my office and forgot to plug in headphones; a female colleague, hearing Juliet’s death throes (at forty seconds in), thought I was watching an erotic film. The mistake is accurate: Kiarostami’s conjunction of a woman’s pleasure and death is an implicit accusation of the repressive measures applied, particularly against women, in Iranian society. But the Prince’s roar, at 1:51, of the line “All are punished”—departing from Shakespeare’s text by repeating the phrase—speaks clearly for Kiarostami: the injustices done to women are done to all. The female spectators’ rapt terror at the spectacle reflects their personal implication in its subject, love rendered illicit.

These are not simple, documented displays of emotion and cannot be dismissed by de Villiers’s “weepy” misreading. To watch “Where is my Romeo?” is to witness a communion of the private emotional lives of an audience, “moving” for us as an audience in that sense of ending up somewhere different than from where we started. And yet the film continues to move us if we let it, into fraught, curious, and uncertain spaces between art and life, illusion and reality.

–R. W. Gray

Sep 132012

Sophfronia Scott has written a gorgeous yet uncategorizable memoir that is in part a tale of her brush with the celebrity Lena Horne. But that is only the instigation; their conversation lead both Horne and Scott to tears, to memories, to fathers and to white shirts and ironing boards. In capturing her memories of learning to iron and her father’s white shirts, Scott captures a moment in African-American cultural history that is poignant and complex as hell. Father-love, oppression, African-American male pride, daughter-love — all these and more.

Sophfronia Scott is a new friend, as it were, a second-semester student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, also a published novelist with, already, a long career as a freelance and woman-of-letters.

The two photos are of Scott’s father. One was taken in the 1940s, the other somewhere between 1988 and 1990. The author photo at the top is by Tain Gregory, Sophfronia’s son, age eight.



When my friend Jenny answered her cell phone that day she had said, “I’m walking with Jake and Ella and Grandma in Central Park. We’re only a few blocks away, come join us.” Jake was Jenny’s pre-school age son, Ella was her dog and Grandma? Well, Grandma was Lena Horne—singer, actress, icon. I said okay, hung up the phone and kept walking but I was pretty sure I’d left part of my brain back on the corner of East 68th and Fifth Avenue. At that point Jenny and I had been friends, dear friends, for close to two years but I’d never met the legendary Lena. Her public appearances, even at family functions, were few. Our mutual friends spoke of her with hushed awe, wondering if they would ever get the opportunity being presented to me then. They talked about the possibilities of being tongue-tied, not knowing what to say, of coming off as being less than fully charged in the mental department. As I walked toward the park I took on all their anxieties, just assuming they were my own. I felt like the suede jacket I broke out each fall suddenly looked shabby, and the scuff marks on my boots were rising up all white and too obvious.

I found them, stroller, dog, women, taking up most of a footpath near the East 70s. Jenny introduced me and when Lena said my name “Fronie-Fronie,” as I’m known in their family, the fear inside me melted. I recognized the lilt of her voice, but not from her recordings or her movies. She sounded like someone I loved. I heard the tones of my father’s sisters as I heard them in my childhood: slow and elegant and beautiful.

I don’t remember what she wore—unusual for me because at the time I was mad for fashion—but I remember the glow of her skin, the way her chin tilted up to examine my face. Maybe she marveled over my freckles or the reddish brown shade of my dreadlocks.  From the intensity of her gaze, though, I gathered she seemed to be searching not for prettiness but for content. She wanted, I think, to see what was in my brown eyes. I remember bearing her weight as she took my arm and we walked while Jenny pushed Jake in the stroller and supervised the leashed but ever-roaming Ella.

I like to believe she spoke to me as she did then because she had soon realized I was not like her granddaughter’s other friends, urban and modern and lovely, but for her out of reach in terms of connections and references. Lena was born in 1917. My father, by then deceased, had come into the world in 1919 so I had grown up with her language, with her references. Talking to her was not that different from talking to my own father in our living room as he used to sit in his recliner. In fact Lena asked me about “my people” and I told her about my father coming from Mississippi and my mother’s family from Tennessee, and how they merged in Ohio but raised me and my siblings as though no one had ever left either of those southern spaces, right down to my father’s whippings and demeaning words that stung even more than the physical strikes. My sisters and I were taught to cook and clean and iron as if they were the only endeavors that could ensure our survival as women. By the time I was 18 and leaving for college I was so angry I vowed never to return. I didn’t tell Lena that part.

That’s how the ironing talk started. She seemed intrigued that I had learned so young and surprised that I still did it. My husband was, and is, terrible with an iron and it never occurred to me to send the shirts out to be laundered and pressed as every male in New York City, even those who couldn’t afford it, probably did. Lena, I learned, had married young, just 19, and to a man who, much like my father, insisted on his wife producing ironed shirts, fresh biscuits, and perfect needlework, but she had been taught none of it. It had been important to her to try, I could see that as a little frown creased Lena’s brow. Her own father had been absent most of her childhood and she seemed to have wanted the chance to show this kind of diligence for a man she loved. For a moment Lena released my arm and her pale hands, at waist level, swept through the air in front of her. “I used to weep over that man’s shirts,” she said. I nodded and we stood there together at an imaginary ironing board. The yellow leaves over our heads and under our feet provided the light for our work on that overcast day. “And they were all white shirts, right?” I asked. I remembered my father’s own white shirts as I heard Lena answer, “Yes.” We stood there, the shirt large and voluminous in Lena’s small hands, the white cotton hopelessly scorched.

Lena had squeezed my heart and I wanted to cry because I could feel how much she had loved her husband, how much she must have tried. I knew what it was to have such obvious proof of failure. I too had burned my father’s shirt (and coffee and biscuits and collard greens). But I had been able to make adjustments—so many adjustments—until I had eventually mastered most domestic tasks and could present my father with perfect shirts and perfect biscuits. It never occurred to me what it would have been like never to be able to do it, to never be able to show love in this way. Of course I wouldn’t have said that when I was ironing my father’s shirts. But I remembered the complete sense of pleasure and satisfaction when my father pulled on a shirt without making a critical remark.  Maybe I even felt proud of the way he had looked. I wanted to tell Lena right then how to iron that shirt. Years later it still seemed to matter, and I felt Lena would have listened, that she still wanted to know like it was the answer to an essential, but long-elusive riddle.

To this day I have never read any proper instruction for how to iron a shirt. I suppose if I Googled “how to iron a shirt” I would find enough information, with video included, to bring me to the level of the ironing elite. But I feel what I learned from my mother’s hands is old magic—I don’t want to meddle with it.

I can tell you I start with the collar, unbuttoning it if it’s that kind, and laying it as flat as I can on the ironing board. I press it end to end. Ironing the small parts of a shirt is when you’re most likely to get burned. You have to hold the part close to the iron while you press and your fingers are simply in harm’s way. A burn rises quickly, a living red capsule on the surface of your skin. You think it will never heal because that’s how much it hurts when it happens. Ice is better than butter, I’ll tell you that now. Butter and burns is an old wives tale.

Working with steam is a blessing. I didn’t have a steam iron when I was a kid and my arms often ached with the effort of exerting the right pressure to smooth out the fabric. Ironing is so much faster now with steam. (When I got older my father bought us a Press-O-Matic, a smaller version of the huge rectangular ironing machines you see at the dry cleaners, but that’s another story and a different set of burns.) Next I pick up the shirt and lay it on one side of the front with the buttons face down and running horizontally in front of me. I iron that, then the sleeve on that same side. Sleeves are tricky because of their roundness. They don’t lie flat well so I will usually iron a sleeve and turn it over to find a funky crease I didn’t mean to create running like a new slash down the arm. Once I fix that I move to the other side and the other sleeve. Then I lay the back of the shirt out with the neck area fitted as much as possible over the narrow end of the ironing board. I press the back and all the little nooks of the back of the neck. I run the nose of the iron around inside the cuffs and then I’m done.

It takes a lot of love to iron a shirt you will never wear. When I see a man wearing a meticulous shirt I wonder who loves him, who has taken the trouble. Or did he have to send the shirt out because no one does?

Thinking about my father now I tend to focus more on the love and less on the anger. In many ways I have forgiven him. Such forgiveness is possible, I believe, not because he is long dead, but because of these unexpected moments of grace reaching across generations reminding me of this: the reason I hurt so much then was because I cared so much then—and still do. As I look back on that autumn afternoon and how Lena took my arm again as we continued our stroll through Central Park, I can see how in that moment I was in my 30s, Lena was in her 80s, but we were both girls ironing the shirts of the first men we ever cared for, and hoping they could feel our love pressed hard into every crease.

—Sophfronia Scott


When Sophfronia Scott published her first novel, All I Need To Get By, with St. Martin’s Press in 2004, one prominent reviewer referred to her as potentially “one of the best writers of her generation.” Her work has appeared in Time, People, More, Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia is currently a masters candidate in fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “The Night Viera Kissed Her,” will be in the Fall 2012 issue of She blogs at

Sep 122012

Poetry here from Irish author Gerard Beirne who attacks the notional divide between science and art head on and makes rhymes out of sines and cosines and the nature of colloidal suspensions. In ancient times Pythagoras theorized upon the nature of music and mathematics without making a distinction between the two. It is only in our day (and mostly in the popular imagination) that science, mathematics and art have drifted into a strange opposition. Perhaps it is only an ill-educated assumption that science is not beautiful. In any case, Gerard Beirne, in his new book Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual (Oberon Press) from which these poems are taken, makes poetry out of science and science out of poetry. And sometimes he uses science as a luminous metaphor for the spirit. Of circles and squares, he writes:

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
………………… their boundaries




Properties of Solutions: The Colloidal State

Take atoms, molecules
assume their use theoretically
if not practically
believe in them (or not)
if you will.

Accept (for now) that this
is elementary theory
to avoid a state of confusion.

Focus on colloidal dispersion
the scattering of light (for instance)
by particles of dust
in the path of a sunbeam
through a partly opened door
(call this the Tyndell effect).

Take these small sparkling specks
(these giant steps)
and follow these points of reflected light
observe the constant random motion
(name it Brownian movement).

Publish if you must
a mathematical analysis
of nonuniform random collisions
caused by the unequal number of molecules
colliding on either side.

(Answer if you dare
to the name of Einstein

or Perrin if you prefer
a Nobel Prize.)

Verify experimentally
remove the last doubts surrounding
atoms and molecules, offer
the proof of your own existence

(act surprised)

the notion of its constant
random motion
the human condition.

Believe in it (or not)
if you will

(but accept for now
that this is still



The Pressure of Gases – kinetic molecular theory

Torricelli immersed
at the bottom of a sea
of elemental air
considers the existence of a vacuum

(a space repugnant to nature
and philosophers
who advocate resistance)

but Torricelli bearing up
under the oppressing weight of hot air
fills a tube of glass
a dish with mercury
inverts the tube within
observes the empty space which forms

a place where nothing
(natural) he believes
can be contained

(unawares of molecules
of mercury vapour
ascending upwards)

a vacuous state of being
devoid of God or life

(at least on paper)

light-headed (and swimming
beneath the surface)
Torricelli endeavours
(and succeeds) to measure
the pressure of the atmosphere

like some exotic fish
he gauges the rise and fall
within the tube
floats easily amongst it all

the internal and external forces
rarefaction and density

(Torricelli breathing
at the bottom of the sea)

where all and nothing happens
an emptiness filled
with relentless intensity

Torricelli (like others
before him) sees mankind
struggling to its knees
in the lower regions
of the atmosphere

(quicksilver rising in a tube of glass)

a place cohabited with animals
meek and wild

while on the peaks of mountains high
closer to the heavens and the sky
(where prayers come to pass)
the air is pure and light
and finally measurable

the next step (unimaginable)
surely flight?



After this
………….I lead you into form

triangle, rhombus, square, helix
circle, rectangle, ellipse

and from there
………………….to their equations

their defining features.

The relation of X’s to Y’s
the hows and whys
of the pleasure derived
from being true to themselves
or from pushing
………………… their boundaries

a circle stretched into an ellipse
a rhombus pressed into a square

but erstwhile
……………….there is the line

(like light concise
taking the least journey
…………………………….between points
adhering to Fermat’s Principle of Least Time
“nature always acts by the shortest course”).

Archimedes, Appolonius of Perga,
Euclid, Pappus of Alexandria

awaiting fourteen centuries more
to extend the shape of their knowledge

Gerard D. Desargues,
Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes

mathematicians defining concepts
………………………………… words
simple sounds
intricate with meaning

tangent, locus, vertex,
asymptote, focus, directrix,

the complexity
of geometrical theory.

Beyond this
………………..images and symbols

points aligned in space
specified by their coordinates
outlining inordinate quantities
of thought

and out of all of this a purpose
beyond the rapture of near perfection
an application?

The parabolic surfaces
of reflector lights, say
showing the way
or antenna in radio astronomy
solar furnaces
ballistic calculations

shots fired in the dark

satellites orbiting the earth
above the critical speed
needed to remain aloft
and hark
…………….transmitters locating ships.

But which from which

the bullet or the ellipse
the form or its intent?

Or by necessity
………………….both together
creating their own trajectory

forces never spent.


— Gerard Beirne


Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.

His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.

His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.

His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Sep 112012


Diane Moser begins her memorial composition to the victims of 9/11 with an upbeat Big Band horn motif which seems surprising, even astonishing, until you realize the piece mimes the whole day, beginning with the pristine sky, sun blazing, everyone one his or her way to work, the streets packed with rushing cars and cabs, everyone brash, breezy and optimistic. Almost at once the sombre, premonitory bass counters, and for a few bars the horns and the bass alternate tentatively.

Diane is a brand new colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a colleague since she joined the faculty of the equally brand new MFA in Music Composition Program. She’s a composer, jazz pianist, and mourner. These are all songs of mourning, as it were — for 9/11, for mother and father, for gifted friend. In every piece there is a darkness (from the bass, from the left hand) that battles against the liveliness of the music itself. Diane’s an amazing composer, with a special sense of the recuperative and redemptive effects of music and the capacity of jazz to embody the complex light and dark of life. The thrumming, gloomy bass reminds us of death; but the music dances with energy, rushes toward the light.

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce her here on this memory-filled day.

In the photo above, taken my Dennis Connors, Diane appears with bassist Mark Dresser. The artist photo below was taken by Chris Drukker.




The Journey Home

I composed this piece to help the healing process from the attacks of Sept 11th, 2001. All of us went through so much on that day and the weeks that followed, and I felt as a composer that I needed to express my feelings and to help others as well. One of the recurring themes in NYC in the aftermath was the sight of people who were putting up posters, trying to locate their loved ones, and that’s what got me started on this composition.

The music begins with a motif that expresses exactly the kind of morning we had, sparkly, bright blue, barely a cloud in the sky. The bass solo is a foreshadow of what was coming. As the bass solo continues, the brass introduction goes from the bright sparkly motif, to wide open, dark harmonies, slowly descending, which represents the towers coming down. I chose a slower tempo for this, because in that moment, as we watched from our TV sets and from the streets of Montclair, NJ, where I live, everything seemed to go fast and in slow motion at the same time.

The next section is a motif built on the spoken phrase “Where are you?” This is what I imagined was being said by people who were looking for their loved ones who had vanished that day.

The third section is my vision of the souls of the people who perished that day and their Journey Home.

“The Journey Home” composed in memoriam for the victims of the attacks on Sept 11th, 2001. Live recording of Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band May 2008, Trumpets Jazz Club, Montclair, NJ. Composed by Diane Moser October 2001, premiered Nov 2001 at Tierney’s Tavern, Montclair, NJ. Soloists: bassist Andy Eulau, alto saxophonist Tom Colao, trombonist Ben Williams.


For My Mother

This is a composition I wrote a few days after my mother died unexpectedly. I was supposed to speak at her service, but I decided playing the piano was a better way to express myself. I started with arranging some of her favorite songs, none of which I really inspired me. The next day I decided to experiment with her name as a musical cryptogram, assigning notes to her name.  After working with the notes, I found harmonies and created open spaces for free improvisation based on the themes.  I have arranged this piece (and performed it) for everything from solo piano to big band.

“For My Mother” composed by Diane Moser 1998. Tthis recording from the newly released cd “Duetto” with bassist Mark Dresser, CIMP Records release date July 3, 2012. Also available on itunes Review by Robert Bush for the San Diego Reader


 For My  Father

When my father died, I decided to try again the musical cryptogram and add two of his favorite songs, “Deep River,” a traditional spiritual that he used to sing with his sister, and “My Buddy,” which was a special piece of music for him and his friends from WWII. The piece begins with the same idea of assigning notes to his name but with a pedal point (repeated note) and lots of open space for improvisation. I continue that pedal point with a free flowing rendition of “Deep River” and then let go of it as I play “My Buddy.” This piece was originally recorded with only piano and drums. I had wanted Mary Redhouse to be on the recording session, but it didn’t work out for that day. Two years later, she was on the east coast, and we recorded her, over dubbing twice while listening to the previous recording. Mary is a virtuoso vocalist and sings with Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai, a favorite of my father’s. I especially love the hawk sounds by Mary at the end of this track; I can imagine my father ‘s soul flying over the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite places.

“For My Father/Deep River/My Buddy” composed/arranged 2002. On the soon to be released “Diane Moser WDMO” featuring myself on piano, Duncan Moore-drums, Mary Redhouse vocals.


One For Mal

This composition is a tribute to the late, great jazz pianist Mal Waldron. I composed it a few days after he died, and after listening to a memorial broadcast of his music from station WKCR, Columbia University, NYC, and walking in the freshly fallen eight inches of snow we got that day. The melody just came to me after that walk through the snow, but I also added the chimes from a local church that I heard as I rounded the corner going home. I only had one melody, but I divided it into two fragments and juxtaposed them,and then reversed the juxtaposition. The chimes come in after each juxtaposition. The groove that I set up in my left hand is totally in tribute to Mal, who as Elzy Kolb writes in the liner notes of WDMO about Mal: “left-hand-that-rules-the-world-approach.” After that groove, the trio is free to follow where ever the spirit takes us, and then we come back in the way we started.

“One For Mal” composed 2002. On the soon to be released “Diane Moser WDMO” featuring myself on piano, Duncan Moore-drums, Rob Thorsen-bass

— Diane Moser


Diane Moser has been a featured performer and composer throughout the US with jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras, chamber music, dance and theater companies since 1975. Since 1996 she has been the music director/contributing composer/pianist for her 17 piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, dedicated to developing and presenting new music for big band. Her other groups include the Diane Moser Quintet, and the Diane Moser Trio. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Arts and in 2011 was named the Mid-Atlantic Arts Creative Fellow at the Millay Arts Colony. She has received composition awards from Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Recently she composed and recorded the music for the award winning documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Art of Alex Masket.” She has been a featured pianist and composer with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Lisa Sokolov, Yale Strom, poet Bill Zavatsky, the Drifters and many others. Since 2006 she has been a member of the core faculty for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (NY, NY) where she teaches composition, improvisation and history courses. She is also a member of the core faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program.

Diane’s music runs the gamut of straight ahead to experimental, using free and structured improvisation, graphic scores and the environment as source material. Her current projects include a suite based on birdcalls, culled from a MacDowell Colony residency where she improvised and recorded with birds over a period of 5 weeks, and a large work for her big band based on the concept of the Music of the Spheres, specifically the theories of Pythagoras, Johannes Kepler, NASA’s Voyager 1 & 2, and the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.


Sep 102012

Each poem in The Children is alternately spare and dense, delicate and obsessive as filigree or tatted lace. “The heart / breaks its crochet,” she writes in “Snowy River Visions,” alluding to the intricate psychological fabric—handiwork or “white threads / like bandages”—painstakingly made and painfully undone in the course of each poem. — Emily Pulfer-Terino

The Children
by Paula Bohince
Sarabande Books
Paperback. 72 pages. $14.95

In a culture infatuated with irony, Paula Bohince’s poetry distinguishes itself for its subtlety and its acute attention to a world at once beautiful and ravaged. Four years after the release of her stunning debut collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonette Woods, published by Sarabande Books, The Children, (also by Sarabande), explores nostalgia and the ache of the lucid present in a rural landscape reminiscent of the Pennsylvania countryside where Bohince grew up. Where attention to multiplicity and contradiction could manifest in wry evasion, off-the-cuff colloquialism, and hyper-intellectualism, the imagination in these poems works delicately and relentlessly to make sense of the rift between ideas about the world and the world itself. Bohince tells it slant (to borrow Emily Dickinson’s phrase) only when there is no other way to tell it.

The book is lean and shapely, a collection of forty-two poems divided almost evenly into three sections. Demarcated by Roman numerals, these divisions emphasize thematic links among poems and lend the volume an implied chronology. While these poems are lyrics in free verse, a formal sensibility underlies the collection. For their lapidary precision and for the subjective, accessible “I” delivering each poem, this work feels born of the confessional tradition. Still, poems in The Children are fresh and surprising in their conception, paying homage to Bohince’s predecessors while establishing their own set of rhetorical moves and imaginative leaps. Bohince nods to literary, artistic, and historical figures: Mark Rothko, Virginia Woolf, Amy Clampitt, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and even Christ; invoking a sense of shared personal struggle. The Children articulates myriad forms of witness, addressing themes of childhood, fraught family circumstances, marriage, solitude, and decaying rural communities.

Bohince’s allegiance to beauty functions both as a characteristic and as a subject of the work. Each poem in The Children is alternately spare and dense, delicate and obsessive as filigree or tatted lace. “The heart / breaks its crochet,” she writes in “Snowy River Visions,” alluding to the intricate psychological fabric—handiwork or “white threads / like bandages”—painstakingly made and painfully undone in the course of each poem. Later, in “Froth of the Tides and Further Out,” she claims, “beauty rescues,” then wonders “Is that true?” This work asks what the function of the aesthetic can be in a world marked by loss. The first poem in the collection, “Pussy Willow”, begins:

Faint as flame-in-wind,
I was born, cupped inside a fist
and carried everywhere

even to the formidable river
so that I may see the stones
of the riverbed.

Introducing the essential act of attention at the core of this work, it concludes with a meditation, “Virus in my heart. Branches / salted with buds, soft- / eyed on the sill,” invoking, too, the repose and tenderness to follow. Later in the book, in dazzling strokes, bees are discussed in terms of “the shantung / of them: breathless forms / shuttling through sunlight.” A robin’s egg is “bejeweled on all sides / by goldenrod.” Yellow leaves “become portraits/of fecundity: watercolor / of wanton // against discriminate.” Effulgent phrases offer a complex, excruciating beauty, acting as abrasion and salve at once.

In the title poem, rural, post-rave melancholy is elevated to lyric emblem where “ecstasy lowered to ache” hums at the core of each stanza. Pithy, Anglo-Saxon diction drives a series of propositions and ruminations towards a conclusion equally satisfying and irresolute.

If the wind had been less gutsy
in its unbindings, we’d know them better,
the children

or the afterimage of them,
the teenage couple rapt inside the field
after the rave has died

and dispersed into corn, into cars, into
the trashed curfew.
We’d know them, the two who lay here,

ecstasy lowered to ache
and dull grin, glow sticks faded against
colorless weeds.

If the wind had been less federal,
sweeping anew the corn dust, and the clouds
that kept them starry for hours,

now passive against the noon sky:
if only they’d lasted.
If we’d been given more distinct evidence

beyond the condom listing against milk-
weed, the fox prints, the warmth
of glow sticks in our hands—

neutral again, broken of their magic.
Those dirty pacifiers we suck. Their whistles
we put to mouth and sound.

Plain idiom interacts with decisive formal gestures, lending the subject a surprising elegance and a sonorous elegiac quality. Tercets composed almost entirely of enjambed lines contribute a sense of momentum and also of containment, establishing the writer’s concern for the poem as crafted object while mimicking the energy with which the speaker bares witness to the scene. While none of the lines is end-rhymed and the internal rhymes are subtle as those inherent in colloquial speech, the language is rife with assonance and alliteration. Even in the first sentence, “couple,” “rapt,” “corn,” “cars,” “trashed,” and “curfew” establish a sonically arresting pattern of hard consonants and internal slant-rhymes that continues into the next sentence with “ecstasy lowered to ache.” The poem is built essentially of three propositions: “If the wind had been less gutsy”, “If the wind had been less federal”, “If we’d been given more distinct evidence”. Only the first resolves in a complete sentence; the following are fragments, expressive of incompletion and futility. The “we” who would know them better is literally suggestive of the community from which they are alienated. At the same time, the speaker and the reader are the “we” who know the “afterimage” of the children only through a set of lyric gestures. The poem is itself the afterimage, ghostly and particulate. Here distinctions among the man-made and the natural, the young and the dead, the beatific and the pathetic, collapse in quiet spectacle, acutely observed. The teenagers’ final whistling, which reads as half-habit, half-outcry, lends the poem the luster of ars poetica as writer herself scans the ruin, turning it into song.  This work is as much about the ordinary world as it is about our efforts to withstand it.

Bohince unabashedly exalts the quotidian, exposing and even, at times, announcing her ambition.  In “The Peacock,” for example, “Dreams feather the pillow and make bearable / the day…” in which dailiness—children’s’ aimless play, a working father’s depression—are juxtaposed with the bird’s “gorgeous body.” The poem turns its attention to the peacock until peachicks flock around the bird and, in a bold flourish, Bohince writes:

The day is finding its Breughel moment—
wine and sapphire and verdigris. His black hair
with sunlight on it.

A miracle. Something to recall
as beautiful, in the future. As the sewer was
in summer. Little childhood river.

Through the poem’s shift of attention from the pedestrian to high art to the sewer, dailiness is transformed, (or the poet announces her desire to transform it), wrought and iridescent. The world in this poem is as much imagined as it is observed, affirming one of the book’s central concerns: the relationship between perception and invention. As is the case with Elizabeth Bishop’s sublime, overwhelmingly lyrical passages are expressive of both affliction and delight.

An acute ambivalence characterizes the collection. In several poems, a subject is both itself and another, tilting and transforming. Beavers damming a stream are conflated with the rope-swinging teenaged boys the speaker used to marvel at. A mother’s frenzied consciousness is likened to birds, a “tonic of quail,” the mind “a cloud of quail…huge / as buckshot / when it balloons down, / scribbling earth/with its landings.” A hornet’s hive is a “collapsing universe” in which the speaker recognizes her own loneliness and collapse. An owl is “embodied psychosis,” “homeless, forever.” A rabbit in a winter field is discussed in the same terms as the speaker’s mother is.

A profound poem of leave taking, “Hare In Snow” responds to Mark Rothko’s vibrant, juxtaposing planes of color and his pulsing nuances. Built of two solid strophes whose rhetorical unfolding is almost identical, the poem reads as a kind of diptych imbued with the symmetry of reflection and of palindrome.

She sits in stately dress; she is all White. Slur of landscape.
In the birches’ breach, she waits: recompense for January’s deadly
beauty; rapid heart beating the downy body. Flaw
in the opal of field. Not-yet blood festival. To be as still
is to protest. Don’t go, I think, half-dozing at the window, when
she goes. Her shaming wakefulness. The poise of long feet
come to use. The adults look babyish all their lives.
It’s Nature’s trick, to feign innocence. Any intelligent thing
rejects the unhappy present. The thought of her alone would be
pretty, were she not true. And cruel as the feminine mind. Gone,
the mist she releases I interpret as Mother’s Hairspray.

She wears her fur, my mother. Pink-cheeked, she is
the landscape. Its cold eternal sunrise. Young and handsome
as my birth month. How rapidly we rushed toward each other
then. How we are the flaw in the other. Her blood slows
down. To be as quiet is to protest. Don’t go, I think, waving
goodbye from my car window. I go, and her waving
shames me. Though she bends, in mirror, in her sweeping,
she will always be younger than I am. It’s a mother’s trick,
to be loved as a lifelong daughter. The thought of her alone
will not do. She is pretty, and true. And cruelty flies into wind-
borne snow. Into the mist my mouth drinks now as milk.

Each dense stanza is built of a series of statements, sentences and sentence fragments, which addresses its subject with alternately literal and imaginative attention. The rabbit in the first strophe arrests the speaker where she sits, drowsy by a window, thinking, “don’t go” as the creature disappears into woods. But the speaker considers the animal’s presence before it runs away, making incisive claims about the natural world that read as philosophical and socio-political as well: “The adults look babyish all their lives. / It’s Nature’s trick, to feign / innocence. Any intelligent thing / rejects the unhappy present.” The poem hinges on this inventing mind, on the speaker’s consciousness that analyzes “any intelligent thing” and that “interpret(s)” the mist of snow as her “Mother’s hairspray,” again juxtaposing the natural and the artificial, the current and the recollected.

The introduction of the speaker’s mother at the hare’s escape prompts further consideration of “Nature’s trick.” Now the mother occupies the space, imagined and actual, that the hare had. She “wears her fur.” She is “young and handsome/as my birth month. How rapidly we rushed toward each other / then,” considers the speaker in a tone redolent with loss, “how we are the flaw in the other.” Again she thinks, “don’t go”, this time as she herself drives away, shamed by the image of her mother waving in the rearview mirror. “It’s the mother’s trick, / to be loved as the lifelong daughter,” she asserts, yoking safety and shame, love and anger, nurturance and dependence, in a set of relationships that throb like Rothko’s planes of color. Mother and daughter are both indistinguishable and achingly separate. The “cruelty” that “flies into wind- / borne snow,” then, is both the speaker’s and the mother’s; it is the pain inherent in parting and reunion.  The form—two stanzas rhetorically similar but imaginatively divergent—amplifies the marked and expressive ambivalence informing the poem and so much of this book.

Paula Bohince’s poems delight and hurt. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the complex and palpable struggle informing this collection, The Children is an intricate and distinct pleasure. Shapely and plainspoken, austere and effulgent, this work rewards repeated reading with subtly inventive language and an earnestness that feels unaccustomed and even bold in contemporary poetry.  The intellect and the heart are inextricable in this writing that promises to be enduring and influential.

—Emily Pulfer-Terino


Emily Pulfer-Terino grew up in Western Massachusetts, where she lives and teaches English at Miss Hall’s School, a boarding school for girls. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. More of her work is published or forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, The Southeast Review, Poetry Northwest, Stone Canoe, The Louisville Review, The Alembic, Oberon, and other journals and anthologies.

Sep 072012

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (“Fish”) absurdly wonders what fish’s dreams are made of through a pool of carp who dream of driving in a car in the rain, but – and this seems the essential point – without dogs.

The frame of the film is crowded with bobbing carp of various sizes and colours that strain to reach for food at the top of an aquarium or a zen koi pond. Through their various tones of voice we detect differences in character between the fish as they blather in their invented language. Even without the sound, the anthropomorphized carp have personalities detectable in the way they treat other fish, nudging them out of the way, and swimming on top of them.

The strange and haunting sounds are a hallmark of Lucrecia Martel’s film style. The fish are granted the gift of semi-individuality through the sounds that they are associated with, depending on whether that sound is shriller or deeper. They speak in individual voices but with overlapping sounds. This is not the story of one fish, but a community. Schools of fish usually perform in perfect synchronicity but Martel’s carp react fitfully. As in her previous films (both feature-length and shorts), she is highlighting the individual’s comportment within a greater group.

The sounds, synchronized perfectly to the gaping fish mouths, are by Argentinean multidisciplinary artist Juana Molina. The noises are not from an easily recognizable instrument, but those who know Martel’s body of work will hear similarities to the device prominently featured in her second feature film, The Holy Girl. There is a sound like the theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without a touch. Molina is electro-folk musician who is also an actress and she cites Bjork as one of her influences. The connections between the two artists’ styles are unmistakable.

Martel is the well-known director of serious character studies like The Headless Woman and The Swamp, so her focus here on chatty sing-song fish might seem peculiar. Animal adventures are usually the stuff of Disney’s children’s films, rarely of prize-winning independent filmmakers and they feature elaborately drawn characters, not real live fish. In Finding Nemo (2003), the clown fish Nemo and his various friends tell us their story in their own words;Martel’s fish do so as well.  Nemo’s tale is more canonical, a simple father and son tale, while Martel’s story resists making the same kind of sense. The anthropormorphic turn seems to flirt with a more complex ontological project. Her last short, Muda, also featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies, featured humans acting like insects. Both these films suggest Martel is exploring the boundaries of the human experience, possibly intending to denaturalize desire and identity through these animalistic turns.

Simplicity has been a crucial characteristic of Martel’s films since the beginning of her successful filmmaking career. In this short, in the dominant fish pond scenes, her camera zooms in and out on the fish in one continuous dance. The frame is always densely filled and this allows for shots of a single humanized fish or a more complete view of the pond, with multiple fish. The carp mesmerize with their ceaseless irregular movements. Splashing water, wavelets, and silver coins at the bottom of the pond catch the light, saturating the captured image again and again.

Martel bookends these vibrant pond scenes with POV shots of a passenger or driver in a car driving on a highway in the rain. In the first, the title shot, we see a greenish rainy dusk with a lot of sky. Martel builds dramatic tension in this section of the short, despite the absence of other characters, through the eerie colour and the car we see in the distance. This first sky scene is intermittently interrupted by what we assume to be the windshield wipers; they are at the same time nuisance and godsend, since they temporarily block our view but ultimately allow us to see through the windshield.

The water from the fishpond is contrasted with the rain on the windshield (reassuring for the fish, one would suppose). Water is a prominent feature in all of Martel’s feature films, but usually it is the characters that use the medium in some way. In this case, it is unconceivable that she would film fish without the liquid. In The Swamp, it was an oppressive element present in the air (heavy humidity) and in the family’s pool (where ultimately, the dramatic twist happens). In The Holy Girl, it was an element that allowed various morally ambiguous characters to wash away their possible sins.

From the dark threat of the highway in the rain, she moves us suddenly to the cacophony of the fish in the pond. Martel’s contrast of the effervescence of the fishpond and the dark starkness of the highway scene is unexpected, a difficult clash of images to process. At 1:39, she offers us another two-second flash of the road, as a convoy of transport trucks pass to the left of the screen in rapid succession. Now that we know the fish, know of their dream, we are left to wonder if this is the car the fish dream about and what will happen to this car full of fish driving down the highway? The short ends with a return to the highway footage, the bottom darkness of the koi pond transitioning into the view through the windshield as the fish fade and swim away to the exterior shot and the round shiny coins become the street lamps flashing by. Still, our questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know where the carp wanted to go on their road trip, what is so terrible about dogs, or why they would ever want to leave the gloriously manic pond.

This short film is rife with planes of observation, one of Martel’s favourite tropes. We view the film, the car driver looks out the windshield, the camera watches the fish, and all the fish look out of the bowl. Martel requires of her viewers that they gaze, stare, and look again and again.  She perhaps does this best in her last feature film, The Headless Woman. In one continuous scene, we must watch the facial expressions of the main character as she goes through multiple emotions realizing, then discarding, the possibility that she may have hit a person with her car on the road. Watching a Martel film, we must discover and question the smallest of details or facial expressions.

In an perfect twist, given Martel’s preferred tropes, the filmmaker can be (barely) distinguished in a reflection in the koi pond, especially in the tight shots when there are few carp movements. We guess that she is there, a square black likeness, holding the camera, controlling what we see. But she and the film’s meaning remain elusive, a reflection, yet promissory.

This short was presented at the Jameson Notodofilmfest, an annual online festival born in 2001 from an idea by Javier Fesser, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (2007). This festival allows young innovative filmmakers to present their work through the magical world of the interweb. The prestigious jury members contribute to widening the selection of shorts; Lucrecia Martel was a judge for the 8th edition of the festival.

— Sophie M. Lavoie


Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Sep 062012


Sydney Lea has three books coming out, including his new essay collection A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press) this month. At an age when old dogs curl up before the fire and dream ancient dreams, Sydney is all spark and vigor which I find endlessly appealing and optimistic. Sydney is also the Poet Laureate of Vermont, and I guess poet laureates hobnob in ways that mere mortals don’t. He and Fleda Brown, recently Poet Laureate of Delaware, have been writing essays back and forth. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

Earlier on these pages I published the essay “Unskunked” which is part of this poet laureate interchange. In “Unskunked” we were treated to the image of the author running naked through the dark and dripping forest. In “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” Sydney Lea waxes less overtly spectacular and delivers a lovely, wise account of his education as a young poet. He is a paradoxical intellect; part athlete, hunter and woodsman; part scholar; mostly a poet. This is the story of how these impulses somehow coalesced around his admiration for what we might call the New England old timer (in 2012, there aren’t many of these left). At the center of this is an idea of manliness (not macho posturing but old fashioned manly virtue — a good thing).

Sydney Lea is a great friend and former colleague from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a source of deep satisfaction that he has found Numéro Cinq a congenial home for his work.



When I was young, who thought I’d choose poetry as my prime mode of knowing the world?

Not I.  It’s true that as a high school punk, despite my enthusiasm for football and my wilder one for hockey, despite my commonplace tough-guy posturing, practiced by so many of us guys at that stage of life, I did secretly like to think of myself as a bit arty too. I was a musician. I could sing. I even thought I drew pretty well. I was a big cheese in the dramatic club, as a senior playing Oedipus in the eponymous play (a lisping king, who addressed “generationth of the living in the land of Thebeth”).

But I don’t remember writing poems, save maybe the sorts that any person may have written, and that he hopes have long since utterly biodegraded: rants about being ditched by a girlfriend, just for the tritest example.

I was also a pretty good student. Indeed, had it not been for what would now be diagnosed as a mathematical learning disability, my GPA would have been of the very highest. My truest proficiency was foreign languages, a gift nourished by the best instructor I ever had at any level, Ted Wright, who taught French. I began to speak the tongue pretty quickly, and I recall how strange it was that the words and the grammar often almost seemed to be granted me by some power outside myself.

It’s a feeling I would later come to recall – if not as often, naturally, as I could wish – when I composed a poem successful in my own eyes.

It’s at once simple and weird: words and phrases, whatever the language, simply enchant me, seduce me, especially if I hear them. Things spoken in my presence, if they have a particular, inexplicable resonance, will lodge themselves in my mind for decades. For example, I lately remembered a friend’s describing the death of his farmer uncle, who fell dead in his tracks while shutting the tailgate of his truck on a calf bound for the abattoir. I heard that description, unremarkable in most respects, about forty years ago. I wrote the poem last week.

Like my exemplar Robert Frost, I want my poems to have something of the ring of actual talk in them. But that’s to get ahead of myself. The college I chose had no writing courses as we know them in our era of too-rampant MFAism. But somehow, on my own, I started to feel an itch to write, which I did, my only audience, really, being my roommates, who tended to think I was good enough, if they thought about my work at all. My genre was short fiction, and I wrote a lot of it in those four years; it seemed to keep me balanced somehow, while everything else – including the alcoholism that would plague too many later years – was doing just the opposite.

Ultimately, of course, graduation loomed, and I had to figure out what I might do. Yale had accepted me as a grad student in French, but much as I loved the language and the literature, something in me recoiled from living as a kind of literary expatriate. I never imagined applying to a place like Iowa, though quantitatively, my portfolio would have permitted me to. (Who knows about the quality?) I had barely even heard of any of the far fewer MFA programs that existed in those days. I never dreamed, either, of Being a Writer.  Professional writing, I assumed, was something other people did; there must be some secret to it, and no one had shared it with me.

I did not want to go to Vietnam, as one those roommates did, becoming one of the earliest casualties of that wrong-headed adventure. And so, because schoolteachers were exempt from the draft at that time, I elected to go back to my own private high school, having no credentials to teach in a public one.

I taught French and English, and came to understand how Ted Wright managed to be so inspired and inspiring a teacher. He simply committed himself to that end every minute of the day right through the evening’s class preparation. No one messed with Ted: he was a big, muscular guy, the football coach, a former semi-pro pitcher. At a mere 21, I didn’t have that sort of gravitas, and I devoted a lot of time to quashing the same sort of ill discipline I’d imposed on all my other teachers, now my forgiving colleagues, just a few years before.

Top quality high school teachers are, to my mind, the heroes of American education. They deserve to be paid a lot more, and college teachers (especially those at the sorts of “prestige” institutions where I myself have taught) a good deal less. To say it tersely, even after one year in a pretty cushy job at that level, I knew I didn’t have the endurance and commitment Ted did. In deed, I concluded there wasn’t enough money in anyone’s bank to keep me at his sort of work. Too hard, too demanding, too much time just being present.

So I did go to grad school after all, not in French, but not in English either. I did comparative literature, wanting to use my languages while I focused on fiction and poetry as fields of study. I was too naïve to know that comparative literature was just then leading such study in the “theoretical” direction that has made it unappealing to me and apparently –  judging from the radical shrinkage in literature majors at the majority of colleges – to most students.

Not that my dabbling in theory didn’t have its heady moments. I particularly recall a fabulous seminar on European Romanticism, presided over by the second best of my many teachers, Geoffrey Hartman. And yet Geoffrey became, quite unintentionally, a bit of a villain in my history. I had settled on a perfectly conventional dissertation topic, Frost and the Romantics, but he persuaded me to expand one of my seminar papers, an examination of several supernaturalist authors of the nineteenth century, most of them deservedly forgotten. Unlike my other choice, he averred, this would be “a real contribution.”

Contribution? What about nightmare? To indicate how sheep-like I’d been in acceding to my professor’s suggestion, most of my texts were written in German, the one major western European language I didn’t really command, which meant that I was forevermore rifling through the stacks for translations from the original into French, Italian or Spanish, few being available in my native tongue.

Good Lord…

In due course I took a job at Dartmouth College, without, however, having finished that accursed dissertation. Indeed, it would take me more than four years to do so.

There were no writing courses at Dartmouth in those days, any more than there had been at Yale when I was there. But a fair amount of clamor arose from students for that lack to be remedied. The result, in my second year, was English 70, an omnium-gatherum offering in which students could write fiction, poetry, drama, personal essays, what have you?

The heavies of the department, many of them good people and true, to be sure, were exclusively male – women adjuncts were referred to as “lady lecturers”! – and white and old, and at least marginally Christian. (These descriptives fit me better as I write this than they fit the people in question then; but such, in my late twenties, was my regard for them, one and all.) They assigned English 70 to me, of all people.

This was meant, though, as an act of kindness. Since in the eyes of those senior colleagues, such a course was not a “real” one at all, not the kind that demanded any genuine thought or preparation, I would have more time to complete my burdensome dissertation.

And yet a strange thing happened  (or perhaps not so strange). In teaching that course, ineptly, I’m sure, given my utter lack of credentials, I found that old itch returning. It had been suppressed for more than half a decade, but now I began to write again myself.

I began, though, to write poetry. Why? Well, pardon a detour to something very relevant: on my father’s side, my family has had a relation to a remote part of Maine that now goes back generations. In these times, my brother and sisters collectively own our cabin there. My time in the neighborhood had exposed me to certain notable characters, ones who would be 120 or so if they lived still. These were men and women whose early lives had preceded the advent of power tools, so that the male lumberjacks had cut millions of board feet by hand. And to call the females “housewives” would be downright laughable: they lacked all domestic conveniences we take for granted. Stunningly hardworking people, they quite literally kept the home fires burning, cooked in wood-fired ovens, slaughtered chickens, skinned game, cleaned fish and did whatever else was called for to sustain a homestead.

Because these people had no electricity, they of course had no radio either, let alone movie theaters or the great drug television. No, they had to make their own amusement, and as a result, man and woman alike were fabulous raconteurs. Their magical turns of phrase ring in my head every day: some get into my conversation, a lot into my poems, as it were, in disguise.

It seemed inevitable that, when I moved for my job to another part of northern New England, I sought out their Vermont and New Hampshire counterparts, who were equally eloquent, grammar and syntax be damned. And even at my young age, I somehow recognized mine was the last generation who would have known these precious souls.

I wanted to get their voices onto the page.

And yet I knew I’d prove no genius. I wasn’t Mark Twain. I wasn’t Willa Cather. I couldn’t resort to dialect without on the one hand sounding condescending, which was the opposite of how I felt, or simply sounding “off,” or both. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if I used poetry to tell their stories – or rather to tell stories suggested by their stories –  I might capture the rhythms and cadences of that old-time, entrancing speech without having to imitate it.

My earliest poems, consequently, were in the main quite specifically narrative ones. And although I have drifted away from overt story-telling in my verse, I have never quit believing in certain narrative values: even if plot remains implicit, I want my reader at least to know who’s talking to whom, and where and why. Character, setting and dialogue: why should we poets have ceded these endowments so readily to the fiction writers?

To this day (and I am old enough now to be indifferent about what the Smart People think), I want whoever encounters a poem of mine to know some literal truths when he or she first sees it. I want to make him or her aware of who the actors are, perhaps especially the one named I. If I can make allies of my readers, I’ll be pleased – and genuinely grateful to them. To these ends, I feel I owe them a welcome. A good poem will be complex, no doubt, but that’s a different thing from complicated. Those who are willing to consider it shouldn’t be taxed to figure out the plain facts of its matter.

Back to the academy. One of the department elders – a man whom I greatly liked from those days up to his fairly recent death – was chairman at a critical juncture. He approached me one day and said, “People are starting to regard you pretty favorably around here, but you know the saying, publish or perish. I’m glad it didn’t apply when I was your age, but without some scholarship in print nowadays, you have very little chance of tenure.”

Okay, then… I liked where I lived. I particularly liked the landscape and that access to the old story-tellers, and since in those days one did not have to publish a book, but rather a few articles, to pass the publish-or-perish test, I thought, well, I’ll just take a chapter or two from my dissertation (a screed still incomprehensible, even to its author) and try to stick it somewhere.

Mind you, I had gotten lucky with my poetry pretty quickly. I’d put poems in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, The New Republic and a slew of high-end lit magazines. But however different things are now at Dartmouth, in those days publishing poetry was not “real” publishing; that my first collection was under contract cut no ice, then.

I took the dissertation over to my library carrel, opened it up, and felt as I sometimes have upon looking over a shear precipice. My head spun, my stomach knotted, and I uttered aloud, despite the fact that I was in my thirties: “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”

I closed that dusted-over tome, vowing that I would go on writing poetry and let the chips fall where they might. I did not of course get tenure, but was fortunate enough as almost immediately to be hired by Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors had been fairly long established.

I now ponder that cri de coeur of mine, and I wonder why scholarship should not have appealed to me as something to do as a grown-up; why it couldn’t draw me more than it did or does. Understand, after all: nothing I say here is intended as an attack on scholarship. The contrary. I have benefitted enormously from other people’s labor in scholarly endeavor. It’s only that it isn’t for me.

Or not to the exclusion of other things. Oh, I have done a few genuinely scholarly articles since, copious annotation and all, and have even enjoyed doing them. But something always seems missing when I finish. It’s the missing something that’s provided by so-called creative writing, especially the writing of lyric, though I must struggle here and elsewhere to name that element.

For me, poetry is another mode of knowing the world, one that is different from the either/or, syllogistic one whereby people (myself included) generally conduct their business. Nothing wrong with that: if Shelley claimed poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, from what I’ve seen of them (myself included), it’s likely a good thing that their legislation does go largely unnoticed.

In any case, the lyrical approach is largely divorced from either/or, is in fact an approach well described, the way Carl Jung did in another context, as either/and/or –which is to say that it enables the writer (and ideally the reader) to see and feel from multiple angles simultaneously. To choose a hyper-obvious example, with the fairly recent birth of each of my grandchildren I have felt an indescribable surge of joy contemporaneously with numbing despond to imagine the world they may inhabit: over-heated, desperate for drinkable water, fratricidal, on and on.

It is this either/and/or quality, I believe, that John Keats famously called Negative Capability: the capacity to be  “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Any number of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and so on can exist in a poem at the same time, including ones like the above, which are evidently contradictory of one another. In these respects, poetry’s path to knowledge, more nearly than any other, seems the path my mind inclines to follow.

And of course there is again the matter of language. All those voices, old and new, anglophone and otherwise, that reverberate in my skull and, more importantly, in my heart. To abandon myself to what I called their rhythms and cadences, to let the words and phrases, as it were, bear me along like a tide to such enlightenment as I’ll ever have – that feels, and not just slightly, like a self-abandonment (allow me) to something divine.

— Sydney Lea


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

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

Sep 052012

“I simply wrote stories whenever I got bushwhacked by inspiration and kept my fingers crossed in hopes that in the end they would somehow cohere…” — Steven Heighton


“The writing life, like life in general, has a sacramental and a secretarial side,” Steven Heighton writes.  “As years pass and debts and duties accrue, the secretarial, clerical mode spreads like a lymphoma and starts to squeeze life from the sacramental, creative side.” Heighton’s own writing stands in defiance of this clerical mode. Prolific and diverse, he has published more than a dozen books, inlcuding collections of poetry, short stories and essays as well as four novels. He is a writer hell-bent on summoning the sacramental in his ever-expanding body of work, yet one dedicated and disciplined enough to sustain a steady output of consistently superior writing.

Heighton works and lives in Kingston, Ontario. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible (read my review at Numéro Cinq). In 2011, Heighton released Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing, a lively, eclectic gathering of aphorisms and memos about writing and art. I first encountered his work in the essay “The Admen Move on Lhasa”  (from a collection of essays with the same title). This essay remains one of the finest I’ve read on writing and the process of making art.

We exchanged a series of emails over the course of several weeks in preparation for this interview.  I confess to some initial nervousness. How often do we get to talk with the people whose work we truly admire?  But Heighton was both generous with his time and personable in our exchanges. He asked me about San Diego, about my family and my writing.  He confessed to a ‘minor’ bike accident which he described using the term cheese-grater in reference to the skin on right side of his body.  He talked about camping with his daughter, about finding a way to earn a living as a writer, about the blazing summer heat and the long, uncertain process of books being optioned to films. (Two of his novels have been optioned recently, Afterlands and Every Lost Country).

This sort of informal formality bleeds over into his writing as well. His stories are accessible but carefully crafted. They are filled with recognizable, often working class characters but written with a meticulous detail for language—a poet’s ear for melody combined with a prose writer’s eye for drama, a sort of genre-bending, cross-pollination of  W.S. Merwin and Raymond Carver, Ann Carson and Alice Munro.

Talking to Heighton, I feel myself in the presence of an affable high priest, a hardworking visionary whose polite chit chat is really just clearing the way for what he does best, which turns out to be two distinct things: both writing and talking about writing. The former is obvious; but the latter—the ability to articulate the process, to demystify the act of creativity, is a much rarer thing. Not every succesful and talented writer is able or willing to do this. At times, and especially in Workbook, it feels as if Heighton is lowering a rope ladder down from the Elysian fields and inviting others up. He offers no schmaltzy shortcuts, no write-your-novel-in-a-weekend workshops here. “Interest is never enough. If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well. What haunts and obsesses you into writing may, with luck and labour, interest your readers. What merely interests you is sure to bore them.”  Haunted is a good word to describe his stories, poems and essays. To read Heighton is to intuit the effort that goes into the creation of something important and lasting. It is to “gape and loiter” in the sacramental, and all the while wonder what it means.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell: Your latest collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible, contains eleven stories. Can you talk a bit about how long it took you to gather that collection?

Steven Heigthon: I wrote the eleven stories over a period of six years—2006 to the end of 2011—but during that time I also worked on other things: a novel, a book of poems, and a book of aphorisms & fragmentary essays.  I wrote a few other stories as well—stories that my editor, Amanda Lewis, suggested we cull from The Dead Are More Visible on the grounds that they didn’t fit the book tonally.  In the end I agreed with her.  I’m hoping those orphaned stories will fit into some future collection.

RF: Does making a collection of stories influence the way you write the individual stories? In other words, do you have a thematic sense of where the collection is going before you start, or do you cobble together the book after the stories are written?

SH: In the ’90s I published a book called Flight Paths of the Emperor—a collection of linked stories that use Japan as a point of thematic reference and departure.  At a certain point in that book’s making, I did start writing stories with a view to filling in thematic gaps, filling out a larger project.  Not so with The Dead Are More Visible.  I simply wrote stories whenever I got bushwhacked by inspiration and kept my fingers crossed in hopes that in the end they would somehow cohere, not in an overtly “linked” fashion but through loose tonal kinships imposed by my voice, my angle of vision, the particular mannerisms and mechanisms of my writing.

RF: In “A Right Like Yours,” a female boxer falls in love with her sparring partner.  I daresay it’s a love story with a happy ending.  I might make an argument that a few other stories in the book have happy endings, or at least resolutions that favor the protagonists. Are happy endings harder to write?

SH: Like any romantic, I have to keep an eye on myself.  I want to avoid lapsing into sentiment, avoid poeticizing or aestheticizing the world.  So I’ve trained myself to avoid positive endings, or at least prettified endings.  With “A Right Like Yours” I took a different approach.  I decided to tune out my captious, critical faculty and allow myself to end on a slightly sentimental note.  I’m glad I did.  It felt like a reprieve, a remission, for me as much as for the main character.  There’s a simple sweetness to her voice and I decided not to mute or undercut it at the end.

RF: By contrast, “Journeyman” and “Heart & Arrow” strike me both as particularly sad stories. I’m wondering if the process is different for you.

SH: The female boxer in “A Right Like Yours” is very young.  Like anyone, she has experienced a certain amount of loss, but not nearly to the extent that a middle-aged person has.  The protagonists of “Journeyman” and “Heart & Arrow” are, respectively, in late and early middle-age—and the tone and point of view of those stories are, in contrast to “A Right Like Yours,” retrospective, elegiac.  They’re stories about loss and how we decide what to do with it.  But does the writing process differ—is writing a comedy (“comedy” in the classical sense: a story that ends with a wedding instead of a funeral) fundamentally different from writing tragedy?  It’s a good question.  I guess I’d have to say the process doesn’t differ, if only because the technical demands of writing a story are always the same: keeping it tight, choosing the right words so that each word resounds forward and backward through the text, nailing each physical detail, somehow defibrillating those characters who won’t come to life.

But on second thought: in a “comedy” you can get away with caricatured secondary characters, which makes the process of creation a touch less demanding, and maybe you can also have a bit more fun in writing certain scenes, certain passages of dialogue.  But it’s still going to be hard to get the thing right and fictionally true.

RF: Do you ever abandon stories?  If so, do those stories haunt you or do you let them go?

SH: I do abandon stories.  Do they haunt me after the fact?  Rarely.  They failed because their material didn’t haunt and obsess me enough during the process of composition.  They failed because they lacked the power to haunt in the first place.  So I move on to new work and forget them.

But the essence of one jettisoned story stayed with me for years.  Around 1992 I started something I called “Nearing the Sea, Superior” and over several drafts it bloated up to thirty pages, and I kept adding more, trying to make it work—like an engineer trying to fix a flying machine that’s too heavy to fly by adding more and more heavy parts.  In the end I threw up my hands.  Then, a few years ago, I thought I’d take another run at the basic narrative concept—or what I remembered of it.  So I searched for a print-out of the original version.  Couldn’t find it, and I believe that was a lucky break, because if I’d read that original I might have mined it for a few good details, or lazily used the whole story as a platform for the new version and its protagonist.  Instead, I had to take a fresh run at the whole thing.  It’s just ten pages long now and, published in The Dead Are More Visible, I think it finally works.

RF: You write novels, stories, poems, essays, and reviews.  Do you write all these forms during the same period or do you compartmentalize your writing brains?

SH: During the same period, yes, but usually not on the same day.  If the things I’m working on are alive, molten, inclined to flow toward their natural culmination, I can walk away and write something different for a week—say, a review for which I have a deadline—then return to the abandoned thing and, within an hour or two, be back inside the vortex.  Partly it’s a matter of sheer curiosity.  I never know how my poems or stories will end—I want to write toward my endings with the same interest and excitement I hope readers will feel, reading toward them—so my curiosity about where things will end up helps draw me back into whatever I’m writing.

RF: I recently completed your novel Afterlands, which was terrific. In many ways, it felt like a 400 page poem, yet it was fully articulated as a dramatic story too. Are you a poet who writes novels or a novelist who writes poems? 

SH: I think of myself as a writer who channels his narrative impulses into fiction and lyrical impulses into poetry—I don’t write typical “poet’s novels” and I don’t write narrative poetry—but there’s definitely some spillover on the level of language.  The thing is, poets like me who also write fiction are saddled with a sensitivity to verbal acoustics.  They can’t help lugging their poet’s tool belt into the atelier where they build their stories.  So, unlike pure fiction writers, who work stylistically at the level of the sentence, the poet/fiction writer works at the level of the word, even the syllableWorse, they habitually, helplessly use poetry’s staple technique, re-enactive writing (i.e., the orchestration of verbal rhythm, sound, level of diction, punctuation etc. so that the writing embodies and becomes the action or sensation being described).  Bummer.  There are ten thousand syllables in the average story and a few hundred thousand in the average novel.

Come to think of it, one of the reasons I’m more and more drawn to narratives that involve physical action and overt dramatic momentum—as with Afterlands—is because I’m hoping those traits will balance the prosodic density of the writing.  I don’t want to create 400-page blocks of static, preeningly poetic prose.  I’m not writing “re-enactively” to show off—I’m just trying to make my narratives more vivid and vital.  So, yes, the poetry is there, but in service to the narrative and the characters.

RF: Is there a style (genre) of writing that feels most natural to you? 

SH: Depends on the day.  Honestly.  Some days I’m a poet, pure and simple.  Other days I want to tell a story.

RF: A friend of mine recently told me that she often tries to quietly do ‘beautiful things as an act of defiance.”  You quote a Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, who says, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” You’ve indicated that you see the making of art as a defiant or subversive act. Could you expound a bit on this?

SH: Making something slowly and conscientiously, the way you have to build a poem, story or novel, is subversive in the context of a hyperkinetic culture that promotes haste and speciousness—speed and loudness over slowness and quiet, surface over substance.  On the other hand, as that second quote suggests, Nhat Hahn extols the importance of sometimes doing no work at all—or at least no material, external work.  He too wants people to defy our culture’s manic forward momentum, but by simply sitting, breathing and smiling—“being”—rather than getting too caught up in doing and achieving.

RF: In Workbook you write, “If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well.”  Do you remember the moment when you first felt haunted? 

SH: The truth is I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel haunted—haunted in the sense of inspired to try to make meaningful things: first drawings and paintings, then poems and stories, and for a while, in my last year of high school and throughout my twenties, songs.

An interesting point about the songwriting.  I’ve probably written about a hundred songs and they’re all bad or mediocre except for one, which is pretty good.  One good song in three decades.  At this rate I’ll have a solid album in about three hundred years.

RF: You bang the drum loudly for the purity of art, for art as a haven apart from the corrupting influences of capitalism and advertising, schlock. But how do you encourage a young writer starting out, who has to pay the bills and feed the kids? How do you advise her or him to stay true to this calling?

SH: Cultivate low material aspirations; you’re going to need them.  Remember you can live on a lot less money than consumer culture would have you believe.  Abolish all bourgeois vanities about the source and branding of your clothes and other stuff; you can dress yourself decently at a thrift store.  Try to find jobs that leave you time to write, real time, three to five hours a day (waiting on tables at night is perfect: decent and quick money, good exercise, and your days stay free).  Don’t marry anyone who cares a lot about material comforts and possessions, or who has high ambitions for you.  Never marry anyone who doesn’t see your calling as worth a lifetime of effort—and deep down, you know how he or she feels.

[Sheepish addendum: If you have a strong enough constitution, you can produce a stream of books by writing, say, from five to eight every morning before going out to earn a conventional nine-to-five living.  I doubt I could do it—manage a tandem twelve-fourteen hour workday on five or six hours’ sleep a night, and with no idling time—but there are people who can.  Famously, Laurence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet on the small-hours shift (and I mean small hours—he got up and started writing at three a.m.) before going off to teach schoolchildren.  He also managed to make time in that crushing schedule for committed boozing.  Stephen Henighan (people are always mixing up our names) is a tenured academic and works on his fiction and non-fiction books in the very early morning, every morning, before going off to teach at the University of Guelph.  So that approach is an option for the athletic, the heroic, or persons of Paleolithic toughness.]

RF: I’ve been travelling a bit this summer, and I pay attention to what people are reading.  And people are still reading, but sadly, it seems like many people are reading the same few books.  (This summer, in particular, it seems the majority of people I’ve seen buried in a book were reading Fifty Shades of Gray.)  In Workbook you call lazy readers narcissists.  Do you suppose there’s any redeeming value in such group think?  From reading anything as opposed to just watching television?

SH: It’s a great question.  I guess I’ll say that reading is always different, less passive than TV, more interactive, collaborative, even if you’re reading trafe.  And who can blame people for reading trafe?  We’re all stressed and scared, one way or another.  I fully understand why most readers would prefer an unchallenging, escapist book to The Golden Bowl.  (Actually, I think I might find the Shades of Gray series an enormous challenge—which is my way of admitting I haven’t read a word and shouldn’t be commenting on it.)

To get back to that quotation from Workbook.  It was part of a three-part “memo” in a section called “On Reading.”  I argued in the first part that “Lazy readers are unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.  Seeking some kind of personal corroboration, they want to read about versions of themselves.”  I added that lazy readers are unable to love a work of fiction—or even respect it—if they don’t love the protagonist.  Hence my charge of narcissism.  I could as easily have accused lazy readers of a failure of empathy, a narrowness of sympathy.

In your question I think you’re addressing a different kind of laziness: the simple need for escape and diversion, which we all share to some extent.  Frankly, escapist readers don’t bother me compared to those readers who think of themselves as literary but nevertheless read in the narcissistic way I describe in Workbook.  They want to have it both ways.  They want to associate themselves with books that look and smellliterary—just as they want to have jazz records, modern paintings, and a decent wine cellar in their home—but they don’t want to read things that actually confront, wobble, even upend their tidy haute-bourgeois vision.

RF: I would use the word prolific to describe you as a writer and the oeuvre of your work.  Could you talk about diligence and persistence in terms of your success as a writer?

SH: The prospect of the poorhouse—of failing to support myself and my daughter, then ending up in a rooming house eating Puss ‘n Boots—is a potent creative motivator.  I simply lack the luxury of suffering from writer’s block.

RF: In “Heart & Arrow” (which is an absolutely heartbreaking story, lovely, true, haunted), you play with memory as a structural device in the story. The themes of faulty memory appear in Afterlands as well. How important are your memories, both of the real and of the literary variety?

SH: Flannery O’Connor once said (roughly: I’m going on memory here, speaking of memory) that anyone who has reached the age of twelve has enough material to fuel a lifetime of writing.  I doubt I was nearly as attentive a child as O’Connor, so probably I didn’t hit that threshold until twenty or so, but I think the point is essentially right.  I know that if I concentrate now and revisit some part of my life I haven’t thought of for a while, I’ll quickly locate riches—not because my life has been exceptionally rich in experience or adventure, but because significant stuff is happening to all of us, all the time.

A key thing about the memories we draw on is that time and compound mental revisions have corrupted them—and that’s a good thing for a fiction writer.  I travelled through Tibet in 1986 but didn’t start writing about it till twenty years later (in my novel Every Lost Country).  Friends asked if I planned to go back, revisit the country, do some on-site research, and I told them no, I couldn’t bear to see how the Chinese occupation had changed Tibet.  My rationale was only true to a point.  Mainly, I didn’t want my contaminated memories of the place and people to be jarred, readjusted by reality.  I was embarking on a novel, not a non-fiction project, and for better or worse the Tibet of my book had to be my version and vision of the place.

RF: You are going to be marooned for the rest of your life on a desert island. You can only take 1 book.  What will you take?

SH: You’re not going to let me take a big fat anthology, right?  Or the collected works of Shakespeare?  Or Proust’s magnum opus, which is really a number of books, a roman fleuve?  Fair enough.  You want to make it hard for me.  I get just one book.  So let me spend the next year or two pinning down an answer, because that’s how long it’s going to take me to narrow my longlist of seventy or eighty favourites.

RF: What are you working on now?

SH: For the past year I’ve been working on new poems and stories.  Last month I finally got started on a novel, as I have to, since realistically the novel is the only form that can put bread on the table.  I think I’ve just finished the first chapter.  Now I’ll turn my back on it and work on other things for a few days.  When I return to that opening it will either hook me, haul me in and surprise me, in a good way, or leave me cold.  If I detect no vital signs, I won’t go on tinkering endlessly the way I used to—a process I now compare to doing chest compressions on an Inca mummy. Nowadays, I just tag the toe and start over.

Thanks for your careful reading and your questions.

— Steven Heighton & Richard Farrell


Steven Heighton is the author of the novel Afterlands, which has appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a best book of the year selection in ten publications in Canada, the US, and the UK; and has been optioned for film.  His first novel, The Shadow Boxer, was a Canadian bestseller and a Publishers’ Weekly book of the year for 2002.  Heighton’s fiction and poetry are translated into ten languages; have appeared in London Review of Books, Poetry, Tin House, Brick, London Magazine, TLR, Agni, Numéro Cinq, and Revue Europe; have been internationally anthologised (Best English Stories, Best American Poetry, The Minerva Book of Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, Modern Canadian Poets); and have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award.  He has received the Gerald Lampert Prize, the P.K. Page Award, and four gold National Magazine Awards for fiction.  He writes occasional  reviews for the New York Times Book Review and in 2013 will be the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence at McGill University.

*Author photo credits: Mary Huggard & Michale Lea



Sep 032012

With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. —Richard Farrell

The Dead Are More Visible (Stories)
By Steven Heighton
Alfred A. Knopf, Canada
ISBN 978-0-307-39741-6

“The virtue of good prose,” writes Steven Heighton in Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing, his meditative collection of aphorisms and memos on art and writing published in 2011, “lies mainly in this dishabituation: it triggers conceptual stammers in the mind, momentarily rerouting hard-set neural circuits, even laying the ground for new ones.” These conceptual stammers, echoes of what the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called defamiliarizaton, lie at the center of Heighton’s latest collection of stories, The Dead Are More Visible.

From wrathful lesbians to lonely widows, from aging track stars to angsty teen-agers, Heighton pulls off a literary hat trick: he tells spellbinding stories in aching, melodic voices that demand to be read again and again. A female boxer falls in love with her sparring partner; a heroic fireman rushes back into a burning building to rescue a bag of snakes; a recovering drug addict wanders the Sonoran Desert pursued by a mythical, oxycontin peddling hallucination; these are just some of the stammering citizens of Heighton’s fictional universe.

Heighton is a prolific novelist, essayist and poet. With a dozen books already published, it should come as no surprise that his short stories resist easy labels. In his fiction, Heighton interrogates the liminal borderlands of prose and poetry, walking the fine line between lyrical richness and good old-fashioned yarns. Yet never do the intricate textures of his language get in the way of clear-minded, narrative straight-forwardness, a linearity born not of simplistic formulas but out of a long and careful examination of form and structure.

The Dead Are More Visible contains sad stories with happy endings, simple stories with complex themes, and ineffable mysteries of being told from the perspective and language of common folk.

One of the more heartbreaking stories in this collection is “Heart & Arrow,” a twenty-four page, third person story that hinges on the fallibility of memory. On the occasion of his sister’s fortieth birthday party, Merrick thinks back to when he was ten and he would drink alone in his parents’ long-neglected basement bar. He remembers the loneliness of that bar with its “kidney-shaped counter of faux marble with a brown buttoned vinyl fronting, set at the head of a low, half-finished rec room.” His parents drink upstairs and his sister, Laurel, is almost always out with her friends. Desperately isolated, Merrick tries to act grown up by mimicking them. He wants to recreate an imaginary social life with booze and stale mixers. Instead, he creates his own personal hell.

And now he reminds her of that ironic reversal, to encourage her, he thinks, to cheer her up. Or is it to punish her instead? And what is it that’s pushing him to guide her back down that long-demolished stairway into their childhood rec room, the basement bar where he first tried to drown his childhood self and play the hardened, hard-drinking grown-up, while she already seemed set to inherit the only earth that mattered then: a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high. Stoners, they were called, nobody sure if that honorific referred to the state they were always said to be in or to the flooded limestone quarry where they hung out and smoked up and chugged beer and threw themselves naked off the cliffs.

Condensed into a series of tangible objects imperfectly recalled, this paragraph works like a narrative map. Every image counts. The rec room and dope, the cliffs and quarry, the drinking, sex, and partying—none of these are throwaways. Neither is the reliability of memory itself. Like Chekhov’s gun, each image carries weight. All repeat again and again throughout the pages that follow, forming rich and complex visual and acoustic layers which grow and harmonize as the story progresses. Heighton is thrumming along, patterning images and splintering them off only to bring them back. And the reader is lost in a wonderful miasma of sight and sound, fully captivated and awake.

With a Heighton story, only the essential is conjured. There’s an efficiency in his writing, along with a sign posted at the door: No shaggy dogs allowed. But to call a writer efficient these days might imply some mechanical coldness—the latest anointed hipster, brimming with pocketfuls of detached irony and urbane wit. Heighton’s efficiency, however, is anything but sparing. His prose is lush, melodic and carefully cadenced. Note the alliteration in the above passage, the internal rhymes and the precise pacing of Merrick’s memory of his sister’s social life: “a feral frontier of contraband mickeys and smokes, death’s head roach clips, classes skipped with a shrug, creatively varied expletives, first lays in junior high.” Yet the musical quality of the words balances with abundant, honest and empathetic characters. The stories in The Dead Are More Visible operate with the efficiency of nature, like the recycling of energy and matter in ecosystems, a churning, vital antidote to the sleek, mechanistic packaging of our entertainment culture.

She came from a side of town where most women thickened dramatically in their thirties and before long outweighed their men. The men thinned to sinew, their faces got a wrinkled, redly scoured look as if the skin had been worked with sandpaper, their eyes grew raw and haunted. Ellen had been spared the puffy moon face of her older sisters, only to see her features grow meaty and masculine while her body consolidated, almost doubling itself, like a hard-working farm wife of another era.

In “The Dead Are More Visible,” the lonely Ellen works the night shift, flooding a local park in order to form an ice skating rink. Nearby, a deranged man stares at a twenty-five foot obelisk and channels the dead—once buried there but moved to make way for the park. One night, a menacing group of three men approach. “They had the Grim Reaper look—slumpy, faceless, in layers of dark, baggy hooded sweatshirts.” The men begin to harass, first the deranged man, then Ellen. One of them, Shane, is strikingly handsome, something that Ellen notices in spite of the danger. He casts insults and threats, but she stands her ground. They want to rob her, possibly rape her, and she knows it, but she continues to provoke them. When Shane lunges at her with ice picks, Ellen defends herself with the only weapon available, the hose head in her hand, “a half foot of steel tapered to a flanged hole an inch and a half in diameter.” Ellen impales Shane with the hose head, and rips out his eye. The rest of the story becomes a farcical search for the de-socketed eyeball on the ice rink.

But what happens after such a violent set up is quite remarkable, and I’ll not spoil the ending, except to say that a simple compassion returns to offset the gore. Along the way, Heighton reveals the hardscrabble reality of life in a modern big city, invites the reader to experience a lonely woman’s heroic stance, and, just for good measure, he treats us to the strange, quasi-mystical figure of the deranged man and the obelisk.

It is this deranged man, a seemingly irrelevant character (he has no agency, really, on the page) who serves as the story’s deeper consciousness. “The dead are more visible than we are,” the deranged man tells Ellen, referring not just to the literal dead—the displaced graves once buried below the park—but also to our own existences run down by mortality, progress and the inevitable sweep of time. His voice provides the story its chilling resonance. The reader perceives that this story is about more than just violence and a lonely woman flooding an ice rink. In Workbook, Heighton describes this layering effect as vertical resonance.

Vertical resonance means a downward echoing, the potential for soundings into a textual subconscious, the swimmer’s thrilling sense, when crossing a mountain lake, of unmeasured depths in the dark below the thermocline.

Like the swimmer crossing the lake, we feel only the forward narrative movement, the stroke-and-kick, what-happens-next stimulus of plot. But what differentiates literature from schlock is precisely this deeper, textual subconsciousness. We read along and enjoy the surface story, but something else is happening. The reader slowly becomes aware of a chilling depth, an awareness of the gap between the habituated, day-to-day routines and the deeper, more meaningful qualities of life. The well written story bewitches us this way, deriving power from its ability to wake us up, to shake us out of an automated existence. Or, as Shklovsky once wrote, it makes the stones feel stony again. When it works, and it works quite often within Heighton’s stories, we submit to what John Gardner described as the vivid continuous dream, that phantasmagorical wonder that is reading a well made book. Plot becomes story. Metaphor becomes meaning. We become, in Heighton’s own words, more intensely alive.

Perhaps Heighton’s greatest gift as a writer is a relentless commitment to variety. His readers need never fear boredom. In the collection’s eleven stories, Heighton employs first, second and third person points of view. He has female and male narrators, old and young, innocent and experienced. From sprawling, almost-novella length tales to compact, twelve page stories, Heighton shifts often. Don’t look for thematic unity here. Don’t look for simple structures or stereotypes. Instead, expect to be pulled and pushed in ways that will baffle and befuddle but never fail to satisfy.

The last story in the book, “Swallow,” swells to almost 50 pages, yet it reads—thanks to tight pacing and careful construction—like a story half that length. A Greek-Canadian woman, Roddy, breaks up with her boyfriend, loses her waitressing job and refuses to move home again. To earn money, she signs up for a weeklong human drug trial. The drug she will be taking is an unnamed sedative.

The clinic is a hangar-like structure, cinderblocks and green corrugated siding, on the edge of an industrial park in the wind-scavenged steppes of outer Scarborough. At the park’s entrance the bus drops you along with two women in matching peach parkas over grey sweats. A sunny sub-arctic afternoon. No sidewalks. Snowless lawns hard as Astroturf. Up the middle of the road the matched pals tow dark, wheeled suitcases as big as wolfhounds. You have only a daypack, yet they edge ahead, their trainers flashing, heads down, shoulders high and tight—the slapstick, puffin shuffle of Canadians in winter. You don’t mind the wind’s bee-sting assault on your skin. You haven’t felt so awake in weeks. Neither do you mind the industrial park, finding something here that mirrors your inert inner world, so that for now—for a change—you don’t feel out of place.

Suburban Ontario transforms into a kind of wasteland, yet somehow stays homey too. The puffin shuffle, peach parkas, the wheeled suitcases like wolfhounds, these details accrete. What should be cold and arresting becomes an object of curiosity. The reader, while filled with trepidation, is also called forward.

Bleak and dismal, with drug trials and female subjects locked inside a forbidding building, it’s reasonable to expect Solzhenitsyn, or at least some sort of Orwellian dystopia. But in “Swallow” the mood remains more tantalizing than terrifying. Through a series of drug-induced scenes, we grow closer to Roddy. (The use of a second person narrator is rarely done this well.) We come to feel a community forming between the other women and the providers in this strange place. A sort of humanity arises despite the setting and the fact that these women are being poked and prodded and filled with poisons.

Once again, the conceptual stammers begin to fire. Heighton plays against the expected. Rather than sedating, the experimental sedatives become portals into Roddy’s world. The grim setting and the unusual concept create opportunities for a rich, meaningful experience. It is, in many ways, a sort of cockeyed celebration, a party of misfits who seem somehow enlarged by their very entanglement. This is not what the reader might expect.

But then each of the eleven stories in this collection surprises and delights. Heighton blends structural complexities with a linguistic opulence into a dazzling array of styles. The Dead Are More Visible is a master performance of art and storytelling from a significant writer who has honed his skills to a sharp edge. “[A] yen for transcendence,” Heighton advises himself in Workbook, calling upon the younger writer he once was (and, perhaps, by extension, other writers and readers) “to surmount one’s inborn pettiness and laziness, to be worthy of life’s wonder and better able to frame it in the right words, rightly arranged.” Thankfully, he follows his own advice. The dead are indeed more visible here. The right words are rightly arranged. With neural circuits rewired, habitual concepts stammered, deep lakes crossed and soundings taken, the reader surmounts pettiness and gazes anew at life’s wonder.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.