Apr 162013

Woodkid’s self-directed music video “I Love You” begins with a rather enigmatic and violent image of an unconscious boy, a Viking helmet and shoe apparently knocked from his person and lying nearby. The video that follows seems to have little to do with this image, but, in the context of Woodkid’s larger project, the image and the tale both circle the same enigmatic loss.


Woodkid is the pseudonym of music video director Yoann Lemoine, famous for the videos he’s made for such music stars as Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift. He moved into music as an extension of what he was creating with his music videos, but there is a strong narrative impulse in the work. His debut album The Golden Age was released in a special edition that, instead of a jewel case, is contained within a book he co-wrote with Katarzyna Jerzak (his cousin). The book looks one part religious text and one part fairy tale with illustrations (by artist Jillian Tamaki).

The videos for the album, too, seem part of a larger literary project, each forming a chapter of a more complex narrative. “I Love You,” the third single to be released from the album The Golden Age, continues the story he built in the other two videos “Iron” and “Run Boy Run”: characters and symbols recur; the black and white simple aesthetic dominates all three. Narratively, the films overlap: “Iron” ends with a white churchly structure.

“Run Boy Run” begins with the boy that starts “I Love You” fleeing from that same structure, collecting an army of Where The Wild Things Are type beasts and standing ready to attack a metropolis of structures that look like the church he fled.

“I Love You,” then, begins with perhaps the result of this attack: the boy lying on the ground, his Viking helmet and one shoe knocked from him, apparently defeated by the white towering edifices he and his beasts sought to conquer.

“I Love You,” then is in some sense about defeat. The central narrative follows a priest-like figure who first appears in the video for “Iron” reading fervently from a religious text. In “I Love You” he arrives at a church to play the organ, announcing to the austere congregation, “Today I’ll tell you a story about a man who drowned in the ocean, after he lost someone he loved. This is a story about a man who died twice” (translated from the Russian).

Once this man begins to play the organ, the visual story follows the same man climbing and struggling across bleak, vast, rocky landscapes.


The juxtaposition of his smallness, his fragility against this landscape speaks to the intensity of the struggle he faces as he stumbles, presses his face weeping to stones, and eventually walks out into the ocean and sinks.

In an interview with Complex Magazine, Woodkid points to a thematically similar moment in the written text:

There’s this moment in the book where the kid says to his mum, “It’s very windy outside, there’s this massive storm,” and these are actually fragments of lyrics you find in The Golden Age. He says, “Look at the trees, they’re bending and almost touching the ground.” Because the wind is so strong, he says to his mother, “Look, they’re going to break.” And the mother says, “No they’re not going to break because they’re super tender.” But if they get old, dry, and more hard, then in the case of heavy wind, they’re going to break.

This man will succumb, will turn to stone (this, too, foreshadowed in the earlier video for “Iron” where he appears wearing a suit that looks like it is made from marble).


Two things complicate this defeat for me: the congregation and the whales. Woodkid’s narrative briefly flashes from the journey of the man who will turn to stone to show a few faces of those who are affected by this music and tale: an old man lowers his head to look at the religious symbols he holds, a woman lowers her head in despair, another woman kisses the crown of a baby’s head like this consoles her, and a boy looks heavenward, weeping. They each witness his tale and present us with ways to experience it: we can lean away from it, find consolation in faith or objects or in children, or we can give in to despair.

Here I am most intrigued by the woman with the lowered head. When the central character enters the church at the beginning, you can first see her to the right; she stands waiting in the front row, overjoyed to see the protagonist. And she appears later, head lowered, trembling, weeping at the song, the tale he’s sharing. She doesn’t look at him, can’t as he has his back to the congregation. And she seems, for lack of a better word, ashamed. Head bowed, trembling. From her initial joy and excitement to this despair, her story is secret from us.

But her reaction and, truly, none of the congregation’s are what the tale prescribes. They deny the whales.


The tale, simply put, is the journey of a man who turns to stone. This could have happened anywhere on the landscape of stone he traversed, but instead this transformation happens as he sinks down into the abyss circled and surrounded by a maelstrom of humpback whales. It’s a complicated image: the massive leviathans with their vaguely stony exteriors, but their graceful swimming together through the beams of light that pierce through the dark deep. Certainly water is what he washes his face and hands with before he begins to play music in the church and it is echoed here in some sense as cleansing. It is also, however, heavy and crushing as he sinks around the graceful hulking forms that rise where he falls.

Defeat, yes. But there’s also, inescapably, beauty in this struggle, this loss, and this transformation. The congregation, with their various reactions and griefs, seem to miss this experience of the tale. But we don’t. We can’t. There’s too much grace.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 152013

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

Two truly lovely poems here by the prolific Luxembourg poet, novelist and editor Jean Portante translated from the French by my old friend and former colleague at the University at Albany Pierre Joris who is himself a prolific and peripatetic poet, impresario and world-traveler. (Please revisit his gorgeous translations of Habib Tengour’s “Five Movements of the Soul & Hodgepodge” published earlier on NC.) These are amazing poems. The first is an insistent, undulating, rhythmic meditation on the desert, sand, the sea (the anti-image) and the poet’s self, the sand and the desert inhabiting the self as metaphor and soul. The poem is leavened with sweet touches of wit (the poet at the line between one desert and another, watching the grains of said get married in secret before crossing). And, oh my goodness, just look at the “The One I Saw Again” — three parts, three characters; take the first, with its recursive “passed and passed,” the train passing before the eyes of the subject who is sewing up his wound again and again and not seeing the passing and passing though it is reflected in his eyes. Oh language, oh beauty! Helps heal the day.


PortanteJean Portante



Le désert compta ses rides et l’aigle et le

faucon répandirent, aussitôt la nouvelle.

— Edmond Jabès

it is due to the general indifference of

the grains of sand

that the desert came about

but also because the sand

knew how to remain gregarious


to know that all the grains of sand

of all the deserts sleep in me

does not reassure me

like them every night

I get underway

searching for a dry dream

a dream which in order to defend us

would brave the meanders of humidity


I went to station myself

on the line separating one desert from the other

to watch the grains of sand

getting married in secret

before crossing the border


when I said I had the desert in me

I was thinking less of the dryness

than of the incessant swarming of the sand

and caught in the swirl

I stopped weeping

even though I had been weeping for joy


each desert hides a secret

each secret hides an injustice

nobody knows who slipped it in there

but it makes everybody rejoice secretly


I’ve read somewhere or did I dream it

that the desert was the scar a sea left

o what anguish to think

that one day the wound could open again


in my childhood my youth my life for short

I have known many a gathering of sand

the words I have spoken or written

rest there temporarily

a wind comes up and worries them


I envy the desert’s sand grains’s anonymity

they come and go they say hello good night

they love & know how to recognize each other

because there where one ends the other begins

in the desert the eternal return

is a question of life and death


no one has as much imagination as a desert

the sea was there first

but the desert knew how to dry it up

& seize its memory

that’s why no one

has as much imagination as a desert


Certain words disappear

when they venture into the desert

the stories that emerge from it

nearly always seem truncated

but if one looks at them closely

one notices that they have become purer


All poets should speak of the desert

and the musicians would do well

to think of it from time to time

if only because history

has all too often slandered it


to be as happy as a desert or as sad as water

is not a malediction

one couldn’t have avoided

today you can love the one

without betraying the other


we should thank the desert

for having taught us to ration the water

this could come in handy

during the next drought






two days ago kept sewing

the same wound up again:

if he still sat facing

the train that passed and passed

again it was not because he

particularly loved the

journey but because of this

window that gave

onto the viaduct:

yet the train as it passed

and passed again over the

viaduct before him still reflected

in his eyes:

did he know this as he kept sewing

the same wound again & again:

and what did he know of immobility:

and the one sitting across from

him on the train that passed

and passed again over the viaduct

was he jealous that across

from him the other thus

sat at his window giving

on this viaduct without

particularly loving

the journey:

and isn’t it exactly because

of this that the train passed

and passed again as if

instead of carrying its

passengers towards a specific

destination its only mission

was to agree with this

statistic that states that of

two men sitting one at

least will ceaselessly be sewing

up the same wound.



previously held at the end

of a long string a distant

kite that his hand reeled

in and reeled out:

the clouds were close by

and the migratory birds that

were returning from afar

were also tethered to a string:

just like the clouds

by the way and even the sun

when it hid:

and if you looked carefully you

saw that there was also

a string from one language to

the other or from the apple tree

to the olive tree and our gazes

remember were linked

one to the other by two

strings on which wept like

clothes hung out to dry

or rain that falls and wets

the pro and con

of love:

the kite also wept

on its flight:

you could have thought the entire

universe was repenting:

the strings of course were

invisible to the naked love

but when the storm

broke and the flash of

lightening photographed the

landscape didn’t you see

as if you were all

these hands that reeled in and

reeled out all remorse.



more than a week ago

like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city:

you’d have thought he was

sorting the mirrors

from the shadows:

there were graffiti

behind him on the walls

he was hugging but he

didn’t read them:

everything he did or

didn’t do was

carefully sorted:

I confess that I didn’t

read what the walls

said either and when

I said that I saw him again

more than a week ago the one

who like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city maybe

I was a little too forward:

it was pitch black already

and a street light of uncertain

origin was projecting

shadows on the walls:

what I saw was that

some were missing

others not as if light

had its preferences:

so then I started to count

these shadows thus sorted

on the walls of the city

and coming to mine with

a step darker than usual

I like someone who knows

but doesn’t say anything

to anyone thought back on

this story of a kite that

doesn’t fly which

I often tell and on these chance

occurrences that sort so well

the secret from death

but I told no one about it.


 —Jean Portante translated by Pierre Joris


Born in Differdange (Luxembourg) in 1950, though presently living in Paris, Jean Portante is a writer, translator and journalist. He is the author of some thirty books including volumes of poetry, collaborations with artists, narratives, plays, essays and novels. Published in 15 countries, his work has been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, German, Slovakian, Croatian and Rumanian.  He has translated Juan Gelman, Gonzalo Rojas, Jerome Rothenberg, Maria Luisa Spaziani, Edoardo Sanguineti, John Deane, Pierre Joris many other poets into French. For editions Phi in Luxembourg he directs the poetry book series graphiti. In 2003, he was awarded the Prix Mallarmé for his book L’étrange langue  and the Grand prix d’automne de la Société des gens de lettres 2003 for the whole of his work. En 2005, a Selected Poems came out from Editions Le Castor Astral. The sequnce above is from “Journal d’un oublieur intime” in La réinvention de l’oubli. Editions Le Castor Astral, Paris,  2010.

Pierre Joris has moved between the US, Europe & North Africa for 45 years, publishing over 40 books of poetry, essays and translations. Coming in early 2013 are Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & Barzakh (Poems 2000-2012) from Black Widow Press. Just out from UCP is The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press) came out in early 2012 as did Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011).  The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan, translated & annotated by Pierre Joris, is scheduled for early 2014 from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Other recent books include The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011), Canto Diurno #4: The Tang Extending from the Blade, (poems, 2010), Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books), Aljibar I & II (poems) & the CD Routes, not Roots (with Munir Beken, oud; Mike Bisio, bass; Ben Chadabe, percussion; Mitch Elrod, guitar; Ta’wil Productions). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. He lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte & teaches poetry & poetics at the State University of New York, Albany. Check out his Nomadics Blog.


Apr 142013

Richard Jackson

Poems and images intertwine in Richard Jackson’s “Soundings,” a series of nature photographs juxtaposed with the superb poems they inspired, the photographs themselves iconic, metaphorical and mysterious. The human and the natural intersect at the level of form when the poet spies a dilapidated chair in the forest, a cluster of roots resembling tank traps. A bee becomes a soul and a gap between facing cliffs looks like, well, a gap and the gap is violent, a pile of shell casings. Images and poems project a moral grid onto the cluttered world, they compose a judgement and a puzzle.

This is what Jonah had to learn, that it is
all loneliness, all forgiveness, all gathering
from the puzzling depths he carried within him.

Richard Jackson is a peripatetic poet and translator, an admired colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts where we both teach, a good man to travel with and a profoundly engaged human being. He has published poems, translations and essays on NC before and it’s a pleasure to have him back.


Soundings photo by Richard Jackson



What we know deeply we know for such
short time before it appears again, distant and foreign.
Where do our words go once they are spoken?
The whale sheaths itself and leaves behind a footprint
of oil.  The sea gathers the setting light of the sky.
At some point, the sea becomes the sky.
This is what Jonah had to learn, that it is
all loneliness, all forgiveness, all gathering
from the puzzling depths he carried within him.
Above, a gull dives into a cloud. An invisible
plane leaves a vapor trail the wind bends. There is
a kind of truth we only see when we close our eyes.


Butterflies photo by Richard Jackson



All the energy collected by Radio Telescopes since
they started is only equal to the energy of a butterfly
landing on a flower. Which is to say how little we know
about what is in our own solar system, or ourselves.
In fact, Pluto’s orbit is so irregular we don’t know where
it will appear next. Which is how, I suppose, you have
landed here in this sentence and, like gravity, have begun
to shift the focus. Maybe that’s why I think of Newton,
who, poisoned by Mercury from his alchemy experiments,
couldn’t remember where he put his proofs for elliptical
orbits. There’s no reality without its proof, Halley had argued
years before the comet was named for him. The energy
it takes to remember is the energy it takes to love,
the saying goes, taking so little, as those butterflies know,
to flutter and fly off because there is no formula, and
because love is stronger than the proofs we remember for it.


Chair by Richard Jackson



The story begins with the muffled hum of bees you can’t see
as they circle a nest in the cushions. It begins with their sound
that folds the air into bolts of cloth. It begins with the whine
of the truck half a mile away on the nearest road. It begins
when we live in the absent sounds of someone else’s dreams.
They have gone where they had to go. The sunlight strikes
where it wants to go. There was never any money to stuff into
the cushions. The felled trees have their own stories but are
of no interest here. The path to the next clearing has not been
told yet. Pascal was right, there is no center or circumference.
The bees are souls. The bees wander off. The story begins there.


Tank Traps Richard Jackson


Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1992

Someone is watching from the window across the square.
There are Nightbirds complaining as they maneuver
And dive between the lights. We could drink the darkness.
Those aren’t child’s jacks or crosses as they seemed from afar.
Below us, a Roman city smirks about what we’ll never know.
South of here the souls of the dead disguise themselves as
Clouds to escape the militia. Each day is another trap.
Our words are blemishes on the truth. Every heart is crossed out.
The darkness provokes a few whispers.  Everywhere we look
Something crosses our path. We can’t see the lovers yet,
About to cross from the right. We can’t see the child
Crossing out what he’s just written. There are no halos
On the streetlights. These designs imprison us. The sky
leans down. If we aren’t careful we’ll cross out the world.

Rock Bird  Richard Jackson



No wonder the first people here believed we came from stone.
What these birds were waiting for was the day we would return.
The lizards wrap themselves in light. The wind whispers into
the ear of the sky. The shadows have a purpose we’ll never
decipher. Nevertheless, these birds invite us to speak to them.
At night these rocks will be iced with light. The question
they would answer is why they left the air. They are no longer
surprised by what we have tried to carve into history.
Sometimes our words hold an idea for a few moments before
the sand claims it. The mind shivers at this thought. Reality
seems like a provocation. Nevertheless, these birds, they are
silent to say whatever has been wearing us down, carving us
into shapes we could never imagine, never refuse to believe.


Fog Richard Jackson



Crows and Elephants watch over their dead and mourn.
How strange to come back now to that sentence, weeks
later. It’s almost time to leave. Every sound is louder
in the fog. My watch strains to go backwards. Shadows whisper
where no shadows could be. An echo of the moon strays
out of the last ruins of darkness. Yes, the two men in the boat
about to become fog are real. So, too, the dreams that are
lost among the fallen trees that scratch the shoreline.
Last night, the stars on the water were trap doors. The crows
with their charred wings are complaining to a hawk.  It’s time
to pack up  the sunsets the dawns and move on. There’s our dog
sniffing below this window who knows everything else we can’t see.


.Not Said Richard Jackson



Gravity happens to the lens. Words squint but
it doesn’t help. I want the mailman to deliver
another story. Instead there are only the homeless
men washing the windshield for a quarter. Why
does love seem stuffed in the trunk? This is not
a calculus problem.  The bridge from here
to there hasn’t been delivered. Empty bullet
casings litter the scene. No one is ever a witness.
The heart sags. My footprints forget me.
I don’t think anything will ever be the same.
This is the edge of the cliff and you can’t move,
can’t jump. Everything is vertical. With binoculars
you can see where you’ll be in an hour. Raindrops
collect on the lens. A fine mist. It hides us.
It drifts into clocks. Gravity presses your hands.
Some hurts never get said. Some get smuggled.

—Richard Jackson


Richard Jackson is the author of ten books of poems, most recently Resonance (Ashland Poetry Press, 2010) which won the 2012 Eric Hoffer Award), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004) Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland Poetry Press, 2003), Heartwall (UMass, 2000 Juniper Prize), Svetovi Narazen (Slovenia, 2001), a limited edition small press book, Falling Stars: A Collection of Monologues (Flagpond Press, 2002), Richard Jackson: Greatest Hits (2004), and several chapbooks of translations. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry: The Fire Under the Moon and Double Vision: Four Slovenian Poets (Aleph, ’93) and edits an eastern European Chap book series, Poetry Miscellany and mala revija. He is also the author of a book of criticism, Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews With Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). His several dozen essays and reviews have appeared in Georgia Review, Verse, Contemporary Literature, Boundary 2, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Numéro Cinq and numerous other journals, as well as anthologies such as The Planet on the Table: Writers Reading (2003) and John Ashbery (ed. Harold Bloom, 2004). In addition, he has written introductions to books of poems by four different Slovene Poets for various presses, and a special Slovene issue of Hunger Mountain (2003). He edited a special 50-page section of Poetry International (2004) on William Matthews with an introductory essay. In 2000 he was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, Witter-Bynner and Fulbright Fellowships, and five Pushcart Prizes.His new poetry collection, Out of Place, will be published by Ashland Poetry Press in 2014.

Apr 132013

Jacob Glover

In Plato’s Timaeus, Timaeus offers a cosmogony. He holds that there are two original principles in the cosmos, namely, intelligence and necessity. The beginning of the cosmos, Timaeus claims, depends on a particular event, the persuasion of necessity by intelligence. He says:

For mixed indeed was the birth of this cosmos here, and begotten from a standing-together of necessity and intellect; and as intellect was ruling over necessity by persuading her to lead most of what comes to be toward what’s best, in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion. (Timaeus, 48a).

This is a dense passage because it contains the entire first moment of creation. But what is most interesting to me is the way Plato uses the verb “persuade.” By using “persuade” Plato immediately moves from scientific or philosophical discourse into poetry. Even the idea that necessity has desire or will is poetic, i.e. the suggestion that necessity and intelligence have intention and interact with another creates the metaphorical image of two people debating. Plato suggests that necessity wants to do one thing, but intelligence persuades it do another. He is personifying absolute principles of the cosmos as desiring entities.

Why does Plato need to rely on this metaphor of this cosmic persuasion in order to explain the moment in which necessity and intelligence stand together to create the cosmos? I think that Plato here conceives dialogue itself as containing a certain element of creativity. Then he transfers the creativity inherent in dialogue metaphorically to the creation of the cosmos.  Necessity is pure potential for movement toward some end, while intelligence functions as a conditioning or triangulating principle. And persuasion is the third element or mediator that makes it all possible.

This cosmic conversation, which Plato refers to as a σύστασις or a standing-together, depends on persuasion or πειθώ.  Persuasion is characteristically human because it deals in desire and belief. To persuade means to change someone’s mind, to convince him by talking, not by force. In The Republic Polemarchus points out that “you can’t persuade people who won’t listen” (Republic, 327c) because persuasion is the movement of one mind from disagreement to agreement, a change in will.

Necessity is, as Plato describes it, an absolute condition of things which come into being. Necessity is a sub-surface condition, a cause of causes, an axiom of existence. “Everything that comes to be, of necessity comes to be from some cause; for apart from a cause, it’s impossible for anything to have a coming to be” (Timeaus, 28a). Necessity is the condition upon which cause can cause, or it is a condition of existence: everything that exists must have a cause. But, for Plato, necessity isn’t an autonomously creative principle. Rather necessity must come into some sort of communication (standing-together) with intelligence in order to produce. The Greek word we translate as intelligence is νους which also means mind. Frequently in ancient philosophy these two translations seem to be interchangeable. The word νους implies that the universe has some sort of thinking component akin to the human mind. Intelligence deals in thought; necessity in causality.

In order to explain persuasion’s mediating function I want to take a close look at the Greek lines: ταύτῃ κατὰ ταῦτά τε δι᾽ ἀνάγκης ἡττωμένησ ὑπὸ πειθοῦς ἔμφρονος οὕτω κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς συνίστατο τόδε τὸ πᾶν. (As above: “in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion.And here is my own translation following a more literal word order: “Thus in this way, and accordingly, through necessity bested by thoughtful persuasion as the beginning, this all was constructed.”)  The first thing to notice is that neither intellect nor necessity is the subject of the sentence. Plato tags the subject “the all” at the end with the verb almost as an after-thought. Both intelligence and necessity are in phrases which make them logical conditions for the subject and the verb, but the two principles themselves are not active in this sentence. The sentence seems to imply that their action (standing together) has already taken place.

Secondly, πειθοῦ, the word for persuasion, is in the exact middle of the sentence with eight words on either side. In English this would not be as interesting because word order means more grammatically and syntactically and less in terms of theme. But, in Greek, word order can affect the theme of the sentence. Placing πειθοῦ in the middle of the sentence gives it a sort of bridging function, or it pulls either end of the sentence together. I think that the word placement and the grammatical constructions Plato uses here are crucially diagrammatic of the way he understands (or at least Timaeus understands) the interaction between intelligence and necessity. At the level of sentence structure Plato seems to suggest that persuasion is a causeway of sorts. It brings together the two conditions which constitute the creation of the cosmos.

Another way of  explaining persuasion in this context might be to see how the cosmic conversation compares to the actual conversation which begins the Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. Socrates and his interlocutors start by discussing the interlocutors’ duty to give speeches to honour their host. Timaeus says: “It wouldn’t be at all just for those of us who are left, after being entertained by you yesterday with gifts so befitting to a guest, not to host you heartily in return” (Timaeus, 17b). So Timaeus and his friends make speeches because they owe them to Socrates, not out of an agreement made between them but on account of the traditional courtesies between guest and host. There is, in other words, a necessity for them to make speeches, a necessity driven by tradition. But tradition itself only requires a speech; it does not suggest the content of the speech. And this is the way Plato wants us to understand necessity, i.e. it provides a motion (or form)—make a speech–without giving it or purpose.

Then Socrates himself suggests the content of the speeches. He briefly summarizes the account of the just state in The Republic. Then he suggests that Timaeus and his friends make a “full account” (Timaeus, 19c) of a city founded on those principles, i.e. describe the city as if it were real and not just a “word-picture of an ideal state” (Republic, 472e); their speeches should create this city. As Critias says, it is as if they are to reveal “by the oracular voice of the sacred texts, and, in what remains, to make speeches as though about men who are already citizens” (Timaeus, 27b). Socrates stands in for the cosmological “intelligence” at this creative moment. The conversation among the friends and guests is at a critical point; it could either fizzle into nothing or create something new and real. Again, Socrates offers the content; the desire to speak comes from outside of Socrates, i.e. from tradition. To revert to the cosmological creation story, necessity is like a person coming out of a tradition and who must perform actions for no reason other than the imperatives of custom and habit, and intelligence is the philosopher from The Republic looking toward the good. If there is no persuasion then the result is the moment in The Republic when Cephalus walks away to continue sacrificing.

But where is the precise moment of persuasion in the conversation between Socrates and Timaeus? Socrates’ suggestion is technically the moment of persuasion. This is not perhaps a moment of pure persuasion because Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates do not need much convincing. But persuasion is inherent in the way Socrates rationalizes why they should speak about the city. Persuasion is in the moment when both parties agree on the goal. The precise turn is hard to pinpoint because before someone is persuaded he is being convinced and afterwards he is only persuaded in retrospect. Persuasion is this moment in creation when an object is rationalized to a desire which until then had no object. This results in a reason to move and thus begins the act of creation.

—Jacob Glover


Plato. The Timaeus. Trans. Peter Kalkavage. Newbury Port: Focus Publishing, 2001.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.


Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Apr 122013

 Angela Woodward snow photo

Angela Woodward‘s first novel, End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press), is a small masterpiece (small only in the sense that it is 104 pages long) that has unjustly gone without the wider recognition and audience that it deserves.

End of the Fire Cult tracks the slow dissolution of a marriage–not through the day by day tensions of the unhappy couple, but through the political, cultural and diplomatic relations between two imagined countries: Marmoral, invented by the wife, and Belgrave, invented by her husband.  Relations are strained between these two countries, and as the reader explores the annual rituals, folklore and written literature, and the delicate negotiations of Marmoral and Belgrave’s shared border, the reader comes to see how large, how complex is the interior geography of any wife and husband, and how much can go wrong. Numéro Cinq is proud to be able to feature two excerpts from Angela Woodward’s novel: “Fire III—Fireflies,” and “Arachne.”

—Philip Graham

Read Philip Graham’s interview with Angela Woodward at Fiction Writers Review.

End of the Fire Cult front cover



Half of Marmoral’s people celebrated fire. The priests of the fire cult bred a species of firefly that was larger but more delicate than the wild ones. These pampered creatures passed their larval stages under logs which the priests gently sprinkled with water or dried with fans, as the weather dictated. For three days only they lived in their adult incarnation, dull tan beetles with blinking yellow abdomens. For the short period the fireflies came out, the members of the fire cult stayed up all night, evading official curfew, and walked around the orchards. The dark trees flashed, leaves suddenly visible, then shrank back to murky umbrellas as the bugs’ torsos shut down. Your lover’s face swung into focus, the phosphorescence behind her haloing her cheek. Then a moment later she was extinguished, just a black figure beside you. Yet you still heard her breathing, regular and steady.

The fireflies didn’t do well after the introduction of modern pesticides. By the seventies they were almost all gone. They were enshrined in a song the children had to learn in Sunday school. While the little ones, under the spell of their beautiful teacher, chanted the lines with pious awe, by the time they were nine or ten they were sick to death of the nostalgic religion lessons and fitted their own words to the hymn’s simple rhyme. “Her tits, her tits,” they sang as loudly as they could. But if their mother suddenly showed up, they went back to the original version.

Recently, with only a day’s warning, the city administrators in the capital sent work crews to tear up the main street through the shopping district of the fire worshippers. The waste pipes underneath needed to be replaced. Everyone had complained for years about the sewers backing up, but they were still affronted by the quick work of the bulldozers. And when the workers showed up at dawn, cut through concrete for an hour, and then vanished to smoke cigarettes and watch soccer at the cafes in adjoining streets, the sour views of those who saw the construction project as punitive seemed justified. The workers set up sawhorses across every intersection. It became almost impossible to travel from one side of the district to the other, and the roads leading out were capriciously closed, one on one day, another the next, so that you never knew if all your maneuvering to reach a certain street was any good at all. The workmen came back in late afternoon and hammered through the dinner hour. All their effort seemed to do nothing but stir up dust. They knocked out electricity and phone lines and took days to restore service. Women stumbled to their dress shops, their fashionable shoes no good on the jagged rubble. The upholsterer didn’t get his delivery because the supply truck couldn’t make it through. Finally he sent his son and a lot of little boys to meet the truck in a park a mile away. The kids filed back to the shop, carrying the bolts of velvet like corpses between them.

It was unbearable, an outrage, and after months of work, the street seemed no nearer completion than on the first day. It would have been okay to have the sewers still back up, the residents told each other. At least they had their own plumbers. Wasn’t the city tormenting them? And who knows if there wouldn’t be a special tax levied, to make them pay for it all. That would be no surprise.

But each evening around nine o’clock, the workmen melted away. With no traffic on it, the main street was remarkably quiet. The kids from the apartment houses came out to play in the dirt. It was like when they visited their cousins back home in the countryside. Their parents came out to call them in, but the kids paid no attention. And the parents didn’t really mind. They stood on the corners talking to their neighbors, some they knew, some strangers from other floors or other buildings. The workmen left flashing orange flares on the sawhorses. All along the torn-up street, the harsh lights switched on and off, regular but out of synch with each other. Little slices of storefront stepped on stage, then fell back into shadow, one after another down the strip. If the electricity came back on, people hurried home to watch the news. But on the nights when the lines remained disconnected, men and women dragged out chairs or stretched out blankets and stayed up til all hours. The orange flares lit up rings of desolate rock, overturned chunks of concrete and orphaned pipe joins. The street might never be fixed. Rumor had it the city would leave it unfinished until the residents forked over a special assessment. The landlords should have paid it, but it was to be exacted from the tenants, and until everyone had settled their bill, the street would remain a mess. The workers were to dig holes one day and fill them the next. The cost would go up and up. It was intolerable, unfair, a disaster.

The children heard all this but didn’t let on. They crept down into the craters and tunnels under the street.  They didn’t care how dangerous it was.  Even if their father shook them and made them promise, they still crawled under. “Her tits, her tits,” they sang from their hiding places. The adults sang back, somewhat ashamed of how sentimental the real words were. What a stupid song. Everyone knew the melody, and some just hummed that. All up and down the street it burst out, little pockets of sound.




My husband discovered a new brothel in the back streets behind Belgrave’s capital. I didn’t need to know about it, did I? But he couldn’t help it, he said. It wasn’t like he’d gone looking for it. It was part of the culture. The brothel had no name, not even a sign over the door. For all his protest that the people of Belgrave were altogether more noble and civilized than my Marmolians, his country had no towns of any size other than its ungainly, sprawling capital. In a former sandwich shop a block to the west of the parliament building, an old woman had moved in with a new crew of girls. Just down the street were two of Belgrave’s oldest houses of prostitution, centuries-old hereditary businesses that were in all the guidebooks. These featured red lights, pink curtains, filmy nightgowns, seventeen-year-old beauties from the mountain villages. The girls shopped together in the markets in the late afternoon, where people goggled at their thin foreign tee shirts and stove pipe jeans, their modern, confident allure.

I don’t suppose I was too happy about Belgrave’s flourishing sex industry, but this new place was made along different lines. When it rained, its dim doorway was barely visible. Even a man’s very first approach to it was a hesitant groping, a brushing of fingertips along contrasting textures—rusty chain link, splintered wood, the smooth, sticky plastic of a shower curtain that partially shielded the porch. Madame specialized in exotics—not the brash magazine-reading girls of the other institutions, but women widened, enhanced, enlarged, or made tighter. One was slashed to accommodate “you and your friend,” while a host were permanent virgins, sewed enticingly tight.  Another was totally hairless, even her eyebrows and arm hair removed for all-over silkiness, while another had velvety, furry breasts. One had been fitted with gripping, stippled vaginal walls. I would have preferred vague wondrous claims—unforgettable! Like nothing you’ve ever experienced! But the exercise of inventing Belgrave had made my husband, like me, into a wielder of precise optical detail.

We had little to do with each other in the evenings now. “What’s new?” he sometimes asked, standing four feet behind me in the kitchen, watching me turn down the flame under a pot of rice and punch the timer. He was afraid to ask when dinner would be ready. Maybe I hadn’t made enough for two. He didn’t like my cooking any more, anyway. I ate plain rice, a handful of cashews, an apple. That was enough. Or I cooked an elaborate eggplant dish, a curry braised in coconut milk, and by the time it was done, Daniel had already had some bread, a piece of ham, some carrots, three cookies. Our meal times were all out of synch, and our going to bed and rising.

One evening he told me a new attraction had arrived at the brothel. “Was there an ad?” I asked Daniel.

Just a rumor, word of mouth. “You won’t like it, though.”

Yes, the whole thing disgusted me. I had used to love his hair, especially when it flopped over his eyes when he neglected to get it cut. These days he was keeping it combed and parted, in yet another affront to me. His walk was more firm, too. I had used to light up to his heavy, rapid tread on the stairs, back in our old place. His decisiveness, which traveled through his every gesture, had in those days been reassuring. “No one will say what it is,” he said. “Just something different.”

“A thing or a she?” I asked. Without answering, he walked into the livingroom to turn on the lamps.

He wouldn’t tell me any more. I fretted as the gray behind the curtains became black. If I had to imagine it myself, it would be far worse than if he just told me. But he only rummaged on his shelf of miscellaneous things, looking for a washer to fit the leaky bathroom sink.

Men had to pay up front to be led into the back room where madame kept her special wonders. A man who ran a chain of pet shops hurried out of the room shaking his head, his hands thrust into his pants pockets as if to keep them from touching anything else. A couple of mobster louts leaned against the wall for a bit, deciding whether to go upstairs again, or maybe to go out to Kipp’s Bar. Madame smiled at them, and they fled. Nothing was worse than the sight of her even teeth making a friendly gesture in a face so closed off. Now the room was empty, and she sat down on the sofa and turned on the television.

Arachne wondered at the sound of the tv. It chattered on, girls talking, a horse neighing, the swift approach of booted feet. Then a long pause, a soft “oh,” a swell of saxophone. She lounged against the pillows, her swollen abdomen mounded in front of her. The body of a spider, the torso of a woman, slender neck rising above heavenly breasts, and such a sad, sweet face, while down below, her strange bulbous mid-section could not be confined by the crumpled sheets. She sighed and clacked her little hindlegs. She could not move off the bed without help, and Madame had hired two men to roll her. They were supposed to swab out the gummy orifice where she made her silk—it was in their job description—but they refused. Madame had to do this herself, with a dowel wrapped in wool, like the dusters maids used to get cobwebs off the ceiling.

What had she been like when she was a normal girl? A weaver, from a long line of weavers, the gifted youngest sister in a family renowned for its rugs and tapestries. Her sisters and aunts petted and praised her, spoiled her. “No one can equal my skill,” she said, when she was just fourteen years old. The goddess of weaving came down from the clouds to investigate this claim. In the guise of an old woman, she knocked on Arachne’s door.

“No,” said Daniel, leaning over me, the ends of a roll of plumber’s tape in his hand. “That’s not it at all.”

Arachne at seventeen was the village beauty, the butcher’s only child. She stood behind the counter, chops at her fingertips, sausages swinging overhead. Her fingers were always red with blood, her apron smeared, her lips a scarlet gash. When she was tired, she waved her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, and her bangs too stiffened with blood. The little membranes that sealed off kidneys and livers came loose and clung to her sleeves. When she came out in the sun at the end of the day, she picked these off, and the blobs of fat and marrow from her skirt. The young men were afraid of her chiseled features, her short, sharp laugh delivered while looking elsewhere. They only approached her quietly, secretly, after having walked their other girlfriend home and said good night. She had one man, then another, then another. They all knew each other, yet didn’t know they had all been entangled with her. How sad they were in the evenings now, even when newly married, the wife expecting their first child. Something about Arachne, how she held them close, cooing into their hair, but then later she wouldn’t even glance up. It penetrated and left them dry, no good for anything else. They poked at the fire, but never felt any warmer. The sun barely shone now, but only looked down on them, scornful.

“No, I don’t think so at all,” I said. But Daniel went on.

I still thought the goddess had come knocking, had challenged Arachne to a contest. Arachne wove the most marvelous scarf, on which was portrayed the entire history of her village–its founding by two bear cubs, the great fire, the flood, the invasion of the barbarians in great-grandfather’s time, the clever girl who outwitted the army with her poppy seeds, the modern-day back streets where the tanner caste slept in the doorways of the spinners’ hovels, and the weavers, three streets over, who watered the geraniums in pots on their balconies. She wove pigeons cleaning their breast feathers, and antelope, field mice, wood lice. Even the peace of a moonlit evening, when the girls and their aunts played cards on the veranda, was captured in the floating strands of Arachne’s scarf.

Yet the goddess got out her loom and proceeded to lay down with her shuttle the very cracking of the cosmos as it exploded from its seed, and emptiness, deserts, doubt, the shade of anxiety you feel when you turn a corner and the street is empty, though well-lit. A friend tells you a story about his uncle who moved to a derelict farm in his twenties and stayed there tending raspberries and rutabagas for forty years, working every day alone in silence for ten to twenty hours, and you feel so helpless, always distracted, doing nothing worthwhile. This was in the goddess’s tapestry, as well as watching your father stumble against the coffee table in the throes of the stroke that killed him, and the enormity of a mistake you made years earlier when you married someone you weren’t sure you loved. All was delineated in soft silk, the abstract weight of the universe overshadowing the historical and particular.

“This is what she was,” said Daniel. “A cruel, withholding girl. Always she whispered that she loved her man, but each one was only the latest conquest. She didn’t care at all. She had no pity, no feeling. Only an immense pleasure in her own attractiveness.  Until one of her lovers cursed her, and made her a spider. ‘I see what you’re doing,’ he said, ‘drawing me in.’ This one man wouldn’t stand for her soft looks that were only binding him up.”

“Wait,” I said. But Daniel had already described the way Arachne’s slender waist all the sudden sucked in. It became no bigger than her wrist, while her rear grew globular, heavy, spherical. Her legs withered into tiny clicking sticks. Her hair fell in piles on the floor around her. She looked in wild anxiety at her mirror, at her dressing table with its bottles of lotion and perfume. The summer dress she wore under her butcher’s smock would never fit her again, but hung on its nail, now ready for some other girl. She would have to flee the village before light so no one would see her in her terrible new manifestation.

“But her face?” I said. I had seen her looking so remorseful, tears shining in the corners of her eyes.

“Oh, well,” he said. “We have to leave her a little bit of the human, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said. I ran to the bedroom to look in the mirror.

—Angela Woodward


Angela Woodward is also the author of the collection The Human Mind (Ravenna Press 2007).  Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Midwest anthologies, and has appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Camera Obscura, Storm Cellar Quarterly, and Dzanc Book’s Best of the Web 2010 anthology. New work includes “The Language of Birds” in the Ravenna Press Triple Series, volume 4, with Norman Lock and Brian Evenson. The Triples combine three chapbooks in one full-sized collection. She has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and in 2011 she was awarded an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Read Matt Bell’s review of End of the Fire Cult here.

Apr 112013

History Lesson #9: The Order of Things | Artist Jane Buyers, Photo by Robert McNairJane Buyers, History Lesson #9: The Order of Things, 1996; Graphite on toned paper, 127.2 x 173.9 cm; Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery Collection. Gift of the artist, 2000. Photo: Robert McNair.

Strange to think of books as art, or the conjunction of words and letters (dry, pure signs) and paint and image, but here at NC it seems to be a running motif. Herewith a lovely essay from Contributing Editor Ann Ireland about a recent visit to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and the home of artist Jane Buyers and her musician/playwright partner Don Druick who live in Mennonite country in nearby Elmira, Ontario, and, Lo! we find artful annotations and a porcelain book amid other gorgeous works. Also baked bread from a Virginia Woolf recipe and baroque music and, well, you know, pretty soon you want to move there because you are reminded that in this violent, frenetic world of post recession economics and grinding little wars — trouble, trouble everywhere — there are actually people who live the life of the mind and art.


Jane Buyers on Viola di GambaJane Buyers: Photo by Ann Ireland


I feel like the Friendly Giant leaning down to peer into the miniature studio with its pint-sized furniture and tiny tools hanging on the wall. It looks like the mini-artist just stepped out of the room, leaving the drafting table with a rough sketch laid out and papers flung beneath. The multi-paned windows give me a shake of memory – they are south facing, if I recall correctly.

This is – or was – Jane Buyers’ studio in downtown Toronto, circa 1976, replicated inside this cube about the size of a breadbox. I lived on the other side of that wall with my artist boyfriend, Tim Deverell. There was a toilet down the hall and a retired sea captain who lived upstairs in the building, along with various spectral figures that would come and go at all hours.

This piece, part of a survey of the work of artist Jane Buyers at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery this winter, features an audio component. I place headphones over my ears and listen to a recording of German artist, Joseph Beuys, intoning T. S. Eliot.

08 Che Fare-What is to be Done,  1983Jane Buyers, Che Fare -What is to be Done (detail), 1983. Wood, paper, copper, glass, audio, electric lights, text. 154.5 cm x 49 cm x 40 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie.

Jane Buyers works with memory, a rescue mission using discarded artifacts and tools, as well as images from places that have been deserted. In this major survey of thirty years of work called Gather…Arrange…Maintain,[1] traces of tools have been reconstituted, sometimes scrupulously drawn in graphite on paper, sometimes fashioned into porcelain– in each case, transformed from the dustbin into something unexpected. Buyers catches our eye with the old made new: in a carefully rendered drawing of a pair of pliers the object’s utilitarian past slips away; this is not your dad outlining his tools on the wall of the basement workshop. Jane literally ‘draws’ old objects to our attention.

At one end of the gallery, huge graphite drawings of a series called Book of Hours contain images of flowers and other botanicals taken from textiles and bolts of wallpaper from generations past. The pieces play off ideas of what is decorative, or used to be considered so. I think of some ancient aunt’s curtains or upholstered furniture. The drawings are painstaking in execution and Buyers admits to a kind of ‘devotion’ in the focused labour of making them.

Book of Hours lV, 2010Jane Buyers, Book of Hours lV, 2010. Graphite on paper. 183 x 137 cm. Photo credit: Robert McNair.

She’s partial to collecting old schoolbooks containing poetry and Shakespeare plays, the text underlined and annotated. Buyers tells me: ‘The student’s handwriting is so uncertain and you feel the tremendous desire to understand. I like the anxiety and striving to grasp the meaning of the printed word.’ In one of her pieces, a black rose is planted over the scrawled notes of some long ago student struggling with the text of Macbeth.

07 Notes on Macbeth- Enter Lady Macbeth 2004Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004.  Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm.  Photo credit: Laura Arsie.

Books feel like an endangered species these days. So it is startling to see Inscriptions, a series of delicate sculptures made of porcelain. They are books flung open, some embedded with porcelain leaves- the sort of leaves that fall from trees. Organic matter meets the pulped paper – except the materials have become impossibly fragile. Their vulnerability creates a hushed feeling in the viewer. I tip toe past, wary of creating a stiff breeze.

Inscriptions 19Jane Buyers, Inscriptions #19, 2005. Porcelain, 50 x 47 x 15 cm. Photo credit: Cheryl O’Brien.

Buyers’ work is painstaking in process, requiring long hours in the studio. The result causes this high degree of attentiveness in the viewer. The eye slows down, is seduced by detail.

Tim and I have come to view the show and to visit Jane and her partner – award-winning playwright/musician/composer Don Druick at their home in Elmira, Ontario – a stone’s throw from Kitchener. It’s Mennonite country. En route between gallery and their house, driving along the New Jerusalem road, we spot horse -drawn carriages clipping along the edge of the highway, chilly Mennonites crouched in the back. It’s snowing lightly. Mennonites eschew electricity and driving cars. They sew their own plain, boxy clothing. During the growing season, Don and Jane visit nearby farms to buy produce plucked an hour earlier, dirt clinging to the gnarly carrots and sturdy lettuce.

Tim and I are city mice visiting the country mice – Elmira, population 10,000, being solidly rustic to our downtown Toronto eyes. The old yellow brick house is part of a former farm, and the garage has been fitted out as Jane’s studio. Several pairs of gumboots sit on the welcome mat of the house.

Chronicles #6, 2005Jane Buyers,Chronicles #6, 2005.  Etching with graphite drawing. 67.5 x 86.5 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie.

Don used to perform and compose avant garde music. I remember his visits to the Western Front, an artists’ exhibition/event space in Vancouver, back when I was a student in the 1970‘s. I thought he looked like a faun, stepping lightly across the stage, hair dyed platinum blonde, silver flute held to his lips.

We’re all a bit less faun-like these days but Don, a Latvian – Jewish native Montrealer, is still writing plays and making music. This past year, he’s been drafting a play about Lord Byron visiting the eastern townships of Quebec just after the war of 1812. A little known corner of Canadian history…

We are sitting in their country kitchen, Don crouched sideways on the chair so that he can jump up from time to time to stir the sauce that will soon be poured over manicotti. The smell of simmering garlic and onion and tomato is just about doing me in. My fingers steal across the table to grab another slice of bread, straight from the oven: ‘Virginia Woolf’s recipe for cottage loaf, ’ Don claims. I think of Virginia pounding dough with her fists. She needed to release some of that tension.

BreadVirginia Woolf’s bread

After lingering over dinner, we visit the music room. A Japanese samisen sits on a desk, relic from one of Don’s visits to that country. Music books and scores are stacked wherever there is space. Don performed ‘hundreds of times’ in public on his silver flute – but sold the instrument years ago and took up the wooden Baroque flute. He specializes in the French baroque repertoire. Quite a jump from avante garde improvisation and mixed media theatrical events.

‘I find much of the music that moved me forty years ago repugnant now,’ he says. ‘I pull out records that interested me when I was in my twenties, and find the music tedious and ugly.’ His last concert was over twenty years ago. ‘The mind and ears change,’ he says. ‘I’m no longer attracted to loud sounds. What stands the test of time? Nothing. Nothing survives; every idea modifies, even Christianity. Same as no individual survives.’

The baroque flute offers a soft, subtle sound. There is is only one key– the rest are open holes. ‘Very simple, he says. ‘Like a recorder.’

Fifteen years ago he picked up one of the subtlest instruments known to man – the Parisian baroque lute. This one was made for him by a luthier, modeled after a portrait of a seventeenth century lutenist that Don spotted in the Louvre. Lifting the instrument with its bulbous back, he cranks the tuning pegs and plays a few bars on the gut strings. It is an exceedingly delicate music, a sort of whisper into alert ears. I think of Jane’s finely crafted drawings and miniature rooms.

Donald Druick and luteDon Druick

Unexpectedly, Jane reaches for another instrument stashed in a case against the wall. It’s a viola de gamba, precursor to the cello. She’s been taking lessons; it seems there is a viola de gamba teacher right here in Elmira. Jane sets up, bow in hand, ready for a quick demo.

I shut my eyes: I’m hearing evenings of Early Music taking place on winter evenings after hearty pasta meals and mulled wine. She draws the bow across the strings and the instrument rumbles.

City Mouse is feeling pretty envious.

Later in the evening, Jane ushers us up the narrow staircase, past walls crammed with art, to where we will sleep. The second floor features sloped walls and a low ceiling and I think of my grandparents’ cottage in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Crouching to peer out the window, I press eyes to the glass and see snow blanketing the hydro wires outside and a tiny snow tent clinging to the top of a bird feeder. It’s so quiet. Then we hear the clop-clop of horses’ hooves as a buggy carries the Mennonites home.

06 Pratica #1, 1993. detailJane Buyers, Pratica #1 (detail), 1993.  Ceramic on steel table.  84 x 71 x 34 cm.  Photo credit: Laura Arsie.   Collection of Art Gallery of Woodstock.

—Ann Ireland & Jane Buyers


Jane Buyers is an artist originally from Toronto who lives in Elmira, Ontario with her partner, the playwright Don Druick. She is Professor Emerita in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Waterloo.  Her work includes sculpture, drawing printmaking and commissioned public works.  Jane has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Canada as well as in the United States and Europe and her work is in many private and public collections. Jane was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2002. A survey exhibition of her work from the past 30 years was held at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery January 18 through March 10, 2013 and will be touring to other venues.  She is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

Don Druick is an award winning playwright, translator & librettist, a baroque musician and a gardener and chef.  In a career spanning more than 40 years, Druick’s plays have been produced on stage, radio and television in Canada, Europe, Japan, and the USA.  His publications include play texts, translations and critical writings.  His plays, WHERE IS KABUKI? and THROUGH THE EYES, have both been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.  His current plays include GEORGEVILLE, WILDEST DREAMS, and a translation of Emmanuelle Roy’s play, LAZETTE.  He lives in Elmira, a small Mennonite farming town near Waterloo, Ontario, with artist Jane Buyers.

Ann IrelandAnn Ireland is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Hermost recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture  called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See video of the exhibition with commentary by Jane Buyers at the bottom of the essay.
Apr 102013

A. Anupama


Okay, these are love poems and not love poems. Deeply erotic, they are also metaphors for consciousness and its object, for the way the mind works in our dualistic universe. And make no mistake, we humans do experience our universe as dualistic; it’s not a matter of preference as some people think; it’s deeply inscribed in the language we use, in the concepts of self and mind and reality; and the dance between the self and what it thinks reality is can most effectively be described as something like love. The ancient Greeks, just as the ancient Tamils, knew this. A. Anupama offers here luscious translations of very old poems, poems from a sophisticated and civilized tradition, articulate, knowing and eloquent.

See also her earlier translations ” Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry, Essay and Poems” and the essay we published in this self-same issue, “Poetry’s Om.” For the majority of us who are brought up in one tradition, it is an immense privilege to be tendered an insight into something very different and profound.



Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says—

Swaying vines sprawl under the honeybees’ hive.
A seated cripple curls his palm into a bowl beneath,
pointing and licking. Like mountain honey, my lover,
who doesn’t care, doesn’t love
but is sweet to my heart, which sees again and again.

Kuruntokai, verse 60


Poem from the hillside woods

Talaivi says—

Pink as a partridge’s leg, the roots of the black mung bean plants,
which the deer trample and rob of their ripened pods.
In this harsh morning dew, I’ll find no cure.
No medicine for me other than my beloved’s chest.

Allur Nanmullai
Kuruntokai, verse 68


Poem from the bare desert

Talaivi says—

I will not tie a vow on my wrist
in the cracked caverns to win grace of the victorious goddess.
I won’t seek auguries, won’t stand watching for omens.
My friend, I won’t think of him, soul of my soul,
without whom I die each moment.
For him, strong enough to stay away and forget, I won’t.

Kuruntokai, verse 218


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says—

Thick buds unfold above the prop roots of the screwpines,
petals spreading like a perched pelican’s wing.
And in the front yard of this small house, all surrounded by water,
waves come and go. Even though
I give him up to his land far away,
he is near my heart in his cool country.

Ceyti Valluvan Peruncattan
Kuruntokai, verse 228


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says—

“I’m leaving, leaving,” he said. And I, thinking it
another bluff like before,
said “and stay away.”
Where is he now, who used to shelter me like a father?
Black-eyed white egrets could wade
in the large pond I’ve made in the space between my breasts.

Kuruntokai, verse 325


Poem from the fertile fields and ornamental trees

Talaivan’s mistress says—

On cool ponds, colorful thick buds
tempt bees, which force open each stemmed mouth.
When I lie down with him, our two bodies
are close as the archer’s fingers on the bow.
But, if I clasp his strong chest, we become one body.

Kuruntokai, verse 370

—Translated by A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York. She blogs about poetic inspiration at Seranam.


Apr 092013















Herewith a fascinating essay on philosophical dualism, the East, the West, poetry, yoga, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, well, just about everything else worth talking about. A. Anupama has already contributed reviews and translations to Numéro Cinq (see especially her “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry, Essay and Poems”) but in this essay she makes a special effort to extend our (western) understanding of the interconnection between love (eros), poetry and yoga in the Tamil Indian tradition. This is intriguing to read in part because it reveals a poetic tradition steeped in spirituality and philosophy, a tradition that is formal, ancient and self-conscious in its almost ritualized deployment of patterns and devices (which are, in themselves, a poetic language). In both the East and the West, humans have long wrestled with the famous gap between consciousness and the object, self and nature; love, even in the West (see Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet), has been a constant source of metaphor for this relationship: lover and loved one/mind and what it perceives. We also have gorgeous photos taken by Dorothea Erichsen, the yoga poses were shot near Hook Mountain on the Hudson River.



Emerson, in his essay “The Poet,” wrote, “I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.”

Emerson sees the poet as an interpreter—someone who is clear of the “phlegm” of consciousness that pervades mundane experience.  In this essay, and in his 1835 essay “Nature,” Emerson dissolves even the distinction between consciousness and nature itself within the framework of his logic. In “Nature,” he wrote, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” This dissolve is also the goal of yoga practice. The very first sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient manual for yoga practitioners, states, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” Emerson’s essays and Patanjali’s teachings seem to be on the same track here. Like Emerson’s thought, the Yoga Sutras are based on a dualistic philosophy in which an individual’s pure awareness is distinct from objects of awareness.  The translator and commentator Edwin F. Bryant summarizes it this way: “The goal of the entire yoga system … is to extricate pure consciousness from its embroilment with the internal workings of the mind as well as the external senses of the body.”

This might seem like the very opposite of poetry. Our discipline in poetry is to permit our minds to move, sometimes quite wildly, to let the mind bathe itself in the senses. As poets, we focus a lot of attention on image. The way the image heightens one’s senses is sometimes crucial to expressing the sublime essence of a poem. That sublime essence is the goal of both poetry and yoga, even though they seem to pursue it in opposite ways.

Patanjali’s Sutra 41, in section 1, states that by fixing one’s mind on an object, all mental disturbances cease, and the mind becomes like a pure crystal, reflecting the nature of whatever is placed before it. In yoga science, the pure intellect, in Sanskrit called buddhi, is the encasement of the eternal soul. The natural, inherent luminescence of the mind is the reflection of that eternal soul within it. In poetry, we are, in effect, practicing this clarity of mind. By our attention to image and senses, we are exercising and purifying the mind so that awareness and expression of the light within may follow.

Emerson again, in “The Poet” (and please forgive the gender specific language characteristic of Emerson’s time): “If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power and exhilaration for all men.” He goes on to say, “Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense, and found within their world, another world, or nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.”

The Cankam poets of South India knew this well. In the carefully crafted style of love poetry, known as akam poetry, the mystery of the soul’s presence becomes accessible by the concrete imagery of the symbolic landscapes and by the reality of the emotional dramas that unfold between the archetypal lovers. This highly symbolic form of poetry was written by assemblies of poets for several generations. Cankam means “a community or assembly.” The anthologies we have today were written in the third and final Cankam gathering, in about the third century.

Akam poems are small monologues, and in each one the speaker is one of five archetypical characters in a love drama: the hero and heroine in love, her friend, her mother, and the hero’s mistress. Each poem is set in one of five symbolic landscapes, called “tinai,” each representing a different mood of love. The mountain tinai, named kurinci, for a mountain shrub that blooms with purple flowers, represents the dawning of first love, with its longing and secret trysts. The forest tinai; named mullai, for jasmine, presents the sweet mood of union and patient waiting for the beloved. The countryside, named marutam, for a flowering ornamental tree, is the mood of the quarreling lovers. The seashore, named neytal, for the blue lotus, offers the mood of unfulfilled longing. And the desert-like landscape, named palai, for a scrubby bush, offers portraits of the lovers’ separation or hardships during elopement. Each tinai has its dazzling particulars, in the types of animals and specific flowers and plants, the occupations of the people in each, and even the type of water to be found in each, as waterfalls in the mountains, or dry wells in the desert. As specific and inevitable as the features of the landscape, so are the movements of the lovers’ hearts and actions. These poets’ imaginations had an abundant and beautiful playground to share. The anthologies were written by scores of poets, and many of the poets are named only by the metaphor they use in their poem, as one called “the poet of the long white moonlight,” or another called “the poet of red earth and pouring rain.”

Even as the poems stand firmly in the landscape and describe the dramatic motions of the heart, the specific blends of imagery, the directionality of the syntax, and the formal meter of the poems lead to a quiet interior space. Here is a verse I translated from the ancient Cankam anthology Kuruntogai,

Poem from the desert road

He says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring and
circling like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur nanmullaiyar

Kuruntogai 237

In this poem, the lovely image of the heart embracing, but lacking arms to do so is reflected in the image of the forest tiger roaring like ocean waves.  The word for “circling” in the original poem can also mean “echoing.” And its placement in the poem makes it a little ambiguous as to whether it refers to the tigers’ roaming movements or the sound of repetitive ocean waves. This fine swirl of images echoes the dark tumult of the heroes’ heartbeat as he moves through the landscape on his journey..

Here is verse 38, translated by the poet A.K. Ramanujan.

What She Said

He is from those mountains

where the little black-faced monkey,
playing in the sun,
rolls the wild peacock’s eggs
on the rocks.

Yes, his love is always good
as you say, my friend,

but only for those strong enough
to bear it,

who will not cry their eyes out
or think anything of it

when he leaves.


This verse enacts a vision of a nest of worlds through metaphoric image within the symbolic landscape representing secret trysts and longing. A broken heart like broken eggs on the mountainside. The grand level of landscape is signified by the name of a single plant, the kurinci, which blooms extravagantly every twelve years. The Cankam anthologies show us a multitude of poets writing the same drama and setting. There is a similar experience in a yoga practice, in which a pose like Mountain pose, signifies a position of the body, but also an attitude of the mind and heart. Consider the way the five tinai of Cankam literature can be experienced in the Sun Salutation, a vinyasa popular in today’s yoga practices. The Sun Salutation is a sequence of poses, movement mediated in time by the breath. In a class setting, a yoga teacher sets the pace, and a roomful of yogis on their mats enact this world.

We begin in mountain pose. Sweep our arms up and then dive into the ocean, the forward fold. Straighten the spine and level it to the horizon for the flat desert road. Stoop deeply again, as in a rice paddy—the fertile countryside. Then fly upright to the trees of the sacred forest, hands pressed together at the heart. So kurinci=mountain, neytal=diving at the seashore, palai=the desert road, marutam=the fields, and mullai=forest.






Indian classical love poetry is meant to illuminate the energetic precision of yogic wisdom. Another well-known work from the Cankam period called Tirukkural by the poet and weaver, Tiruvalluvar, concludes with a long set of erotic verses based on the archetypal lovers— some from his, and some from her point-of-view.  But while Tiruvalluvar sets a foundation for the practice of yoga in the practice of Virtue with a capital V, the akam genre of Cankam poetry sets the foundation in Nature itself and in the very landscapes’ inescapable features. The poetry’s attention to the details of flora and fauna speaks volumes about the very precise nature of what they were about in the inner realm. Aside from references to teh five landscapes, botanical references are particularly rich, like the sound made by seedpods on a tree blown by the wind, the circular look of mounds of pollen dust when it is shaken onto the ground, the shape of a certain flower’s calyx..

Henry David Thoreau described Walden Pond with a similar attention to its particular beauty. Some of my favorite passages in his book Walden detail his measurements of aspects of the pond: its depth, its temperature, its color, the precise characteristics of the depth and quality of its ice. In one lovely passage, he wrote about midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight. “These experiences were very valuable to me—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.”  A metaphor of the consciousness using itself as the object of its meditation, this passage is a beautiful rendering of that movement of awareness from a sense of nature to a sense of mind, to a sense of enlightenment..

Yoga and poetry are sisters yet again when we consider the use of breath for approaching the experience of the sublime. In yoga class, usually the first instruction is to become mindful of the breath, to deepen it, so that we extend it fully. Only then do we proceed, pairing our movements with it. In poetry, we are often advised to speak our poems aloud, to let the breath guide the movement of our expression.  In both yoga and poetry, a beautiful pose relies on the way the breath corrects our stance. In yoga, breathing into each pose makes an automatic correction in the alignment of the pose, especially in the twists and the poses in which the belly and torso are stretched taut so that it is difficult to draw a full breath. Your aching muscles will show you an easier way if you are breathing well. When speaking a poem, the poet’s experience of the sound of it creates a similar internal tension. We utter the words, with breath. Our aching ears show us an easier way if we are breathing well.

In yoga, breathing exercises called pranayama are intrinsic to the discipline. Besides creating a silent relationship between one’s mind and one’s body, attention to breathing can affect the quality of one’s awareness. William J. Broad in his book The Science of Yoga describes in detail the effects of these practices on levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, and the resulting effect of those on the brain and nervous system. The slowed forms of yogic breathing have been shown to increase calm awareness. “Today a standard figure is that cutting lung ventilation in half prompts blood levels of carbon dioxide to double. And the ensuing dilation of cerebral blood vessels means the brain now gets more oxygen, not less.”  But, the slowed yogic breath has a temporary negative impact on practitioners’ ability with logic-driven and problem-solving tasks, as researchers have found. The quality of awareness is transformed by the practice.

Broad points out that the opposite happens in the rapid-breathing exercises like one called Breath of Fire. With this form, the emphasis is on exhaling forcefully and quickly, speeding up the breath, and letting the inhale occur as a result of the forced exhale. The plunge in carbon dioxide levels causes cerebral blood vessels to constrict, so the brain takes up less oxygen, sometimes resulting in dizziness and fainting. Practitioners are cautioned build up their use of this pranayama gradually. This leaves one’s awareness more laden in the region of the heart and of the belly, which has been pumping like a bellows to create the movement necessary for the breath.  EEG studies of advanced yogis show increased brain activity arising in the central parietal lobes, which are the brain’s processing points for sensory information from the body. So, in this pranayama practice, awareness arises from the body instead of the mind.

Broad presents modern yoga practice as a systematic workout for the autonomic nervous system, the half of the nervous system that is responsible for the body’s automatic responses to its environment. The physical disciplines of yoga use the two things about that system that can be consciously manipulated in order to improve its overall health: 1) the subtle physical positions of the body and 2) the velocity of its breathing. This discipline of movement and breath has a profound impact on the body’s ability to cope with stress, to regulate metabolism and digestion, to glide through its moods. Recent studies of yoga practitioners’ levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters have only confirmed the obvious benefit.

Knowing the limits of one’s breath and movement in the practice of asana and pranayama offer a sense of both confidence and humility, which carries over into our treatment of our bodies, in what we eat, how we dress and shelter ourselves, what we offer to others.  By extending our awareness into our autonomic nervous systems, we can tap into the intense voltage of our hearts, and honor the complex neurology of the belly, with its gut feelings and reactions. Consider the poems of the 12th century saint Avvaiyar, who wrote this about the way the belly can be one’s best guru:


If I say give up food for one day, you won’t.
If I say for two take, you won’t take.
……………………………………………….O belly, full of pains,
You don’t know one day of my grief.
How great, how rare, to live with you.

Avvaiyar wrote to impart wisdom to children and young people, and her poems are beloved today as treasuries of that wisdom. Like Tiruvalluvar, she points to virtue, and like the akam poets she twines her verse with nature.

The first verse from her book Muturai is this—

“When doing good to a man, do not ask
If he’ll do good.
……………………Tall-standing coconut palms,
Tireless and growing, take water at their roots
And return it, sweet, from above.”

The very next verse seems to contradict—

“Good done to a man of character—
letters etched in stone.
…………………………….Good done
to a man who lacks ethics and love—
letters traced upon water.

Her movement in these two verses is a kind of sawing back and forth, like yoga’s deft autonomic workout.


Water that runs from the well to the rice
also waters the wayside grass.
…………………………………If on our old earth
There walk one upright man, for his sake
Everyone receives rain.

As verses from Tirukkural are recited by heart by children, by everyone, as an expression of Tamil culture, so are Avvaiyar’s. She had this to say about the ascetic yogis:

(7, Nalvali)

Looked at in all ways, this body is a hovel
For foul worms and teeming disease.
………………………………………………The great,
Because they know this, stand apart from it, silent,
like water on a lotus’s leaves.

William Broad devotes a long chapter of his book to yogic experiences of enlightenment, called samadhi in Sanskrit. Researchers interested in the physiologic aspects of yoga have noted the cooling effect of the discipline on the autonomic nervous system. In advanced practice, however, yoga’s ancient roots in Tantra become evident. Sharp spikes in heart-rate and brain activity in meditating yogis closely resemble the patterns of sexual orgasm. Broad cites the studies and then calls this yoga’s little secret, as though yoga’s marketing, as mere exercise, or stress-relief, or physical therapy, has successfully altered its image. He also offers a long discussion of Kundalini yoga: the fiery experience of the arousal of yogic energy. Kundalini promises its practitioners a path to boundless creativity, joy, and spiritual bliss. Broad mentions Carl Jung’s studies of kundalini and provides anecdotes of sudden transformations of ordinary lives into artistic virtuosity.

One of the most common forms of yoga practiced today, however, is Hatha yoga—a discipline that was invented in the tantric tradition to generate an ability to retain erotic tension within the body. Akam poetry and Tirukkural describe this erotic tension, evoking intimately both sides of the experience of love while grounding firmly in the landscape and social wisdom. Avvaiyar sums it all up in one verse:

Giving is virtue, earning rightly is wealth, living
in harmony and hospitality is love.
Letting go of all three, thinking only of god—
the bliss without peer of release.

This movement is what the bhakti poets take on in the shearing force of their devotional verse. Bhakti is defined as a counter-cultural poetry, composed in vernacular, with a devotional attitude, meant to be chanted or sung, according to Andrew Schelling, the editor of the new Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He wrote in his introduction, “At a level deeper than what a poem or song says, occur disruptions or subversions that appear both spiritual and linguistic. These include forbidden emotions, raw vernacular vocabulary, riddles, secret codes, and non-rational images.” The big change from the ancient modes of poetry is that bhakti is born in dissent from religious and/or political authority. The result is that it is composed in the first-person– the lyric “I” with which we are familiar in our contemporary verse. An attitude of defiance paired with an attitude of devotion stretches the erotic tension inside the poet.

A few long verses now from the ninth-century poet-saint, Kotai, a devotee of the god Krishna, whom she calls Govinda and refers to here as cowherd, dancer, and thief. She is usually known by her honorific name, Antal.

I am caught in the snare
of that omniscient lord
who slumbered
upon the banyan leaf.
Do not speak
whatever comes to mind—
your words pierce me
like a dagger.
The cowherd chief
who tends his calves
with staff in hand,
that dancer with the waterpots
who reclines in sacred Kutanai—
bring me
his sacred basil
cool, lustrous, blue,
place it
upon my soft tresses.

Like an arrow
from the bow of his eyebrows,
the sidelong glance
of him who destroyed Kamsa
enters my heart,
makes me sore with pain,
weak and worn.
I yearn, I melt,
yet he says not
‘have no fear’.
If willingly
he gives his garland
of holy basil,
bring it,
place it upon my breast.

My soul melts in anguish—
he cares not
if I live or die.
If I see the lord of Govardhana
that looting thief,
that plunderer,
I shall pluck
by their roots
these useless breasts,
I shall fling them
at his chest,
I shall cool
the raging fire
within me.

To soothe the grief
of my rounded breasts,
is it not better
in this very birth
to serve Govinda
in little intimate ways,
than wait for a life beyond?
If one day
he would fold me
into his radiant chest,
that would fulfill me.
Else, looking straight at me,
uttering the truth,
he should give me
leave to go—
that also I would accept.

Kotai, daughter of Visnucittan
master of the town of Villiputuvai,
she of excellence
whose eyebrows arch like a bow,
poured her intense longing for
the radiant light of Ayarpati
the lord who brought her pain.
Those who chant
these verses of praise
will never flounder
in the sea of sorrow.

In the last stanza, the poet refers to herself in the third-person, forming a signature within the verse. Other bhakti poets use the name of their personal deity in the last lines of their poems as the signature, a complete removal of the self at the end of the lyric. The poet Mahadeviyakka, another woman poet-saint with an honorific name, wrote her burning verses in the twelfth century, as she wandered in a state of undress, scorning suitors and authorities alike.

Would a circling surface vulture
know such depths of sky
as the moon would know?

would a weed on the riverbank
know such depths of water
as the lotus would know?

would a fly darting nearby
know the smell of flowers
as the bee would know?
O lord white as jasmine
only you would know
the way of your devotees:
how would these,

on the buffalo’s hide?

Following bhakti into north India, into the 15th century, the tradition of signing the poem with a third-person reference to oneself continues. Here is one by a male poet, the weaver Kabir.

My husband is called Hari,
And I’m his young wife.
My husband is called Rama.
He’s an inch taller than me.

Looking my best,
I go in search of Hari,
The lord of the three worlds.
He’s nowhere to be found.

We live under the same roof,
Sleep in the same bed,
But seldom meet.
Fortunate the bride, says Kabir,

Whose husband loves her.

Notice the twisting of gender in this verse as he calls himself god’s wife. Kabir is known for this and many other logic-smashing contortions in his verse. Thoreau and Emerson both cite Kabir’s poetry in their writing.

Mirabai, like Antal and Mahadeviyakka, calls herself the Dark One’s lover, and plunges into even wilder twists of voice. She sings this poetic conversation,

Listen, friend,
the Dark One laughs
and scours my body with ravenous eyes.
Eyebrows are bows,
darting glances are arrows that pierce
a wrecked heart.

You will heal
I’ll bind you with magical diagrams
and crush drugs
for a poultice.
But if it’s love that afflicts you
my powers are worthless.

Sister, how can I heal?
I’ve already
crushed sandalwood paste,
tried witchcraft—charms and weird spells.
Wherever I go
his sweet form is laughing inside me.
Tear open these breasts
You’ll see a torn heart!
Unless she sees her dark lover
how can Mira
endure her own body?

Mirabai’s god, the Dark One whom she also calls Giridhara, is a form of Krishna, the handsome cowherd who lured the wives and milkmaids of Vrindavan into the forest for wild orgies. According to the mythology, when Krishna left Vrindavan, the women stood looking up the road, desolate and in anguish. A holy man came down the road and said to them, you can have him again. He went on, explaining to them the practice of yoga. One might imagine the women stringing him up in the nearest banyan tree by his saffron robes for such a suggestion. But luckily they listened to him and found their joy again.

Considering the devices and perspectives of the ancient poets, I have found this last one, in bhakti, to be surprisingly useful in the writing and revising of my own poems. Writing verse about yourself in the third person is a kind of headstand. It’s a good warm-up exercise. One way that I play with the device is to take a poem I’m revising, rewrite it entirely in third-person, then quickly and freely write another stanza in first-person. It’s a useful strategy for finding images that eluded me on the first writing, and sometimes this exercise helps me to find the fulcrum of a poem that felt lopsided or just incomplete. If the breath of the bhakti poem is a wind blowing from the south-east, as the monsoon does, the third-person voice blows in the opposite direction, miraculously steadying the flame of the devotional lamp within the poet.

Emerson wrote in “The Poet,” “We are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” Our sun salutation contains that wisdom, too. Here is a full expression of the sun salutation, with its flowing inner motion.


—A. Anupama (Photos by Dorothea Erichsen)


Anupama, A. “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry and Essay.” Numéro Cinq Magazine. Sept. 12, 2011. Web.

Avvaiyar. Thomas H. Pruiksma, transl. Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar.  Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.

Broad, William J. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature,” from Nature; Addresses, and Lectures. 1834.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet,” from Essays, second series. 1844.

Ramanujan, A.K. Poems of Love and War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Ramanujan, A.K. Molly Daniels-Ramanujan, ed. The Oxford India Ramanujan. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schelling, Andrew. The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.

Tiruvalluvar. G.U. Pope, W.H. Drew, John Lazarus, and F.W. Ellis, transl. Tirukkural. 1886. Full text online at Project Madurai: http://www.projectmadurai.org/pm_etexts/pdf/pm0153.pdf


Translation Acknowledgements

Many thanks to B. Jeyaganesh, Vennila Amaran, and Dr. Malarvizhi Mangayarkarasi of Thiagarajar College for recorded readings of the verses in Tamil and for literal translations. I am indebted to the work of A.R. Ramanujan and Robert Butler for clues to the ancient Tamil. Also thanks Jen Bervin for advising and encouraging while I wrote the lecture.


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

Apr 082013

Much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world.

—Anne Carson


Red Doc>[1]
Anne Carson
Alfred A. Knopf
164 pages, $24.95

“A conversation is a journey, and what gives it value is fear,” writes Anne Carson in “The Anthropology of Water.” Extrapolating only slightly, it seems appropriate to view the larger body of Carson’s work as one long conversation across literature, a discourse that picks up where the Greeks left off and continues across the millennia. (We’ll return to the alluring aspect of fear later.) Her latest book, Red Doc> (Knopf), continues a conversation Carson has been having throughout her long and storied tenure as a poet, translator, essayist and novelist or, most often, as an alloy of all four.

Carson lays claim to the title of trans-genre laureate, a writer who blurs lines so adeptly that librarians and booksellers must spend grueling hours contemplating shelf space for her books. Red Doc> is neither a novel nor a poem nor a Greek tragedy, but rather some recombinant heterotopia, a space where ideal forms of genre exist only as fragments and echoes of the whole. It unfurls like a tapestry, colored with neoclassical heroes, albino musk ox, ice bats, homicidal cucumbers, choral interludes, oracles, madmen and quacks. Carson has returned to a subject clearly near and dear to her, the refiguring of Greek mythology, specifically the story of the red-winged monster Geyron and his lover-cum-nemesis Herakles. This is familiar territory for the Canadian writer who teaches at the University of Michigan; her earlier (and more accessible) Autobiography of Red was a coming-of-age story for Geyron and Herakles, star-crossed swains who played out their sad destinies against a contemporized setting.

In Red Doc>, Geyron, now called G, lives alone in a hut near a freeway overpass, tending to his sickly mother and prized herd of musk oxen. In the original Greek myth, Herakles must journey to Erytheia and slaughter Geyron’s herd in order to complete his tenth labor. Carson’s adaptation brings the battle-weary Herakles, now called Sad, home safely from the front lines. “I had a tan when I came home no wounds no cuts.” But Sad suffers from symptoms clearly meant to resemble PTSD. Early on, the former lovers are joined by Ida, a mysterious woman who meets Sad in a therapist’s office:

You a Tuesday appointment like me / I guess / always writing in that book / not writing drawing / drawing what / my sunny

 self / got a name / Ida / I’m Sad / why / no it’s my name Sad But Great capital S capital B capital G people call

 me Sad / that some type of indigenous name / army / army make you have a certain name / make you have a

 certain everything / how / orders / but your name is your fate can’t take orders on that / no / no

Carson pits simple, everyday language against atypical formatting. She elides common punctuation (commas and question marks are anathema) and eschews dialogue tags in favor of back-slashes and stanza breaks. She subverts formal expectation, squeezing most of the book’s text into newspaper like columns or using elements borrowed from concrete poetry. Yet the story remains compelling at the same time. The reader is flummoxed, intrigued, pulled along and, above all, curious about what’s coming next.

Minimalist details, playful wit and unorthodox typography control not only the pacing of the story, but also the perspective and characterization of its players. Carson reveals things about these characters—relevant history, details, backstory, yearnings—but she refrains from spelling out meaning or purpose. As Carson told the Paris Review:

I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end, you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.

Carson asks us to think deeply as we read; to travel, to feel, to change. She generates offbeat and peculiar storylines. The language and form charm us like potions, drawing us further into this strange world. Trying to make explicit sense of the ‘events’ only gets in the way of appreciation. Far better to be enchanted than to understand.

In Sam Anderson’s recent (and rare) New York Times profile, Carson quotes Simone Weil by saying that “contradiction is the test of reality.” So it’s hardly surprising to find an abundant trove of contradictory devices in Carson’s work. Her lucid, lyrical prose mesmerizes at times, but her mannerisms can feel evasive and recondite. Though a plot (of sorts) exists in Red Doc>, a traditional design does not bind things together. The story moves in seemingly random jumps, forward and backward across time and space, at times blithely ignoring cause and effect. Instead, it’s Carson’s intricate, carefully nuanced use of layered images and repeated words that give rise to story structure.  A reader expecting a linear narrative will be sorely disappointed, but a careful reader, one willing to pay attention and reread, will be rewarded.

For reasons not made entirely clear, Sad and G embark on a desultory journey to the north, leaving Ida behind to watch G’s herd. “Crows as big as barns rave overhead. Still driving north. Night is a slit all day is white.”  They get lost. Though, how one can actually get lost without a destination poses an amusing question. Eventually they disappear into a glacier, whereupon G falls into a hole in the ice and Sad abandons him.

Twice in the story, G must take decisive and heroic actions.  In both instances, he uncovers his wings—which usually remain hidden beneath his clothes—and flies. Carson reserves some of her finest imagery for the two instances where G takes flight.

He is rising. Air grabs his knees. Out of black nothing into perfect expectancy—flying has always given him this sensation of hope—like glimpsing a lake through trees or that first steep velvet moment the opera curtains part—he is keening down the ice fault. Soul fresh. Wings wide awake. Front body alive in a rush of freezing air.

Carson soars too, above the tedious complaints of her critics who say she’s not poetic enough to be a poet and nor focused enough to be a novelist. Heretical, inventive, daring and dazzling, Carson challenges the settled principles that try to define literature, and in so doing, pushes her vision forward into uncharted worlds. And she does all this while maintaining a sharp sense of humor. As G rises out of the glacier and flies off, he muses sadly, “Am I turning into one of those old guys in a ponytail and wings?”

Guided by ice bats, G touches down at a psych clinic/auto repair shop run by the inquisitive doctor/mechanic named CMO. Carson’s playful use of acronyms as abbreviated identities forms one of many leitmotifs, along with recurrent themes of abandonment, jealousy, and grief.  Sad comes to clinic too, as though the clinic was always the destination. Sad reconnects with 4NO, an old war buddy who is a patient. 4NO is the scene stealing prophet, a loveable but deranged oracle who can see five seconds into the future. G asks him what it’s like: “all white all the time / what do you mean / I mean the whole immediate Visible crushed onto the frontal cortex is nothing but white without any remainder.”

These are beguiling, bumptious characters. They are wild and sad and wonderfully complex. Ida robs a laundromat, nearly gets caught, flees the police and drives to the clinic, whereupon she has sex with Sad in the laundry room beneath G’s bed. G learns the details of Sad’s “pesky traumatic memories,” which involved shooting an unarmed woman 75 times in the head. They are also literate folks. G reads Proust, Emily Bronte and the Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms. Sad reads self-help books and Christina Rossetti.  4NO is staging a one-man adaptation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, renaming it Prometheus Rebound.

On the night of the play, a near riot ensues when Sad attacks Ida in a mistaken combat flashback. A patient dies in the melee. Ida, Sad, G and 4NO then drive away from the clinic, Sad bound in a straight jacket. Unknowingly, they are driving straight into the lava flow of an erupting volcano.

In the defamiliarized landscape of Red Doc>, the reader must stay alert for uncanny reversals, choral interludes from the Wife of Brain, the sudden appearances by Hermes in a sliver tuxedo, and Carson’s delightfully bizarre aphorisms. “If the army is issuing your Luck in the form of Charms it’s already gone,” CMO says, explaining why soldiers never ate the Lucky Charms provided in their field rations. Of course, Sad did eat the cereal, and then brutal violence ensued.

What Carson accomplishes in her writing is an upheaval of expectation. She pulls at meaning, at definitions, at connotations and denotations of words, at the very fabric of language, unraveling that wonderful tapestry she sets out to create. As Lt. M’hek, the officer on Sad’s Warrior Transition Team, tells G:  “at the bottom of the ocean is a layer of water that has never moved this I heard on BBC last night fresh idea to me.” Above, at the ocean’s surface, it’s easy to imagine Carson pressing down on the waves, hoping to eventually force that still water to move.

And make no mistake, reading anything by Carson is a journey, fraught with peril, difficulty and, yes, a hint of fear. “What is the fear inside language?” she asks in “The Anthropology of Water.”  By excavating ancient myths, by reconfiguring monsters and villains and gods into contemporary characters, Carson reminds us that literature may not possess answers. Mere words may not comfort us from our fears, but they can help us ask the big questions. The British writer and critic Gabriel Josipovici picks up a similar idea in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? “And novels, (William) Golding tells us, are projections of our imagination on reality; but they are not meaningless projections. They have a purpose: to protect us from the reality of our deaths.”

Like Prometheus, it’s easy to feel chained to the stone of routine and habituation, reading the same book (or variation of it) over and over again, our livers gnawed continuously by the eagle of market forces and bestseller lists. When do our deepest questions get addressed? The real joy of reading Anne Carson is that she perpetually engages with these questions. Though there may not be definitive answers, at least there is room to contemplate, to reflect, to query the void as we barrel ahead toward the lava flow of our own extinction. What will save us? Prophets? Poets? The wisdom of the ages?  Or maybe we are beyond saving, and can only learn to dance a little as we approach the end.

Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us. That creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons. (from Decreation)

Carson’s not writing poems or novels, she’s dancing a tango on the page. Uncertainty and language are her partners. The Ineffable twists and turns with the Great Span of Words.

In the end, the heroes survive. G’s mother dies and the chorus sings. A funeral ushers the sad story towards its conclusion. “Rain continuous since the funeral a wrecking rattling bewildering Lethe-knuckling mob of rain. A rain with no instructions.”  Perhaps this is the great wisdom:  there are no instructions, only a bewildering cleansing, a rain of words to obscure the tears. Carson leaves us alone to ponder the mystery. She offers no answers, only provides the glorious space for that pondering.

Caution is best. Luck essential. Hope a question. Down the street she notices a man in his undershirt standing looking up at the rain. Well not every day can be a masterpiece. This one sails out and out and out.

—Richard Farrell

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 of Vermont College of Fine Arts students 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 short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “…(that angle-bracket is, yes, a part of the title: “Red Doc >” was the default name Carson’s word-processing program gave to the file, and she stuck with it).” “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson” Sam Anderson, NY Times, March 14, 2013
Apr 072013

McCabe phot (2)

For your Sunday morning delectation, over coffee and bagels or eggs and bacon or hominy and grits and the New York Times or the Sunday Star or the London Sunday Times, preferably while you’re still in bed, here is Marilyn McCabe singing Leconte de Lisle‘s “Les Roses d’Ispahan” put to music by Gabriel Fauré. Marilyn’s popular translation and performance pieces have a very special place at Numéro Cinq; she’s done a bunch and I have to say it’s a treat I keep returning to, just to switch onto NC, find Marilyn and shut my eyes listening to her voice. So I’ve collected all her the contributions onto one page to make this easier for readers. Just click on her name in this paragraph to be taken to The Marilyn McCabe NC Archive Page. For each of these pieces, Marilyn also provides a deft translation of the original poem.


In keeping with the West’s long love affair with the idea of the East, Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) invokes the mystery and seduction of Iran, its aromas and flora. He plays with formal constructions, limiting himself to four end words in French poetry’s traditional alexandrine or twelve-syllable lines.  When he put the poem to music, Gabriel Fauré dropped two of the original stanzas, but breathed something into the lines that the text does not quite offer. Translator/traitor indeed, my pale rendering into English fails the poem’s romance. The original’s oo’s and oi’s naturally purse the lips to a murmur, toward a kiss.

Marilyn McCabe

Leconte de Lisle

Click on the PLAY arrow and listen to Marilyn McCabe.

Les Roses d’Ispahan

Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse,
Les jasmines de Moussoul, les fleurs de l’oranger
Ont un parfum moins frais, ont une odeur moins douce,
O blanche Leïla! que ton souffle léger.

Ta lèvre est de corail, et ton rire léger
Sonne mieux que l’eau vive et d’une voix plus douce,
Mieux que le vent joyeux qui berce l’oranger,
Mieux que l’oiseau qui chante au bord d’un nid de mousse.

O Leïlah, depuis que de leur vol léger
Tous les baisers ont fui de ta lèvre si douce,
Il n’est plus de parfum dans le pale oranger,
Ni de céleste arôme aux roses dans leur mousse.

Oh que ton jeune amour, ce papillon léger,
Revienne vers mon coeur d’une aile prompte et douce,
Et qu’il parfume encore la fleur de l’oranger,
Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse.

—Leconte de Lisle


The Roses of Ispahan

The roses of Ispahan, their sheath of moss,
the jasmines of Moussoul, their orange blossoms,
send forth a perfume less fresh, a scent less soft,
O pale Leila, than your breath, so light.

Your lips are of coral and your light
filled laugh more lovely than swift water, your voice more soft;
more joyful than the wind that shivers the orange blossoms,
than the bird that sings beside its nest of moss.

O Leilah, since all the kisses have fled light-
ly your lips, there is no soft
perfume in the pale orange blossoms,
nor scent of roses in their moss.

Oh, that it would return on light
wings, your love, that butterfly, quick and soft,
and perfume again rise from the orange blossoms,
the roses in their sheath of moss.

—Translation & Performance by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize, fall 2012, and is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest.




Apr 062013

Patrick Madden and family in Uruguay

Patrick Madden, a tall man, a good friend, and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an erudite essayist who wears his erudition under a baseball cap with a twinkle in his eye, a ploy he learned, perhaps, at the feet of the master, Jorge Luis Borges. He is amiable and exacting, and always an immense pleasure to read. His effort to capture the essay as an ancient and protean form is evident in the amazing website — Quotidiana — an anthology of great essays from the past and a constant reminder that creative nonfiction wasn’t invented in a writing workshop five years ago (or ten). See also his terrific “Dispatches from Montevideo” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and, of course, his essay collection, also named Quotidiana.

Herewith we offer a tiny essay, a micro-essay, a playful bit of faux erudition, which, as Borges well-knew, most people can’t tell from the real thing. It is an imitation of something that doesn’t exist (endless message loops leading to absence), ever so ironic, parodic and yet shimmering with substance.


I’ve long admired Jorge Luis Borges’s concision, the way he supposes the existence of vast texts (or objects) and writes subtle fictions from them while circumventing the texts/objects themselves. My fragment, “Essay as Evolutionary Advantage,” mimics “On Exactitude in Science,”[1]as a way to say something small yet profound about the important ways essays influence our selves or become ways of seeing and being in the world.

—Patrick Madden


Essay as Evolutionary Advantage (après Borges)

…We may posit a time long ago, when our distant ancestors wandered the savanna in small nomadic groups. Those whose senses observed their surroundings most keenly, and whose minds could assimilate and organize information associatively, assured themselves longer lives and greater opportunities to breed. The rash, the simplistic, the routinary, the self-assured or self-righteous, the easily bored thrill-seeker, these personalities were doomed to superficial interaction and solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. And what of those whose apprehension of the world was more than utilitarian, who stayed awake nights weaving stories, imagining the implications of every small detail, for whom the world retained its newness no matter how often they’d encountered it?

Cabrera Arias, Breve teoría sobre la evolución humana, Cap. VX, Colón, 1880

—Patrick Madden


Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, was a PEN Center USA finalist. His second book, Sublime Physick, is forthcoming. He curates the amazing Quotidiana, an online anthology of classical essays and contemporary essay resources.





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis BorgesXXXXX…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
Apr 052013


Herewith a short fiction, a short modernist fiction, terse words carved out of the white space of the page, a dramatic meditation on fathers, marriage, and history splashed against a screen of absence, a gem of concision which is yet replete with place (that Ontario landscape reeling by) and literary reference. rob mclennan is a Canadian writer, indefatigable blogger and critic; we are both, coincidentally, in the current issue of Fencea serendipitous conjunction. It’s a great pleasure to introduce him to these pages.




 There is no such thing as fiction.

                        Richard Froude, The Passenger



In 1968, my father and mother drive west along Highway 401, towards Upper Canada Village. They have been married less than a year. He wants to show her something.

This happens in real time. They drive.

Both his hands rest on burgundy steering wheel, their cherry-red Ford. For the length of my memory, he owned and drove only Fords: the family car and the truck for the farm, upgrading every half-decade.

The wind through the open driver’s side window. His hair so black it shone metallic blue. It sparkles. A trick of the light.



It begins with a silence, seeking its source. With occasional birdsong, the pant of the dog, a tractor rolling along in the distance, the silence holds deep in its core.

We establish the fixed points: his daily routine, the pair of his and her Fords in the yard, the black Labrador mix.

Much of my childhood was punctuated by silence. Inherited.

The silence remains, holding court amid tenor. At first, you might imagine it is waiting for something to be said, or to happen, but it is not.



Their stretch of Ontario highway a madness of trees, awaiting development. Pitch-perfect birds and occasional deer. They pass farms and villages two centuries set. They drive west, into history. My father cities 1812 facts from half-remembered textbooks, mumbling dates and locations.

No, not awaiting. What’s the word? Dreading.

They are newlyweds, still. My father rests his left arm across the ledge of rolled-down driver’s side window. Air scrapes the length of his forearm.

My mother breathes deep, enjoys smokeless air.



This quiet between two is not absence, but slow comprehension. Each suspects what the other might say.

Years later, my mother would translate him, offering: your father is very angry at you for that thing that you did.

But for now, they are still learning. They react to cues, whether real or imaginary. They can’t yet read each other’s thoughts.



We could speak of the father as imagined figure, since he is not yet my father, or anyone’s father, beside she who is not yet anyone’s mother.

We pause, on the obvious: their youth, their half-restrained enthusiasms. One can’t help but compare. Basket of apples and peaches each nestled on the backseat. She has been wanting to replenish their supply of preserves. Applied correctly, wax seals freshness in.

Cellar shelves by the cistern. Fresh cobwebs and field mice.



The seven villages along the St. Lawrence Seaway he witnessed, drowned due to the Long Sault hydroelectric project, as he was mid-teen. Villages shifted, erased and rewritten, for the sake of the water. Buildings broken, and sold for parts.

A shed his father built from a former gas station, additions to the farmhouse made from what once a single family home.

The site of the War of 1812 Battle of Crysler’s Farm, half underwater. Inventing a pioneer village as a place-marker, upon the remains. A shoreline redrawn, by the flood.

They brought in buildings from across the area, including half a dozen from a two-mile radius of my father’s homestead. The cheese factory where his great-great uncle once worked, the one-room schoolhouse his own mother and aunt attended.

We shuffle history around.

The house he was born in, a century old by the time he was new.



A marriage: two merge, inasmuch as they individually change.

From the state of the farmhouse years later, it was as though she married, and left home with only the clothes on her back. Her wedding dress asleep at the back of a closet. She had little to nothing else pre-dating this, from her homestead to his. What did she bring but herself? What might she have left? What might she have meant to bring, but somehow didn’t?

A house sprinkled with archive: his rusted Meccano set, his preschool plush lamb.



In silent 60s-era Super 8, colours are brighter, illuminated. A particular era’s nostalgia in bright hues, glossy light. A quilt, stitching squares of mere minutes. They drive. The highway itself less than two decades old. So close to the lip of St. Lawrence River, a sequence of edited farmland and family estates scalpeled and shaped into two and four lanes.

Their fathers are both still alive. His, living years with cancer treatments, the three hour drive into the city. My father at the wheel, since his mother never learned.

He understands, distance.

He knows what lies across horizons, having been over every one.



Her father, chain-smoking. The entire household. It hovers around family portraits, Super 8 by the lake, where they cottaged. My mother, once married, would never light up again. She later frowned upon my own youthful folly. Looked upon with derision.

Her once-mixed thoughts on the move, shifting city to country mouse. Now she marvels at farmland, the open green stretch.

Rewind. Leaving the farm, the truck kicks up dust from the gravel, two miles to blacktop. She twitches from crunch and the dust cloud, anew. Mixed thoughts, but this, she loved from the offset: a jolt to a small, giddy leap as they start up the laneway. A schoolgirl glee and excitement the city could never provide.



My father, his hands on the steering wheel. The tan we now know as permanent. Melodic stretch of dirt road and gravel, of sonorous blacktop, that defy description.

From the Robert Creeley poem. Drive, she said.

—rob mclennan


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently lives in his hometown, Ottawa.




Apr 042013

lipsyte(Photo: Robert Reynolds)

Fun Parts

The Fun Parts
Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
224 Pages, $24.00
ISBN 978-0374298906

About halfway through Sam Lipsyte’s comical, prickly new story collection, The Fun Parts, comes “The Worm in Philly,” a narrative wound around the nameless junkie son of a sportswriter and his desire to pen a children’s book about the middleweight boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler (“Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler?” he ponders. “Why not?”). The story contains all the Lipsyte standards—absurdity, crudeness, punchy dialogue, and a strange, underlying sweetness. It also weaves two elements of the author’s personal life into the text: the well-known sportswriter/children’s author father (Lipsyte’s dad is Robert Lipsyte), and the moment when the narrator realizes nobody has any interest in pursuing his project:

“What about the book?” I said.
“The book.”
“The advance?”
“The advance,” said Cassandra. “Here’s your advance.”
She pulled bills from her bag, tossed them on the table.

Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, suffered from an unfortunate publication date, September 11, 2001, and flopped so badly with the general public that when he completed his follow-up, Home Land, he couldn’t acquire US distribution. And though things eventually worked out—Home Land finally found paperback publication, and the author has since released another novel, 2010’s The Ask—this brush with failure seems apt, in a way, for an author whose stories repeatedly provide toeholds for similar situations. Dating back to his 2000 collection, Venus Drive, Lipsyte’s strong understanding of those existing on the fringe allows his narratives to crackle with an uneasy vigor. As such, the struggles of has-beens and never-weres flood The Fun Parts. Tovah D’Agostino, the part-time preschool assistant in “The Climber Room,” is a failed poet. The male mother’s helper in the witty “Wisdom of the Doulas” finds himself marginalized by his employer to the point where he takes desperate measures to regain his stature. And the namesake of “Ode to Oldcorn,” once a famous shot-putter, now rolls into town to party with a bunch of teenagers, declaring, “I want all the beer in your town … And I want teen poot, if that’s available.”

While the thirteen stories in the collection are not intentionally linked, like in the aforementioned “The Worm in Philly,” most find a thematic spine in their exploration—both closely and peripherally—of family bonds. In these tales, parents often come across as aloof, cruel, or manipulative. Doctor Varelli, the father of the title teenager in “The Dungeon Master,” calls his children “puppies,” and fawns over them as if a fanatic, rather than an authoritarian. Similarly, the parents of an overweight boy in “Snacks” pressure him to lose weight while simultaneously neglecting to help him achieve said goal. And, returning to “The Climber Room,” the character of Randy Gautier, adoptive father to Tovah’s young student, Dezzy, uses his power and money to influence the world around his daughter, controlling the schedules of daycare employees by dangling the carrot of an annual donation in front of their faces.

This parental scheming slinks into the relationships between Lipsyte’s adult characters and their aging progenitors, as well. “Nate’s Pain is Now,” one of the book’s strongest stories, chronicles the day-to-day of a once-popular author of drug memoirs:

I had a good run. Bang the Dope Slowly and its follow-up, I Shoot Horse, Don’t I?, sold big … My old man, the feckless prick, even he broke down and vowed his love. But as a lady at a coffee bar in Phoenix put it, what goes up can’t stay up indefinitely because what’s under it, supporting it, anyway?

Realizing his star has faded, the author bums around the city and finds nourishment in the faxes sent to him by his father, which begin “Dear Disappointment.” This, of course, is often quite funny. Still, at a later visit, the following transpires:

“Why don’t you drink a pint of lye and get it over with?” my father said. “Why don’t you have yourself a nice little lye-and-hantavirus smoothie? That’ll fix you up good, you piece of shit.”

My father flung himself across the table, flapped his hand in my face. It’s true he never hit me. A father need not hit. His coughs, his smirks, are blows. Even a father’s embrace confers a kind of violence. Or so I once pronounced on public radio.

Though clearly aiming for a laugh with the final line in this passage, Lipsyte’s own words argue a truth behind the contrasting ideas of love and violence within family. For even the few healthy relationships within The Fun Parts contain pointed edges. “Deniers,” concerning a recently clean woman, a man looking to escape the prejudices of this past, and her Holocaust-survivor father, presents a man who loves his daughter, yet rarely speaks to her from his nursing home bed. He’s lost in his memories of WWII, his own dementia, and in the middle of a conversation, asks her, “How’s the whoring? You make enough money for the drugs? You let the scvartzers stick it in you?” Though she replies with a clever retort, she looks up at her father’s attendant for “some flicker of solidarity.” A similar reaction occurs in “The Republic of Empathy,” where young Danny, a boy convinced he’s “the narrator of a mediocre young adult novel from the eighties,” waxes poetic during a drive with his father:

I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he’s absorbed in admiring whatever I’ve handed to him, kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy.

Despite the fact that the surface relationships between these characters appear stronger than those in the collection’s other stories, they are still quite fragile. Verbal and physical violence, humorous or not, simmer under a thin façade. Such emotion, like the individuals who possess them, quivers on the fine line that divides success from failure.

This is not to say that The Fun Parts loiters in misery. If anything, the collection finds some of its finest moments laughing at despair. And much of this success comes from Lipsyte’s terrific use of language. A student of Gordon Lish, the author borrows liberally from his mentor’s literary toolbox, frequently employing Lish’s idea of consecution to his writing. As defined by Jason Lucarelli in his essay “The Consecution of Gordon Lish,” consecution is, “about continually coaxing action, conflict, and interest out of prior sentences by bringing out what is implied or suggested in what has already been written.” This technique includes the use of image patterning, alliteration, repetition, and parallel construction, among others, to construct strong, momentum-building narratives.

As an example, “The Climber Room” contains two repeated images: Jesus Christ and penetration. One, in a way, implies the other, and yet they transpire separately within the narrative. The first image echoing Christ occurs when Tovah is at a market checkout counter. “You didn’t die for my sins, lady,” the register employee tells her. “So don’t go building a cross for yourself.” Later, Tovah thinks about a past moment of comfort and equates it to “the way Jesus must have worked.” When she then considers having a child of her own, Jesus returns with the quip: “You couldn’t be pregnant if you hadn’t been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah.” And, finally, Jesus Christ makes an appearance in a panicked curse, when Randy exclaims, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Similarly, the image and concept of penetration begins its patterning when Tovah suffers from a stomachache so painful, it is as if “a miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil.” In the next paragraph, her fountain pen is said to have “impaled” a pillow. This pattern continues throughout the story, from reference made to a heroin addiction, to “sharp” dollar bills and gold-digging implements “edged enough to carve.” And the ultimate payoff is the story’s final image: that of Randy standing in front of Tovah with his penis exposed, ready for sex, the ultimate penetration.

The two repeated images in “The Climber Room” create a kind of thematic consecution, providing, as defined in Lucarelli’s essay, “a deeper level of coherence and unity to a story with passages that offer insight into story meaning.”

Lipsyte also employs alliteration to add a bouncy depth to his narratives. The pregnant couple in “The Wisdom of the Doulas” is described as the type lost without “their antique Ataris and sarcastic sneakers.” Within the first two pages of “The Climber Room,” parents are called “crypto-creepy,” and Dezzy is complimented on her “sparkly shoes.” Talk of Dezzy’s sparkle shoes then leads to the memory of a home, which is called “dizzying.” Dezzy, sparkly, dizzy. Likewise, Lipsyte finds strong use for parallel construction in these stories. The boy at the beginning of “Snacks,” in considering the perks of losing weight, mentions the possibility of receiving “blow jobs,” “hand jobs,” and “all the jobs” from his sister’s friends. And when Tovah in “The Climber Room” meets an old flame for dinner, the third person narration notes: “The shock about Sean was his shock of white hair.” This playfulness creates action at the base level of sentence, and in turn strengthens the overall work.

In the end, though, what makes The Fun Parts such a joy to read is Lipsyte’s commitment to creating environments and situations that are often left in the shadows of contemporary American literature. In a 2010 interview with Paris Review, the author said, “I write what I want. I try to write what I’d like to read. I think about not wasting a reader’s time, my own included.” This personal enjoyment is evident in his stories, where the losers find a voice, even if they continue to stumble toward obscurity.

Benjamin Woodard


Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Apr 032013

Bob Day post

April is National Poetry Month and, to celebrate, Robert Day (my teacher at Iowa, the man who walked into the classroom the first day and wrote across the length of the blackboard REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM) herewith offers a witty and casually erudite meditation on the poems of John Ashbery and Tadeusz Różewicz, this “chance encounter” taking place in a dining room in Kansas City. Yes, folks, in America today, despite all the narrowness, spleen and vitriol exhibited in the legislatures of the country, it is still possible to find a dining room in Kansas City where two people talk intelligently about poems, quote lines, and pass books back and forth across the table. Now if we could just spread the light.

I should add that Bob, in his amiably noncommittal way, has allowed as he might do more of these literary “chance encounters” for NC, make them a semi-regular or irregular feature. Please help me twist his arm.


Robert Day


“….that old woman who/is leading a goat by a rope/is more necessary/and more precious/than the seven wonders/of the world/any one who thinks and feels/that she is not necessary/is a mass-murderer…” 
—Tadeusz Różewicz, from In the Midst of Life

“…Ah nerts,/…this guy’s too much for me.”
—John Ashbery, from Self –Portrait on a Convex Mirror

By chance:  I was reading  John Ashbery’s poem “Resisting Arrest” in the April 30th , 2012, issue of the New Yorker at Fred Whitehead’s dining room table in Kansas City, Kansas.

–Look at this, I said.

–Look at this, Fred said, and handed me a copy of Tadeusz Różewicz’s  New Poems.

If the world of political religion were only as generous and accommodating as the world of poetry we could all live in un-interesting times, unless you count reading verse that makes nothing happen (in both senses of Auden’s famous phrase) as interesting.  Which I do.

That these two poets are popular and splendid in ways beyond their received definitions (Ashbery, the modern master of Ars Poetica yoked to back stories; Różewicz, the voice of poetry as assertion), is evidence that some small part of what passes as modern civilization is free from cant, hypocrisy, and contempt—not to mention drone strikes, suicide bombers, female circumcision, and the mass murders of innocents by tyrants fat and skinny.

An Ashbery poem—at least like “Resisting Arrest”—begins in the middle of…. what?  And goes from there with interruptions by folk mostly inside the poem. Exits and entrances pursued by themselves.  The stanzas are verbal brush stokes (in French coup de pinceau, as I recently learned from writing a short story) that are being applied (even as we watch) to the making of abstract expressionist verse.  It is what William Stafford called the “adventure” of writing.  But for most poets we don’t watch the adventure in process.  Ashbery’s process is his poetry.

He told a cheering crowd the infighting was over
at least for that day.  They had more affairs
to remember than just that one time. Why,
he went over it and that was that. Plethoras
 to be announced, etc.  You’re telling me.

That is not the first stanza of Resisting Arrest, but why not?  Begin anywhere, to borrow the title of Frank Giampietro’s astonishing poem from his book by the same name (Alice James Books).

However, Różewicz is narrative.  His strength is the absence of mystery about who is talking, and about what:

Tuesday April 23
the 113th day of 2002

I have the day off

I listen to the rain falling
I read poems
By Staff and Tuwim


An adventure of sorts, but it does matter where we begin: elsewhere and everywhere in New Poems:

On the road
of my life
which has been straight
though sometimes
it disappeared
round the bend
of history

there were whirlings

on the road of life.

      ……..      (From:  “on the road”)

Różewicz’s is the road taken, and there are plenty of folk along the way:

I read Chekhov smile at him
What a kind good man
He must have loved people…
“ich sterbe” he said and passed away

        …..    (From: “The poet’s other mystery”)

was right
not to be fond
of capitalists and money lenders
he sought to drive the merchants
from the temple…

too bad Pound never finished
Mein Kampf
Before he started extolling
The Fuhrer

………………( From: “Too Bad”)

We meet people in Ashbery’s travels as well, but mostly they seem residents of the poem:

A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Linda, Pats and Sheilas
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it?

……….( From: “Mixed Feelings”)

What both poets have in common is the allure of their language.  In Ashbery it is mystery coupled with glamour. In Różewicz  the language is  attractive because of his minimal bluntness.  And both poets are diarists; it is just that Ashbery’s entries are coded, and Różewicz’s are not.  That, too, is part of their respective allure.

–Poetry is what gets lost in explaining it, I say to Fred, sort of quoting (I think) Frost.

–Talking about literature is as natural as breathing, Fred says.  Eliot.

I am trying to remember what Philip Larkin said about all this so I can keep our verbal duel going, but my mind shoots blanks some days—and this is one of them.

“Globed fruit” comes to mind, but I know that is not Larkin. To cover my tracks, I read two poems out loud, one from each:

philosopher’s stone

this poem
should be put to sleep
before it starts
to philosophize
before it starts

to cast about
for compliments

summoned to life
in a forgetful moment

attuned to word
to glances
it seeks deliverance
from a philosopher’s
passerby walk on
don’t lift the stone

under it a tiny white poem
is turning
to ash


Paradoxes and Oxymorons

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you.  You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget.  You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you.  You miss each other

The poem is sad because it want to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level?  It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play.  Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thinking, a dreamed role-pattern
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof.  Open-ended.  And before you know it
It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more.  I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude.  And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you.  The poem is you.

Fred and I are quiet for a moment wondering (at least I am) can anyone not know to whom these poems belong?  Then we talk more about language, and how Ashbery’s vernacular  becomes literary in spite of itself:

The difficulty with that is
I no longer have any metaphysical reasons
For doing the things I do.
Night formulates, the rest is up to the scribes and the eunuchs.

………(From: The Preludes)

As for Różewicz and his plain style, at the end of “learning to walk” Jesus edits him as follows:

then He came to a stop
and said
strike out one “big word”
from your poem
strike out the word “beauty”

Which apparently Różewicz did, as it does not otherwise appear.

By chance: It is also true that The Library of American’s edition of Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Archipelago Books’ edition of Różewicz’s New Poems, are both elegant in binding and design—albeit, like the poets themselves, in different ways.  Which brings me to (in fact) the opening stanza of “Resisting Arrest.”

A year and day later the wolf stopped
by as planned.  He made conversation
about this and that but you could tell
from the way he favored his gums that all was not
well.  Later the driving pool shifted.
I had no idea that you were planning
to stage an operation but it’s all right
this time.  Then I read your account and
was dully impressed, right at the edge
of the sea where the land asserts itself.

 –What’s that about? Fred asked.

 –Beginning anywhere, I said.  And maybe the end of “No meaning except in things.”

 –William Carlos Williams, Fred said.

 –“Globed Fruit.” Archibald McLeish. I said.

 –I think so, Fred said.

 —Robert Day


Robert Days most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by BookMark Press. His novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.  His short fiction has won a number of prizes and citations, including two Seaton Prizes, a Pen Faulkner/NEA prize, and Best American Short story and Pushcart citations. His fiction has been published by Tri-Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Kansas Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and New Letters among other belles-lettres magazines. He is the author of two novellas, In My Stead, and The Four wheel Drive Quartet, as well as Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of short stories.

His nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes FYI,  Modern Maturity, World Literature Today, and American Scholar. As a member of the Prairie Writers Circle his essays have been reprinted in numerous newspapers and journals nationwide, and on such inter-net sites as Counterpunch. Recent book publications include We Should Have Come By Water (poems) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction).

Among his awards and fellowships are a National Endowment to the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Yaddo and McDowell Fellowships, a Maryland Arts Council Award, and the Edgar Wolfe Award for distinguished fiction.  His teaching positions include The Iowa Writers Workshop; The University of Kansas; and the Graduate Faculty at Montaigne College, The University of Bordeaux.

He is past President of the Associated Writing Programs; the founder and former director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House; and founder and publisher of the Literary House Press at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland where he is an Adjunct Professor of English Literature.


Apr 022013

Sheila Heti Photo by Lee Towndrow -Sheila Heti: Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sheila Heti is a Toronto writer whose 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? created a trans-Atlantic sensation. It was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and it has just made the long list for the prestigious The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in the UK. David Haglund in The New York Times Book Review wrote: “Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.” The Economist‘s reviewer said: “Ms. Heti’s deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila’s journey so engaging… [Her] mordant take on modernity encourages introspection. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself.” And in The New Yorker, no less a critic than James Wood opined: “[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.”

It’s a delight to publish here what might be the definitive Sheila Heti interview, a lengthy, intimate, wide-ranging conversation with Jill Margo as interlocutor. Margo probes and nudges most gracefully and does not limit the topics to the purely literary.  Her interview has the aura of something overheard, and what you overhear are two intelligent women talking about art and the writing life. It’s a treat.



I interviewed Sheila Heti at her home in July of 2012 on one of those disgustingly hot and humid Toronto days that—to swipe a phrase from Billie Livingston—felt like “being under a dog’s tongue.” Sheila, as it turned out, lives not far from me on the top floor of a house on a corner lot that I’d walked by several times before. I’d always admired the place because of its gothically romantic and overgrown garden that disappears the tall fence and nearly obscures the house.

When Sheila came to the door, she looked cool (literally) and put together. She was even wearing nice, proper shoes instead of flip flops or bare feet. I’m not sure if I would’ve thought to put shoes on if I was being interviewed in my own home—especially in that heat. I couldn’t decide if it was a gesture of fashion, professionalism, or maybe even a kind of guardedness.

I had met Sheila twice before. The first time was around 2001 when she read from her debut book, a story collection called The Middle Stories, at a reading series I hosted in Victoria, BC. The second time was nearly ten years later, in 2011, when I hosted her reading at the Robson Reading Series in Vancouver. That was the year after her fifth and most recent book, How Should a Person Be? had been released by Anansi in Canada. It was published the following year in the U.S. by Henry Holt & Company and has since been featured on many Best Books of 2012 lists, including in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Salon, Flavorpill, The New Republic, and The New York Observer.

How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “a novel from life” and is described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.” It exists in ambiguity between the real and the fictional. Its characters are based on Heti and her friends and, for the most part, appear to have their same names. There are emails and transcribed conversations throughout the book that could be considered real documentation. The book is structurally and thematically compelling and I’ve recommended it to many of my friends and colleagues because it’s well-written and occupies such an interesting space in the zeitgeist.

In the years between the two times I hosted her for readings, Heti has published three other books, including a novel, Ticknor, (2005); and an illustrated book for children, We Need a Horse, (2011), featuring art by Clare Rojas; and with Misha Glouberman, a book of “conversational philosophy” called The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which The New Yorker chose as one of its Best Books of 2011.

Heti also works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. It’s also of note that in 2001, she created the ever-popular Trampoline Hall lecture series (hosted by Misha Glouberman), at which three people deliver lectures on subjects outside their areas of expertise, then take questions from the audience.

It was a pleasure to talk to Sheila and to be reminded how a writer should be along the way.

— Jill Margo



JM:  Let’s start at the beginning. Your first book was The Middle Stories. It was published when you were twenty-four. Tell me a little bit about where you were at when you wrote that book.

SH:  I was studying art history and philosophy at U of T and it was around the time I was twenty-one or so. I was trying to teach myself how to write. The last writing I’d done before that was at the National Theatre School where I was studying playwrighting, but that didn’t really end up working out for me. So I started to write stories. I was writing a lot and I was writing very quickly and all I really wanted to do was get to the end of each story. I’d sit down and write five or six in a row. In the actual collection, the stories are pretty much as they were written and were only very lightly edited. Mainly, the editing was me selecting the good ones from the hundreds of stories that were just nothing—that didn’t have any spark in them or anything.

JM:  Did you always want to be a writer?

SH:  It was one of the things I always wanted to be since I was a kid, and I also wanted to do other things. Like a lot of artistic kids, you just sort of want to do everything— you want to act, and you want to direct plays, and you want to write, and you want to draw. But writing always fit in there.

JM:  What about the family you grew up with—did they support your artistic endeavors?

SH:  I think my mom didn’t necessarily want this for me, but my dad supported anything I did. He didn’t have preset ideas of what his daughter should be like, or what his daughter should do. He supported me when I wanted to act, he supported me when I wanted to write. He was always very encouraging.

JM:  What do you think is the best thing you ever did for yourself as a writer?

SH:  Probably moving out when I was seventeen, and supporting myself since then. I think it gives you some confidence and a lack of fear to know that you can support yourself from a young age. I’ve never had to support myself in ways that hurt my ability to write so that gave me confidence that I could perhaps write and support myself over many years.

I think maybe the worst thing I could have done would’ve been to get a well-paying job at a young age that I then got locked into because I got used to a higher standard of living. I think moving out at seventeen and living on so little meant I got used to a low standard of living and I know if I had to, I could always go back to that.

JM:  What other kinds of jobs have you had?

SH:  I worked as an editor at this magazine called Shift, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a technology and culture magazine in Toronto. I’ve done temping and I’ve worked in restaurants and just the usual kind of makeshift things.

JM:  Do you feel like you’ve had to be quite strategic with your writing career?

SH:  No, I’ve had a lot of good luck. I’ve never been afraid of sending my stuff out so that’s allowed for good luck to happen because I haven’t just been on an island. I sent my stories to McSweeney’s, but if I didn’t send them, they never would have published them, so I think that’s paired with good luck. I don’t think I’ve had a strategy; I’ve had a desire to be in the world.



JM:  Technically, how do you write—when and where and with what?

SH:  I use my computer. I’ve always used a computer. I usually write in this middle room in the place where I live. I always usually just write in whatever apartment I’m living in. I don’t write in cafés or anything like that. I can’t imagine it. I don’t write with music on. I don’t like having people around. That’s pretty typical.

And then I just write whenever I want to. I don’t really have a schedule. I used to worry a lot about that. I used to think that you had to have a schedule but I realized that I don’t need one. I like writing enough and I want to write enough that I do write enough. I don’t have to beat myself with a stick.

Every day is completely different. I feel different every day when I wake up, and what I want to do every day is different. By this point in my life I have so many different projects that I’m working on, like editing interviews for The Believer and various collaborations, that there’s always something I most want to do. I figured that out a few years ago. I used to think that you could only work on one thing at a time but I realized that it’s better to work on lots of different things because that way there’s always something that you’re in the mood to work on.

JM:  Was it much of a struggle to just let yourself work organically like that?

SH:  It took probably ten years or so for me to accept my way working, and to believe that work was going to get done. But when I was writing The Middle Stories, even then my only discipline was that when I felt like writing I had to write. You can’t miss those times. That was the foundation of discipline for me. I really tried to be sensitive to those moments. Sometimes I’d leave class and go home to write. Now, I don’t just wait for those moments of, let’s say, inspiration, but I still try to always write when I have that feeling. If I don’t—if I have the feeling, but instead watch a movie, or read a book, or go on the Internet or email—then I feel really bad and like I’ve let myself down. It’s like something wanted to be expressed in that moment and I missed it and I’ll never get it back.

JM:  Do you know the late poet Ruth Stone? She said that when a poem came barreling across the fields where she was working she had to stop what she was doing and run and catch it. If she had to, she’d grab it by the tail and pull it back towards her. I’ve always loved that image. You’re basically saying the same thing—that you have to capture the moments and trust that the writing is going to get done.

SH:  I have to trust that it’s going to get done and that that’s just me and that’s just my process and there’s nothing to really worry about. And if it doesn’t get done, also, who cares?  If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. The world doesn’t need your books. So it seems silly to force yourself to write if there’s nothing to write.

JM:  “The world doesn’t need your books” is an interesting statement coming from a writer. Can you talk about that a bit more?

SH:  Well, the world isn’t sitting around waiting for your books. The world is taking care of children and making money to pay the rent and eating dinner. If you don’t write your books, pretty much who cares? There are already more than enough good books for any reading person. You do it because you want to, not because the world is begging you.

JM:  Earlier, you said that the stories in The Middle Stories weren’t really edited and that the ones without spark were just thrown out. That’s unusual. Can you talk about your editing process—or lack of it—then vs. now?

SH:  It’s something I’ve learned to do over the years. I’m not sure what I thought in the beginning. I guess I must have thought that everything I did was perfect. Now I see all the ways the things I’ve written can be better and better, almost to infinity. I don’t think it’s because my standards have changed, but my imagination for what writing can do has expanded. I used to only think about writing in terms of the sentence, but now I think that a piece of writing can be a game that a readers uses to play with the world, a book can be so many things. So all new kinds of calibration are needed.

JM:  Do you have any superstitions or rituals around writing or do you take a strictly pragmatic approach?

SH:  I don’t have any superstitions or rituals around it. No… no, I can’t think of any.

It’s just work. It’s a certain kind of work, but it still is work. You have to put in a lot of time, but I don’t think superstition comes into it. I don’t think magic comes into it, apart from the magic that comes into it when you work. That’s magic—when things happen that you weren’t trying to make happen, but sort of happen on their own. It’s like, if you work for a number of years on something, then there are just layers to it that give it more meaning than you could give it if you just spent a week or a month on it. I think that’s the most interesting thing about writing—working on something over five or six years. I’ve learned to really love that. I guess Ticknor was my first experience of that. You’d think that you’d get bored, but there are so many different angles on something and there’s a whole world that you’re looking at and so I think the text becomes more intelligent the more time you spend on it.

JM:  I think so, too.

SH:  I don’t think two years is enough.

JM:  I wonder what Joyce Carol Oates would say?

SH:  [Laughs.] For me, I think you need five years. That so far seems like the right amount of time to spend on a book. Maybe seven years is even better. That’s one full cycle they say, right?

JM:  Do you always feel that patient with the process?

SH:  Mm-hmm. Yeah.

JM:  So you’re really, truly enjoying the process?

SH:  I mean, what’s the rush? You want to make something good.


JM:  What do you consider your best or favourite piece of writing—and not necessarily a whole book?

SH:  I don’t have that, but I really like doing the interviews that I do for The Believer. I like—I love editing them. I think that it’s really fun. I find that the most enjoyable work—I don’t know if it’s the best work, but it’s probably the most enjoyable work that I’m doing these days.

JM:  What do you like about it?

SH:  I like other people’s voices and I like how other people think and I like how other people express things and I think editing an interview is really fun. I think it’s some suppressed playwrighting urge. I move things around a lot. I change people’s sentences sometimes. I cut things out. I really edit it a lot. I try to edit it in such a way that when I send it back to the person I interviewed they don’t think I’ve done anything to it because it still seems like them and feels like them.

JM:  Trampoline Hall, which you started, is also about curated voices and it’s hosted by Misha Glouberman, whose words you transcribed for The Chairs Are Where the People Go. So other people’s voices really are a thing for you. I wonder how much of that has to do with the writer wanting to get out from behind her desk and engage with the world?

SH:  That’s part of it. Part of it is just—I know what I think, what I feel. My biggest fantasy is always being inside someone else’s body, their experience of the world. Sure, I can imagine that from behind my desk, but I can also approach it more directly, but actually talking to people.

JM:  What writers, past and present, do you feel closest to?

SH:  I love Kierkeggard. I love Jane Bowles. I love C.S. Lewis. I guess those are the first ones that come to mind. In the present [scans the bookshelves in the room], I like Helen DeWitt a lot. I love Ben Lerner’s recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station and Sarah Manguso’s memoir about her illness. Leanne Shapton’s work I really like a lot…

A lot of those are people I know, but with the exception of Leanne, who I met through a friend when we were quite a bit younger, I know them because I like their work. I want to know the writers who are alive today whose work I like. I want to talk to them.

JM:  You have an amazing multi-disciplinary artistic community yourself. How does your community—having a network—support you as a writer in your life?

SH:  It’s everything. I don’t think you can exist professionally—not to mention as a human—apart from the support of other people. I think people put a lot of emphasis on being published, but I don’t think being published is exactly what matters. I do think you need people that think you’re great and that think your work is meaningful. They don’t have to be people that can publish you, but that have to be people who believe in you and can be critical of you.

I’ve always had people to show my work to and I’ve managed to find supporters. I feel like the work doesn’t really exist in the absence of somebody else engaging with it. I think one often shows their work hoping it’s done and hoping that somebody else will say it’s done, but really the deeper hope is that they’ll say it’s not done. It feel like it’s important to hear that things are not done, that things are not ready. With Ticknor, one of the most important things my editor, Martha Sharpe, said to me when I handed in the book was that it wasn’t done. She didn’t even say why. Margaux said the same thing when I showed her How Should a Person Be? I guess athletes have coaches, but for a writer it’s someone who says “it’s not done.” You always know what needs to be done though… no one needs to tell you that.

JM:  Do you have the same first readers?

SH:  They changes slowly over time, just like one’s friends change over time.



JM:  Let’s talk about How Should a Person Be? It’s been called “odd” by The New York Times Book Review and “weird” by Margaret Atwood and Geist Magazine and none of them meant it in a bad way. I think it is probably meant in terms of structure, but I’m not sure because I personally don’t find the book “odd” or “weird”. Do you think it is?

SH:  I don’t know. I think that maybe it is in comparison to a straight-forward, realistic narrative of the kind that you tend to see, but I don’t think it’s odd in itself. I think it makes a lot of sense.

JM:  What do you think they meant? I’ve puzzled over this myself.

SH:  I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter to me. People just use the words that they have. They’re trying to communicate to their reader that it’s unusual.

JM:  How did the unusual structure evolve?

SH:  Just really gradually over the years. I had a lot of different sections that were unrelated on the surface. Only I could see their relation, but I had to bring the relation between them out so I think the book became more narrative and became more of a story. Things that were just so far outside the world of the book fell away and I made Margaux and Sheila and their friendship more the focus over the years. I think it was more intellectual earlier on and more philosophical. It was more about ideas than the people.

JM:  How or why did it become less about ideas?

SH:  I just felt some of that stuff was perhaps not as interesting. It’s better to put the philosophy into the action of the characters and the form itself, as opposed to just stating what you’re thinking. I think if you put it into the bodies then it sticks around in the reader’s memory longer. It’s more emotional and more visual.

JM:  Philosophy is part of your background and education. Psychology seems to play a part in the book as well—

SH:  With the Jungian analyst—

JM:  Otto Rank is mentioned as well.

SH:  Psychoanalysis was the 20th century’s great new field, wasn’t it? It affected all the artistic work that has been done in the last hundred years and it really changed the way we see sex and sexuality. It’s huge. It’s hard not to think about what Freud has done to us. One of the things I wanted to do with this book early on was to write a history of art. I just couldn’t because I’m not a historian, but I think some of that fascination with art’s development and change over time, and the influence of psychoanalysis upon it recently, has remained.

JM:  I wonder about “authenticity” too. There seems to be a never-ending search for it these days. Does the book critique that or participate in it?

SH:  I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking that word a lot.

JM:  No?

SH:  I don’t really understand what you’re being authentic to. The idea of authenticity is that there’s a fixed, certain central self that you can move closer to or further away from. I don’t know that I believe that—that there’s this one fixed self that you’re betraying or being loyal to depending on how you behave.

JM:  I think the notion of authenticity is very much a product of our time and the market. David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, argues for authenticity and I know Shields gave your book a positive blurb so he must have seen something that furthered his argument. Is the book consciously attacking the ideas of what fiction should be though?

SH:  I don’t see the book as an attack, it’s just not interested in a lot of the conventions because I just found them really boring. I just find a lot of fiction boring. I have all my life.

JM:  The book is subtitled “A novel from life”, so that to me means that it blends fiction with autobiography. So, is that hybrid what you find most exciting? Can you talk a bit about that?

SH:  No, I’m not interested in that in itself. If you tell me that someone has written a “hybrid” book I wouldn’t by that fact be excited to read it. I like when writers do what they have to do. I had to write the book in this way because I wanted to think about what we owe to other people, and what the artist owes to the people around them, and I thought the only way to do that would be to put it to the test—to engage and write about my friends and in the process answer some of these questions for myself. I couldn’t have moved forward in any other way. There were some questions I needed answers for, and fiction was the only way to answer them, and so was talking to my friends.


JM:  Did you have a personal code of ethics—dos and don’ts—for using real people, like Margaux Williamson, as characters in the book?

SH:  I would have never used somebody’s name if I hadn’t got them to read the manuscript many times and received their approval. I have very rarely written about real people without them knowing it. Mostly it’s a matter of consent and I’d say consent was about 90 percent there.

JM:  So you asked the people before or as you were writing about them?

SH:  As it was happening. I had a friend who didn’t want to be taped or written about, so I didn’t tape or write about him. I kind of gauged who was interested in being part of it and who wasn’t.

JM: Was there anything off limits that came up?

SH:  Yeah, of course. You make all sorts of decisions about that and the sensitivity of the people around you.

JM:  Was there any backlash to any of that or did you come out relatively unscathed?

SH:  No, no backlash. I don’t know what you really mean by backlash but my friends are still my friends and everything is okay. People are usually more upset about not being in something you’ve written.

JM:  You found that?

SH:  I’ve found that all along from my whole time writing.

JM:  I read somewhere that you can’t imagine working with completely fictional characters again since writing How Should a Person Be? Is that true now, and if so, why?

SH:  I’ve never said that and it’s not true. Right after finishing that book I wrote, in a week, an entirely new book made up of fictional characters in fictional scenarios. There was some part of me that was longing to do that, I think. It’s so much easier to follow your imagination than to deal with other people and try to follow your imagination at the same time.



JM:  There are several references to sand in the book. For example, Sheila blows a speck of it off of the spine of a book and she brushes it off a seat on a bus. What’s up with the sand?

SH:  It’s because they’re in the desert. I wanted to suggest that it is still the desert. There is this echo of the desert or this residual desert tying all my characters to the Jews and the exodus and wandering and trying to find—I mean, the Jews in the desert got The Ten Commandments, you know, to try and figure out how to live, and they wanted the answers and the rules. I evoke Moses a lot in the book and so the sand relates to all of that.

JM:  I figured it was part of the underlying Jewish narrative—the forty years in the desert. To what extent does Sheila the character and Sheila the writer tap into that metaphor and make it her own?

SH:  It’s in the book. I can’t really explain it more than that. Sheila the character wants to answer the question about how to be and she wants to be a great person.

JM:  But what about Sheila, the writer—you—do you want those things too? Or, would you rather we, the readers, not think about that?

SH:  I don’t think anyone wants to be a lousy person.

JM:  What about Israel’s name being Israel? Is there any significance to that?

SH:  There’s lots, but I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to say point by point what I was thinking, mainly because I can’t remember. Also, I was thinking so many things Of course there are so many connotations to the kind of place Israel actually is and ideally is, and how Sheila feels about how her lover actually is and ideally could be.



JM:  When people talk about this book they inevitably talk about the sex. In some ways, that makes me want to not talk about the sex, because there are a lot of other things going on in the book. At the same time it’s something I, as a reader, am still trying to make sense of. The sex scenes are tonally different than the rest of the book and float apart from the main narrative involving Margaux. How did you intend the sex scenes to work—what’s their function?

SH:  Their function was sex. Their function was the body and the uncontrollable force. The thing that takes you over, despite yourself. I think that the writing is different because it’s different to be in sex than it is to be in conversation. Also, Israel is not a boyfriend, he’s a lover. Sex with a reliable boyfriend would be portrayed differently.

JM:  The blow job is presented more as an art form than a sex act. There is a point when Sheila talks about perfecting the blow job that made me think of Martha Stewart. I say this with tongue in cheek, but it’s that same sense of obsession, dedication and perfectionism that she has. Martha also turns what could be considered—in stereotypical and heteronormative terms— banal, ‘women’s work’ into art too. Why blow jobs?

SH: I feel like it’s kind of a joke.

JM:  Mm-hmm.

SH:  I was also thinking about Internet porn. Would we have become so interested in Paris Hilton if it wasn’t for her sex video and all these goddamn sex videos?  The blow jobs also related to the work of art that isn’t an object—the work of art that is an act, which Sheila is so obsessed with after reading Otto Rank. It’s just—I mean, it’s silly and it’s awful and it’s terrible to think about, and it’s funny and it’s degrading and it says something about—well, what are we more interested in? Seeing women make their paintings or seeing women perform blow jobs? Obviously the second. That’s the age we’re in. Maybe that’s always been the age. Maybe history has always been in that age but only now do we have the Internet with all its porn, and men and women can see so much of it, and do.

JM:  There’s a real satirical element to it.

SH:  It’s pathetic. But maybe it’s not pathetic. Maybe there’s something there. I don’t know.

JM:  I’m thinking about some of the men I’ve talked to about this book. There were a few confessions—when pressed—that reading the sex scenes made them feel insecure. In other words, women are used to being objectified but men aren’t. Was there any element of payback?

SH:  How could it be payback? People watch porn that’s all about worshipping the cock. How could it be so different to read about it than to see a video about it? Why should the words make them so much more uncomfortable than the image? Is it just weird to be inside of the woman’s head instead of inside the man’s head when you watch porn?

JM:  Yes, that’s exactly it, I think. It’s the female gaze, as opposed to the usual male gaze. If women write about sex, people talk about it. Even if a female author only mentions sex on three pages of a whole book, especially if it’s explicit, it’ll get talked about. There’s something to that.

SH:  Why does it make men feel insecure?

JM:  Mm-hm.

SH:  No, I’m asking you. You’ve talked to them.

JM:  If the female gaze is worshipping a cock, I think men want to know how they measure up.

SH:  Really? That’s interesting. Like, I’m not as good a lover as that character… or no one’s worshipped my cock… or I don’t have a big cock… or what?

JM:  All of the above, maybe. Just like how women measure themselves up to the women depicted through the male gaze. Also, I think men are surprised to find out that women think about cocks that much.

SH:   I don’t know if women do. It was just that piece of writing.

JM:  I think it plants a seed—

SH:  I’ve had more men respond to, “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.” There’s a friend of mine who I asked for some advice about a work thing and he was like, “Well I have an opinion about it but I don’t want to be another man who’s trying to teach you something.” And I’m like, “Look you’re my friend, my colleague, and I’m asking you for your advice.” That’s the thing that gets back to me, not the sex stuff.

JM:  I only talked to a small sample of men, so who knows how representative they were, but your book made them, at least, think about their own sexuality and whether they measured up.

SH:  It wasn’t what I was going for.

JM:  It’d be great though if your book made James Wood think about his… wood.



JM:  At one point in the book, Sheila says she has to take a “massive shit”; she repeatedly objectifies Israel’s cock; she is ambitious, and; at the core of the book is Sheila’s friendship with Margaux, which revolves around dialogue on art rather than on men. These things don’t scream “girly narrative” to me and yet, that is what some of the media have deemed it to be. How offensive do you find that to be?

SH:  I don’t care. I don’t care what anyone says about the book. It doesn’t touch me. I read what people write about it because I’m really curious but I don’t really feel like my doing this is right, or wrong, or good for the book, or bad for the book. Anyway, this is just a first wave of responses and I don’t think the verdict of any book is determined by the first wave of responses.

JM:  But you didn’t sit down to write a girly narrative.

SH:  No, but I don’t care if someone says that. You put something in the world because you want people to having feelings and thoughts about it.

JM:  Has it made you notice anything about the world and people who are still treating women a certain way?

SH:  I’ve always known that women writers and male writers are looked at through different lenses, but so are male athletes and female athletes, and so are mothers and fathers. On a certain level, I think we’ll always have that, unless gender stuff gets so fucked up in the future that male and female become so small.

JM:  I think that the sex scenes and supposed girly narrative are not the most interesting things to talk about when talking about this book, yet the responses are interesting to me.

SH:  It’s fun to see that stuff going on in America. In Canada, nobody was talking about the book in that way, so it’s cool to see it being used as a prop in peoples’ arguments. It’s funny. It’s interesting to hear.



JM:  The book was first published in Canada in 2010 and is now having a second life having been published in the States, with revisions, this June. Though you had dedicated readers and admirers here in Canada when the book first came out, I still found the response to be underwhelming. The book, sadly, wasn’t even considered for any of Canada’s major literary prizes. The response in the U.S., however, could be described as overwhelming—including major coverage in The New Yorker. Why do you think that is?

SH:  I’ve experienced that difference from the very beginning of my career. I could not get published in Canada. I sent my stories to every literary journal in the country for years. I sent four stories to McSweeney’s and they published them.

I think America just has a completely different aesthetic than Canada and it’s a less conservative place. America likes to fight and I think people are more open there. Canadians pretend to be very open but I don’t really think that’s true. I know a lot of Canadians who, as individuals, are open, but I think as a culture we’re not.

Canada is a very ‘pay your dues’ kind of place. The perfect title for a Canadian book is Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are. That’s the problem with Canada in terms of being an artist here. There’s great financial support, but there isn’t a lot of cultural support and I think a lot of writers would agree with me. We do have some great people writing about books and we do have great readers, but it’s not a mass, it’s just these dots of light.

JM:  Do you feel a sense of rejection from the literary powers that be? As a reader, I feel that you should be on more lists and that you’re not the only one in Canada that’s been looked over.

SH:  I had no expectation that I’d be on any of those lists.

JM:  Do you feel let down by that at all?

SH:  No, it’s not my stomping ground, you know? I don’t get invited to the Griffins or the Gillers. I’ve never been invited to read at Harbourfront. I just don’t get those invitations.

JM:  I hear you when you say that’s expected because it’s happened since day one, but no outrage for that?

SH:  Certainly not outrage. I mean, I kind of figured out my place when The Middle Stories came out and was so weirdly received, and when my stories weren’t being published here. You quickly get used to that kind of rejection so it becomes the norm. Then I think, maybe this is actually better because I live here and I have a nice life here and I write here and I have all my friends here who I make art with, and my family. Then, in America, that’s where I publish and it’s like when you go downtown to your office and do your work there and then you go back home. So in some ways it’s nice to have those things separate.

Most of the money I make is from being published in American magazines, from my job at The Believer and publishing my books with American publishers. At this point in my life, I’m happy to have them separate and I don’t crave anything from Canada. I’ve had support here from Anansi, who has published all my books. Martha Sharpe is hugely important to me because she’s supported me from the beginning, but she’s no longer at Anansi. I have other supporters like Stephen Osborne at Geist and Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore in Montreal. Like I say, there are these little points of light and that’s good enough for me.

JM:  That’s a healthy way to look at it. I can tell you though that when I think about the Sheila Heti story from my point of view, there is something really pernicious about the prize cultures and the upper canon and how many people don’t fit in here. I also find it to be a heart-sinking feeling that we’re not always claiming our own in Canada.

SH:  America just has feelings about things much more easily as a culture than Canada. If you have a culture that doesn’t have feelings about art then you don’t have an artistic culture. I look at Shary Boyle, I look at people in the other arts—artists who I think are great—and I don’t see the culture having a lot of feelings for their work. I’m sure Shary has her supporters. I know tons of people who love her work. Despite her show at the AGO, you still don’t feel like there’s this feeling in Canada that we have a great artist here and that we want to make her greater. I suppose she’s representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, but there’s got to be more than that.

JM:  So you feel for her what I feel for you. Again, I maintain that there is something embarrassing about your own country not recognizing its artists as it should. What is there to learn from this?

SH:  I don’t know if there is anything to learn. I don’t know if Canada wants to learn. Do you think Canada wants to learn to be different in this regard?

JM:  I think Canada does recognize some amazingly talented people, but there needs to be a greater range of recognition.

SH:  They give you your grants. It’s almost like, here’s your money and leave us alone—or, we’re going to leave you alone. There’s just this weird—

JM:  Administrative approach.

SH:  Maybe, yeah. There’s just no emotion in it. The last sort of scandal I remember was when the National Gallery bought Voice of Fire. Do you remember this? It was like fifteen years ago. People were like, “It’s just red with a black stripe.” People got so angry about it. Has there even been a painting in the paper since then?

JM:  There was Sniffy the Rat. The artist Rick Gibson was going to crush the rat between two canvasses in downtown Vancouver, but was sabotaged and then chased by animal rights activists. That was the same year though.

SH:  Right. So our conversation is then about cruelty to animals or ‘I’m a taxpayer and I don’t want to spend all this money on a painting my kid could do.’

JM:  You must be grateful for the States.

SH:  Like I said, I’ve had a good career so far. I know a lot of people for whom it is incredibly depressing though. You can’t make a living in Canada as an artist in any satisfying way.

JM:  Would you ever leave Toronto?

SH:  I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not planning on leaving. I love Toronto. I love living here and I most want to live here. Who knows though? I’d also move if I had reason to.



JM:  Do you like talking about your current projects?

SH:  No.

JM:  Earlier you said that you have a “nice life.” Can you describe what makes your life nice—give us a little peek into the woman behind the writer?

SH:  I’m not sure what to say. I have a wonderful boyfriend, my brother lives nearby and so do Margaux and Misha. I recently got a little studio so now I don’t have dirty dishes calling to me when I’m working. I have a lot of books on my shelves that I can’t wait to read. The apartment we live in is very charming with a nice lawn. What else?

JM:  How should a writer be?

SH:  Oh. Well, I think you have to write whatever you want to write and not worry about how you’re going to come off or how you’re going to appear. You have to put your ego aside and not think, ‘People are going to look at me a certain way if I write this way.’ It matters zero. All that matters is the book, so you have to be willing to sacrifice some kind of decency, or appearance of decency, or else you’re going to come up against so many things that you won’t let yourself do. I think people are often afraid of the thing they most want to do and I think that’s the thing you should do. If all you want to do is write about red trucks and you think ‘that’s so childish’ and ‘who wants to read about red trucks’ then you just have to do it. You have to do that on every level and in every sentence.

I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a writer who isn’t doing radically what they want to do. I feel like there’s no other realm in life in which you can be free. You can’t be free in a relationship, you can’t be free as a mother, you can’t be free as a daughter, you can’t be free as a citizen, and you can’t be free in any realm of life. The only person who can be free is the artist through their work. They can’t be free as a human but the work can be free—they can be free with their work. I think that’s why we go to art, to see what the human is when they’re free.

If you’re not free, because you’re afraid you’re going to look weird to people or something like that, then I don’t see what there is to get out of the work or where the pleasure is for the reader. The thing one hopes for in a work of art is for it to be an example of freedom—and by freedom I think I mean totality—the totality of what a human is. Then people can experience every part of themselves. Going through life, you usually can’t experience every part of yourself on a day-to-day basis, but art should be a reminder of all the different parts of yourself and should light those up.

—Sheila Heti & Jill Margo


Jill Margo

Jill Margo’s work has been published in literary magazines and newspapers. She has been a finalist for both a Western Magazine Award and for The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. She is also a former executive director of the Victoria School of Writing and a former artistic director/host of two reading series (Sundays at the JBI and the Robson Reading Series). Originally from British Columbia, she moved to Toronto in the summer of 2011 to attend the University of Guelph’s MFA program. Her mentor through the program is Francisco Goldman. You can read a sample of her work online at Geist Magazine.


Mar 312013

Download1Marilyn R. Rosenberg & Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel, poet, fiction writer, and collagist extraordinaire, inventor of the pho-toem, has gone undercover for Numéro Cinq, searching out and interviewing a series of hybrid or conceptual artists (cross-genre art — ah, but is there any other kind?). Her first subject/artist was collagist Todd Bartel, and now she introduces us to the amazing book art of Marilyn R. Rosenberg of Peekskill, NY, who, yes, explodes the concept of book into a phantasmagoria of cutting, folding, sculpting, drawing, image layering, colorizing, painting — books become sculptures, words become objects, objects become poems, poems become objects AGAIN. We all love books, adore books, but mostly for their efficacy as carriers of words, which, if you follow the logic, leads us all to owning tablet readers; what Marilyn R. Rosenberg creates is the anti-Kindle; you can’t read these on a device; she creates unique books, not for dissemination but for themselves for the beauty of the thing.


READ, 2004, MRR, 200 dpiREAD, closed 5 1/8”h x 4 1/8”w, color photo copy edition of 15 with collage, visual poetry artists book with hand made pop up.

VERBIAGE, MRR, 2007, 200VERBIAGE, 22 1/2 h x 16 1/2” w, visual poetry/drawing.

NVW: Spending some time with the inside pages of these amazing books of yours, I’m interested in how you think about finding the right “balance” for a page—the page as drawing and the page as poem. I so admire the convergence of those two.

MRR: Both a work’s theme as well as its obvious or hidden contents decide everything about a particular page or bookwork. But how do all components, word meld into image, image size happen next to word size? How do I select hue, value and blank and filled areas?  How does relationship and interaction and placement of each component happen?  Balance is based on many things: sometimes the influence of the ground, i.e. the page, size, paper, book, either found or ready to be created with my own binding; each choice, alone or in combination with mark-making materials, adds and alters compositions, in variations, within a singular statement. Or sometimes, a word or sentence, in juxtaposition with a complex concept, causes all elements, individual ingredients, to evolve, to merge or disperse into something other than what was there before. Sometimes this happens with a noted life situation’s influence.  A record of something quickly seen, or a theme challenge either starts or enhances the new or long evolving ideas. Then the entire content shifts and what was added alters that balance, again.

Each piece starts differently and has different measures of balance and discord.  I start with combinations of words from notes I almost always make, and place them on a page, moving back and forth as image grows and turns into color. I hear words when I read them. While I work, the words turn into the image, and the image is the word heard.  Each theme develops at its own required speed: pensive, or chaotic, or restful or at a fast pace.  Almost always I build pages and bookworks from the ground up. Working back and forth, page here and then there again, word and image as one grow. All this goes on all the pages of one bookwork in the same back and forth rhythm. I must create rhythm and pace, cause loudness or quiet, allow rest or activity, as I remember agitation or pleasure. Balance of weight of words and more words as image, with color and weight of line and mass, happens after contemplation then action, thought and reaction. One thing changes everything. All relationships are decided by trial and error, in the context, and environment. Everything happens in relationship to everything else. Word placement, line length next to line weight, color next to color, word next to image, and dark next to light—these are just a few components that cause weight shift and change. I consider all of these components consciously all the time. Experience, trial and error, and then instinct takes over. But the work itself directs me and tells me what it needs and wants.

A merging in the first work completed in the series DRIFTS is a combination of two pages. From the paper bookwork, 6 WATER VOICES, 35 mm slides of pages #4. PUDDLING and #5. PROCRASTINATE, were scanned into the Imac computer and were set one on top and another below. Sections were changed.  Words and images were added; a new work evolved.

drift again, 2003, MRR, 200 dpiDRIFT AGAIN, size variable, visual poetry/drawing/virtual collage

Variations of the original complex virtual collage follow now, with a letter or two, or an object added. Each offshoot, manifestation, is altered slightly, evolved, and is slightly different, with a different title – DRIFTS, DRIFT HERE, and DRIFT AGAIN. All happened while I remembered, seeing/hearing the sound of the country stream/river/creek  next to my  window, heard again in the city sounds. Daily reminders of water in its various forms and containers inform my thinking. Water towers imply water contained, water towers reflect on the water surface; my environment, reality adds images/layers to the work, that is now in virtual reality.

listen hear water voices 2002LISTEN-HEAR, about 12.50″h x 32 “w, visual poem/drawing, facing pages

As well, from 6 WATER VOICES, created as facing pages using stencils, ink pens, brush and gouache, plus misc. media, is LISTEN-HEAR.  Parts of the pages in the entire bookwork were written and rewritten first as lists/prose over months of word working. The stencils’ outlines were marked first with graphite on acid free paper, and often changed or corrected before the gouache was used. Color was selected while thinking of both water at various depths and times of day and year, and the sound of both shallow and rushing water. The brush size and collage were carefully and intuitively informed selections, depending on size and hue and  color value needed. All happened while remembering the stream’s gurgling sound again, in the city’s humming. Water: there in the rivers and rain, and imagined inside the multiple water tanks sitting on the buildings.

REST, 2009-10, MRR, 200 DPIREST, was 37″h x 48″w*, visual poem/drawing, facing page.

OR WORK, 2010, 200 dpi, MRROR WORK, was 37″h x 48″w, visual poem/drawing, facing page.

Each title REST and OR WORK took almost a year. The words are the image, and the image is the word.  The word REST filled a large piece of paper then was circled and nested with images and  words, back and forth, around the page as needed. The words OR WORK were done the same way later, on another sheet. Content was based on my life (always eggs/birth, growth/continuation, and mouse/the uninvited always returning), and while working on other things.  Although individual works, these two were created as a pair. Their edges fit together, either one on the right or left, or one above and the other below.  Largely from colored pencil over graphite outline with created and purchased stencils, on watercolor washes, the works grew ground up, changing  balance in sections, and weight in areas.  Except in their photos and in altered images in virtual reality, the experimental works no longer exist in the real world.

NVW: The term “asemic writing” was new to me, but now I’m seeing it everywhere. Language that is without semantic content. It looks like language, but we cannot glean a precise meaning. Could you speak a little about how you see this sort of language functioning in your own work?

MRR: In works without any words at all, the reading sensation still exists.  There are a variety of works or part of works that contain what seems to be indecipherable language as calligraphic type marks. I think of them as records of events or talks to the dead and newborn in a language only they will understand. They are in groups living in the context of their page and bookwork. They are language before language; they feel as if they are the same as reading poems in a foreign land in its language. They are thoughts marked in code, my thoughts, my code. The sound is like a hum, a whisper, or jazz scatting. The visual shapes and placement of the marks, in combinations, make the mass and color, the rhythm and pacing. My abstract language is almost never made with repeated sections or combinations since a new read/sound always happens in each cluster.

etcExcerpt detail from page 16 from the edition etceteras 

NVW: There often seems an ongoing narrative moving through your books. So do you think of them in some ways as novels or a series of visual poems?

MRR: Life’s situations in combinations, and the observation of the dying and death experience, have been highlighted during the turn of the century in my works: birth and life; before birth and after death; the past/memories; dead hopes and satisfied joys of life and living it intensely make up the content. Abstracted narrative is often included. Diaries and lists are often here as visual poetry, often in unbound or bound artists’ books or bookworks. Dense and intense, some of the works have the qualities involved in ritual and meditative objects. The pages are sequential, for sure. Often the bookworks have a beginning and a middle, and then begin again—cyclical, or spiral—like the circle or egg.  The two continuous shapes so often are in my works. Read the book first and at the end, turn it over, read again, and a new work emerges, one experiences it all differently. There is the fragmented circle, the broken unity and hesitations in continuity rather than that complete circle. One or more themes runs through a series or one bookwork that often has its later individual visual poems or artists’ stamp sheet commemorative. Each work or series has its own feelings portrayed and impressions in marks on paper, or in the computer image.  From the one image of a work, and seeing only one open folio or standing bookwork in exhibition, the visual is there but the verbal and theme are often hidden, waiting to be read/seen, the sequence totally lost. The image frustrates the reader/viewer since the actual is not there to see, to see what went before or after; the same frustration, or greater, is in an exhibition when the item is so close but still unapproachable, untouchable, although a complete section is shown.  This method both irritates and/or excites the reader/viewer’s appetite for more. What does this say about me, that I like to tease or agitate the viewer/reader? But that reader/viewer who holds the work in her/his hands is usually greatly satisfied while reading and seeing, and knowing the content and having the book’s secrets.

OPEN HOUSE, 1990, MRR, pp 10-11, 200 dpiOPEN HOUSE, closed 8 1/2” h x 5 1/2”w, especially pages 10-11 with the scissors collage, photo copy edition visual poetry artists’ book with movable collage. Edition 100, printed with five different photo printers.

NVW: How has your work changed the most over the years? And/or, how is what you’re working on now a departure from earlier work?

MRR: The only way to know what was and is now is to compare earlier works with later pieces, but I am not as objective about my works as I may often be about the works of others.

I think that my work is more available and open for interpretation and not as hidden and mysterious in content as it once was.

My long workdays cannot go on for weeks at a time anymore. Workdays replace weeks, and part days for full days, so concentration is broken. The body will not cooperate; time goes, much is not done, less work produced.

Different studio spaces change my works’ themes and size.

Although using the computer and copy machine for decades, to use as collage materials or to create editions, now I find I almost never use the copy machine.

For years, almost always my own publisher, now others invite me to publish my editions and I try to follow each of the size, page number, and shape and paper formats they need. They sometimes slightly edit or make minor suggestions, as in all collaborations I have done before.

Before my theme concerned a younger woman’s life experiences and thinking and young family; now the sources are an old woman’s.

Maybe the work is less complex, I am not sure.  But the angst and playfulness are there still, maybe redirected.

DOCKAGE, 2007, MRR, 200 dpiDOCKAGE, 16 “h x 14 3/4” w, visual poetry/drawing; master for a few prints of various sizes, image altered for stamp sheet edition

—Marilyn R. Rosenberg & Nance Van Winckel


Marilyn R. Rosenberg was born in Philadelphia, PA. In 1978 she completed a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Studio Arts at Empire State College, State U of NY and in 1993 a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York U. While raising a family she continued creating works on paper. Her studies included painting, graphics, sculpture, a variety of other art, gender, history, literature, and religious studies, life drawing, advertising art, advertising publication, book and printing production (older style), book arts and more. Since 1977 she has amassed a body of work consisting of more than 600 titles that include visual poems, artists’ books, mail art, drawings, small press/chap books, unique sculptural bookworks, artists’ stamps, photos, paste on paper and computer collages, and other works.

Her art is included in public collections or archives at Harvard University, Fine Arts Lib., Fogg Art Museum, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Brown University Library, Dartmouth College, The Tate Gallery, and many others. Her works are also in such anthologies as LAST VISPO ANTHOLOGY: Visual Poetry 1998 – 2008, Fantagraphics Books, 2012 and 500 HANDMADE BOOKS: INSPIRING INTERPRETATIONS OF A TIMELESS FORM, New York, Lark Books, 2008.

Just last year (2012) her work appeared in the following exhibitions:

  • 2012, FEMINISM AND THE ARTIST’S BOOK, Vespa Properties, Brooklyn, NY, Curator: Maddy Rosenberg for Central Booking Gallery.
  • 2012, POINT OF VIEW, juried invitational, WCC Gallery, Peekskill, NY. Jury and Curators: Sherry Mayo, Geoff Feder & Larry D’Amico.
  • 2012, VISUAL POERY EXHIBIT, General Store Community Arts Center, Mount Barker, South Australia.
  • 2012, REJOICE, Ceres Artist Friends Exhibition, New York, NY.
  • 2012, MINUTE Web exhibit,The University of Northampton, UK. Curators: Melanie Bush, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design The University of Northampton, UK and Dr Emma Powell, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. http://www.flickr.com/photos/61714195@N00/7408594342
  • 2011-2012, WRITE-NOW, The Chicago Rooms Galleries of the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Illinois, USA. Curator: Keith A. Buchholz.
  • 2011-2012, Apocryphal, Traditional, et al, Georgia College & State University, Milledgeville GA, USA. Curators: Shannon Morris and John Coffelt.

More of her work may be viewed at:


Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review.

She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press.

She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson.

Click this link to see a collectionof Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems.

Apr 202012

A few years ago, I went to see Bodyworlds, an exhibition of plasticized corpses — real cadavers turned into permanent, plastic models through a process pioneered by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. There were pamphlets available, many of which dealt with questions about death and the impact of seeing skinned and dissected plasticized corpses — corpses that still had their eyes intact.

Although the signs said Do not touch, you could get incredibly close to the bodies. You could press your nose to them. And of course I ignored the signs and when no one was looking I ran my hand gently over the hardened, preserved muscles of the body of a male stretched out to permanently simulate diving for a soccer ball. I could feel every ridge, every bump, every bit of anatomy and yet there was no life. He stared, permanently, at the suspended soccer ball.

This is what is inside of me. This is what people are made of.

There’s a line in a song, “Indestructible Sam,” by hip hop artist Buck 65 describing the song’s namesake:

a man like any other, at the end of a long day
guts and muscle and maybe a little more

I have always liked that. I think it is a simple and astute definition of what people are made of, what life is made of.

We are meat machines.

Crime scene and autopsy pictures are all over the Internet. I once saw a video of a kid who dove off a bridge, missed the mark, and split his face open on the corner of a concrete wharf. Cut scene to the ER where he twitches, and his face falls away from his skull in two perfect halves, crushed to a split perfectly down the middle. Attending physicians try to hold the halves together and whoever has the camera is ushered away. It is surreal. The kid does not survive.

One of the multitude of reasons I don’t eat meat, particularly pork and beef, is because of autopsy photos — or rather how, reduced to our basic components, mammals are all very similar. On a metal slab, you are cut open, layers of fat and skin and muscle are peeled back to reveal bones and guts. Fat is an orangey hue, not like you’d imagine perhaps. Inside we’re all meat. Inside, we are indistinguishable from the pork chops and steaks. Pork, incidentally, is rumored to be the closest meat to human flesh in taste and texture. Pigs are routinely used for human stand-ins when performing research into certain after-death happenings, such as how bugs colonize a corpse.

I am often caught in Wikipedia link chains for hours — most recently on ways to die. Strange and unusual deaths, torture and execution methods, etcetera and ad nauseum. I learned about transanal evisceration, and death by a thousand cuts. I’m unsure whether or not this is useful information, but I have discovered people tend to not know how to handle it when you say, “Let me tell you about transanal evisceration, it’s when your guts come out of your butthole!”

I suppose my avid interest in pursuing an intimate relationship with and knowledge of the body and death (and by extension the expansive and creative realm of human cruelty) is an attempt to form a clumsy relationship with what will eventually happen to me. My consumption of information regarding dying and the various things that can lead to it and what happens to your body or can happen to your body after death is my way of saying, “Hello, how do you do?” to death. Not that I believe death is personified and comes to greet you when you finally kick it (although I have always been embarrassingly endeared by Brad Pitt’s portrayal of death in the otherwise kitschy Meet Joe Black). But I figure this event is something I should get to know, because, after all, it is unavoidable. I approach death like a timid fan would approach a celebrity. I love your work. May I have your autograph? Can I hang out backstage? 

I’m not entirely sure what I have learned that is useful per se. I am twenty five, and if you assume I’ll live to average old age, I can probably expect several more decades.

But that’s the thing — I’ve learned that you can’t expect to live to an average old age.

I recently found a photo of a car crash victim. It was a woman, and she was stretched on the metal table, naked and ready to be opened up. What struck me was that she had makeup on. Her nails were done. She’d had a bikini wax recently. And her bones were jutting out of her legs (probably cause of death: internal bleeding or alternately, head trauma). But everything about her now-dead-body said she didn’t have a fucking clue she was going to die that day, that she was going to end up on a cold, metal table, naked, pale, photographed with her bones showing.

But that’s the way it could go.

I don’t drive. Driving concerns me. Not because I lack ability, but because other people are idiots. Every time I get in a car I hear a dull ticking in my head. Those are the odds stacking against you — every time you get in a vehicle it could be the time you get in an accident.

Another line from a song, this time by Sarah Slean, and the song is called “I Want to be Brave (Madeline)”.

Over time luck runs out and fate is not your friend.

I imagine time slowing down in a collision. I imagine it as a moment of zen. I imagine thinking “oh, this is happening.”

I imagine I’d shit myself because a lot of people, especially in traumatic or violent deaths, shit themselves. That’s a fact. It doesn’t matter if you wear clean underwear. The truth is you’re likely to soil it anyway.

But I mean is it really that embarrassing if you die? Nobody’s gonna say, like at your actual funeral, “She was a kind soul, and it’s really too bad she totally dumped a load in her pants at her moment of death. That’s just…wow, that’s embarrassing.”

It startles me the things people concern themselves with to distract them from the fact that the issue at hand is you would be dead. In that state I don’t think anyone cares about poop.

Here are some other gross things:

If you die at home and have a cat or a dog, and they don’t find you for a while, your pets will more than likely eat your face off. It happens a lot.

If you die in water, particularly the ocean, you will probably come out gross and bloated, and animals enjoy eating your genitals, anus, eyes, lips and any other soft morsels of your flesh first.

If you die on land and are left for a while, birds will eat your eyes out of your sockets. Apparently, eyes are delicious.

In Tibet, they do something called a Sky Burial which involves the cutting up of a corpse and feeding it to the birds. This is actually done because there is no ground to bury bodies and this inhibits any potential spread of disease. Vultures and other birds are extremely good for body disposal.

I think about that a lot, too. Who would be the last to have an intimate relationship with my body after I die?

The doctor who sews me up after harvesting my organs?

The birds who eat my eyes to help my decay along?

Medical students, learning over my corpse?

Physio students, pulling the tendons of my detached arm to see how they make the fingers move?

I think about dying a lot, about what it would be like. I also think about surviving a lot. What could I survive? What could I conquer before I die?

And I celebrate getting older. Once I heard a doctor say that “unfortunately longevity means more old age, not more youth.” But that is okay, so long as I can maintain operational levels of health. Every day, every year I live is a celebration against all the things that could have and tried to kill me but didn’t. When my hair goes grey I want to dye it shades of blue and purple. I don’t care what my tattoos look like when I’m old. I have the general philosophy that as you age, you are fully entitled to simply give less fucks. We tend to meet our quota of fucks to give early on in life. Therefore, as we get older, we must be more sparse but more meaningful with the fucks we do choose to dole out.

There is a story by Amy Hempel called “The Harvest.” It’s about a girl who gets into a motorcycle accident and must recover after sustaining a grievous injury that left a large scar on her leg. In the end of the story, the girl is standing on a beach and a child asks her what happened to her leg. She tells him a shark attacked her. He asks “And you’re going back in?”

She says: “And I’m going back in.”

Every day the shark could attack, and sometimes it does. And, despite my time spent on forging an existential acquaintance with death, and knowing that eventually I’ll meet the real thing, perhaps while shitting my drawers, perhaps after my face has been licked off my skull by a beloved family pet, the whole point is that this makes me cognizant of the very fact that I am alive.

And I’m going back in.

— Brianna Berbenuik


Brianna Berbenuik is a 20-something misanthropist living in Victoria in British Columbia. She is a fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. She has contributed several essays and poems to NC. Look her up in the Poetry and Nonfiction tables of content.