Aug 192013

This month we have a new NC at the Movies contribution from Vancouver (Canada) horror and comedy filmmaker Nicholas Humphries. You might recognize his name from two previous posts on his films “The One That Got Away” and “Little Mermaid.” He’s prolific and is drawn to wild, exciting worlds, as you can see by checking out his demo reel. While in Vancouver last month I was interviewing him for a documentary short I am working on when he demanded I stay after and watch this great short film / music video, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph.” It was obvious he was the person who should write about this on Numéro Cinq.


Dash Shaw’s “Seraph” follows a young man through his brief, tragic existence as he struggles to understand his identity and feelings.  The young protagonist is repressed by his father and religion and is taught to feel ashamed of his body and desires. He ultimately grows up unable to accept himself and believes that the greatest sin he could ever commit would be to acknowledge love from the objects of his desire and metaphorically “look at God.”

Seraph 5

Through two haunting pieces from the Sigur Ros Voltari album (“Rembihnútur” and “Ekki Múkk”), this nearly wordless short exposes the damage misguided biblical rhetoric can do during our maturation via a condensed journey we take with the protagonist from adolescence to death.

The film is an installment of the Sigur Ros Valteri Mystery Film Experiment. The films were selected from 800 submissions internationally. Sigur Ros funded a handful of the films and “Seraph” is one of the results. Say Sigur Ros about the project, “We never meant our music to come with a pre-programmed emotional response. We don’t want to tell anyone how to feel and what to take from it.”

Seraph 7

The title of Shaw’s contribution to the project,  “Seraph,” is a reference to a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions. Rather than tackle the customary queer struggles with homophobia and disease, Shaw, along with long time collaborator John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole, Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), chose to focus on a more emotional, internal aspect of the gay experience. Shaw illustrates the pain of the boy’s self-hatred through his compulsive self-mutilation. The eyes that the boy crudely carves into his own flesh allow him to channel the pain of not being able to see love, both from others and for himself. He grows into a man with a violent disposition, compensating for his homosexual feelings by resorting to acts of physical hostility against those that look too deep. The pain caused by the eyes he carves in his flesh also serves as a base attempt to touch the divine and look at God.

Seraph 3

As the director of a number of short films, I often struggle with the size of story to tackle using the format. If the story is too simple than what’s the point if nothing happens? If it’s too big, you run the risk of weaving an overly ambitious yarn about characters the audience doesn’t care about. What resonated for me with “Seraph” was the way Shaw used music and animation to create a dreamlike state where multiple images from a lifetime were used to illicit a central feeling of loneliness: a big story, simply told. Few feature films manage to conjure up the level of intensity that this animated short manages to execute in its seven minutes.

Imagery plays a large part in how the story plays out, both through the moments Shaw selects from the boy’s life but also through the symbolism of the eye. Historically, charms and decorations featuring varying eye symbols have been used to protect against The Evil Eye, a look that is believed by many cultures to cause injury for the person at whom it is directed.  The use of eye symbols for protection is most common in the Middle East and dates back to the Old Testament.

Seraph 2

So in some sense the symbol of the eye could be a way the boy in “Seraph” protects himself, but ultimately the symbolism is ambiguous. In the only scene with dialogue, the boy’s father explains to him that angels can never look at God because it is impossible to look at a love you can never understand.  In the final scene, the boy is covered from head to toe in eye carvings and is finally able to see God. The eyes then, seem to allow him to see what God loves which (we hope) will allow him to finally love himself. This is tragic since the boy is only able to cope and find this love through self-mutilation.

Seraph 1

Self-inflicted punishment is not uncommon in queer texts. In Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest, the titular character allows himself to be sexually penetrated by the owner of a brothel as a way of punishing himself for the murder of one of his comrades. While Shaw’s character is punishing himself for his sexual feelings and Genet’s character is using sex to punish himself for his immoral actions, they both reflect the ways repression misdirects that which we wish to keep hidden.  Both texts deal with themes of sadomasochism, or the giving and/or receiving of sexual pleasure through acts involving the infliction of pain or humiliation. In the queer cannon, overly repressed characters often express their desires through sadomasochistic scenes or fantasies (T .E. Lawrence’s The Mint, Timothy Findley’s The Wars, the works of Dennis Cooper, etc). “Seraph” does not posit sadomasochism as a solution so much as use this self harm as a testament and condemnation of the repressive social and cultural forces that seek to diminish each person’s access to the divine.

“Seraph” was screened and nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year.

–Nicholas Humphries

Nicholas Humphries HeadshotNicholas Humphries is an award-winning director from Vancouver, Canada. His accolades include Best Short at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, Audience Choice at the NSI Film Exchange, a Tabloid Witch, an Aloha Accolade and a Golden Sheaf. His films have been nominated for multiple Leo Awards, have screened at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, on CBC, Fearnet, SPACE Channel and in festivals around the world. Additionally, Nicholas has directed for Written by a Kid on the hit premium YouTube Channel Geek & Sundry. He is also a director on the acclaimed Syfy digital series, Riese: Kingdom Falling, which was nominated for four Streamy Awards, three IAWTV Awards and a Leo Award. Riese was also an Official Honoree at the 2011 Webby Awards. His feature film, Death Do Us Part, is scheduled for release in 2013. Nicholas teaches film at both Vancouver Film School and the University of British Columbia. He has a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in Film Production.

Aug 182013

Ann Ireland

Part way through the opening chapter of Ann Ireland‘s novel The Instructor, the narrator remarks that her putative lover (and art teacher) is like “a scout for some enemy camp, logging facts for a future ambush.” To me, this is about as exact a description of love as I have ever come across. La-de-dah romantics tend to ignore the fact that two people are distant countries, speaking foreign tongues, and that the progress of love is a sort of invasion that is always followed by hasty translation, colonization attempts, power struggles, and, often, retreat. Alice Munro, who wrote the jacket blurb for the novel, gets the picture. The Instructor, Ireland’s second novel, has just been reprinted by Dundurn Press, and we have the honour of publishing the first chapter here for the occasion. The novel tells the story of how 19-year-old Simone Paris falls for her much older art teacher, Otto Guest, on the first day of classes — and what ensues. Ann Ireland is a sophisticated observer of human affairs (of all sorts), and she is deceptive: she tells a good story, sure enough, but she also eschews relationship stereotypes by drilling into the complex undercurrents and finds uneasy answers.


Chapter One


See my hand shaking like crazy? It’s not because I’m scared, not in the least. Though two hours ago I was so damn nervous and fidgety I scurried to the outhouse every ten minutes, then worried you’d choose that instant to roll up the hill. There I’d be, popping open the door of the little pagoda, while you leaned against the door of your car, grinning.

I jammed crackers in my mouth, thinking I needed the salt.

Why was I in such a state?

After all, you were history.

The phone call had come out of the blue. “Let’s have tea, just the two of us,” you said, your voice so low and intimate I glanced over my shoulder just to make sure you weren’t standing there.

My own voice, when it found itself, was guarded.

“Late afternoon is best. I’ve got meetings.”

That sounded important.

It is important. We’re running through the slate for next year’s program and I’ve been fighting for that New Music trio to be given the residence position.

“Why do you want —” I said, too late, into the dead phone. As was your habit, you’d hung up without warning. I was shaking then too … for this was my chance to show you what I’d become, how I’d devised a life of my own.

To begin with, the vehicle was all wrong. Come on, Otto, a brick-coloured Honda? It had to be a rental.

When you slipped out of the car, legs first like some starlet, I let out a sigh. For it was you, in the flesh and life-size. You strolled up the dirt path jiggedy-jog, legs bent at the knees, hands thrust deep into your pockets, so loose-limbed I swore you were about to keel over. Your face, grinning widely, so sure of its welcome, grew bigger and bigger — and still I didn’t move a muscle. I was nailed to the position I’d decided on since yesterday’s phone call: arms crossed, back sloped against the doorjamb of the cabin, wearing a black tank top that bled into the darkened interior. Like some Walker Evans photo, I decided, most of my hair drawn back with an elastic, the rest sweeping over my face in the lake breeze.

“Very nice, Simone,” you nodded, missing nothing. A cigarette dangled from your lips. I let you come right up until our toes touched.

“Hello, Otto.”

Of course we embraced, though perhaps a little stiffly. My face got buried in the base of your neck and it seemed to me I’d spent a lot of time gazing into the hollow of your throat where the pulse tapped silently. My fingers curled around the cloth of your collar — threadbare, soft denim — and I was whisked without warning to the hill outside San Patricio: hard earth and scrubby cactus, burros grazing. The heat and dryness made our skin crack and fissure, mimicking the landscape. We’d hiked all afternoon toward the peak where the cross stood, passing only gruff men in straw hats tending goats, then, as we neared the top, no one at all. It was your idea that we couldn’t look down till we reached the summit.

“No cheating, Simone.”

You wanted the vista to hit us in one overwhelming stroke — no dribs and drabs, no gradual seeping in. I scrambled up ahead the last few feet and touched the wooden cross, then turned to look. I felt myself teeter toward the land, which rolled out in all directions, a vast tanned skin of parched mountain and plain declining toward the horizon in minute gradations of brown. The town, with its clay roof tiles, sprawled up the walls of the valley. The sounds were more precise in distance, less cluttered by our own noises: dogs yelped and howled in the endless loop of call and response, while ancient buses groaned up the hills. A woman was calling to her children, her voice spinning effortlessly through the miles of open space. For once I forgot you were there until suddenly your arms swooped around my waist and tugged me in: this same shirt, I swear, my eyes batting against this hollow of a throat.

“I would hardly have recognized you.” You reached up and pulled off your cap, regulation New York Yankees model. Your hair, always bushy, had been flattened, and when you ran your hand through it I saw extra streaks of grey.

“Come on, Otto, it hasn’t been that long.”

“Four or five years.”

“Six, actually.”

“Really?” You seem genuinely astonished. “You look fantastic.”

I had to smile.

Of course you’ve got twenty-five years on me — and look it. What’s happened to your eyes that used to be so clear and sharply focused? And I have to say this, Otto, your jawline is starting to ripple toward the neck. You seem thinner, more brittle, though I felt the little pot belly when our bodies pressed together. An unexpected squish.

“I look like hell, I know it.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

“But you were thinking it, dear.”

Dear. That rankled.

We continued to stare at each other, you jiggling change, me stock-still. And I thought, nothing’s happening. The butterflies that had been charging through my stomach all morning seemed to have been drugged. Do you understand what I’m saying, Otto? You stood a foot away and I felt a big fat zero.

“Going to let me in?”

“Of course. Sorry.”

You pushed past and I let you poke around the cabin, lifting objects off the mantel: the cracked coil pot, an Indian basket, the black-and-white photo of Father digging the outhouse hole. The woodstove received special attention, and you lifted the burner and peeked inside. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d reached in and touched the ashes, but you just looked, as if deciding whether I’d chucked something in there to burn. After, you strolled past the coffee table, picked up the book of feminist film criticism, flipped through, and I got the distinct impression you knew it had been selected for display. My cheeks heated up. Your hand swept over the tops of chairs and bookshelves, leaving streaks of shiny wood. Why did I feel you were a scout for some enemy camp, logging facts for a future ambush? I stiffened; the nervous feeling kicked in again. It was almost a relief; this was how I expected to be with you.

I decided to make tea and handed you the kettle so you could fetch water from the outside pump.

“This place is great!” you enthused on your return. “Your dad made it?”

“With my mother.”

“It’s like …” You tilted your head. “The house where the seven dwarfs lived. A cartoon cabin.” You hunched under the door frame. “Bet your old man is exactly five foot six. Everything’s scaled to that height.”

Right as always.

I found of box of lemon biscuits and tossed them on the table. You began to make short work of them, knocking two at a time into your hand, while crumbs scattered down the front of your shirt.

“Where’s your mother now?” you said, dropping onto a chair.

“She moved into a condo in Etobicoke. Nice view of the lake. She loves it.”

“And your dad?”

“He died three and a half years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.” You winced and briefly shut your eyes. “I didn’t know.”

“Of course not: how could you?” I pulled away from your reaching hand and watched you swing your legs so you could follow my movements around the room. You didn’t speak, and I knew you were hoping I’d say more about him. Your face waited, creased in sympathy. I measured tea into the Brown Betty pot and rinsed out two mugs. I collected the plastic honey jar from the shelf, then poured milk into a tiny pitcher. I would not give you this chance to pry me open. The spoons received a quick wipe on the towel.

You watched each gesture avidly.

“Then will you at least tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself?”

I let out a breath, staring at the back of my own hand as it closed over the teapot handle. You could still do it, make me achingly visible to myself.

“What do you want to know, Otto?”

“Everything. The works — every second since you left me.”

“You think I’ve been writing it all down, waiting for the day you’d turn up again?”

You smiled quickly. “Haven’t you?”

I flushed, because in a way I had. Lived my life and at the same time wondered what you’d make of it, anticipating your comments, your chuckles, and of course, the withering asides that had the effect of turning whatever I was doing — or whoever I was with — into something faintly comical.

“Well?” You leaned forward, following the motion of my fingers as they wrapped around the copper tray. “There must have been plenty of men sniffing around.”

You wanted all the details, fixing me with your eyes until I’d find myself describing the colour of the sheets, the texture of skin and hair. I set down the tea tray, the smell of Earl Grey a consoling presence, and pulled up a chair.

“Anyone serious?” you persisted.

“What’s this all about, Otto?”


“Is that all?”

You hesitated only a second. “Of course.”

I stared into your face looking for signs: irony, amusement … but could read only the wide-eyed innocence you’d chosen for display.

I could tell you about Raymond, the dancer — but stopped just as I saw the edges of your mouth tighten. Already I was turning Raymond into a story, a series of tiny tropes to make you howl with delight and commiseration.

I shook my head, half laughing at my narrow escape, trying to shake that eager stare, at the same time bathing in its intensity.

“No, Otto, it’s my turn.”

“Your turn?”

“That’s right. My turn to ask questions.”

“Ahhh,” you exhaled noisily and pushed your chair away from the table. You lifted your chin toward the window and a glazed look came over your face that I instantly recognized: the Shift. The moment of withdrawal. Suddenly, with the practiced move of an old-time actor, you launched, full-tilt, into a monologue.

Something about light refraction that you’d read in a scientific journal. “Great diagrams, and a nice sequence of time-lapse photos …” Your legs splayed and you crooked an arm over the back of the chair.

The room shrank.

“… This guy’s theory knocks away all our notions of how we see, how our eyes gather and process light.”

I was supposed to lean into every word.

Instead, I gazed at you in amazement; you’d known, hadn’t you, exactly what I’d been about to say? The more you blabbed, underlining every third word with your finger on the tabletop, the sadder I felt.

And I was bored, Otto.

That was a first.

“… So you just change the angle of dispersal.” You hiked a cigarette from the package and positioned it just so on the table. “What appears to be pigment is really nothing more than mirrors!” You giggled with delight.

“Otto —”

“Think what could be done —”

“Ot-to —” singing it now like “Yoo-hoo.” Nervy. You weren’t accustomed to being interrupted in full flight.

Finally you tugged your gaze away from the open window and looked at me.

“I want to know why you’re here.” I was proud of that, the simple declarative statement.

Our stares hooked for an instant, then, incredibly, you drop-ped right back into the soliloquy as if I’d never uttered a word.

“… bombard them with photosensitive materials …”

I saw exactly what was going to happen, how you’d leave with nothing said and that it would drive me crazy and I’d spend the next six months berating myself, reconstructing the scene. So I pushed my chair back and brazenly set my face close to yours.

“Why are you here, Otto? Don’t natter on about goddamn light refraction — mail me the article!”

Your cheek muscles worked up and down. Your stare was flat, as if you were overhearing some foreign language. Then you chuckled, flicked an ash off your cigarette, and said, “You haven’t yet told me what you’ve been up to.”

You weren’t going to be snared by an amateur.

“It’s been six years, Otto.”

“So work backwards.”

Of course. Time is a fluid concept, its direction determined by a tilt of the glass.

“I’m director of the Summer Arts Festival.”

A quick smile. “Good for you.”

“As of two years ago.”

“Still making art?”

“No time.” I made a dismissive gesture but felt the familiar pang.

“Of course not. You have a real job. Someone has to run the country.”

“It’s a big operation,” I heard myself insist. “We cram two months full of chamber music, author readings, dance performances, workshops, and classes. Our budget’s doubled in two years and most of that is local money.” I sounded like the Chamber of Commerce.

You nodded. Smoke drifted from your nostrils and made its languid way toward the ceiling rafters. You were enjoying this. And why not? I was right where I had always been: desperate to please and impress you.

“I’m on a roll,” I declared. “They do everything I want. When Krizanc, chairman of my board, starts to rant about ‘market-driven programming,’ I tell him we have to create our audience. Not let the audience create us. Make them drowsy with something familiar — then kick open the gates. Blow them away!”

Who was this talking?

All these years of careful filtering, reclaiming my voice — and now this: the mimic reborn.

Late-afternoon sun pressed through the window and I leapt to tug the curtain. “It’s all in the presentation. Make them think they’re on the cutting edge right here in Rupert and it becomes a point of pride. They expect art to be tough; they want it to be.”

Your word, as in “tough-minded,” “tough-thinking.”

“Bravo.” You hooked a chair with the toe of your boot. “Sit down, Simone, you’re very flushed.”

I obeyed, hating the way I felt, overheated and sticky, pulse racing.

“My half-dozen years haven’t been nearly so fruitful.”

I forced myself to look straight into your face. “What have you been doing?”

One of your famous pauses.

“I stayed on,” you said at last.

“In San Patricio?”

You nodded.

“What on earth did you do there for six years?” I was shocked; it never occurred to me that you might have stayed on. All this time I’d been walking down Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto every chance I got, glancing up at your studio window, wondering if you were in there with your ripped-up magazines and glue stick.

“Got drunk most days. Made a truckload of bad drawings. Then one morning I got sick of the sun and the smell of rancid cooking oil and started to drive north.”


“That’s it.”

“What about your ex —”

“Wife? Carmen’s out of the picture, except where Kip is concerned.”

Your son. He’d be twenty-one by now. Older than I was when I stepped on the plane to come home. “What’s he up to?” You always loved to talk about your son.

Your fingers wrapped around your teacup, the nails chewed to bits. “I saw him this morning. Not so good, Simone. Not so good.”

I stared.

“They’re adjusting his medication. Makes him screwy, his equilibrium is shot. The kid can hardly walk.”

“Medication? What are you talking about?” My self-consciousness vanished.

“He gets seizures.” Your eyes scanned the room without focusing. “It began five or six years ago. Of course, you’d have no way of knowing.”

“What kind of seizures?”

“He goes months without any problem, then suddenly, keels over wherever he is: the gym, a crowded subway.”

“Jesus, Otto, I had no idea.”

“Of course not.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with” — I struggled to sound casual — “that time he fell off the boat?”


You sound genuinely mystified.

“In San Patricio, on the lake.” I prodded, already wishing I hadn’t brought it up.

You stared at me, fully engaged for a few seconds. “I don’t see how. He wasn’t under more than a minute.”


“The worst of it isn’t the seizures,” you went on. “Which happen maybe three, four times a year. It’s his attitude that stinks. Yesterday, at the hospital, he made his neck go all floppy, then titters, ‘What a shame your kid’s a crip.’ Crip my ass!”

The table shuddered as you smacked it with your hand. “Ninety-five percent of the time he’s perfectly okay. There’s guys a lot worse off than him — blind! Imagine being blind, or deaf! But you don’t see them hanging out on Queen Street, playing skinhead, cadging cigarettes and spare change. He snorts PAM out of a goddamn baggie …” You took a deep breath and snapped open the top of your shirt. “He’s quit three schools, got caught boosting a pair of Doc Martens from the Eaton Centre …”

Had you driven two hours to spout off against your son, ask my forgiveness for being such a lousy father?

“I’m sorry, Otto.”

“So am I.” Your tone was aggressive, as if you were determined I’d know the worst of it. “I thought if I stayed far away in some hill town everyone would be better off, that I was so fucked up it would overwhelm them. Pure ego.” You laughed. “Which I’ve never been short of.”

I didn’t deny this. “He lives with you, or Carmen?”

“He’s in a halfway house for kids who screw up. They huddle out on the sidewalk most of the day, smoking, or they’re taking courses in something called ‘Life Skills.’” You snorted. “He asked after you, just as I was leaving today.”

“Me?” My mind was racing.

“He wondered if you were ‘still on the scene.’”

“What did you say?”

“That I hadn’t seen you for years. That it wasn’t meant to be.” Your knee pressed against mine. “He’s convinced you saved his life, that time he pitched overboard.”

I reddened. “That’s absurd.”

“Even so, he likes the idea that you pulled him from the brink.”

“But it’s not true!”

“He thinks it is.”

First your knee, now your thigh. Uneasy, I shifted, but didn’t move away.

You reached for the cookie box and shook it. Empty.

This wasn’t the scene I’d be picturing, far from it.

Hell, I was feeling sorry for you. I’d been prepared for anger — even desire, but not this.

“Sometimes I used to feel you two were conspiring against me.” You spoke with studied casualness. “When you came in from riding those underfed nags, Kip was so flushed and healthy-looking — I used to wish I had that power.”

Power? I had to laugh. So you were jealous, Otto. This notion would have pleased me once. Now I just felt drained. The numbness crept back. Here we were again, using Kip as our topic, and I was supposed to pretend I cared. I reached for the tea things and scraped cookie crumbs onto a saucer.

A long time ago I was reaching for you to tear the world open. Now, in your presence, I felt hemmed in, claustrophobic.

“I need to live in Toronto again, to be near Kip.”

“That makes sense.” I didn’t hide a yawn.

“Last Saturday I picked up the newspaper and who did I see but you — with this most professional smile planted on your face. Very impressive, Simone.”

“You saw that?” I couldn’t help feeling pleased. The Globe had done a feature in the Arts section, underlining how the Summer Festival had “revitalized” the area and pinning much of the success of its “fresh, young director.”

“I thought, She looks so damn competent — pretty too.”

I crumpled the cookie box and tossed it toward the trash.

“I’m flat broke, Simone. Benny says the art market’s shriveled, nothing’s moving, nothing he can do for me.”

Benny — your dealer.

“There’s a recession, Otto. Even in San Patricio you must have heard about it.”

“I need a job.”

“Right.” I still didn’t get it.

“So —” You followed me to the sink with your saucer and cup. “You’re running this nice little festival. You could fit me in, as a teacher, artist-in-residence. I’m flexible as an old shoe, and more to the point, I’m desperate.” A smoke ring escaped from your mouth and hung in the air.

“As a teacher,” you continued, “I’m the best there is. You, if anyone, should know that.”

I dumped the leaves into the compost bowl. Now I understood why you’d come.

“We always got along well.”

I stared, mouth open.

You were jiggling a set of keys: Budget Rent A Car. At least I was right about that. “Think about it. Drop me a line, or call, as soon as you get a moment. I’ve got my old studio back.”

* * *

The little Honda bucked down the hill until its muffler scraped highway asphalt.

Then you cranked your window down and shouted into the hot still air: “You must feel very safe here!”

I opened my mouth to protest — “Who the hell wants safety?” — then remembered: they were your exact words, uttered years earlier.

It was a scruffy copy of Lassie Come Home, borrowed from the Rupert Public Library, and as I turned each page my fingers buffed scabs of peanut butter and petrified snot.

I didn’t even notice the sun was falling and I was losing my light. I simply tilted the book a little more every few minutes — until a word stopped my eye mid-sentence.

What was this word?


Lassie, I’d just discovered, was a “she.”

The book dropped between my knees. Lassie, the hero of the tale, was actually a heroine. That was like those other despised words: poetess, actress, cowgirl — images of women in fringed skirts, riding sidesaddle, squealing with terror. How could I identify with the girl version of the real thing? How can fantasy be populated by underachievers?

—Excerpted from The Instructor

Copyright © 2013, Ann Ireland. All rights reserved.

Ann IrelandAnn Ireland is the author of four novels, most recently THE BLUE GUITAR, which has been getting excellent reviews all across Canada. She coordinates the Writing Workshops department at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, in Toronto. She teaches on line writing courses and edits novels for other writers from time to time. She also writes profiles of artists for Canadian Art Magazine and Numéro Cinq Magazine (where she is Contributing Editor). Dundurn Press will be re-publishing Ann’s second novel: THE INSTRUCTOR over the summer of 2013.
Aug 172013

Cafe Angelique

There is a fine line (if any line at all) between some performance art and plain old standup comedy. John Arthur Sweet is a hugely entertaining, subversively ironic monologuist and, judging from audience reaction in this live show at Banff earlier this year, he is very, very funny. The monologue is called “Squirt,” the subject is love (sort of), Sweet’s acting is delightful. Watch the video; the script is below.




Oh, this is nice, isn’t it? That sun! It’s nice, eh? Nice.

Mmm …. ahhhhh …. (sigh) … oh, yeah.


(Throat clearing.) You know … um … there was something I wanted to ask you about. Yeah … Look, I’ll just mention this and then we can sorta move on—(Gesture.)—down the road … So I got your email, and that’s great, I’d love to do that … thing … on Saturday. So yeah.

So, like, um, at the end of that email, you inserted something that wasn’t terribly relevant, it seemed to me, to the subject matter. You said—I don’t know if you even remember this—but you typed, “I love you.” So …

Well, it’s not really a problem, it’s just that you wrote, “I love you,” at the end of this otherwise strictly, you know, administrative email about arrangements for Saturday, and I wondered what you meant. In concrete terms.

Yeah, well, okay, great! … but … I think the thing is, we haven’t really arrived at a common definition of basic language.

No, I’m not being overly analytical. I’m just saying, you typed—that is to say, I assume you typed—or did someone else add that line? Yeah, so it was you. So I’m just saying, you must have meant something when you typed that. Or did you mean nothing? You either meant something or you meant nothing. If you didn’t mean anything as you typed “I love you,” then … well, I find that really quite fascinating. You know, that the human brain can conceive language that is utterly meaningless.

(To waiter.) Oh, yeah! Two gin and tonics, please! Thanks.

Like, there’s all these people all over the place all the time, going “I love you” … I love your hair … I love that new song by Rihanna … I just love polar bears … Oh, I love diversity … I love being part of a country with such a rich multicultural fabric … I just love the First Nations peoples, with their rich and authentic this and that … I lub you … Ahh lub ya … You know, and meanwhile we’re, like, killing each other and … and poisoning people’s water supplies … So, what I’m wondering is, where’s the love?

No, I’m not being overly serious, actually. I’m just looking for information. Making conversation. As we wait for our libation. See, I’m a kind of poet, too!


Wow, it’s so nice. I’m glad we came here.


(humming “Whistle While You Work”) Dee dee dee dee dee, dee-dee dee dee dee dee dee—gna gna gna gna, gna gna gna gna, gna gna gna gna gnaaaaa—

Let me say just one more thing about that, and then that’ll be it. So last night, when you came in my mouth— No, calm down, calm down— I’m just saying, last night, when you came in my mouth, in that very instant, as I felt this warm, viscous, salty grey liquid oozing all around my teeth, I was thinking, “Is this what he meant when he wrote, ‘I love you’?” … Don’t look at me like that, please!

No, you’re not— … Look, here’s a perfect example of what I’m getting at. When that waiter came over and asked if we’d like anything, I told him, “Two gin and tonics, please.” That’s all I said. Five words. And actually, the “please” on the end was gratuitous, so … four words … And actually, did you know that in French, a gin and tonic is “gin tonic”? Not “gin et tonic.” Yeah, it’s true. So you don’t need the “and” either. So, three words. Just like your “I love you.” Now, when I said those three words to the waiter, he didn’t have to say anything, he didn’t have to interrogate me, because we have an agreed-upon definition of basic terms. He knew to go over to the bar and take two translucent beverage containers, put an agreed-upon amount of gin in each glass— I mean, all I said was “two gin and tonics,” but he’s not going to go and pour, like, half the bottle of gin in one glass and half in the other. He’s going to put a particular amount, which we both more or less know, into each glass, add ice, and then tonic up to the top. And … here’s where it gets almost creepy … I know that he is going to put a little slice of lime, cut down the middle, on the lip of each glass. I didn’t say anything about lime! Did I say anything about lime? But he knows I’m expecting it, and I know he’s going to deliver it. That, my dearest, is what is called communication.

So, what I’m saying is, and I don’t want to be vulgar or anything, but when you say, “I love you,” does that mean that subsequently you get to stick your thing in my mouth and squirt warm liquid into it?


Hey, you know what? Just forget I said anything. Let’s just enjoy these gin and tonics. Here they come! And I can see the lime wedges from here.

— John Arthur Sweet


John Arthur Sweet is a Montreal-based monologist and book editor/translator. His last full-length monologue, Waiting for André, was performed across Canada and at the Prague Fringe Festival between 2008 and 2011. He is working on a new monologue, entitled Who Waits at the Top of the Stairs, an extended love letter to his adopted hometown. John was a participant in the 2013 Spoken Word residency at the Banff Centre, which inspired him to begin creating shorter pieces, works incorporating elements of poetry, as well as French-language monologues.

Aug 162013

Bruce Hadley Mt. April 2012 3

The nude is a landscape, all billows and folds, heft, bone and shadow. It’s also the sign of Eros and a training ground for the artist. These drawings are a taste of what Bruce Hiscock can do with a pencil and brush, products of a life of practice sessions, life studies. A children’s book writer and illustrator by trade, Bruce is also an inveterate traveler and outdoorsman who lives in a self-built Hobbit house on a hillside above Porter Corners, New York, at the foot of the Adirondacks. He has traveled in the Arctic, the Southwest, and Newfoundland and I regularly salivate over the gorgeous notebooks he’s kept, hybrids of diary and sketchpad, artful books in themselves, each one one of kind. And if you get a chance, look at his books, lovingly and passionately illustrated (I have had the privilege of watching several of them mature in his studio).


As an illustrator and author of children’s nature books, I spend a lot of time drawing from life. Trees, rocks, mice, caribou, storms, mountains, flowers, owls, all cover endless pages in my sketchbooks, as I try to improve my skills at capturing what I see around me. This is a solitary practice, as necessary to my craft, as the hours of rehearsal are to a musician.

For many artists however, one of the best ways to keep your eye sharp is to draw the human figure, unclothed. And so we gather in Life Drawing classes, or open studios. Here in Saratoga Springs, New York, there is an open studio every Monday night. You can sign up for a series of sessions or just drop in when you wish. It is one of the few things that artists do together, and I learn a lot from talking to others and viewing their work.

Drawing from the nude is an ancient practice. It forces an artist to confront their strengths and weaknesses in way that few other subjects can. We intuitively know so much about bodies, that when you put lines down on paper that represent an arm, say, you realize very quickly if you have made that arm too long, too fat, too awkward, or any of the other toos.  That same experience does not hold true with a branch on a tree.  I may not have drawn that branch as it really is, but hey, it looks okay. You can get away with things drawing a branch, but not with arm or a body. We just know too much.

For similar reasons, drawing the figure unclothed keeps the work really honest. An arm covered in a sleeve, or a torso in a tunic, can hide the truth. The drawing may look pretty good even if it is not so accurate. This may be the major reason that we all wear clothes, beyond providing protection from the elements. We look pretty good in them. They hide stuff.

The technical challenges of trying to represent soft folds or bony angularity on a piece of flat paper are considerable. Usually I start with a line drawing in pencil, occasionally studying it from afar, or in a mirror, to see how it holds up. I make corrections until I am satisfied or begin the whole thing over. Once the major lines are established, I add shading, attempting to mold those flat surfaces into flesh. Some drawings just seem to cry out for color, and I keep a small set of watercolors in my kit for such moments. Burnt Sienna is a great basis for simple flesh tones.

Every model presents a new challenge. This is particularly true if you have been drawing average bodies and are suddenly looking at a person with masses of flesh. Now you are forced to leave all your assumptions behind and deal with what is there, paying particular attention to the drape of skin. With so much to work with, these models are often easier to draw than someone with a smooth body. The same is true with faces. Age lines, not only add character, but they give the artist something to grab on to.

The drawings you see here are selected from maybe a hundred that I have saved out of the thousands I have done over the years. Life drawing is always about process for me, practicing to improve my skill. Occasionally this practice produces a worthy product, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share a few of those with you.

— Bruce Hiscock

soulful nude

bored nude model

fat nude

conte crayon nude torso

dancer nude

male nude

elegant nude torso

lucious nude on one elbow

pregnant nude

heavy nude

quick studies nude

seated nude three quarter view

sitting on stool nude


— Bruce Hiscock


Bruce Hiscock is the author/illustrator of many natural history books for children. His stories, like The Big Rock and The Big Tree, are based on real subjects and contain enough information to enlighten grade school kids as well as adults, at least some adults. These books, among others, have been designated as Outstanding Science Trade Books by the Children’s Book Council. Journeys in the Arctic form the basis of several works, including most recently, Ookpik- the Travels of a Snowy Owl, a finalist for the Charlotte Award of New York State. Over the course of his life, he has worked as a research chemist, toy maker, college professor, and drug tester of race horses. He graduated from the University of Michigan, B.S. 1962, and Cornell University, Ph.D. 1966. Bruce lives in Porter Corners, NY, at the edge of the wild, in a house he built by hand using the native rocks and trees.

Aug 152013


Herewith is “Us.” I’ve chosen this excerpt of Through the Night (Dalkey Archive Press), translated by Seán Kinsella, to illustrate the power of Sæterbakken’s prose, particularly his narrative voice and control of the moment. “Us” comes early in the novel, and is perhaps the origins of Karl and Eva’s eventual separation. But as this section makes clear, Karl poses many existential questions on love and fidelity, which are paralyzing, and for him unanswerable. This rather prismatic questioning of life is repeated throughout the novel, adding to the novel’s overall tension and psychological terror.

Jason DeYoung



“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

We’d eaten a late dinner, and I was pouring Eva some wine from a newly opened bottle, after she had, surprisingly enough, asked me to check and see if we had one. I felt a smile cross my face as I stood in the closet with the bottle in my hands, Eva had that carefree air about her, the one she usually had, in fact, when circumstances suited her, and as I stood in the kitchen cutting off the bottle’s seal with the tip of the corkscrew, I couldn’t help but smile again, as if it were our very first night together.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

The question gave me a start and I tightened my grip on the bottle, anxious about where she wanted to go with this. Why did she ask? Because she figured, no matter which way she looked at it, that the answer had to be yes? Or because she figured, no matter which way you looked at it, that the answer had to be no? And I thought about how often the questions we asked each other were in reality the questions we wanted to be asked ourselves.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at her. Her neck, her shoulders. So beautiful, everything! Sometimes in the evenings I massaged her while she watched TV. I felt like a sculptor when I did it. This was what a sculptor must have felt, I imagined, when he had finally gotten a piece just as he wanted it, standing there running his hands over his finished work. And, in fact, she now placed her hand on her own shoulder, there at the table, and began to rub at it, without being aware she was doing so, which was usually an expression of exhaustion, self-pity, of wan despair, but which now seemed more like a self-caress.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

In order to avoid answering, I raised my glass and clinked it against hers, and asked for her own opinion on the matter. The subject could hardly be coming up out of the blue, it occurred to me, when I actually thought about it: it was only a few days since one of Eva’s old friends, whom she hadn’t heard from for years, had called her up and described in detail—they’d been on the phone for almost three hours—the last few years of her marriage, a marriage that had lasted since the days she and Eva had been at school together, but was now over, as it had turned out that her husband, who had been her childhood sweetheart, was jumping into bed with practically every woman who had come his way, most recently with his sister-in-law, something that of course had come out, by and by, and had in turn triggered an absolute avalanche of confessions. This friend told Eva that she felt that her entire life had been ruined. All those years she’d regarded him as her one and only, believing him to be regarding herself as his . . . She’d said she would have felt better if she’d been the one who had done it, if she’d been the one who had lied and cheated, the one who now had to put up with the accusations, the one racked with shame and regret. She’d embarked on a few reckless escapades after she’d found out, she confided to Eva, as a revenge of sorts. But it was too late. There was nothing to be gained from it, neither for her nor for him. Nothing for her to win, nothing for him to lose. Everything was ruined. And she had never even had any fun of her own!

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at Eva. I remembered when I had gone back to her place for the first time, how amazed I’d been at how neat and tidy it was. It was like a household already, just as though the apartment was furnished for the life she wanted but had yet to acquire. It was a home, just standing there waiting for its family to arrive. And I remember thinking with horror about my own one-bedroom apartment, which she still hadn’t been to, how hopelessly juvenile and unfinished it would appear to her compared to all the things she kept around her. The chairs she had were comfortable to sit in, in the kitchen she had good quality knives on a magnetic strip above the range. She wasn’t a student! She was a complete person! There was something extremely appealing about it. I’d been filled with admiration as I looked at her standing there with a bottle of wine in each hand, asking me which I’d prefer; I wanted to move in with her right away, abandon everything I had, take nothing along, just advance to the start, her start, and begin there, over again.

So what did I think? Did the fact that I hesitated, that I didn’t have a ready-made answer, mean that the answer was no? Or was it just that I hadn’t formed any particular opinion yet? In which case it must mean that one outcome was just as likely as the other? Why hadn’t I thought it through properly? Was it because I was so certain that nothing would ever happen that could threaten us, our relationship, the vows we’d made?

I looked at her, the lovely renewed Eva. The just right level of tipsy Eva. The slightly nonchalant, amenable Eva. Whenever I dreamed of her, she was wearing the red dress she’d had on the first time we went out, to that Chinese restaurant. Yes, I think the two of us will always be together, I thought. What else could we possibly want? Her hair, which had grown and was long, fell across her face every time she turned her head, but it was as though she wanted this to happen, since she liked to rake her hand through it, gather it, pull it back behind her ear in a fresh futile attempt to fix it in place, the most beautiful of power struggles.

I looked at her and thought: Now it’s turned into the kind of night where anything can happen. Now we can say anything, anything that comes to mind, without either of us being hurt. At this moment we can take anything. And I remembered a film I’d seen, where you could enter another dimension through a hole in the atmosphere that was only open at certain times, and even then only to those who knew the secret formula. It was there now, the wormhole. It was right in front of us, the possibility to say anything we wanted, exactly what we had on our minds, without the need to take anything else into consideration. At this moment we ourselves didn’t need to be taken into consideration, neither of us. Right now we were the opposite of jealous. At this moment we were equally strong and could tolerate everything.

There and then I felt the need to do it, reveal something, confess something, anything at all, in order to affirm the new intimacy that had arisen (and that would soon vanish again), the candor that now existed between us (and that I knew would soon close again, like a flower that only blooms at night, which folds together as soon as the first rays of the sun fall on it). I despaired. Did I really have nothing to say? No, it seemed that I didn’t. No confessions. No admissions. Nothing to answer for. My conscience was clear. I felt ashamed at the thought. Because it was true, there really was nothing. Nothing other than some altogether insignificant episodes, some embraces that perhaps lingered beyond the merely amicable, some too-close dances, some fleeting touches, one or two kisses that were so innocent that I’d only make a fool of myself if I told Eva about them.

I thought: What in the world have I actually gotten up to in all these years?

A thousand thoughts, a thousand possibilities tumbled around in my head—I had to act quickly, our night was in danger, it could collapse at any moment, and if it did, then nothing could save it from the wan abyss, from the greedy maw of everyday life—but none distressing enough to take advantage of this opportunity, this potential for a new sort of relationship between us. No, to my horror, I had to face the fact that I had nothing to say. My God, if only I’d deceived her one single time! And I cursed myself, my honesty, my excessive caution. My sole sin: omission. Time was up, but there was nothing. She was ready, and I had nothing to offer her.

And a new anxiety pierced through me. What if she now came out with something? What if she now felt the same as I did, that the time had come to admit things, and that she, in contrast to me, actually had something on her conscience, something she now wanted to take the opportunity to unburden herself of? How then would I deal with that? I didn’t have anything to offer her in return, nothing of my own to balance the books with. And for a moment I felt helpless, terrified of what I might hear. I looked at her, waited for her mouth to open, for her to say the words, in an oddly toned voice, which would constitute the introduction, accompanied by a somewhat fearful glance, uncertain of exactly how open she could be.

“Why did you fall in love with me?” she asked before I could think of anything to say, and what I initially took as being a tender thought, a romantic invitation, was in reality, I realized, as I was about to answer, a challenge, a provocation, there had been something aggressive about the way she’d posed the question that only sank in afterward, like a delayed sting. And before I had time to answer, she continued, “Why us exactly? Why didn’t we both end up with other people? Why is it the two of us, in particular, sitting here?” And then she made a gesture with her hand: surrounded by all this. “Why you and me exactly? Why did you decide that I was the one? What was it that made you take that decision?” I searched for something to say, something to stay her with. Because I could see where this was going. But I couldn’t think of anything. And why should I? She wasn’t looking for answers anyway. Her eyes had that slightly glassy look about them, as if they weren’t being used to see anymore.

“Why?” she asked again, pausing before she continued, “Why did you marry me? Why didn’t you wait until you met somebody else? What was it that was so special about me? Was it really impossible for it to have been, just as easily, someone else? Did it only just happen to work out that way, that it was me? Was it just that I was at hand, that I was around when you thought the time was right?”

I said her name, but she didn’t hear me. She was far away. How am I going to get her back? I wondered. If I can’t get her back now, the evening will be lost. Then it was as though she came to life, her cheeks were crimson and a flame danced all the way up along her neck, it looked like her collarbone was on fire, the way her skin flushed and tightened over her throbbing veins.

“Am I the love of your life, Karl? The love that only comes along once in a lifetime? Am I?

“And does it only come along once in a lifetime? What do you think? Maybe it comes along a few times? Or is it something you can use up? What do you think?

“What about you, Karl? Could you love more than once? Is there anything left in you? Or have I taken it all?”

I should have stopped her, defended myself. But the way she’d worked herself up, I knew the only way to get her to stop would be to let her exhaust herself. She was like a riverbed in a spring flood. Any obstacles in her path would only increase the pressure.

“Why don’t you answer me? I’m only asking a few simple questions. What else can I do but ask when you don’t give me anything to work with? You never answer! What is it you don’t want to say? Are you hiding something? Are you hiding something from me, Karl? Are you keeping secrets from me? You don’t have any secrets you’re keeping from me, do you, Karl?”

She looked out of her mind, with her flaming red neck and the purple blotches all around her eyes and cheeks.

Then her head tipped forward, her face hidden by her hair. I didn’t know what to do, only that I’d be wise to wait a little longer before doing it. It looked like she was asleep, but I knew that her eyes were open, that she was sitting there struggling to collect her thoughts. Yes, best to wait, I thought. I took her hand, it was freezing. I warmed it up in my own, and after a while I felt it twitch a little. And then, at long last, she lifted her head and looked at me, fixed her eyes on mine, tried to lift herself up using only our eye contact as a prop. And now the glassy look had vanished, now her eyes sparkled, the light deepening, her look of despair finding expression, her lips regaining their color, the person in her returning, all her wrinkles and lines slipping back into place.

I stood up, still holding her hand, got down on my knees in front of her, and stroked her hair. She sat there for a long time just looking at me, smiling, rather contritely, it seemed. Then she grabbed me by the arm and stared into my eyes with an almost parodic over-seriousness: “Whatever you do, Karl,” she whispered, “whatever you do, don’t lie to me! Do you hear me? I think I’d be able to forgive you almost anything. No matter how idiotic. But not if you lied to me. Not if it turns out that you’d lied to me. Will you promise me? Promise me that you’ll never, ever lie to me?”

I promised, swore a solemn oath. Unconditionally, right there and then, I promised. I felt a pang of conscience as I said it. But then it vanished. Does it matter what you say, what you promise? I remembered how scared I used to be, at the time we were first getting to know each other, of her demands. It was as though she wanted us to live in a way the era in which we lived simply wouldn’t allow us. It was as though marriage was one of the antiques she’d collected, one she felt a particular attachment to. We had friends who’d already divorced and remarried, it was like a perpetual round dance, fueled by the same desires and the same disappointments at every point in the circle. They sought out marriage in order to realize their dreams, and they broke out of marriage in order to realize their dreams—which is to say, they married and divorced for the same reason. All the same, it didn’t occur to me to protest against the old-fashioned boundaries Eva set. Maybe she was right? Maybe it needed to be that strict if it was to mean anything at all? What would be left of fidelity once it was broken? All or nothing, wasn’t that how it had to be? If it happened once, what was to prevent it happening again? Was breaking your marriage vows five times any worse than breaking them twice? Is it better or worse to go to bed with ten different people or to do it ten times with the same person? Is the sin made greater when it’s repeated? Does fidelity even have any meaning in cases where it’s not absolute? And what value does it have if it’s going to be violated someday anyway? The smallest crimes are the largest. By perpetrating them you demonstrate that you are capable of anything.

What had bothered Eva’s friend wasn’t that her husband was unfaithful, but that she herself hadn’t been. Since she herself had refrained, when he did not, all of her years of fidelity became an object of shame. Her entire attitude, her devotion, her marital investment were all taken from her in one fell swoop. Her life-choice became a mockery, retroactively. Her outlook held up to ridicule. Her commitment a waste of time, when all was said and done.

Eva sat staring at me, with a look of either joy or despair, it was hard to say which. Then she tossed her head, sighed heavily, and shook off whatever it was that either delighted or distressed her. All at once she seemed completely sober. The transformation was almost uncanny, as if she’d only been pretending to be drunk.

“Does it make any difference,” she asked, watching me from inside that part of her brain she’d managed to keep on dry ground, away from the alcohol that had been flowing through her, “whether you do it or not, if you really want to do it?”

I asked her what she meant.

“If you meet someone you find attractive, someone you’d like to go to bed with, someone you know you could go to bed with, if you wanted, and then you don’t, out of consideration for me, have you been unfaithful to me anyway? What difference does it make, if it leaves you thinking about how nice it would’ve been to do it? Is there any difference? Does it affect our relationship any less, if you don’t go through with it? Is there less damage being done to our marriage if we do it in our heads and not in reality?”

For the umpteenth time that night I was again at a loss for words. All the same, I was aware that I was enjoyed talking to her about this. I liked the danger of it, the delicacy of it, liked the fact she was on a roll, that she was challenging me, I liked the way it all gushed out of her, how months of constantly recycled thoughts were suddenly being given vent, how everything that was usually concealed was now frolicking so openly between us. Oh, darling, why don’t we do this every night? Why don’t we sit like this, night after night, filling the cup till it overflows, talking about ourselves and our relationship, repeat things we’ve said a hundred times before, tell each other stories we both know by heart, let the familiar mill grind down the corn of our solidarity? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we do it? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we find our way to one another like this? What’s the point in everything we do if it doesn’t lead us here, the only place worth being? This is what we live for! This is the purpose of everything we do! The nights that make our days pale by comparison, which bathe our intimacy in a glow, the nights when it’s obvious and evident we can sit across from one another and tell each other everything. Why don’t we do this all the time? Why isn’t every night like this? If there’s a price, then let’s pay it: forty days of silence for one voluble night! As though it all runs by clockwork, gears turning us so slowly, impelling us, cogs that have to make a full revolution before their teeth again connect, slip into one another in precisely the right way, falling into the position needed to set the clock striking. And then come the beautiful, delicate sounds. And everything becomes melodious and obvious. Before the cogs move on, beginning the next long, slow revolution.



“I love you.”

—Stig Sæterbakken, Translated by Seán Kinsella

Aug 142013



Equal parts fantasy, horror, and domestic drama, Through the Night is a confident and spacious novel, touching on familiar themes in Stig Sæterbakken’s work—grief, loss, isolation. It tells the story of one man puzzling out his incessant and insidious sorrow over his son’s death against a surreal backdrop of terror. It is a novel with a stirring combo of artistic ambition and moral ambiguity, steeped in the spirit of Céline, Beckett, and Kafka. —Jason DeYoung




Through the Night
Stig Sæterbakken
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, 2013
259 pages, $15.00

GOD PLEASE FUCK MY MIND FOR GOOD snarls the disquieting music in the rather sinister nightclub Neusohl near the end of Through the Night. EVERYTHING’S BACKWARD! EVERYTHING’S BACKSWARD! the song urges. Our narrator, Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, a fractured, grief-pierced family man, is here to get the key to the house where “hope turns to dust.” In reversal of the typical quest story, Karl is questing for pain, a long-desired punishment for his familial betrayals which he believes led to his son’s suicide. This house is where you’ll be confronted with your greatest fears, where cocky, self-assured men are carried out, turned into babbling ruins and devastated by what they’ve seen. Karl hopes to see his son once again. As we’re told, punishment is a sort of medicine.

Equal parts fantasy, horror, and domestic drama, Through the Night is Stig Sæterbakken’s final novel. Compared to the other two translations of his work Dalkey Archive Press has published, Through the Night is downright baggy narratively and straightforward. The other two, Siamese and Self-Control, are taught, claustrophobic novels, pushing against the smallness of the lives of their characters, with very little in the way of backstory. In fact, Self-Control reveals so little of its protagonist’s history that when it does in its final sentence readers are confronted with near-total reassessment of whose story they have been following. Although Through the Night touches on familiar themes in Sæterbakken’s work—grief, loss, isolation—it spreads out. It’s a confident and spacious novel, with a narrator seeking a kind of genealogy of guilt while limning his own stratums grief.

Before he took his own life in 2012, Stig Sæterbakken was renown as one of Norway’s best living novelists—as well as one of its most infamous.  As a writer, Sæterbakken insisted “that literature [be] a free zone, a place where prevailing social morals should not apply…[that] literature exists in a space beyond good and evil where the farthest boundaries of human experience can be explored.” His novels investigate much of what is unflattering about human behavior. In Through the Night there is no filter on the narrator’s thoughts, and because of this the novel is unyieldingly intense and heartbreaking—we see how startlingly pathetic, confused and human Karl is.  It is a novel with a stirring combo of artistic ambition and moral ambiguity, steeped in the spirit of Céline, Beckett, and Kafka.

Through the Night opens after the suicide of the narrator’s son, Ole-Jakob. Karl’s betrayal is hinted at but not revealed in these opening few pages, instead we are lulled by Karl’s narrative voice, thoughts on sorrow and escape, and we witness how distraught his family has become after Ole-Jakob’s death. Eva, Karl’s wife, cleaves the family’s television set with an axe in response to Karl’s binge viewing. Stine, his daughter, goes mute after the funeral until finally she breaks her silence with GOD DAMNED FUCKING SHIT and a stream of more complex profanities. “I felt a pang of happiness,” Karl says, “the first sign of life from someone we’d thought was lost to us.” This first section also sets up the lore of the mysterious house. Karl’s friend Boris[*] Snopko, a sort of failed novelist, tells the story:

Boris told me about the mysterious house, someplace in Slovkia, he didn’t know excacly, where if you contacted the right person and paid a sufficient amount of money, a staggering sum apparently, you were given a key and a scrap of paper with an address on it, where you, if you were to let yourself into the house at exactly that time, would be confronted with your greatest fears….where hope turns to dust.

The first section concludes with the retelling of Prince Unknowing, a fairy tale Karl told Ole-Jakob as a bedtime story. Although Karl’s profession is dentistry, he published Prince Unknowing, a story about a young man who is unaware of his royal heritage. The title of the novel comes from Karl’s tale. When the prince is reunited with his father, he asks “Will you look after me, no matter what happens?”  His father, the king, replies: “You have nothing to fear, may son….No matter what happens, I will be there to look after you. No matter where the road my take you, I will be by your side to protect you. Through the night and into the day.”

Alas, Karl is no fatherly king. But the retelling of Prince Unknowing sets up a motif in the novel.  Secondary stories abound in Through the Night.  Plots of films are retold, Karl attends a showing of The Ape Planet, a kind of art student attempt at avant-garde theatre, and there are two novelists—Boris and Karl’s sister—whose novels are recounted. As Karl says early in the novel about his television viewing: “I’d become part of that second reality, where pain doesn’t exist.” The stories are a form of escapism, but strangely enough they also add a sense of mimesis to Through the Night, acknowledging that Sæterbakken’s characters  live in a world where they too tell stories to one another to explain their lives.

The second section of the novel takes up the history of Karl and Eva’s marriage, the birth of their children, and the eventual extramarital affair Karl has. Because of the novel’s first person point of view, culpability for the collapse of Karl and Eva’s marriage is put into question. Yes, Karl has an affair, but Eva initially questions their marriage and fidelity. Either way, after Karl’s return from his “fairy tale affair,” as Eva calls it, disharmony reigns in the Meyer house, and Eva, Stine and Ole-Jakob are emotionally wounded and distrustful of Karl. In an act of inexplicable and extreme teenage defiance Ole-Jakob steals his parent’s liquor and then their car and drives it head on into a tractor-trailer. After Ole-Jakob’s death, Karl thinks:

I had gone from knowing everything to knowing nothing. I hadn’t seen that my boy was in danger. Whatever was needed in order to keep things going had deserted him. He’d gotten to the end, and I wasn’t there to hold him back. Was that why he did it? Because I didn’t have any idea? Because I didn’t have a clue about what was going on? Was that his way of saying it, of drawing the attention of the whole world to it, that I hadn’t understood goddmaned fucking shit? Was it was his final protest against the unsuspecting bastard of a father he’d been saddled with?…And I though of the beautiful girl who had been on her way to meet him an who would have kissed him and said that she loved him and made it impossible for him to wish for his own death.

After the funeral, Karl leaves his family again, this time traveling to Redenburg, Germany, which he calls Christmastown—“as I couldn’t help but call that place, overwhelmed by all the details, all the finesse, that served to reinforce the idyllic impression of a closed world free of anxiety and suspicion.”  In Redenburg he meets Caroline, whom at first he thinks is trying to kill herself by jumping off a bridge (in fact Karl sees potential tragedy everywhere he looks).  She is a photographer, working on an exhibition of photographs paring images of water with facial wrinkles. Caroline is also the name of one of characters in Prince Unknowing and Redenburg shares numerous similarities to the illustrations in the published manuscript, all of which lead Karl to feel an affinity for the small town, and it releases him somewhat from his guilt. He listens to a harpist in the town square, and realizes it’s the “first piece of music…[he’d] been able to perceive as beautiful” since his son’s death. He agrees to Caroline’s request to take his picture and sees her on multiple occasions, as she becomes an emblem of survival for Karl after she recounts her brother’s suicide. These opening few chapters of part three are off-plot but reveal the state of Karl’s soul, so to speak. Enticing as it is, however, Karl cannot stay in Redenburg: “it all seemed hopeless from beginning to end, everything I’d gotten myself into, in the enchanted hope of finding another life, another place, in believing in a fresh start, in believing in anything at all….Dear Ole-Jakob, can you forgive me?”

With the idyllic Redenburg behind him, he starts his quest for the house. He travels to Slovkia, finds the nightclub Neusohl and its owner Zagreb, who has the key to the house at Skubínska Cesta 64. Neusohl is a shit-smelling club and Zagreb turns out to impossible to read. Is he evil or good? By this point it doesn’t matter really, as Zagreb’s little speech on ‘reality’ reveals:

God may be a bastard. But someone is watching over us, I don’t think anyone can be in any doubt about that. The Black Death. The Holocaust. AIDS. Hurricanes and typhoons. People have turned religious over far less. Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag, they’re God’s winepresses! He uses them to crush us and squeeze out the juice needed to survive, Imean for the ones who’re left!…If you look at it like that, the house is no more mysterious than what’s going on around us all the time, it’s just that the house is on a smaller scale, actually.  It can’t compete with the world, after all…Look at whatever’s waiting for you there, whatever it might be, as your own private miniature Holocoust!

Sæterbakken’s descriptions of the interior of the house are exquisite; if it were a film, it would be a long-take, five minutes or more of silence, image after image of a home devoid of life. He takes us through each of the rooms and the attic. We see how common, drab, almost dull this house of horrors is. Atmospherically, however, it’s stunning with the plumbing emitting a “plaintive howl” and “the light from the lamp in the staircase growing dimmer.” At first Karl finds nothing in the house and assumes “the only thing [the others had] found, and which made them lose their minds, the ones who’d been in the house before me, was themselves, their own spooky emptiness, I thought, overwhelmed, suddenly, by a despair so intense that I couldn’t manage to restrain a scream, drawn-out and as unfamiliar to me as a the voice of another man.”  Against the advice of everyone he has spoken to about the house, Karl falls asleep, and it is upon waking that his true horror is revealed to him.

Bleak, complex, and precise, Through the Night is a masterful novel of ones man puzzling out his incessant and insidious sorrow.  The surreal textures of the novel provide a backdrop of terror for Karl’s existential questioning: how much is he to be blamed for the end of his marriage, how much is he to blamed for Old-Jakob’s death, how does one heal after the death of a child. Mid-way in the novel, the narrator thinks: “It was over. Yet it continued.” What this “it” is isn’t clear. His marriage, his sorrow, his existence? A fate worse than death is life seems to be the conclusion. In the end Karl’s all-consuming guilt takes him. The novel’s last pages speak ambiguously about a fire that Karl swears he did not set. But there is no clear fire in the novel only a neglected frayed cable in his son’s room, but there is longing for obliteration; Karl frequently wishes that his home would burn down, he desires to drown, he wishes to “arrive without a trace.”  Obliteration, as he sees it, is the only escape from his labyrinth of moral shame.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

Jason DeYoung

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There seems to be a definite nod to Andrei Tarkovsky in Through the Night.  Boris is one of the names of the Strugatsky brothers who wrote the novel Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based upon. The movie tells the story of three men traveling to another mysterious room, this time in a place called the Zone, where their greatest desire would be granted. Other similarities with Tarkovsky—notably all the fire and water imagery in Through the Night—make enticing fodder for consideration.
Aug 132013


We live in a culture at war with itself, and I don’t mean the War on Drugs. I mean the thousand-year war between the rhetoricians and the dialecticians (as McLuhan had it), between the Ciceronian, elaborated style and the plain style of Peter Ramus, between writers who believe in the aesthetic joy of linguistic play over those who think words are just for communication (how dull and, well, Soviet that word can sound). Andrew Gallix offers here a dazzling and provocative note, a report from the front, on literary Modernism and Paul Valéry’s famous sentence “The marquise went out at five” conceived as a critique of the traditional, conventional, realistic, well-made (pick your own epithet) novel, or, really, anything that smacks of the prosiness of prose, of mere communication. Valéry’s line cleaved to the centre of the debate: Would you write a novel or a story or an essay containing a sentence as mundane as “The marquise went out at five”or not? As Gallix points out, the marquise has become a shibboleth in France for a certain kind of traditional (dull) writing. Not so much over here where prose dominates the market place. Something to think about. Andrew Gallix is the brilliant founder of 3:AM Magazine, he teaches at the Sorbonne, he writes for the UK Guardian. It’s a great pleasure to present his work here.



How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading WritingJulien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion PoemsRaymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

—Andrew Gallix


Andrew Gallix teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, and edits 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared in publications ranging from The Guardian and Times Literary Supplement to Dazed & Confused. He divides his time between Scylla and Charybdis.


Aug 122013

Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli follows his brilliant essay on Gordon Lish, composition and consecution (published on NC in February) with an equally brilliant and challenging piece on Stein, Walser and Lipsyte and the use of repetition in constructing narrative prose. In many ways this is an extension of his earlier essay since it seems obvious that Gordon Lish and Gertrude Stein emerge from the same stream of American Modernism and play somewhat similar roles as inspirational figures in their different generations. Lish’s influence on Sam Lipsyte goes without saying. And Walser is a European avatar of that same tradition. Jason’s essay, based on a lecture he gave at Vermont College of Fine Arts in July, is cogent, erudite, intuitive and compulsively readable. He teaches you how to read.



“The whole idea is that there is the pattern.”

– Diane Williams, “D. Beech and J. Beech”


Lately I have been thinking a lot about repetition.

More specifically, I have been thinking about patterns of repetition and compression and ways to compose a narrative so that certain words and phrases carry the burden of motion or narrative momentum.

This all started after I read Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist who published a book in 1953 called Writing Degree Zero. In an essay titled “Is There Any Poetic Writing?” Barthes says that written language has a “relational nature” and that “words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships” (44). Barthes continues, saying, “no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connection.” According to Barthes, words extend toward other words, forming, what he calls, “a superficial chain of intentions.” As a word stands for itself, it also points to other words in a “relational network” that drives narrative intention and momentum. Barthes suggests that a reading of these relations might function similarly to a mathematical language expressing either “operative equality” or “difference.”


As I thought about patterns of repetition, specifically word patterns, this seemed very interesting to me. I started thinking about the inter-textual connections in narrative form and the need for readers to be able to derive meaning from those relationships since it is always necessary to understand where we are going, why we are going there, and what the relational elements of a narrative mean within the context of the work as a whole (47).

Barthes says that our function as writers is “not to find new words, with more body or brilliance, but to follow an order of an ancient ritual, to perfect the symmetry or conciseness of a relation,” and because I was thinking about word patterns, I took Barthes quite literally (45). I thought, what could be more concise or symmetrical than a relational network of the same words and phrases repeating throughout a narrative?

So my journey into the world of word patterns began, and I will attempt to construct that same tour for you by examining word patterns from three stories: Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” Robert Walser’s “Nothing At All,” and Sam Lipsyte’s “The Wrong Arm.”

First, I would like to introduce a working definition of word patterns from the mouth of Douglas Glover. In his essay “The Mind of Alice Munro” from his book Attack of the Copula Spiders, he says, word patterns “begin with mere repetition and accumulate meaning by association and juxtaposition, splinter or ramify, sending out subsidiary branch patterns, and…discover occasions for recombination or intersection of the various branches…in tie-in lines” (95). As portions of a pattern repeat, each repetition conveys its relationship or connection to the pattern. Glover separates word patterns into categories of root pattern (identified as such by its connection to a story’s protagonist) and split-off patterns.

In an echo of the Barthes passage mentioned earlier (“no word has a density by itself…”), Glover says, “No word sits by itself; instead, each word vibrates in a dozen relationships with other words, repeating, competing, dominating, wrenching, transforming, shading, and subverting” (98). Similar to Barthes, Glover emphasizes the relationships between words and the nature of those relationships. In this way, repeating word patterns are charged with a variety of structural and thematic functions. Word patterns, for example, can initiate motive and intention, develop conflict and characterization, convey desire and resistance, action and counteraction.

Glover’s words are a contemporary explanation of word patterns, so before examining a portion of one of the many patterns in Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” let’s take a step back and see what Stein herself has to say about her process since she wrote and lectured on it so extensively. In her lecture “Portraits and Repetition,” published in 1935—eighteen years before Barthes, sixty-eight years before Glover—she says “…if you like repetition, that is if you like the repeating that is the same thing, but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis” (167). In her own way, Stein is saying that repetition alone is not enough, for how can one say anything by merely repeating oneself? Rather, Stein stresses the importance of how that repetition is positioned in relation to its prior utterance. Stein unpacks this idea later in her lecture when she says, “the repetition consists in knowing that that one is a kind of one” and “each sentence is just the difference in emphasis” (198). Each repetition with variation carries its own emphasis, its own context, and as a “kind of one,” points back to the whole of where it came. As a rule, each sameness should carry its own difference.

In an examination of the work and life of Gertrude Stein, scholar and literary critic Fredrick J. Hoffman writes, “Repetition is an essential strategy in composition; it guarantees similarity and forces the consciousness upon the nature of the thing seen while at the same time it provides the avenue along which movement and change may occur” (Stein, 20). The momentum of Stein’s stories—published in the early 1900’s until the time of her death in 1946—do not rely on discernable plotlines, but rather, as Hoffman says, “subtle gradations of change” and “slow accretions of variant meaning” achieved through a careful balance of repetition with variation (21).


In “Melanctha,” published in 1909, Stein builds a relational network of patterns that, as Douglas Glover might say, “controls development and meaning within the text” (96). Stein repeats a variety of words with varying emphasis as a way of progressing the emotional battle experienced by Melanctha throughout the story. The patterns in “Melanctha” are too numerous to name now in every instance, but some of the repeating words and phrases can be easily integrated into the following summary: Melanctha is a girl of mixed race who often feels “blue,” loves “too hard,” “too fast,” and can only find “new ways to be in trouble.” She “wanders,” and in her “wandering,” searches for “wisdom” and “understanding.” But poor Melanctha is “full of the excitement of many men,” and can “always only find new ways to get excited.” When her mother becomes ill, Melanctha meets Dr. Campbell. Melanctha and the doctor begin a relationship of “talking” and “listening,” and Melanctha pushes Dr. Campbell to do less “thinking” and more “feeling,” but Dr. Campbell believes Melanctha’s way of “feeling” is much too “hard” and “too fast.” Eventually Dr. Campbell comes to a new “understanding” and a new “feeling” about Melanctha, even though Dr. Campbell believes he is moving “fast” and ahead of his own “feeling.” Yet Melanctha only “suffers” and remains unsatisfied because Dr. Campbell still seems so “slow” in his “feeling.” This struggle of conflicting emotions continues between them, their “minds” and “hearts” never agreeing, until they finally end their relationship.

threelives“Melanctha” is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who narrates closely beside Melanctha and other characters in the story, like Rose Johnson, Melanctha’s best friend, and Dr. Jeff Campbell, Melanctha’s love interest for most of the narrative. Much of the tension in “Melanctha” develops from and is controlled by word patterns, and I would like to look at a few patterns, a few examples, slivers really. The word patterns of “trouble,” “excited,” and “courage” are all connected to Melanctha’s character development, though these same word patterns also control aspects of the conflict between Melanctha and Dr. Campbell. The first instance of “trouble” is tied to Melanctha: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble” (3). To give you a sense of its frequency, the word pattern “trouble” occurs 97 times throughout the story. The function of the pattern here is to reveal one of Melanctha’s flaws. The pattern continues on in other instances, though, most importantly, it appears in the sentence introducing Dr. Jeff Campbell: “Jeff Campbell had never yet in his life had real trouble” (14). Already, it’s easy to see the difference, the conflict, between the two characters: Melanctha is always in “trouble” and Jeff Campbell has never known “real trouble.”

Let’s look at a few instances of the intersecting patterns of “excited” and “trouble”: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking peace and quiet, and she could always only find new ways to get excited” (3). For Melanctha, getting into “trouble” and getting “excited” are connected. One leads to the other, and Stein conveys this relationship in a sentence whose structure is parallel to that of the one with “trouble”: “Melanctha Herbert was always seeking rest and quiet, and always she could only find new ways to be in trouble”. Again, to give you a sense of its frequency, the pattern of “excited” along with its split-off pattern of “excitements” is repeated 27 times throughout the text.

During a conversation between Melanctha and Dr. Campbell early in their courtship, Melanctha suggests that Dr. Campbell do less “thinking” and more “feeling.” Dr. Campbell replies, “…I really certainly don’t ever like to get excited, and that kind of loving hard does seem always to mean just getting all the time excited. No Miss Melanctha I certainly never have mixed myself up in that kind of trouble” (18). Here, the patterns of “excited” and “trouble” intersect to reveal complication and growing tension in the relationship between Dr. Campbell and Melanctha. In this example, the patterns of “trouble” and “excited” indicate opposing viewpoints, alternate lifestyles.

 What makes Melanctha so prone to finding “new ways to be in trouble” is revealed in the following sentence: “Melanctha had always had a break neck courage…” (4) The relationship between “break neck courage” and “trouble” is defined in a later conversation between Dr. Campbell and Melanctha when she says: “…I mean real courage, to run around and not care nothing about what happens, and always be game in any kind of trouble” (37). Dr. Campbell replies, “…its all right being brave every day, just living regular and not having new ways all the time just to get excitements…I ain’t ashamed ever to say I ain’t got no longing to be brave, just to go around and look for trouble…” and, he continues, “that kind of courage makes all kind of trouble…” (38) Dr. Campbell’s idea of “brave” reflects “wisdom” that knows to keep away from certain “excitements” and “trouble.” Alternately, Melanctha’s idea of “courage” is one that leads to new “excitements” and “trouble” of all kinds. This succession of contexts forms a battle of opposites and, as Douglas Glover might say, “the competing points of view strive for interpretive primacy” (97). In other words, whose conception of love will supplant the other: Melanctha’s or Dr. Campbell’s?

Stein constructs the avenue for this struggle along threads of repetition and variation, sameness and difference, through the use of precise, complex word patterns. On “Melanctha,” Frederick J. Hoffman says, “Each of the significant phrases is repeated, again and again, in slightly new contexts, until one is aware of change within a central pattern of conscious experience” (30). Ultimately, the desired effect of Stein’s patterns, of all word patterns, is to produce some sort of change, or, in some instances, an awareness of staying the same.


In Robert Walser’s “Nothing at All,” published in 1917, the pattern making is even more transparent. Walser was a German-speaking Swiss writer who published short pieces of prose, novels, plays, and essays throughout 1901 to 1953 during the height of the Modernist period. “Nothing at All” (700 words) is much shorter than “Melanctha” (50,000 words), and while Walser’s patterning and use of repetition is equally interwoven, the compression of his narrative has much to do the transparency of his patterns.

“Nothing at All” is told by a first person narrator who narrates the story of a woman, a little “flighty” and a little “absentminded,” who goes shopping for something “good” for her and her husband to eat for supper that night. In town, the woman cannot keep her “mind on the matter,” a result of her “absentminded”-ness.  Between her inability to keep “her mind on the matter” and being a little “flighty,” the woman comes to “no decision” and goes home with “nothing at all.” At home, she explains to her husband how the “choice was too difficult,” and because her “mind wasn’t on the matter,” she bought “nothing at all.” The “good” husband accepts his wife’s explanation and that night they have “nothing at all,” which, ironically, tastes “exceptionally good to them.”

walserbook1The transparency of Walser’s patterning lends itself more easily to categories of root pattern and split-off patterns. Walser even tips off readers to the main pattern of “nothing at all” by initiating the pattern in the title of the story. Instead of tracing each pattern separately, I will trace the root pattern of “nothing at all” and its connection to the split-off patterns of “good” and variations of the phrase “mind on the matter.” As in Stein’s “Melanctha,” “Nothing at All” contains other patterns that carry all other prior utterances to the pattern they came from while relating to other patterns at work throughout the narrative.

The intersection or tie-in of all three patterns (“nothing at all,” “good,” and “mind on the matter”) occurs at the juncture, or climax, of the wife’s decision-making: “It isn’t good when minds aren’t on the matter, and, in a word, the woman finally got disgusted, and she went home with nothing at all” (110). When the woman gets home, her husband asks what “delicious and good” food she bought for supper, to which the wife responds: “nothing at all.” The woman explains: “‘I went to town and I wanted to buy something truly delicious and good for me and you, I wasn’t lacking in good will, over and over I considered, but the choice was too difficult and my mind wasn’t on the matter, and therefore I didn’t succeed, and therefore I bought nothing at all.’” Walser constructs this sentence using the ancient repetitive structures of polysyndeton and asyndeton. Asyndeton is the omission of conjunctions between phrases in favor of rhythm and speed, as in the first half of the sentence: “‘I went to town and I wanted to buy something truly delicious and good for me and you, I wasn’t lacking in good will, over and over I considered…” The final half of the sentence uses polysyndeton, a repetitive structure relying on excessive conjunctions also in the favor of rhythm: “‘…but the choice was too difficult and my mind wasn’t on the matter, and therefore I didn’t succeed, and therefore I bought nothing at all.’” In both cases, asyndeton and polysyndeton focus on the way clauses (or words and phrases) are linked. In other words, Walser uses these repetitive techniques to establish concise connections between three separate patterns: “good” and its split-off pattern “good will,” “mind on the matter,” and the root pattern of “nothing at all.”

Throughout the story, “good” is used in relation to the “something good” the wife wants to buy for supper. “Good,” in this case, represents intention or character desire. In other instances, “good” had the effect of characterization, like in connection with the “good intentions” or “good will” of the woman during her supper-search, and in the use of “good upright husband.” The woman’s motivation carried by the line, “A woman…went to town to buy something good for supper for herself and her husband,” receives its fulfillment in a tie-in line between “good” and “nothing at all” toward the end of the story: “And so they ate nothing at all and were both satisfied, for it tasted exceptionally good to them” (110). The husband is “in no way angry,” and this irony seems to suggest a resolution, because, in a way, the wife succeeds, at least until the final line of the story, which contains the final instance of the root pattern “nothing at all”: “Many other things would probably have tasted better to him than nothing at all” (111). This line reveals the only instance of judgment from the perspective of the “good” husband in the story, and extends the root pattern of “nothing at all” by complicating the narrative. This final instance also completes the circular momentum of the pattern—and the movement of the piece as a whole—as “nothing at all” moves from its connection of “good” into an implied connotation of “not good.” While “good” is a split-off pattern, it occurs more than any other pattern in the text, 17 times in all, 7 more times than the root pattern “nothing at all.” Here, the root pattern drives the avenue of progression, while the enriched pattern of “good” and all its variant meanings helps to elicit deeper meaning from the root pattern and the narrative overall.


The same kind of transparent pattern making is evident in Sam Lipsyte’s “The Wrong Arm,” a contemporary short story from Lipsyte’s collection Venus Drive, published in 2000.  Lipsyte’s root pattern of “the wrong arm,” initiated in the title of the story, controls the development of the narrative while the split-off patterns and repetitive phrases in the narrative initiate change.

lipsyte_venus_drive“The Wrong Arm” is told in the past tense from the first person point of view of an adolescent genderless narrator, who, for the sake of simplifying pronoun use, I will refer to as “he.” A family—consisting of a father, a mother, and three children—sets out on a road trip to see “the boats of the world” sailing up a river somewhere, but during the course of the trip, the narrator overhears his father and mother talking, and the narrator realizes there’s more to the trip than seeing “the boats.” The father says the boats are one thing and that there is another thing that they all need to talk about once they reach “the boats.” The narrator believes that what his father and mother have to tell the children has something to do with the “wrongness” in his mother, who has an arm with a visual history of “all the scars from all the times something tried to kill her in that arm.” Through the years, the mother’s arm has come to be known as the “the wrong arm.” There are strict rules against touching “the wrong arm”, or leading the mother anywhere by “the wrong arm.” Once the family arrives at the river to see “the boats,” in an effort to prove that “the wrong arm” is just like “anybody’s arm,” that they are “making it wrong by saying it was wrong,” the narrator suggests they “go closer” to the boats, and then he does “the wrong thing.”

As with Walser’s “Nothing At All,” “The Wrong Arm” contains a root pattern that centralizes the progression of the story by creating conflict, increasing narrative tension, and tying into the desires of multiple characters in various ways. The root pattern has branching associations of split-off patterns that, in one way or another, relate back to the root pattern. In Gertrude Stein’s words, each repetitive phrase, in connection to the root pattern of the story, helps to provide new insistence, new emphasis to the pattern. Lipsyte uses patternmaking as a way to compress the history of “wrongness” done to the mother’s “wrong arm” while also progressing the pattern in the present moment of the narrative.

Let’s look at an example that outlines the boundaries of the relationship between “the wrong arm” and the other family members: “All we knew about the wrong arm was that it was wrong to touch it, to pinch it, to rub it…The wrong arm was not for us to take her by and lead her. The wrong arm was not for us to tap it for her to turn” (117). This portion of the root pattern containing its split-off pattern of “wrong” wrenches with tension, and provides a source of conflict in the story. The fact that “the wrong arm” should never be touched acts as an obstacle for the narrator in his quest to discover the truth behind his mother’s mental and physical state. The root pattern of “the wrong arm” and all of its split-off patterns of “wrong,” “wronger,” and “wrongness” repeat 27 times throughout the text.

Lipsyte slowly unravels the history of hurt behind “the wrong arm” and its history of hurt through split-off patterns like “bees,” “bad nails in the porch door,” “porch-door nails,” and “scars.” Split-off patterns relate back to the root pattern in other ways, like the way “the boats” functions as the motive for the scene and the way “waste a wish” functions in the narrator’s evolving line of desire. Of course, there’s not enough time to look at examples of these patterns in any real detail, so instead, let’s look at possibly the most important connection to be drawn from the history of “the wrong arm” as seen in this example of the root pattern: “The wrong arm would never heal right.” Not only is it “wrong” to touch “the arm,” but the narrator also understands that “the wrong arm” would never heal “right.” This portion of the pattern is constructed on sameness and difference, or, as opposites, like in the instance of “good” and the implied “not good” in Walser’s story.

The next example of the split-off pattern “wrong” reveals a change in the narrator’s line of desire when the narrator says, “We were making it wrong by saying it was wrong. We should be holding it and rubbing it and taking her by it to lead her somewhere. To lead her by it to the boats” (121). This is the climax of the story, a turning point in the narrator’s understanding of his mother’s arm as he begins to form a new association in his mind. At the same time, this example recalls an earlier utterance of “the wrong arm” root pattern: “All we knew about the wrong arm was that it was wrong to touch it, to pinch it, to rub it…The wrong arm was not for us to take her by and lead her.” The change in the narrator results from his desire to deny the entire history of “the wrong arm,” to move beyond the prior association that touching “the wrong arm” is “wrong,” and so the story ends on the action of his following through: “And then I did the wrong thing.” All at once, the narrator’s actions extend the split-off pattern of “wrong,” complicate story action, and complete the circular momentum of the plot.

josipovici bookThroughout this essay I have looked at small examples of word patterns for the ways they function in narrative through a relational network of connections. On the relational nature of written language, Barthes says, “connections lead the word on, and at once carry it towards a meaning which is an ever-deferred project” (47). In these stories by Stein, Walser, and Lipsyte, the connections between words do not point immediately to one meaning, but rather, defer meaning through the act of repetition. This effect is something that contemporary British literary theorist Gabriel Josipovici, in his book Whatever Happened to Modernism?, calls the “playing off” of “forward movement against stillness and repetition,” an effect that has long been prevalent in poetry (Modernism, 87).

On the making of Three Lives, the book in which “Melanctha” was first published, Stein says, “In the first book there was a groping for a continuous present and for using everything by beginning again and again” (3). Stein’s “using everything,” her reliance on repetitions, and the varying of those repetitions allowed her to construct Melanctha out of a succession of contexts instead of a scene-by-scene based pattern of conflict. The resulting narrative seems temporally odd with a constantly churning, elliptical momentum. As readers, we move through the narrative without seeming to move at all.

In Walser’s “Nothing at All,” a story of only 700 words, 331 words span the arc of the woman’s journey into town for something good to eat, while 182 subsequent words amount to her re-telling of that journey to her husband after she returns home, a movement that is, essentially, a repeating of, or, using Stein’s words, a “beginning again.” Walser dilates the situation and achieves a complete deceleration of forward movement, or, as Josipovici might say, the staving off of forward movement in favor of “stillness” and “repetition.”

Roland Barthes says that narrative “is an act which necessarily implies a duration,” and by “duration” he means an “oriented and meaningful time” (38). In an essay by Ben Marcus in the June 2003 edition of The Believer, Marcus says, “One basic meaning of narrative [is] to create time where there was none” (2). He also says, “Fiction is the production of false time for readers to experience. Most fiction seeks to become time.” The stories by Stein, Walser, and Lipsyte are all concerned with influencing the way readers experience narrative time through using repetition and word patterning as orienting devices to compress time (in the way Lipsyte compresses a history of hurt into “the wrong arm”), or to subvert our narrative-based notion of passing time (in the way Stein carries out her concept of a “continuous present,” or in the way Walser decelerates the forward momentum of his narrative).

As writers, there’s no way to escape time, but there are alternative ways for building narratives outside of using an events-with-consequences based pattern of conflict. In word-pattern based stories, the duration of the narrative persists as long as the dominating or root pattern remains open, and in this relational temporality, the tension between a set of words behaves similarly to the way consequences separate events. Causality and consequence will always be concerns for fiction writers, but the contingencies that result from the textual connections between repeating words and phrases can also provide narrative movement or momentum, and new opportunities for finding ways in, around, and out of story.

—Jason Lucarelli


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. New York: Hill and Wang. 1968.

Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Biblioasis. 2012.

Josipovici, Gabriel. Whatever Happened to Modernism?. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2011.

Lipsyte, Sam. “The Wrong Arm.” Venus Drive. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2000.

Marcus, Ben. “On the Lyric Essay.” The Believer. July 2003.

Stein, Gertrude. “Portraits and Repetition,” Lectures in America. New York: Random House. 1935. “Melanctha.” Three Lives. 1909.

Walser, Robert. “Nothing at All.” Selected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012.


Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, PA. He is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is his second appearance on the pages of Numéro Cinq.


Aug 112013

Jungle GirlJungle Girl: The author, age 5

One of NC’s Saskatchewan stalwarts, Byrna Barclay, sent in these nuggets that tell us you don’t have to write a tome to make an impact, to have panache and éclat. Here we have a photo of the author taken in a studio when she was five, the author’s delightful one-paragraph micromemoir of same, and a snippet from a novel-in-progress based on the incident. We meet the author, the author’s fictional alter ego, Annika Robin, and the amazing Grandmunch, the reallife and fictional Jesse Emma, grandmother extraordinaire.

The fictional fragment is taken from House of the White Elephant, the last of the series of Barclay’s Livelong Quartet (Summer of the Hungry Pup, The Last Echo, and Winter of the White Wolf have already published by NeWest Press in Edmonton).



When I had measles my teacher mother sent me to my grandmother, affectionately known as Grandmunch.  The daughter of a Judge and graduate of the Sorbonne, she had lived through two world wars, lost her husband and son, and survived the Depression by bartering her music — lessons in ballet, violin, piano, and elocution — for eggs, butter, chickens, whatever the parents could spare.  To commemorate my visit she took me to James Studio, stood me on a black box, draped the leopard skin she had brought from India over me, then dashed out to the green grocer to buy a banana to place in my hand. Just when the photographer, whose head had disappeared under a black cloth, took the photo the skin slipped and I gasped.  Jesse Emma chose that photo and had it air brushed to hide the exposed part of me.  Oh yes, even the frame was hand-carved in India at the turn of the 20th C.

—Byrna Barclay


The Jungle Girl

How well Jesse remembers the day she took Annika Robin down Central Avenue to James Studio.  She removed her clothes and stood her on a box covered with a black velvet cloth.  She draped her own mother’s leopard skin over Robin’s shoulders, but had nothing to fasten it.  She let down the child’s braids, and with her strong piano-fingers messed up her white-blonde hair til it was wild and tossed raggedly about her shoulders.  She stood back, like an artist with a vision yet to be drawn on blank canvas.  Something vital was missing; it lack the full effect Jesse sought.

She dashed out and down the street to the green grocer’s and returned with an overly ripe, motley banana that looked more like a plantain.  She thrust it into Robin’s right hand.  Perfect.  The photographer ducked his head under the black hood on the free-standing camera.  Just as the shutter clicked the pelt slipped and Robin gasped and bit her bottom lip, which gave her an impish expression in the photograph.  Never mind, the photographer said, he would air-brush the portrait, creating a shadow on the inside of the child’s thighs to hide her private parts.

When Jesse gave a copy to Linnaea, the loony Swede didn’t like it and was furious with Jesse: What are you trying to do? 

The portrait took Jesse Emma back to her own childhood in Calcutta, to stories her mother had told her about white girls lost in the jungle and raised by apes or elephants or Bengal tigers, tales that Jesse hoped would delight fanciful Robin who played Tarzan & Jane among the elms hand-planted along the bank of the North Saskatchewan River.

Excerpt from House of the White Elephant — Byrna Barclay



Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published three in a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

Aug 112013

Nance cover art

Four gorgeous poems this morning arrive to you from NC, the first four poems of Nance Van Winckel‘s brand new poetry collection Pacific Walkers, the central poem being an inquiry into the body of an unidentified dead man washed up on the bank of the Spokane River, the man’s body itself becoming an inquiry, “a small inquiry unfit for the big answer.” In a flash, in a phrase, the poet has told you of what all life and art consist: we are all small inquiries unfit for the big answer, but the small inquiry and the big answer fuse in the poem, and the poet accords the unidentified dead man a signal honour, knighting him with the epithet “Little Prince of the Reigning Question.” The poems are poignant, raw, mysterious and lovely.

…Once you were a bud
in someone’s belly. A swim, a sleep,

then to crown your way out. Keep
mum. Keep it to yourself, Little Prince

of the Reigning Question,
the would-you-do-it-all-again
there there, now now.






Signing On with The Daily Sun

Nearing a thousand words a minute, I can type
to your health. I can input a print that’s fit
to all. Can get across baby without
a single b. I can keep my prayer mat
under wraps. Ditto the armband. I have the facts,
you have the contracts. Sure, you can change
my name to Lance in the byline.

Like jerking off Band-Aids, I can rip away
calendar pages so fast, no one will even know
we’re over the past. Day in, day out, I can
make them play along with my playing
along, can make them believe decedent,
can disseminate and disguise at the same time
what’s face up, fetid, gnawed at by weasels.

Just. The. Facts. I am like you. Or passing
through you like a taco. Easily rolled up
to swat a pesky moth. Spread wide to accept
your bounty of trout guts. Quick to appear,
pass the verbiage, and disappear.
I can stay anon. I can live anon.
I can keep anon in my heart.


Last Address

What gold flitter has made of your ear
a hive? Clouds tug loose a last dream

and now the rainfall bears down
your secrets. The question’s not

if the river had its way with you,
spit you out as a small inquiry

unfit for the big answer. No,
the question won’t pertain to tattoos

or unmatchable DNA, but to what
world, under what sun, in what situ

we go on finding each you, each you,
the not-missed, the never missing.


We stand at the foot of you.
Bees and swallows rustle the grass

around half flesh, half bone, half
here, half gone. Dot of earth: nothing

owed or owned. Once you were a bud
in someone’s belly. A swim, a sleep,

then to crown your way out. Keep
mum. Keep it to yourself, Little Prince

of the Reigning Question,
the would-you-do-it-all-again
there there, now now.


Found on the bank of the Spokane River at approximately 2200 W. Falls Street. Adult Caucasian male. This male was 5 feet 11 inches in height and weighed approximately 161 pounds. His hair was dark brown or possibly black. Clothing worn: a pair of black lace up boots with a brand name listed as “CORCORAN,” a pair of black socks, a pair of light blue denim pants with a brand name listed as “RUSTLER,” a pair of red slightly meshed under shorts, a dark colored T-Shirt with the size listed as medium and a name brand of “EDDIE BAUER.” Dental identification information obtained, no match found. Fingerprints unobtainable.
………Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Records



When the intern asks why
hadn’t the animals eaten this man
the river months ago washed up,
the examiner numbers
his answers.

An order. Of course. Most
to least. The day animals
vs. the night ones. If six,
thorns. If thy right eye
offendeth. I doodle.

My sketch in the place of
reason: a moustache on Mr.
Numbers. If three magpies
flap away. Therefore an
ambiguity of eye color.

Sketch it: how weird,
the moustache needs
a matching beard. Hair
today. Eight trumpet vines.
Twelve solstice winds.

What had he gone by?
My reason. God’s hard.
If one. If the earthly
life. The this life. His
other car was a train.



His Other Car Was a Train

My tapping for him
against the Corona. Ding
at the end of the line.
The trestle bridge,
a light table with a lean
negative him. The fording
of, the fire in the belly of.
Getting the outside air
coming in. Sleet as rain’s
sequel, and anxious
were the trees and good
the green fields pressing forward
and how great the distance.
Boxcars with zero sans serif,
with only space—space
maybe going somewhere.
Somewhere, how can we
leave it now?

Nance cover art


new nance pix2Nance 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 four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. 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. Her personal web page is here.

Aug 102013

Diana-twistPhoto by Julia Sabot


I try not to dread my girls’ adolescence.  But I remember how I acted out with bad boys my parents knew nothing about. My mom trusted me; she drove me down to some sketchy party in Pittsfield at Nanci Mahoney’s stepfather’s cabin on the lake.  Nanci spelled her name with an “i” and smoked in the girls’ room and wrote death-wish poetry on her hand.  She’d taken me under her wing since we were in the same homeroom and both loved Stevie Nicks.  Nanci didn’t care that I was an Honors Class nerd, and I saw her as a doorway to experience.

In hindsight there was nothing my mother could have done to stop me.  Effortlessly the door opened and I crossed the threshold.  Now I have daughters I know it’s only a matter of time.

“Mommy, did you know in ten hundred years the sun will go out?”  Carmen speaks carelessly, delivering this Kindergarten fact the way she’d mention the life cycle of a frog.

“Really?” I say.  I’m at my post at the sink, loading the breakfast dishes.

“Yes,” she confirms.  “All the people will die.  And all the animals.”

“Wow.  Are you worried about that?”  I aim for curious nonchalance, my voice untainted by anxiety.  But my daughter has already raced off to join her sister in the playroom, where they have five minutes before school to line up their cow and horse armies for a major offensive.

Ten hundred years seems an eternity for a 5-year-old, but when I do the math it’s only forty generations.  Is this slapdash astronomy what Miss Lily— Carmen’s sweet-faced, sassy teacher, she of the brunette mane and the striped tops and the snug Seven jeans—  is teaching her charges at Circle Time?

I’m not concerned about misinformation.  It’s possible Carmen fabricated the future of the sun from something she read or overheard.  My youngest has an active imagination and an uncanny ability to sense the deep currents of adult affairs, even if she can’t understand them.

At bedtime I climb the ladder into her loft bed, pressed up close to the ceiling in a vaguely claustrophobic nest of pillows, blankets, Ducky, Big Duck, Fuzzy, Strawberry, and the rest of the guys.  My girl is naked as usual, too warm-blooded for PJs, her smooth, round belly radiating heat. We snuggle under covers and do our nose-rub and eyelash-kiss routine. Given the chance, Carmen will want to touch tongues, then turn this weird, wet intimacy into a full-on French kiss with an ardor that startles me every time.  The child is a sensual creature.  I don’t fear her passionate nature now, but when my mind fast-forwards a decade to Fifteen, I feel nausea.

Already Carmen can lie without thinking twice.  She often sneaks down from her loft after bedtime for gummy bunnies and string cheese, even though I’ve forbidden her to eat up there.  She’ll steal her sister’s Halloween candy and stash it under her sheets, or claim she hasn’t broken a glass when there are shards on the floor.  Small trespasses, yes— but is she capable of more?  One night she asks me what Daddy is doing.

“Watching hockey on the couch,” I reply.  “And I’m going for a walk.”

“Okay, Mommy. Good night,” she grins.

“Carmen… “ I warn.  “What are you up to?”

With tickling, the truth comes out. The kid is plotting to sneak downstairs and hunt for the leftover cupcakes she suspects are somewhere in the kitchen.  “And then I’ll hypnotize Daddy and invite my friends over and we’ll all have a cupcake party!” Her blue eyes widen and she laughs like a baby hyena, adorable but scary.  I push back the thought of her in high school descending a ladder of sheets, slipping into a car piled with boys, maybe a rusted-out, extra-cab pick-up.  The truck roars off down our dirt road in a trail of pebbles and sweet marijuana smoke.  At Fifteen, I wouldn’t have dared this kind of transgression, but Carmen has always been fearless.  I was a good girl who asked for a ride.

At Nanci Mahoney’s party, the dank cabin smelled of lakewater and cigarettes, and Nanci danced on the screen porch shaking her smoky copper-colored hair. I sat on a futon while a punk boy in combat boots drew a design in body paint on my shoulder.  He pushed up my tee-shirt sleeve and held me still.  Then he dipped the brush in black paint and began making delicate strokes on my skin.  The brush was a wet feather, more exotic than a fingertip.  Neither of us uttered a word until he finished; he’d painted an elaborate Anarchy sign on my deltoid, embellished with whorls and scrolls.

“There,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

In the background, The Church crooned “Under the Milky Way”— as usual, the song lyrics expressed my reality more succinctly than I ever could:  “Wish I knew what you were looking for/ Might have known what you would find…”

I didn’t make out with Punk Boy that night, but there were other parties.  When my Dad picked me up, I sank into his dark car, feigning exhaustion.  The leather seats encased me like a protective skin.  I told him no, I didn’t drink any beer, yes, the party was fine… kind of boring.  I was skilled at keeping small secrets. I’d learned from my mother, after all, just as my daughter is learning from me.

“Mommy, what’s more important—  friendship or kissing?” Carmen springs this question on me one night after a round of nose-rubbing and tongue-touching.  My skin prickles.  A miniature lightning rod, my child has picked up on sparks between me and a dangerously charming neighbor. The June evening simmers beyond our window; the first fireflies blink find me, find me out in the meadow.  I’m restless, ready to clock out of mom duty and go check my email.

“Friendship,” I answer firmly.  But sometimes electricity trumps everything, and you find yourself kissing without care of the future, kissing until your mouth aches, kissing as if the sun might go out.

—Diana Whitney


Diana Whitney is a yoga teacher, writer, and mother of two in Brattleboro, VT.  Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington, Pilates Style magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Puerto del Sol, Lyric, and various other publications.  Diana has a Masters in English Literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and attended the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.  Her irreverent parenting column, Spilt Milk, ran for four years in several Vermont newspapers and is slowly working its way into a memoir.  Diana recently completed a book of poems, Wanting It.  She blogs at


Aug 092013


Here’s a What It’s Like Living Here essay from a village in Indonesia (a land of islands) by a very new writer, Yeniffer Pang-Chung, whom I met when I was in Halifax last November. She was leaving just after Christmas for an exchange trip to Indonesia and I took the opportunity to ask her to write something for NC. Yeniffer was born in Panama but grew up just outside Toronto. Depok seems like a place of perpetual summer. I love the idea of a community swimming hole at a bend in the river. I am mystified by some of the food they sell in the market. I am entranced by the five daily prayer calls coming from the mosque next door and the TV on for for prayers from Jakarta. (I had a friend once who went to Mass every Sunday in front of the TV so he could make his morning tennis match. Who says TV cannot be a conduit for God’s grace? Does God worry about such things?)




It is the call of Azan at dawn, it is the first prayer call for the village. The far-reaching call is even louder with the mosque located within steps from my bedroom window.  This call is the signal to begin yet another day in Depok Desa, a village with a population of 5000 in West Java Island, Indonesia. It is one of five prayer calls that will sound throughout the day. There are slight sounds of movement in my host family’s home, the first stirring from a night’s sleep, and soon enough, the television is turned on and tuned in to the televised prayer from Jakarta.

My own wakeup call is the burst of sunshine through my window and the loud cries of the children hurrying to school. Occasionally, there will be a curious tap on my street-facing bedroom window, or better yet, the children will boldly stick their heads through my open window and sounds of their mischievous giggles will rouse me from a night’s sleep. I wake up, wash up and eat my breakfast of rice and fried vegetables. Time permitting, I make my way to the front porch of my sunny yellow house with my instant coffee to take in the sights and sounds of the village.


My eyes travel down the recently paved main road and take in the colourfully painted homes and mosques. Clothing dries on the wrought iron fences, clothes lines, and store-bought drying racks in the front of the homes. It is loud and challenges one’s notion of a village as a place for quiet. There is noise everywhere. I can hear the steady pounding of nails into wood just a few feet away from where I sit, the sound of workers upholstering the furniture that my host family sells in the market. There are motorcycles, mopeds, and trucks rumbling up and down the road. Traffic lights do not exist in the village. Horns sound periodically as the drivers alert other drivers and pedestrians of their imminent passing. It can be shock initially, the screech of a horn in a place where it does not quite seem to belong.


My sense of time is altered in the village. Everything moves at a slower pace. An easy five-minute walk can seem endless with the sun beating down relentlessly. However, I do walk; I walk constantly, either with a purpose or just to be outside.  The village is green. It is green with lush vegetation in the form of palm trees, exotic fruit trees, wild tropical plants, and expanses of grass-like sprouts in the rice fields.


It is surrounded by mountains and rice paddies. Sometimes I feel as if there is almost too much to look at. I venture to the warung (convenience store) daily to satisfy a sweet tooth or to refresh myself with a cold drink. The warungs add even more colour to the landscape with their variety of bright-printed single serve packages of cookies, chips, laundry detergent, and flip flops hanging down in columns in the front of the stores.


Walking along the main road, I see tarps laid out along the side of the road bearing unhulled rice, shelled peanuts, and corn kernels roasting under the blazing sun. The season is dry, hot and humid with temperatures averaging the mid-30s daily. The produce will stay out until the first rainfall hits, and then it is quickly collected and saved for the next day’s promise of sunshine.

Grains drying

A steep climb awaits me if I take one of the many side roads branching off the single main street. A rocky path leads up the mountain to smaller and less visible sub-villages, clusters of homes and explosions of natural beauty. Towering trees bring temporary relief from the sunshine. The mountain homes differ from those along the main village road. The contrast juxtaposes traditional Indonesian craft with the ever growing shift to modernity. The village Anyaman homes are raised on wooden stilts and constructed out of intricate bamboo weaves. Nestled between these homes are brightly painted stucco houses that rest solidly on ground.




I return to the main road where all my new family and friends reside. Alone here one is never quite alone. Coming down back to the main village, the noise engulfs me, beginning with the familiar honks of vehicles passing by. The cries and laughter of children can be heard everywhere. Walking down the road of Depok is an invitation to be spoken to. Children and adults call out “mau kemana” and “dari mana” — common greetings that inquire about where you plan on going and where you have come from. House visits are common. My friends and I congregate and plan the day’s adventure. Food is usually involved; there is food everywhere in Depok. One of the first phrases one learns living in the village is ‘makan dulu’ which translates into “eat first.” The homes I visit offer a plethora of snacks from coconut biscuits to deep fried bananas (salty or sweet), fish chips, coated peanuts, and an abundance of exotic fruits.



A trip down to the river is particularly appealing during the sweltering hot days. There is no carved out road to the river but dirt paths molded and reshaped by frequent rains. The descent is slow and rocky. This section of river is located across from two elementary schools, so children frequent the place, scampering down the hills with ease. They are quick to shed their clothes and dive off of the rock studded banks. The rocks allow you to sit securely and let the rapids fall fast and hard against your body. The river is a haven. The view is magnificent with towering green vegetation, rice fields, and clear skies all around. I feel as if I am sequestered in a tiny piece of paradise. But the short hike up to the main road feels longer in damp, heavy clothes.



I am ravenous after time in the water. A craving for Mie Baso brings me to the Pameungpeuk market. It is a 20 minute angkot ride. Angkots are pickup trucks modified with wooden benches and a metal framed tarp; they are the most accessible transportation to the market for non-drivers. Pameungpeuk is the place to go for fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, clothing, and school books. The market is a dimly lit maze of stalls with loosely defined sections dedicated to selling food, housewares, and clothing. Families of goats, lone chickens, and dogs scurry about the market amongst the busy shoppers. It is easy to get lost in the maze. Outside of the market are free standing stores, food carts, and restaurants. Mie Baso and Mie Ayam are the most popular food choices for visitors to the market. Both are broth-based noodle dishes served with either chicken meatballs or stir-fried chicken. They are comfort food, eaten with sambal, fresh chili sauce, and preferably washed down with a cold drink.





At the end of the day, the best place to relax is home on the porch where I can settle in for the warm night and watch the comings and goings of the rest of the village. The noise that marks the day time disperses.  Greetings trail off into the night as the village becomes pitch black; there are no streetlights to help one navigate. However, the quiet never quite closes in. People fill the mosques after sunset during Magrib, the most essential prayer time of the day, and their prayer chants buzz through the village. The engines of passing motor vehicles merge with the sounds of insects in the night, the cries of stray cats in heat, and the hoarse croak of the Tokeh, a red spotted lizard that punctuates the night. Then night breaks again when the call of Azan filters through my sleepy haze. Roosters crow, people wake up, and before you realize it, a new day has begun.


 —Yeniffer Pang-Chung


Yeniffer Pang-Chung is a Psychology and Health and Society Graduate from York University. She was born in Panama City, migrated to Toronto, Ontario and now resides in Mississauga. Her passion for volunteering took her to the far reaches of Indonesia on an unforgettable experience of living and breathing in a new culture, while participating in various community development initiatives abroad – something she hopes to continue in.



Aug 082013


TERRIBLE AND TRUE shriek the headlines beneath the gorgeously demonic murder scene. Scene and headline typify the remarkable broadsheet publications from the famous Mexican printshop of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in the latter years of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Brendan Riley’s translation of Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue was just published by Dalkey Archive Press in May, and he has two more books forthcoming. Yet he managed to find time to deliver these gems to NC, marvelous combinations of poetry, cartoon and text, vaguely reminiscent of the tabloids you see at the grocery store checkout counter but not nearly so culturally peripheral in their day. Hyperbolic, true, political, journalistic, satirical, they are an art form unto themselves, a wonderful conjunction of publishing acumen, art and a hungry public.


Some of the most powerful combinations of text and graphics of the early 20th century are to be found in the celebrated broadsheets produced by the Mexico City printing shop of editor, writer, and dramatist Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (1850-1917), with accompanying cartoon illustrations created by the legendary printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).

These broadsheets were printed on coarse paper and sold cheaply for widespread public consumption. They were the penny press of the day, frequently compared to our contemporary tabloids. Lurid, melodramatic, and eye-catching (though not tainted by quite the same kink of today’s scandal rags) they were also soundly relevant socially as well as potently satirical, often dispensing indictments of widespread corruption and misery suffered by Mexicans under el Porfiriato, the regime of president-cum-dictator Porfirio Díaz.

The Library of Congress holds a large collection of original examples of these inexpensive gacetas callejeras (street gazettes). The stories they offer are sensational, tragic, and sometimes scandalous. They are typically accompanied by a corrido, the traditional ballad form still used in Mexico to relay and celebrate the popular news of the day. Vanegas Arroyo was one of the best-known publishers of his time, and from 1880 until his death in 1917, he oversaw the production of thousands of these broadsheets. His family carried on the printing business until 2001. One of the main writers for the Vanegas firm was the poet Constacio S. Suárez who may have composed the corridos translated below. Although some of the sheets include the phrase “propiedad de (property of) Antonio Vanegas Arroyo” there is no specific byline or other claim of authorship.  Guadalupe Posada’s vivid illustrations often provided appropriate visual accompaniment to these startling episodes. The images presented here are freely available for download from the Library website which also provides extensive archival data for each artifact.

While these historic periodicals have been surveyed and reproduced in a number of different books (Posada’s Broadsheets: Mexican Popular Imagery, 1890-1910 by Patrick Frank; Posada: Illustrator of Chapbooks by Mercurio Casillas; and Posada’s Popular Mexican Prints, edited by Roberto Berdecio and Stanley Appelbaum, to name a few), the texts themselves are typically described or summarized but not always translated in full.

Here are translations from three different broadsheets from the Vanegas Arroyo shop. The first one describes the calamitous flood in Guanajuato, Mexico which occurred on Friday, June 30, 1905. The other two are from 1910, the first year of the Mexican Revolution. One deals specifically with those early days of uprising in Puebla, describing a protracted firefight between the family and allies of the anti-reelectionist leader Aquiles Cerdán and local police and soldiers which resulted in scores of dead and wounded, including police chief Miguel Cabrera who is named in the headline. The third text relates the macabre, cautionary tale of Norberta Reyes, a rebellious, prodigal, only daughter who abandoned her house to follow her lover, then returned home in misery a year later seeking refuge only to murder her doting parents when they tried to move the family to another town to repair the damage her scandalous affair had caused.

—Brendan Riley

Guanajuato Flood JPEG #1

The Guanajuato Flood and Its True Cause

Many years will pass before the horrific catastrophe at Guanajuato, already an unforgettable date in Mexican history, shall be forgotten. The tragic events which took place in that city will, without a doubt, move even the world’s most indifferent and skeptical soul. Such anguish! Such tremendous upheavals!

Only the Great Flood described in the Bible could be compared to this one. Based on accurate calculations, the true cause of this unsettling disaster can be explained as follows: built along the flanks of a canyon, the city of Guanajuato has streets which are narrow, winding, irregular, and not the least bit flat. Most of them form slopes and steep grades, a characteristic which favors flooding. Crossing back and forth through the town is a narrow river which is, in places, sealed over to facilitate traffic. Of course, it is also a well-known fact that the nearby dam has a spillway for those times when the river overflows; this current joins up with the water cascading down from the hills and goes surging through the narrow, covered riverbed. After an hour of the water rushing down through Guanajuato one could hear, above the noise of the pouring rain, a horrendous roar: it was the vaulted coverings over the river which proved inadequate to contain the flood. The floodwaters burst through them, wiping out the city. And after that deluge many people who had saved themselves by climbing up onto their rooftops fell into the water as their houses collapsed underneath them due to the force of the flood. In the wake of this disaster, the few remaining inhabitants face the horrible threat of hunger; as of this writing, groceries are commanding a very inflated price; suffice to say that a tortilla costs now two centavos and a piece of bread, ten.

 * * *

Pride of the Republic
For its rich minerals
The city of Guanajuato
Amassed vast capital wealth.
The cradle of liberals
Who always honored their country
And as brave men must, fought
For its progress and greatness
Among the most loyal Nations.

And rightly so, it came to be
That lovely capital city
The first in the country
For its massive splendor.
Buildings without equal
Made from beautiful quarries
Which are the true pride
Of that rich region
And which give the country
Renown among the greatest nations.

Such celebrated riches
Are now practically washed away,
By the terrible flood
Which overflowed the river’s course,
The wall of the great and famous Dam
Torn away from the shore
Joined with the spillway stream
Deluging all the people
The desolation came rushing on
As fast as they could fly.

And all the town of Marfil
Suffered the same, no less
The countless poor, who wander
About with no place to rest.
It’s said that the victims number
More than one thousand dead
In the furious deluge
Which destroyed those cities,
The horror we lament today
Unlike any other of the ages.

 * * *

Bloody Events in Puebla - Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera JPEG #1

Bloody Events in the City of Puebla – The Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera

This past month in the city of Puebla, in the early morning hours of Friday, November 18, quite near the downtown and the Plaza de Armas, various individuals appeared at 5 o’clock in the morning, shouting and firing guns at a house on Santa Clara Street, home of the anti-reelectionist Aquiles Cerdán.

The police arrived to investigate the house, headed by the chief of security Señor Miguel Cabrera who tried to gain entrance, but they were received with gunfire, with Sr. Cabrera and many police officers dying on the spot.

Word was sent to the local barracks and the “Zaragoza” Battalion rushed to their aid, sparking a terrible battle that lasted three hours, resulting in nearly one hundred dead and injured.

In the end, the house was taken by assault and various persons were apprehended. The lifeless body of Sr. Cabrera was recovered from where it lay sprawled on the porch of the house.

The City now finds itself in dismay. All shops are closed, and families are fleeing in search of safe places, for the revolution is terrible and the killing is horrifying.

Santa Clara Street is deserted, its sidewalks stained with blood. Inside the house of Aquiles Cerdán were found some 200 rifles, a large quantity of explosives, attack plans, and many artillery shells and dynamite bombs, several of which were hurled at the federal forces, along with a veritable rain of bullets. A general anti-reelectionist revolution is underway and the general state of panic is very great.

Among those wounded are the First Captain of the Zaragoza Battalion, Don Francisco Aguilar, who, like Colonel Mauro Huerta, fought valiantly against the reelectionists; also wounded are Lieutenant Colonel Abel Licona; Colonel Gaudencio González, a visitor from the headquarters of the State of Puebla; sublieutenant Camilo Ojeda; mounted policeman Wilifrído Cervantes; and countless policemen, soldiers, and passersby.

Among the dead are first counted Police Chief Sr. Miguel Cabrera, and Máximo Cerdán who seems to have directed the revolutionary movement, and who is the brother of the owner of the house on Santa Clara Street; private Angel Durán; Second Sergeant Manuel Sanchez, and two women who were walking along the street at the very moment when the fighting erupted.

Aquiles Cerdán, owner of the house and principal ringleader, was not found and remains at large, a fugitive from justice.

The Government has taken the necessary measures to suppress a growing revolution.

The whole city of Puebla is now deserted: doors are shut, inhabitants hidden in their houses and all business suspended.

Fourteen hours later, an underground vault was discovered in Cerdán’s house. When the hiding place was searched, Aquiles Cerdán appeared, declaring his wish to surrender, but before he could speak another word he was shot dead and carried to the police station on a stretcher.

Four rebels have been brought in from Tlaxcala; their names are Manuel Sánchez, along with Trinidad and Nicolás Sánchez, and Gregorio Florez.

In Orizaba authorities apprehended Victoriano García, José Ventura Sánchez, and Benjamín Rodriguez.

Prisoners brought in from Pachuca were Francisco Noble, a school teacher, Loreto Salinas, Mateo Angeles, and Eligio Ramírez.

Those arrested in San Luis Potosí were: Antonio and Adrián Gutierrez, Luis Martínez, Ernesto and Juan Espinosa and Lucrecio Montejano, a very wealthy man from that city. Others arrested later on were Bacilio and Concepción Regalado, Francisco Padilla, José Rico, José Tamayo, Pedro Torres, José María Espinosa, Francisco Herrera, Antonio Buendía, and Antonio Rangel.

All of these individuals have been confined within the following prisons: Santiago, Cuartel de la Montada, Belem, and the Federal Penitentiary.

Bloody Events in Puebla - Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera JPEG #2

Sad Lamentations from the Distraught Citizens of Heroic PUEBLA

Oh Peace, lovely Peace!
Why do you abandon us?
Politics and rumors
Now drive people’s meetings…
And you, that always adorns
Progress so tenaciously,
And the flourishing commerce
You’ve always brought to Puebla
Why do you now fall to chaos
Why do you abandon us
Oh Peace, lovely Peace?

War no matter where you turn!
Great and terrible alarm!
The whole world trembles
If war shows its face,
Brandishing its cruel weapons
Made for spilling blood;
Sowing bitterness,
Filling the heart
and soul with fear,
Now crying out ceaselessly
War everywhere!

Dying! Oh, why die?
Peace is so precious!
The Mother of Progress
Incense of our history
Fragrant and lovely rose
Of the richest garden
The happiest fortune
of life’s pleasure;
Oh venerated Goddess!
Exclaim now proudly:
Dying! Oh, why die?

Oh Peace, lovely Peace!
Do you abandon your children?
But your motherly love
Will never, ever accept that
Because your absence perhaps
Convulses the very future!
Without you, all is broken;
Neither science, nor progress:
Because you thrive on that
Why do you abandon us,
Oh Peace, lovely Peace?

Printed by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo
43 Calle de Santa Teresa, #2
Mexico City, 1910

Norberta Reyes JPEG #1SPACE

The True, Terrible, and Shocking Affair of Norberta Reyes, who murdered her parents near the city of Zamora on the 2nd of last month.

 In a small town on the outskirts of the city of Zamora, in the State of Michoacán, lived Anselmo Reyes and Pascuala Rosa, whose marriage only produced one child, their daughter Norberta, whom both parents loved with warmth and affection, as much for her being a girl as for being the only fruit of their love.

From a very young age Norberta showed herself to be possessed of a volatile and indomitable spirit; this being fomented by her parents’ indulgence, she grew up to become an insufferable creature for everyone except her mother and father, who in their blind devotion accepted all her caprice as their daughter’s natural grace and charm. And so she reached the age of 16 and not being an unpleasant looking girl, did not take long to meet up with a rascal who won her affections. As she was accustomed to do as she pleased, in spite of her parents’s advice, she reciprocated his desires and, when it was least suspected, disappeared with her lover.

A year and a half had passed without Norberta’s parents knowing anything more about their daughter in spite of their many efforts to discover her whereabouts. One evening she suddenly appeared in their doorway in a truly pathetic state, nearly naked, miserable, filthy, covered with lice, and bearing countless scars on every part of her body.

Upon seeing their daughter in such a lamentable state, her unhappy parents forgot her ingratitude and with a thousand caresses tried to console her sad condition; but this ungrateful daughter, far from being thankful for her parents’s goodness and kindness, each day behaved worse towards them. Norberta could not stop wondering what had become of her despicable seducer. This drove her increasingly out of her mind, and she caused a scandalous uproar day after day in their house, so much so that the neighbors became alarmed, for the which reason Norberta’s elderly parents decided to abandon their town and move to another where they were not known. Harboring hopes that her wicked lover would return in search of her, their depraved daughter was dead set against such a move; but seeing that her parents had made up their mind, she sheltered in her heart the cruelest, most horrible plan.

When the day came that they finally left the town, Norberta carefully concealed on her person a sharp knife and, even pretending to be happy, she set out with her elderly and beloved parents who could not imagine the sad fate their daughter had in store for them.

To reach the town they were headed for, they were obliged to pass through a very solitary spot, and there, in order to rest, they stopped and prepared their meager lunch. After eating, overcome with fatigue, the old couple lay down on the grass. When the vile Norberta saw them asleep, she took out the murderous knife and leaping first upon her old father, struck him a terrible blow to the neck which nearly severed his head from his body.

The noise of the bloody drama awoke the old woman; but before she could rise from the ground her wicked daughter hurled herself at her, plunging the knife repeatedly into different parts of her mother’s body until most of her innards were hanging out, leaving the unfortunate woman completely cut to pieces.

Her horrible crime now committed, Norberta set out on the road back towards her town; but without realizing it, she lost her way. After walking all day long, she found herself by nightfall in a dry, desolate place near a deep ravine.

There she paused, because by now her fatigue prevented her from walking farther. Around eleven o’clock at night she heard a chorus of hellish sounds that seemed to rise out from the depths of the ravine, and a few moments later she saw emerge from the same, two enormous black dogs baring their teeth and jaws with a frightful sound. They leapt upon the wretched Norberta, tearing her furiously, dragging her down into the ravine, and hurling her to the bottom. There she finally died five days later, tormented by hunger, thirst, and the terrible sharp pains from the bite wounds, by now festering with maggots.

The same day of this terrible occurrence, the police discovered the corpses of the old couple, who were then buried in the cemetery, unlike the body of their heinous daughter. Although her body was spotted at the bottom of the ravine it could not be removed from there because when they tried to, the body was lost to sight and was only glimpsed again the following day.

This extraordinary event serves to show parents the obligation they bear to not indulge their children, and that from their earliest infancy they must always curb their bad inclinations.

Norberta Reyes JPEG #2

* * * * * * * * * *

I hearkened to the seductions
of a depraved and vile man
Who at last abandoned me
Making me sadder than before.
His wicked wounded heart
Did mine, in turn, pervert
So that now I do suffer
The very torments of Hell,
Which shall be punishment eternal
For my horrible sin and transgression.

Like a wild, furious beast
I killed my beloved parents,
Tearing out their life
With strange, unspeakable cruelty.

Forgive me, dear Mother!
Forgive me, worshipful Father!
Now my punishment has arrived,
If only I might have died alone
In that desert a thousand times
Before I’d murdered them!

Last month I committed
an atrocious crime
I delivered death unto them both
With horrible cruelty.
But the punishment decreed by God
Came down like lightning
And my body was flung
From atop a ravine into the depths
And there lay broken and lifeless
To be by worms devoured.

Blinded by love and affection
My parents indulged me,
Leading to my disgrace,
They saw their mistake too late.
And for not being reprimanded,
They both became victims
Of my too-kind upbringing,
And twisted inclinations.
And this love, badly entertained,
Has now wrought my perdition.

Printed at 29 Calle de la Penintenciaría #2, Mexico City

—Translated by Brendan Riley


Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Aug 072013

John Barth

In his continuing series of chance encounter essays, Robert Day reminisces about his years long friendship with John Barth, their regular Friday lunches and the jokes they told each other. Barth once described Day in an essay as “a writer-friend from Kansas who knows about water-wells informs me of the important distinction between dry wells and gurglers.” These meetings eventuated into a trio of books by Barth: The Friday Book, Further Fridays, and Final FridaysAs always, Robert Day is an amiable and witty raconteur, slyly self-deprecating, and obviously a loyal and valuable friend. You just wish you’d been there, all those Fridays.


We met by chance in the late 1970’s when Jack and I tried to convince one another that I should be the Director of the Johns Hopkins Graduate Creative Writing Program.  I was then teaching at Washington College, in Chestertown, where it turned out I stayed.  But from those first days when I toured the Hopkins Writing Seminars, meeting the faculty and students, Jack and I became friends because of — as Montaigne writes — who he is and who I am.

Not long after our pas de deux at Hopkins, Jack called to say he would be coming to Chestertown (where he and Shelly had recently bought a house) the following Friday and would I join him for lunch?  Agreed.  It was to be the beginning of scores of Friday lunches, continuing to this day.

Where we met that first time I do not remember, but I do remember that our talk was rangy, ebullient, and exclusively literary.  Well, not exclusively literary because from the first we’d swap jokes — Jack beginning with a series of hillbilly pig jokes when he learned I had studied a stint at the University of Arkansas, and I, in trade, ranch jokes imported from West Jesus Land, Kansas, where I live part time. The second thing I remember is that someone must have spotted Jack (a new book of his was just out with his photograph appearing in the papers) and took our picture.

Avid readers of John Barth will know that those Friday lunches were because of, or resulted in (or some formulation thereof) his three collections of essays. The Friday Book, Further Fridays, and Final Fridays — the latter volume including a piece published in Granta titled: “The End? On Writing No Further Fiction, Probably.” Toward the conclusion of that essay I am mentioned as an anonymous co-conspirator to his muse: More on this later.


Thus our literary lunch Fridays commenced and continued.  Not every Friday, but many over the years until Jack stopped teaching at Hopkins and was more often in Chestertown, in which case our Fridays turned themselves into Wednesdays or Mondays—or encore, a real Friday itself.

In the beginning, one of us would pay the lunch tab then the next time the other way around, even though sometimes we’d get confused.  At one lunch I said I thought it was my turn but Jack said no, it was his, and he insisted.  To which I said, I’m not sure we’re even, to which Jack replied:  Friends are never even.   And about that time, once again, someone took our picture.

“What do you think the caption will be?” I had asked Jack. “You first,” he said.  “Nationally famous author lunching with unidentified man,” I said.  “I’ll pass,” he said, but in the moment of silence between us, I thought that his fertile and fervent literary imagination could have made an entire novel out of my minimalist caption.  And maybe yet it shall.

What my friend has accomplished with his fervent imagination is the creation of a world of fiction unlike any other American writer.  And the landscape of that fictive world is immense:  From the early realistic and nihilistic novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, to the faux historical novels, The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat Boy, and then changing course to On With the Story, Letters, The Tidewater Tales, Lost in the Fun House, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, and back to On with the StoryComing Soon, The Development, and his most recent book: Every Third Thought, A Novel in Five Seasons.

Jack’s writing is not so much a landscape of fiction as an Ocean of Story.  But writers are not unique just because of the breadth of their oeuvre.  There has to be something else.  An editor we shared at the Washington Post Magazine called that “something else” The Pyrotechnics of Prose.

It is as if my friend’s muse is a character in his fiction, at least the muse that is his gift of language.  Surely some critic has noticed the jazz improvisations in Jack’s writing:  I have.  Those are what we who write call invention.  It comes from where we’ve been coming from in the paragraphs before.  And the chapters before that.  And it comes from where we’ve come from as readers:  In Jack’s case, back to Lawrence Stern in English and further back than that in ancient languages and oft told old tales told on a thousand and one nights.  All of these he spins into tales of his own, with his own voice and muse doing the spinning.  Like Joyce and Nabokov and Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino,  he conjures a maelstrom into his own Ocean of Story.  He is Tradition and Individual Talent. And fireworks at sea. About his extraordinary achievement in American letters and my modest one, we never talk.  Friends are, in many ways, never even.

By design we had lunch again the other day, a Wednesday as Zeus would have it.  Before we met I read the Granta essay in which Jack muses that his muse is not musing these days. In it he writes, “A writer-friend from Kansas who knows about water-wells informs me of the important distinction between dry wells and gurglers which may cease producing for a time but eventually resume; he encourages me to believe I’m still a Gurgler.”

There is a custom among writers that we do not ask each other about work-in-progress.  It is like telling an actor “good luck” before the curtain goes up, thus the tradition of “break a leg.”  Are gurgling or non-gurgling muses covered by our custom?

Lunch was at Evergrain in Chestertown.  We took an outside table to enjoy the sunshine. After all these years we tell many of the same jokes, but sometimes I tell one Jack has told me and take credit for it, and Jack does the same.  He doesn’t recall his early hillbilly pig jokes and I need to be reminded of my Kansas parrot joke. In this way at least we are even. Then we talk about Philip Roth and how he has recently resigned from writing fiction — as opposed to—? But neither of us mention it.  About this time, someone takes our picture.

Between that first photograph and this one I have taught thousands of students at Washington College, and those students are sending their children, and in some cases, their grandchildren to Washington College.  Mothers and fathers and a few grandmothers and grandfathers were now coming back for Parents’ Weekends and Graduations.  And having lunch out. Some stopping to reintroduce themselves.

“What’s the caption?” I ask Jack.

“Locally famous professor having lunch with unidentified man,” he says. To which in the small silence between us I think:  Lucky me to have had a duel oeuvre of Friday lunches with my friend talking books and telling jokes. And lucky all who are avid readers of muse-inspired American literature to have had John Barth with his firecracker prose going off like St Elmo’s fire in his Oceans of stories.

As we walk down the street to our cars, I ask Jack if he is the one who told me the aphorism that as we get older, Sex goes, memory goes, but the memory of sex—that never goes.

 “I think you told me,” he says.

“Let’s both take credit for it,” I say.


“We’d be even for once if you don’t mind.”

“My pleasure,” he says. In this he speaks for me.

 —Robert Day


Robert Day‘s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

Aug 062013

Photo credit: Mark Montague

Today is the Russian Orthodox Feast of Transfiguration, also Hiroshima Day, a day of near absolute contradiction. Hilary Mullins takes the opportunity to explore the person and teaching practice of the late Don Sheehan, whose spirituality (Russian Orthodox) and spirit made him perhaps one of the most remarkable writing teachers ever. Part portrait of the man, almost a hagiography (an ancient genre, not to be dismissed), part exploration of what a writing workshop might be if suffused with spirit, part exploration of technique (chiasmus, a little form, strewn through the Bible), part homage, part homily, Hilary’s essay crosses genres and practice in a remarkable and loving way.


Nine a.m. August 6th 2004, and at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, we are assembled in Robert Frost’s old barn. It’s the second-to-last day of the annual week-long poetry conference, and though lots of us are tired at this point, there’s still a quietly-bright buzz in the air: every day here brings good things. But before the morning’s lecture gets underway, Don Sheehan, founding director of The Frost Place, rises and walks to the lectern, clearing his throat to make his customary morning remarks.

At this point, Don, with the quiet assistance of his wife Carol, has been running The Frost Place for almost thirty years, handling the multitude of various tasks involved. But I know very little about all that: the thing I have been learning about Don Sheehan is how, through all his teaching, he helps people bring forth their best and deepest selves and change their lives.

This morning he begins by noting the date: August 6th, going on to explain how it is one of the high holy days in the Russian Orthodox calendar, the feast of Transfiguration. This of course is not a common topic at most writing workshops, but his Russian Orthodox faith is a common topic for Don, and he begins to elaborate on the biblical story, describing how Jesus, taking three of his disciples, climbs a high mountain where suddenly he is transfigured by light, his face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white. The wonderful thing about this, Don stresses, is that this moment of Jesus’ transfiguration is also a transfiguration of the world: the holy is here. Not somewhere else, but here, now.


Photo credit: Maria Sheehan

Nine years it’s been since Don spoke those words and he himself now is no longer here.

And yet, I think of him almost every day. And looking back, part of what strikes me is how truly unusual he was, not only in the largely secular world of writing workshops but probably in most places he went. At the most obvious level, the reason for this was his devout Russian Orthodox practice. But it went far deeper than that, as did his gifts to those of us who knew him.

Though I am a Unitarian Universalist myself, I had the great fortune to know him first in his own context, tagging along with a friend one evening to what I thought was a Bible study class for members of St. Jacob’s, a small Russian Orthodox congregation in Northfield, Vermont. What I was expecting was a small circle, primarily women, gathered around the priest in chairs, nibbling cookies perhaps, leafing through Bibles balanced on their knees, commenting perceptively but mildly on lectionary passages.

What I got was something altogether different. For one thing, the people who came to the class that evening, men and women both around the table, were serious in a way I was not used to. That was partly a function I’d guess of the devotional character of Russian Orthodoxy, with its calendar structuring life around faith. But it was also Don himself. A scholar with a poet’s heart dedicating the bulk of his energies to the Russian Orthodox tradition, he taught by spreading out the fruits of his scholarship and inviting us to take and eat. My own beliefs, theologically speaking, run along more liberal lines than his did, but I knew right away on that first night in his class, he was the religious teacher I’d prayed to find. So I kept attending and sometimes too visited him and Carol in Sharon at their home, sharing meals, spending time in the garden and, wonderful pleasure, spending time also with the rest of their family.

Even then, Don was already ill, suffering with the beginning symptoms of the condition that three years ago ended his life, probably an undiagnosed case of Lyme Disease. And yet though I remember him being bone-tired, he never lost his gentleness or his characteristic bright clarity. He was in his mid-sixties then, with fly-away eyebrows and look-clear-at-you blue eyes–a shy, soft-spoken man, reflexively self-effacing, who appeared like the scholar he was in his well-used, rumpled khakis and button-up shirts–except that because he and Carol were off the grid on their somewhat remote hillside in the woods, he also wore things like serious boots in the winter and a faded blue hand-knit hat to keep away the cold.

And that is another key thing to understand about Don: money and position were never his goals. This is clear for instance, in the decision he’d made much earlier in his life, before his conversion, to give up a tenure track job at the University of Chicago. In fact, even though he was at Dartmouth, Don Sheehan was an adjunct professor—a low-rung position on the academic ladder. But I doubt he regretted his choices–not because he lacked ambition, but because his ambition aimed for what he thought were worthier things. And this dedication of his to higher callings had a tendency to rub off on others. For Don Sheehan had a way. He was never one to call attention to himself, but in a room full of people, he was still someone you’d notice, not least of all because of his unusually long beard, the kind older Russian Orthodox men seem to cultivate. It draped down over his chest, a fluffy white wing attached to his chin.

I don’t mean to claim by this Don was angelic exactly, but the truth is, the man was so immersed in soul-work, he threw off a little light. And he was always casting that light toward you. That was one of the remarkable things about him: given his teaching at the church, and at Dartmouth, and particularly as director of The Frost Place, he was continually in situations perfectly rigged with opportunities for misusing his power and padding his ego. But he passed all that by, leading in the humblest way I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think this was because he failed to understand power: I think it was because as a man and as a Christian, he understood the best thing to do with power is give it away. Not to dissipate it, as if it were a dangerous electrical charge, but to transform it into love, keeping the circles of its impact ever rippling out into the world at large.

Another element fundamental to this practice of self-extending was the way Don did not strike. Having survived a childhood that was at times shattered by brutal violence, he understood the multitude of diverse, often subtle blows we deal one another. And he made a practice of not passing them on. So, in class at St. Jacob’s for instance, he never engaged in the far-too-common disheartening practice of chopping up or dismissing our responses. There were even times when I wished he would—a little anyway—be a tad more corrective perhaps—for instance, when it seemed another student’s reading of a passage was clearly off the mark. But it was Don’s habit instead to say yes and keep us walking with him, all the while modeling the way through his own fine work–essays and lectures that were deep and wide and reflective, pathways into marvelous complexities.

This approach of his he made explicit in The Frost Place workshops, starting off the week each year with these words:

“If you must make a flash choice between sympathy and intelligence, choose sympathy. Usually these fall apart—sympathy becoming a mindless ‘being nice’ to everyone, while intelligence becomes an exercise in contempt. But here’s the great fact of this Festival: as you come to care about another person’s art (and not your own), then your own art becomes mysteriously better.”

And it was true. We were all always becoming mysteriously better under Don’s tutelage. And happily, he had a way of making the work itself deeply satisfying, approaching writing not only as a believer but a lover too. In our classes at church for example, passages from the monastic Saint Isaac of Syria or the chapters in 1st and 2nd Samuel were not abstract ‘texts’ to be deconstructed: Don was no vivisectionist. Instead, he turned all the powers of his scholarship towards bringing out a passage’s depth, approaching each one as real, as a lovely, created thing, like a chapel or a shaded pool, a place to be entered with reverence and wonder and pleasure.

Likewise, it seems to me that what Don did at The Frost Place was very similar, renewing poetry for others because he believed it too was real. And this is not just a pretty way of speaking. Where our secular culture denudes the sacred properties of poetry, of all art in fact, Don was deeply grounded in a tradition that has never lost its sense of the holy in art. As I understand it for instance, a Russian Orthodox icon, properly prepared and painted, is not just a painting: it is a portal for the holy, an actual opening through which God moves toward us and through which we can move toward God, where indeed we are invited to do so.


The same goes for the written word: just as St. Isaac of Syria had explained in the 7th century, holy books in Russian Orthodoxy are understood to be places where the light of God shines through: “Those who in their way of life are led by divine grace to be enlightened are always aware of something like a noetic ray running between the written lines which enables the mind to distinguish words spoken simply from those spoken with great meaning for the soul’s enlightenment.”

The first time I read those words off a Xeroxed sheet in Don’s classroom, they made the lights come on in me, as if a Christmas tree in a darkened room had just been plugged in, glowing suddenly with the light I’d always known was there in things I read and loved, bits of bright color weaving in and out of the branches, deep glimmerings from within all the recesses.

The psalms too, were places Don brought us into the same way, teaching us the ancient chiastic pattern they’re written in. That is to say, psalms move not only from start to finish in the linear way we’re used to, they also move in a call and response fashion across the whole of the psalm, back and forth across the center, calling us, as we read, to pay attention to how the first and last verses are related, along with how the second and second-to-last are connected too, and all the others in just the same way, until we reach mid-point, which is the place where, one way or another, God appears, turning the poem in some way. But of course for Don whose religious practice for years had included praying the psalms every day, this appearance of God wasn’t simply a reference that functioned in the narrative logic of the poem: it was, just as in icons, the place where  touching and being touched by God was actually possible.

To us this chiastic doubling-back-and-forth pattern across the center is so counter-intuitive, it can take some getting used to, but one inexact analogy is this: think of yourself again as a child, hopping along a slate sidewalk, coming down from every hop with one foot on each of two paired slabs—hop, hop, hop–until then you come to the center, the deepest point of the journey, where the presence of God wells up like a sweet water spring in a hollow. Then imagine laying down, here, now, in this marvelously still, green-grass place.


A sketch of Don Sheehan by Hilary Mullins

Now you might think from these kinds of descriptions that what I’m going to relate next is the story of my own conversion. But that is not what happened: I was certainly changed by Don’s teaching, and I loved the way his tradition approached things that usually are understood as merely metaphorical, rendering them instead as vibrantly and powerfully real. But still, I have never shared his—or anyone else’s–certainty about the workings of the divine. And Don knew this. Yet, in spite of that deep commitment to his own faith, he never cajoled conversion or conversely set me outside the walls in any way: these too were the sorts of corrections he did not engage in. Even while we were studying Isaac’s lovely passage about the noetic ray glimmering in amongst the written word, and I said I’d experienced the same thing in, say, a poem by Frost, Don did not close the door. “Orthodoxy points to where the truth is,” he said. “It doesn’t say where the truth is not.”

It was this sort of catholic approach that meant poets even more secular than I could benefit from Don’s sense of the holy in poetry. We never talked about this explicitly, but my guess is that his daily contemplative reading of the psalms did lead him to find many contemporary poems to be empty, echoing forth a hollow space where he was accustomed to sensing God. And yet it seems he did sometimes see more in them too. For instance, once, on the wooded hill beside his house, I asked him, theologically speaking, for his definition of grace. He smiled in his unassuming way and told me he thought it was like the passage in Frost’s poem The Death of the Hired Hand, where the farmer and his wife, in the course of deciding whether or not to take in their occasional (and historically unreliable) hired man, are talking about the definition of home:

“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”

“Home,” he mocked gently.

“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out on the trail.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

The last lines of course embody the generosity of Don Sheehan himself, a generosity he shared through all his teaching, be his subject a homily of St. Isaac’s, a poem of Robert Frost’s, or a theological concept he thought could bring something deeply good to our lives too. But he was remarkably kind in smaller, everyday acts as well, even in the very way he gave you all his attention in a conversation. And the sum total of all this of course is that this ongoing generosity of his quietly but powerfully influenced many, many people.

And because he knew the healing power this practice had for him as well, the mysterious way it had of making him better, he was always enjoining us to do the same: “Your work at this conference,” he would say at The Frost Place, “is to make the art of at least one other person better and stronger by giving—in love—all your art to them.”


In the end I think he stressed love so much because he knew and understood its opposite so well. He and I never discussed what went on in his home when he was a boy, but in an essay on the Orthodox concepts in The Brothers Karamazov (still easily found online), he referred to that history to make a point, writing,  “I was raised in a violent home where, until I was nine years old, my father’s alcohol addiction fueled his open or just barely contained violence, a home where my mother was beaten over and over (I remember her face covered with blood).”

Nine years ago, on August 6th, 2004, when Don Sheehan got up before the morning’s craft lecture and spoke, of all things, the Transfiguration, of the miracle of the holy transfiguring the world, he turned next to its opposite, bringing our attention in his measured way to another event marked by August 6th: the bombing of Hiroshima: “This,” he said, “we can refer to as a disfiguration of the world.” Knowing disfiguration as he’d had in his own life, his phrasing was deliberate as quietly he urged us to choose transfiguration in our own lives, yielding not to the innumerable temptations to slight or demean others but instead to make the kinds of gestures that embody the practice of love.

This of course was how Don Sheehan himself transfigured the world as he traveled through it, bringing light wherever he went. And it was what he was pointing to again and again in everything he taught, just as he did each year at the beginning of The Frost Place Festival: “The key that unlocks all truth,” he said, is “taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.” This infinitely exacting, transforming task was his greatest lesson, the one that is up to us all to carry on.

— Hilary Mullins

Editor’s Note: Don Sheehan did finish his translation of the Psalms and the book will be published shortly by Wipf and Stock.



Photo credit: Phil Crossman

Hilary Mullins lives in Bethel, Vermont, teaching public speaking for Vermont Technical College and cleaning windows in the warmer months. She also does occasional preaching for local churches. Along with an MFA from Vermont College, her education includes classes at the UU’s Starr King School for the Ministry, as well as completion of a three-year study program run by the Vermont UCC.






Aug 052013
George Starbuck

George Starbuck

Poetry is a fickle profession. The muse is fickle, the audience is fickle, fame is fickle. Critics and scholars have Alzheimer’s — the one-time darling is often simply forgotten. This happens to an author whether his or her work deserves neglect or not; great poets go down before the scythe of forgetfulness. Today NC is launching a new series called Undersung to try to fill in some of the gaps for the dementia-riddled reading class. Contributing Editor Julie Larios suggested this, and there is none better to write the series because she has a reading memory like a wolf trap and can call to mind verse at the drop of a hat. She is also just really smart about the technical aspects of a poem. And she has her favourite neglected poets to whom she brings brio and passion. Today, we have George Starbuck, the man whose manuscript beat out Sylvia Plath for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1960 but whose life was less notorious. Often wrongly pigeonholed as a light verse poet, he was a technical master and superb ironist. He should not be forgotten.



“Do not go into the light,” the woman screams. “Stop where you are. Turn away from it.  Don’t even look at it.”  Fine advice, if your name is Carol Anne and you’re the victim of a poltergeist. Listen to your mother as she shouts to you through the television static.  Believe her: The light is not your friend.

But in poetry, you might be better served by ignoring the voices that discourage the light (verse, that is) in favor of the dark, or that denigrate the light in favor of what is “heavy.”  As in “Wow, that’s heavy, man.” For “heavy,” you’re expected to understand significant and serious; it weighs something and is important and has a chance at entering The Canon.  It should not (repeat: should not) make you laugh. And it probably should not come wrapped up in anything sneaky that makes you think what you’re reading is dandy candy but then turns out to be good for you. That’s not fair.

Enter the poetry of George Starbuck, once named “the thinking man’s Ogden Nash.”

His reputation for “light” verse (a misnomer, I think – if that’s what it is, then Starbuck’s version of it is a sledgehammer disguised as a feather) kept him out of several of our most important anthologies and thus out of Poetry 101 classes across America. Actually, one of his poems (“A Tapestry for Bayeux”) did make it temporarily into the influential Little Treasury series edited by Oscar Williams, but was dropped from the anthology (and Starbuck “consigned to a special poetic oblivion,” according to poet Anthony Hecht) when Williams was informed that the initial letters of the first 78 of 156 lines spelled out “Oscar Williams fills a need, but a Monkey Ward catalog is softer and gives you something to read.” Who does that, writes a brilliant poem about naval operations during WWII, and builds in an acrostic poking fun at the anthologist who can make or break your reputation? George Starbuck, that’s who.

A Tapestry for Bayeux

1. Recto

Over the
….arches a
….making a

….into which,
next to them
eyed, among
twinkling an

anger as
….measured as
knitted the
….eyelets and
yarn of these
….ringbolt and
….cable and

tanktrack and
linking and
garlands and
….islands of
seafoam and
….fretwork: on
turquoise and
red instants

….neatly a
dearth of red….

On it goes, for twelve 13-line stanzas, every single line three syllables, accent always on the first syllable (dactylic monometer.) And it makes sense, in terms of its subject matter. And the language – vocabulary, music – is brilliant. And it’s an acrostic. As Hecht says in his introduction to The Works, published after Starbuck’s death, it is a poem of “needlework intensity.” Starbuck himself, in this poem, praises “opulent fretwork.” Of course, that might be exactly the problem. Fretwork and needlework are delicate, and American poetry – as with many things American – prefers muscle.

Perhaps no one needs to scream at us to stay away from the light. After all, we’re culturally drawn to the dark side, James Cagney with his tommy gun, Bruce Willis with an AK-47, aren’t we? It’s often High Noon in America, and whoever comes out of the fight alive wins; America seems, even in the year 2013, predestined to favor the gunslinger over the Quaker (as Starbuck says, “Saturday night’s a longshot / Contraption as it is. / A man without a Magnum’s / A piece of agribiz. // He might as well push daisies / And model for a wreath / And pick a granite afghan / To cuddle up beneath.”) Arnold Schwarzenegger takes out Fred Rogers in the first minute of the first round, no doubt about that.

Fred Rogers

Heavyweights rule the American roost. Farther down in the pecking order come middle and welter, then featherweight, and even farther down is the pesky bantam. Does flyweight even need to be mentioned? The boxing analogy holds for poetry: The lighter the fighter, the smaller the size of the prize. Come to think of it, the analogy holds for theater and film, too – Sean Penn’s suffering father in Mystic River gets the 2003 Oscar over Bill Murray’s sardonic film star in Lost in Translation.  Who said comedy is king?

Sean Penn

Bill Murray

Anne Sexton, definitely a Canon-weight poet, once wrote “I have to be great,” and many people admired her and still admire her for it. Ambition is more attractive to some people than it is to others. (My own reaction, when I read those words: Imagine an artist thinking that, much less confessing it – unless confession is your thing.)  Fellow poet Starbuck – who was Sexton’s lover early on while she honed both her poetry and her appetite for fame – seemed not to care as much about the size of his pistol or his reputation, nor did he spend time thinking about categories like welters, bantams, flies and feathers, not unless he could turn the words themselves to good use with a clever rhyme (feathers / weathers / death spurs / breath verse / meth purrs…no, I can’t do it, not the way George Starbuck could.)

This rhyming thing is hard, god-awful hard if you want to do it with panache; that’s why so many poets, caring not just about the basic message of a poem but about the messenger’s ability to deliver it in a breathtaking way, appreciate George Starbuck’s gifts.

Fable for a Blackboard

Here is the grackle, people.
Here is the fox, folks.
The grackle sits in the bracken. The fox hopes.

Here are the fronds, friends,
that cover the fox.
The fronds get in a frenzy. The grackle looks.

Here are the ticks, tykes,
that live in the leaves, loves.
The fox is confounded,
and God is above.

Technically dense, emotionally delicate, intellectually profound.  Try doing that – hitting that trifecta. He was a poet’s poet, as they say. And Starbuck himself said, about his choices, “For me, the long way round, through formalisms, word-games, outrageous conceits (the worst of what we mean by ‘wit’) is the only road to truth. No other road takes me.” His obituary in the New York Times echoed the sentiment: “If the scope of his verbal talent sometimes seemed at war with his reputation, Mr. Starbuck could not seem to help himself.”

If you haven’t read his work, do so. He published individual poems widely during his lifetime and gathered them into books only occasionally (two excellent collections, Visible Ink and The Works were put together by his widow and published posthumously.) His first collection, Bone Thoughts, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1960. Sylvia Plath’s manuscript for The Colossus competed with Starbuck’s that year; they studied together (along with Sexton) in one of Robert Lowell’s famous workshops at Boston University. Plath, in her journals, rails against losing out to Starbuck.

Certainly, not everything Starbuck wrote for that first book would be considered light verse, though it did produce an introduction by the judge – the critic Dudley Fitts, who took over the Yale Younger Poets series from W. H. Auden — which indicates Fitts didn’t quite know what to think of it.  Not only did Fitts state, in that introduction, that Starbuck was “a man awake in the nightmare of our day” and predict that “a great song is begun,” but he also wrote, “I was also attracted, and sometimes repelled, by Mr. Starbuck’s wit….[He] could use an intellectual sedative.” Fitts cites this poem as an example:

War Story

The 4th of July he stormed a nest.
He won a ribbon but lost his chest.
We threw his arms across the rest
…………..And kneed him in the chin.
…………..(You knee them in the chin
…………..To drive the dog-tag in.)

The 5th of July the Chaplain wrote
It wasn’t much; I needn’t quote.
The widow lay on her davenport
…………..Letting the news sink in.
…………..(Since April she had been
…………..Letting the news sink in.)

The 6th of July the Captain stank.
They had us pinned from either flank.
With all respect to the dead and rank
…………..We wished he was dug in.
…………..(I mean to save your skin
…………..It says to get dug in.)

The word when it came was three days old.
Lieutenant Jones brought marigolds,
The widow got out the Captain’s Olds
…………..And took him for a spin.
…………..(A faster-than-ever spin:
…………..Down to the Lake, and in.)

Unfortunately, Fitts’s early assessment in 1960 turned out to be the final critical assessment when Starbuck died of Parkinson’s in 1996: Critics admired his work (perhaps not as much as fellow poets) but were unnerved by it because tonally and technically it was so complex, at once delicate and obsessive, intricate and blunt, playful and brutal. After an extended time with it, even a respectful reader becomes exhausted, or better said suspicious, and a real tumble of questions begins to overtake the pleasure:  If it is “bravura technique” (as Hecht says – and he goes on to say “it has no match among English-language poets of this century”) does it come from the heart or is the poet himself intoxicated with formal intricacies? Does the man never come up for air and write a more relaxed poem? Do the technical restrictions inflict a straightjacket on the poet rather than provide a source of inspiration? In fact, is it a poem or is it a math puzzle? Starbuck began his university studies at Cal Tech in mathematics at only 16 years old – was he more interested in mathematical patterns or in poetry? Even the cover of his collected work shows us a system of interlocking gears, more mechanical than human:

The Works

Maybe the answer to both parts of all the questions above is yes…and yes. One of my favorite poems in the book (“Unfriendly Witness”) begins this way: “I never played the Moor, / I never looked to see, / I don’t know what my hands are for, / I know they’re not for me” and ends with this: “And yet the world is heavy / and filled with men like me—/ with tired men, with heavy men / that slip my memory / if that be perjury.”

We hear a nursery rhyme in the treble clef of “War Story” and “Unfriendly Witness,” but there is no doubt they are serious poems, with a bagpipe-type dirge underneath the melody.

Ahh, “serious.” There it is again, that word. Can a poet who says in his poems “Love is a strange coot” and who indulges extravagantly in clerihews and double dactyls ever be taken seriously? Take this double dactyl from “Troves from the Natives of 1992”:

Higgledy piggledy
Fifty Columbuses,
Fifty times richer in
Trinkets and beads

Couldn’t provision the
Business’s needs.

Far be it for Starbuck, of course, to be satisfied with one complete double dactyl; instead, he continues this poem for another eight stanzas (four more complete double dactyls) in a tour de force of the form, which requires not only the double dactylic line for each 4-line stanza, but a six-syllable single word, often as the entire second line of the second stanza. Notice how one six-syllable word is followed by another in the Starbuck excerpt – “quinquecentennial memorabilia” – which few poets could pull off.

Starbuck goes for those multisyllabic lines with gusto: “miniconquistadors,” “made-in-Rumania,” “demimillennial”…that’s where the challenge and the fun of the form come together and burst into flame, and that’s where you’ll find Starbuck at his game-playing, neologistic best. Does he self-combust? The answer to that is a matter of taste, a little like the fried grasshoppers sold by the handful in Oaxaca – tasty but scary. Fitts, remember, was both delighted and repelled, and Starbuck is an acquired taste, that’s for sure.  He was, as one NPR commentator described him, “high bard of the big pun and the even bigger idea.” That’s a heady and unusual mix. Sometimes you want to stand back from that kind of chemistry.

George Starbuck should be well-known to anyone who writes and teaches. When he was just a young man working at the library of SUNY-Buffalo, he was fired for refusing to sign the loyalty oath required of all employees. Starbuck recognized the repressive abuse of power inherent in New York’s Feinberg Law (enacted in 1949) which sought out teachers who used “propaganda” in the classroom on “children in their tender years.” Three faculty members joined Starbuck in suing the university, but it was Starbuck himself who was the acknowledged instigator of the suit (this is well-documented in Marjorie Heins’s Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom and the Communist Purge.) Ultimately, the case was taken up by the Supreme Court, which ruled in the group’s favor and found the law unconstitutional. Starbuck remained a fiercely committed political activist, most visibly in his opposition to the war in Vietnam. For a blistering example of that, read his poem, “Of Late,” addressed to Robert McNamara, about Norman Morrison, the Quaker who burned himself alive to protest the war (he “…burned and was burned and said / all there is to say in that language.”) You can see the whole poem here.

A read-through of obituaries which followed Starbuck’s death at age 65 is impressive: He studied for two years at UC-Berkeley, three years at the University of Chicago (where he met and became friends with Philip Roth, whose work he later edited for Houghton Miflin), a year at Harvard, and additional time at the American Academy in Rome, never earning even a BA degree. He was an inspirational teacher at SUNY-Buffalo, the Iowa Writers Workshop and (returning to his roots) Boston University. Both Maxine Kumin and Peter Davison studied under him. He won the coveted Lenore Marshall Prize in 1983, administered by the Academy of American Poets (other winners have been Mary Oliver, Philip Levine, Stanley Kunitz, John Ashbery, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, C.D. Wright – the entire list reads like a Who’s Who of American Poetry.) He invented an entirely new poetic form called the SLAB, a “Standard Length and Breadth” poem written in fourteen-letter lines that form a “slab,” typographically as does this excerpt from one SLAB entitled “Cargo Cult of the Solstice at Hadrian’s Wall” [Note: slabs are at their best using Courier font, which lines up precisely]:




Well, as I’ve said before, it goes on for quite a few more stanza. Or slabs. The man was unstoppable.

There are a few poets who “played” (read “worked”) with language the way Starbuck did. John Hollander and Anthony Hecht, his contemporaries, famously invented the double-dactyl, which Starbuck took up with glee. The British poet James Fenton, slightly younger, found the same strength in nursery-rhyme rhythms, especially in his anti-war poem, Out of the East:

Out of the South came Famine.
Out of the West came Strife.
Out of the North came a storm cone
And out of the East came a warrior wind
And it struck you like a knife.
Out of the East there shone a sun
As the blood rose on the day
And it shone on the work of the warrior wind
And it shone on the heart
And it shone on the soul
And they called the sun – Dismay.

I sometimes hear Fenton as I read Starbuck, though I find myself missing Starbuck’s humor. Auden often had both light and dark in the same poem, as in his poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” which starts out with its Mother Goose images this way:

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

Like Starbuck, Auden provides us with a light melody at the surface, and a funereal bass-clef as the poem proceeds:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

Both Auden and Starbuck manage to use child-like rhythms to subvert our expectations – and subverting expectations is an important element in poetry. Starbuck, however, gave himself permission to be more relaxed with breaks in the rhythm, as well as to break words in two at  line endings, and to invent words in order to reach a rhyme, as these lines do from his poem “Dylan: The Limerick”:

He did his Old-Man-Memphis
Empathy with emphys-
…………..Ema schmooze.
Did his minstrel Ham-and-Shem fuss.
…………..He brung the teenyboppers their bad news.

Starbuck’s rambunctious combination of Low Culture and High Culture has become more common in the postmodern, post-9/11 poetry world –  I’m thinking of the recent work of poets like Richard Kenney, who can be equally witty, compressed and riveting, and sometimes equally hard to parse:


Sky a shook poncho.
Roof   wrung. Mind a luna moth
Caught in a banjo.

This weather’s witty
Peek-a-boo. A study in

Blues! Blooms! The yodel
Of   the chimney in night wind.
That flat daffodil.

With absurd hauteur
New tulips dab their shadows
In water-mutter.

Boys are such oxen.
Girls! — sepal-shudder, shadow-
Waver. Equinox.

Plums on the Quad did
Blossom all at once, taking
Down the power grid.

Another poet who comes to mind is Cody Walker. I read him with the same pleasure as I do George Starbuck. Walker is not afraid of going for a laugh, and in his book Shuffle and Breakdown he tosses in those same wry High/Low Culture references that not every poet is brave or crazy enough to make:

With Ms. Rule on One Arm

Impolitic as it may sound,
gimp-witted idiots abound.
They give the lexicon a whirl.
The get the gasworks and the girl.
MacArthur? Guggenheim? Booby
prizes, we find. Better to be
a stumbler, a throttlebotom.
Lower our eyes. And don’t dot ‘em.

Sometimes the work of Kay Ryan, a recent Poet Laureate, takes on rhyme in a similar, playful way:

Lime Light

One can’t work by
lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s
whole unstable

doesn’t equal
what daylight did.

But Starbuck was unique. So why have so many people never heard of him? Well, as one obituary pointed out, he indulged in such a “dazzling display of pun, parody and pyrotechnic wit that critics sometimes seemed too busy laughing out loud to take him seriously….” Starbuck tried to excuse his weakness in one stanza of a long poem titled “Tuolomne.”

I have committed whimsy. There. So be it.
I have not followed wisdom as I see it.
You avalanche me sermons and I make
Rhymes for the sake of rhymes.
This sinner, Lord, of his lamented crimes.

That poem is from his 1978 collection Desperate Measures – even Starbuck’s titles are double entendres.  The poet Eric McHenry suggests you have three cups of coffee as a way to prepare for reading the buzzy, caffeinated work of George Starbuck. I suggest you do just that: Sit down, sip, read, marvel.

Cup of Coffee and George Starbuck

—Julie Larios



Seattle poet Julie Larios has had poems published in a variety of print and online journals.  Her work won a Pushcart Prize and has been selected twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry Series. Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th.

Aug 042013

Richard Farrell

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless
—Philip Larkin, from “High Windows”

It seems to me that reverence, as something intrinsic to an individual’s sense of meaning, as a principle of human communities, has been on the decline, if not under downright assault, in the culture at large. I’m not arguing that there’s a scarcity of people leading reverential lives. From monks to poets, from special-education teachers to astronauts, we live amongst many still capable of being awestruck. Nor is the raw material which inspires reverence eroding, like polar ice caps and old-growth forests, under pressure for mankind’s increased footprint. Just a mile from my front door, a traffic jam occurs each night as hundreds of people crowd along the cliffs to watch the sun drop into the Pacific.

When I was young, I would wake early and head off to serve as an altar boy for the weekday, sunrise mass. The same rag-tag band of true believers filed into the pews at 6:30 every morning. Something about being tired, a whiff of candles, incantations, and carefully articulated rituals always mesmerized me. I’ve yet to encounter a more consistently sacred sight in my life than dawn breaking through the stained-glass windows at Christ the King Church. At twelve, I gave serious consideration to the seminary, and heretically repeated the priest’s gestures in my living room, with Ritz crackers for the body and grape soda for the blood. But I had no calling from God. In time, the rituals themselves lost meaning.

Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that I chose to go to college at the Naval Academy, an institution awash in rituals and codes. Anyone who’s ever witnessed a sunset dress parade along the Severn River—four-thousand midshipmen marching in lock step, bayonets and belt buckles polished, blue and gold spinnakers billowing on the river—and not felt something akin to awe, surely has lost the ability to be stirred by great pageantry. By the time I was 18, I’d traded in the vestments of the altar for the vestments of war but marveled no less at the lore and history of it all, the flag lowered at sunset, the distant bugle call of taps.

During my sophomore year at Annapolis, a plebe committed suicide by stepping out of his fifth-floor window. The young man had wanted to quit the Academy, but was encouraged to stay by well-meaning parents and company officers. I watched as paramedics attempted to resuscitate the broken and bloodied midshipman, his once-pristine, navy-blue uniform suddenly a torn and grisly mess. Later, as fireman sprayed his blood from the brick walkway, I felt a desperate emptiness about the institution I’d committed to. The shame of quitting was certainly not worth that young man’s life.

“Reverence is an ancient virtue,” Paul Woodruff writes in Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Woodruff, a humanities professor, approaches the subject of reverence with a philosophical lens. Handed down from early cultures, across a variety of religious and secular systems, reverence has less to do with mystery and mysticism and more to do with shaping individuals and societies who can recognize the limitations of what humans can (or should) control. Reverence, according to Woodruff, begins in a capacity for awe and wonder for the world around us. This capacity for awe leads to a deepening respect for fellow human travelers. “This in turns fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flows exceeding the normal human allotment.”  Shame arises, in part, when humans fail to remember that each person, whether prince or pauper, is dwarfed by the sheer grandness of existence.

Reverence, Woodruff also argues, is on the decline in contemporary culture.

My children have recently begun their summer vacation and the moments in my day which might let in a little reverence have been few and far between. It’s hard to experience awe amidst battles over television remotes, pop-radio stations and who gets to play on the iPad. At times, it seems that the experience of reverence demands things in short supply these days: silence, stillness, time to think. And in most of my daily life, the once sacred rituals have either lapsed into quaint memory or feel contrived. Perhaps I’ve convinced myself that I’ve outgrown them, like acolyte robes and military uniforms. Perhaps the only solution is to get away from it all for a while.

So at the end of June, I leave California for Massachusetts with my kids—Maggie, almost 12, and Tom, who’ll be 8 in a few weeks. These are transitional times as a parent. Maybe all time and ages are transitional, but these years in particular feel downright seismic. Less and less snuggling, more and more driving, from horse lessons to baseball practice to sleepovers on the other side of town. Because I’ve taken Maggie and Tom to see their grandparents in Massachusetts most summers since they were born, these trips retain something of a ritual in our family. The grandchildren, welcomed as mini-deities, are worshiped with burnt offerings of Cheetos, ice cream bars and endless hours of over-indulgence.

Children make for wonderful case studies of reverence. Anyone who’s ever spent ten minutes waiting for a child to stop staring in wide-eyed wonder at a green caterpillar on a leaf knows that a child’s capacity for awe is without peer. And anyone who’s ever chastened that same child for being distracted certainly knows how deeply a child feels shame. Respect, awe, shame—a child’s life is awash in reverential moments. What child does not, as Annie Dillard says, live in all they seek? If only they could articulate their experience. Because what a child lacks, it seems, is the eloquence to communicate that experience. This comes with maturity, with reading the great books, studying the big ideas, sharing in the human conversation.

This point is driven home most clearly by one of my son’s friends in Massachusetts. John, 6, suffers from significant autism. What might well be a deep, if scattered, concentration and intelligence (John knows all the world’s countries and their capitals, knows all the elements of the periodic table and hears and repeats verbatim anything you say) crashes around him when he encounters other people. While John twirls around on the beach, gathering shells with a naturalist’s curiosity, he also seizes up, clenching his hands into tight fists and his face into a grimace, when given basic commands by an adult. He remains isolated in a room of children, able to make only the slightest contact. The simple, if cruel, reality is that John doesn’t fit into the world as typically constructed. It’s like he hears the music playing in the background but can’t find the rhythm.

And yet it’s hard not to wonder and marvel at his freedom, the absolute and unadulterated pleasure he finds in a vibrating restaurant pager or the garden hose at my mother’s house. For John, it’s as if all the moments in his world were reverent ones, but they remain utterly trapped inside, un-spoken, only thinly connected with those around him, and thus those moments verge on being lost to meaning.

“We live in all we seek,” Annie Dillard writes. “The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious – the people, events, and things of the day – to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color.”

Dillard reminds us that the sacred surrounds everything, waiting only to be noticed. And intellectually, this makes perfect sense, though it’s another thing entirely to live this way, to actively overcome the obliviousness of daily pursuits, all those small tasks that take up so much time and energy. Reverence, for the most part, always feels set apart, reserved for mountaintops, cathedrals and forest trails. The trick of recognizing the numinous in the mundane, seeing the sacred patterns—the color, as Dillard calls it—in the landscape we walk everyday, seems elusive, frustrating at times, the stuff of dreams.

What Dillard seems to be arguing, and Woodruff no less, is that reverence involves a choice. “We have not lost our capacity for reverence,” Woodruff writes. “The capacity for virtue belongs to all of us as human beings. What we are losing is a language of behavior—a self-conscious sort of ceremony—that best expresses reverence in daily life.” But how to learn that language?  Harder still, how to remain fluent in it? In my youth, the rituals of the church or the military helped shape those choices for me, or perhaps they co-opted them, no matter. The priest used the mass to dramatize the crucifixion. What stood behind the dress parade were not just shiny shoes and individuals submitting to the larger unit, but also history, the great battles of the past, the fallen, the horror of war, camaraderie, sacrifice, virtues, regardless of how tenuously political these things may have been. Those rituals always pointed the way for me, like an illuminated highway sign on a dark and lonely road. The destination, the actual feelings of profound mystery and awe, must remain just out of reach, ineffable and abstract. But the road signs reassure, keep us moving on what appears to be a path, however dimly lit and confusing. The stylized and polished constructs become containers for the missing virtue (courage, honor, integrity, deity), for those things that can be felt but not grasped. And in this, the rituals themselves become imbued with meaning and importance.

But most of the rituals are gone now, at least for a large portion of people I know, myself included. Routine has taken over, and routine and ritual are very different creatures. Routine shares none of the symbolism, none of the communal aspects of ritual. Taken to an extreme, routines can become neurotic prisons of obsessive rigidity, closed off from the world at large. Whereas rituals, even the most esoteric and sealed, exist within part of the larger human society.

In the town center of Holden, Massachusetts, just a short walk from my mother’s front door, there is pre-Civil War cemetery. Holden is the quintessential New England town, with flags fluttering, white church spires and sun-dappled maple trees. The granite, moss-mottled headstones, tilting in all directions like teeth in need of braces, want to tell a story, if only I could listen. Many of the markers contain poems chiseled into the face, and many of the graves are for young children. In the cemetery, I think about Robert Bly’s introduction to William Stafford’s poems, in which Bly talks about the golden thread. “I asked Stafford one day, ‘Do you believe that every golden thread will lead us to Jerusalem’s wall, or do you love particular threads?’ He replied, ‘No, every thread.’ He said, ‘Any little impulse is accepted, and enhanced.”

The golden thread is, of course, a form of reverence. The transformation of the objective experience into a poem, into the holiness of Jerusalem’s wall, is precisely what my son’s friend, John, lacks. For children like John, and for many others too, the golden thread is only a piece of string.

Dillard and Bly arrive at similar conclusions. Any little impulse can lead to the sublime. Every detail can become a golden thread, garden hoses, church spires, and headstones. The sacred is all around us. Why travel across the country to look for it? We hear this message again and again, but how to trust it? How to experience it as a real part of the day-to-day?

Instead, we seem perpetually distracted. We cash in on our humanity, and turn our backs to the sacred moments with such a blithe indifference that at times it feels as if life were one giant video game. I indict myself in all of this. As often as not, I am oblivious to awe, wandering around in an over-saturated haze of consumerist fervor, kinetic schedules and endless detachment. How to plug-in to reverence?

It seems easy to do here, in this old cemetery, where the light and the silence are vibrating with possibilities, with a type of sacred energy, with history and stories and the march of time. But reverence depends less on circumstance and more on how we transform what’s offered.

I arrive, at last, not at a conclusion, but perhaps at a bit of understanding. For the more I consider it, the more reverence begins to seem like a type of triangulation. There is, on the first level, the phenomenon itself. The sunset. The caterpillar. The ritual of the mass. The dress parade. The suicide. These things exist independently, whether observed or not, whether intended or attended. If a tree falls in a forest, as Bruce Cockburn and a thousand Zen monks sing, does anyone hear? The event is indifferent to our attention. Barry Lopez can describe the thousand-mile migrations of polar bears with such detailed elegance that I can imagine the journey happening before my eyes, but the bear remains utterly ambivalent about who’s watching.

Enter the observer. The poet, the prophet, the biologist sailing on a brig sloop between the Galapagos, the astronaut hurtling through the heavens. Humankind bears witness as much as anything else we do. As Dillard points out, we uncover what lives captive on the face of the obvious. The witness shuttles forth into the unknown and comes home with a tale to tell, whether that tale is On the Origin of Species, Arctic Dreams, the Upanishads or worn letters carved into the face of granite headstone.

It’s not that Neil Armstrong’s experience of stepping onto the lunar surface was any less personally reverent for him, with or without the world watching on television. But, as Armstrong’s own words remind us, in order for that one small step to live beyond itself, for the unity of experience to become that giant leap for mankind, it needed to be shared. Thus the third side of the triangle, the reception, the acknowledged and expressed substance of what it all might mean.

I am certain that John experiences reverence in his life; I’m certain that in every tactile roll in the grass, in every confusing (to us) choice he makes, John ingests the sensory world with a ravenous hunger and perfect pitch. But the circuit is shorted somehow, and no signal passes from his interior experience to others. This seems the great tragedy of autism. Also the great tragedy of tyranny, suicide, repression, violence and the apathy of tuning out. When we lose the ability to form the connection, the world suffers.

The poem needs the poet, but the poet needs the reader. In this triangular symmetry, the three sides form the whole.

Reverence lives somewhere inside this sacred geometry, somewhere between my ability to be stirred by something greater than myself, my ability to articulate that experience, and my willingness to hear that message when its shared with me. For in the end, aren’t we working out the mystery on our own? Aren’t we all lonely fishermen, perpetually taking in the world through a small hole each of us carves in the ice? And when we get a nibble, or when we get too cold to continue, or when we just get too damn lonely to go it alone any longer, don’t we all yearn to share that experience with others?

And where better to find the sacred than in the sky above and the earth below. “Reverence at home is so familiar to us,” Woodruff writes, “that we are hardly aware that this is what it is, and we may have to visit homes of a different culture before we recognize the places where family pictures hang, or where a grandmother’s unused teacups gather dust, are shrines.”

Somewhere between California and Massachusetts are those shrines. Somewhere between Annie Dillard, William Stafford and an autistic boy trying to make sense of a confusing world, lies reverence. In the epigraph to Dillard’s For the Time Being, she quotes Evan S. Connell, who asks, “Should I mark more than shining hours?” The ambition, if not the answer, as best as I can figure it, is, yes. Mark all the hours as sacred. Many more of them are actually shining than I’ll ever recognize.

“Reverence is all around us,” Woodruff writes, “so there are plenty of starting points.”

And so Maggie, Tom and I come home to California, to the long and restless routines of summer. They hug their mother and rub their dog’s belly and quickly re-acclimate to home. It so happens that we return on the 4th of July. Fireworks fresco the cloudy sky, booming explosions echoing around us like cannon fire. The dog cowers. The kids ooh and ah. These days, perhaps, will not always feel as sacred as I might wish. Many of the hours that follow will glide past without meaning or context. I’ll wake up, play with my kids, read a little. I’ll clean the house and get dinner ready for my wife. There will be quiet hours, busy days, whole weeks that will blend from one into the next, with little to mark them as shining, except, of course, by their very accumulation, by their unfolding. The only meaning they acquire is that which I attach to them. I’ll only find reverence by seeking it out, by listening to it, by sharing it. This conclusion may lack the certainty of the altar or the parade field, but it is girded with a realization, both terrifying and awesome, that time is fleeting, and that soon, all this will have passed.


Sunset Cliffs1

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

Aug 032013

David Jauss and grandson Galen

For your Saturday morning delectation: the never-before-seen image of David Jauss wearing a birdhouse for a hat (with grandson helping) along with Ross McMeekin’s fine tribute interview on the occasion of the publication of David’s new book Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories (which, at this moment, you can pre-order). David Jauss is a powerful story writer, one of the best the country can offer, and a man of profound moral and political commitment. Many of us in the NC community are fortunate to be able to call him friend, colleague, editor, teacher and mentor. You should also know that David has cut a deal with Dzanc Books to bring out his earlier work as ebooks — this is a Great Good Thing. Black Maps can be ordered now at Dzanc Books and Crimes of Passion will be available soon at Dzanc Books.



1. I know of your admiration of the stories of Anton Chekhov. What is it about him and his work that you find most compelling? Why do his short stories remain relevant?

He’s just great company.  I can always count on him to show me something significant and true about human nature, and to do it in a way that puts the characters first and himself last.  He doesn’t try to impress us with the flash and dazzle of his prose or the wisdom of his insights; instead, he writes prose that is so clean and clear that we can look through it like a windowpane at the characters and world he’s writing about.  He also brings to his fiction the paradoxical gifts of the good doctor he was: the objectivity and intelligence to diagnose and dissect his characters’ flaws and foibles, and the subjectivity and compassion to sympathize with his characters rather than to judge them.  He has, as someone once said, a cold eye and a warm heart.  And in his nearly 600 short stories, he created an enormous range of characters, far more than any novelist, and he completely reinvented the short story genre.  And while he was at it, he reinvented drama as well, and today he is the second-most-produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare.  He also wrote a book on the need for prison reform in Russia that greatly improved penal policies throughout Europe (but not, alas, in America).  And he did all of this by the age of 44, when he died of the tuberculosis he’d battled most of his adult life.

I also admire the fact that Chekhov wrote to discover and/or test his own beliefs, not to inculcate them.  He was an atheist, for example, yet he wrote sympathetically and movingly about many religious characters, including the title character of his great story “The Bishop.”  Chekhov didn’t create different selves, different heteronyms, the way Fernando Pessoa did, but his fiction reveals the same impulse to see the world from as many perspectives as possible.  As this suggests, Chekhov had, like Shakespeare, like Pessoa, the quality Keats called Negative Capability, the ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  And this is the quality, Mr. Keats and I agree, that is most essential to literary greatness.

Finally, I’m drawn to Chekhov’s stories because his characters and their predicaments seem remarkably modern to me.  I love Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev too, but their characters seem to be of a different age than Chekhov’s.  Chekhov died in 1904, yet his work feels contemporary to me.  I think he’s an absolutely indispensable writer, one of the few everyone should read and reread throughout their lives.


2. Glossolalia contains stories written and published more than three decades ago alongside stories published recently. What was your process – editorial and otherwise – of revisiting those old stories and organizing a book that spans such a long period of your writing life?

Although I’ve written an essay on ways to structure unified story collections [“Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection”], I was utterly stumped when I sat down to select and organize the stories that would become Glossolalia.  I eliminated a dozen or so stories that I didn’t think were up to snuff, but then I still had 500 pages of stories to choose from.  I tell you, I felt like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die.  Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all 500 pages to Press 53.  Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor there, for the selections.  She sent me a list of her favorite seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—and if I remember right, I made only one substitution.  Then I went to work on organizing the stories.  And believe me, that wasn’t easy.  The oldest story in the collection was published in 1976, and my fiction has changed a good deal over time, so I quickly realized that there was no way I could even attempt to achieve the kind of stylistic and thematic unity that I had aimed at in my previous collections [Crimes of Passion and Black Maps].  But I didn’t want to arrange the stories chronologically either, since I felt some of them gained resonance and meaning by rubbing shoulders with other ones.  So through trial and error, I hit upon an order that I felt worked as well as the wide variety of stories would allow.  I sent the list to Christine, and she suggested one very smart change, and the table of contents was set.


3. “Apotheosis” is a wonderfully complex epistolary story, told through a recently discovered sixteenth-century letter written by a friar defending his actions to the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. Within this letter is another letter, which we discover was read by the friar to a group of followers as a warning against other religions – a message whose intentions were misunderstood by the audience, leading to the friar’s questioning by the inquisitor. The contents of this embedded letter are the story of a South American missionary who himself becomes caught in the blur between the messages of two different religions and cultures. This seems, to me, like a perfect story for our file-sharing, hyper-textual, misunderstanding-rich digital age. I’m curious how the structure of the story emerged, as well as your understanding what happens to a story–and the author–once the piece goes out into the world.

It’s interesting that you find “Apotheosis” to be a perfect story for our particular age since it’s by far the oldest story in the collection; it was originally published in 1976.  And the earlier version of the story was even more “hyper-textual”: it had two additional frames, one narrated by the scholar who edited the two letters and the other narrated by the letters’ translator.  Instead of the brief impersonal editorial note that now appears at the beginning of the story, the original version had a very personalized introduction and conclusion from the point of view of the scholar, who also intruded on the narrative regularly via clueless, obsequious footnotes, much in the fashion of Charles Kinbote, the “editor” of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  The translator also stepped in to comment in footnotes from time to time, and some of his footnotes even had drawings in them—representations of the hieroglyphic-like Cakchiquel words that the Spanish narrator of the central story occasionally used.  So the original version of the story was far more hyper-textual than the version included in Glossolalia.  Rightly or wrongly (but I’m betting on rightly), I decided that all of this hyper-textual foofaraw detracted from the meaning and emotion of the story and drew too much attention to me and to the story’s artifice.  So I gave both the editor and translator pink slips.

As to what happens when a story goes out into the world, I think misunderstanding—or at least re-understanding—is fairly common.  The natural impulse of most readers, I believe, is to simplify the meaning of a story—after all, this is what we’re taught to do in high school, if my own experience and that of my friends and colleagues is any proof—so the more complex a story is, the more misunderstanding that results.  The ultimate example, of course, is Hamlet.  The attempts to simplify the complexity of both the character and the play are legion.  My stories have none of Shakespeare’s complexity, of course, so, to my everlasting shame, I’ve always been well understood by readers.  The frame narrator of “Apotheosis” isn’t so lucky; the Inquisitor General misunderstands his intentions and he’s executed as a result.  Outside of a couple of bad reviews, that’s a fate I’ve managed to avoid.


4. Did you give many pink slips to aspects of your earlier work? Was there a common thread to your edits? I’m curious as to how you’ve changed as a writer since your first collection.

I gave a lot of pink slips to all of my work, not just my early work—though that got the most pink slips, of course.  Every story in Glossolalia has been revised, some of them fairly lightly and others quite drastically.  I also revised all of the stories that don’t appear in Glossolalia but are included in the ebook versions of Black Maps and Crimes of Passion that Dzanc Books is publishing as part of its rEprint series. (Black Maps has just been released, and Crimes of Passion will be published shortly.)  The revisions range from factual corrections and minor sentence-level changes to deeper explorations of characters and added scenes.  If there’s a common thread in the edits, it’s the attempt to call less attention to myself and my writing than to the characters and the story.  When I first began writing, I made the mistake that virtually everyone does when they start out: Because I wanted to convince the reader (and myself) that I was a Real Writer, there’s a “Look, Ma, no hands!” aspect to some of my early writing that now makes me cringe. In my revisions, I tried to get out of my characters’ way and let the stories be about them, not about my writing ability.  I hope that any attempts at linguistic pyrotechnics that remain are there to illuminate the character, not to impress the reader.


5. I had the opportunity of hearing you read “The Sacred Drum,” a story included in Glossolalia, at a writing conference a few years back. Before introducing the story, told from the perspective of a Hmong refugee living in the United States, you mentioned how even though you’d lived for decades in Little Rock, you still felt like an outsider. A handful of the stories in this collection are told from the perspective of characters at odds with the dominant culture. How has your personal experience as an outsider influenced your writing, and how do you view the relationship of the fiction writer to the dominant culture and those excluded from it?

For the record, I’ve felt like an outsider all of my life, not just since I moved to Arkansas.  I suspect that most people feel like outsiders a good deal of the time.  And I think writers almost always feel like outsiders.  If they didn’t, why would they devote their lives to observing others?  Instead of observing the dominant culture, they’d be participating in it.  Or so it seems to me.  At any rate, I’ve been drawn in my fiction to characters who feel they don’t belong where they are.  This is most obvious in the story about the Hmong refugee you mentioned and in “The Bigs,” which is about a Dominican baseball player for the Arkansas Travelers minor league baseball team, but I think the feeling of being outside—outside the culture, outside the family, outside whatever—is something that recurs throughout my fiction.

Of all the places I’ve ever been, the place I feel least like an outsider, the most at home, is Vermont—and, particularly, Vermont College of Fine Arts.  The very first time I went there to teach—in the winter of 1998—I immediately felt like I was at home, and I felt that way even before I knew much of anything about the state or the college.  I think it was a visceral response to the landscape, the quality of light, something in the air—who knows?  Whatever it was/is, I’m grateful for it.  And from what I can tell, it’s a feeling almost everybody connected with VCFA shares.


6.  An aspect of this collection I admire is the fact that so many of the stories, including the three we’ve mentioned (“The Bigs,” “The Sacred Drum,” and “Apotheosis”), have narrators from different time periods, societies, and cultures than you. This diversity is something I aspire to in my own writing, but I’ve also met other fiction writers who fear writing from socio-cultural perspectives other than their own. Tell us about your perspective of fiction writing as an act of empathy.

There is no worse advice for a fiction writer than “Write what you know.”  I like Grace Paley’s revision of that shibboleth: “Write from what you know into what you don’t know.”  That, to me, is what makes fiction fiction instead of just some glorified form of nonfiction.  In the name of misguided political correctness, many writers have shirked what seems to me the essential task of fiction: the attempt to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of people very different from ourselves.  As I’ve said in my essay “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life,” I’m not interested in writing about myself.  I write for the same reason I read: to experience other people’s lives.  In Glossolalia, I write from the perspective of a wide variety of characters, including a nineteenth-century Russian dwarf [“Misery”], a serial killer [“Shards”], a couple of Vietnam vets [“Freeze” and “Hook”], a young mother [“Constellations”], and an elderly nun [“The Stars at Noon”].  I’ve taken my licks, both from editors and readers, for writing outside of my own experience.  The editor of one literary journal rejected “The Sacred Drum,” saying “Our readers found your colonialist appropriation of another culture offensive.”  And I once got a phone call from a man who’d read my story “Freeze” and wondered if we’d met.  “I remember that guy you wrote about,” he said.  “The lieutenant.  And I think we must have been at Lai Khe at about the same time.”  When I told him I’d never been in Vietnam, or even in the military, he was outraged.  “What gives you the right to write about a war when you weren’t even fucking there?” he demanded.  He hung up before I had the chance to tell him what gave me that right: the imagination, the most precious faculty human beings possess.  It’s what allows us to empathize with others, and without empathy, we’re all lost.  If fiction writers limit themselves to writing only from their own socio-cultural perspectives, they’re sacrificing the imagination on the altar of political correctness.  And that, not the attempt to imagine what someone from another race or culture thinks and feels, is what’s truly offensive.


7. In August 2011, after eighteen years of unjust imprisonment, the State of Arkansas granted the release of the West Memphis Three. I know you were deeply involved in their exoneration. Would you tell us a bit about that experience, and how it has affected your life and writing?

Unfortunately, the WM3 were not exonerated.  They were released as a result of a little-known and even less-used legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence.  The State of Arkansas agreed to this maneuver because the WM3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—were about to be awarded new trials after DNA tests of hundreds of pieces of crime scene evidence excluded them as suspects.  After the WM3 were released, the prosecutor said that, if they had been found innocent in a new trial, they would have been entitled to as much as sixty million dollars in reparations from the state.  By striking this deal, the state avoided this expense.  In return for the Alford Plea, the state resentenced the WM3 to time served—eighteen years and seventy-eight days—and then released them immediately.  The WM3 took the deal because they most likely would have had to wait two or three years for a new trial, and even then there was the possibility a jury could have convicted them again, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime whatsoever.  After all, that’s exactly what happened to them in 1994.

In any case, I worked for the WM3’s release from 2005, when I first met Damien, until their release in 2011, and I continue to work for their exoneration.  I was far from alone in this, of course; literally thousands of people in Arkansas and worldwide were involved in their cause.  Even though I played only a small role in the effort to free the WM3, the work I did with and for Damien is the most important work I’ve done in my life.  It’s one thing to publish books and win literary awards, but it’s quite another to help free someone unjustly condemned to death.  And I take much more pride in Damien’s book Life After Death, which I helped him publish, than I do in any of my own.


8. You teach creative writing at both the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Vermont College of Fine Arts. How has your teaching influenced your writing?

It’s influenced it both positively and negatively—positively because it’s forced me to think hard about matters of craft and come to an understanding of my own personal aesthetics, and negatively because it has taken a considerable amount of time away from my own writing.  But ultimately, both writing and teaching are very positive ways to spend one’s life.  I’m with Jean Rhys, who said, “All of writing is a huge lake.  There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys.  All that matters is feeding the lake.  I don’t matter.  The lake matters.  You must keep feeding the lake.”  I feel both writing and teaching are ways to feed the lake, even if all I can add is a drop.

But teaching hasn’t only influenced my writing, it’s influenced my life.  Thanks to teaching, I’ve met many extraordinary students and colleagues who have become dear friends and enriched my life beyond all measure.


9. What projects do you have in the works next?

If Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories does well, Press 53 may publish a follow-up volume that contains another dozen stories and a novella that we didn’t have room for in Glossolalia.  Also, since Alone with All That Could Happen, my book of essays on the craft of fiction, is now out of print, I’d like to put together a new edition, one that includes some of the essays I’ve written since the book was originally published in 2008.  I also plan to continue writing stories toward another book.  And I’ll keep feeding the lake at both Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as long as I’m able.

—Ross McMeekin & David Jauss



Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Shenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, edits the literary journal Spartan, and blogs at He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

David Jauss is the author of three story collections, Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, and the forthcoming Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories; two volumes of poetry, Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here; and a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, Alone with All That Could Happen (reissued in paperback as On Writing Fiction).  He has also edited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars, a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His awards include the AWP Award for Short Fiction (for Black Maps), an O. Henry Prize, a Best American Short Stories selection, two Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a James A. Michener fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board.  He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.



Aug 022013

A. Anupama

Stunning poems from A. Anupama who also translates classic Tamil love poems (in Numéro Cinq: here and here): you can see the traditional Tamil markers (the lotus, Shiva, the hibiscus blossom, the poem to a lover). But A. Anupama has welded the old to the new, the new being an American vernacular, an easy, confident humour, and a lovely way with line breaks and rhyme (internal and slant rhymes). There is a surprise, a turn in every line. And, oh my goodness, the parrot — the parrot that disappears into the hibiscus in the first poem (the flower ends up in Minakshi’s hair) returns in a later poem to croak the words of Shiva: “Will destroy you all, all, all, all…” over its sleeping mistress. These are the poems of a mature, cosmopolitan poet, a poet who can mix genres and traditions and, instead of a muddle, create poems of surpassing impact and beauty.



A red hibiscus flower in a tall hedge
attracted me with its color
and its long bright stamen,
extended in a sort of greeting.

I didn’t notice until I got closer
the green parrot sitting directly above it.
I stopped still, for fear of startling the bird.
It looked at me with one eye, then hopped
deftly into the flower,
where it disappeared.

I was startled.
I stood in front of the hedge
examining the branches behind the flower.
The parrot was gone, maybe flown out
from the back of the hedge, or disappeared
into higher branches, I reasoned.
Since it seemed to be done
with the flower, I picked the bloom
and put it in my hair behind my ear.



When a man and a woman are very much in love with each other, and, not thinking of any pain or hurt, embrace each other as if they were entering into each other’s bodies either while the woman is sitting on the lap of the man, or in front of him, or on a bed, then it is called an embrace like a ‘mixture of milk and water.’

–from The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, tr. by Sir Richard Burton

Minakshi Meets Her Shiva

When her third breast disappeared, her blouse sagged in the middle.
It had been specially tailored for her with that extra point and fold.
It lay empty, and she covered it with the drape of her sari,
pulling it higher on her chest, as though with modesty, her downturned eyes
implying chaste shyness were just her observation of her newly balanced chest.

He looked up from his ascetic practice and saw her, with her chin pointing down.
He looked down, tilting his head with the crescent moon toward her, and felt
the eye in the center of his forehead fill.
Not with tears, with milk.
It overflowed, and an ocean
of milk was made
for us.



Lotus Heart

I see small islands in oceans of clouds.

Kilauea is over there, some Rockies,
and the sphere turns. Old tectonics.

In several hours I see Kailasa
and the archipelago of Himalayas.
Let me down, I want to say.

Why am I exiled here, I ask instead.

I sit down again on the lotus seat,
letting the petals slowly close again.
I weep.

The tears run down my face
and into the cup of the flower.
Some nectar spills out in a little trickle
running down the stem.

Why was I suddenly brave?



A Poem and Its Translation, Line by Line

The river is frozen today.
It doesn’t shimmer the way it did that day,
the end of the warm summer
when daybreak leapt on the ripples,
which this morning are limited to the creek,
water still running from under the streets.
Under, the water flows under the ice
and runs toward the sea.
The sea receives it, the warm under-water.
A still gleam of sunlight here,
but sunlight there shimmers still
on the never still, always churning ocean.

I am cold.
I miss you.
We were making our own warmth.
You saw my nipples for the first time.
We didn’t restrain ourselves.
We are still running from ourselves.
Our feelings are not frozen.
We will die too soon.
Something vast receives us.
I still love you.
It is a shining memory, our lovemaking.
I live.



After Moon Salutations, Outdoors

SPACE looking at stars and
SPACE SPACE in front of them, fireflies
occasionally a bat
SPACE across the clouds’ dark shapes
SPACE SPACE and the blue that is leaving.
The sky will be dark
SPACE soon and the moon
SPACE SPACE will have a blue halo.
I don’t close my eyes.
Bugs pass close
SPACE I can hear
SPACE SPACE and hear the droning of their families and families
in the trees.
SPACE The bell rings
SPACE SPACE more stars.



Minakshi’s Parrot

She is sitting on a shelf in their bedroom
watching him with one eye.
Her head is turned
so her hooked beak shows its powerful profile.
“Kill you,” it squawks.
“Destroy you,” it croaks.
“Destroy, destroy you,” and Shiva looks up
from where he lies in bed.
The sheets just cover his shoulder
and he looks around the morning room,
remembering where he placed his keys
the night before and checking to make sure
the damn bird hasn’t moved them.
The parrot turns her head too
and then stretches out her neck,
letting the feathers on her back
restack themselves more neatly.
Her mistress is still asleep and
hasn’t moved, and she’s waiting
for the morning smile, calling her to her hand.
Shiva has closed his eyes, put his head back down,
and the parrot cries out now,
“Will destroy you all, all, all, all,”
while bobbing its head.
Shiva turns and opens all his eyes
and the bird vanishes into
dust, a light white ash coating the shelf
where the colorful feathers had gleamed before.
His glare closed again,
Shiva puts his head back down in the cool pillow
turning his face now to his wife.
Minakshi still sleeps
her face calm as a mango
and heavy.
He caresses her hair
and a new smile cradles her lips.
As her dream leaves her,
her eyes open and her hand rises
from under the sheets
to the air above their bed.
A whir of feathers beats a breeze on their faces
as the parrot alights on her middle finger.

— 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, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at

Aug 012013

Laura K Warrell

Shopping while black — I had never heard the phrase before Laura Warrell mentioned it in a phone conversation and then went on to relate the anecdote that begins this essay. The Trayvon Martin shooting was in both our minds, in the foreground, not the background. I was astonished because I know Laura, who is a bright, intelligent, sophisticated, graceful human being, astonished that in a cosmopolitan city like Boston, the stigma of skin colour, the taint of slavery, could still attach to her. And I was thinking of words like profiling, stereotyping, paternalism, racism — words that describe the ongoing effort to single out, repress, infantilize and criminalize African-Americans. The Stand Your Ground laws and recent voter suppression laws coming on the heels of the Supreme Court decision against the Voting Rights Act are reminiscent of the vagrancy and contract laws the Southern states used to try to reconstitute slavery-in-all-but-name after the Civil War. You are guilty if you are black, and you should be afraid.

This is Laura K. Warrell’s third contribution to Numéro Cinq. She has an edgy, contemporary take on social issues from the ugly manipulation of race in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to the Boston Bomber.


There’s been no mistake. After all, our department, as far as I know, and I only know the lowest level, doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That’s the Law. What mistake could there be? – The Trial, Franz Kafka

It was half past three on a bone-crackling winter afternoon in Boston and I needed a watch. Standing between me and the nearest subway station home was a skywalk leading from a chichi shopping mall to a Lord & Taylor department store. Until then, the upscale chain had not been tops on my list of shopping destinations considering I had been scrounging around on a teacher’s salary for years. But I was freezing and loathe to spend another second outside. And who knew, maybe I would luck out and find a watch I could afford.

I should admit to feeling some apprehension before going into the store. As a black woman, I have suffered my adopted hometown’s notoriously prickly racial climate long enough to know there are some places my movements might be “observed” and deemed worthy of confrontation. Moreover, I have lived in the United States long enough to know that the minor stresses of retail shopping – crowded aisles, greedy customers, ill-mannered counter help – pale in comparison to the traumas black shoppers endure everyday, an experience often referred to as Shopping While Black.

Being followed while shopping has happened so much now I don’t even remember specifics anymore. Every time you turn around there’s the clerk pretending to be folding or rearranging things near you. Sometimes they ask if they can help you. Sometimes they don’t. It’s reached a point that whenever I go shopping I get tense about dealing with the clerks. – Duane, 37, sexual violence educator, email to the author July 24, 2013

Shortly after I entered the store and started poring over a display table of watches, a saleswoman came over and asked, “Can I help you?”

So jazzed was I to have found a watch I both liked and could afford that I hardly noticed my surroundings. But then I looked up and quickly registered two things: first, the clerk, a white woman in her early fifties, was ringing her hands and staring back at me with a panicked expression, and second, there were three other white women looking at the watches yet the clerk was only talking to me.

“No thanks,” I told her. “Just looking.”

Usually when shoppers say, “just looking,” salespeople go off to bother other customers or linger perkily in order to lend a hand. The Lord & Taylor clerk did neither. Instead, she folded her arms and kept an eye on me, hovering by a display case a few steps away from where I was shopping. The woman seemed nervous, afraid, even though I was doing nothing more than browsing the watches. Whenever I glanced up, she would flinch as if her spying had been discovered then feign interest in the items in the display case, shuffling the watches around the shelves and wiping at phantom lines of dust. For several minutes, I tried to ignore her but she kept standing there. She didn’t ask if I was looking for something special, didn’t compliment the watches I held against my wrist, neither smiled nor spoke. She just hovered and watched.

I had no intention of stealing. I do not steal. So, if I’m not a criminal and had no inclination whatsoever of committing a crime, it would seem scientifically impossible that my body language, facial expressions or any other type of behavior could have given off any signal that might suggest I was planning on taking something from the store. True, in my worn winter boots and knock-off designer coat I was clearly not a typical Lord & Taylor customer. But if memory serves, the powers-that-be in this country have yet to pass a bill forbidding shoppers from frequenting retailers whose price tags stretch beyond their salary range. Regardless, the clerk was drawn to me, a near middle-aged woman whose only criminal offense over a lifetime was a speeding ticket in high school.

I had arrived at the second stage of the Shopping While Black experience: responding. Should I confront the woman, speak to her manager or stomp out in a huff? Did I have the energy for a battle or would I let this one go?

Rather than decide, I stalled. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. Almost forty, I thought I had long surpassed the age when I could be seen as a threat. Besides, I was on staff at two universities, was completing work on a Master’s degree and had managed to build a decent life in one of the priciest and most elite cities in the country. Hadn’t I transcended this bullshit?

Just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, I casually strolled over to a nearby display of sunglasses. Two aisles away, the clerk followed. I went to a case of necklaces. She wasn’t far behind.

Finally, I walked up to her. “You’re not watching me, are you?”

“No,” she answered like a question.

I waited, imagining this would be the moment for her to apologize for the confusion or express outrage for my having accused her of such an offense. But she didn’t say or do anything except glare anxiously at the watch in my hands.

“Good,” I said and went back to shopping. And, surprise, she went back to trailing me.

Later, when I would tell people what happened, white friends and family would say what they often say after such events occur; “maybe you were imagining things, maybe the woman was only trying to help, maybe there was someone who looked like you who’d stolen something earlier in the day.” Black friends and family would only sigh wearily.

Being followed around in retail stores is a common occurrence. It happens so often I don’t often take note of it as much as I should nor am I as enraged as I should be. Not long ago, I was perusing the shoes and clothing at a store. While I shopped, one salesperson followed me to every section of the store. She would pretend to fix something, and when she finished, she would stand in the same section and watch me awkwardly. After about fifteen minutes of this, I left, leaving the dress and two pairs of shoes I wanted on a table in the middle of the store. The same thing happened another time and after following me, the clerk just looked at me and said, ‘the dresses in here are very expensive’ then paused like that would make me leave. – Leandra, 33, journalist, email to the author, July 23, 2013

Which raises the question: what was the Lord & Taylor clerk’s goal? To avoid a robbery she had no sensible reason to believe would occur? Or to just keep people like me out of her store? And by “people like me” I mean people who buy watches and clothes.

Unable to stand it any longer, I walked over and placed the watch on the counter in front of her. “I was going to buy this. But now I’m not going to.”

“Oh,” she said, with an infuriating mix of docility and snottiness.

“You shouldn’t follow people.”

“I know,” she whined like a child.

“I don’t know why you’re watching me but I can assume the reason,” my voice quaked. “And I want you to know it’s offensive…”

I went on with the kind of speech we curse ourselves for having come up with only after we’ve abandoned a situation, but I got lucky and thought of it on the spot. I told the woman how anyone has the right to shop wherever they want and how inexcusable it was for her make assumptions about people. The woman didn’t deny watching me or apologize for any misunderstanding but only kept insisting, “I’m the only one here,” although she clearly wasn’t. As if the defense was relevant anyway.

I left the store soaring with pride having stood up for myself. But it didn’t take long until I sank into a funk. The rest of my day and several days after were ruined, as if in an instant, everything I had ever accomplished had been reduced to nothing. I cringed thinking of the people who fit the “profile” even more than I do, especially young black men, and how taxing their daily lives must be if a fortysomething university instructor can’t even fly under some fool’s radar.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. – President Barack Obama, address to the nation, July 19, 2013

The list of reasons the Trayvon Martin case gives us to be horrified by modern American society is endless: the purpose of a Neighborhood Watch shifting from folks keeping an eye on things to arming themselves; an adult man deciding for no reason other than race that a seventeen-year-old boy is up to no good; the same adult man, or any human being, feeling surprise when the boy defends himself after being confronted (what else does a person walking alone at night do when a stranger in a goddamn van is following him for several blocks?) Then there’s the law that exists to protect the adult man and the apparent effectiveness of his defense, i.e., to portray the boy as a “thug,” the beloved term of narrow-minded people who seem to want to group all black, inner-city youth – whether or not they’ve ever gotten into any real trouble – into an easily discarded population of violent, parasitic monsters.

“That is exactly what George Zimmerman saw: a trope,” writes UC-Riverside English professor Vorris L. Nunley in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Not Trayvon Martin. Not a person. Not an American or even a human being, just a Black trope – a disruptive figure occupying the anxiety-ridden terrain of his White imagination.”

While the nation prides itself, justifiably, for the phenomenal social strides that have been made, Trayvon Martin stands as a reminder that black citizens continue to suffer the lingering legacy of racism. Black bodies still signify guilt in the eyes of too many Americans: in department stores, on city streets, even in shared community spaces.

As soon as I got in the library the security guard decided I was the only one in the place that needed help. What was that the president was saying about every black man in America knowing what it feels like to be followed? BUT THIS IS A LIBRARY!!! [I guess] everyone knows black people don’t read. – Christopher, 42, poet/educator, Facebook status update, July 22, 2013

Shopping, driving and walking while black happens to young black people.

“My son and his friends were coming from work when they were accosted by the police. They were thrown on the ground, put in the cruiser and made to wait without really knowing what they were being stopped for. They discovered that the police thought they were a group of black males who robbed a store. When the officers realized they were wrong, they dismissed it by saying to my son and his friends, ‘we have the wrong f—g car.’ – Al, 63, teacher, Facebook status update, July 14, 2013

Shopping, driving and walking while black happens to older black people.

I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts with my two teenage daughters. We’d had a nice lunch and I was taking pictures of my girls as they toured an old cemetery. A police officer walked up and asked to see my ID. He said the police were looking for someone who was passing off counterfeit bills and the suspect fit my description. He asked to see my wallet and to look in my backpack. I said not before I know what all this is about. Meanwhile, a large crowd was gathering; to my surprise, many of them stepped up to challenge the officer, saying I was being harassed. My daughters were nervous. After radioing his sergeant, the office was told to take me around to the merchants who had been scammed and see if they could ID me. As my daughters were left to fend for themselves, I was put into a police car and driven to the local mall. Two shop owners claimed to recognize me as the thief. I was put back in the police car and the cop said, ‘For the record, I don’t think you fit the description but I have orders.’ Fortunately, the last shop owner said I wasn’t the guy and I was taken back to my girls. An elderly white couple had brought them ice cream and was keeping an eye on them. The cop dropped me off, apologized for the ‘inconvenience’ and went on his way. I remember thinking, ‘does this ever end? Does being black in America, no matter where you live, always make you a prime suspect to whatever has gone down somewhere? – Rick, 61, public relations professional, email to the author, July 24, 2013

Even leaving the country doesn’t make one immune.

[Since moving to Europe], I hadn’t been back to the States for two years. At U.S. customs, the guy asked if it was true I’d been out of the country for twenty-four consecutive months and I said yes. He asked where is my military I.D. I told him I wasn’t in the military. He then asked which teams I played for in Europe. I had a smirk on my face by this point and said I was too short to be playing basketball. He asked what it was I did in Europe and I told him I teach English. His answer was, ‘They don’t speak English in Europe.’ Then I was in an interview room. They wanted to know how I really made money in Europe and I had to explain in detail. The guy who interviewed me said it’s not often they get black guys who travel that long out of the States without being in the military. Even the ball players come back more than once every two years. He joked I needed to come back more often so as not to arouse suspicion ‘cause only hippie white boys traveled the world for years. Of course, every time I enter the U.S. now, I am stressed. – Carl, 37, English teacher, email to the author, July 24, 2013

That fateful winter day, the Lord & Taylor clerk most certainly was not looking for guilty shoppers in her store but instead was attracted like a magnet to what she identified as guilt: my brown skin. Her unapologetic attitude and apparent conviction that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing suggests that in her mind, she had made no mistake. If I hadn’t yet committed a crime, I imagine her thinking went, inevitably as a black woman I would. I was guilty before I even walked in the door.

After the incident, I contemplated what all this meant for my day-to-day life. Do I assume there are places in my community to which I don’t truly have access and stop going to them to avoid harassment? Or do I continue frequenting those establishments and risk fucking up my week?

Managing people’s fears and assumptions about my race has been a lifelong task; overcompensating in professional situations, being overly polite in social situations, grinning harmlessly to clerks when entering shops. By now, this oppressive style of self-defense is instinctive though I sometimes catch myself doing it and feel shame.

I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement…My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe. I know most of y’all are eye-rolling, but if you spent a good three months in these size fourteens, you’d understand why I take that position. – Questlove, 42, musician, writer, record producer, bandleader of The Roots and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in a New York Magazine essay entitled “Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit,” July 16, 2013

In truth, incidents like the one at Lord & Taylor are a rare occurrence in my world. But when something does happen – to me, to a friend, to someone somewhere in the country who looks like me, I’ll remember that I am on trial in perpetuity. American life can feel like a prolonged, Kafka-esque court appearance, as if I’m always being watched and judged, and at the drop of a hat may have to prove my innocence, my worthiness, my normalness. Every confrontation and insult feels like a hearing in which I’m forced to defend myself and then rebuild, to regain a sense of dignity and find comfort again in my own skin. I always recover but move on feeling a bit less trusting, more guarded and cynical.

The emotional aftermath of my confrontation with the Lord & Taylor clerk is negligible compared to the threats young black men in this country face on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis. My now permanent anxiety when I pass the store pales in comparison to the harassment, the sitting in police cars, the prison sentences and murders too many young black men experience. Still, my own run-ins with self-appointed vigilantes and protectors of the common good are reminders that despite my own successes and the progress the country has made, I may always be considered a nuisance to some people. A threat. An eye sore.

How do we alter the nation’s consciousness so that black Americans don’t have to live with this permanent, unshakeable guilt for crimes they have never and will never commit? I wish I knew the answer. But one thing I know for certain is that we can no longer pretend it’s not necessary.

 —Laura K. Warrell


Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.