Mar 162013

China Marks & H L Hix

When the artist China Marks, who specializes in amazing drawings she does with a sewing machine, offered to interview the poet H. L. Hix for Numéro Cinq, I had no idea the interview would turn into a conversation, a mutual interview, and that the conversation would metamorphose into this wonderfully intelligent, cross-genre meditation on the foundations and process of art whatever form the art takes. Not only that but the conversation takes as its starting point an essay by the poet Julie Larios published on these pages, so that NC is part of the conversation, that is, as a catalyst and locus where artists and idea come together (across continents, across disciplines, you can hear the cultural tectonic plates colliding in the background). If we were on the Left Bank, NC would be a cafe and China Marks and H. L. Hix would be leaning across a marble-topped  table sipping absinthe and talking intensely (and you would be listening, you, dear NC reader, at the next table). This conversation is packed with quotation, quotable lines, self-reflection — but China and Harvey are old friends, too, and that comes through, intense, intelligent conversation between friends. They take, as their starting point, a phrase from Richard Wilbur — confounders of category — which they both read in Julie Larios’s essay on riddles; and this conversation is all about confounding categories, crossing boundaries, connecting things that are not connected except in the minds of the artists, about play and the dramatic tensions inherent in confounded categories. A delight in every exchange — though my favourite is the bit about versos, the backs of works of art, especially the backs of China Marks’s sewn drawings.


China Marks: Numéro Cinq recently published an essay by Julie Larios on the riddle.[1]  It was full of things that made me think of my own work and to a certain extent yours as well; for instance, “to describe something by describing something else.” And “you turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and believable in order to understand something deep, emotional, and invisible.” She quoted Richard Wilbur as calling riddles “the confounders of category.”

I think that we are both confounders of categories.

H. L. Hix: I too enjoyed the Larios essay, especially her way of seeing riddles as “mak[ing] us rethink our assumptions.”  I certainly want to be — I try to be — a confounder of categories.  Wilbur’s term makes me think of Gilbert Ryle’s philosophical term “category mistake,” which consists in treating something from one category as if it belonged to another category, the way we do when we speak of ideas as things.  Ryle uses the concept of a category mistake to identify as one purpose for philosophy “the replacement of category-habits by category-disciplines.”  I appreciate Ryle’s aim there, but it seems naïve, in that it takes for granted the neutrality of categories, as if they were things in the world rather than human constructions.  (In other words, it seems to me to make a category mistake!)

That’s why I want to be a confounder of categories: because I take it that many category-habits are received, or (to put it less mildly) imposed on us.  For instance, the pervasive description of persons as consumers is a category mistake, but it doesn’t happen accidentally because of an indifferent category habit: it’s one that Walmart wants us to make, pressures us to make, and benefits from our making.  It leads to such individual stupidities as thinking that my purchasing something will increase my worth as a person, and to such collective stupidities as the belief that growth is the highest economic aim.  So I don’t just want to discipline categories, I want to confound them.  I want to be engaged — in my art, and in other aspects of my life — in an active, ongoing process of resisting received or imposed categories, and creating new ones.

CM:  I don’t think you have to try to confound categories, you do it naturally, the way you range over a vast array of subject matter and verse forms, wear so many hats, hang out with visual artists, remain open to possibilities of all kinds.  For myself, I can’t remember a time when one thing didn’t connect willy-nilly with something else entirely different and then branch off in several directions.  As no one else seemed to notice, I never said anything about what I saw/sensed. By now I am used to it, no, more than that; I understand that categorizations are constructs and if not perceived as such, are impediments to speculative play.

HH: Many people regard play of any sort as a form of irresponsibility: children are permitted to play, the view goes, but adults should not be.  But what you’ve just said points up the flaw (or one of the flaws!) in that conception.  Thinking of play as irresponsible neglects the fact that coherence depends on association.  If I can’t connect one thing with another — and that includes connecting apparently dissimilar things with one another — then I can’t test my view in one area against my view in another.  I can’t preclude self-contradiction.  In other words, if I don’t get to play, to speculate, then I can’t be responsible.  To me, that is one of the ways in which poetry and visual art have both private and civic value: they facilitate the associations that enhance coherence and diminish self-contradiction.  They are forms of imaginative caprice that constrain logical and empirical caprice.

But “playful” isn’t the only term I would use to describe your work; I would describe it also as “dramatic,” meaning that it seems to me to depict situations of tension and conflict, just as a stage play or film or novel would.  Is there a connection between the importance you place on process in making your work, and the centrality of drama in the work that results?

CM: I do think that what I make is inherently dramatic.  I’ve even called my drawings “little dramas.”  I consider my role as an artist that of an entertainer.  I want my drawings to compel and amuse, to make eyes widen and jaws drop. During the process of making a drawing, I am in the audience as well as on stage, often surprised, sometimes thrilled at what I see, or so bored and restless or unhappy that I make drastic changes, until my own jaw drops….

HH: We started by noting similarities in our work, but maybe this is one difference.  I’m inclined to think of my work in contrast to entertainment, after the manner of George Oppen’s journal note that “entertainment ameliorates human life; art means to make human life possible.”

CM: Definitions of art and its functions are just definitions. People will always write about art and decide what it really is or should be.  In the meantime, I make art that among other things, entertains.  So what?

HH: Point taken.  It’s true that defining art is not your project, or mine, nor was it Oppen’s.  But I doubt that either of us makes our art without some working conception of art, even if our practice tests or resists that conception as much as it enacts it.  We’re not defining words right now, but we couldn’t be using them without an operative conception of their meanings.  I think we’re agreed that definition is a distraction, though, in this context, one that leads away from, rather than into, the shared intensity — the confounding of categories — that motivates this conversation.  So let me try to reframe things in a way that I think does look toward, rather than away from, that shared intensity.

I’ve known you for give or take fifteen years now, long enough to have seen transitions from sculpture to painting and from paintings to sewn drawings; and long enough to have seen your sewn drawings expand to include books.  I’m reminded of Louise Glück’s assertion that “An aspect of relentless intelligence is that it finds no resting place.”  How does it happen, or why is it important to you, that your work finds no resting place?  What makes your intelligence so relentless?

CM: My art has changed even more in the forty years or so since I graduated from art school.  I don’t feel responsible for the changes.  I just showed up in my studio every day possible and worked as hard as I could.  Did my art morph and change because I had a relentless intellect?  I think that I simply gave myself over to process very early in my life as an artist and went where it took me.  Process is more than making a single sculpture or drawing. The process of becoming an artist takes most of a lifetime and has affected not just my studio practices but also where I live, what I eat and how I exercise, what I read, who my friends are, the music I listen to, my marital status, even the way I look.

I started out as a sculptor, but always drew for its own sake as well.  A series of works on paper begun in 1992 took on a life of its own and since then, except for two installations in the 90’s, the last to describe a world parallel to our own, accessible only through my art, I have mostly drawn; except of course in the mid-90’s, when my drawings grew so big that I moved onto canvas for two years, which led to my being hired to teach painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, where I met you…

On Dec. 6, 2000, my drawings told me that they had to be sewn, and not by hand: I would have to buy a sewing machine and learn to generate and control a sewn line.  It might as well have been the voice of God.  I did as I was told, and it turned out to be the most demanding and compelling thing that I have ever done. I knew that I would be making sewn drawings for the rest of my life, and because their potential was infinite, however much time I had, it wouldn’t be enough.

In 2007, Esther Smith, a book artist who loved my sewn drawings, persuaded me to make a little sewn book, which was such a revelation that I resolved to make at least one book a year for the rest of my life. In the spring of 2009, walking my dog after a rainstorm, I found a big black broken umbrella printed with words, and without having any idea of what I would do with it, carried it home. This somehow led to my making my first two text-based books later in the year.  I am still making books, but since the fall of 2010, my drawings have also been full of words, and that has changed everything.

People who’ve known my work over many years say that it all looks like my art; the hybrid forms, the seductive line, the visual wit, my interest in patterns, my appropriation of found objects and images, the narrative drive, the idiosyncracy and flamboyance.  But that isn’t anything I have to try to do, that’s just what I’m like.

HH: Your remarks that “I just showed up in my studio every day possible and worked as hard as I could” and “that’s just what I’m like” remind me of an answer Rauschenberg once gave in an interview, when he was asked whether he planned his pieces.  He said, “No, I have discipline.  I work every day and I never know what I’m doing….”  The end of his answer was like the end of yours: “you’re just doing something.  You’re doing what no one can stop you from doing.”

When I look at any of your pieces — I have “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” called up on my computer screen right now — I get the feeling (and would get this feeling even if I weren’t in the middle of conversing with you like this) that you are doing what no one can stop you from doing, or, in the words you just used a moment ago, that your drawings told you what to do, and you did as you were told.

Lovely Dark and Deep by China MarksLovely, Dark, and Deep, 2011

CM: All I ever know is what to do next, even if I have to un-do it the next day or a month later.  But I have to do it.

HH: That sense of necessity in the process — just doing what you have to do — raises for me a question about necessity in the result.  I have seen the backs of some of your sewn drawings.  Each verso has its own integrity and beauty, a complement to that of the recto.  Which makes me think of the pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon, painstakingly finished on the back, even though they were made to be positioned in such a way that the back would never be visible.  Accident?  Design?  Is this result (the beauty of your versos) a necessity?

CM: The difference between my versos and the parts of ancient sculptures that were finished even though those parts would never be seen, is that my versos thrive in the dark, neglected and unheeded until they’re photographed at the end. I don’t make them. They happen because sewing machines stitch on the back as well as the front. They are entirely uncalculated, all their power and coherence transmitted from what is occuring on the other side. Mirror-image twins.

HH: You speak of your work with a kind of animism that out of context I might regard skeptically, but that in regard to art I am inclined to embrace, namely that those versos “thrive,” that they are able to “transmit” their power and coherence without being seen.  But what I am most fascinated by in your response is the observation that the versos are “entirely uncalculated,” rather than your making them happen.  Their power and coherence result directly from your process, but either indirectly or not at all from your intention.

CM: Yes, the power and coherence of my versos result directly from my process, which contains the time it takes to make a particular drawing, my intentions, the workings of my sewing machines, my threads and fabrics, my tools, artifical and natural light, my doing and undoing stitches, the weather, the music I listen to, whether I swam in the morning, what I ate and read that day and the last, etc. etc. The process is much wiser and goofier than I am. By the time I finish a drawing, it is breathing on its own and full of all kinds of things I could never have imagined, including its verso.  I make my drawings and books in order to see them.  I couldn’t possibly think them up.

verso Bear's Dream by China MarksDetail, verso, Bear’s Dream, 2011

HH: I wish we were geographically close enough that I could have you in every semester to speak with my writing students.  What you’ve just said in relation to your visual art studio practice applies also to a writing practice.  But it seems to be, for many people, a very difficult step to take.  I mean your conceiving, and maintaining in your creative process, a distinction between making and intention.  I find that many aspiring poets believe that making must fulfill an intention that is already complete prior to its enactment, but that assumes that one is oneself the locus of wisdom, and the source of wisdom, in the enterprise.

To think up something first, and then employ the medium as a means to make the already-thought-up thing could make sense only if the smarts are in the person rather than in the medium.  But I hear you observing something with which I concur: more wisdom is to be found in one’s medium and in one’s process than in oneself.  That shift is radical, and, I believe, all-too-rarely made: from thinking that through one’s art or writing one shows the world to others, to thinking that one’s art or writing might show the world to oneself.  When we talk about the importance of process, I take that as at least one thing we mean.

CM: One thought casting back to the beginning of our conversation and a question for you, but they’re related, so I’ll start with the thought. You’ve said that you don’t believe in inspiration. I didn’t look this up, but doesn’t that come from Inspiritus, being possessed of the gods in the form of a divine wind or breath?  If we become instruments of our process, about which so much remains stubbornly ineffable, is that much different? There were various ritual practices to summon the gods, standing inside a circle drawn in the dirt at the new moon, bathing and putting on new clothing, fasting, and so forth. Most visual artists and writers need particular conditions in order to work.  Only in daylight, only at night, five no. 2 pencils sharpened to a point, a particular word processing program, coffee or scotch, after a run, with a favored brush, whatever it takes to make us ready to give ourselves over to the process.

I think that I have it easier than you, because I start by selecting a hundred or more scraps of patterned fabric, backed with fusible adhesive, from thousands so prepared, and go from there.  But how do you start?  With an idea or a phrase?  Do you write in your head for a while before you let yourself write it down? Is it always the same way?  That’s my question.  Where do your poems come from?  And how?

HH: It may be that some of the affinity I perceive between your drawings and my poems derives from affinity between your process and mine.  I do have rituals — I write early in the morning, I wear as a talisman a ring given me by the poet William Meredith, I write with an elegant fountain pen Kate gave me — but the content of the rituals is (as your comment suggests) not as important as the fact of the rituals.  I don’t think one need believe in the real existence of something invoked (such as gods or divine winds), to find efficacy in the act of invoking.  In fact it may be better if one does not so believe, as Simone Weil implies when she calls it “a method of purification” to pray, “not only in secret as far as men are concerned, but with the thought that God does not exist.”

But it’s the collecting I’m focused on here as an element of process we share.  You say you start with scraps of patterned fabric you’ve prepared.  I start with scraps, too, only in my case it’s scraps of language.  For me, the writing of a poem is not an act of self-expression but an act of listening.  A poem, for me, is not the externalizing of an idea or feeling that was inside me prior to the poem, but the derivation of a linguistic construct implicit in a fragment of language, as one derives a theorem from premises in mathematics.  It’s not that I show others in my poems what I happen to feel or think, but that my poems show me what I ought to feel or think.  As with a mathematical theorem, it is their necessity, not their accidental connection to me, that matters.

CM: Could you talk a little about how that necessity operates in your poem “What Creature In What Darkness”?

What Creature In What Darkness

So accustomed to light have we grown (evolved, really,
it’s not you and me only, not decision exactly)
that we forget the lives, species, entire biotas
underground, in caves or tunnels no light tastes, ever.
Which doesn’t mean they don’t inhabit us, or that we
share with them no (actual, not merely potential) traits.
In water the whale, in air the hummingbird:
to these totems I arch elements of identity.
Underground, who knows what sister life-form waits.
I have my library of unconscious states

that I claim awareness of, and accept,
though clearly that’s contradiction and self-deception.
What creature inhabiting what damp darkness
will show me what I might morph into, might have been
all this time?  Does it glow?  What best describes its limbs?
What sounds in what notation by what lurching has it scrawled?
Does it have limbs?  Does it crawl?  Or is it sessile,
gasping then lisping what vagrant spores and molds it may?
Or just patient, able to trace but waiting instead, curled?
This is my preferred world, the shadow world

that does not — need not — speak, will not be spoken to.
All this flailing at communication — I’m flailing now
just shows I haven’t learned, may never learn, to abide.
Who realizes the desperate still wants the needful.
Wait, the subterranean advises.  Wait, wait.
Because only by waiting may one hear the gritty
shifting of Patience itself.  Even that’s misleading, though:
the one who waits despises Because.
When she who is here with me is here with me, with me
beneath this city there is another city,

ruins not restored, not even preserved, but hosting
a less demonstrative but equally insistent
other estimation.  When she is here with me,
she is the other city, host to (or sum of)
secret othernesses and nethernesses.
We need not think of lives as woven by a loom
to think of them as interwoven, and need not pretend
they watch us, or care, to make of them second chances,
alternatives, opportunities to assume
other orientations to the textured vacuum.

HH: In an important sense, you are the source of this poem.  Maybe you’ll remember a studio visit Kate and I made a couple of years ago to see what you were working on.  During that visit you gave me an exhibition catalog of work by a painter friend of yours, Thomas Lyon Mills.  His work stayed in my head, so when I began the “Show and Tell” project on my blog — the project in which poets respond to images by artists, and in which your own work appears — I looked him up and asked him to participate.  This poem derives from his participation.

“What Creature In What Darkness” is one of a sequence of poems, all of which come from that “Show and Tell” project.  Each poem in the sequence takes the form of a “glosa,” so in fulfillment of that received form the last line of each stanza is quoted: the last lines of the first two stanzas come from the artist statement of the particular artist in question, and the last lines of the last two stanzas come from the poem the poet made in response to the artist’s work.

“What Creature In What Darkness” derives from the pairing of the artist Thomas Lyon Mills with the poet Evie Shockley.  So the lines “I have my library of unconscious states” and “This is my preferred world, the shadow world” both are quoted directly from Mills’s artist statement, in which he describes his (amazing) process, which centers on research in underground catacombs in Rome.  The lines “beneath this city there is another city” and “other orientations to the textured vacuum” come from the poem Shockley wrote in response to Mills’s work.  “What Creature In What Darkness” tries then to listen to what words and images follow inevitably from their words and images.

To put this another way, those lines borrowed from Thomas Lyon Mills and Evie Shockley perform the role your selected scraps of patterned fabric play.

CM: Haven’t you sometimes also used borrowed language more directly as found objects, as in Chromatic, where you appropriated early 20th century vernacular speech to great effect?

HH: Appropriated language definitely is important in Chromatic.  Almost all my poetry starts with found language.  Introspection and perceptual observation follow, but the found language almost invariably offers the starting point.  That found language might be “intellectual,” derived from things I read: that happens, for instance, in the first sequence in Chromatic, “Remarks on Color,” which draws on two sources, Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour and Mondrian’s Natural Reality and Abstract Reality.  But the found language might also come from other sources, and you’re right about my interest in vernacular speech.  I assume you’re referring to “Eighteen Maniacs,” the second sequence in Chromatic.  Here’s one of the shorter of those poems.

hix poem2

One reviewer mistakenly identified these poems as operating in “blackface,” trying to mimic African-American dialect.  But I’m after a much broader attention to dialect and vernacular.  So the sequence does include usages drawn from (or based on) African-American vernaculars, especially the rich language that grew up around jazz.  (The sequence itself is a kind of abbreviated history of jazz, as signalled by the title: “eighteen maniacs” was one way Duke Ellington referred to his band.  Each piece in the sequence revolves around one jazz musician.  In “Black Coffee,” all the words in the left-hand column come from Sarah Vaughan: titles of her songs, etc.)  But “Eighteen Maniacs” includes other vernaculars as well, such as the regional dialects I heard growing up in small towns in the South.  The “seem like” in the last sentences here is not peculiar to African-American vernacular, but shows up in many regional and ethnic dialects, often enough that in linguistics it has a name, “sibilant deletion.”

CM: Was it always words for you, even as a boy?  I ask because I remember a crucial time in my own life, when I was about 19, when I gave up on words and embraced image-making.

HH: Even though I was a late-comer to poetry per se, and even though I wouldn’t have known it at the time, it was always words for me.  I drew a lot as a boy, birds in grade school when I was obsessed with birds, cars in high school when I was obsessed with cars.  But even though I grew up in a household (and in school districts) that didn’t introduce me to poetry, I can see in looking back how the household’s preoccupation with language nurtured my own.  My father, a journalist, made his living with words; there was always popular music playing, so the lyrics of songs performed by Johnny Cash (my Father’s favorite) and Andy Williams (my Mother’s) and the Carpenters (my older sister’s) and Olivia Newton-John (my younger sister’s) were in my head; it was a religious household, so I listened to a thousand alliterative Baptist sermons and memorized a boatload of Bible verses in Sunday School; and so on.

Consequently, when at last I was exposed to poetry, as a college undergraduate, I was “primed” for it by all that intense attention to other language uses.  I’d been socialized, without being aware of it in these terms, into the sense that language mattered, indeed (this especially from the religious context, in which language, in the form of prayer, is the vehicle through which one speaks to God, and also, in the form of scripture, the vehicle through which God speaks) that language is a matter of life and death.

It’s interesting to me, in the context of this question, though, that words have become quite active and prominent in your recent drawings.  Which in one way may not be so surprising: I would want to modify the self-description you give in asking this question. Yes, you gave up on words in the sense that you went for a long time not producing words as part of your work, but it seems to me that — at least for as long as I have known you — you have been very actively receiving words as one aspect of the preparation for your work.  Your omnivorous (and category-confounding) attention, your relentless intelligence, includes intense attention to words.

CM: I was a great, omnivorous reader as a child and adolescent, and I’ve written all my life, long letters back in the days when people wrote letters, accounts of dreams, descriptions of acute psychological states, journals, richly detailed assessments of arts-in-the-schools for my job at the NYC Board of Education, stories and poems, especially when I was in love. I also talked a blue streak. My late friend Stanley Landsman once predicted that if after we died, all the words we’d spoken were heaped in a pile in front of us, my pile would be twice as big anybody else’s.

But my facility with words is what made me distrust them. They could mean almost anything, while during my adolescence and early adulthood, most of what mattered was worldess and sensory, sexual, instinctive, uncanny.  In those days, I used words to “pass” as not-crazy, till I couldn’t any more.

But when I started making text-based books in 2009 after a chance encounter with a dead umbrella printed with words, it was just part of my process.  And it turned out that I had a lot to say, more than I can fit in my drawings.  So I’ve begun to collaborate with letterpress printers. The first project, a little poem of mine, four verses with six lines in each, printed as a pamplet, is already in the works. A broadside comes next, and I already have the text for it.

HH: It seems like we’re making a connection here between process and paying attention.  We’ve talked about the importance process has for us, about its centrality to our practice, but how does that play out in a particular work, such as “The Language of Flowers”?  How does process amount to paying attention?


The Language of Flowers by China MarksThe Language of Flowers, 2012


CM: One must be fully present to make process-directed work, expanding one’s attention to take in the work at hand, but also to a lot of other things that might be relevant to the process…

When I visited Gerry Trilling in Kansas City in 2010, I bought two vintage scarves at an “antiques” mart in the river bottoms.  I really wanted them and I could afford to buy them, but I had no idea of what to do with them. I rarely do.  Almost two years had passed before it occurred to me to try to create a space inside the borders of the Liz Claiborne scarf and then to construct two eccentric, flamboyant figures to occupy that space.  I don’t remember deciding that one figure should be static and the other dynamic.  I concentrated on keeping as much of the original print as possible and altering as little as possible what I imported. As these fellows came to life, it occurred to me that it must be so strange for them: they’d changed from scraps of printed fabrics to beings — nothing was as it was!  Which is how the text began.

But as I refined the drawing, they seemed more and more like Renaissance courtiers in a walled garden, which is how the text ended. It’s probably just as applicable to our time. It’s pleasant enough, but the world as we know it is gone. Guard yourself.

HH: That’s it, though.  This image has in spades one of the forms of dramatic tension I experience — see and feel — in all your work.  One the one hand, it emphasizes features that make it entertaining: a bright palette, playful figuration, dynamic composition, a “busy” surface, and so on.  But on the other hand, this entertaining, even delightful, image is terrifying.  This drawing, like your other drawings, is the world: I as a viewer recognize the figures as figures, etc.  But it’s not the world given to us by Hollywood romantic comedies or tv sitcoms.  The world as we know it is gone, replaced by the world of the drawing.

CM: I don’t think that anything I make really stands outside our world, or rather, the various overlapping and interpenetrating worlds that comprise out present reality.  Things out there, murders, starvation, genocide, the coarsening and brutalization of whole populations, natural disasters and extinctions, are terrifying, not The Language of Flowers.

HH: And yet you spoke earlier of a world parallel to our own, accessible only through your work.  That seems an important complement to what we’re discussing here.  That tension/paradox is one way I would try to speak of the importance your work has for me.  I contend that one can’t know this world by knowing only this world.  (The facts, in other words, are not enough.)  To take the most obvious kind of example, our capacity for ethical judgments depends on our imagining other worlds.  To say that women and members of ethnic minorities ought to have the same rights as males of the privileged ethnic group is to imagine a world parallel to our own, and the “ought to” imputes to the imagined parallel world a “reality,” a force, greater than that of the “real world,” the world as we know it.

So I’d repeat your words, “The world as we know it is gone. Guard yourself.”  And add: gird yourself.

CM: And yet somehow, every glance into the abyss sends us back to our work with fresh vigor, I to my drawings, you to your poems.  Don’t you have a poem or part of a poem about that?  It would make a nice end to this.

HH: Maybe they’re all about that, but here’s one I’ll re-title for this context.

Another Glance Into the Abyss

But that my having fallen came first,
I had not known to call falling

this feeling of following grainy shades
into gray, waving for want of wings,

or fog this silent summoning,
a city sunk whole under a sea.

Who would watch waves must lean into wind.
They wind up lean who long want rain.

If not for waiting, why have we mouths?
If not for failing to fly, why fingers?

— China Marks & H. L. Hix


H. L. Hix lives in the mountain west, where he marvels at how late in the summer it is before hummingbirds arrive at 7,200 feet, at how hardy pocket gophers are, and at the fact that he can survive at an altitude at which cockroaches cannot.  He and his partner, the poet Kate Northrop, live in an 1880s railroad house, and their studio space is converted from what was once a barn.  His recent books include a “selected poems,” First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010 (Etruscan Press, 2010); a translation, made with the author, of Eugenijus Ališanka’s from unwritten histories (Host Publications, 2011); an essay collection, Lines of Inquiry (Etruscan Press, 2011); and an anthology, Made Priceless (Serving House Books, 2012).  His website is

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




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Who Am I? What the Lowly Riddle Reveals,” November, 2012
Mar 152013

Russell Smith photo by jowita bydlowskaAuthor photo by Jowita Bydlowska

Here is a brief jeu d’esprit from the Toronto writer and fashionista Russell Smith whom I met at the now legendary Wild Writers We Have Known conference put on by The New Quarterly in Stratford, Ontario, in September, 2000. I remember it as a gilded occasion: Mark Anthony Jarman was there, as well as Steven Heighton, Elise Levine, Caroline Adderson, Mike Barnes, Leon Rooke and Diane Schoemperlen, all of whom have appeared in Numéro Cinq. John Haney took photographs.[1] And Russell Smith is wild: Among his several works of fiction is the pornographic novel Diana, A Diary in the Second Person which was first published under the pseudonym Diane Savage by Gutter Press and subsequently reprinted by Biblioasis under the author’s own name. He’s also written a book on men’s fashion, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress (2005).

“The Ossington Bus” is an all too brief introduction to Russell Smith’s precise, elegant prose style. Please do stop over the sentences and appraise their condensed, fluid motions. E.g. “We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches.” The story itself is a small gem of an ever so slightly parodic magic realism planted in Toronto’s Little Portugal wherein the oft missing Toronto Transit Commission’s Ossington Avenue bus takes on legendary qualities. I also thought of E. M. Forster and his story “The Celestial Omnibus” when I first read this — Forster’s nostalgia for the magical, especially in his stories, is often overlooked. Russell Smith is careful and charming: his irony never becomes arch and the language, alternating between irony and belief, builds a momentum that magically gives that bus wings at the story’s close.


Why do we wait for the Ossington bus? It never comes. We jam our hands in our pockets, turn up our collars, lean out over the tracks of slush and peer down the hill, and all the way down to the mental hospital is nothing but a wide expanse of empty street. We think that we will see a bus lumbering around the corner from Queen. The wind whips along Dundas and the cars stop and start, grunting. Brass music from the fish shop, twisted by wind.

Inside the cafe on the corner, men sit on metal chairs with their ski-jackets on, drinking beer and looking at the soccer game hanging overhead, the only square of brightness in this window. We imagine that they look out at us stamping our feet and stepping into the traffic to gaze down the empty hill, and they say to one another, “I remember the last time the Ossington bus was seen. My father, just after he arrived from the Azores in 1974, saw it twice. At least he claims he did. It used to come more often then. There was an old man on Shaw, Armando Gomez’s father, who says he saw it three times, as a child, but no-one believes him.”

“I saw it myself,” says an old-timer with a fedora from 1955, a hat he has worn like a sign of conscience every day of his life, a sign of resistance. He is sitting alone. No-one has noticed him. But now everyone turns to look at him. Some of the younger men, at the bar, roll their eyes at each other. He speaks very slowly, in the quiet. He says, “Nineteen eighty-five. I saw it with my own eyes. Clear as day. It came chugging up Ossington, stopped at Dundas. Then it went through the lights. And it stopped at that stop, right outside. People got on. And it took them away.”

There is a silence as the eyes inside the cafe turn to the grimy window, to our dark coats outside, waiting.


We know they are watching us. We look up at the icy sky and close our eyes and try not to think about the time, passing. We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches. We will try not to look at our watches, try not to think about the day elapsing, the day darkening, the businesses closing their doors, the subway we must reach thickening with its red-eyed masses, the women meeting for drinks and coffees in the restaurants below, passing us by while we wait here and watch the old people waddling in and out of the CIBC, walking with canes and walkers. The subway is a mere five stops up, and yet we are as far from it as orbiting moons.

What do we hope for? We know that if the bus comes we will board it and it will smell of heated wet coats, of bags of fried food and the spittle of children, the seats will be stained, runnels of mud will streak the rubber mats, the windows will be sticky. There will be no place to sit. The bus will lurch and sway and rattle, throwing us against the coughing bulk of parkas, slipping on scraps of news. We will be with the lost and hopeless, the lowest. The bus will stop every hundred yards to groan and shift again; it will take too long to get anywhere, it will waste our time.

And yet it will at least take us away from here, lift us up with a hydraulic hiss, higher than the level of the street, flying away. It will advance us to the next place, a completely different place, the next thing we will engage with. It will move us up and on.

We do not know if it will come or not. We wait, flexing up on our toes sometimes to arch our view down the hill, closing our eyes occasionally at the orange sunset over the community centre. Feeling the temperature drop, we wrap our arms, trying to be calm, listening, waiting for its thumping approach, a sound like the beating of wings.

—Russell Smith


Russell Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Halifax, Canada. He writes weekly on the arts in the Globe and Mail. His most recent novel, Girl Crazy (HarperCollins Canada), is set in Toronto, where he lives.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The proceedings — fiction, criticism, photographs and panel transcripts — were published in The New Quarterly, Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3. On page 350 there is a great John Haney photo of Russell Smith and dg.
Mar 142013

Tungijuq(please click on the image to link to the film)

In the collaborative short “Tungijuq: What We Eat” (2010) we see a genesis of the eternal relationship between Inuit and hunting. This, in the words of the filmmakers (lead actor and Inuit jazz throat singer Tanya Tagaq, executive producer and Isuma co-founder Zacharias Kunuk, and directorial and screenwriting team Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël), is a way to “talk back to Brigitte Bardot and [the] anti-sealhunting lobby” (1)

The film itself in remarkably unlike previous output from Igloolik Isuma Productions – Kunuk’s Igloolik-based filmmaking collective that has gained international notoriety for its feature-length melodramas, including the Cannes Camera d’Or-winning Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001). Atanarjuat was the first Inuktituk-language feature-length film and recounts a four thousand-year old Inuit legend, and its power lies in its ability to narrate from an Inuit perspective a story of emotion and conflict that transcends – and that also elucidates – the continuum of Indigenous lifestyles past and present.

While “Tungijuq” also takes on this same line of thinking, in contrast, this short film relies heavily on animation techniques and non-linear story-telling to portray the trajectory of life and death cycles through the lens of traditional Inuit hunting and eating. Tagaq, who plays the main character of the film, begins her metamorphoses as a shaman figure who takes the form of a wolf. Tagaq-as-wolf chases and hunts a caribou, which in turn transforms into Tagaq as a human-caribou hybrid form, who then dies from a wolf bite. Yet this one death does not end Tagaq’s transformation, as she transforms again, and yet again before the film closes with a shot of Kunuk and Tagaq eating a meal of seal’s meat after the hunt. Tagaq gently runs her fingers over the inside of her former seal self before taking a bite as she looks at the viewer with a smile. That the film begins and ends with a front angle close-up as Tagaq looking into camera adds to the many references to cycles, as each vignette transitions to the next and the next, reinforcing the idea that the story is ongoing.

Inuit survival has long depended on hunting animals, and this remains true in the contemporary circumpolar North as hunting participates in modern processes and channels of global trade. The European Union’s 2009 ban on seal products has had a major impact on the Northern sealskin trade as well as seal oil supplement and meat industries, despite the ban’s exception for Indigenous-made products, as it has effectively eliminated the market for pelts and other products globally.

The Canadian federal government (joined by the Norwegian government) has launched a World Trade Organization legal challenge against the ban, arguing that this commercial industry is humane and sustainable. As Anthony Speca for Northern Public Affairs Magazine puts it, “Having adopted its ban explicitly to cripple the commercial sealing industry and destroy the value of seal pelts, the EU appears to condone the Inuit seal hunt merely as a cultural holdover from a mythical Arctic innocent of the profit motive”(2).  Rather, Tungijuq’s political message is tied to its cultural message: in the North, hunting and living are eternally connected, even in historically changing contexts.

Isuma’s co-founder Norman Cohn once described Kunuk as “a hunter who happens to make movies” (3). In the case of Tungijuq, hunting and filmmaking merge in a shared story of survival that is about much more than sustenance, while at the same time the film features food and eating in a way that makes them just as crucial to the story as hunting. Of course, Inuit communities traditionally use the parts of the animals they do not eat, whether these are skins for clothing, shelter, or trade, or in the case of seals, oil to light a qulliq (seal oil lamp) or to export as supplements containing higher contents of omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. Hunting for food is particularly important to offset the high cost of importing food goods to Northern communities.

The story nourishes the relationship between Inuit and the animals they have historically relied upon for food, and rests quietly in the face of narrow perceptions about sealhunting’s cruelty that are typically raised from a non-Inuit perspective. The anti-seal hunting lobby is a position based on a moral claim, disembodied from political, economic, and cultural experience. In a particularly pointed and knowingly unimpassioned statement, president of the land claims group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. Paul Kaludjak says, “We don’t really care about how the outside world thinks about how we eat our country food,” illustrating the gap in understandings about what the sealhunt represents (4).

Calls to end the sealhunt in the circumpolar north, however, are often brimming with emotion, including Bardot’s, who, at a 2006 press conference in Ottawa insisted that “she couldn’t watch” video footage of a hunt that was provided for the event’s audience (5). Tungijuq encourages us not only to watch the hunt as one moment in the transformative life between human and non-human animal but also to try and understand the importance of this relationship beyond the singular act.

— Erin Morton & Taryn Sirove


Erin - Numero Cinq

Erin Morton teaches in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. Her research broadly examines categories and experiences of art and culture as being determined by and determining liberal capitalist modernity. She has published widely on historical and contemporary visual and material culture in Canada and the United States in such collections as Global Indigenous Media (Duke University Press, 2008) and journals as Utopian Studies and the Journal of Canadian Art History. She is currently working on two books with McGill-Queen’s University Press, the single-authored monograph Historical Presenting: Placing Folk Art in Late Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, and the co-edited volume, Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada.

Sirove_PhotoTaryn Sirove is a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, where she combines her interests in media arts histories and cultural studies of law. Sirove received her PhD from Queen’s University in Visual and Material Culture, and has completed curatorial projects for A Space Gallery and Vtape Distribution Centre. She has published collaboratively with Dr. Erin Morton in the film journal Post Script, and in the collection Global Indigenous Media (Duke University Press, 2008). Sirove will contribute a book chapter on media arts censorship to LIFT and Toronto’s Images Festival’s forthcoming collection entitled Explosion in the Movie Machine: Histories of Toronto Moving Image Culture.


Mar 132013

Apothecary detail



Text and image, ink and blood, alchemy and chemistry, narrative and whimsy are some of the vectors shaping Paul Forte‘s vision in the Apothecary (which in its invocation of magical potions and dark arts shares a motif with Paul McQuade’s short story “Hadean” also in this issue). Ten bottles on a shelf, filled with ink (the most magical and potent solution of all when you think about it), bits of story from old books glued to the front, lined up like an apothecary’s display. Transmutation of the word into ink and back again.

One bottle and the full shelf are shown above. Detail images below, including the full text of the excerpt pages glued to the bottles.


Paul Forte

Notes on a hybrid artwork: Apothecary

Spirit and Soul should be added to the body and taken away (Solve et Coagula).[1]

—Lambsprinck De Lapide Philosophico[2]


Apothecary is a hybrid artwork based on a simple idea: fill a series of ten bottles with black ink and then “label” each bottle with a small facsimile of a chapter page from an old novel.  Apothecary uses ten identical lab bottles, each approximately 3 inches in diameter by seven inches high and filled with about a half a liter of ink.  The bottles rest on a narrow wood shelf.  The pages used to make the labels were selected from scores of old books; the first page of ten chapters in a book was removed and collated with other book pages with the same chapter number.  Selection of the final chapter pages used as labels were made with two structural constraints: 1) each numbered chapter (one to ten) had to have a chapter heading, or a brief synopsis of that chapter, and 2) the text on each page had to end with a complete sentence.

The strength of Apothecary, its vision or experimental significance, rests with the notion that the work is a series of potential stories — symbolized by ink in labeled bottles — stories yet to be written, and conversely that it is also a work of radical de-mediation, where writing or text is reduced to a series of chapter fragments that label a (traditional) literary medium: ink.  These perspectives suggest an intermediate or indeterminate condition, but the work’s suspension between the possibility of writing on the one hand, and the display of a substance used to materialize it on the other, gives Apothecary its vitality as a hybrid artwork.

It’s interesting to note that the labels or reduced copies of the chapter pages play on the idea of concentration. The metaphorical reduction of writing to the material substance of ink is intended to induce the viewer-reader to reflect upon or focus on the work and thereby better appreciate the symbolic nature of the contents of the bottles: an elemental concentration; a material essence, a medium.  The cognitive value of Apothecary has less to do with the formidable challenge it presents to making sense of a puzzling group of found texts, and more to do with how it encourages one to re-think the relationship between ideas and materials.

—Paul Forte



Pouring Apothecary 1

Pouring Apothecary 2

Pouring Apothecary 3

no. 1 flat_edited-1

no. 2 flat_edited-1

no. 3 flat_edited-1

no. 4 flat

no. 5 flat

no. 6 flat

no. 7 flat

no. 8 flat

no9 flat

no. 10 flat

  — Paul Forte


Primarily a visual artist, Paul Forte also writes essays and poetry.  Forte’s career as an artist began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s.  Influenced primarily by conceptual art, Forte has employed a variety of media over the years to realize ideas, including making and self-publishing artist’s books and related objects.  Forte’s work continues to explore the subjective and aesthetic dimensions of conceptual approaches to art making, an approach that he terms “cognitivist.”

Paul Forte has exhibited at The San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California (1975,1976, 1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); Hera Gallery, Wakefield, Rhode Island (2001, 2003), Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008), and The Wattis Institute, San Francisco, California (2011).  Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; The Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and The Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island (Honors Program); The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts, Oakland, California; and The University of California at Berkeley.  Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990).  A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Forte lives in Wakefield with his long time partner, Laura Beauvais.

Paul Forte’s web site is at


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Alchemical texts are notoriously difficult to decipher, due to the subjective nature of the formulas and procedures used by the alchemists. Be that as it may I offer the following interpretation of the above injunction: Spirit (symbolized by the common mineral, salt) and Soul (symbolized by the only liquid metal, mercury) should be combined and heated in a retort (the body) to produce an amalgam. If this process resulted in a “peacock’s tail” (an iridescent residue) then the adept was a step closer to realizing the venerated “philosopher’s stone.”
  2. I don’t have access to the specific source of the quote that I use in my text, the manuscript Lambsprinck De Lapide Philosophico, Frankfort, 1625. This is one of hundreds of entries in The Hermetic Museum, a sourcebook on alchemy and mysticism edited by Alexander Roob (Taschen books, 1997).
Mar 112013

Gordon Lishgordon lish ©bill hayward

I’ve known bill hayward since 1993 when Gordon Lish had him take my author photo for The Life and Times of Captain N. Gordon depended on bill for a lot of his author photos and also his own jacket photos. And bill has kindly given permission for us to run a selection. The photo above is from bill hayward’s 2000 book of author/artist portraits Bad Behavior, a gorgeous collection, unique in the method bill chose to situation his subjects: he set them up in his studio with a giant roll of white paper and a bucket of black paint and various brushes and charged them to create their own scene. The results were spectacular as you can see from this image of Gordon Lish before the page: a double image, the author, wearing an out-sized Stetson, back and front and shadowed, first examining his own work and then facing the viewer/camera, somewhat diminutive in relation to his hat and his own work. The three portraits below are more conventional, the patrician Lish, the authoritative Lish, craggy and mythic, larger than life and every detail emblematic.

And beneath, Lish’s own words, in full cry, as it were. His introduction to bill hayward’s 1989 collection of images Bill Hayward.


gordon lish ©bill hayward

Gordon Lish photo by Bill Haywardgordon lish ©bill hayward

 Gordon Lish photo by Bill Haywardgordon lish ©bill hayward

Gordon Lish’s Introduction to bill hayward’s 1989 book of images Bill Hayward

Come on, let’s face it, it’s tits and ass, right?

I mean, when it comes to sticking a camera in front of or—heh, heh—in back of: the good old nakedy naked bod, pal, I, for one, would like for you to show me how in Hades you think you are going to beat the rap of—ah, God, who’s kidding who?—of tits and ass, right?

Oh yeah, sure, I suppose you could go get real cute on us and stick your lens up on the ceiling or get it sneaked on down there from up under a floor which you went and made them make for you out of glass—but let’s get serious, okay?

Like, you bet, I, the looker, I, the eye, I, the lens, am—right, right—not ever going to go instantly anyway hunting down there and up there for the tits and ass as, er, well, as sort of let’s say distantly, terrifically, charmingly, discoverable fauna way on out there back behind the quaint but cunningly, dismissible topography of, um, the tops of the shoulders—or, uh, the bottoms of, yeah, the feet.

(Sure, sure, and when were the fucking feet ever like flat, you know?)

Make your fakes.

Meanwhile, we will — didn’t you always just know it, you devil, you? —just keep on checking the text for tits and ass. And, hey—Christ, yes! —for dicks, too.

Oh, but leave us not consider that there is always this other deal you always see—all the oopsie-poopsie bullshit evasions where the camera is going out of its fucking mind in some crazy, vicious song-and-dance aimed at the politics of giving the categories a quick shuffle and of knocking your brains out to punish some poor, helpless, arbitrary annexed zone of us (but, forget it, never really of just us but always only of a Jack La Lane-y species of us) into a dune, or maybe into an abyss, but anyway into a cruel, moronic geography via the pornography of partition, of amputation, of part.

I am talking about the stupid fascism of the fragment, the mute physics of the super-superficient!


So this is the scene, those are the unbridgeable terms, these are the relentless players.

But now enter Bill Hayward. I mean enter Bill Hayward! Infernal machine in hand. Well, whatever he really has in hand—heart? Whereas—agreed, agreed—people are people and here they are, all of them waiting for him—buck-naked.

Not easy, right?

But I said: Enter, goddamnit, Bill Hayward.

Now go ahead, start turning pages—and see for yourself what a fucking artist can do when it comes to doing the unfucking impossible.

Gordon Lish: Introduction to Bill Hayward (Paglia Press, 1989)
bill hayward lives and works in new york city and montana.
bill hayward ©bill hayward
Mar 112013

Fleda Brown

Fleda Brown herewith offers a wonderfully smart, touching essay about girlhood, clothes and, amazingly enough, poetry! How does she rope all this together? And touching? Yes! The sweet free tomboyish little girl (of a certain era), a professor’s daughter, running free the summer long half-naked and innocent, suddenly a young lady, going to school, in dresses and appliqued sweaters, proper girl’s clothes, an awkward and constricting mask that delivers her to the agony of fashion and fitting in and the awful kindness of friends who feel sorry for her. Fleda delivers the goods, the terrible moments of humiliation, guilt and misunderstanding we all go through as children, often centered around money, precious money and small dreams that go awry, often small events in retrospect yet still capable of making you wince and yet which do not defeat you — as evidenced by the delightful pun in the title.

This beautiful, human, raw essay is the last installment here at Numéro Cinq of a series of essays by Contributing Editor Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown, two old friends, also two poet laureates, who have been writing a book together, a call-and-response essay book as Syd likes to call it, one essay calling forth another on a similar topic. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”

In fact Autumn House Books is publishing the book next month, April, as an e-book called Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. Other essays from the book published here at NC include Fleda Brown’s “Books Made of Paper” and three essays by Sydney Lea “Pony and Graveyard: A Dream of the Flesh,” “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know.

I should add a somber note here. As you read this, Fleda Brown is being treated for cancer. She has been writing about her treatment under the title “My Wobbly Bicycle” at her blog at



Well, you’d think this one would be MY subject. But I never had any clothes. That is how it felt. Oh, when I was a child, the first child, first grandchild, I was the darling of my grandparents’ and my aunts’ hearts. They crocheted, knitted, stitched, embroidered. There are boxes and boxes full of photos of me, wonder-child bedecked in sweaters, scarves, wool coats with fur trim, fur muff, delicate flowered sundresses and sunbonnets. Then I grew up.

My parents were getting along on my father’s assistant professor’s salary, with three, then four children, one of them seriously retarded and needing very expensive drugs. And neither of my parents thought of “managing” money. They talked and yelled and cried about “budgets,” but nothing ever changed. At least once a year, one of the grandparents would be applied to for assistance, which would arrive, accompanied by the fury of my father in having to accept it. Well, enough of that. The fact is, I had at least one requisite new dress in the fall when school started, usually two, plus new shoes, usually courtesy of a grandparent. Care packages of clothes would arrive now and then, things picked out by my grandmother, never clothes I wanted to wear. Many of them were a terrible embarrassment, all wrong for what I felt was stylish in my crowd, but I was made to wear them anyway. They were new and they were “nice.”

There was one sweater, white with appliqued flowers on it—a name brand and expensive. But the short sleeves had a tiny bit of a puff to them that felt dorky to me. And the flowers! Furthermore, my sister was given a matching one. A deadly move on my grandmother’s part. I was made to wear the sweater to school. I may not remember this right, but in my memory, as soon as I felt I could get away with it, I deliberately held the sweater under hot water until the bright flowers on the applique faded onto the white sweater. “How can I wear it, now?” I asked. Did I really do that or just dream of it? I can’t remember, but I am pretty sure that the fading happily happened. Of course my mother was somewhat careless about sorting clothes, so I may not have been the culprit.

Actually, after I got past the shorts-with-no-top age, I never had things I wanted to wear. I was furious when I was made to cover up with little halter tops, even before I had breasts. I was furious when I was made to wear dresses to school every day when I wanted to wear pants. Jeans were still in the future, but I would have invented them had I known how. I was most furious when I was made to wear a bra. I threw it across the room after one day in its miserable straitjacketing. I was furious when I had to wear stockings and garter belts and huge, full skirts with huge, full slips under them. I did not want to be a “lady,” although I didn’t particularly have an objection to being a girl.

Conversely, I longed to have ballet-slipper shoes, but I had flat feet and was forced to clump around in saddle oxfords or brown “Girl Scout” shoes.

Maybe I would have had fewer objections to girl clothes had I been able to buy the clothes many of my friends had—matching Bobbie Brooks sweater sets, straight and pleated wool skirts. The only days that I felt good about my clothes were the days the pep-club, called the “Peppers”—of which I was one—were required to wear their uniforms to school. We had white sweaters with a big purple B on the front, over a bulldog’s face, and purple pleated skirts. I fit in. I was just fine.

I was asked to join a high school girls’ sorority. Part of the initiation process was that two members had to come to your house and pick out an outfit from your closet that you were required to wear to school every day for a week. They usually picked outlandishly mismatched clothes, silly things. The two girls who came to my house looked through my closet while I stood aside, trembling with embarrassment. I had so few clothes and they were all so, well, not-quite-right. I could tell the girls were nonplussed. They did the worst thing possible: they felt sorry for me. They chose the nicest skirt and blouse they could find.

I always felt that part of the problem was me, that it was my fault I had no clothes. I was so headstrong:  with my baby-sitting money, I bought some beautiful plaid wool fabric. I had this idea I’d make myself a skirt and vest. I cut it out. I cut it out wrong. I had no practice and no guidance. Did I slow down and ask a friend’s mother for help? No. The awkward puzzle pieces I had cut would not go together properly.  I stuffed them in a drawer, feeling wretched and guilty, and tried to forget.

Seething underneath the clothes issue for me was the tacit sense of the role women were supposed to play. The clothes were indicative. By the time I was seven, I had to put on that halter top. But the boys didn’t. I had to wear dresses with ruffles, which made me feel decorated, ornamental, and as powerless as my mother.  I hated ruffles and still do. This is not, as I said, a matter of wanting to be a boy. It is a matter of wanting to move freely and feel essential, just myself, an L.L. Bean sort of person.

I look at the models in the ads in the New York Times. They seem to combine, these days, a look of both power and glamor. At least that’s what they apparently want to show: sleek tigresses, beautiful, furry, seething with power. But look into the eyes. It looks dead in there: the ads are pictures of women required to project tigresses. Women whose job is to sell clothes, who are desperate to hold their position in the world of high fashion, who will project anything you ask them to project.

Oh, really, I do like clothes. I always have loved the days when I’ve felt beautiful in my clothes. In the seventies, I had a pair of blue corduroy bell-bottoms and platform shoes that made me feel sharp and sexy.  I bought one mini-skirt, which I thought was kind of cute, but I was teaching school and found that if I raised my arm to write on the blackboard, I exposed more of me than my students needed to see.

In those few years I taught high school, I made some of my own clothes (yes, I did!): pants and tops, as well as many curtains and pillow covers. I made a few cute outfits for my daughter, one little bell bottom jumper with big lady-bugs all over it, with a matching purse. She was five or six and looked very Mod. I liked sewing. I was not too bad at it. It was all-absorbing, meditative, and I could imagine I was saving money. Then when clothes got cheaper than fabric, I gave it up. Also, I had more and more things to do that seemed more important to me than sewing.

I attribute my ambivalent attitude toward clothes to two things: my early lack of money and my tomboyishness. The purchase of clothes was always accompanied by a great deal of angst when I was young. There was so little money that when I had any to spend, I was terrified I’d make a wrong choice. I often did. And had to live with it. If I’d used my own money, I knew that every dollar I spent equaled two hours’ baby-sitting time. I would buy something, my stomach knotted up both from fear of making a mistake and fear of my father’s yelling about the money spent. I grew cagey about the latter. I could fudge on how much something cost. I could say I had to have it for school for some obscure reason. I could say I’d used all or half my own money. Or something.

And then the tomboy-thing. I wanted to look beautiful, I wanted to look like the girls in my class I admired. But what made me happiest was climbing around creekbanks in pants (no jeans yet, remember) and an old flannel shirt, looking for crawdads. Those clothes were the ones I loved best.

I think about the sociology of clothes. In the fifties and on into the early sixties, the styles, the requirements in clothing for girls and boys were as separate as our psychology was thought to be. Girls had to wear dresses to school unless the temperature was below a certain degree, I can’t remember what. But those days felt free as holidays, although we generally felt we must wear a skirt on top of the pants. When I was an undergraduate, girls were not allowed to wear pants on the University of Arkansas campus, except under a raincoat. And furthermore, they were not to wear them downtown. After all, they were “representing the University.” All winter, all of my young life, my legs were freezing cold. Because I was a girl.

Boundaries were clear. Unlike now, when cast-off 50s dresses are worn with cowboy boots, tight torn jeans with diamonds and a sleek silk camisole, a tuxedo with tennis shoes. And too, when future anthologists—if there are any—look back on this era’s poems, they’ll see hybrid poems that pull in all manner of objects and thoughts and commercials and movies and music. Poems in received forms and free-verse poems, poems that announce that they’re poems but look and read like prose. And prose poems.  Soft boundaries between genres.

And self-conscious display of the making, the mechanics of the poem.  The poet stepping in to say how it’s going, this writing of a poem.  Last weekend I attended a baby shower. The very-pregnant mother was wearing a long, form-fitting top and long skirt—very chic. It’s fashionable to let the belly show, the stark progression of belly-growth, to be proud of it. When I was pregnant, maternity clothes were shapeless bags we buttoned over our midsection to hide the protrusion. We were only a generation or so from the time when pregnant women were expected to stay inside as they started “showing,” as if any display of our sexual potency was shameful.

But even though now a woman can wear anything, really anything, she wishes and be acceptable on most occasions, somehow underneath, it feels to me as if that change hasn’t netted as much as we’d like to think. The truth is, I see in the faces of some of those women in pillbox hats and blue suits on reruns of ancient game shows more maturity and more command of themselves and their environment than I see in the faces of many young women today, who seem uncertain of who they are and what they want to be. Those women in pillbox hats were fitting themselves into a role, true, but they knew they had responsibility for that role, for enacting it well and truthfully—being a good wife, a good mother, a good housekeeper. These were not the women on Mad Men. The ones I’m thinking of were the real ones.

I don’t want to go back there, and couldn’t if I did. Same with poetry. This is an incredibly exciting time for clothes and poetry, it seems to me.  Exciting and necessarily unnerving. What we wear, what and how we write, is either demonstrating who we think we are, how we think the world is organized and what it all means, or it’s demonstrating who we’re supposed to be according to our culture’s norms. Who can tell which is which? These days I wear jeans almost all the time. I’m an attractive woman for my age, but not a glamorous one, although I passionately admire my gorgeously dressed friends. The glamour-gene bypassed me. I have a friend, a writer, who said her goal in life is to make enough money with her writing to be able to get up every morning, her only decision being which pair of jeans to put on. Amen to that.

 —Fleda Brown


Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She earned her Ph.D. in English (specialty in American Literature) from the University of Arkansas, and in 1978 she joined the faculty of the University of Delaware English Department, where she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than 12 years. Her books, essays, and individual poems have won many awards. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion (2007), was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin. She has co-edited two books, most recently On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers. Her collection of memoir-essays, Driving With Dvorak, was released in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press.

She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, and she spends summers with her husband, Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, at their cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. Between them, they have four children and ten grandchildren.

Mar 102013

tc3Artist photo by Jesse Matulis



Letterpress printing is a form of relief printing. A reversed, raised surface (text, traditionally set letter by painstaking letter, locked into a frame) is inked and rolled or pressed against paper to form a right-reading impression. As an art form it is like the mystery Mary Oliver captures in her poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field.”

 it was beautiful
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings –
five feet apart – and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow –

Enter Terry Conrad. What he loves about letterpress is its history and that it’s so “malleable.” His work in all arenas mirrors a commitment to transforming, reusing, envisioning new possibilities from and for the world around him. With a brilliant young mind, educated at Alfred University, the Cranbrook Academy of Art and numerous residencies here and abroad, Conrad is open like an expanse of field covered in new fallen snow. He seems to be constantly watching, like the owl, manipulating ideas, turning the press of his creative mind. His energy is contagious, the results of it, at once engaging and beautiful. We spoke recently in his home/studio, a historic firehouse in Round Lake, NY, that (in between teaching gigs at Skidmore College and Siena College) he is in the process of converting.

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski


TC – These small sculptures are titled Manipulatives and they’re made from wood and paper. The maple box works as a stage that brings them back to a standing pose where they are stored, then they come out of the box, the box flips, and this becomes a place they can almost “dance.” In an exhibit when they hold a pose for a long time, they retain that memory, so when they go back into the box there’s a bit of history. They’re little objects with a lifeline. That becomes the beauty of them – and the tragedy.


MKJ – The papers look like prints. Tell me about this.


TC – Yes, my wife is a preschool teacher, and I’m influenced by what she does in the classroom. I work a lot with scrap and recycled materials. I make ink from walnuts, for example. The papers here in the Manipulatives are printed woodblocks and silkscreens. The “feet” that hold them are molded or cast paper and other recycled materials, some plaster and wood.

I’ve also been making these Do-It-Yourself printing presses out of, well, basically “garbage” stacked up. I’ll show you images of this press and some prints I made with it that were in response to works by Jean Eschmann, a bookbinder from the 30’s, in the permanent collection at Cranbrook [Academy of Art]. My response to his elaborate, decorative covers were these time-based printing presses made from stacked, repurposed, found objects. I did a similar project in Detroit titled Borrowed Press, because it ended up being made from items borrowed from the gallery and surrounding companies. In this case, there is an image of the press and an edition of five prints.


MKJ – So the press becomes a piece of sculpture during the exhibit as you’re making the prints! How long do you leave the print beneath the constructed press?

TC – Well, it depends on the conditions of the space. It was warm when I was at Cranbrook, so they printed fairly quickly, as opposed to Detroit, where it was much cooler. In my studio it can take up to five days or more when it’s very cold here. A wonderful thing is that the prints are deeply embossed because they happen so slowly; there’s this kind of alchemy that happens.

MKJ – I can see that. Are you using litho inks? They look almost like leather, and there’s a sheen; it looks like you spray the surface in the end to stop the alchemy.

TC – Yes, well, there are many recycled items pieced together to make these prints, beginning with the “plate,” which can be any number of metal pieces, including cans, cut and pieced together. The edge of which is rolled with ink (litho or the walnut I mentioned), and this makes an outline, but other areas are the oxidized cans and metals printing. I’ve been experimenting with copper because the pipes that go inside the “chamber” of the press can be encouraged to oxidize more quickly (say, with vinegar) and give interesting results too.



MKJ – I never dreamed of a printing press that looked like this. And when you and I first spoke about letterpress, you also said you were drawn to it because of the history held in each individual letter. I had never really stopped to consider that before either.

TC – Yes, like the Manipulatives, they [the letters] fall into these different “dances” [words, texts]. I was always afraid of words, but to me now, what’s so exciting … it seems obvious… A letter can be part of ten, well more, publications! Taking apart and physically rearranging words, I love the fact that the letters have had other “lives.” Like my DIY presses; they have had and will go back to having different functions, but for now are acting as printing presses. Letterpress type is fascinating historically, even if artists are pretty much the only ones who use it now, it has had other lives.

MKJ – I tend to be a traditionalist, and I think that for the reasons we’re discussing, digital processes and polymer plates for letterpress printing just don’t excite me the same way that traditional letterpress does. Removing the lead [or wooden] type, for me, removes the physical, meditative process that I love about all printmaking. Is this true for you as well?

TC – I too am interested in the tangible qualities of letterpress, but I also have a lot of friends who are designers and I love to see what they come up with, so I have to say that although the processes are different, I find them equally fascinating.

MKJ – Well put. Another catch-22 is that the deep impressions made in the letterpress process that are so compelling and tactile are a contemporary phenomenon. These were never made with lead type because the type itself is fairly soft and would suffer under such pressure, damaging the integrity of the letters. The modern plates can withstand more force. I do love soft paper and dark shadows. They make my fingers ache!

TC – I’m a sucker for it too. It does make the work a tactile object; that’s for sure.

MKJ – It’s great to be speaking with someone who is so open-minded. As poet obsessed with revision, I wanted to believe they called it relief printing because once a poem was set in letterpress type and printed, there was no way I could edit it anymore, and what a “relief” that was, pun intended! No turning on the MAC and talking out a comma or changing a line break, then changing them both back the next day. (I guess I was in denial about the fact that it was also called “moveable type.”) Anyhow, I think it’s wonderful that we’re seeing the same thing differently.

TC – Yes, the stories I write also often talk about something that has multiple functions, whether by accident, or… we should read those next. There are five prints plus a title page in my letterpress series, which I made with hand set lead type. They’re all individual stories, but they are a little “family” in Landscape, Architecture, Waste and Food.


MKJ – [I think I know the answer to this but ask] Is there a specific sequence left to right in which these are to be presented when you show them in a gallery?

TC – [Smiling] I hope it changes every time. I love to be a viewer as much as possible. I don’t claim to know everything about the work and it’s really great when I can learn things about it.

MKJ – What font are they set in?

TC – Baskerville.

MKJ – Gorgeous. Their restraint makes them quite moving; the voice, authentic. And although the stories are set in specific places, they certainly have universal appeal.



—Images by Terry Conrad in interview with Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Terry Conrad is a lecturer in the Art Department at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, and a lecturer in Creative Arts at Siena College, Loudonville. Recent residencies include Penland in North Carolina; Frans Masereel Centrum in Kasterlee, Belgium; and the Vermont Studio Center. He has shown his work regionally and nationally at the International Print Center in New York, Art Chicago, and the Albany Airport. Conrad received a BFA from Alfred University and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Mar 092013

 Paul McQuade

Paul McQuade’s story begins in the epic mode — “It all began with magma. The Earth was young and molten…” — and spins a tale that is legendary and fantastic, pinned against a backdrop of alchemy and Death, a tale that knowingly situates itself somewhere between Genesis and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. He will write sentences like “The mammalian clades survived through some fluke of furred instinct” which mesmerizes with its use of that strange word “clades” and the alliteration. When he writes, McQuade follows the words, tone and sound. Lovely to read.

Paul McQuade is a young Scottish writer living in Japan, a newcomer to Numéro Cinq, a wonderful discovery.


It all began with magma. The Earth was young and molten, flowed bright, flowed regardless of the chaos it caused as it roared and tore, spilling thermal radiation. The atmosphere descended over it dragged down by new and invisible forces.

Moisture gathered in the air as cloudbursts of ink. The hot droplets writhed atomic, were changed into something posited with minerals and iron. They undulated low above the molten world, grew too heavy to support themselves.

Then they fell.

First one lone drop plummeted to the Earth’s red-gold, evaporated before it touched the surface. Death is a cold thing. It lingers. The air, for the first time, grew chill. The rest came tumbling down with a drum roll, turned the earth black with a drawn out snare hiss. By the time the clouds were empty the Earth was a chunk of cool obsidian. Life came, sprang in single cells and simple grasses, in gum-eyed amphibians and air-breathing arthropods, in horned things with lizard skins.

The air cracked as the sky admitted one last drop, ten thousand metres across, carrying with it the silver flare of iridium and all the gravity of an ending.

When the dust settled everything was encased in blue-white. Across the Earth the king-lizards shivered and fell, left only bones. The rest dissolved into particles of oil that gathered beneath the earth’s surface in lakes of black sludge. Of the reptile rulers of the young world only something like liquid remained. Sic semper tyrannis.


Walter lives on the eastern side of the lake, Eva lives on the western. Walter lives in the apartment above the fishmonger’s where he works and sleeps on the floor. Around the fishmonger are houses, and around them yet more. All the little houses are gathered on the eastern side of the lake, where at night oil lamps glow clean and bright while the dull orange of the sunset vanishes in the lake’s deep black.

Eva lives in the shadow of the mountain. Around her are fields of barley, pastures for sheep, and land that no one has claimed. Eva lives in a caravan painted apple-red. Her mother’s fingernails are the same colour.  As her mother lays out the arcana in a fan, the red seems liquid. Across from her mother, sitting on a stool upholstered in azure, a woman from the eastern side of the lake winches a handkerchief in her hands, asks, Well?

Your husband, Eva’s mother says, is betraying you. Here she spits for effect. If you want him back, she says, I can help you. The woman passes a handful of silver, which her mother puts in a velvet pouch in place of a vial of off-white liquid.

Eva’s mother can distil almost anything. In the cupboards of the cramped caravan where they sleep on a bed that folds out on wailing springs, there are bottles of Love and Hate, Luck, Protection and Beauty. Her mother does not sell Death, or at least, Eva has never known her to do so. But she has it in a black vial. Just in case.

Eva lives in the shadow of the mountain and the shadow of her mother, whose talents she does not possess. The western shore is where they have stayed longest, perhaps because they are protected from the town by the lake, whose water is as black as Death.

In the afternoons, when the morning rush has subsided, Walter carries leftover fish to sell in the camp on the other side of the lake. He takes a small yellow rowboat. The paint is reflected on the surface of the water, but the water of the lake is so dark that the wan afternoon light vanishes in it. The lake water is exceptionally peaty. The fish they catch in it taste like smoke.

Walter and Eva meet each other in the late afternoon. She is beating carpets in the yard where a couple of pigeons peck at bare earth. She thanks him for the fish and passes him some silver. The coins are hand-hot. They have passed from the hands of the town woman to her mother’s, where in each palm an x is written in lines deep as graves. This marks her mother as gifted. From her mother’s hands the silver passed to Eva’s, whose left palm bears a scar from where she cut it with a paring knife when she was eight. Ten years later the scar is a white hollow.

Walter and Eva meet every day. Eva’s mother says she is sick of fish but is so tired staying up late by candlelight reading cards that she accepts it grudgingly, replaces a damp towel over her eyes. Walter’s triceps become smooth pebbles. He can now cross the lake in under thirty minutes.

The two things Eva’s mother cannot distil are Money and Time.

One night Walter rows the dark water without fish in the boat. On the other side he picks Eva up and takes her halfway across the lake. In the dead centre the moonlight picks up only hints of waves. When Walter was little a man came to town with puppets made of black paper. It occurs to him, in the middle of the lake, with Eva’s flesh giving off the smell of soap and orange blossom, that the world looks very much like those puppets. But he soon forgets.

The buttons of Eva’s blouse come off in his hands like fish scales. Two drop in the water and are never seen again.


The mammalian clades survived through some fluke of furred instinct. And when a group of them rose from the earth to meet the sky, spines cracking as they went, they brought with them the Dead. The Dead lived with the new mammals, fluttered in the wind like trails of smoke, and clung to the gooseflesh of their former shapes. Death is a cold thing. The new world suited them quite nicely.

The mammals began to bury their dead. The Dead were overly sentimental and stayed with their bones. Under the new layers of soil, the bodies melted, were absorbed into the earth’s lithosphere. The most abundant mineral in soil is calcium.

The bones of the dead were scattered across varied strata. The Dead had nothing left to hold on to. Lost in the dirt, the Dead wandered feebly, tried to reassemble their skeletons in soil far too warm for them. The Earth’s heart stayed red-hot despite the efforts of glaciers, which far above the Dead, rearranged its face.

The glaciers were just as reckless as the Earth had been in its youth. They travelled pell-mell, across the continents and the islands that sprang from the ocean depths. As they did so, the glaciers diminished, became less and less themselves as they travelled, leaving trails of ice water in their wake like comet tails. The water fell into valleys and deep caverns but mostly into the oceans. As the water table rose, a flood of cold water came up through the earth and reached the Dead. The Dead plunged in. They liked the water. Death is a cold thing.

The groundwater coursed unseen through the continents, who were at that time adolescent and finding new and awkward ways to fit into each other. The Dead split and flowed, following rivulets and outpourings to wetlands, reservoirs, and lakes.

When the glaciers were gone, only a part of them remained. The smallest part. Something like a soul. Clear as ice water, small as a sliver of bone. Only something like liquid remained.


Alanys is born in the middle of the lake.

Eva and Walter go back and forth and back and forth on errands neither really has to do but Walter’s parents are dead and Eva’s mother needs to sleep. The fishmonger Walter lives with is too busy keeping his knives clean to notice. Eva’s father lives in another town and doesn’t even know she exists. Back and forth and back and forth. Eva loses buttons. Walter loses socks. Over the side they go.

Then one day, Alanys comes. Eva hadn’t even noticed. Alanys had been an invisible guest, silently drinking nutrients of smoke-fish and distillations of Youth and Beauty through the pink umbilicus that tied her to her mother.

As they row back to the western shore in silent shock, the waves dance eagerly.


On the eastern side of the lake they bury the dead. In the caravan camp on the western shore they burn them. The people on the western side do not believe the soul should be tethered. The people on the eastern want to cling on to the bones of love, say this was the shape of it, the thing of it, this is what I had and lost. And the whole time their grief fills them like a cold satisfaction. Death is a cold thing.

In a field of grass on the eastern side, six feet deep, arms and legs and torsos melt into the soil. They are converted and transmuted, take on different chemical properties.

Dying is the essence of pure alchemy.


Eva’s mother tries to kill the baby for the first time when it is less than an hour old.

Mama, Eva says as she passes the baby to her mother, I think I’m going to call her Alanys.

Her mother spits and says, Don’t name it. Then she lowers the baby down on to the bed with the wailing springs and places a pillow over it with a talon-grip. Beneath the fabric, the baby tries to cry. The sound comes from far away.

Walter strikes Eva’s mother across the head with his forearm. She falls into the wall of the red caravan, then rights herself and says, It has to die. It has to die.

If a child is born on water it must be drowned.

We will put the body in the lake.

Eva calls her mother a mad witch.

Eva’s mother says, The baby has no roots. The Dead —

Walter wraps his arm around Eva. They walk out the house together, baby Alanys in her mother’s arms.

Eva’s mother spits blood on to the floor. Then she goes and gets a box from a slit in the bed with the wailing springs. She sits and rolls a black vial in her hands and forgets to light candles. The red lacquer on her fingers looks blood-black in the twilight. As she looks out across the lake, she hears the Dead howl and whoop as they dance above the waves.


By the time she is four hours old, Alanys has orbited the entirety of her life: from the dead centre of her birth to the apple-red caravan, from the apple-red caravan to the fishmonger, eclipsing briefly the point of her departure from the amnion. The crossing of the lake takes much longer going back. The water sticks to the oars like oil. Around the young father, mother and child, a chill wind rises, causing little Alanys to scream. Eva tries to console the baby while Walter forces the oars to churn the black water.

Eva’s mother is still fondling a bottle of black liquid in the caravan when they step foot on the western shore. Eva holds the baby close to her breast, to keep her safe from the wind as they make their way to the fishmonger. Upon seeing Eva’s hooped earrings and long brown skirt, her dark features and the baby in her arms, the fishmonger shakes his head sadly and says, Boy, you don’t know what you did. And then he chops the head off a fish that tastes like smoke, guts it, fillets it, wraps the white flesh in brown paper and hands it to the couple.

He lets them use a cabin he owns on the north side of the lake, on the foot of the mountain, where he likes to go in summer to get away from the town.

He says, You can stow the baby there and no one will be none the wiser. But you know, boy, you can’t bring that woman into town.

He spits on the floor for emphasis. The saliva curls across burnt orange tiles and mingles with fish blood.


When Alanys is eight years old she meets a man with no face. It takes all his strength just to be there, to try to touch her, no matter how many times his hand slips right through her. Alanys thinks he is trying to speak but she cannot explain why she feels this way.

Eva tells her not to be silly. That she sounds like her grandmother.

Who? Alanys asks.


Eva’s mother packs up the apple-red caravan, says goodbye to her friends, and sets off to the West. She begins by asking around the town where the oil lamps keep the night at bay, but no one has seen her daughter or the child. She inquires at a fishmonger who never stops cutting the heads off fish the entire time they speak. He has not seen anything. There is something about the man she doesn’t trust, but there is too much fish blood on the floor, and she leaves as fast as she can.

She travels her whole life backwards trying to find a place where Eva might have gone. Every night she lays out cards with shiny red nails and each time they tell her the same thing. The cards speak in rebus and what they show is this: a man hanging by his toes from a tree, a tower, the moon, and a page bearing a silver cup.

Eventually she admits defeat, gives up, stops asking.

She packs up the apple-red caravan and sets off back to where she lost her daughter. She intends to settle by the black lake and mourn. In the pocket of her dress, nestled against the curve of her hipbone, is a vial of liquid black as Death.


When Alanys is fourteen she meets a boy by the lake. He has no face but he is nice, gives her a white flower. They walk together, round the lake, where the black water trembles in the wind.

Alanys talks to the boy. He does not talk back, just shifts his head up and down as if listening very hard. When she asks him questions he seems sad. He lowers his faceless head. Alanys puts her hand on his arm.


Due to a quirk in mammalian biology, the species did not stop dividing. Like the particles of mineral-laden moisture, like the glacier giants, they began to gather and disperse, gather and disperse, gather and disperse. As if all life is just a process of condensation and evaporation.


The Living are soft as beds. Christopher enters the girl. Once inside, he stretches his arms and legs out to fill every corner of her, until he can feel the cold mountain wind on each fingertip, the dull ache of all ten of her numbing toes. He breathes. Christopher has not breathed for a very long time.

It is good to have a body. The flesh of it, the weight, the sheer sense of being. Tiny things innumerable and imperceptible to the Living.

Christopher stands up and walks back to the house. When he goes through the door his new mother holds him tight and says, Baby, you are so cold, sit by the fire.

To the Dead, fire is nothing but blindness. To living flesh it is vital. Christopher puts his new fingers so close to the flames that they blister.


The Dead do not have flesh or language. They consider this cruel. The only thing the Dead want is to feel and to speak. Above all they want to speak. To be heard. As something more than chair scrapes, something more than house creaks. Something more than nothing.


When Eva’s mother arrives, she finds the camp in which she used to live is gone and something wrong in the air. The x’s in her palms ache.

She finds the house on the north shore of the lake, underneath the shadow of the mountain, and inside she finds her daughter and one of the Dead. She makes amends, cries, and that night sits down to dinner with her daughter and her family. Walter does not say a word. Every time Eva looks at Alanys, her eyes tighten at the corners and then she looks at her mother, almost pleading.


The Dead do not fear death. They are trusting. Only flesh withers. Before climbing into bed that night, Christopher drinks the whole vial just like his new grandmother told him to. It tastes like purple flowers.

Eva’s mother takes the body to the water and weights it down with stones.


The eyes are closed, as if sleeping the deep sleep of a newborn world. The lashes come undone, one by one, float up and up, twist through the black water. When they are gone the eyelids open but there is nothing inside. The flesh unribbons from the bones, then dissolves into black particles that forget being flesh. The bare bones fall next to two buttons and a sock in the soil.

Only something like liquid remains. Only the smallest part. Clear as ice water. Small as a sliver of bone.

—Paul McQuade


Paul McQuade was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated in Tokyo, Japan. He now lives somewhere in between. Working creatively and academically in both Japanese and English, his writing has been featured online and in print, most recently in Metazen, Little Fiction, and Cadaverine.

Mar 082013

Anna Maria and the box turtleAnna Maria Johnson

Virginia Woolf, in her diaries, once said that she didn’t know how anyone could read without a pencil in his hands; Anna Maria Johnson doesn’t just use a pencil, she uses lines, paint, a self-created concordance and icons to mark the patterns when she is reading. Johnson is an artist-writer-reader who has an uncanny instinct for making visual and synchronic what in a text seems abstract and sequential. After she is done with a paragraph, a page, a sequence of pages, you suddenly SEE the text come alive as a trembling matrix of vectors, internal references, and visual rhythms; reading, Anna Maria Johnson, renders text into a startling work of visual art. This is a wonderful ability and not just a parlor trick; reading for pattern is a key element in understanding authorial intention. Repetition is the heart of art. Too many readers skim a work once and never get to appreciate the tactile, erotic quality of  great prose, the physical impulses of tension, insistence and resolution that form its inner structure. Anna Maria Johnson’s “reading” of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a delightful and astonishing work of hybrid art in itself, but it’s also a terrific lesson in HOW TO READ.



pilgrim epigraph page

Anna Maria Johnson’s altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I. Introduction

EVERY STORY HAS its own circulatory system, with arteries and blood vessels networked and pumping life and nutrients from its heart to every other part. Each book is a watershed, a system of rivers, creeks and underground currents that flow unceasingly, pulled by some kind of unseen gravitational force. A book is a woven web, with silken strands connecting segment to segment.

It’s easy to wonder, while reading an admired author’s flowing narrative, just how she managed to do it. A prize-winning book seems to have been a miracle, a creative rush of genius that burst forth while the writer simply sat and transcribed the words onto the page. But generally, good writing comes down to slow craftsmanship and long periods revising. I find that syntactical patterns and repeated imagery play a dominant role in creating unity and structure, as seen in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that hangs together through such patterns.

But how, exactly? To find out, I re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I focused on sentence structure and image patterns, for it is syntax (specifically, repetition, parallel structures, and lyricism), in combination with image patterns (concrete images that recur throughout a given work), which gives unity and movement, or “flow,” to this book. According to Mary Stein, “a sophisticated use of syntax in prose can function well beyond lyric or ornamentation.” Syntax can be used as metaphor, she adds, in order to “motivate narrative movement and provide story structure.” [1] I would add that “syntax as metaphor” sometimes takes the form of image patterns.

Douglas Glover, in his essay “How to Write a Short Story Structure: Notes on Structure and an Exercise,” published in Attack of the Copula Spiders, defines an image pattern as “a pattern of words and/or meanings created by the repetition of an image.” (33) Each repetition is not simply a duplication of the first, however, for the most interesting patterns require variation. Think of the famous bars from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: if they were played fifteen times in succession without variation, how grating they would be! But Beethoven artfully incorporated variety into the score so that whenever it returns to the familiar phrase, the audience can appreciate it. Similarly, in visual art, the most successful images employ repetition with thoughtful variation to create unity. Even Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreened Campbell’s Soup Cans are slightly different from one another: each can bears a different label, “black bean,” “tomato rice,” “vegetable,” “green pea,” and so forth. The “cheese” soup even bears a visually different label, with a yellow banner spanning its front.

Glover’s essay names some specific options for varying a repeated image. First, in successive appearances, the author may add a piece of significant history—that is, repeat the image but include new information or detail that the reader wasn’t aware of in a previous iteration. Second, the author may use “association and/or juxtaposition,” pairing the image with another, previously unrelated, image so as to enlarge or alter its meaning. Third, the author may use what Glover calls “ramifying or ‘splintering’ and ‘tying-in,’” where one or more parts of the image are extracted and repeated, then put together again in a later iteration (33).

Image patterning gives a story “an echo chamber effect (or internal memory—important for giving the reader a sense that there is a coherent world of the book,” “rhythm,” and “a root or web effect that promotes organic unity (the threads connecting the pattern in the text are like the roots of a tree holding the soil together)” (33). While Glover is speaking of fiction, the principles of image patterning are equally applicable to non-fiction writing. Essayists and memoirists alike can select images from real life, interpreting such images to add new layers of meaning and symbolism with each recurrence.

I would add that syntactical patterns—even those that are not primarily visual—are capable of providing the above functions in a given work, just as image patterns do, when they are repeated with variations.

Dillard’s book nearly bursts to overflowing with both of these types of patterns. Repetition of syntactical and image patterns lends unity to a work, while variations on those patterns provide movement, or circulation. Still, the process through which image patterns and syntax “work” in the hearts and minds of readers, when they are working well, feels rather mysterious. One writer friend remarked to me that, despite years of studying literature and the writing craft, when she reads books by Marilyn Robinson, they still seemed “like magic.” Similarly, when I first read Annie Dillard’s remarkable Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was tempted to ascribe its flow, its circulatory system, to sorcery. But upon subsequent, closer, readings, I began to see patterns emerging, and an inherent, carefully ordered structure—evidence of craftsmanship, not dark arts. The first pattern jumped out to me, suddenly, much the same way that a stereogram image suddenly pops out, unmistakably visible, so that the viewer wonders, “How did I not see that before?” It was the repeated phrase, “the tree with the lights in it,” a specific pattern of text that recurs fourteen times throughout the book, and which, in section III, I will discuss in depth.

Shortly after that first pattern appeared to me, other images began to shimmer from the text: a mockingbird’s graceful free fall, a giant water bug that sucked a frog out of its skin, sharks in a feeding frenzy limned in light, the goldfish named Ellery Channing. [2] I ordered a sturdy hardcover copy of the book for the express purpose of tracking down every image pattern that I could find, cross-referencing them in the margins, coding them with watercolors, and indexing my finds in a chart like a concordance (Appendix A). I’ve included scanned images of some relevant pages so that you can follow this process. I should stress that it was only in the course of many successive readings that many of these patterns became apparent to me; mostly, that which you see sketched out in watercolor and marginalia would remain in the unconscious levels of a reader’s mind for the first reading. The purpose of these added visual elements was to make visible some of the subtle connections that a reader’s mind would perceive as a marvelous, almost supernatural, sense of flow.

pilgrim page 98

Using my concordance of recurring images (for example, planet/earth, sail, giant water bug that sucked a frog, goldfish, tree with the lights in it, snakeskin, et cetera), I next found a photograph to represent each one, and obtained permission from the photographers to use them for my purposes. In some cases, as with the goldfish and sea-anchor, I drew my own and scanned it. I reproduced numerous copies of each photograph or drawing onto sticker paper so that I could place a relevant hand-made sticker as a tag onto each page where a given image appears. Some pages, as in the example above, have multiple stickers, showing that these are pages where Dillard has tied several different images together. On page 128, Dillard links in one sentence several key images: the planet, the giant water bug that sucked a frog, Tinker Creek, the flight of three hundred redwing blackbirds, the goldfish bowl, and the snakeskin. In pencil I’ve drawn connections between repeated phrases, such as solar system, and related phrases such as giant water bug on page 128 and giant water bug’s predations on page 129, or goldfish bowl, the fringe of a goldfish’s fin, and fish’s fin on 129. In margins, I’ve noted the page numbers for other instances when these same visual images or textual patterns occur, such as the Kabbalistic tradition which turns up on pages 30, 198, 261, and the phrase spotted and speckled, which alludes elsewhere in the text to the biblical Jacob’s “speckled and spotted” flock (pages 145 and 239). The word speckled occurs on pages 145, 179, 239, 242, 266, and 271 and, when its various contexts are considered together, serves to link the notion of Jacob’s speckled and spotted flock to the natural world’s intricate details as well as its imperfections. (For a complete list of all the references to these and other repeated images, see Appendix A.)

With the aid of these and other visual annotations, Dillard’s patterns became more apparent—not only the interplay of recurring images, but also some of the syntactical patterns that characterize her idiosyncratic style: parallelism, repetition of key words and phrases, frequent use of colons and question marks, and lyricism through poetic devices. Most delightfully, there is playfulness—Dillard accents her deadpan humor with the use of homophones and other types of word play: puns, allusions to nursery rhymes and jokes (“Like the bear who went over the mountain, I went out to see what I could see,” on page 11), as well as the re-appropriation of popular expressions and aphorisms (“If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you’ve looked at enough trees, you’ve seen a forest, you’ve got it,” page 129).

II.  Syntactical Patterns

Virginia Tufte opens her book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style with an epigraph by Anthony Burgess—“And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning,”—and adds the following commentary, “Anthony Burgess is right: it is the words that shine and sparkle and glitter, sometimes radiant with an author’s inspired choice. But it is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms and emphasis, to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place.”  Syntax is what gives sentences that remarkable sense of flowing movement, allowing meaning to glitter. Carefully constructed syntax at the sentence and paragraph level creates larger movement that helps to propel lyrical writing, in the way that the motion of water flowing down small mountain streams create a river’s strong current out toward sea.  In Dillard’s writing, we read not so much because we want to know what is happening (which is, in truth, little more than Dillard sitting watching animals, thinking about religious mystical traditions, and pondering physics and evolution), but rather because of the way in which Dillard expresses her thoughts and feelings: the power of words as they relate in sequence, the rhythms and emphases that syntax creates, and the multiple, shimmering meanings that those words and images carry. In short, syntax and imagery advance the narrative, providing both unity, through repetition and parallelisms, and movement, through variations and rhythm.

Syntactical tactics:  parallel structures, repetition, lyricism

Dillard grounds many of her metaphors in parallel sentence structures. For instance, on the first page, after describing an old tomcat who used to wake her by treading with bloody paws on her bare skin, making her look as though she’d been “painted with roses,” she poses the question, “What blood was this, and what roses?”

tomcat symbol

A compound sentence: the first half inquiring about blood, the second about roses. She follows this short interrogative sentence by another, more involved sentence, which twice pairs “roses” and “blood,” suggesting a variety of possible metaphors (some negative, some positive) for each: “It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth” (Dillard 1). She continues: “The signs on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain”(2). The paired clauses accentuate the multiple possibilities for paired meanings, for opposing meanings. What’s more, the paired clauses carry the same meter and also rhyme with one another (“stain” / “Cain”), attracting the reader’s special attention to this sentence. These parallel constructions set up the reader for what is ahead: room for opposing interpretations of what we find in the natural world.[3] These musings on “union” and “murder,” “beauty,” and “sacrifice or birth” will be followed up with stories of union, murder, beauty, sacrifice, and birth, featuring creatures such as female praying mantises, which eat their mates while they mate, and ichneumon wasps, which are lucky if they lay their eggs before the young begin to hatch and eat their mothers from inside. Dillard’s richly paired, carefully crafted sentences have the power to hold within themselves, on a micro-scale, the same extremities of beauty and horror found in the book as a whole, creating a fractal pattern. Just as these sentences weigh beauty against the violence and suffering inherent to the natural world, so do the paragraphs and chapters that hold them. This is an appropriate structure for a book about nature, as nature tends to be structured in fractals: the veins of leaves, networks of waterways, branches of trees, circulatory systems of human beings. Another example of Dillard’s parallel sentence structures occurs in the passage that introduces Tinker Creek and Tinker Mountain.

The creeks—Tinker and Cavern’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute.  Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation, and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.  The mountains—Tinker and Brushy, McAfee’s Knob and Dead Man—are a passive mystery, the oldest of all.  Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. (2-3, emphases mine to show parallelism)

pilgrim page 2pilgrim page 3

By presenting these metaphors—the creeks and what they represent, and the mountains with what they represent—as paired sentences running parallel to one another, Dillard heightens the contrast between the metaphors. The first two sentences lay out the creeks, their specific names, and what they represent metaphorically: “active mystery,” “all that providence implies.” The second pair of sentences lays out the mountains, their names, and the metaphor that Dillard intends for the mountains to represent: “passive mystery,” “one simple mystery of creation.” She arranges the paragraph with a set of two paired sentences, each with corresponding clauses and even the dashed parenthetical phrases placed in parallel (Article, noun, em dash, paired specific names, em dash, being verb, article, adjective, noun, etc.). I’ve coded the creek-related sentences in blue and the mountains in purple. It’s as if she’s placed signposts reading, “Creek metaphor this way!  Mountain metaphor that way!”  The reader pauses, reflects, notices the subtle distinctions between the parallel structures, the creeks versus the mountains—ah, one is active mystery, the other passive—in keeping with human perception that rivers visibly move, while mountains appear immutable. The former represents “all,” the latter, “one.” Soon Dillard ends the paragraph with two short sentences that confirm the contrast between the metaphors: “The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home” (Dillard Pilgrim 3). These final sentences, too, are parallel, although they are punctuated differently, and have different lengths, forcing the reader to slow the pace of reading in order to think about the differences between “living there” and “home.”[4] [5]

Repetition, like parallelism, can be a powerful syntactical tool. As Virginia Tufte writes, “Repetition and variation constitute that dual essence of prose rhythm, as they do of form in music or in painting. Many types of parallel arrangement, of balance and calculated imbalance in phrase and clause, of repetition and ellipses, pairings, catalogings, contrasts and other groupings, assembled together into distinct prose textures, can contribute to the unique rhythm of almost any kind of prose” (Tufte 234). Repetition captures attention, piques curiosity, builds emphasis, and when interlaid between disparate parts, repetition serves as a connector.

Dillard often repeats a significant phrase or sentence, sometimes with small variations. For example, she ends chapter 4 with, “catch it if you can,” then repeats the phrase as the opening to chapter 5.

pilgrim page 76pilgrim page 77

Chapter 5, primarily a meditation about time being a continuous loop, focuses on a knotted snakeskin that Dillard found in the woods, but is also a reflection on seeking divine power or spirit, which Dillard compares to the mythical hoop snake that rolls along with its tail in its mouth: “the spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth.” For good measure, she also throws in an allusion to the biblical Ezekiel’s account of seeing the wheels: “‘As for the wheels, it was cried unto them in my hearing, O wheel.’” Dillard concludes with a long sentence that personifies the spirit, “This is the hoop of flame that shoots the rapids in the creek or spins across the dizzy meadows; this is the arsonist in the sunny woods: catch it if you can” (76). She seems to be conflating time with spirit, so that catch it if you can might refer to both. Right across the page spread, chapter 6 opens with the short sentence, “Catch it if you can” (77). The repetition of catch it if you can gives continuity between the two chapters, while at the same time, because it is such an active, daring, quick sentence in its second appearance, propels the narrative forward. A few pages into the new chapter, catch it if you can is repeated to begin another section—but now in this case the sentence is loaded with a somewhat different meaning, as here Dillard discusses not time as a continuous loop, nor spirit, but what it means to dwell fully in the present moment; awareness, rather than time or spirit, is the thing to be caught. “Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and feeling, and gone” (79).

Thus far, there have been three replications of catch it if you can, and three associated meanings. Next, over a hundred pages later, in quite another context, Dillard repeats the text pattern, changing one word: it for them, so as to create a variation on the motif.

pilgrim page 186

But now she is speaking of fishing; the pronoun them refers to fish. “You can lure them, net them, troll for them, club them, clutch them, chase them up an inlet, stun them with plant juice, catch them in a wooden wheel that runs all night—and you still might starve. They are there, they certainly are there, free, food, and wholly fleeting. You can see them if you want to; catch them if you can” (186). Notice that she has slyly inserted a reference to “a wooden wheel that runs all night,” which suggests the shape of that continuous loop of time, the hoop snake spirit, and Ezekiel’s wheel from the previous context.[6] But in this context, the pattern carries a new meaning: fish, which here also connote Christ, as Dillard explains that the fish was an early symbol for Christ. (The origin of the fish as Christian symbol might have come because of Jesus’ practice of calling fishermen to follow him, teaching them to “fish for men.”) Dillard has loaded the pattern: “The more I glimpse the fish in Tinker Creek, the more satisfying the coincidence becomes, the richer the symbol, not only for Christ but for the spirit as well” (186). So now, catch them if you can refers to fish, which in turn refers to Christ and spirit. It’s a serious sort of pun.

What a nice trick this is, for by this Dillard has not only added new layers of meaning, but also returned to an earlier one, that of spirit. The symbolism has come full circle—like a continuous loop or hoop or wheel. Fitting!

Later, Dillard again varies the pattern when she writes overtly of stalking the spirit: “You have to stalk the spirit, too . . . and hope to catch him by the tail” (205). About thirty pages pass before yet another variation, “Nature seems to catch you by the tail” (236). Such repetitions, “catch it if you can,” and variations, “catch [him/you] by the tail,” function like a musical theme and variation, providing both unity and variety as the book moves forward. The paragraph that begins with “Nature seems to catch you by the tail” concludes with a list of the tailless animals that got away, adding further rhythmic variation to this text pattern.

pilgrim page 236

One additional thought to note: perhaps the phrase “catch . . . by the tail” alludes to the children’s rhyme “catch a tiger by the tail.” The earlier version of the pattern catch it if you can seems to allude to children’s games (“catch” with a ball), or possible the fairy tale story of the gingerbread man who cries “catch me if you can.”

Another example of phrase repetition is it is chomp or fast. This phrase appears twice in a row on page 237, with only a section break in between its two occurrences:

pilgrim page 237

Before the whole phrase, “it is chomp or fast,” appears at all, however, it is foreshadowed, as the word chomp shows up three times scattered throughout page 227: 1) “I looked beyond the snake to the ragged chomp in the hillside where years before men had quarried stone,” 2) “Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass?” and 3) “the world is more chomped than I’d dreamed.”

pilgrim page 227

A few pages later, chomp appears again, this time as a single-word sentence, in reference to parasitism: “the dank baptismal lagoon into which we are dipped by blind chance many times over against our wishes, until one way or another we die. Chomp” (234).

One more brief example: The sentence, “What we know, at least for starters, is: here we—so incontrovertibly—are” (127-8) leads into a brief meditation on the brevity of life, and the importance of working, during the brief time we are alive, at making sense of what we see, in order to discover “where we so incontrovertibly are” (128). By adding a mere w and omitting the em-dashes, Dillard varies the phrase as she almost repeats it, so that it might stick in the reader’s mind for later. Later comes more than one hundred twenty pages further, in the chapter about parasites, when she re-states, “Here we so incontrovertibly are” (240), again without the em-dashes. Such recurrences provide connections between separate passages of the book, stitching them together, providing a syntactical clue that the content of these sections relate closely to one another.

Occasionally Dillard interjects sentences that are so lyrical (in terms of meter, assonance, and rhyme) that they are more like what readers typically expect from poetry than prose. In fact it is tempting to believe that some of these lines, which appear on separate pages at great distance from one another, might once have been couplets that were divided up, like twins separated at birth. For example, the lines, “I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was fleshflake, feather, bone” (32), and “I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone” (201).

pilgrim page 32

pilgrim page 201

Most notably, these sentences rhyme (“bone” / “stone”). More subtly, these two sentences share a parallel structure, “I was . . . ; I was . . .”, “I am . . . ; I am . . .” and have a similar meter when read aloud. In both statements, the narrator has broken out of an objective stance to identify herself with inanimate objects in elaborate but earthy metaphors. Thus, although these lines are found 162 pages apart from one another, an astute (you might say, obsessive) reader may recall the first upon reading the second. In my case, I initially thought that the line on page 201 was a direct repetition of a sentence I’d read earlier (my mind remembered the rhythm); it sounded strangely familiar, so I flipped back through the early pages until I found its correlative. Even readers who do not consciously observe these relationships—probably most first or second-time readers—will sense that the book flows, that there is an ineffable something that unifies the book’s early pages with its later ones.

Word Repetition

Narrowing the scope from the sentence level to that of words, it’s possible to find a good deal of repetition of particular words, which are freighted with additional meanings and associations each time they appear.

The penultimate paragraph of chapter 1 sets up three images that will run throughout the book, lending unity and movement as the repetitions pile up. Describing the “lightning marks,” or deep grooves that “certain Indians used to carve” into their arrows, Dillard writes:

Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees. The function of the lightning marks is this: if the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broadleaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads. I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.(12)

pilgrim page 12

Thus, Dillard writes in metaphor a manifesto of the purpose of this book. This book is the “straying trail of blood,” and the narrator is the arrow carved by “unexpected lights and gashes.” Throughout the text, it is possible to visually see a “trail of blood,” as the word blood appears every few pages throughout the text (see blood in Appendix A). When I circled the word blood each time it appeared throughout the book, painting each one red, the repeated word blood trailing from page to page resembled the sort of track that a wounded animal might make in its attempted escape.

pilgrim page with blood

Similarly, every image pattern, every syntactical pattern, becomes another pathway for the reader to track the quarry, “the game,” as Dillard calls it above (page 12), or “the spirit,” as she calls it on page 76 in connection with the catch it if you can pattern.

Arrows create another such pattern. Soon after this initial reference to arrows at the end of chapter 1, the next chapter begins with a story of the child Annie Dillard, at age six or seven, amusing herself by hiding pennies and drawing chalk arrows on sidewalks pointing the way to the hidden coins. Like the arrow that inflicts the wound on the hunted game animal, these arrows also begin a trail to guide a lucky passerby to hidden treasure. “After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe” (14). Dillard, now an adult, a writer, is still at the same game, since each image pattern laid into the narrative functions like a series of arrows, carefully drawn to point the reader toward hidden treasure. Whether we think of them as a trail of blood or as a succession of direction markers pointing toward copper pieces, Dillard’s image patterns give the reader a visible track to follow. The reader, finding another repeated image, recognizes it as familiar and therefore unifying, while the variations on each image invite movement, propelling the reader forward to consider: this time, the arrow is a chalked direction on sidewalk, while the last arrow was an Indian’s hunting weapon. The reader’s curiosity is piqued: What sort of arrow will I find next?  What will it point me toward? What will I find at the end of the trail?  (see “Arrow/arrowhead” in Appendix A to follow the trail) In reading Dillard, the journey itself is as much of a payoff as any conclusions to which she might lead us. The process of reading is much like hiking through woods: we follow the blazes marked on trees, enjoying the hike not simply for the view we get at the end, but also for what we see along the way.

The passage from page 12 pictured above yields yet another pattern to follow: light. “Lightning” and “unexpected lights and gashes” are both clues to this trail. I painted yellow all occurrences of the words light, sun, gold, and solar, so that throughout my version, splotches of yellow illuminate another way.

pilgrim page 12 light crop

pilgrim page 62 light crop

pilgrim page 242 light crop

So far, the patterns have been composed of words-as-nouns, but verbs can trace patterns too. For example, the verb to cast occurs throughout the text in several different usages, and often appears in conjunction with other image patterns such as Eskimos, the people of Israel, entomologists, and others. Because the word cast appears in conjunction with several different significant patterns, it links these disparate images, unifying several different threads in the text. The word cast appears first on page 43, as the narrator considers spending a winter evening “casting for arctic char,” which, for her, means staying home and reading about Eskimos and their lives. Next, casting appears several times on a two-page spread, associated with Pliny’s account of the invention of sculpture and other contexts:

A Sicyonian potter came to Corinth. There his daughter fell in love with a young man . . . When he sat with her at home, she used to trace the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall . . .

Muslims, whose religion bans representational art as idolatrous, don’t observe the rule strictly; but they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow. So shadows define the real. If I no longer see shadows and “dark marks,” as do the newly sighted, then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light. The give the light distance; they put it in its place. They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade of the nothingness between me and the light.

Now that the shadow has dissolved the heavens’ blue dome, I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare. ‘Nostalgia of the Infinite,’ di Chirico: cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons. There is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force.

pilgrim page 62

pilgrim page 63

Note, in these three paragraphs, the piling of associations with the word cast (I’ve circled cast in black ink): “. . . the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall,” “they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow,” “cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard,” “there is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force.”

Not only does Dillard use the word cast in several different senses, but she also describes the action of casting, as in sculpture,without specifically naming it as such, when she retells Pliny’s story of a Sicyonian potter in Corinth who physically cast an image of his daughter’s lover using clay and plaster: “she used to trace the outline of his shadow that a candle’s light cast on the wall” (62). Within two paragraphs, cast is used in a variety of different contexts to refer to shadows cast (by candlelight or sun, in reality and in paintings) but also to refer to a person being sent away, “cast out,” as Ishmael was cast out from his father Abraham’s home. Before mentioning Ishmael, Dillard sets us up for it: “Muslims, whose religion bans representational art as idolatrous, don’t observe the rule strictly; but they do forbid sculpture, because it casts a shadow” (Dillard 62). Shortly afterward she inserts a reference to a famous painting, “‘Nostalgia of the Infinite,’ di Chirico: cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons.” Then it comes, the sentence that joins the notion of cast shadows with the other meaning of cast: “There is a sense in which shadows are actually cast, hurled with a power, cast as Ishmael was cast, out, with a flinging force” (63).

At first, the reference to the biblical Ishmael seems unrelated to the rest of the passage, until the reader remembers that Ishmael (who was cast out) is the ancestor of Muslims, about whom Dillard was just speaking. What’s more, there’s also a reference to the nation of Israel in that paragraph: “They inform my eyes of my location here, here, O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade . . .” (62). This reference to Israel is interesting because it is word play in itself, a homophonic allusion to scripture, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel,” from the book of Leviticus, whose text orthodox Jews post in the shadowy doorways of their homes, and also an allusion to the biblical nation of Israel. Ever since Ishmael was cast out, his descendants and those of his step-brother Isaac (today’s Muslims and Jews) have had a good bit of fraternal conflict, and Dillard seems to connect this conflict to the shadowy side of nature, as she next knits in references to disturbing events in the natural world: mating mantises, the giant water bug that sips frogs from their skins, the mantis that preys on a wasp even while the wasp preys on a bee, prompting even the devoted, insect-studying naturalist J. Henri Fabre to write in 1916, “Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors” (64). With that last quotation, Dillard has drawn yet another link to the verb cast, and to be certain the reader hasn’t missed the connection, she continues, “The remarkable thing about the world of insects, however, is precisely that there is no veil cast over these horrors” (64).

The phrase “cast a veil” ties this pattern of cast to yet another pattern that has been running through the text, that of nature being like a veiled dancer, “a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal: now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do” (Dillard 16). Later, on page 202, the image of veils being removed (not cast, but “removed” and “whisked”) recurs, and is connected to gaining knowledge of the physical world and its workings: “We remove the veils one by one, painstakingly, adding knowledge to knowledge and whisking away veil after veil, until at last we reveal the nub of things, the sparkling equation from whom all blessings flow” (202).

Later, the verb cast appears several times more in a wide variety of contexts: Jesus urging his disciples to “cast the net on the right side of the ship” (186), Dillard walking in the woods where “tulips had cast their leaves on my path, flat and bright as doubloons” (245), and a leaf being “cast upon the air” (253). Finally, cast becomes adjectival for “a cast-iron bell” (261), and the “cast-iron mountains” which “ring” (271). Notice how the word ring, in combination with the descriptor “cast-iron,” further helps the mountain image to resonate with that of the bell.  These further appearances of cast lend continuity.

How did Dillard come up with all this? And are the rest of us mortals capable of doing the same? After all, a Harvard neurologist once described Dillard as “almost unbelievably intelligent.” Perhaps it is best—that is, most efficacious and most heartening—for aspiring writers to assume that it was through multiple revisions that Dillard discovered—and chose, developed, added to, and enhanced—such patterns. As Lucy Corin, in her essay “Material,” advises writers, “The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you—there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own. Find them with your marking pens as they emerge in your drafts” (Corin 87). Corin advises writers to then make the most of such patterns, expanding and accentuating them, and controlling their effect. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, seems not to disagree: “You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words. The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip. You probe with it, delicate as a worm” (7). By “it,” Dillard means the thing you suddenly realize is the new point of what you are writing. Because of this statement and others she makes in The Writing Life, I believe that Dillard means it is in the process of writing, of re-reading one’s work, and revising, re-writing, that the author delicately discovers such patterns and discerns whether to keep them, when to expand them. We writers must probe our own texts to find the intelligence that is there.

For novice writers, this is good news: patterns don’t typically appear all at once in their final form, but they do sometimes suggest themselves. It is the good work of writers to become aware of such emerging patterns, work them with intention and deliberation, and carefully craft the overall work.  Perhaps it would be prudent for us all to read our own work with watercolors in hand in order to better discover what is there!


Lyricism is Dillard’s not-so-secret weapon when it comes to syntax in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her persistent application of poetic devices such as similes and extended metaphors, alliteration, assonance and consonance, even rhymes and homophones, create a strong, consistent, musical voice that both unifies the tone of the work and helps it to move with a strong rhythm, as in this memorable passage, which I quoted in part earlier: “I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone” (Dillard 32).

Two frequent poetic devices in Dillard’s work are metaphor and simile. A good example of Dillard’s use of extended metaphor and related similes occurs when she finds herself in a meadow filled with grasshoppers. In the first three pages of chapter 12, while Dillard describes the grasshoppers, nearly every simile and metaphor she uses relates to war, an apt metaphor as she describes these apparently armored insects invading the meadow. Even the chapter title, “Nightwatch,” suggests a soldier on duty keeping watch at night.

pilgrim page 207

pilgrim pages 208 & 209

War-related similes include: “barrage of grasshoppers,” “such legions,” “blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded,” “ordinary grasshoppers gone berserk,” “ranks,” “coat of mail.” Also “mustered this army,” “detonated the grass,” “sprang in salvos,” and “ricocheted” (207-9). By restricting metaphors to such a genre, Dillard not only maintains a specific, dangerous tone as she describes the process by which ordinary grasshoppers adapt into locusts, but also creates writing that coheres, syntax that advances forward.

Extended metaphors lend lyricism and also unify. Another example of extended metaphor is the recurring image of a magician in a circus tent show (ah, you remember the magician pattern, yes?), as well as splinters from, or variations on, this image. The metaphor begins in the first chapter, just after Dillard has described a spectacular sunset.  Then she waxes metaphoric, comparing the optical wonders of nature to a carnival act performed by a fast-acting magician:

pilgrim page 11

Some of the images within the extended metaphor above show up again and again throughout the book, “splinters” from an image pattern.  Examples of splinters from this passage that recur elsewhere are the magician, tent, show, rabbits, scarves, and the words bland and blank (these last two, though not specific to magic shows in general, Dillard more than once associates with the magician image). Such words, in future instances, are joined to the idea of sky/heaven as a dome or tent over the earth (see “magician” in Appendix A).   Dillard refers to several of these images again later: “Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall” (31).

The word show, applied to impressive sunsets and cloudscapes, also refers to stalking muskrats, as in the above quotation from page 31, and again, “If I move again, the show is over” (195), and once in regard to a town’s attempt to exterminate starlings—“the whole show had cost citizens two dollars per dead starling” (37). It is interesting to note that an image that first appears in connection with rich beauty—an astonishing sunset so impressive that it is like a carnival magician’s act—is later applied to horrors: an attempted mass extermination of invasive starlings, and later, to a gruesome Eskimo myth. In the myth, an ugly old woman who, jealous for her handsome son-in-law, kills her own daughter and removes the face to lay as a mask over her own in order to trick the son-in-law into loving her. After recounting the story of the old woman and the skin mask, Dillard applies the tale metaphorically to the natural world, wondering whether the beauty she has sometimes witnessed in creation is really just a clever disguise for nature’s ugliness and cruelty: “Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?” (266) Note the similarity between this sentence and the previous one, from page 33, about climbing the dome of the magician’s tent; using syntax and word choice, she’s drawn a striking parallel between these two passages.

Through repeating the metaphor of a magician’s show in different contexts, Dillard complicates and enriches its meaning. In so doing, she manipulates the magician image so that it functions similarly to the images of tomcat, blood, and roses on the first page, raising questions about beauty and horror, sacrifice, birth, and death. Nothing is ever boiled down to a simple, single representation; every image is multi-faceted, open to further exploration and interpretation.

Alliteration, assonance, consonance

 A potential danger in Dillard’s penchant for piling together so many disparate images—cats, magicians, Kabbalistic mystics, physicists, giant water bugs, shadows, artists, clouds, and biblical figures, just to name a few—is that some of them might not seem to fit. Dillard averts danger by connecting all the dots, drawing a web of relationships between image sets. But she also takes a syntactical approach, which includes using similar sounds in a given passage so that the music of the language itself provides cohesion within sections. Returning again the cast passage, an aforementioned pattern composed of quite a variety of parts­­, a reader, intoning it aloud, can hear how similar sounds help the differing parts to cohere.

The lyricism that comes from alliteration, assonance, and consonance helps hold the cast paragraphs together. For example, re-read aloud Dillard’s description of a painting by the artist di Chirico: “cast shadows stream across the sunlit courtyard, gouging canyons” (63). The many hard cees that begin words (alliteration), combined with the soft esses (consonance) in “cast,” “shadows,” “stream,” “across”, “sunlit, “canyons,” as well as the many short “a” sounds (assonance), elevate the description of the di Chirico painting to art in itself, a line of poetry. These devices combine for a rich, musical sound that flows audibly in the same way that the several images of cast and casting flow visually. Those hard cees, soft esses, and short a sounds recur throughout the paragraphs so that the sentences musically flow. This is just one example of how poetic devices create lyricism; the book is rife with these techniques.


Sometimes Dillard seems to have such serious fun with the sounds of words. Returning again to the cast passage, remember the homophone of “here, O Israel,” which sounds like the beginning of the traditional Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael: “hear, O Israel.” This homophone is appropriate in context, for Dillard is discussing how cast shadows create a sense of place and presence—a sense of being “here”—while at the same time, she alludes to the story of Isaac and Ishmael from the Torah and Old Testament. These are serious, mysterious topics, yet a reader can hardly refrain from smiling to see the play on hear/here.

Another homophone appears in the context of an important central image pattern, that of Dillard’s first time seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” an experience so vital that she eventually builds a book around it (and I’ve built the next section of this essay around it).

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. (33)

But its import is no hindrance to a little serious word play: Dillard writes “wholly fire” (33), suggesting “holy fire.” This homophonic association is in keeping with other religious phrases that appear on the same page describing this event which is, for Dillard, akin to a religious experience: “pearl of great price,” “literature of illumination,” “litanies,” “ailinon, alleluia.”  For Dillard, seeing this light-shot cedar is as profound a moment as seeing a vision, and she describes it in language that suggests biblical figures who experienced divine fire: she even uses the term transfigured to heighten the religious metaphor, for in the biblical gospel account, Moses (who witnessing a flaming bush that did not burn up) and Elijah (prophet who called down divine fire) were both present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

This re-appropriation of holy language is wholly Dillard, who ably commands a wide array of syntactical tactics: repetition, parallelism, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and homophones.

Image Pattern: ‘The Tree with the Lights in it’

Dillard’s account of witnessing a particular tree lit up by the evening sun becomes emblematic of her role as a pilgrim at Tinker Creek: she learns to see transcendence in nature. Dillard refers to the “tree with the lights in it” many times throughout, honing its essence but also yielding greater ambiguity (nature is awe-inspiring in sometimes horrific ways), until it becomes one of the central images standing in for Dillard’s conclusion, if there is such a thing, of her philosophical meditation on nature and what it means: “The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see” (Dillard 270). Over successive repetitions, she develops this image in such a way that it relates to the Heraclitus epigraph that Dillard chose for her book, “It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”

pilgrim epigraph page

Introducing . . . “the tree with the lights in it.”

Dillard borrows the phrase “the tree with the lights in it” from another source, a “wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight,” which chronicles the experiences of newly sighted people—those who’d had cataract operations to cure lifelong blindness. Dillard quotes Van Senden describing one such little girl: “‘She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it’” (Dillard 28). The former blind girl doesn’t understand dimensionality, so sees the negative space around the tree’s branches as lights. Dillard wonders what it would be like to forget dimensionality, to see as if for the first time, and makes a great effort to try to imagine it, wandering peach orchards all summer searching for “the tree with the lights in it” until:

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly on fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.  Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam. (Dillard 33-34, emphases mine)

pilgrim page 33

pilgrim page 34

The passage contains Dillard’s next two repetitions of the phrase “the tree with the lights in it,” a pattern of text that we read in this exact wording a total of fourteen times before the book’s end (see Appendix C). Within the above quotation, there’s Dillard’s first appropriation of the original image pattern, and also the first “splintering” of the image that Glover spoke of (“the grass with the lights in it”), which I have italicized. Next there’s the reversal of the image (“the lights went out in the cedar”), with words fashioned carefully to create a new rhythm (variation).

The passage contains Dillard’s next two repetitions of the phrase “the tree with the lights in it,” a pattern of text that we read in this exact wording a total of fourteen times before the book’s end (see Appendix C). Within the above quotation, there’s Dillard’s first appropriation of the original image pattern, and also the first “splintering” of the image that Glover spoke of (“the grass with the lights in it”), which I have italicized. Next there’s the reversal of the image (“the lights went out in the cedar”), with words fashioned carefully to create a new rhythm (variation).

The tree / with the lights / in it

The lights / went out / in the ce-dar

Before the first paragraph ends, Dillard repeats the initial image pattern, “the tree with the lights in it,” to burn its significance (that though it is fleeting, it reappears from time to time) into the reader’s unconscious mind, a proper set-up for the phrase’s next occurrence forty-eight pages later.

The Real and Present Cedar

The next occurrence of the image pattern “the tree with the lights in it” does two things: 1) it first reminds the reader of the cedar and its initial meaning: to see something as if for the first time, as if it were a divine vision, then 2) adds another meaning—this time, to be fully aware of the present moment while living it—by interweaving with a new image pattern, “patting the puppy.” Dillard sets this up by describing in sensory detail her experience of stopping at a roadside gas station where she finds a beagle puppy. She imbues the experience and image of “patting the puppy” with a particular meaning:  that of being in the present moment, of being in the particular, or opening a door into the present. Then she remembers the previous experience of seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” and connects it to the present moment of interacting with the puppy. The result of Dillard’s interweaving the two image patterns is that the meaning of the new image (the importance of being fully present in a particular moment) is now added to the previous image of the cedar. Dillard doesn’t expect the reader to leap to this conclusion, but painstakingly connects the dots, essaying:

I had thought, because I had seen the tree with the lights in it, that the great door, by definition, opens on eternity.  Now that I have ‘patted the puppy’—now that I have experienced the present purely through my senses—I discover that, although the door to the tree with the lights in it was opened from eternity, as it were, and shone on that tree eternal lights, it nevertheless opened on the real and present cedar.  It opened on time:  Where else? (80)

pilgrim page 80

Later, lest the reader muddle the two associated image patterns, Dillard neatly clarifies the distinctions between them: “Seeing the tree with the lights in it was an experience vastly different in quality as well as in import from patting the puppy. On that cedar tree shone, however briefly, the steady, inward flames of eternity; across the mountain by the gas station raced the familiar flames of the falling sun” (Dillard 80).

Next Dillard adds variety to the pattern with more “splintering,” putting the image of “the tree with the lights in it” into the reader’s mind indirectly. How does she do this? At first, she simply recounts a story of an old king, Xerxes, who once experienced an encounter with a tree so powerful that he halted his troops for days while he contemplated the tree and got a goldsmith to work its image onto a medal. After the story, Dillard drops textual clues. “We all ought to have a goldsmith following us around. But it goes without saying, doesn’t it, Xerxes, that no gold medal worn around your neck will bring back the glad hour, keep those lights kindled so long as you live, forever present?. . . I saw a cedar. Xerxes saw a sycamore.” (Dillard 88, italics mine) Dillard ties the splintered image to the original pattern with careful word choices—“lights” and “I saw a cedar.” Oh yes, the reader remembers, she’s talking about that tree, the cedar, the tree with the lights in it.  This time another layer of meaning is wrapped around the image: we make talismans to try to remember the visions we’ve seen in the past.  Xerxes with his medal, Pascal with his piece of paper scrawled with his recollection of a mystical experience that he called his nuit de fuit, “night of fire” (which Dillard abbreviates to simply one word “FEU” on page 88), Dillard with her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—these are the attempts people make to hold on to fleeting visions and wonders, to remember them by.

Each repetition of the image layers additional meanings and associations, building in scope, while at the same time intensifying the concrete, visual image. I won’t attempt to spell out each meaning here; I’ll save some of that fun for you, dear reader, lest this essay run far too long. All told, six of the book’s fifteen chapters contain the direct phrase “the tree with the lights in it” (see Appendix B), while every chapter contains suggestions of the image pattern—trees and lights. This textual repetition allows the image to serve as a shorthand reminder of each previous occurrence of the image, its prior context, and the previous meanings it has held, so that all the meanings are stitched together throughout the narrative, giving coherence and unity without losing focus.

What Galls the Cedar

Late in the book, Dillard throws in a twist that seems, at first, to question the legitimacy of the image pattern’s previous meanings. “The tree with the lights in it” has meant the beauty of revelation, profound experience, acute awareness of presence in the moment, transfiguration, energy, vision— but now, as she explores the topic of parasitism, something ugly is revealed: cedar trees usually have galls. “And it suddenly occurs to me to wonder: were the twigs of the cedar I saw really bloated with galls? They probably were; they almost surely were. I have seen those ‘cedar apples’ swell from that cedar’s green before and since: reddish-gray, rank, malignant” (242).

This new observation plainly galls Dillard (please pardon the pun, as the author herself surely would), who, in the ensuing long paragraph, dives into a wrestling match with the meaning of evil, as seen in the image of galls on her cedar tree. Viewed in the context of a chapter that examines the horrors of parasitism, disease, and death inherent to creation (ten percent of living things survive only by parasitizing the rest of living things), the galls are terribly significant, not something that can be easily overlooked— unless, apparently, one is caught up in a transcendent vision as she was the first time. Eventually, though, Dillard reconciles the multiple, contrasting meanings represented in her cedar tree:

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting into the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden.  The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that lights still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright. (242)

pilgrim page 242

The speaker acknowledges that there are galls. Can the patterned metaphor survive them? Yes. The tree with the lights in it is imperfect, flawed, sick with the ugly protuberances of parasites, yet once, on a particular day, at a particular time, a particular light shone through it, illuminating with such power and beauty that a passing pilgrim was moved to build a book—and a vision of life—around it [7]. The image of “the tree with the lights in it” by now communicates visually what Dillard also articulates another way: “I am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them” (242). This statement, with its reference to a “splintered wreck” joins the “tree with the lights in it” to yet another pattern, that of sailing ships and anchors (anchor itself is holds at least two meanings, as sea anchor but also anchor-hold, the place where an anchorite dwells, as Dillard references on page 2). But the sentence is complex for other reasons, as it ties together several philosophical threads that Dillard has been grappling with, forging an uneasy truce between the notion of the world being a good place, worthy of being embraces and the fact that horrible things occur over the face of the earth daily.

Complex and nuanced though this image pattern has become, it would be much too facile to end even here, Dillard seems to think. Without directly mentioning “the tree with the lights in it,” she inscribes yet another series of allusions, or splinterings.  For instance, she refers to a biblical sacrificial practice involving a heifer and—what else?—a cedar tree. “The old Hebrew ordinance for the waters of separation, the priest must find a red heifer unblemished,” burn her, and “into the stinking flame the priest casts the wood of a cedar tree for longevity, hyssop for purgation, and a scarlet thread for a vein of living blood” (267). The phrase cedar tree resonates subtly in the reader’s brain with the previous images of cedar to lend yet another meaning, that of a holy and disturbing sacrifice, to the already rich pattern.

pilgrim page 267

Next Dillard presents what initially seems to be a brand-new image, a maple key (what I’d call a maple seed, or helicopter), but through subtle word choices, provides links between it and the old, familiar tree with the lights in it. When the maple key falls, she eloquently ponders:

The bell under my ribs rang a true note, a flourish as of blended horns, clarion, sweet, and making a long dim sense I will try at length to explain. Flung is too harsh a word for the rush of the world. Blown is more like it, but blown by a generous, unending breath. That breath never ceases to kindle, exuberant, abandoned; frayed splinters spatter in every direction and burgeon into flame. And now when I sway to a fitful wind, alone and listing, I will think, maple key. When I see a photograph of earth from space, the planet so startlingly painterly and hung, I will think, maple key. When I shake your hand or meet your eyes I will think, two maple keys . . .(268)

It’s as if, hidden inside the text, the speaker is whispering, “Reader, what does this remind you of?” A bell— ah, yes, the speaker has spoken before of a bell. Upon her first encounter with the tree with the lights in it, she thought, “I had been my whole life a bell . . .”  (33). Meanwhile the words “frayed splinters spatter” suggest the line from page 242, “splintered wreck whose beauty beats and shines . . .” And again, Dillard has often linked the word flame with the tree with the lights in it, as in that first encounter, which used the words flame, fire, and unflamed (this last is phrased such that, although it means the opposite of flame, it yet underscores the image pattern)  (33).

Finally, stunningly, in-case-there-remains-any-doubt-about-the-connections-here, let’s-put-it-on-the-very-last-page-so-we-see-for-sure-how-important-it-is, Dillard ties the latest maple-key splinter—via the proxies of the ringing bell and the flame from the long passage quoted above—back to the image pattern: “The tree with the lights in it buzzes into flame and the cast-rock mountains ring” (271). The image pattern is now complete, each stitch knitted securely into the fabric made of all the others. Again, careful phrasing choices, such as “buzzes into flame” on page 271, resonate with earlier wording, “each cell buzzing with flame” on page 3.

pilgrim page 271


Jad Abumrad and Richard Krulwich, in a May 2010 RadioLab podcast called “Vanishing Words,” articulate why readers do the type of deeply analytical work I have done: we all want to get closer to the author that penned those words. From the medieval monks, who spent entire lifetimes making concordances of the Bible, to modern-day literature professors like Ian Lancashire of the University of Toronto, who uses computers to analyze Agatha Christie’s (and other) texts, readers have sought to penetrate the minds of the authors they love. We read to connect.

For me, engaging one text hands-on, with watercolor paints, a sharp pencil, and tiny sticky-backed photographs, was fruitful for recognizing and visualizing textual patterns that would otherwise have remained mostly in my subconscious. But more than that, I felt like I had found a small portal into a favorite author’s mind. Through my study, I became deeply attached to and personally invested in the patterns that Dillard crafts. As a result, my own writing mind is being transformed. On a practical level, this means that I’m more aware of the way I myself use syntax and image patterns, so my latest writing is starting to benefit from the observational and pattern-finding skills I’ve acquired. But on an emotional level, I’ve simply fallen in love with the text. (My husband is a wee bit jealous.)

Not every writer will want to spend a few months taking pens, paints, and pictures to a single text. The physical process is incredibly time-consuming and requires some degree of craftsmanship. Recently, thanks to new advances in technology, a plethora of digital tools exist for readers/writers/scholars to use when actively reading. DevonThink, XLibris, and PapierCraft are a few of the software programs I’ve come across which, to varying degrees, allow readers to interact electronically. A new program, LiquidText, currently under development, will allow readers, via iPad, to view multiple pages at once, add annotations, pull selected paragraphs into a sidebar to organize, group and color-code them, and search for words or phrases. Recent neurological research suggests that the parts of the human brain triggered by iPad and iPhone use are the same as the centers stimulated by empathy, by falling in love. So perhaps it is not completely far-fetched to imagine that these new media will also provide a further means by which readers, scholars, and writers may fall in love with the texts they study, as they explore, like a cartographer, unfamiliar territory in order to know and to map geological features, the edges of landforms, the flow of rivers and streams.

View or download Appendix A, “Selected Image Patterns,” here.

View or download Appendix B, “The Tree with the Lights in It,” here.


I owe a debt to several teachers of the writing craft for their insightful instructions on how to read text(s). Lucy Corin’s excellent essay “Material” encourages sketching out the “material” of a given piece of writing, thinking of paragraphs and sentences as objects that can be represented as drawn blocks or lines, in order to detect underlying patterns and structure. Douglas Glover’s personal copy of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser has margins and gutters—nearly all its white space—tightly cluttered with notes in his small, fine handwriting.[8] Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story Structure: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” taught me first, what an image pattern is, and second, the importance of attending to them in literature. Virginia Tufte’s instructive Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style lays out for the aspiring writer the elements of syntax in sentences, as well as how it sets the style, tone, and voice of a literary work. Mary Stein’s lecture gave me a framework for thinking about syntax-driven, rather than plot-driven, narrative. Trinie Dalton, in a lecture at Vermont College, described stories as having “circulatory systems,” or some means by which the story moves, or flows. David Jauss, in his essay, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” credits successful flow to syntax, the way in which sentences are put together.

For the altered book portion of this thesis, I’m grateful to photographers Steven David Johnson and Dave Huth for permission to reprint their images onto sticker paper for my pattern-finding purposes. Dave Huth owns the rights to the photographic images of the giant water bug, dragonfly nymph, frog, and Polyphemus moth; the image of Earth Oceana is used here for non-commercial purposes through a creative commons license by alegri/; the image of the tree with the lights in it originated with a cedar tree photographed by Ian Robertson, thanks to a creative commons license, and was digitally altered by Steven David Johnson; all other photographs belong to Steven David Johnson and are used with permission. Hand-drawn illustrations are my own.

I wish to also thank artist and poet Jen Bervin for her exquisite textile art that explores the margins of Emily Dickinson’s poetry manuscripts; her work and her conversations with me helped push my thinking about margins and what might happen in them.

For their encouragement and helpful feedback throughout the conception and fulfillment of this project, I thank my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Richard McCann and Patrick Madden.

Most of all, my greatest thanks to Annie Dillard for writing a book so rich and intricate that I easily spent over six months thinking deeply about it without being bored once. Studying this book was an experience akin to seeing “the tree with the lights in it,” and I’m still spending the power.

— Anna Maria Johnson

Works Cited

Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich. “Vanishing Words.” Radiolab: WNYC. 5 May 2010. Web.

Corin, Lucy. “Material.” The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Portland: Tin House Books, 2009.

Dalton, Trinie. “Good Liar/ Bad Liar: Myth, Symbol, and Choosing the Right Details.” MFA in Writing Summer Residency. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont.  2 July 2010. Lecture.

____________. “Circulatory Systems in Fiction.” MFA in Writing Winter Residency. Vermont College of Fine Arts. Montpelier, Vermont.  Jan. 2011. Lecture.

Dillard. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, Inc., 1987.

____________. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974.

____________. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1989.

____________. “Annie Dillard Official Website.” Annie Dillard, 2010. Website.  Accessed 7/21/2011.

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

Jauss, David. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Alone With All That Could Happen. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.

Stein, Mary. “Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose.” Número Cinq. Volume II, No. 40. Oct. 5, 2011.

Tashman, Craig. “Active Reading and its Discontents: The Situations, Problems and Ideas of Readers.” CHI 2011.  May 7–12, 2011. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC, 2006.



Anna Maria Johnson’s writing brings together her diverse interests in the visual arts, science and nature, family systems, and spirituality. She studied fiction and creative non-fiction at Vermont College of Fine Art (MFA July 2012). Her short stories and essays have been published in Ruminate Magazine, Blue Ridge Country, Numéro Cinq, DreamSeeker Magazine, Flycatcher Journal, Newfound, and The Mennonite, as well as in the anthology, Tongue-screws and Testimonies. Anna Maria writes, gardens, and makes art along the Shenandoah River’s north fork, where she has lived for seven years with photographer Steven David Johnson and their two daughters. She and Steven are currently collaborating on photo-essays about southern Oregon’s ecology. View their project at

See also:

James Agee’s Unconventional Use of Colons  by Anna Maria Johnson

Whirlpool (All Tremors Cease): Underwater Video Meditation by Steven David Johnsonby Anna Maria Johnson

What it’s like living here in Cootes Store, Virginia by Anna Maria Johnson and Steven David Johnson

The Quirky Bird Art of Paula Swisher by Anna Maria Johnson

Riffing on Whirlpoolsby Anna Maria Johnson & Steven David Johnson

“Meditation on Mary, for Advent,” a sermon by Anna Maria Johnson

The Way To A Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach, or Kitchen Ostinato, a rondeau by Anna Maria Johnson

Off The Page: Novel-in-a-Box by Anna Maria Johnson





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Mary Stein said this in a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Art. This fine lecture was later published on Numéro Cinq, but with different phrasing. I’ve chosen to retain the original phrasing here to suit my purposes, but highly recommend reading the published version as well.
  2. Dillard’s goldfish is apparently named for Thoreau’s friend and fellow poet Ellery Channing. For scholars familiar with this fact, Ellery’s name swimmingly links Dillard’s goldfish and the Thoreau allusions sprinkled throughout the book.
  3. The practice of making room for multiple interpretations of a given subject is inherent to essaying since the time of Montaigne.
  4. Parallelism and repetition are common literary devices in the biblical Old Testament, a book that seems to have been highly influential on Dillard’s writing judging from the numerous allusions and references to, and quotations from, that source (see Appendix A). It is not surprising that some of the Bible’s rhythms and syntactical patterns would also have found their way into Dillard’s style.
  5. In drawing a contrast between “living here” and “home,” and between “Tinker Creek” and “Tinker Mountain,” Dillard seems to be following the western philosophical tradition of dualism, suggesting that beyond the changing, physical realm lies an eternal, unchanging spiritual realm that is her true home. By using a syntactical structure frequently employed in the Bible (parallelism), Dillard underscores this earthly-versus-spiritual tradition.
  6. A wooden fish wheel, similar to a water mill, is a device used for catching fish.
  7. This might be compared to Christians who have re-purposed the symbol of the cross from being an instrument of execution to one of salvation. The cross is often referred to as a tree, and Christ is called the light of the world, so perhaps “the tree with the lights in it” is furthermore an allusion to the Christian story, which Dillard has woven throughout her book.
  8. Attack of the Copula Spiders also contains a rather nice essay about the importance of structure in this novel.
Mar 072013
JH Pic

Jennica Harper


Inspired by the insanely provocative television series, Mad Men, Jennica Harper’s poem cycle here traces the meandering thoughts of pubescent Sally Draper, the oft times neglected offspring of paterfamilias and part-time Lothario, Don Draper. Harper’s monologues capture Sally’s experiences at the edges of the masculine, cut-throat world of Manhattan’s advertising, and the shifting social upheavals of the 1960s.

Though Sally’s not a leader for the sex, drugs and rock and roll revolution, she is a reactive element: a baby boomer kid with some indelible philosophy. In “Sally Draper at the Premier of Jaws,” her approval-seeking banter annoys her date and she realizes that she’s missing the entire point of being in a dark theatre with a boy. “This is me flirting,” she states, “I know I’m doomed.” In “Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile,” she deems the consolation prize for not following her career path as being relegated to “wife.” For her, this means, “You may start pretty, but you get old fast. You become a secondary character in your own life. A wife.”

Harper foregrounds Sally’s sense of being a “secondary character,” by emphasizing her self-conscious voice and her obsessive need to see herself from afar. Whether she’s painting her lips in Hellbent and Taboo, taking peyote and contemplating the lyrical origins of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” or romanticizing her first abortion as “A calculated fainting” where she should be “woken with smelling salts by ladies in waiting – [her] problems gone,” her inner-monologue captures her disassociated steely understanding of the human condition. Despite the dishonesty and emotional fallout from her parents’ generation, she’s ready for change and wields it like “a sword in a virgin cocktail.”

These poems are not Harper’s first foray into adolescent voices and perspectives. She has also written a poetry collection from the point-of-view of thirteen-year-old girls, What it Feels Like for a Girl, and works on the YTV sitcom, Mr. Young. Incidentally, some years ago, Jennica and I completed our MFAs at UBC together. I remember her being quick even then at cross-hatching pop culture and the ten angst as she does here and in her other poetry collection, The Octopus and Other Poems.

For Harper, youth culture is a poignant watermark of what’s deemed frivolous in the previous generation. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to Sally Draper: because she is such a mercurial figure, as she struggles with realpolitik and her parents’ emotional tailspins into extramarital affairs and vodka martinis. These poems attest to Sally’s sense of unmooring. As Sally herself suggests, “There should be a system,” or at least balefire to illuminate her turn toward adulthood at the cusp of the most explosive youth culture movement in American history.

—Tammy Armstrong




The Sally Draper Poems by Jennica Harper


Sally Draper at the Premiere of Jaws

I recognize that beach. Something about it – even in the dark.

Hey, Martha’s Vineyard!

I whisper to him. We used to go there in summer.
He rolls his eyes.

We’re under the surface now, with the girl.
She has pretty legs, like a dancer.
They hired that girl just for her legs.

He looks at me. Pleading.
She treads water. I suck in my stomach.

The cold water’s just making me colder.
They sure did crank the A/C – to the point
I barely remember that it’s June.
They made it cold in here
so we’d cuddle up to our boys.

This is me flirting. I know I’m doomed.
He doesn’t look at me. I guess to not
encourage more talking.

The sound kicks in, and I jump a little.
Da-da. Da-da. Da-da. I recognize it as a tuba
from the years Bobby practiced in the basement.
Stuck with that fat thing after being out sick
the day instruments were picked. I take it in. Know
the notes. E-F. EF, EF, EF.

I don’t turn to him. Don’t tell him about the tuba.
Now that I’m quiet, he takes my hand. Rubs
it between his to warm me up.

I know it’s supposed to be scary
but they won’t let this girl be hurt. They can’t.


Sally Draper Hides

Ten feet below me
decisions are made.

I hide under the bed, though
she says I’m too old.

You learn a lot, ear to the floor.
Which boards squeak; that the front door

(opening after midnight – witching
hour, I once heard Francine say)

releases a tiny gust of air that floats
up the stairs, ever so stealthy and sweet,

blowing dust bunnies by.
I watch them hop and bob…

they’re dancing like lovers! Or,
it’s possible, running for cover.


Sally Draper’s First Kiss

I knew kissing a boy would be different when it wasn’t your brother, I just couldn’t imagine how. I’d turned my hand into a mouth, like Senor Wences (but didn’t let him talk). Brought my hand close, really slowly, shut my eyes most of the way, keeping them open just a slit so I could see, too. Tasted the salt on my fingers; tried to imagine what the hole of my hand was tasting. I’d stuck my tongue in, but there was nothing there, just air.

When finally I made James stay still so I could kiss him, I knew what had been missing: resistance. I slipped my tongue through his teeth, happy he put up a fight. The kiss made me want to pee and made me want to kiss him again. Then James wanted to keep going, and I got distracted by the TV.

Now, whenever I see a ventriloquist – or puppets, Pinocchio, any wooden boy, boy on a string, boy with a hand inside him – I have to excuse myself.


Sally Draper Struggles to Buy a Christmas Gift

He’s got no hobbies –
doesn’t fish or golf
like other men.
He’s not cultured.
Wouldn’t care about
opera tickets,
or the new Neil
Diamond. A magazine
subscription’s out,
of course. The ads.
He might wear a tie,
but I can’t bear to buy
him something so dull.
So I choose The Spy
Who Came In From the Cold.
Maybe he’ll see
the symbolism –
a man wanting
out. Hope. The girl.
And if not,
maybe he’ll at least
why this book, what does it mean,
and he’ll realize I’m


Sally Draper Buys Red Lipstick

The woman at Marshall’s
lines my lips first, with Brick,
as in House,
as in Shit-A.
I make an O.

Next comes the stick: Dare You.
I want to say, You win!
I’ll buy you, but you’ll just
languish in a drawer
with Hellbent and Taboo.

All my life I have
shied from these lips – his
lips. Bowed and smacking
of blow-up doll…
Ode to an O.

But today I’ll wear red.
The red of a cherry
on a sword in a virgin
cocktail I’ll have to sip
through a straw.


Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile

I’ve seen what happens when you don’t push for it. Follow your dreams. You may start pretty, but you get old fast. You become a secondary character in your own life. A wife.

It’s the kind of war you can’t let them know you’re waging. And you can’t ever fall asleep – or onto a mattress – while on watch.

What they don’t tell you is, you still have to pay your dues. And your dues may mean bringing coffee to men, again and again. A wife on the clock.

At home, my mother had it made and brought to her by the help. Something I think about when I pour.


Sally Draper Contemplates the Interstellar Mission

Apparently the planets are aligned,
so they can shoot (launch? dispatch?)
the two pods into deep space – they’ll
hop from orbit to orbit, hitching lifts,
their trajectories curving out, dots
connecting to form a conch-like shell.
I guess Voyager is, kind of, a conch.
We’ve spoken into it, hoping sound travels.
Everything about the mission is designed
with beauty in mind: the hope of it all. The sounds
on the record (whales, that kiss from a mother
to her baby, and my favourite, thunder).
The fact there are two, a pair, twins,
a couple mated for life like swans.

So how come when I think of those things
hurtling out, carrying Earth’s seeds, all I can
think is that we are fucking the universe
like a man fucks a woman, and I want to fuck
the world like that too?


Sally Draper Takes Carla Out for Lunch

It’s taken me a year to find
her. There’s no maid directory.
There should be a system; something.

I’d no idea we could live with women
and they could be taken from us and we
could not even know their full names.

She cooked me hot dogs. She taught me
fractions. Once, she spanked me. I
deserved it, and she took no pleasure in it.

I wanted to take her to a nice restaurant, but
on the phone she said no. The lunch counter
at Woolworth’s it is.
When she arrives

she looks the same to me. Except my size,
instead of the powerful figure she’d been.
I stand to hug her, but she sits before I can.

She orders a clubhouse. I barely eat
my salad. I tell her about college. Classes,
living with the girls.

She tells me things have been fine,
she went to work for another family,
with twins. Smart boys. Nice boys.

I tell her she should have pulled the toothpick out
of her sandwich first. She smiles. Pulls
it out. It comes out clean, and I feel sick.

When I can’t stop the tears from coming,
she holds out her napkin. Then changes
her mind, daubs at my eyes.

I thought. I thought.
She says, I know, sweet pea.
You know, you’re nothing like her.

She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
When I get back home I dye my hair
a dull yet shocking shade of black.


Sally Draper On Doctors

As soon as she came out,
I bought Surgeon Barbie. Her scrubs
are short, it’s true. Still, score
one for us. I put her box
on my desk for when I study.

I will worship no idols beyond thee!


Then it’s Miss America Barbie.
For a laugh, I buy her too. Put
them side by side. But one day
I come home drunk and open her
so I can comb her hair.

I will worship no god but irony.


He asks me which I’d rather be:
the career girl or the beauty. Of course,
I say the surgeon. He knows it’s true.
What I don’t say? My doctor, dentist, gynecologist,
therapist… men. Always will be.

I worship you in hopes you’ll worship me.


Sally Draper Hears the News

I get the call. Feel my face
go cold. The lion can’t die.

No tears, yet – not till
I’m on the subway, really
trying not to cry. I let a man
give me his seat, and ride
in comfort all the way uptown.

At the wake, I speak, read
Yeats, though I know
he’d have preferred O’Hara.
Tougher. But tough,
the day isn’t for him.
It’s for us, the living.

And I wait for it. The fire.
I expect it to ignite in me,
his fire, it’s my
right, I’m the eldest,
the heir. But the cold
persists. A cold there’s no
coming in from.

Twice a week, I try
his death on for size.
A coat of imaginary grief
I’ll wear like armour.

I should send a card
for his birthday this year.


Sally Draper’s First Abortion

Junior year is hard on the girls. Two got married
and quit school. One became a drunk and flunked.
Then there’s me, failing for no good reason
and for the first time, two men in one month.

They ask me who’s picking me up —
I lie. Say my brother, though I haven’t called either
in weeks. I’ll take a cab home, have a nap.
Then study. Clean the kitchen. Be useful.

Except: I didn’t know you were awake
when they did it. I guess I imagined being under.
A calculated fainting, then woken with smelling salts
by ladies in waiting – my problems gone. But no.

Bet she never wondered what kind of mother
she’d be… I call her. There’s no answer. I will not cry.
They say a name, the name I gave them, the other
me, and I stand. Put on my father’s face.

So this is what it’s like to be brave.


Sally Draper Will Never Do Mescaline Again

It’s natural. It’s from a cactus. Native Americans
in Mehico have been using it
for thousands of years.

Yeah, but there weren’t cars you could get hit by.
Or fifth-story windows to jump out of.

Do you trust yourself, Sally?

Not really.


Just, put it in a drink or something.
I don’t want to taste it.

Even you have limits
for what you’ll put in your mouth,


Now we wait. Soon the backs of our
eyelids will be like stained glass.

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea

My dad used to sing me that song.
But he’d turn Little Jackie Paper
into Little Sally Draper

That’s sweet.


That song’s about grass. You want some?

It is not.
And yes.

It’s a well documented fact. Ask anyone.

[Without warning, it hits me. I want to ask him.
I want to call, wake him up, beg him
not for the truth
but for what I want to hear.
He was always good
at what I want to hear. But
I don’t know his number
off by heart, I’d have to
call information.]

I’m feeling pretty good. How about you, Sall…?
Sallster? I’m sall…ivating. For you.

Shut up.

Are you crying?

I’m Jackie, and I’m Puff.
I left and am left behind.


I am going to be like this
for the rest of my life.

Would that be so bad?


 —Jennica Harper


Jennica Harper’s books of poetry are What It Feels Like for a Girl (Anvil Press) and The Octopus and Other Poems (Signature Editions). In 2012, What It Feels Like for a Girl was published as an e-book for Kindle and Kobo, and was adapted into one-third of the critically acclaimed theatrical experience Initiation Trilogy at the Vancouver International Writers Festival (Marita Dachsel/Electric Company). The Sally Draper Poems are part of a new manuscript, Wood. Jennica is also a screenwriter and is currently working on YTV’s teen comedy Mr. Young.


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


Tammy Armstrong


Mar 062013

 Choreographer Elizabeth Schmuhl & Composer Ariane Miyasaki

I’m very proud of this one, almost paternal: A Numéro Cinq first, an original piece of music by Ariane Miyasaki combined with an original dance choreographed and performed by Elizabeth Schmuhl, commissioned specially for Numéro Cinq. In other words, the first NC ballet. Never before in the annals of art — okay, well, maybe a bit over the top, but this is extraordinary. Ariane is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition program and Elizabeth is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. They had never met before I put them together and suggested they collaborate on a work just for us. The result was recorded on video, a grainy, fixed-camera production that is itself part of the finished product, an edgy, alienated, even terrifying orchestral composition for female voices based on a text written by Miyasaki when she was seventeen, after she had lived wild for four years on the streets of Seattle. The music is concrete, startling, acousmatic — none of the usual instruments appear, but as you listen the voices create an aesthetic space in your mind, the words become notes. The dance follows the movements of the musical composition, beginning with silence/stillness and moving into the frenzied contortions of the a girl on the run, a girl with no skin inhabited by voices and street sounds.  This is just a gorgeous thing to have.

See the video below. Best watched in the full screen mode. And underneath the video we have brief essays by the collaborators on their compositional process (also choreography notes from Elizabeth). So not only do we get the art, we get insight in the making of art.




Ariane Miyasaki


Now there is no Where or Where to.
There is no What or What next.
Only Run.
Run through the panic and the blurry vision,
Through the ringing ears and rattled bones.
Run until the spinning stops.

Two sets of feet, out of sync,
Beat the earth, scattering rocks and debris,
Kicking up yellow clouds of pine dust.
The first is all panicked, mammalian desperation.
The second merely follows, waiting for his prey to fall,
With the predatory patience of experience.

Raw throat, lungs breathing air made of salt.
Chest creaking, on fire, and full of survival.
Force clear a dazed brain and

I lifted the poem directly from my notebooks, written at the age of 17, a week after I had finally “come in” after living four years on the street, mostly in Seattle. I had run away from home in southern California in January, 1999, when I was 13; I left the street in February, 2003. I was, to say the least, a super angry person. My uncle described me as “almost  feral.” Oddly enough, I never lost the certainty that I would eventually go to college. There was a Value Village where people would dump their old books; the store didn’t sell books, so the books got thrown out. I used to dumpster dive behind the store and come up with armloads of books. I ended up with a pretty good background in literature (apparently, people don’t throw out their old science and math books — I still have gaps). I didn’t edit or rewrite the text, though now I know it’s not poetry; at the time, I had no idea of the rules of form. But I thought about it and realized that if these were the words of any other 17-year-old, I wouldn’t change them. I didn’t want to tamper with what I had written, even though my aesthetic has changed; now I have what you might call a “reserved aesthetic.” I decided I would accord the past-ME the same respect I would give to someone else.

The music is acousmatic, meaning that you hear the sound through speakers, the source is unidentifiable. Compositionally, I am really interested in the way the human voice affects the sound and text and the way the sound will affect the perception of the words. Formally, the piece is written in two main sections with coda that goes back to “run;” the first section focuses on “run,” the next part focuses on “fall,” and then “run” comes back again. The texture of the sound begins to change about two and a half minutes in and then again at the five and a half minute mark. The coda is very short, only a minute, and it’s calmer, using vehicle sounds like a train. To get the voices, I basically spammed all of the women I knew on Facebook, asking them to record readings. I asked 42 people; 15 sent in recordings; of those I used only 13, 13 different women reading the text. There were places where the voices become decorrelated, they begin break up, kind of come apart, the rhythms start to change; originally, I was going to use a granular synthesizer but in the end did it the old way, I just spliced it by hand, which isn’t that difficult anymore, splicing them or stretching them out without changing the pitch. What I hadn’t expected was the vocal range, from young girls with high pitched voices to the two older women, in their sixties, who had low grainy voices; I could almost make real harmonies with the voices — they contrast nicely with the sampled sounds and presented me with a nice way of blending the voice-text in with the train in the last section.

— Ariane Miyasaki


 Elizabeth Schmuhl



When making a dance, I usually begin with an idea or situation I want to explore through movement. Shortly after, I find music to help give structure to the dance I’m creating. The music serves as a skeleton, often shaping the narrative (if there is one, and for me, there usually is). Collaborating with Ariane Miyasaki was so refreshing to me as an artist, as my process was altered: I directly responded to the song “Run Fall Run’ that Ariane gave me, instead of searching for music that complimented my initial idea for a dance. In order to make a dance, I first listen to the music and then break apart into segments I hear. I use this as the basis for different sections of the dance. Usually I do several recordings of myself improvising to the music and watch the videos over and over again until I can see what type of movement phrases I’m repeating, as they tell me something about what I’m feeling. Once I have several movement phrases, I begin to make floor pattern drawings, and write my movement phrases with counts (especially phrases that are difficult for me to execute).

I staged this in a rectangular space, in the city of Benton Harbor. I had a deadline nearing and there was snow on the ground; the temperature was hovering above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to dance anyway, with boots on, no less. The cold gave me a new energy that I never experienced during my studio rehearsals of the piece. The weather was bewitching, and I was able to get into character quite well. It’s also important to note the importance of the sky, and how it created a feeling of limitlessness while I was dancing. Not only did it create this for me inside, in my interior, I believe it is expressed in my focus throughout the dance. If and when the piece is performed indoors, the dancer must make a huge effort to dance beyond the walls, something that is possible, but never quite the same as dancing underneath the sky.

For me, the feeling invoked in my body when listening to the music was one of claustrophobia. I envisioned a girl who is in turmoil, desperately trying to get herself through a difficult situation. She experiences reprieves, moments of rest, but ultimately, whatever situation or life-phase she is in is affecting her deeply. In the beginning of the piece, the threat of falling is present. The girl acknowledges the possibility of falling and ties a string around her middle, to keep herself up (see 3:59). It doesn’t completely work, because she still experiences moments of great sadness, when her body feels almost not her own.  However, throughout the piece, there is a force running through her; this force is what I believe to be the human spirit, which gives her the ability to get up and persevere, despite her situation.

— Elizabeth Schmuhl


Elizabeth Schmuhl is a modern dance instructor, performer, choreographer and writer. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied dance and earned a BA in Creative Writing and Literature. Currently, she is an MFA in Writing candidate at VCFA. She has won an Avery Hopwood Award and recently published a story in Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, put out by Wayne State University Press.

Ariane Miyasaki is a composer based in Schenectady, New York. She is chiefly interested in electroacoustic and acousmatic work, though enjoys writing acoustic music as well. Her piece “she said” for hand bells and stereo fixed media was premiered in 2013 by Cassandra McClellan as part of the 2013 I/O Festival in Williams, Massachusetts. Miyasaki is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also holds a Bachelor of Music from State University of New York at Potsdam, where she studied music theory and history, an Associate of Science and an Associate of Arts from Schenectady County Community College, where she majored flute performance and humanities and social science. While attending classes at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she studied electronic composition with Paul Steinberg. She is currently studying electroacoustic and acousmatic composition at VCFA. Miyasaki remains active as a flutist. She regularly plays with the SCCC Wind Ensemble and Capital Region Wind Ensemble, and frequently can be heard in other area ensembles and in the pit  orchestras of local musical productions. Miyasaki studied flute with Kristin Bacchiocchi-Stewart, Norman Thibodeau, and Kenneth Andrews.



Mar 052013

Rich baseball


It is August 11, 1978. A humid morning succumbs to another blistering New England afternoon. Potbellied cumuli gather low on the horizon in an otherwise pristine cobalt sky. Colleen is twelve, three years my senior, an insurmountable chasm of days standing between us. I am already madly in love with her. She lives next door on Walter Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. For fifteen years, our bedroom windows will stare unblinkingly at one another across ten yards of space. Blue eyes (of course), a demure grin, tan legs, and a habit of staring straight through me when she speaks. From time to time, a tiny cluster of heat blisters forms on her lower lip like a welcoming galaxy.

“Can Ritchie walk to the store with me?” Colleen asks my mother. We are standing in my small kitchen. My sister is playing on the floor. Golden light leans through the screen windows. My memory paints this moment like a Vermeer.

There must be a split second of panic for my mother as she decides. The store is a mile away and I’ve never walked this far without an adult before. Colleen’s request challenges the very frontiers of a boy’s permissible geography. Is this okay? Even I don’t know the answer. But I am praying, pleading in silence, for my mother to say yes.

Why Colleen requests me to accompany her confuses me beyond logic, though I’m wise enough not to interrogate such confusion. After a long pause, my mother slips a dollar into my hand and tells me to be careful. A tether snaps.

While we are gone, Colleen’s father will suffer a massive heart attack and die in their living room. The margins of childhood will be forever defined by this hour-long walk to the store and back. And though I will be only a peripheral actor, a bit player in this tragedy, Mr. Gearin’s death will haunt me, too. This hour, even today, stands in sharp relief to almost every other.

Anne Carson writes, “We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive.” Why do we continue to tunnel? Why don’t  we simply breathe in the dirt and forget? Are we digging for meaning? For connection? Salvation?

In childhood, the exceptions stood out. The most vivid days were the occasional ones, when routines snapped and I was estranged from the habits of life. Maybe I’m tunneling for these.

How an overnight storm piled snow beneath my bedroom window like huge pillows. The floor heater creaked as I woke and, with frigid feet, crawled to the window. There, below me, was a landscape transformed. I climbed back into bed and listened to the whip of snow against window, my mother turning a radio in the kitchen. I held my breath until I heard: school or no school.

Or the summer day when I was five and the Fowlers’ house was struck by lightning. It was my mother’s birthday and we were next door. Colleen was there, Kelly, Cathy, Shawn, and Mrs. Gearin. Our fathers were at work. An awful boom rattled the walls. We raced to the front door and gazed into the street. The facade of the gray, two-story house literally had ripped away from its frame, so that I could see into the upstairs bedroom, as if looking into a life-sized dollhouse. A fireman leaned out from the smoldering second story, inspecting the damage. The black sky snapped again. Terrified, I reached for my mother’s hand.


RichJen on couch

Colleen’s father has given her money for a handful of things. Bread, butter, a carton of milk. We follow long meandering sidewalks past the houses we know. Walter Street could double as a Dublin phone book: Baxter, Doherty, Farrell, Fowler, Gearin, McCarthy, Murphy. We curl down Paradox Drive, moving silently in front of the Bermans’ brick house, Elkinds, Jacobsons, and Flannagans. Past Sansoucy’s quarry. When we turn left onto Beaconsfield Road, we enter a terra incognita. The same songbirds chirp and the same shade cools our skin, but these front doors are unfamiliar.

What do we talk about on the journey out? If there’s a cruelty to time, it’s the erasures, the things we lose. What does Colleen wear that day? What does her voice sound like? I forget the name of purple wildflowers that we pinch between our fingers. I forget even the name of the store we are walking toward.  But I remember feeling grown up beside her. I remember how easy it is talking with Colleen, and the strangeness of this sensation, because, at nine years old, shyness and silence are my default positions around girls. What mixture of tenderness and warmth does Colleen radiate that gives me the confidence to be myself? How does she draw me out?  A word comes to mind: grace.

Twenty minutes speed past and we enter the store. A blast of air conditioning cools our sweat, brings a relief like water. We separate here, me to spend my dollar and Colleen to gather things for her father, who, at that very second, is taking his last breath.

Thomas Wolfe writes, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” What ghost returns? What orients the jurisdiction of memory?  Why is time as ungainly as the growing feet on a young boy?

I had a happy childhood.

Under certain wind conditions, I could smell Mrs. Sheedy’s simmering marinara sauce from two doors down. I watched the same wind turn elm leaves from green to silver as a storm approached. The sky seemed endless, full of possibilities. White vapor trails rulered across the blue as jets descend into Logan or, further south and east, into JFK. I identified them all, a taxonomy of flight: 747, L-1011 and DC-9. The planes’ contrails were as distinctive to me as faces, as nicknames.

Nicknames were a mark of respect on Walter Street. Orson, Shed, Burger, McMurphy, Sadness, Bessie. The “Big Kids” were teenagers when I was nine. They watched out for me with a tolerance and concern that, even now, seems uncommon. Somewhere along the way, they christened me ‘Head’. To have a nickname at nine amongst teenagers felt like a laurel wreath, a brass trophy with arms upraised on a pillar of marble.

Our families were Irish and Italian, Catholic and Jewish. We stood a single rung above blue collar. We shared the liminal space of upward mobility: close enough to the mills of the BlackstoneValley to still smell the grease but far enough out for new bikes and above ground swimming pools. Life was intuitive, and instincts of the body overruled the brain.



Colleen and I meet back near the cash registers. Inexplicably, my father appears. He stands in line with us. He is on his way home from work and he offers us a ride.

“I’ve got to grab a couple of pizzas first,” he says. “I’ll take you guys home if you want.”

Why do I decline my father’s offer? How do I know this is the right thing? How do I know that a half-hour walk with a twelve year-old girl contains more mystery than the convenience of a ride on a hot day?

I follow Colleen up Pleasant Street. Cars whir past. It is a Friday afternoon and people are heading home early. We move past our school, the red-bricked Tatnuck Elementary, dormant for a few weeks more. Colleen will start middle school in the fall. I will be going into fourth grade.

We turn the corner, cut through the fire station driveway, and then begin to climb back up Beaconsfield Road. When it snows, this stretch of road is the most treacherous. Potholes and cracked humps of concrete mar the surfaces. Someone is sealing a driveway. The smell of asphalt rises on a breeze.

Surely I am aware of Colleen, of the proximity of her, though I have no idea what to do with such feelings yet. We ascend the steepest half of the road, past run-down American Four Squares, freshly painted Tudors and CapeCods, all of them inhaling this summer day through open front doors.

Our legs straining, Colleen points to a path and we take it. The three years between us have widened her intimacy with place. She knows the paths, the shortcuts, better than I do. One more hill before home, this one through a wooded boundary between the neighborhoods. We are in shade, beneath a verdant stand of tall trees, following a footpath.

“The point of departure must be unyielding despair,” Pattiann Rogers writes.  “We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.” Was this the work we were doing that day—building a habitation for our future souls? Why did the walk have to end? Why couldn’t we have just kept going, beyond our homes, back out into the woods?

Other days come back. I’d gone fishing with my friends at Cook’s Pond. Tony, Chris, Randy, Dean, Eric, Glenn, Mark. We baited our hooks with worms and watched orange and white bobbers float across the dark surface. A bobber sank. Someone hauled a fish ashore. We stood around rejoicing the catch until Glenn stuffed a lit firecracker in the perch’s gaping mouth. The slimy fish flopped in the dirt as we all laughed, waiting for the bang. But the wet wick fizzled out. Our curiosity about the world was confused, mixed with a cruelty we all assumed we would forget. Not to be deterred by failure, we grabbed an insulin needle from Mark’s lunch pail and began injecting fruit punch into the fish’s spine. It didn’t die, but contorted into a palsied horror. The fish’s back curled around, an anguished arch that I’ve never forgotten. We slipped the deformed creature back into the pond and watched as it corkscrewed into the depths, blowing up tiny bubbles.

My grandfather taught me to fish. My first catch was a ten-inch bass that I wrapped in plastic and kept in my freezer for six months as some sort of morbid trophy. My grandfather also gave me a brass 20mm cartridge from a ship in the war. A Japanese Zero had strafed their deck. Navy guns fired back.

“I saw a captured Jap pilot once,” he told me. “The little guy was shaking. He thought the Americans were going to chop off his head. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he asked for a cigarette.”

My grandfather placed two fingers up to his mouth and made a puffing sound with his lips. Why does this memory return so clearly?

The first model I ever built was a 1/48 scale Japanese Zero. It took a week to assemble, from start to finish, but the shiny Japanese fighter plane never measured up to the one pictured on the box cover. Globs of glue piled up at every joint. Thick brushstrokes of silver paint defaced the wings and fuselage. One of the orange ‘rising sun’ decals tore down the center. Still, I was damn proud of completing it.

In time, my bedroom became a crowded menagerie of airplanes in flight. Suspended on monofilament fishing thread, an F-4 Phantom, loaded with heat-seeking missiles, banked left. An A-10 Thunderbolt, gear down, lined up on short final over my bed. A Russian Mig-21, red Soviet stars on its tail, climbed out on patrol.


Grampa Tisdell

Colleen brushes back thorny bramble as the path continues. We are almost home now, just a few hundred yards left. We cross the Edinburghs’ front lawn, and slip through their side yard. The grass is worn flat and gray-brown. The path skirts along the edge of the Deans’ house with their lush gardens. A red, wide-plank fence defines the yards. The Deans own the florist’s shop in Tatnuck Square. Every year at Halloween, the Edinburghs pass out nickels while the Deans pass out baskets of treats, whole candy bars, caramel apples wrapped in red cellophane. From here the path jogs right, behind the Markowitzs’ house. They have a two story game room that I’m never allowed inside. Once, I left a banana peel in their yard by accident. Mrs. Markowitz knocked on the front door, insisted I come back and retrieve it.

Wild flowers and tall grass gives way to a copse of white-barked birch trees into the Sheedys’ backyard. Mr. Sheedy is an air-traffic controller. His wife loves Elvis Presley. They have a son, an old dog, but no car. Yellow taxis take them to the grocery store, to work.

Are we still talking as we approach the Bessettes’ huge front lawn? The Bessettes are my neighbors on the other side. They were the original family on Walter Street. A large field, remnant of the original farms, wraps behind our backyards. Crab apple trees line the field. Once, they planted and sold Christmas trees in the field, a whole grove of evergreens like a perpetual holiday.

Colleen and I stop in the shade of a flickering birch. We are so close to the end. The air smells humid, the afternoon light beginning to soften.

Emerson writes, “All loss, all pain, is particular; the universe remains to the heart unhurt.” Loss radiates out from the center of this moment. The innocence that is Childhood cannot escape unharmed, despite what Emerson says.

In front of us is an ambulance in the street, lights flashing. A fire truck idles further down. There is an indecipherable second before either Colleen or I can register what’s happening.

We inch forward. The distance from where we spot the flashing lights to my front door is no more than thirty yards. To cross this ninety feet of space is to cross a galaxy.

Perhaps the great shame is that I only think of myself. Is the emergency at my house? Who is the ambulance for? I feel a twinge of relief when I realize that whatever is happening, is happening next door. I’ve forgotten that Colleen is just inches away.

Why don’t I take her hand? Why don’t I at least say something? Of course, I am nine. What possible words do I possess?

The most amazing thing is that we keep walking. In lock-step almost. Neither one of us breaks into a run. Neither one of us thinks to turn around. We simply walk forward in silence.

In the driveway is my father, still in his work clothes. Half the neighborhood stands together on my front lawn. The scene appears almost festive except no one is talking. No one is smiling. They all turn toward us as we approach, but no one speaks.

We come astride my front steps. Colleen stops, but I keep walking toward my father. He is, of course, safety. He can orient the confusion for me. A second later, Cathy, Colleen’s older sister, appears in my front door. Her face is red and swollen. My mother is standing behind her.

“What is it?” Colleen asks. She is so brave then, standing alone, apart from the rest. Just a twelve-year-old girl asking for an explanation.

“It’s Daddy,” Cathy says to her from behind the screen.  “He’s dead.”

Then my mother does what I’ve failed to do. She comes down the stairs and takes Colleen in her arms, brings her inside. The screen door closes. I stand next to my father and the others in the driveway. We watch and wait.


Richie 1

Chekhov writes, “Happiness is something we never have, but only long for.”  I disagree.  I’m certain that I had a happy childhood. But perhaps happiness can only be understood when it’s held up against sadness. Contrast defines and focuses the feeling, and this happens slowly, after decades. On that bright summer afternoon, I learned something about love and joy, something about death and sadness. I caught a glimpse of life that I have never forgotten.

I walked a mile from my home with a girl I loved. Neither one of us knew what that walk would mean. We never could have guessed at the way world would suddenly change by the end.  And more than any other, that single hour taught me about the precarious, precious and magical nature of being alive. How it can turn in an instant. How we never know what’s waiting.

Childhood was an island unto itself, sacred, broken, pure. Those days were both a paradise and a prison, as all such islands must be. Memory was the penance, forgetting the sin. I’ve left out so much. So much has disappeared, like, cumulus clouds and the smell of asphalt on a summer afternoon. To snare even the outline of such things demands the habits of organized lunacy.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell

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

For more NC Childhood essays visit our Childhood page.


Mar 042013

Yoko OgawaAuthor Photo via

Revenge cover

Revenge, Eleven Dark Stories
Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder
Picador, ISBN 978-0312674465
162 Pages, $14.00

The original title of Yoko Ogawa’s surreal novel in eleven stories was Kamoku na shigai, midara na tomurai, which might be translated as Unspeaking Corpse, Unsuitable Interment, a much more appropriate, or at any rate a less distracting, title. Active revenge figures only intermittently in Ms. Ogawa’s book, though it often crosses the minds of her characters.  Even a cursory reading indicates that these stories are connected, with characters, incidents, themes, images and even physical objects recurring and reverberating forward and backward through the linked narratives that make up the collection.

Closer study of the book reveals a more cohesive structure. These eleven stories are really a single harrowing tale, told in one voice, though the eleven protagonists represent various ages and both sexes. The shared flat affect of the unnamed narrators at first seems an oddity or a flaw.  In fact their single voice is the key to the book’s form, and a vital clue to decoding its meaning.

Ogawa leads you through a slightly askew world in these stories, all of them set in the same dream landscape that consists of a town square, a zoo, a resort hotel, a disused post office, a crumbling mansion turned museum, a boarding house with a hill of fruit trees and a field of junked appliances. Her characters move through these designated spaces, following each other’s tracks like the little sculptures that emerge from the clock tower in the town square every hour.

Start with “Afternoon at the Bakery.”  The titular store stands in the town square, with its cuckoo-style clock tower and its straggling figurines: a soldier, a chicken, a skeleton and an angel. Inside, the baker, a tiny woman, cries as she talks on the phone in the kitchen. A customer orders a strawberry shortcake in honor of her dead son. It was his favorite treat, before he trapped himself in the family refrigerator and suffocated, at age six. “He had curled up in an ingenious fashion to fit between the shelves and the egg box, with his legs carefully folded and his face tucked between his knees.”

Later the customer goes home and locks herself inside her refrigerator to try and feel what her son felt. This image, of a body curled between the freezer and the egg tray, opens and closes the book. Along the way, reiterations of it illuminate the path through the other eleven stories like the lighted houses strung along the curve of a beach at night.

In the second story, “Fruit Juice,” a young man is invited to lunch with a schoolmate and the father who abandoned her many years ago. Her mother, dying of cancer, has arranged the meeting. The father is a prominent local politician,  and he sends a  limousine to pick them up. The restaurant is expensive, but the meal is formal and pedestrian. They eat strawberry shortcake for dessert. The old man offers his help. But he’s a stranger.

The friend pauses as they walk through the city streets later, “like a wind-up toy that has run down.”  Later, they find themselves in a closed post office at the foot of a hill planted with fruit trees. The big empty chamber inside is filled with piles of ripe kiwis. The young man watches as his friend gorges herself.  Years later, she studies culinary arts and eventually becomes a baker. When the narrator finds out the politician has died he calls his friend at work to tell her. She is crying on the phone when a woman comes into the shop to order a memorial portion of strawberry shortcake.

“Old Mrs. J”  introduces us to the old woman who owns both the fruit trees and the old post office. Death has marked her life, too. She’s a widow and takes in boarders, including the young tenant who narrates this story. Stray cats make their first appearance here, wrecking her garden. The tenant suggests spreading pine needles to keep them away. In the course of their conversation he tells her he’s a writer, a piece of information she finds oddly disturbing. He watches her harvesting the kiwis and carrying them down the hill in boxes. She also grows carrots. Somehow she has cultivated them into the shape of human hands. When her husband is dug up in the orchard by the police, his hands have been amputated.

“The Little Dustman” features a children’s orchestra playing this Brahms piece on a snowbound train. Both the spring snow storm (the flakes look like blossoms) and the music recur as the book goes on. This narrator is on the train going to “Mama’s” funeral. In fact the woman was his step-mother for just two years, when he was a little boy. She left when he was twelve. He recalls a trip to the zoo during a raging snow storm like the one outside the train window. She was a writer, and the trip was research for a novel about the zoo. At the time of her death, Mama hadn’t written anything in ten years, but she carried a manuscript with her wrapped in a scarf, apparently afraid someone was going to steal it. Finally the stepson reads one of her stories, about a woman who grows carrots in the shape of human hands.

“Lab Coats” concerns two secretaries at the local hospital. They are sorting lab coats for the laundry. One of them is in love with a married doctor, a resident in respiratory medicine. When the doctor goes to reveal the affair to his wife, his train gets stuck in a  springtime snowstorm. The angry secretary doesn’t believe it; her friend reminds her: “Freak snowstorms happen.”  Later they are typing color-coded labels for a medical presentation and the secretary uses color #608, instead of #508. She blames her friend, but #508 is her apartment number. She murdered her doctor boyfriend there. Later sorting out lab coats again, they find his bloody white jacket, with his tongue in the pocket.

“Sewing for the Heart” concerns a bag-maker hired to construct a bag to enclose a woman’s heart, which is located outside her body, just above her left breast.  She is a jazz singer,  at a local nightclub. He goes to hear her perform after examining the beating heart at her house. He’s explains: “I simply wanted to see her heart in the outside world.”

The image of a heart beating unprotected and visible arrives at the book’s midpoint, along with a description of the bag as a work of art that could just easily be about the stories, themselves:  “A bag has no intentions of its own, it embraces every object you ask it to hold.”

He has made all kinds of bags, including one for carrying his pet hamster, which dies in the course of the story. He dumps it into the trash at a hamburger joint. He has no further use for the hamster’s bag, and the singer’s intricate heart-bag winds up on the floor as well, “like a dead animal” when the singer agrees to an operation that will insert her heart back into her chest cavity.

 The thought of his masterpiece going to waste drives the bag-maker mad and he winds up attacking the woman in her bed, as the  hospital PA system pages the missing Dr. Y from respiratory medicine.

He cuts out the heart and carries it away in the sealskin satchel he created.

The woman in “Welcome to the Museum of Torture” is linked to the other characters and situations by many threads. A doctor was murdered in apartment #508 in her building; the policeman interviewing her wonders if there’s any connection to the woman whose heart was cut out in a mysterious attack at the hospital the day before. And she describes the embrace of her boyfriend in a way which by now feels downright ominous: “I have the ability to squeeze into any little space he leaves for me. I fold my legs until they take up almost no room at all, and curl in my shoulders until they’re practically dislocated. Like a mummy in a tomb. And when I get like this, I don’t care if I never get out, or maybe that’s what I hope will happen.”

Thinking she is amused by the murder upstairs, her boyfriend breaks up with her and she winds up wandering through the same city dreamscape the other characters inhabit: through the town square, whose cuckoo clock characters are falling apart –even the angel’s wings are detaching themselves. She finds a dead hamster in the trash. Eventually she winds up at the museum of the title, a stone house on the edge of town. An elderly gentleman shows her around, pointing out various gruesome exhibits, including a torso crusher created by a bag-maker. The old man tells her the bag maker invented this horrific corset to use on himself. Love and torture seem a perfect match to the jilted lover.

“Everything my uncle touched seemed to fall apart at the end,” the narrator of the next story, “The Man Who Sold Braces,” tells us. Of course he wasn’t a real uncle, any more than “Mama” of “The Little Dustman” was an actual mother. All family ties in Ogawa’s world are confused and tenuous.

Uncle brought the boy in the story presents, and made him search through his pocket for them.  Once he helped the boy build a model airplane, which promptly fell apart, losing its wings like the clock angel. Uncle and nephew remained close as the child grew up and the older man launched himself onto a baroque series of failed business endeavors, including a brace that was supposed to help short people grow taller. The uncle winds up as the curator of a museum of torture and the caretaker of the Bengal tiger kept by the twin old women who originally owned the house.  How did he tell the two ancient ladies apart? He couldn’t, and there was no need to: in essence they were the same person, as interchangeable, one can’t help thinking, as the narrators of these eleven stories. The brace he designed winds up in the museum – and falls apart, of course.

The narrator finds his uncle dying in his little apartment, under a collapsed shelf, among a hoarder’s mess of random objects. His uncle tells him the tiger died and gives him a fur coat, which he realizes is stitched together from the animal’s pelt.  He leaves, walking out into a bizarre springtime blizzard. Even as he grasps the nature of his coat, it starts to fall apart, molting off him, scattering its pieces on the snow.

The wife of Dr Y, specialist in respiratory medicine, is driving into town to confront his mistress, as “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger” begins. This story seems to takes place before the murder; or perhaps she is just as yet unaware of it. She crosses a bridge covered with spilled tomatoes from a farmer’s overturned truck, driving over them greedily, feeling like she’s crushing human organs with her car wheels. She never gets to apartment #508. Instead she winds up in the backyard of the Museum of Torture, where the old curator is comforting a Bengal tiger in its death throes. Driving home across the bridge, she finds the tomatoes are gone.

The penultimate story in the collection, “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,”  opens with a small woman and her big dog sitting on the protagonist’s hotel bed when he checks into his room.  He convinces her to leave, but she crosses his path often in the days that follow. He sees her trying to sell a load of tomatoes she found scattered a bridge to the hotel chef, and she sits with him the next morning while he eats an omelet engorged with tomatoes and a salad stuffed with them.  He’s a writer, staying at the hotel to review it for a travel magazine. The resort features a dolphin-watching cruise, but the dolphins are dead, from some internal parasite that brings to mind the maggots whose swarming movements made the dead hamster seem alive for a moment to the narrator of “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.”

When the old woman sits next to him on a bench, he remarks, “Her tiny body fit right next to mine,” echoing the dead child in the refrigerator, and the girl from the Museum of Torture, molding herself to her boyfriend. It soon becomes clear that this old lady is “Mama” from the “The Little Dustman.” Of course she had died in that story.

So she is a ghost, or something else, the central consciousness that animates all these tales, the reflected and refracting facets of the gem stone, the blood diamond, she keeps turning and turning in her hands.

She re-tells the story of the snow bound trip to the zoo, but fills in the end. She and her son got lost, and almost died in the blizzard. They were rescued by a man driving a car, so much like the lost father’s car in Fruit Juice. The man who saved them looked exactly like the young journalist. He also reminds her of her son. “I seem to have all the parts in your story,” he says. He asks her about the bundle and she tells him it’s her manuscript. She carries it everywhere for fear of having it stolen. She’s not paranoid. It’s happened before. An old woman stole her work once – her novel Afternoon at the Bakery, about a woman buying a birthday cake for her dead son. The plagiarist had the nerve to say of the book, “It was the product of destroying the world she’d built in her previous works.”

The journalist takes photographs of Mama in the hotel library, recalling the photograph of his own lost son and a picture of Mama with old Mrs. J, holding up hand-shaped carrots for a local newspaper. He finds mama’s book in the library. The dust jacket photo shows old Mrs. J, and claims the author disappeared fifteen years before. She’s gone from the hotel the next day, but he finds her bundled manuscript.

The pages are blank.

In the final story, “Poison Plants,” an elderly painter hears a young man singing “The Little Dustman” in a concert, and is so impressed she offers to help him with his career. She secures a tutor and a music scholarship for him in return for a bi-weekly progress report at her house. The boy’s news doesn’t interest her; all she cares about is hearing his voice. He reads to her, a bizarre (but familiar) story of a hill full of kiwi trees, carrots shaped like hands and a dead cat found in an abandoned post office, under a mountain of fruit.

She had a daughter who died at age nineteen. “My past is full of ghosts,” she tells him. She shows him her paintings, he plays piano for her. She tells him a little more about her life. She met her husband when he hired her to paint the poisonous plants in his garden. By this time in the book, that seems like an entirely reasonable courtship. She throws the tarot for him and sees his girlfriend’s death in the cards, though she doesn’t say so. Their brief friendship comes to an end when she insists he visit on his girlfriend’s birthday. He reads to her on that last visit and the story shifts. Is she hearing it, or living it, remembering it or making it up?

 The events are familiar by now. The old woman scrambles up a hill of fruit trees and then down into a forest, finally out into a field of rusting discarded appliances. She opens the door of a refrigerator and sees her own body: “In this gloomy, cramped box I had eaten poison plants and died, hidden away from prying eyes. Crouching down at the door I wept. For my dead self.”

And the book ends there, a dream of grief, a lesson in life’s revenge on us, for the crime of living. All these characters sound the same because they are the same, one soul caught in the Museum of Torture, lost in the snow, strapped into the brace, watching everything fall apart, even the wings of angels. Her manuscript stolen or made up of blank pages, or both, its metaphors nevertheless persist in her mind, poisoning her like toxic fruit, colonizing her like maggots in the dead hamster, or the intestinal disease that killed the hotel dolphins. The images are surreal: the sealskin bag perfectly fitted to a human heart, the human tongue in a dead man’s lab coat pocket. They serve the highest purpose of surrealism, to enlarge and distort the truth so that we can finally recognize it.

Mama’s child is dead. She’s dead, too. Any parent who has lost a child, or suffered the loss in a nightmare, or lived a moment or two of it in a crowded place when a little boy wandered off, knows the feeling. Has Yoko Ogawa suffered in this way? It’s impossible to tell. Though Ogawa has published more than twenty books since 1988, and won numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa prize, she lives a life of absolute privacy, out of the public spotlight, as mysterious as the blank pages of her character’s manuscript.

We may know little about the author, but we do know what those empty pages might have contained: the entwined fever dreams of rage and sorrow that make up this small strange masterpiece.

Like the afflicted jazz singer in “Sewing for the Heart,” Yoko Ogawa wears her heart outside her chest — a remarkable, disturbing, beautiful book.

—Steven Axelrod


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

Mar 032013

Robert VivianAuthor photo: Tina Vivian

Numéro Cinq publishes plays; hardly any other magazine does. I suppose people imagine that it’s a kind of travesty to fix in print something that should be alive, incarnate on the stage with actors and actresses, gesture and expression. But when the play closes, the words lie dormant, unseen, unheard, inaccessible. On top of that, I think there is an audience of would-be dramatists and even ordinary readers who want to know what a play looks like written down, to get some idea of the mysterious process that runs through author to page to director to actor to stage to audience. To me plays really are mysterious, strange, stripped-down pieces of writing, for the most part minus the character thought that drives narrative fiction, often highly and obviously constructed; and with a play, one is always aware, haunted even, by the vast difference between the words on the page and the final product on the stage, re-imagined, enacted, through the minds and gestures of the actors, all those theatrical things that are not and can never be written down on the page.

So once again I am really pleased to offer NC readers a piece of theater, this time from Robert Vivian, a Nebraska boy who once played baseball in college and then turned to writing (a lot like baseball) and has produced a huge and growing oeuvre of novels, essays, and, yes, plays (actually, a lot of plays). A Little Mysterious Bleeding is a monologue and shares much with Vivian’s fiction and nonfiction prose in that he has a predilection for meditation, for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, for large questions about existence, human nature and the puzzles of the heart. Vivian has a modernist bent; he seems to be writing about real people, but everything he writes tends to turn around a pattern of imagery. In this case, Chloe’s metonymic bleeding becomes the central image (symbol) of her struggle with the word “love.” It would be reductive to say that A Little Mysterious Bleeding is just the story of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a disappointed Harvard grad; rather, Vivian takes that premise and turns it inside-out like a sock and renders it mythic. But symbol and myth are equally grounded in deft characterization and precise psychological perception; the play flickers between the real and the symbolic. And the writing is mesmerizing: quotable line after quotable line.


Well, life as a playwright: Before I moved to Michigan 11 years ago, I was primarily working on plays, over 20 of which were performed in NYC. I also had several monologues in the 90s published in The Best American Monologue Series for men and women. Since moving to Michigan, though, I’ve focused primarily on creative prose in cnf and fiction. I’ve always loved theater but at a remove: I’ve never had any real interest in directing or acting. But to this day there’s nothing quite as electric as hearing one’s words spoken on stage with trained actors; it’s a kind of alchemy and music that I’ve never experienced in any other genre. I love the monologue as a form, and it has been the focal points in first three novels that are largely driven by a revolving cast of first person narrators, so I guess you could see I’ve taken what I learned from the stage and transferred it to the page. And for this I’m ineffably grateful. 

— Robert Vivian




Cast Of Characters


A tiny old woman of indeterminate age. SHE could be anywhere from 70-100. Her small, even diminutive stature gives her a quality of elusiveness, her age hard to pin down. SHE wears rather drab, gender-neutral  clothes: brown or green corduroy pants, a sweater of similar design, comfortable walking shoes. Her hair is very short, cropped close. SHE probably wears glasses, wire rimmed. Because SHE doesn’t wear makeup or accentuate her femininity in any way, SHE could almost be mistaken for a man.

Throughout the course of the play, CHLOE holds a clear glass mug of hot water from which SHE sips periodically. When SHE’S done drinking the water, the play is over.



A bare stage.


Any time.


Act I



A bare stage.


CHLOE comes out eventually, smiling to the audience and cupping her hands around the clear mug of hot water. A long pause in which SHE surveys the people SHE’S going to address.



Every morning before the sun comes up I light a candle and sit in a bare empty room on the second floor of my house. I sit down Indian-style on a rug three by four feet, of paisley design. I bought it at K-Mart. Outside I can see a stark, bare Maple tree in my neighbor’s backyard, like a map against the sky. I sit there for awhile in this position, looking at the flame and then looking out the window, and I wonder to myself how I have made it through all the days, the months, the years, pages from the calendar falling like leaves. It’s a very peaceful time, the best part of the day.

Most of the people I’ve known or cared for have gone away or are dead. They all just went away, one by one, without much fanfare. Sometimes remembering them makes me sad, and sometimes it fills me with a tranquil feeling, like I really didn’t lose them at all.

(Holds out her hand, inspecting it.)

When I look at my hands I feel like they should belong to someone else. I can imagine what they’ll look like when I’m dead, and the thought isn’t as morbid as you think, just curious.

Have you ever wondered why people are so agitated all the time, why they’re so restless? I think about it a great deal. But I don’t have an answer.

I have an ordinary life, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I’ve really never had to work for a living. When my husband Kenneth died, I inherited his pension and life insurance. And now I work three hours a day at a junior high school cafeteria—not because I have to, but because I like the work. We have our menu set up for the week and it’s very satisfying to make hot food for growing children, though I’ve never had any of my own.

I’ve become what people tend to dismiss or overlook, not out of malice, mind you, but because our stature makes us insignificant. Someone to take for granted. Not threatening in any way. An old woman. An ancient old woman with short white hair who lives alone, by herself, with three cats, one of whom is blind.

(Pause. SHE sips.)

You see, I haven’t done anything extraordinary with my life. I didn’t have children and I didn’t write books. I didn’t travel to distant places or ride on the back of an elephant, though I did get stranded in Nebraska once. I never thought of myself as exceptional in any way, different, or really worth remarking on. And this wasn’t because I felt worthless or lacked self-esteem—wasn’t because I suffered some terrible trauma in childhood. Nothing like that at all. In fact, about the only think people have consistently remarked on about me is the small size of my hands and fingers, almost like those of a child.

But you can’t take credit for that, can you, the size of your hands or the color of your hair or the sculpture of your cheekbones. No. None of that seems to matter too much, or really at all. So I live in a small house in central Michigan and my husband’s been dead for almost thirty years now. I have a few friends, not many. I don’t want a lot of friends because then they cease to be friends. My wants are few. I listen to the radio for two hours every morning. I work in the kitchen at the junior high school. I walk. I shop. I peer over the steering wheel like other old ladies, though I’d like to believe I’m a better driver at most, more alert, someone who actually drives the speed limit. So my life is in no way remarkable, or really worth dwelling on because it’s so, well, interior, private, regular.

(Sip. Pause.)

But I do have a story to tell you. And I do have memories. They are the sum and total of a person’s life, and for that reason they probably should be mentioned. That’s why it’s so shocking for me to mention that I’ve been bleeding in my private parts for almost fifty years. Every time someone uses the word love I start to bleed. And I have a strange confession to make that I’m not too proud of related to this. Or rather that puzzles me. I do not love my fellow man. I do not love him. I have never loved him and I probably never will. I respect him, I can even work up some sympathy for him from time to time, but I do not love him. Love him. How could I, you see? The every day world with its sights and colors is far more interesting and more beautiful than my fellow man, or woman for that matter.

Did I love my husband? Did I love Kenneth all those years we were together? In the beginning, yes, maybe I did love him. It’s difficult to say now. When we were having sex, the way he would hold me very tightly. He liked to pin me down, you see. He liked to grab hold of my hair. And I went along with it. For the most part, I even enjoyed it to a point. But love? I think we should be very careful about using that word. We must approach it with dark goggles on or welding masks because the very use of it could melt us like chocolate on hot cement. Love. The word is like racing toward the sun at the speed of light, and when we get there, there will be nothing left of any of us because all of us will be consumed.

When I hear people using that word, in the supermarket, at the checkout line, I have this strange physical reaction that makes me shudder. I start to hemorrhage in my private place. I start to bleed. I can only use the word love when I’m speaking to someone like you, when I’m standing up in front of a group of people and I’m thinking out loud. But when I hear it in the mouths of others. When I read it in magazines and novels, I have the same reaction every time. First, a shudder like a cold wind passes through me, and then I get a sharp pain just beneath my abdomen. And then I start to bleed. Just a little trickle, a little clotting, usually nothing too severe. A few paw prints of blood. A little smear. And then I simply have to stop what I’m doing and go home, and close the door to the outside world. I have to get under the covers and breathe slowly, like an army of God’s angels is on its way from a distant, far-away place, coming to get me. Coming to snatch me away. Then I can start feeling normal again.

(Pause. Sip.)

This is just hot water, by the way. I don’t drink coffee or tea. Once in a great while I will have a glass of wine, but it goes right to my head and fogs my thinking. I don’t like to be befogged. From my screened-in porch I like to watch people and cars pass by.

In the morning I can hear the rending of metal of metal coming from the scrap yard eight blocks away. Great iron cranes picking up old refrigerators and cars, dumping them from one pile to the other. I see these in my mind. No one has ever said the town I live in is beautiful. The sound is horrible, of course, the smashing and breaking of worlds, so when it stops, when the scrap yard isn’t in operation for whatever reason—snow or rain—the most wonderful silence descends. It makes the sounds of crashing metal almost worth it somehow.

(Sip. Pause.)

When people use the word love, they should be very, very careful. They should be half-starved or beaten, whipped by suffering, on their knees trembling, naked and about to fall over. They must have to utter it almost despite themselves, because no other word in the world will do. They should be allotted the use of this word maybe three or four times in their whole lives. For some people, they should never use it. It should be absolutely forbidden them. If they do use it, one of their fingers should be cut off. I truly believe that.

(Pause. Sip.)

When Kenneth was alive he was only vaguely abusive, and then in a dismissive kind of way. He never actually tried to hurt or harm me physically. More than anything, I think he was just disappointed. He carried his disappointment wherever he went, like an invisible hunchback. He took out his disappointment on me in different way. Now the real problem with Kenneth’s disappointment as far as I could tell is that he could never locate the source of it, could never pin it down. It was just there with him, and he dragged it into every room he ever entered. His disappointment was elusive but all consuming.

One day he came home from work and I was preparing vegetables for dinner, Brussel sprouts of all things, which we almost never had. Kenneth looked very tired, and angry in a sullen kind of way. And I asked him, How was your day, dear? And he was a long time in answering. In fact, I don’t think he heard me so I repeated the question. But he was no more interested in answering my question than he was before. I stood there with a strainer in one hand, trying to smile through lipstick I didn’t really believe in, and after a long time, a great long time while we stood looking at each other with no other sound but boiling water and the pungent smell of Brussel sprouts, he suddenly said, Bloody. Fucking. Cunt.

(Sip. Pause. Sip.)

Naturally, in a situation like that, you wonder what you did wrong. You play back the events of the day and the recent past and the past before that and try to figure it all out, how A led to B led to C and so on. Kenneth knew perfectly well that the C-word was my least favorite word in the whole English language. I didn’t like to hear it as a girl and I never got over my repugnance. I certainly didn’t like to hear coming from my husband’s mouth.

For my part, I neither cried or asked him just why he used that language with me. Later, long after the bleeding started, I thought back to his hateful language in the kitchen and all the little details that comprised that moment. The steam and pungent odor of the sprouts. The cats slinking in and out of the kitchen. The peeling wallpaper, the burnished teakettle. The feeling of desolation, of being in some way or another in touch with the vastness of hell. The clock seemed to be smiling at me with a certain satisfied grin, and I never said, I never even thought, I will not have this. I will not tolerate this. Instead I noticed the patterns of tile on the floor from my aerial view, and I remember thinking back to my mother, whom I once discovered in a fit of hysterical weeping that seemed to come out of nowhere. And I suddenly thought I understood exactly how she felt.

(Sip. Pause.)

The problem with the word love is that it tends to spin out of control like a gyroscope, it starts to expand and rise up into the air leaving the person behind who said it anchored to the ground. Nailed down almost. And there was never any specific moment that made me feel that way about love. First came the bleeding, and then some kind of rationale lagging behind it.

Kenneth always wore black dress socks no matter what the weather or occasion and I wanted to tell him that this didn’t attract me to him in any way, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to Harvard College and I don’t think he ever got over the experience. He told me many times that the four years he spent at Harvard were the best years of his life, and he couldn’t hope to bring back their glory in anything he did after graduating, certainly not at the bank where he worked in the middle of Michigan. I kept hoping and looking for evidence of his intelligence that made him smarter than other people, but I’m afraid to report that after living with him for decades I didn’t really see any. Oh, he was intelligent, don’t get me wrong, he was a smart man, but he was also kind of petty in a way. Harvard made Kenneth feel special, apart from most other people, and I could never tell him, I could never say, I know it’s a fine school and it’s enjoyed a very good reputation for a long time, but there are other good schools too and they don’t, well, they don’t create the same kind of wistful longing and even snobbery that Harvard does. I’m sorry but they don’t.

But in other ways my life with Kenneth was special. Even though he wore black dress socks every day of his life and he was very disappointed, he insisted that we have sex almost every day we lived together. Our routine developed into a very familiar and predictable pattern: Kenneth would come home at 6:00, we would talk for maybe twenty minutes, after a suitable period of silence, of course; and then he would gently push me in the direction of the staircase, his hands on my rear end, and we’d go up to the bedroom where we’d take off all our clothes. I don’t have to tell you what happened after that. None of these daily rendezvous’ ever produced children, but that didn’t bother Kenneth and it didn’t bother me.

Sometimes Kenneth would weep in bed, holding up my hands and saying, Look at them—they’re so small. And then he would nibble on my fingertips. And with my free hand I would stroke his balding head and notice the crystals of dandruff that had accumulated over the course of the day.

(Pause. Sip.)

But back to the word love. It’s a slippery slope, you see, a street widening out into eternity. I’ve heard stories of love, we all have, and they are properly called love stories, but I can honestly say that not one of them has ever measured up to that one word love. The stories really weren’t about love at all but something else. Maybe affection. Maybe revenge. Maybe a kind of fatalism.

When I hear the word love and start to bleed it’s very much like a small, gentle trickle in a dark, moist cave and the pain is very slight, almost like a shiver. No doctor has ever been able to explain why this happens to me, and I gave up trying to find a rational explanation almost right away. And I’m sorry, I don’t believe in therapists and people who make their living listening to the pain and misery of others. If it were up to me, the people who call themselves therapists would have to work hard labor digging tunnels or working out on highways. I just don’t have any patience or sympathy for therapists at all.

The thing you must do when you hear the word love is to stop what you’re doing and slowly, very slowly stand up as straight as you can. You must believe with your whole, entire heart that your very life is about to end in a few moments. And then you must very, very diligently go over the course of your life and honestly ask yourself when love was really in your heart. When it was more than a feeling and was the only reality there was. If you don’t do that when you hear the word love, then, I’m sorry, you’re fooling yourself and making a mockery of the only thing that matters.

(Sip. Pause.)

Kenneth liked to throw dinner parties every other week, and so I got very used to having guests in our small, lovely house. Kenneth was even more attracted to me in the midst of a group of people than when we were alone. I was always bustling about, laughing and interacting with them and filling up their glasses.

Some times the way he looked at me reminded me of certain nature shows I had watched, like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, for instance, and the predators, the lions and the cheetahs and the leopards before they moved in for the kill. He was so focused on my every move. I’ve heard from other women that some men take them for granted and even ignore them in groups of people, but I have to say that Kenneth grew very conscious of me, his pupils almost dilating. It was a ritual, a dance, a ceremony. Kenneth had a long, craggy forehead and rapidly receding hair-line that could make him look formidable on occasion. One of our friends even remarked that his head resembled a bust of Gustave Mahler, whom I had never heard of before the comparison was made.

Who is Mahler? I asked, and the way that Kenneth glared at me when I asked this question was something I’ll never forget. He looked shocked, hurt, even outraged. Some times Kenneth didn’t like the guilelessness of my questions—and then other times he really seemed to find them funny, almost cute. It depended what kind of a mood he was in.

(Pause. Sip. Sip.)

Now when I get up in the morning, I sit for a time at the end of my bed. Usually the cats are on the bed covers, perked up and listening. They’re waiting for me to make the first move. I say to myself very quietly, Today I will discover what love is. Today I will discover what love is. Today I will discover what love is. Saying these words never fails to make me aware of my ignorance and failings, my own fumblings. I feel ready for a brand new day. And even though for a long time now each day resembles the next very closely, I have grown so sensitive to the slightest nuance of change that it’s quite enough for me. A patch of sunlight on the wooden floor. The dust motes floating just above it. The cats and the tiny thousands and thousands of filaments of hair that make up their fur. The sounds of the house, a squirrel running across the roof. The way my mug feels when I pick it up in the morning, solid and smooth, like something has fallen into place.

Then no single day is exactly like any other day, and then I’m glad to be alive because I’m here. And that’s all. There’s nothing else I can do or say about it because I’m a very limited creature. Do I talk to God? Sure, I do. In my own special way. But mostly it feels like I’m just waiting, I’m just sitting or standing here for something to come and collect me. Of course, I have no idea when that time will be or what it will look like, but I welcome it all the same.

(Sip. Pause.)

When Kenneth died, I wore the brightest dress I had. I didn’t cry and I didn’t try to look somber. His death came after a long battle with cancer and I was there with him every step of the way, sleeping at the hospital toward the very end, washing him, changing his clothes, helping him to go to the bathroom. I wore bright colors because I was actually happy for him, as anyone would be after all the pain and anguish.

One night when he was still at home I went out to get some groceries and when I came back there was this terrible stench in the house. I knew just what it was, of course. I put the food away very deliberately, and for some reason I’ll never understand, I started whistling as I walked up the stairs. I knew Kenneth would be waiting for me, that his intense gray eyes would burn into mine. I whistled and I found on those stairs that, under those conditions, that I was actually a very good whistler.

When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw the light on at the end of the hallway and Kenneth was looking at me. Fiery tears burned in his eyes. And then I let him tell me what I knew he was going to say, because he had to say it and it was very, very holy. I beshat myself, he said. And I went over and kneeled by the side of the bed, took his hand in mind, and kissed it on the knuckles. I beshat myself. I know it, dear. I don’t want to live this way anymore. I know that, sweetheart.

Then I started to clean him up, wiping between his legs with a warm wet cloth, going over his anus, his penis, his testicles he liked me to fondle so much when we were having sex.

(Sip. Pause.)

Even though the real issue before us was his act of soiling himself, and then being unable to do anything about it. To have to wait for me to return, lying there in his own feces, his bowels a part of himself he could no longer control. But I’ll never forget the way he said, I beshat myself, for it was the most remarkable and dignified thing he ever told me, nobler and truer than the few times he said, I love you. I felt closer to him in cleaning up his waste then I had at any other time in all the years we were together, and I’m fairly confident in believing he shared those same feelings. I don’t often use the word awe in every day experience, but I felt a sense of awe in cleaning him up. And I’ve some times thought that all those precious years were just a preparation for that one night in the bedroom, when I cleaned up his shit and we didn’t say a word to each other the whole time.

(Pause. Sip.)

You’ll want to know more about the house and how I live, why it is I’m standing in front of you and saying these rather bold things. Why it matters. How one thing leads to another and how the connections between them are some times hard to decipher.

Where I grew up, there was a field behind the back of the house. I spent a lot of time in that field, walking among the tall grass and the wild flowers. My parents encouraged me to play outside as much as I could. They wanted me to breathe the open air. As an only child I had to learn how to entertain myself, and this I learned to do quite nicely. I’m not saying that I didn’t have friends my age or that I didn’t like to be around people because I did, I did like to be around people. But just as often I preferred to be by myself, exploring the world on my own.

Something very strange happened to me when I was about twelve years old. I supposed that’s an age when a lot of strange things occur. There was a slightly retarded man who lived in the neighborhood. His name was Pat. Pat drooled a little, and when he walked he a sloping kind of gait. He must have been in his thirties when I knew him. I always thought he was interested in me, that he wanted to talk to me alone. He liked to memorize bus schedules and other numerical facts. And one it happened. I was out in the field in the late afternoon. The house looked like it was a long ways away, but it couldn’t have been. I was never more than an acre from home. When it was dinner time my mother would come out and call my name, or, even better, she would ring the dinner bell. Then I would race home, pretending that the shadows were chasing me like a tide, about to overcome me.

At the far edge of this field was a stand of trees where I some times went to be by myself. Sometimes I brought my rag doll Molly with me. Other times I just went there and sat in the lower branch of a sycamore tree. I was playing jacks in a circle in the dirt. I remember my yellow dress was dusty. I had taken off my sandals. I knew very well that my mother could see from the kitchen window, though I couldn’t see her. It was reassuring for both of us. The prospect of her watching me changed the way I played. I was a good girl and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

Well, one day Pat came out to where I was playing, and I saw him coming from a distance. I thought my mother must have seen him too. The locusts were crying out from dry, dark hiding places. I saw Pat and I wondered if my mother was watching the two of us. In retrospect, I don’t think she did. But for the life of me, I can’t say why. Pat came up to me and quickly said, Want to show you something, want to show you something. What is it, Pat, I said, what do you want to show me? Then he grabbed my hand and we started walking very quickly toward the trees. He was pulling me along. I kept looking back at the house, wondering if my mother was seeing all of this. Pat was trembling and he was very excited and I started to feel a little scared. I didn’t think he would hurt me, but Pat was much stronger than I was so pretended nothing was wrong. So we went into the trees. What do you want to show me, Pat? Then he dropped his pants and started to masturbate in front of me. I was only about five feet away. He was uncircumcised and had the largest penis I have ever seen. Then he ejaculated and his semen landed just a few inches short of my bare feet, like tiny studs of liquid pearl. And the air between us was filled with the smell of his sex.

Then Pat was crying and he was very upset. He kept saying sorry over and over again. I didn’t say anything to him and I slowly backed out of the woods and ran home as fast I could. He was a retarded man and there were some things he had no control over. But whenever I saw him after that, I did my best to stay away from him. If I saw him coming down the road, I was gone. I never let him get within ten feet of me again. Yet I felt sorry for him, and I have to say now that he taught me a valuable lesson, especially about men in particular. And that is they many of them, perhaps even the majority, are constantly looking for an opportunity to drop their pants. I have to say that his desperate act in the woods was one of the most honest and straightforward acts I have ever come across in all my years of living. He showed me a human being truly is, even though at the time I didn’t understand it. And now I’m just a little ashamed that I was so afraid of him.

(Sip. Pause.)

It does make me wonder what makes a life. And who lives it exactly, never mind why. How do you balance the terrible tension between what you truly are and what you want to be. How do you balance that. Weigh the scales. Not to mention how you want others to look at you, the worst obstacle of all. What do you shut out. How do you remember. What do you remember. What does it all add up to. Why bleed at the mention of the word love. Why do people say things they do not mean—and then fool themselves into believing their own false intensions. Famine. War. The unimaginable misery and despair of millions of people across the globe. Cruelty. Basic, every day cruelty that goes undetected, unreported, but felt all the same. Then the moments of compassion, real empathy, tenderness even. The birth of an act of love. The small, precious seedling of it. An old woman cannot tell you these. Can an old woman tell you about these? I do not know. I have my doubts. Still. Something compels. Impels us. I am not the woman I used to be.

But was she, that other woman, that other woman I used to be, was she somehow not allowed to be who and what she truly was? Or did she not allow herself? And what does it matter either way? I can only tell you that I wanted Kenneth to be strong. I only wanted him to be what he was made to be—the way he was at the very end. Not all of this dilly-dallying. That small-time despair. His Harvard degree. His general fog of disappointment. Because death is not a possibility but a certainty it would be very helpful to act as though whatever time you have been given is not truly yours but a precious loan of some kind, each one very specific to the individual. If you should waste it. That really should be unthinkable, don’t you think?

I have always had this strange feeling of the unreality of so much around me, billboards and salt shakers, advertisements in magazines, television shows, polished fingernails. And I find myself constantly asking, What is the real nature of things? And am I sound enough in heart and mind to see it? A branch against the sky. That is real. The sounds coming from the scrap yard, like the fallout from another world. That is real. Mangled and twisted metal. A child’s cry coming from the alley. A child who has hurt himself. Can I, would I say my dreams are real?

(Pause. Sip.)

Kenneth used to tell me stories about his childhood, but only under certain conditions. His story-telling followed a strange ritual, you see. First it seemed to come out of a vague sense of anger or uneasiness, like when he came home after work. He’d sit in his chair with a drink in his hand and stare off into space. Or he listened to classical music. He looked so tragic sitting in his overstuffed chair with a glass of scotch in his hand.

I learned very early on in our marriage not to talk to him too much when he first got home. He thought the bank where he worked and the people he worked with were somehow beneath him. He used to say over and over again how he had no idea how he ended up in a small town in the middle of Michigan. He used to say that quite a lot. I don’t know how I ended up here. I don’t know how I ended up here. He must have said this at least five hundred times over the years. The effect of this one sentence on me was something I could never communicate to him. Whenever he said, I don’t know how I ended up here, I would have to stifle this terrible desire to laugh out loud, laugh right in front of him and keep on laughing. Not because I thought it was funny and not to make fun of him. But because to me his saying that was just so preposterous. I don’t know how I ended up here. Maybe I should have said to him, Kenneth, I don’t think anyone know exactly why they end up in the place they do, doing a particular kind of work in a particular environment. There were many, many times in the course of our time together when I felt like laughing, but didn’t because I didn’t want to hurt him to get the wrong impression. And you know what an awful feeling that is, to try to keep from laughing. I don’t know how I ended up here. I don’t know how I ended up here.

(Laughs heartily and warmly.)

Said in the proper spirit or frame of mind, it can sound like the most amazing thing ever, the most mysterious, the most unexpected. You could learn to appreciate that one sentence more than anything else in your life.

Because I always felt that Kenneth was a riding a fence. On one side of the fence was a quiet astonishment and joy and on the other side was the most dismal and appalling sense of failure and inadequacy. And it was nothing I could ever tell him. I wanted to tell him, You’re disappointed so much because only see what you want to see and not what is. In this respect, Harvard really screwed him up because he felt at the age of twenty that he was entitled to certain things, that he was assured a certain way of life. And the odd thing is he really did have the way of life he wanted but not where he wanted to have it.

Often when Kenneth was on top of me I wondered how this lion-headed man who simply had to be inside of me at least once a day could be so witless, could be so far off the mark in terms of his own life. And when he groaned and came inside of me I wanted to hold him against the darkness of his own ignorance, the trembling flicker of my body like some small flame for him to see by. Then he really was like a little boy, a spent, exhausted little boy. And then I could protect him almost until the next time. He even said to me once, Chloe, I have to have sex with you so much because I’m basically in despair, and that was one of the few times when I did laugh out loud because I really couldn’t help it. My own husband didn’t realize how happy he was because he was so busy worrying about what he should have had rather than what he did have. He was very stupid that way. Maybe I didn’t give him enough credit because he wasn’t at all offended when I did laugh that time.

But now I’m of the opinion that you can’t tell people how stupid they are, they must realize it for themselves. They must come to it very slowly and carefully and clearly. There’s no rushing this absolutely crucial process. The light either gets brighter or it gets darker and darker, but the important thing to remember is that it’s still always there.

(Pause. Sip.)

We’re all living according to some symptoms or other. Mine just happens to be a little mysterious bleeding that happens at the mention of the word love. When I’m long past the age of menopause, when I should be, to put it quite crudely, all dried up. The trickling sensation when this occurs is just a very slight chill and tremor, like a shiver of cold wind passing through me. I never told this to Kenneth because I didn’t want to upset him.

At some point in my life or other I had heard or read about people, the vast majority of them women, who bled at certain crucial times or for religious reasons, who bled out of their palms because they loved Christ, for instance. And although I did grow up in the Presbyterian Church, I never had any mystical visions or union with God’s son. I was religious but there are limits to these things. No, my bleeding started in the second year of my marriage to Kenneth, when I was twenty-three years old. I remember it very clearly the first time it happened. My period had just ended two days before because I remember saying that to myself as a kind of reminder. Unlike some women I have never suffered particularly badly at the outset of menstruation, almost never had cramps. But this was different. This was a very personal kind of bleeding beyond the ticking of my biological clock. It had its own time zone entirely.

It was one of those rare occasions that Kenneth and I went out for dinner. Something bad had happened at the office and he just had to get out of the house, he said. We had traveled about half an hour to find a decent restaurant. Kenneth looked morose as usual, hunched over his cocktail like some kind of very intelligent ape. His eyes took in everything, but they rarely settled on me. I was chatting away amicably. The waitress finally came around to get our orders. I pointed to the menu and I said, I would love this avocado soup, and I’d love this penne pasta dish. And that’s when I felt this chill run through me, the shiver I would come to know so well.

Can a pain be sharp and dull at the same time? This one was. I excused myself from the table and went to the ladies’ room because I had white panties on. And I walked as fast as I could, like I was standing over a dam that was ready to break.

(Sip. Pause.)

Now, the question was, did I really love avocado soup? Did I really love penne pasta? Or was I just so excited to be out of the house myself that I gave over to a far-fetched exaggeration? There was no question that I liked them very much—even craved them in a way. But did I love them? No, I could honestly say I did not love them.

I remember sitting in the stall, examining myself, and suddenly it came to me how I had used to word love. If tissue paper was ever a sign of deliverance, this time it was. I saw the blood inside my panties, and it was just a paw print, a filigree almost, the stamp of my genetic code. Spotting, as it is commonly called. But it was a warning, some might even say a revelation. A herald of things to come. Suddenly I was very ashamed of myself. I knew what I had done and how I had erred. I knelt down on the cold tile as muzak flooded the room. I whispered to the toilet seat, to the water in the toilet bowl, I do not love avocado soup. I do not love penne pasta. I am sorry for how I said you.

Then I got up and my head felt like it was full of peculiar, light air, Helium almost, tinged with the fragrance of something vaguely metallic. Pennies, most likely. My own blood, my own iron. I thought my head was about to float off of my shoulders. Some people are slow learners and some people learn very quickly. I learned very quickly because my body was the proof. Without a formal education, without a mystical vision, I swore in that bathroom never to use the word love again until I felt it flood throughout my whole body, and I have been faithful to that vow ever since. But the problem was and continues to be how the word is used by others. At first it was bewildering and very upsetting. Kenneth always complained about how I was always running off to the bathroom. If a neighbor stopped by, I love your curtains, I love your blouse, then I was off to the bathroom.

If we were hosting a dinner party and someone said, I love Mexico or I love New York or I love the soprano voice, then I was gone three times, I was bleeding, I wouldn’t stop, the blood came trickling out of me, even on those rare occasions when they actually meant what they were saying. And after a few experiences like this, Kenneth began to notice, but not to the point that he actually took a real interest. He just frowned in a very disapproving way. When our guests had all left, he might ask, What was all that running around about? And I couldn’t tell him. I just couldn’t tell him what was happening to me.

(Pause. Sip.)

And you, dear children, dear people, what symptoms are you living with? What bodily signs of disaffection? The only way I could make sure that blood wasn’t coming out of me in a more or less steady stream was to be home a lot or with Kenneth. This was compounded over time. Wars came and went. Assassinations. New inventions, vaccines. Riots. I heard all about them in due time, but as a kind of after-echo. But none of these were any more real than the trickle of blood between my legs when someone used the word love.

Did I suffer from loneliness? Did I become more and more of a recluse. I would like to think not, that my life just took a different but inevitable direction and that I went with it. Hysterical bleeding. Outbursts of sorrow for the whole human condition. But no. It wasn’t like that. It was much more personal, close-fitting, like a destiny that had been waiting for me to walk into it and fill it up. Would you believe Kenneth never caught on, never once discovered me in the act of bleeding? Even if he did call that ugly word in the kitchen. Maybe a part of him knew. Maybe he understood in a way he couldn’t explain, even to himself. That didn’t make rational sense. My body became a weather vane, a lightening rod. And I remember trying to look back over my life and isolate some moment when this peculiar sensitivity was born in me, when I realized my body was meant for strange things. But I could never think of any single defining moment when such a space and sorrow were created.

The one thing I have always regretted in my years with Kenneth was pretending to be less intelligent than I was. I didn’t want to shock him too much. Or worse, let him know what I truly thought of most things. Kenneth was a history major in college and he always wanted things to be in neat little categories, stacked like crates, or he just chose to ignore them. He spent most of his life thinking about the past, his own past and what he thought of as the more glorious past before that. How could I confront him with the fact that the past he loved so much didn’t actually exist, that it was only his sentimental imagination replaying what could have been? Kenneth was well-spoken and he read a great many books and knew how to dress, and he had the most elegant handwriting of anyone I have ever seen, but beneath these, my poor dear husband was just a boy playing with sand castles, with motes he dug up with his own manicured hands. He thought he was a tragic figure, but the truth was he was only slightly ridiculous and very self-absorbed.

Did he love me? Did the word that caused me so much grief and consternation make it magically out of his mouth to find a resting place in my heart? Well, the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know if he did love me. Or if I really loved him, for that matter. On the whole I think not. But I never strayed from him, not once in all those years.

(Sip. Pause. SHE hesitates to speak. SHE speaks.)

On the other hand, just because a little old woman with a haircut like a man bleeds at the mention of the word love doesn’t mean love doesn’t exist. Look into your lives. Look into your minds. What actual place does love have in these places? You are alive, aren’t you? Breathing, wondering about the next thing or the last thing, checking your wallet to see how much money you have, looking at your watch. Maybe you grind your teeth at night. The mirrors keep fogging up in the bathroom. And where is the love in all these places? Where is it? Not can you touch it and hold it. But where is it? Is it a property of the earth, or do we graduate to it when we die? Because I have to say I don’t see much evidence of it here. So where does it properly belong? Are you in the midst of it? Are you lashed back and forth by its invisible flames?

(Pause. Sip.)

At three o’clock every day of the week the school buses drive by my front porch. Children walk by on the sidewalk in front of my house. There’s quite a fleet of them. They’re so carefree, almost reckless. I study them. I memorize their faces, postures, the way some of the boys swing their back packs. They’ll never be this carefree again, this in-tune with the present moment. The touches, the sounds, their own impressions. They are delirious with joy, all because a bell rang in the hallway and they were free to go. And they walk out of red brick building into the sun, and they are free in that moment wherever they are gong or whatever their home life is like. Now, quickly, tell me: is that love? I think the single best thing I have done with my life is to keep the secret of my bleeding. To be in a close marriage all those years and never let on what was happening to me. I really don’t know how I did it. Was I made for this, a little mysterious bleeding I kept to myself? I think I would have to say yes.

In the morning when I sit in front of the candle, certain images come to me. I think about Kenneth and our time together. But beyond those my childhood sometimes returns to me in vivid shards and pieces, teasing me to complete a bigger picture. At the cafeteria I see these rows and rows of children lined up for food, food that I have a small part in preparing. My apron is smeared and stained. Jesus is in the back, feverishly washing dishes. There’s a general clatter and commotion like there’s no way we’ll feed all of them, that the whole endeavor day after day is held together by a single piece of invisible twine. It can be cut at any moment. To feed five hundred growing bodies is no easy task. The tiles in the kitchen are lime green, and we’re all required to wear hair nets. Three hours a day I give them.

There’s a little boy named Sean—I don’t know his last name—who walks with a terrible, rocking limp. I think one leg is shorter than the other. He wears very thick glasses. And when you look at the food we prepare, where quantity is elevated above quality, the rumors of cafeteria food and mystery meat not unfounded—you see that the portions of the food are almost identical. If you have a wedge of green jello with a slice of pear on top, you can be sure each dish is almost exactly the same. Same with the apple crisp and so on down the line. Uniformity is important because it’s one of the few things we can control.

When Sean enters the line—I can see him from my corner in the kitchen—I wait for him to make it up to the serving line. I even get a little nervous, if you can believe that. I so want him to be happy. To like his meal. I don’t know why exactly. It’s important that I see him make his way among the heating plates and bright lamps. Some times I can’t see his eyes for the glare off his glasses. People live like this all the time. More private secrets. If I could make his food anything other than what it actually is, mediocre, full of starch, heavily processed, heavily sugared, I would do it all for him. I would change our menu and prepare him something extraordinary. Mussels over pasta. Risotto. But the reality is, I can only do my part in this vast preparation. I can only oversee the preparation of the vegetables, usually some anemic beans or carrots. If I had a choice though, if I controlled the whole process, things would be different. If only for him.

(Sip. Pause.)

But is this love? Some times Kenneth liked to take me for long drives out on the highway. Let’s go for a drive, he’d say. And usually we’d travel two, three hours without saying a word to each other. I didn’t mind. There was never an awkward silence between us. He would reach over and put his right hand on my thigh. He had very strong hands and he would squeeze my leg just above the kneecap. We would travel at 60 mph this way, his hand on my leg, watching the patchwork design of the dismal farms pass by.

If Kenneth could have had a job where he drove most days, I think he would have been happier. Not much, but a little. There was something about the open road that appealed to him, that made his heart expand with possibility. He relaxed his normally grave expression, became almost serene in his thoughtfulness. I never asked him, Are you happy with me? I didn’t ask him questions like that at all. With Kenneth I had great confidence that he needed me, needed something only I give him. And I never had to worry too much about bleeding when it was just the two of us. I had ways to manage it.

With his hands on the steering wheel, looking out over the horizon, Kenneth was as happy as he could possibly ever be. And that was enough for me. As I came to discover the problem with my bleeding was that it was rooted in a sense of injustice that ran through me like a river. You grow up believing that there are simple truths, right and wrong. But when they break down, something else more troubling and more real must take their place. I have never wanted to take my own life, but there have been times when I wished I were dead. Slowly bleeding to death if necessary. I love your hair. I love your dress. I love my country. (beat) No. No. I’m afraid not. It doesn’t work that way. People have been saying such things since the birth of language. But you know, it’s almost never true. It can’t be true. Because of the bleeding I was forced to examine these things, to live them out in a sense. I never had the luxury of dismissing them either way. I just bled. I had to ask myself difficult questions, cosmic questions, and I couldn’t just stop there. With accepted truths and facts. My body would not let me. It forced me to keep on going. It put the pressure on. My body did not let me ease into these things.

(Sip. Pause.)

Some times I would watch Kenneth sleeping. I would go to the bathroom and relieve myself or drink a glass of water. Then I would come back and stand in the doorway, often silvered in the moonlight. Where we live in Michigan the night is often gray so everything takes on a somber tone, like a black and white movie. The first thing you need to know about Kenneth’s sleeping was that it was very deep and peaceful—his sleep seeped into the woodwork, into the covers of the bed. In the moonlight sleeping with his noble forehead he looked very impressive.

I had hoped on a few occasions that this was how he would look on his deathbed. I was rehearsing for his death, counting the days, marking its far-off approach. I remember reading somewhere that only drama without movement was truly beautiful. Here it was. And I would think how strange it was that he had to be inside me once or twice a day, and if that was at all related to the quality of his slumber. On the whole I didn’t think so. His deep sleep was a fluke, a gift from God. And watching someone sleep when you yourself are wide awake can lead to strange thoughts and feelings. I would stand in the dark and I would whisper the same thing over and over again, I’m bleeding, Kenneth. I’m bleeding. I wanted him to hear it, to know it in a subconscious way. The burden of a secret is that some times makes you feel unreal, unsubstantial, like a ghost passing through walls. I’m bleeding, Kenneth. I thought if I could share even a small part of this mystery with him, then I would not be alone to struggle with it myself.

You get up in the middle of the night, your husband is off in a profound sleep, and you say these things. You utter them with perfect clarity just below a whisper. I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding. To make the bleeding real. And if you press a warm washcloth between your legs to staunch the flow when it isn’t your time, you want to tell at least one person in the world about it.

(Pause. Sip.)

I never regretted not having children. But that lack of regret can come up and bite you. If you are trying to figure out why your body behaves in a certain way that no one can really explain, the last thing in the world you think about is having children. It simply doesn’t occur to you. If you yourself don’t quite work properly, why would you want to pass that on to someone else? Besides, Kenneth wanted me all to himself. He cornered me in every room I ever entered with him, like a knee-jerk reaction.

If you start bleeding and you cannot stop it in any way other than removing yourself from a certain situation, then, why, that’s exactly what you do. You take yourself out of the equation. And if in addition to that your husband hovers over your every move in mixed company, then you are fleeing almost all the time, trying to get away from the thing you can’t, yourself and the strange vessel your own body has become. My own quiet life therefore had a feverish intensity to it, it glowed and burned me whenever I tried to touch it myself. My life. My life. The one that was give to me by so many complex factors it beggars the imagination.

To stand outside of your life and watch it happening, while at the same time being right in the middle of it is a condition that only suggests to me that my life, my precious, personal life, isn’t even mine. It’s somebody else’s. Otherwise, why would I bleed at the mention of the word love? And this singular, burning question has never left me alone. I either bled because love was misused, or it was the only thing there is and I was pouring myself out to meet it. Or love is only blood. Can only be blood. Unmixed and problematic. Or it’s all of these things. Oh, I talked to God on numerous occasions. I asked him questions and I didn’t mince my words. I was direct and I was hurting and I was bewildered. Only later did peace come, flooding me in the morning. Opening up inside of me in front of the candle, watching the world come awake.

(Pause. Sip.)

Bleeding was the most mysterious, unaccountable thing that ever happened to me. In all other areas of my life, I was normal. Normal house. Normal upbringing. Middle-class all the way. Even Kenneth’s passion for me my body, his insatiable need of it, was normal. How could it not be? But the bleeding. Ah, that was special. And I’d read the papers. I’d watch the news. I’d hear of people getting killed in car accidents, fires, murders. Incurable diseases. I would watch people come and go in the neighborhood, friends who stopped being friends, though nothing really happened to bring about the end of friendship. They just stopped being friends. And I’d hear of catastrophes in far-off lands, places I had never been, earthquakes, genocide, mass starvation. Was my bleeding connected to any of it? Was my bleeding the world and the world was my bleeding? And I came to a remarkable answer in response to that question, which was, yes, it must be. Because when you really think about, if you are really alive, it can’t be any other way, though the circumstances of my exterior life were perfectly normal.

You are going along in your life, and you are dissatisfied or miserable—and you want to be somewhere, anywhere else, and you everything you do or say is just dust, it’s all just dust. Then that gray period suddenly changes and you realize, no, I’ve known real joy, real happiness, and it’s not anywhere else because there is nowhere else. It’s here. It’s right here, like looking for spare change under the sofa cushions only to realize you have a twenty dollar bill in your pocket. I mean, why all the fuss? If you want to change, stay where you are. Observe what’s going on around you. Listen. Pay attention. And you will change. Change will run its course through you.

(Sip. Pause.)

I only saw one act of violence in my life. I pulled into the parking lot at the supermarket. I think we were out of eggs. I was a very inefficient shopper, always having to go back because I had forgotten something. It used to aggravate Kenneth very much. Anyway, I pulled into the parking lot and I noticed a man in another car. His wife or girlfriend was with him. I could tell they were having an argument just by their body language. People were coming in and out of the store, walking by their car, pushing their shopping carts. I think it was two o’clock in the afternoon, a rare sunny day. And he suddenly just lashes out and hits her with the back of his hand. Her head snapped back, and then she bowed her head and leaned it against the dash board.

I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed what I had just seen, but nobody seemed to notice. It was inconceivable that I had been the only one to witness this violent abuse. By this time the man had seen me watching him. We locked eyes. He knew I had watched him. A small, almost undetectable smile came across his face. What should I do? Should I go into the supermarket and act like nothing had happened? Should I call the police, Kenneth, someone? Instead I found myself walking toward his car on legs that were really not my own. Scraps of bright litter like confetti were blowing by my ankles, and I sincerely wished I could be one of them. The truth was in that instant that I did not really want to be alive. But I walked toward him anyway and he watched me come on, waiting for me.

I went to her side of the car. I leaned in. I touched her on the shoulder, and when she looked up at me I could see that she had a bloody nose. Leave him, I said. Just leave him. And his hand shot out across her body and held my arm. Like a steel cable. It was a very tense moment. Then she breathed out and cried, I got no place to go. The man let go of me. He was laughing. I wanted her to listen to me. To hear my voice. My voice was high and raspy, like a kite stuck in a tree. Then the man peeled out of the parking lot, and I could see that he didn’t even have license plats. So she was gone, and I never saw her again. Though I still wonder about her from time to time. I wonder if she’s still alive.

(Sip. Pause.)

My bleeding took on different shapes over the years, in slightly different colors and moods and degrees of intensity. Some times it came on like a slow movement in music. Other times the pangs were quite sharp, and I doubled over. I tried different herbs and remedies. I went out of my way to consult obscure, even esoteric sources. For the symptoms. For the bleeding that was mine. The slow undertow of it was pulling me outward, sweeping me away. My body was like a life raft or a piece of floating Styrofoam, riding down an invisible current. Kenneth clamored for my body, he wanted to be inside of me as much as he possibly could. Between my bleeding and our intercourse I was very busy, beset even.

I wanted to be a good wife. I thought I was. But the bleeding proved to me that I had other responses, other things that made their way through me. Some times you just want to be left alone, but I couldn’t tell Kenneth that. At the very worst of it I was bleeding almost continuously, a slow stream that made its way through the dark center of my body. I stayed inside the house more and more. I didn’t want to see any body. There was no one’s face I felt I had to see. Please don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t that I disliked people. I didn’t turn my back on humanity, only if I heard the word love, if they said it in a certain way, the river would break in me. That’s all I have to tell you. All this time Kenneth did not know. It was fine for him that I stayed at home, that I pass the majority of my days in a deep silence. His catastrophic disappointment blinded him to anything else that was going on. And I was thankful for that, deeply and truly thankful because it gave me the space and time to keep asking, What is happening to me?

I didn’t fear death because unlike some people I have never for a second considered that it would not happen to me or that I could delay its arrival. The house grew around me like a warm animal. I developed a routine. After Kenneth left in the morning, I would light a candle and sit in the empty room. Waiting in a way. Beyond violence. Beyond redemption. Just watching. Listening. Some times I said a few words, Some day the bleeding will stop. Some day the bleeding will stop. And some times I rocked back and forth, keening to some grief that ran throughout my body. And if I ever came across the word love in a magazine or a book, I was careful to cut it and burn it over the candle. I didn’t want it to come back and haunt me.

I had most of the day to myself, or some times I went for a walk. I thought of running away once or twice, leaving a note tapped to the refrigerator door. But I knew in my heart that I would never leave him, my dear husband who had become the embodiment of evil.

What did he ever do, you say? What did he ever take? Did he ever beat me? Some people walk through doorways, and they fill up the space with something that’s not very wholesome. When you get to be my age, you no longer feel the need to explain or justify your deepest convictions, because they’re only there. They are only just there. I don’t want to be young again. I don’t want to live forever. Maybe once in a while I wish I could move the way I used to, but even that fades in and out. What I’m really interested in is the next phase of this strange journey, the aftermath of living these many years.

Do you understand that? Do you? There are the vows you make, and then there are the vows you grow into, that become you. If I could have stopped the bleeding, if I could have made it go away, if it had been within my power, then everything could have been different. I would be different. I wouldn’t regard this world and my life in the same way. I might have been more optimistic, more light-hearted in a way. I would have believed the things that people tell themselves, that I control this or that, that this is my choice, that I hold my own destiny in my hands, that I can make anything of my life that I want it to be. But I couldn’t stop the bleeding and I couldn’t understand it so all of those self-empowering notions just flew away—or were out into darkest space.

What did my bleeding teach me, other than the terrible and trembling power of the word love? Well, I learned that how I am made and what I respond to isn’t a question of choice. I didn’t choose it. And I learned endurance, or as a famous poet once said, Endurance only comes from enduring. The world is beautiful, but I could never experience it directly. I could never grab hold of my life and say, Yes, this is what I want, and I will go out and get it.

Some nights I would dream that the stream of my blood was rising all around me like a dark lake and I was not sinking but rising with it while everything else, the house, Kenneth’s noble forehead in sleep, became slowly submerged. Covered up by a pool of this darkness.

(Pause. Sip. Sip.)

Then one day, miraculously, the bleeding just stopped. I felt the pain of that dark river just suddenly leave my body, as mysteriously as it had come. Two years after the day Kenneth died, the bleeding completely stopped. In its place I felt a great cleansing barrenness, like grains of sand sweeping throughout a desert. Was I happy? Elated? Afraid that it would come back? I suppose all of these—or none of them. I really don’t remember. I had lived for so long with this strange affliction that I no longer had any hope of curing it. And though I don’t remember exactly how I felt when the bleeding left me—Happy? Sad? Full of misgivings?—I do remember quite clearly the arrangement of things around me and where I was.

—Robert Vivian

ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. The second part of the trilogy was the novel Lamb Bright Saviors; and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, was published in 2011. His collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, was also published in 2011. Vivian’s most recent novel, Water And Abandon, appeared in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

You can also read Robert Vivian’s earlier contributions to NC, two essays on essays: “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” and “The Essay as an Open Field.”

Mar 022013


It’s the Sunday before Lent and I’m in Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps. The forecast predicts snow from Siberia, but right now the sun staves off the chill that I know will deepen with sunset. I stomp my feet while standing on frosty cobblestones waiting to buy a red jersey cap. Although flimsy, it will serve as a badge to show I’m a sympathetic bystander and protect me. In half an hour the streets will run red with the juice of tons of Calabrian blood oranges. Thousands of townspeople, divided into teams, will hurl fruit at each other, commemorating liberation—legend has it—from a medieval tyrant. This is the Battle of the Oranges, a three-day fight that takes place every year during Carnival. It starts on Sunday and terminates on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and I’m here to take photographs from the front lines.


According to the legend, in the Middle Ages, when a beautiful miller’s daughter—Violetta—married, a tyrannical lord insisted on exercising his right to spend the first night with her (le droit du seigneur). She gave him so much to drink that he passed out beforehand. Then she chopped off his head, the local populace rose to her defense and tore down the tyrant’s castle.

This act of rebellion is reenacted centuries later by the bare-headed populace (on foot) which battles the helmeted and armored tyrant’s supporters (on horse-drawn carts). They wage a sticky war through the various piazze and streets of town. At the end of the three days of combat, officials declare the winners of the battle. And during lulls in the fighting, a band plays, men, women and children in silken and golden costume parade through town and a Violetta stand-in rides a horse-drawn carriage through the fruity, fragrant mess, distributing candy and flowers.


Ivrea’s curious carnival celebration has evolved through the centuries. The battle with citrus as ammunition is a newer development, the origins of which are murky, but historians have dated its beginnings to the mid-nineteenth century. The fruit symbolizes sticks, stones and arrows; but while less deadly, oranges propelled with force still draw blood.


Hence this lightweight red hat—a stocking cap—which I’ve now bought and am wearing. It’s a Phrygian cap, modeled on the headgear that inhabitants of Phrygia (Anatolia) wore in antiquity. It came to be associated with liberty in the Western regions of the Roman Empire and many centuries later French revolutionaries adopted it. During the reign of Terror, French moderates wore this “bonnet rouge” to advertise their sympathy with the new regime.

And, in the United States, some revolutionary soldiers wore knitted red stocking caps and images of Liberty often included a Phrygian cap. (See: French National Symbols.)

In Rip Van Winkle (1820) for example, Washington Irving describes Rip’s great surprise upon awakening in post-Revolutionary war America with red cap imagery:

“Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet, little Dutch inn of yore there was now reared a tall, naked pole with something on the top that looked like a red night-cap and from it was fluttering a flag on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes.”


(Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle, Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1921, p. 56. Pictures and Decorations by N.C. Wyeth.)

Red-capped, camera poised, I’m in good company here, on this old bridge over an icy tributary to the Po River. I’m waiting for the oranges to begin flying. Hundreds of us revolutionary sympathizers jostle each other expectantly, vying for a good spot from which to take pictures. The battle is scheduled to begin at 2 pm and it’s already 2:08. A tv journalist from Norway knocks into me with her plastic-swathed equipment and my camera clatters against the cobblestones, the lens jarring loose. Her bodyguard, a burly local hired to shield her literally with his body from oranges while she shoots, apologizes. No problem, I say, biting my lip. Next to these professionals I feel exposed and unprepared. What if I get orange juice on my equipment? When I ask if they have any extra plastic, the bodyguard hands me a Carrefour supermarket bag. I rip a hole in an end and swaddle my camera with it.


Someone blows a whistle. A group intones words from Ivrea’s traditional carnival song:

“Once upon a time,
A cruel baron
With the rope and the stick
Up at his lair, the castle,
Laughing weirdly
Devoured us, meat and bones ….”

And on the bridge in front, men and boys in kilts and green jackets from the Tuchini di Borghetto faction stuff oranges into cloth shoulder bags. They hop with excitement. Around the bend, behind me, warriors in carts drawn by skittish horses, don their terrifying, football-like helmets.


The first cart surges forward, its black horses whinnying. Oranges sail and thump against the foot soldiers’ upturned faces and, in response, against the helmets of the adversaries above on the cart. Pulp flies through the air when oranges split. Rivulets of red run. The fighters pound each other, their zeal increasing, their accuracy decreasing. The Norwegian lady huddles under the big man she has hired to protect her from errant missiles, her lens peeping out from under his arm. I step away from them, out of the crowd to take a clear shot. Juice splatters when I’m hit in the head—right on my bright red Liberty cap—by a ricocheting orange. This badge offers no protection against the wildly spinning oranges. While I’m reeling, another slams my camera and the lens jars loose again. I struggle to put pieces back together, but oranges bounce off the pavement into my legs and arms. Fun and picturesque? Maybe, I think. But red cap or not, this reenactment hurts.


I step back from the fray into a doorway. I peel off the sticky Carrefour bag and fiddle with the camera. The digital circuitry seems out of whack. I turn the camera off and on, thinking of a Florentine Carnival song, Blessed Spirit (ca. 1513), by Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of The Prince:

Raise then, your weapons high
Against a cruel foe;
But to your own, bring healing remedy.
Lay down that old hostility
Fostered between you since long, long ago.

(Niccolò Machiavelli, Blessed Spirit. Revised Translation by Robert Adams. W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)

Since the Renaissance, carnival celebrations, this version in particular, are about contrast. I came here because I wanted to witness this spectacle, this bloody dramatization of fighting between polar opposites through which reconciliation can be reached. But I didn’t mean to ruin my equipment while doing it.

I stop at a bar and order an espresso. Still fiddling with the camera, I breathe a sigh of relief when the green and red LED lights turn back on.

I follow the show at a distance, down through the narrow passageways of the Borghetto. Then I wind up through other battle-filled squares and streets. Carpeted with peels and pulp, the cobblestones slide under my feet. The battered town reeks of bruised citrus that is already souring.


At the end of the gauntlet, on the loop heading back toward the bridge, combatants put aside their oranges for a few minutes. Men and women on the carts take off their helmets, lean down and shake hands with their adversaries, declaring a momentary truce before they circle around to battle again. A boy’s nose bleeds. A girl massages her shoulder. I mop my face and wipe my camera. And a man, on a cart I’ve photographed, maybe even one of the helmeted men I’ve photographed, quietly has a heart attack. He’s taken to the hospital where later—at age 35—he’s pronounced dead.


But I don’t know this quite yet. I’ll find out when I get home and listen to the news. Right now, while the sun sinks westward and the evening mist rolls in, I’m still red-hatted if damp with the blood-red juice of Calabrian oranges. The battle has started up again and I’m marveling at Ivrea’s rowdy pageantry that for me today continues to unfold.

–Natalia Sarkissian–Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.


Mar 012013

Laura K Warrell

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.



Perhaps it was a strange twist of literary fate that a dramatic production of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man opened at the Huntington Theater in Boston ten days after Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy Django Unchained debuted in cinemas across the nation. Two days after seeing the play, I read Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” and the weekend after that I went to see Tarantino’s film. Each work portrays, as a center-piece, a fight scene between black men with white men as an audience; such a convergence was too intriguing not to explore.

Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, is considered one of the finest novels of American literature and a groundbreaking interpretation of the black American experience.  The novel is about a young black man’s struggle to define himself against the backdrop of early twentieth century American racism.  The story “Battle Royal,” which Ellison published separately in 1948, is the first chapter of the novel.  In the story the young narrator is invited to read a speech he has written on social progress to an audience of white men who force him to participate in a boxing match with his peers before he can deliver his speech.  The play, adapted by producer Oren Jacoby and directed by Christopher McElroen, was first staged at the Court Theatre in Chicago in 2012 and ran at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston from January 4 to February 3, 2013.

via WBUR, Boston

The first thing I noticed about the staging of the fight in the theater production was how horrifying and heartbreaking it was.  The bare-chested black actors seemed incapacitated by fright; their fear made them appear child-like as they swung their arms and stumbled, blindfolded, around the stage.  At the time, I found it simply heartbreaking, but in retrospect wondered if it was somewhat manipulative on the part of the director to make these men appear so completely debilitated by their victimization.  It reminded me of the way I sometimes feel watching certain movies by Steven Spielberg, as if the director simply wants to tug at our heartstrings without asking us to think much about what is happening.  Any integrity, grit or sophistication these men might have had before entering the boxing ring seemed to have been wiped out in in order to present them as defenseless and scared.  It seems insulting and just plain inaccurate to suggest that grown men are not still grown men even when they are scared senseless.  Additionally, to infantilize them in a sense robs them of the same dignity the play’s white characters take from them.  However, these personality traits – utter purity and childlike innocence – are personality traits “good” black characters commonly possess in popular culture.  It is as if in America, we can only handle discussions about oppression and violence when the victims are angels and the aggressors are complete assholes.  Consider how some people’s sympathies change when a rape victim turns out to have a sordid sexual past or how the Trayvon Martin case “took a turn,” at least in public perception, when the boy’s alleged Facebook page was discovered showing him wearing sagging pants and flipping off the camera.

In Ellison’s story, a white woman is brought out before the fight to dance provocatively for the enjoyment of the white male spectators.  In the stage play, this woman’s sole emotion seemed to be fear as well.  The actress playing her danced around pitifully, looking as if she were about to start weeping.  All the while, the white characters, played by two white actors and a handful of black cast members wearing emotionless, quite frightening white masks, acted like our worst nightmares of what sexist racists can be.  So maybe this was the problem with the stage version of the battle royal; the actors were asked to play one note.

Admittedly, I did not come to this conclusion until I returned to Ellison’s text days after the performance (before then, I pitied the black men and white woman, and was disgusted by the white men, as, without doubt, was the entire audience).  But in Ellison’s text so much more is happening.  For one, the author injected a significant amount of sexual tension into the scene.  One of the other black fighters even has an erection.  Ellison also showed us the range of reactions the main character experiences internally; even while he gets pummeled he is thinking about his speech and his dignity, telling us how he feels about the other men, plotting ways to achieve his ultimate goal and negotiating with the other fighters.  Most importantly, his future self is interpreting events.  Then there is the tangle of responses the main character has to the white woman’s dancing – desire, revulsion, empathy.  He wants to protect her, to kill her and have sex with her.

In fact, even the white woman seemed more complex in Ellison’s text than she did on stage.  At first, I sensed apathy in her as I read the story, as if she were mechanically going through the motions of seduction.  It was only after the white men started aggressing her that I sensed her fear.  And what about the other black man in the fight the narrator tries to negotiate with – suggesting they fake a knockout to end the spectacle – but who will not take the deal?  His presence in the story added a whole other layer to events, which his absence on stage negated.

So what was missing on stage, for this scene at least, was the nuance and complexity the short story gives us through narration.  The same nuance and complexity that is required of any in depth, smart examination of race and culture, and which is often lacking even in the most elite intellectual circles.  Sure, we could say, ‘well, this was a stage production, there’s no way to convey the same depth.’  However, most of the play was presented with extensive monologues and asides; the lead actor would take center stage and explain his character’s thoughts and reactions to the events of the play by reciting lengthy passages from the novel verbatim (which Ellison’s estate apparently required of the playwright when asked to turn the book into a play).  So, in some ways, the fight scene was one of the only scenes where there was really no narration.  What was happening internally for the character was never presented to the audience; we simply witnessed the fight scene, and thus, only understood one dimension of its significance.

The notion that oppressed characters are sometimes turned into flawless, defenseless figures to gain empathy, is related to the fear many Americans experience of being labeled culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, or worse, racist. It is easier to depict an oppressive incident and its perpetrators as thoroughly bad and awful, and shave off any edges and contradictions in the victims’ characters, so as not to leave any room to interpret events otherwise.  But it is this flatness, the inability to hold two or more potentially contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time, the notion that things are either categorically good or bad, that is what I find frustrating in many conversations about race, culture and gender in American society.

Does such a controlled rendition of the fight scene in the play protect both the play’s producers and its audience from being un-PC?  Would showing any of the narrator’s unattractive traits or impulses confuse our allegiances?  Do such controlled interpretations also protect us from having to look too deeply at the very things we fear most, for instance, that black men might desire white women (a fact that has a tendency to set off explosions in both communities)?  Then there are other realities we do not really want to face, like that decent, upstanding citizens might also be racist, that violence might sometimes be arousing, that even victims of oppression can have unappealing compulsions.  When we fail to embrace the complexity of these issues, we risk not coming to a true or lingering understanding of them.

 In staging the fight this way, the director also contributes to, rather than underscores, the dehumanization and objectification of the black male and white female characters by turning them into mere symbols of oppression instead of full-fledged human beings with complex identities living in a complex world.  Even worse, such flatness goes against Ellison’s original intentions for the piece.  He included the narration in “Battle Royal” and all of Invisible Man for a reason.  Consider the following, which is from Ellison’s introduction to the novel.  As Ellison was putting the work together, he wondered, “why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth.  Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them.”  Even if these kinds of characters did not exist, Ellison felt it was “necessary, both in the interest of fictional expressiveness and as examples of human possibility, to invent them.”  His goal, in part, was to “create a narrator who could think as well as act” and to “reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.”  It is the characters’ intelligence, depth and complexity, as well as the complexity of the fight itself, which are revealed in the narration.  By eliminating this part of the narration, the stage production reduces the characters to empty, even stereotyped figures used to demonstrate a social struggle.  The characters in the onstage battle royal were presented as subjects of history rather than real people able to contemplate their individual fates.

Let us turn to Django Unchained and the so-called Mandingo fight scene, in which a slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio lustfully watches two black slaves beat each other.  It should be noted that after the film was released, a legion of historians came forward to prove that many of the films most horrific scenes would never have occurred historically, including these fights.  Still, the point, if there was one, of staging such a scene must have been to show how shitty slave owners were, stripping black men of their dignity by turning them into beasts fighting for their own perverse pleasure.

As opposed to the stage production of Invisible Man, where we have the context of the rest of the play to attach some sense of humanity and personhood to the boxing men, the fighters in Django have no personhood at all.  They are simply growling, bloody animals.  Tarantino seems to have a fascination with white men sexually violating black men, considering the anal rape of Marsellus Wallace by a white man in Pulp Fiction, the homoerotic master-and-slave relationship between the DiCaprio and Samuel Jackson characters in Django, not to mention the marble statue of two naked wrestlers entwined that stood prominently behind the DiCaprio character’s seat during dinner.  Perhaps such references are just Tarantino’s way of attacking men he finds loathsome by calling them gay, which would not be too far-fetched considering how juvenile he can be.

It is worth considering where Tarantino “places” his audience as compared to the two other productions.  In the stage production, the audience is sitting in a theater so does not have a camera directing them to watch one thing or another.  They are more like spectators of the fight itself.  Still, they are clearly watching the events of the play, and the fight, through the eyes of the main character who has been their guide since the play’s beginning.  Ellison’s story is told in a close, first person narrative so, as in the play, the audience sees the fight through the narrator’s eyes.  But in Django, the audience sees the black fighters mostly through the white slave owner’s point-of-view, thus, they watch the fight through his objectifying gaze.

Through this gaze, Tarantino turned the two fighting men into sex objects; the violence, as in much of his work, adding to what seems to be his own sense of eroticism as these half-naked men slithered all over each other on the floor, covered in blood instead of sweat.  We hear bones cracking, skin splitting and blood splattering, along with some agonized screams.  But these men say and think nothing and no one says or thinks anything about them, except for DiCaprio’s horny moaning and encouragement to keep fighting.  Of course, we also get to see the Django character and his white friend seethe every so often as they watch the fight as if to remind us that this is in fact terrible.  But by not allowing these men to have voices, let alone identities, Tarantino has done to them what he apparently loathes the slave owners for doing; turning them into objects for an audience’s enjoyment, the audience being those of us sitting in the theater.  In some ways it feels we as audience members are complicit in Tarantino’s efforts to dehumanize these men, inadvertent as these efforts might be.

 In the movie, I would wager to guess that these men were portrayed as over-sexualized, disempowered victims devoid of complexity or humanity not because of any desire to provoke sympathy or be politically correct, but because they were created and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, for all his talents, seems to have lost the intellectual ability to see nuance and complexity at all, let alone the nuances and complexities of race in America.  Pulp Fiction and some of his earlier films handled such material better.  No doubt, part of the movie’s appeal, like so much in the culture, is its ability to arouse our basest, most animalistic instincts; the erotic charge American audiences seem to get from naked (literally) aggression, blood and violence.

While the play takes an intellectually remote stance to its fight, Tarantino’s movie takes an emotionally and intellectually desensitized stance, which fits our tragically desensitized culture.  Both offer simplistic representations of the racial struggles their fights present, though I would never place the play, which in other ways was revelatory, in the same category as Tarantino’s movie.  Only the fight in Ellison’s story is complex and layered, which is fascinating, considering how long ago, and at what point in the nation’s history, it was published.  This must speak either to the gradual decline of both high and low culture in this country, especially when it comes to conversations about thorny issues, or the innate structure of fiction which allows for greater nuance.  Of course, it could also be both.

The artistic consequences of such simplistic portrayals are as important as the cultural consequences.  Without the nuance, audiences do not get to enjoy the layers, complexities and surprises multi-dimensional characters and fictional situations offer.  Such portrayals stifle fruitful discussion and progress.  They also make for intellectually offensive, half-assed or just plain boring entertainment.

—Laura K. Warrell


Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz. The Weinstein Company, 2012. Film.

Invisible Man.  By Ralph Ellison.  Dir. Christopher McElroen.  The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston.  2 February 2013.  Performance.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Vintage Books, 1990.  15-33.  Print.


Laura K. Warrell lives in Boston where she works as a writing teacher and tutor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University.