Sep 242013


As autumn arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, another astonishing, mind-expanding, psychotropic issue wraps up at Numéro Cinq. And we have contributions from Italy, Russia, Sweden, San Francisco, France, and Canada, to name a few. Nothing ordinary, everything fresh and original, a whirlwind of art.

This month features Stephen Sparks and his mesmerizing take on the What It’s Like Living Here series of essays. Sparks’ journey through San Francisco is not to be missed! Then from California to Russia — Russell Working returns to our pages with a memoir about a young American in Vladivostok in 1997; he finds true love and the ghost of Mandelstam. Working reads (and translates) many of the great Russian writers while spending five years living abroad. In a related piece, Russian photographer Valentin Trukhanenko provides lovely photographs of Vladivostok.

11 Lenin

Patrick Keane’s powerful essay examines the sources of Emerson’s optimism in the face of tragedy.  Numéro Cinq‘s capo di tutti capi, Douglas Glover, reprints his stellar essay on writing, “The Novel as a Poem.” I can say from personal experience this remains one of the most influential and important essays on writing I’ve ever read.  Glover’s essay opens with an homage to his great teacher, Robert Day, and it’s with great pleasure that Numéro Cinq publishes the first installment of Day’s new novel, Let Us Imagine Lost Love. Day will publish the novel in serial form, spread out over seven installments in the coming months.


Lawrence Sutin’s follows his earlier novel excerpt in NC with a lovely, thoughtful essay on the music of Vladimír Godár. China Marks returns this month an enchanting series of stitched-thread drawings with embroidered text. Marty Gervais makes his Numéro Cinq debut with three wonderful poems. And Steven Axelrod reviews The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber.


Fruit Salad 2013

mehlis cover

Robert Vivian’s haunting, twirling ‘dervish essay’ reimagines language as a form of mesmerizing motion. Diane Lefer reports on teaching writing to paroled prisoners in California. Natalia Sarkissian takes the reader along on a disturbing trip in the Italian Alps.


Reviews this month from Eric Foley (Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai) and A. Anupama (Pinwheel by Marni Ludwig). A photographic series from Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix plays with color and shadow.  R. W. Gray’s movie feature this month is Darryl Wein’s short film “Unlocked.”

3 salad day!...

Finally, we have poems from Swedish poet Boel Schenlær (translated by Alan Crozier) and David Celone’s translation of Václav Havel’s previously unpublished poem, “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” Celone also provides an essay on translating the poem into English.

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A stunning array of work, and another example of the breadth and quality of what’s happening each month at  Numéro Cinq. Spread the word!

—Richard Farrell

Sep 182013

Daryl Wein’s short film “Unlocked” is itself an experience of trauma as it follows a teenage girl who is already negotiating a difficult tension between the bored surface of her teen life, listening to music and sitting around, and the inexpressible experience she is having with a mother who has cancer. Though her friend tries to reach her, even tries to go to the hospital with her, Wein’s protagonist is having none of it. She wants the surface and the depth to keep a discrete distance. She appears to long for normalcy more than anything — louder music and dancing to avoid the incoming messages on her phone — and is willing to separate from reality to keep at least the appearance of that.

The man with the clipboard she meets on the street who suggests she give to charity is a gate keeper who offers her a chance, for better or worse, to bring surface and depth together. Truly, we can’t be certain he is not charitable, but the van and the brusqueness, the rather scripted tone to his own story about a mother with cancer all point to her being duped for his peculiar pleasure.

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She is drawn along and through the violence by the possibility of doing something, doing her part, helping children or others in need or even the hope that she might herself make sense of the senselessness of her mother’s cancer. We are forced to sit idly by with dread and a sense that she is searching for something other than sacrifice, something more like mercy.


It’s the final scene which sticks with me, as she walks down the street transformed. She weeps, bare to the world. Not that this excuses the actions of the man in the van, but this outer transformation seems to at last signify, at last create meaning for her around the pain and suffering she has been experiencing but denying.

It is a transformation that recalls for me the transformation at the end of Nadine Labaki’s gorgeous film Caramel where one of the minor characters who has been struggling with a very different type of repression throughout also gets a radical shearing and walks down the street also not recognizing herself. I considered posting that clip, but out of context that would be its own violence. See the film and you’ll see.

caramel PDVD_004

Though I am new to Wein’s work, there’s a certain impulsiveness to his characters that compels me:  they are creatures of action and tragic victims to their own heroic gestures.


Lola, the protagonist in his film Lola Versus, overwhelmed by a party scene with two of her ex-boyfriends and her best friend who is dating one of them, has an emotional explosion and storms out, but leaves behind anything generic when she grabs a large block of cheese off the food table on her way, holding it in the air as a triumph.  Cheese as an exit strategy. These are the kinds of characters that invite emulation and leave me wanting for a good party with a generous cheese plate.

— R. W. Gray

Sep 172013


This is the beginning of things, the Ur-essay, the thought-lode out of which most everything else I have written about literature has evolved. It was written in the late 1980s and so, to an ever so slight extent, is a period piece. It forms the centre piece of my book of essays and memoir Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon Press, 1999). The ideas here expressed evolved out of my philosophical background, long reading, and the lessons I learned during my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I mention specifically the novelist Robert Day (who now contributes mightily to NC), but I would be remiss if I didn’t also recall the influence of the late Claude Richard, who was a visiting professor from the University of Montpellier at the time.

I reprint the essay here because the book and the essay were both published long ago; such is the nature of readership that older things fall out of the line of vision. But in fact this essay (and Notes Home from a Prodigal Son), along with The Enamoured Knight and Attack of the Copula Spiders and my long essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought” form a consistent, coherent and elaborated system of thought about writing, criticism and philosophy.


…there is an other [irony] besides the irony of the learned man; there is the poem, in the sense that it is rhythm, death and future.

— Julia Kristeva


The best writing teacher I ever had was a Kansas cowboy named Robert Day who showed up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a last minute, one-semester replacement for a sick colleague in January, 1981. The first day of classes he strode into the room wearing Fry boots, jeans and a checked shirt. Without saying a word, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote across the full length of the blackboard in huge looping letters: REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM.

At the time, Day had only published one novel, a book called The Last Cattle Drive. He was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. He was a past president of the Associated Writing Programs. As a young man, he had worked at G. P. Putnam’s in New York and could recall for us the excitement over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Summers he went back to western Kansas where friends ran a borderline ranch. He kept a horse there, a horse which at various times had eaten loaves of bread through the kitchen window, or Day’s hat. All summer long he would hand out with his friends, their cattle and his horse.

That semester we read Queneau, Musil, Rulfo, Achebe, Nabokov, Tutuola, Abe and Marquez. Day did not tell us what he meant — REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. Maybe he forgot. Half-way through the semester he read the second draft of my novel Precious, three hundred typed pages of plot, dialogue and scene that stubbornly refused to come alive. I still have the notes I made during our conference, fifty-four words. It took less than fifteen minutes. But like a skilled surgeon he had opened the novel up for me and shown me its heart still beating, its bones, nerves and veins.

He taught me four basic devices. The first  was what he called the language overlay. My first person narrator was a newspaperman, he had printer’s ink in his blood. Day said I ought to go through the novel, splicing in words and images, a discourse, in other words, that reflected my hero’s passion for the newspaper world. So, for example, Precious now begins: “Jerry Menenga’s bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers…” Or, in moments of excitement, the narrator will spout a series of headlines in lieu of thoughts.

Second, Day taught me about sub-plots. The main plot of a novel, he said, is like a pioneer wagon train moving across the prairie. The sub-plot is like the Indians coming in out of the hills to attack from time to time. The pattern of the sub-plot must reflect or parallel the pattern of the main plot, Day said, just as the gene inside a cell contains the pattern for the whole body.

Third, he showed me how to use background and revery. My protagonist must have been somewhere before the novel began, he must have a story to tell that will give texture and depth to his thoughts and, by extension, to the narrative. In Day’s words, he wanted me to “give the novel a memory.” Once again, the background must reflect or parallel or bear the seeds of the main action. A revery that does not bear a relation, in pattern, to the main plot is wasted. It diffuses the reader’s attention. It makes the book foggy and boring.

What this means in practice is that far from being “loose and baggy monsters,” to use Henry James’s phrase, in which the author has room to digress, expand or linger, a good novel is a tight, formal production with very few wasted words.

Finally, Day told me how James used the confidante device to modulate the weight of a given speech. In Precious, I had two secondary characters who were both close to the hero. What if I created a pattern of giving and withholding information? What if I made one of the secondary characters the hero’s confidante, the person to whom he told his secrets? He could then maintain an ironic distance from the other, giving opportunities for lightness and humor. The reader would sit up and pay attention when the confidante was on the scene.

Day then lied and told me I could splice all these changes into the novel in three weeks. Actually, it took me five months, and I rewrote the thing from beginning to end. I remember those months as being the best time of my life; the woman I lived with then says otherwise. She says she never remembers me being more miserable. What that means, really, was that the work was hard but also amazingly exhilarating.

What I had learned was far more than a collection of four devices. I had learned a secret about writing stories, novels and poems. Also painting pictures and composing symphonies. I had learned that a novel is not a string of seventy-five thousand words, all different, all pressing the plot forward. If you think about it, the stories of most novels can be told in a page or two of summary. Then imagine me trying to stretch that summary over another two hundred and ninety-eight pages.

Or, to use an image I had carried in my head through two earlier failed novels, think of a novel as a bridge thrown across a bottomless gorge with nothing to support it from one end to the other. In my mind I had to get a running start and write fast for fear of not making it across. I wrote my first novel in six weeks in a state of terror. As a bridge it was a shambles.

What I had learned was that besides story, plot and characters, the novel needs patterns. That in fact the story, plot and characters don’t begin to come alive until they are submitted to a pattern. I had made a common mistake. Before Robert Day, I had assumed that a novel’s “aliveness” depended upon its verisimilitude, i.e. how closely it resembled what we call real life, whereas in fact it depends upon patterns. I think this is what Day meant when he wrote REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM. He meant for us to notice that, like a poem, the novel should be seen as an arrangement of materials of which one, but only one, is the story. This patterning is the poetic quality of prose.


In a poem it is much easier to see the patterns. We’ve all had to map out sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables, the ABBAs of rhyme, the internal rhymes of alliteration, the surprising anti-patterns of sprung rhythm and free verse. We’ve all dissected extended conceits, noted the effects of diction and imagery. These are the things we focus on in a poem. Narrative, story and verisimilitude are secondary to the poetry of poetry, by which I mean the effect of patterns.

With novels and stories, the reverse is true. We tend to read a novel first for plot and character and the narrative’s relation to reality, what post-Saussurean critics call its “aboutness,” and only secondarily, if at all, for pattern. This is a little like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit argument. You know how you can draw a little circular figure with an elongation here and a dot there. If you squint your eyes one way, you can see it’s a rabbit with long ears. But if you squint another way, it becomes a duck with a protruding beak. With poems and novels, you can read for pattern or you can read for aboutness, depending on how you squint your eyes.

It happens to be the case, though, that we rarely read novels for patterns. One reason for this is that the novel’s very aboutness gets in the way. It is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to read a novel for plot and character. In fact, in most cases you have to read for plot and character in order to situate yourself, as an observer, in the world of the novel. The shift of focus, the new squint, if you will, from plot to pattern only happens on rereading. A good reader, as Nabokov wrote in his essay “How to Read, How to Write,” is a rereader.

When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and the artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have one in regard to the eye in a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy the details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave toward the book as we do toward a painting.

When Nabokov makes a distinction between “what the book is about” and our “artistic appreciation” of the book, he is separating our reading of the subject, story and characters — the book’s aboutness — from our appreciation of the book’s so-called artistic qualities, the details we would notice if we looked at a novel the way we look at a painting.

Nabokov assumes that we all look at paintings for more than the resemblance they bear to old dead people in funny clothes, for more than romantic seascapes and sunsets. He assumes that we see, for example, Whistler’s mother as something other than an elderly lady in a plain black dress and that we know, perhaps, that the painting of Whistler’s mother was originally titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and that when Whistler talked about painting he would say, as he did in a letter to his friend Fantin-Latour:

…it seems to me that color ought to be, as it were, embroidered on the canvas, that is to say, the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there, in the same way that a thread appears in an embroidery, and so should all the others, more or less according to their importance; in this way the whole will form a harmony.

Whistler is talking about patterns, patterns of color that exist over and above and through the subject of the picture, its aboutness. And when Nabokov talks about “artistic appreciation,” he is talking about appreciating the patterns of the novel in the same way, the repetition of certain verbal events or structures in a novel like the colors in a painting. This is precisely the way we appreciate poetry, where it is, as I have said, much easier to see that sounds and words are like oil paints or, for that matter, like notes in a piece of music.


Other ages and times have provided writers with pattern books, with instructions on rhetoric and composition. They put names to commonly used devices: paronomesia, periphrasis, prosopopoeia. Even in the 1920s at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, my aunt was taught to write, to compose sentences, by translating back and forth from Latin to English. But no one teaches composition any more except in remedial programs to students who patently can’t write at all.

Instead we teach creative writing with the emphasis on “creative” (which, I guess, implies that there is “uncreative” writing as well, though I have never seen it). At Iowa, outside of Robert Day, teachers tended to urge us to “write what you know.” If we managed to do that, they said, whatever we wrote would come out all right. Ernest Hemingway, that most brazen of liars, once wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence…,” sending generations of his competitors chasing vainly after a will o’ the wisp reality. Why people choose to believe what he says about writing and not what he says about his manliness is a curious instance of intellectual willfulness and self-deception.

In university English departments, on the other hand, students are taught criticism — Arnoldian, Freudian, New, Structuralist and Post-Structuralist, etc. Archetypes, symbols, influences, foreshadowing, metaphor and theme. Academic critics tend to see a novel as full-blown, not something built; as something found, not constructed. Academics are romantics — they see, or prefer to think they see, romantic intention in a novel as opposed to the bricks and mortar. I tried to tell a friend of mine, a person partway through a PhD. in English, what I meant by a pattern in a novel. She said, “Well, we call that recurring imagery.” A singularly bloodless phrase. But fair enough. Yes, that is sort of what I mean.

But why does it recur? And who made it recur? And is that all there is to it? Does the phrase “recurring imagery” help a writer? Academic critics generally see recurring images as evidence of a point the author is trying to make, part of the aboutness of the work. Deconstructionists, on the other hand, look for recurring images that the author may not have intended so as to “deconstruct” the aboutness of the work. In either case, they are wedded to thematics, to aboutness, to truth. Write what you know, throw in a little recurring imagery, and it’ll come out right. That’s what the creative writing schools and the English departments teach us.

In general it’s not terribly bad advice. Many writers get by with no other. Every writer borrows to a greater or lesser extent from the real world the images which he or she deploys in his or her novel. Every writer who has read significantly has an instinctive feel for rhythm, pacing and the repetition of images. But to go through life believing “Write what you know and throw in recurring imagery” is like going through life believing in God and free enterprise — it leads to a conservative and narrow view of life and art.


Pattern is an ambiguous word and I want to keep it that way. Writing a novel, Faulkner once said, is like a one-armed man nailing together a chicken coop in a hurricane. It helps to be open-minded and undogmatic about the rules of the operation.
Experience itself rests on our ability to recognize patterns — Forms Plato called them — in the sensory flux. A pattern that does not repeat itself is not a pattern, it is chaos, or it is something like God, or it is nothing. And the ability to recognize patterns is tied up with out ability to remember. Pattern, repetition and memory are the foundations of consciousness.

The same happens in a novel. On a very rudimentary level the author depends on pattern, repetition and memory to give the reader confidence in the world of the book, what we call verisimilitude, the quality of seeming to be real. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna appears on almost every page. Anna is a pattern, a group of words and characteristics that repeat. If Tolstoy had changed Anna’s name, age, hair color and social background every chapter or so, we would throw the book down in disgust.

Pattern can mean a model or design upon which something else is constructed. Or it can mean the systematic repetition of certain design elements as in the pattern in wallpaper.

Pattern can, for example, refer to something large such as a plot.  All romances are based on, say, the model boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl. We also say there are no new plots under the sun. And we refer to coming-of-age novels, which have plots based on myths and rites of passage, or adventure novels, which are based on the quest model. What we call genre is a sort of pattern.

But pattern can also refer to something minute, a device such as, say, the list or the epic simile or even the structure of a sentence. Here is Nabokov talking about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Gogol called his Dead Souls a prose poem; Flaubert’s novel is also a poem but one that is composed better, with a closer, finer texture. In order to plunge at once into the matter, I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon. This semicolon-and comes after an enumeration of actions or states or objects; then the semicolon creates a pause and the and proceeds to round up the paragraph, to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail, descriptive, poetic, melancholy, or amusing. This is a peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style.

Now, though the actual number of usable patterns may, for practical purposes, be infinite, we always choose to use a finite number in any given piece of writing. This finite number of further reduced by the fact that many of the patterns are repeated throughout any given work. The more patterns a writer knows, however, the better his or her chances of being published, being read, or of writing a masterpiece that will endure. The way a person learns patterns is by reading; literature is an encyclopedia of patterns and devices.

Though it is possible to invent a pattern that no one has ever used before, originality in a writer generally amounts to an ability to vary the pattern in fresh ways. One might, for example, decide to use Flaubert’s semicolon-and sentence pattern in a contemporary rites-of-passage novel set in Montreal’s Jamaican emigre community. The pattern would be Flaubert’s, but the variation, the unique application, would be the author’s own.

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary.

I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative — repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude.

The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

In Anna Karenina there are two sub-plots: Levin’s marriage and Anna’s brother’s marriage. The novel actually begins with a sub-plot scene — Anna’s brother banished to sleep in his study for having an affair with a maid. These subplots are not simply tacked on. They repeat the marriage theme of the main plot, Anna’s marriage. Anna’s brother’s marriage is, like her own, a marriage on the rocks because of infidelity. Levin’s marriage is, by contrast, dutiful and steadfast.

Tolstoy created three identical patterns which twine and leapfrog and reverberate through the novel. Of course, the details, the contents, are different (this is one sort of variation); and, in the case of Levin’s plot, the structure, the pattern, is inverted, a positive to the negative of the other two plots (repetitions of abstract structures such as plots or relationships can vary in three ways — congruence, contrast or inversion, and the tree in the seed).

References to plot and subplot form a kind of rhythm in the novel. This rhythmic repetition of structures has something to do with what we call pace. As each plot comes round again for scrutiny by author and reader, it is like a new wave of energy, a drum beat. Anna’s story is the melody; Levin’s is a kind of booming base note thudding in counterpoint to Anna’s; Anna’s brother’s rhythm is lighter, more frenzied and comic. Or they are like Whistler’s colors, threading through a painting, darker, lighter, heavier, fainter.

There is another sort of repetition in Anna Karenina, one more mysterious yet. Just after Anna meets Vronsky, there is a train accident. A station guard, either drunk or muffled up too much against the cold weather, fails to hear the train approaching and is crushed to death. This station guard returns in Anna’s thoughts over and over again. He begins to inhabit her nightmares. He even migrates into Vronsky’s nightmares — transformed now into a dreadful-looking little man with a bedraggled beard, bending over a sack, groping in it for something and talking in French about having to beat, to pound into a shape a piece of iron. At the end of the novel, Anna sees him again just as she throws herself beneath the wheels of the train: “A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her.”

Obviously train imagery is repeated as well, at the beginning and the end. Why? Coincidence? Or is Tolstoy telling us something about the 19th century Russian transportation system? Of course not. Is it foreshadowing? Well, sort of. But foreshadowing is a word I don’t trust. Does this mean Tolstoy is telling us ahead of time that Anna is going to die in a train accident? I think not. I think there is some other motive at work, that the repetition of trains and bedraggled peasants, this bookending of image and incident, the beginning and the end, has a pleasing quality all its own, symmetry, if you will, a rightness, that is felt and appreciated, not “known.” Overture and coda, rather than prediction. A symmetry that would be lost, say, if Anna drowned herself or beat herself to death with a hatchet.

As a pattern, this terrifying little peasant just seems to pop up. He is just there — and there and there and there. He “means” nothing, except insofar as he is associated by juxtaposition with a larger pattern of trains, death, dreams and Vronsky. Somehow he manages to accrue all the potential horror of that pattern. He reminds us, not of the end to which Anna journeys, but of the beginning; so that when she dies, her end is freighted with a kind of fatedness that makes it all the more horrible and pathetic. The peasant is a tiny thread in the tapestry of the novel, a hint of color in the painting, a grace note in the symphony. Nothing more. Yet without him, how much shallower a book Anna Karenina might be.

It is worth noting that certain kinds of patterning, e.g. the repetition of character traits, enhance verisimilitude, while others, e.g. Anna’s peasant, work against it. We might distinguish between these by calling the one sort patterns of verisimilitude and the other patterns of technique. Every novel uses both, so every novel is a little balancing act between the two, or a war. John Hawkes, the experimental novelist, for example, says that “plot, character, setting and theme” (which are generally what I mean by patterns of verisimilitude) are the real enemies of the novel. “And structure,” he adds, “–verbal and psychological coherence — is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of writing.”

But, oddly, though patterns of technique and patterns of verisimilitude tend to destroy one another, like matter and antimatter, both are necessary to the work. Depending on how heavily the author plays up one or the other, his or her novel will be more or less “realistic” or more or less “experimental.”

Getting the balances right in any given work is part of the art of art and its mystery and is a skill that cannot be taught. It leads to the feeling, a feeling I have had twice, once with each of my novels, of submission, of loss of freedom, of loss of expressiveness. Because there is a point in the process of writing a novel at which you must submit to the strictures of pattern that you have chosen. All of a sudden, there are things you can no longer fit into this novel, things you must cut, and other things that you must put in. And, of course, with something as complicated as a novel, you never get it right. And you end up wanting to slash your wrists.

As Paul Valéry once said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.”


I have already noted that some patterns in novels, those patterns which tend to create verisimilitude, are like the patterns of experience in the world. This is as much as to say that a conventionally realistic novel reflects a certain metaphysics or philosophy of being and knowing. Modern novels of a less conventional sort also reflect a metaphysics, but it is a new metaphysics, a radically new way of talking about the locale of existence.

Vladimir Nabokov, whom I have quoted extensively and who has influenced a whole generation of North American writers (in Canada, at least two Governor-General’s Award winners, Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man and Hubert Aquin’s Trou de Memoire, owe huge debts to the structural and verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire), was an intellectual heir of the Russian Formalists. Formalism was an aesthetic and critical movement that thrived in St. Petersburg and other eastern European cities early in the twentieth century. The Formalists pegged a whole philosophy of language and literature on the split between meaning and signifiers, between aboutness and pattern.

What they did was put a theory to the things painters like Whistler and, soon after, the French Impressionists, and Surrealist poets like Breton, Eluard and Ponge — all the way back to Mallarme (Nabokov sneaks Mallarme quotations into his novels) — had been doing ten, twenty, thirty or more years before. They simply recognized that aboutness and pattern were two aspects of the things we call art and language, and that you could, in fact, have pattern without aboutness.

Since it seem impossible to have aboutness without pattern, a corollary of this is that aboutness is somehow secondary, a poor cousin, on the aesthetic scale of things, to pattern. Nabokov again:

There are…two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case… First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature… A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.

This is what the post-Sausurrean critics, recently so popular in Europe and on American university campuses, are saying. Aboutness is old-fashioned, authoritarian, and patriarchal. Signs — read, pattern, poetry — are playful, subversive, and female. How a thinker can jump from a purely logical incongruence — the fact that, apparently, you can have pattern without aboutness but not vice versa — to these strings of value-loaded predicates is marvelous indeed and evidence that the instinct for narrative and romance has not died behind the ivy-covered walls of academe.

Another corollary of splitting the categories of pattern and aboutness is that there is a sense in which pattern itself creates meaning. Or to put it another way, the novel is about its own form. Or every book is about another book, or books. And every work of art is a message on a string of messages which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, to no one and from no one, and about nothing except the field of pseudo-meaning created by previous and future messages. It is all a game of mirrors and echoes. A little dance of images, words, and patterns. The of the Hindus, or all is vanity, all is dust, sure enough.

Keats wrote, “A man’s life is an allegory.” Nothing else. Or conversely, Korzybski says, “The map (read, the allegory, the pattern, the words) is not the territory.” Which is to say, as Jacques Lacan does, that all utterances are symptomatic and that the real is impossible.


Form (or pattern) and aboutness (or content, or reality) are the binary opposites of thought. The stance of the modern, whether he or she is a novelist, critic, theologian, or psychologist, is that ontology begins and ends with the former, that so-called reality is a highly suspicious article.

We are pressed back to a position of washed-out Cartesianism: I think, therefore, I think; or more precisely, I think, therefore something is thinking. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss say things like, “There is a simultaneous production of myths themselves, by the mind that generates them, and, by the myths, of an image of the world which is already inherent in the structure of the mind.” Linguistic philosophers like Wittgenstein say, “The world is my world: that is shown by the fact that the limits of language stand for the limits of my world…I am my world.” Except that this “I am” is not the body but language itself.

Reality, meaning, aboutness, the good, God and the self are pushed away into the realms of the unconscious, the unknowable, the unspeakable, and the unfathomable. In a very logical sense, they no longer concern us here as we race toward the end of the twentieth century. To say you are writing “realistic novel” is to commit as much of an intellectual solecism as, say, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart does when he says God spoke with him before breakfast. The words “realistic novel” can only be spoken by a person who is speaking in the discourse of an earlier age or in parody.

Think of yourself in a room with bare plaster walls and no windows or doors. You have an infinite supply of variegated wallpapers. You paper the room with something in blue with a skylark pattern, then you do it over with angels, then an abstract, decorative pattern.

The first thing you notice is that you can’t see the wall anymore. This is the first effect of language, according to the philosophers and critics. As soon as you begin to use language, describe the world, you can no longer see it. You can only see your description. In fact, since we can’t even begin to describe something without language, then the existence of the wall itself becomes moot.

The second thing you notice is that each layer of wallpaper covers the previous layers. They’re lost, though you know they’re under there. In a sense the old wallpaper, the past, becomes part of the reality you are describing with each new layer of wallpaper. And sometimes you wake up in the morning and wish you still had the skylarks. You might even try to scrape some of the new wallpaper off. But that only makes a mess.

All you have is the design of each successive layer of wallpaper, and, just possibly, the shape of the room, its broad outlines, its cubic form. Life and art are a little like this. We only see the current wallpaper, remember bits and pieces of the old in the form of myths and memories of memories and fragments of discourse which no longer “mean” what they once meant. And, if we’re lucky, we intuit, or think we intuit, some vague outline of the something which may or may not be the room or the womb of reality.

To be a writer is to write with this knowledge, that the wallpaper is wallpaper and not the room, walls and plaster. It is to have that quality which Keats said went to form a man of achievement “especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” what he called Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability is the artist’s ability to suspend belief in any particular conceptual system (or wallpaper) or to see the conceptual system as pattern, as opposed to reality, as material in itself to be juggled and juxtaposed. Or, to put this another way, aboutness is illusory. What we see as aboutness the artist sees as just another pattern or part of a pattern. Or again, everything is pattern, infinitely plastic and malleable. A person who believes in a particular conceptual system believes that everything can be explained by reference to that conceptual system. Whereas the artist sees the pattern and feels the mystery that looms beyond the pattern.

The truth of the matter, everything that seems supremely important in life, begins when the talking, writing, painting, sculpting, filming and singing of discourse stop. All talk or art that says it’s telling you the truth about life is second rate. Of course, you can write something second rate that’s very popular, even quite good, for all these categories are relative. But great art is pattern over mystery, it is juggling words over whirlpools of silence.


In the extended sense, this view of language, life and art can seem exceedingly austere, if not forbidding and bleak. “The ultimate goal of the human sciences is not constitute, but to dissolve man,” says Levi-Strauss. (Just as Nabokov says that one of the functions of a novel is to prove that the novel in general does not exist.) Few of us can help feeling a nostalgia for the old ways, or what we think are the old ways, of talking. For ancient beliefs. For certainty and immortality. For familiar stories with plots and characters and recognizable locales. For adventure, romance and magic.

A lot of fictional, intellectual and political hay has been made out of this nostalgia, a nostalgia expressed, say, in the phrase “breakdown of values.” When an old way of talking disappears, many people are forced to apply narrative in order to explain it to themselves. They often feel they have a stake in the old way. They invent metaphors and analogies — machine breakdowns, erosion, war, disease — to make themselves feel easier. And to sell books.

You can see where nostalgia led Levi-Strauss in his wonderful autobiographical novel Tristes Tropiques. The annihilation of the self, of meaning and aboutness, by structural anthropology drove him into a quest for theological support, which he may or may not have found wandering amongst the Buddhist temples of the Far East. Or think of Sartre turning from the barrenness of existentialism to the warm, sloppy infantilism of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Or of Michel Foucault leaving his university office every afternoon to pursue a gruesome and self-destructive quest through the bath houses of New York until his death from AIDS.

One can look at people like Sartre, Foucault and Levi-Strauss as contemporary monks whose intellectual vigor and honesty led them to the conclusion that God, man and reality cannot be reached through words. (On December 6, 1273, at the age of fifty, Thomas Aquinas suffered something like a nervous breakdown and never wrote again.) That, by analogy, telling a story is a logically impossible project. That our only recourse (save for silence) is to take a step willy-nilly into narrative, or faith — Keat’s Negative Capability is something like Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith. It can’t be done — all the critics and philosophers tell us — but some of us will jump in anyway and start the story “Once upon a time…”

In this regard, the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once wrote:

…a novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide. A good novel — and, I imagine, a good poem — is possible only after one has given up and let go. Then, once one realizes that all is lost, the jig is up, that after all nothing is dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story to entertain somebody or working in a “tradition” or “school” to maintain his reputation as a practitioner of the nouveau roman or whatever — once one sees that this is a dumb way to live, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. If one opts for the former, that is that; it is a letzte Losung and there is nothing more to write or say about it. But if one opts of the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time. One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! I won’t say that one is like God on the first day, with the chaos before him and a free hand. Rather one feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Faulkner didn’t do, for after all they are nothing more than dead writers, members of this and that tradition, much admired busts on the shelf. A dead writer may be famous but he is also dead as a duck, finished. And I, cast up here on this beach? I am a survivor! Alive! A free man! They’re finished. Possibilities are closed. As for God? That’s his affair. True, he made the beach, which, now that I look at it, is not all that great. As for me, I might try a little something here in the wet sand, a word, a form…”

—Douglas Glover

Sep 162013

Marty Gervais by JanisseMarty Gervais by Janisse

Marty Gervais is a poet, prose writer, photographer, historian, journalist and publisher from Windsor, Ontario. His family is ancient, descended as it is from early French settlers along the Detroit River (in the days when the French owned a vast North American empire stretching from Louisiana to New Brunswick and far to the west — the thirteen American colonies were hemmed in along the Atlantic seaboard). Marty is special to me because he published my first book at his publishing house Black Moss Press. He’s a gifted reader of his own work, also an amiable and hilarious raconteur; I got the full effect during the little reading tour Marty, Sydney Lea, John B. Lee and I did last spring along the Lake Erie north shore (many readers will recall the Extravaganza by the Lake). When you read the first poem “Cathedrals,” remember that Windsor sits across the river from Detroit. When you read the second, remember that Marty was  raised Catholic by the nuns and speaks easily if whimsically of angels and such. And when you “The Wedding Dress,” beautiful and aching with human sweetness, remember that he is a family man with a large heart.



They were cathedrals
—these sprawling factories
with frosted glass metal-framed windows
that tilted open to a landscape
of wartime houses and brick schools
—the men, like monks, moved
in slow motion, and my father
in a white shirt and crooked bowtie
paced among them
worried over meeting the numbers
Today, these places lie mute —
edifices of crumbling brick
cracked and broken windows
and the rubble-strewn earth
taking back the 20th century
with trees bursting up
through the busted concrete
Months before my father died
we cruised the empty streets
and picked our way among the ruins
of the old Studebaker and Ford plants
the Motor Lamp on Seminole,
boarded up dry goods stores
and barber shops and fish & chip joints
We stood in the middle of the sunlight floor
of the place where he made headlamps —
an acre of concrete once complicated
by conveyor belts and sturdy steel columns
and he told me of those mornings
walking to work from Albert Road
chomping on an apple
a metal lunch pail tucked under his arm
a skinny boy of 16 having landed her
from the mining towns in the north
a job on the line, a job he’d never quit
till his heart gave out, and now
there are mornings when I pause
before a single building
and peer through a toothwall wall
of broken glass imagining life
on that concrete floor
He told me once how he’d trade
Everything to return to that time
that sweet independence
of youth and a job
and a cheque on Fridays


Guardian Angel

He’s lazy and never around
when I need him
I drive down
to the coffee shop
in the early morning
and find him reading the paper
or talking to the locals
I want to tell him
he’s not taking this seriously
— he’s supposed to watch over me
He shrugs and says the rules
have changed
I can reach him on Facebook
Besides he carries a cell phone
I want to ask how he got this job
Why me? Why him?
Luck of the draw, he shrugs
our birthdays the same
we both have bad eyes
a hearing problem
and can’t eat spicy foods
But where was he in October 1950
the afternoon on Wyandotte
when I was four
and I ran between
two parked cars?
He was there, he says
coming out of the pool hall
to save me
to cup my bleeding head
on the warm pavement
to glare at the driver
who stood in the open door
of his Ford worried sick
that I might die
He was there, he said
otherwise I might not
be having this conversation
and he was there again
when I lay curled up
and unconscious
in the hospital room one winter
swearing at the hospital staff
after bowel surgery
and he touched my lips
with his index and middle fingers
and quieted me
Besides, he’s always there
and there’s no point
having this conversation
— he’s so far ahead
and knows so much more:
a hundred different languages
names of every star
in the universe, the physics
of flying, and the winner
of the Stanley Cup
every year till the
end of time


The Wedding Dress

The first time I saw it
I was six
and sunlight spilled
through the bedroom window
I lifted this limp white satiny dress
from a flattened cardboard box
in the cedar chest
I raised it high above my head
— the fitted narrow waist
with a row of fabric covered buttons
and the invisible side buttons
along the left side seam
I could hear Arthur Godfrey on the radio
in the other room
the kettle’s whistle
I could hear the man next door
working on the roof of his house
I held the dress high above me
fingers marveling at its smoothness
lost in its whiteness
and the full length skirt
cascading gracefully
in alternating tiers of sheer chiffon
when suddenly my mother’s voice
at the doorway told me
it was a summer day like this
It was at the farm in Stoney Point
when she first put on the dress
and how she had gone upstairs
in the room shaded by the front yard maple
and how she remembered
gleaming cars zigzagged in the yard
and her fingers fidgeting
as she slipped on this dress
how the day was hot and cloudless
and how her father complained
there hadn’t been enough rain
and she told me she had waited
forever resting on the edge of the bed
for her mother to come and approve
and how she sat there
staring out the window
shoes resting beneath her
like two sleeping birds
on the hardwood floor
then she heard her mother’s
voice at the edge of the room
the softness of the words
enveloping her in that moment
and she knew it was time
to take the car to the church
its steeple towering above the flatness
of the farm fields
and she wondered then
if it was all a mistake

—Marty Gervais


Marty Gervais is an award winning journalist, poet, playwright, historian photographer and editor. In 1998, he won the prestigious Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contributions to Canadian letters and to emerging writers. In 1996, he was awarded the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award for his book, Tearing Into A Summer Day. That book also was awarded the City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature. In 2003, Gervais was given City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature for To Be Now: Selected Poems. His most successful work, The Rumrunners, a book about the Prohibition period was a Canadian bestseller in 1980 and was re-released in an expanded format in 2010 and was on the top ten Globe and Mail bestseller list for non-fiction titles. Another book, Ghost Road and Other Forgotten Tales of Windsor was released in 2012. An earlier collection, Seeds In the Wilderness, of his journalism appeared with Quarry Press in Kingston. It includes interviews Gervais conducted with such notable religious leaders as Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Hans Kung and Terry Waite. With this latter book, Gervais photographed many of these world leaders.

Sep 152013

Vaclav HavelVáclav Havel via The New Yorker

Václav Havel was a hero to my generation, a poet, playwright, and political dissident who stood resolutely against Soviet domination during the final decades of the Iron Curtain, who spent years in prison, and who eventually helped engineer his country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989. I have read Havel and about Havel all my life, it seems, and now it is a special honour to be able to publish in Numéro Cinq a hitherto untranslated Havel poem, “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” This is an amazing coup made possible through the efforts of the poet and translator David Celone who not only translated the poem and wrote an astute essay for us but also contacted Havel’s widow and obtained the necessary permissions for publication of both the translation and the original Czech version of the poem.



The Little Owl Who Brayed

Wisdom’s little owl brayed:
“How beautiful is rot’s decay.”
A pine grove bleated low:
“Come on, easy does it now.”

A serpent hissed: “I love graveyard’s bliss.”
A flower extolled:
“Where ambitions pit your soul?”

Pines gushed: “Wise up.”
Flower hissed: “Let it stink.”

“You should never, it’s true,”
calls motherland insistent,
“in twilight’s advancing gloom
be the least resistant.”

Pines shot: “Reason rots.”
Flower shrieked: “Beauty reeks.”

Serpent hooted: “The graveyard
is paradise, so tranquil and muted.”

You should never, I cry,
in our nation’s interest
beneath twilight’s grimace
ever have to resist.
Dig in. Resist. Persist…

— Václav Havel 1977 (translated by D. Celone, with Liba Hladik and Paul Wilson)



Zahýkal sýc: „Krásné je hnít.”
Zašuměl bor,
že: „To chce klid.”

Zasyčel had: „Hřbitov mám rád.”
Zaskvěl se květ:
„Kam se chceš drát?”

Zahýkal bor: „Rozumný být.”
Zasyčel květ:
„Nechat to čpít.”

„A tak by se neměl věru,”
volá vlast,
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klást.”

Zasyčel bor: „Rozumně hnít.”
Zaskučel květ:
„Krásné je čpít.”

Zahýkal had: „Hřbitov je ráj
a je tam klid.”

A tak by se neměl věru
v zájmu vlasti
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klásti.
Odpor klásti…

— Václav Havel, 1977


Václav Havel’s many incarnations led him from poet to playwright, to essayist and dissident, to become the final president of then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 before being elected as the first president of the newly formed democratic Czech Republic in 1993.  He was jailed for his writing in samizdat (government suppressed and censored) underground publications and for signing Charter 77, a public indictment of the government’s human and civil rights abuses, the dissemination of which was considered a political crime.  Notions of peaceful resistance proffered by Charter 77 evolved into what became known as the Velvet Revolution, ultimately toppling the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.  During Havel’s nearly four-year incarceration, he continued to write letters and to dream of new scripts for plays.  His letters from jail to his wife were subsequently published as Letters to Olga, a fascinating introspective journey of personal snippets, joys and woes during his prison term.  Little is known of Havel’s poetry outside of the Czech language and archives of the Havel Library in Prague.  His fame revolved around his plays that used absurdist humor to expose the plight of a country and its people oppressed by communist rule.  Havel’s political career brought him into the public light, winning him many international accolades and honors for his work as an outspoken proponent of human rights including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Order of Canada.  This poet turned playwright turned politician deserves much of our attention as writers and humanists.  Yet, his poetry remains a mystery.

The 1970s in Czechoslovakia was an era and place where totalitarian rule under the then communist regime took great tolls on the Czech people.  The state normalization politics of quietism backed by strong-armed police efforts and state-led propaganda campaigns attempted to convince the Czech people that silence and tranquility were the traits needed to live in peace and harmony with one another while submitting to the political will of communist rule.  The alternative, of course, was jail.  Imprisonment for speaking out against the state, including censorship and arrest of writers and artists, exile, loss of work, and loss of educational opportunities for the children of political dissidents became the norm.  As a result, the heavy iron hand of the communist regime laid waste to artistic creativity and voice, breeding considerable unrest and dissidence.

Václav Havel, playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, politician, was part of a group of artists and writers that published samizdat, or underground leaflets, to avoid total censorship.  This group, loosely organized to avoid political trouble, eventually authored and signed a document known as “Charter 77” in 1977.  This public manifesto criticized the Czech government for failing to implement certain human rights provisions in national documents it had signed including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia.  Some short time after signing Charter 77, Havel wrote the poem “Zahýkal Sýc,” which has gone largely unnoticed by the cohorts of Havel archivists, translators, and, therefore, readers.  I have undertaken to translate this poem into English, which, to my knowledge after some considerable research of the Havel Library archives and other sources, is a first for any Havel poem other than his concrete poetry and one, short, nine-word poem entitled “We Promise” published in From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology.  (Delbos, Stephan. From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology. Ed. Delbos. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia. 2011.)

The English title of the poem I’ve chosen is “The Little Owl Who Brayed.”  It is replete with allusions and paradoxes, with an owl that brays, a serpent that hoots, a flower that hisses, and a forest that bleats, gushes, and moans.  All are absurdities that point to the deeper absurdity of the political order of the day and its heavy hand of political, social, educational, and cultural censorship.  “Zahýkal,” literally translated, means “murmured something painfully.”  “Sýc” is an owl, and an owl with a history in Greek myth and European hunting practice.  An owl that brays is clearly not well, and must feel considerable pain when making such an unusual noise.  There are several antithetical vocal elements at play, beginning with the wise owl who speaks with the paradoxical asininity of a donkey’s voice, then moving through a host of natural elements whose voices strain reason.  Havel approaches this poem in epistemological form, with an eye that describes and depicts nature at its most absurd, to convey a hugely powerful message to the Czech people.  In many ways, this poem serves as a roadmap for the type of dissidence that Havel and the members of Charter 77 would propound and follow for the next decade or so until communist rule devolved.

Classics from the then-popular movie Doctor Zhivago, itself an early samizdat publication authored by Boris Pasternak that had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, are invoked through such lines as: “krasne je zit,” meaning “how beautiful it is to live” from the leitmotif “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago (later becoming the basis for the English-language song “Somewhere My Love”) turned on its head to “krasne je hnít,” meaning, literally translated, “how beautiful it is to rot.”  Havel expresses his perspective of life in a satellite state of the Soviet Union as a place to rot rather than to live while also exposing a country that is, itself, rotting under the oppressive palm of the totalitarian hand.  So, too, does Havel use “to chce klid,” a famous line from Hašek’s Švejk meaning “take it easy,” or “don’t speak out and awaken the powers that be” as a defeatist form of quietism prevalent in then-communist Czechoslovakia—keeping one’s mouth shut was heralded by the government unless it wanted damning information about a neighbor, family member, or friend, in which case silence may well have become a political crime.

Havel then moves the poem and the reader into a world of absurdities in which animals and other characters in nature, such as a pine grove and a flower blossom, along with the prevailing iconic cultural themes of the day noted above are upended to convey the need to resist the state, the police, and the required social norms purveyed by the communist regime’s deep-rooted marketing and sloganeering propaganda efforts.

Similarly, Havel uses paradox to deliver his final message.  With “klast odpor,” meaning “to resist,” or, in biblical parlance, “to dig in” or “entrench,” and “vola vlast,” or, “motherland calls.”  Havel allows, sottovoce, and in the extant voice of the country itself to, at first, encourage people not to resist, or, in an absurdist twist of linguistic irony, to never “be the least resistant.”  Does this mean to not put up resistance against communism, or does it mean, as the country speaking in its double-negative voice implies, to never be the least resistant and, thus, arguably, to, in fact, be the most resistant to the country’s advancing gloom and plight?  It would seem the latter is what Havel had in mind, yet he couched it in terms the government might not readily understand.  Brilliantly, Havel used the absurd and circumlocution to make his political point while avoiding the strict scrutiny that otherwise might have censored his poem.  This was a trick he used during his lengthy jail term when writing letters to his then-wife, Olga.  He learned how to avoid censorship by making oblique references to certain places or people that he knew his wife would understand.

“Little Owl” also offers, at its most absurd, the notion of a cemetery as a place to which the Czechoslovakian people should aspire because it is a paradise of peace, tranquility, and quiet calm.  The poem closes with the voice of the country merging with Havel’s own narrative voice to urge the Czech people to, in fact, resist, persist, and resist again.  Throughout, Havel uses the voices of animals to mimic the political sloganeering of the communist government that offered constant passive-aggressive messaging and reinforcing innuendo that passivity and tranquility were the best ways to be a friend of the state in order to achieve peace and safety for oneself and one’s family.  Alternatives for those who spoke their minds were not favorable or pretty as Havel and his Charter 77 colleagues learned while serving out prison sentences.

Quietism, or keeping one’s thoughts private about politics and the state became a cultural agenda that took root and extracted a considerable toll on generations of disenchanted Czechs subjected to the encroaching gloom of a twilight that settled in upon their country over decades of communist rule.  Too, the notion of speaking out against friends or family to curry favor with the regime while “selling out” to communism comes under fire in this poem when the flower, a symbol of the country’s great beauty by virtue of its mention in the Czech national anthem, comments “Kam se chceš drát?,”  meaning, “Why be ambitious?” to benefit yourself to the detriment of others.  Personal ambition was frowned upon by the state and by most people living under the state’s powerful mind-control techniques.  In a double entendre of irony, Havel also brings to light the type of ambition the state allowed, which was to inform on others, thereby putting entire families at risk of being incarcerated.  Nobody felt safe from the watchful eye of the government as children, parents, or other family members, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers could levy accusations that might be taken seriously by the police.  Due process did not exist.  The rule of totalitarian law was extreme.  Little beyond quiet acceptance of state rule was tolerated.  The creative spirit of a nation was shorn.

As the final stanza suggests, and, again, with Havel’s use of the impish double negative, the Czech people should never have been put in a position to think about resisting the type of political regime under which they lived.  Yet, here they were tolerating, and oddly ignoring, the evils of communism.  They had entered the world of “Zahýkal Sýc” and its many absurdities that parallel reality under communist totalitarian rule.  The world of “The Little Owl Who Brayed” lives somewhere between nursery rhyme and parable, or fantasy and reality.   It is a rebuke of the prevailing defeatist tendencies of the people of Czechoslovakia at the time, leading to a country’s and a people’s entropy—politically, culturally, socially, individually, religiously, and artistically.  Yet “Little Owl” is also a highly emotional summons to the Czech people to take action and stand fast to principals of humanity and moral practices not condoned by the state and the Soviet regime.  By virtue of its use of cultural symbolism and natural elements known to all, direct story-telling prose, and poetic rhyme, this poem achieves its goal simply, dynamically, and with a deft hand and brilliantly wry wit.  At its end, in classic comic and absurdist form for which Havel is known as a dramatist, the narrator draws the reader in to resist the type of “wisdom” being purveyed by the state, or the snake.  In counterpoint to the serpent who hoots and preaches about paradise as a quiet graveyard, Havel offers the Czech people a poetic choice: they can choose freedom through resistance to overcome the serpent’s snare and break free of the political bonds that trap them like the owl, wise though it may be, or they can accept an ongoing existence of rotting within the decaying fabric of their once beautiful country by acquiescing to the demands of the communist propaganda, political, and police-state machine.  This poem is an epistemological triumph that delivers new knowledge through the elements of nature posited as absurd voices, while illuminating the Czech populace that their notions of normalcy were, in fact, completely invalid and out of touch with nature, reason, and humanity.  Havel hopes to move people away from entropy and call them to action to resist the ruling order of the day.

While Havel’s calling out to resist what is happening in the Czech homeland closes the poem, it gives rise to several complex questions about why he chose the various symbols to represent the speakers in the poem.  The owl, the serpent, the pine grove, the flower, and, most certainly and obviously, the country itself all have important allusory standing within this poem.

In brief, the owl represents wisdom, much as it did when perched on the shoulder of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare, who carried an owl with her, and who carries the image of the goddess Nike on her helmet.  It is Nike who is depicted in a statue with raised sword in triumph memorializing the Battle of Volgograd, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history with more than two million casualties and a turning point in which Russia defeated the German army in World War II.  The statue of Nike is named “Matka Vlast Volá” or, “Mother Motherland Calls,” similar to Havel’s use of “vola vlast,” or “motherland calls” in the poem.  Thus, Havel may well be offering a reminder of the terrible bloodshed that can happen under totalitarian rule—even when power is wielded to protect a country—and a stern rebuke that aggressive resistance leading to bloodshed is not the best way forward for the people of Czechoslovakia.

The Little Owl (Athena noctua) carried by Athena was common in European pine forests and typically was used to hunt small prey.  Its particular facilities lay in its ability to be trained to catch animals (snakes included) in its claws and, most importantly, to learn to return again and again to the snare, or cage, of its captor and handler.  “Drat” in Czech, means “wire” or “snare,” as well as “to wear a wire” or microphone for eavesdropping or spying purposes.  “Drat se,” a reflexive verb, means “to push oneself forward” or “to be ambitious” to the demise of others as noted above.  Thus, the owl, though wise, serves its master willingly, obeys, and returns to its captor’s snare over and over much like Havel suggests the Czech people do through entropy and defeatism in the face of their political oppressors.  Too, like the owl, they are handled and trained by the state, held captive by the state police powers and propaganda machinery, and allowed only limited scope in which to live always being required to return to their nation-state cage itself held captive by the Soviet Union.  They also fall into the trap the state set that encouraged them to spy on others for personal gain or else be considered enemies of the state.  Havel delves deep beneath the veneer of the absurd, with an owl that brays, yielding further absurdities such as this symbol of wisdom that curries favor with its captor in exchange for a freedom that will never materialize.

The serpent suggests the obvious biblical allusion to Adam and Eve and its offer to them of knowledge versus life in Eden.  In this case, it is the serpent’s paradoxically irrational offer of living in a cemetery in exchange for peace that represents the state’s offer to the Czech people—not much of an offer to be sure!  The pine grove (“bor”) and the flower (“květ”) figure prominently in the Czech national anthem, thus invoking the love of country and Czech pride as important voices to heed.  The flower is, with the exception of the narrator in the final stanza, perhaps the only rational voice in the poem.  It is the flower that defines the beauty of the Czech homeland in the national anthem, and it is the flower that defies the seemingly rational voice of the pine grove.

—David Celone


I’ve been helped with this translation by native Czech speaker Liba Hladik of East Thetford, Vermont.  Liba is a Czech refugee who works for Dartmouth College.  I’ve also received generous assistance from Paul Wilson of Heathcote, Ontario.  Paul was Havel’s biographer, translator, and friend for many years.  He is also a freelance writer who was expelled from Czechoslovakia by the Communist government for his association with the dissident movement.  Liba and Paul have agreed to add their names to my translation of the “Little Owl” poem as I now affectionately call it.  I was further encouraged to take on this translation project by some wonderful people at the Václav Havel Library in Prague including: Jan Hron, Jan “Honza” Macháček, and Martin Palouš.  They’ve given me access to the Library archives and have allowed me to translate “Zahýkal Sýc” into English.  I’d also like to extend my gratitude to another Czech refugee who shall go only by the initials ZB, and his lovely wife, MMB, for their enduring friendship and for introducing me some time ago to the Václav Havel Library and its mission.  You’ve all helped me bring a newly translated voice into this world.  I am truly grateful.

Finally, and to echo the words of Robert Hass in his introduction to the selected poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translating is a “fiddlers task,” as opposed to editing, which belongs to the meddler.  (Tranströmer, Tomas.  Selected Poems 1965-1986.  Ed. Robert Hass. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press. 1987.)  I’ve come to realize that tinkering with the strings of the Havelian fiddle is an enormously gratifying experience, producing beautiful music in a mellifluous language that many ears will hear for the very first time.  And, of course, I extend my abundant thanks to Jen Bervin and Rick Jackson of Vermont College of Fine Arts for their guidance as my faculty advisors, and to Douglas Glover of VCFA and his brilliantly designed online magazine Numéro Cinq for making Havel’s poetic music so readily available.  I expect to tinker further with more of Havel’s yet-to-be-translated verse over time.


djcelone photo

David Celone has worked in higher education development and alumni relations for the past seventeen years at Dartmouth College, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Vermont Law School.  He holds a law degree from Vermont Law School and has practiced law in Vermont and Connecticut. Celone grew up in the seaside village of New Haven, Connecticut.  He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, as he pursues a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Sep 142013

Abdallah Ben Salem d'Aix

Numéro Cinq is pleased to introduce the Algerian-born photographer (now living in France) Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix. I became friends with Abdallah several weeks ago on Facebook[1], and was drawn immediately to his pictures of flowers, which reminded me of freeze-frames from a deeper, more vibrant, twenty-first century version of Stan Brakhage’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
When I asked Abdallah to describe his process for the series of twelve breathtaking images that we are proud to feature this month, he wrote:

First, while walking to the site, the lake or on the mountain, I collect dead leaves, petals, plastics…everything tiny, which, in a brief moment, has a self sufficing and sweet “presence” while playing with the Light and the “perfume” of that day. Second, the “Theater”: the support (mirrors, sheets of papers, material) is my little scene or stage, under the shadow of a tree. Third, the Play: I just shake, animate; left hand, the support and the hints; right hand, the camera. Light is decisive; sometimes, I have to wait, while reading or in reverie until the twilight. Fourth, the Images: they have to be cute, strange, “farcesques,” easily lisible, pleasant.

—Eric Foley

1 Neighbours as myself

Neighbours as Myself

2 Out Without Môm

Out Without Mom

3 salad day!...

Salad day!

Summer schemes When friendly summer calls again, Calls again… Thomas Hardy

Summer schemes when friendly summer calls again, Calls again… Thomas Hardy

The Road

The Road

“the soul without a name was in a terrible plight in the other world” (of course)

“the soul without a name was in a terrible plight in the other world” (of course)

“turn the other cheek”

“turn the other cheek”

When I Was Don Quichote

When I Was Don Quichote

Out of Hell

Out of Hell

Swift’s Stella & Vanessa were both named Esther

Swift’s Stella & Vanessa were both named Esther

Noblesse de l’Échec

Noblesse de l’Echec

Jacques Rigaut is not dead

Jacques Rigaut is not dead

—Photos by Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix


A Brief Autobiography of Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix

1949—I’m three years old. Death of Dad. “A hero.” During the WWII, he saved his French officer severely wounded. Medals, medals. 1962—End of the Algerian War. Family divided. Mother, a maid, preferred to follow her gentle employer, Mme Martin, and Mab, Mess and me, too. We, the children, have been Witness of the cruelties of the Adults of the Two Sides. Out of Hell! 1965-1969—Comedian, activist (Vietnam). During a year (Aix), training with J. Grotowski and his assistant Serge Ouaknine, (now in Montreal, and on FB). At night, drinking with the Ionesco’s (Madame Ionesco buvait du thé, elle). 1969-2001—Psychiatry—I work as a nurse, at first with psychotics, then the last ten years in the department for Alcoholics. 2001-2013—Travels. Algeria? No, thanks, no return, I prefer not. Shame. Mother was berber!…I prefer Greece, Crete, my future and last homeland, I hope. And the photos? I am an autodidact. No skill (to kill) (pardon), but rather a ritual with everything I find on my way, everyday. No studio, but always outside. Depressed when thunderstorms. Yes, the Wars. My heroes now? Robert Smithson, Annie Dillard, Goya, Chekhov…

A bientôt.


Editor’s Note: You can follow Abdallah Ben Salem on his Tumblr blog here or friend him on Facebook here.


Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Editor’s Note: Abdallah Ben Salem is one of those NC readers who have really made the effort to join the community. He friended us on Facebook and then shared many NC posts on his own wall. He “liked” and commented regularly. When a person makes that kind of gesture, NC often reaches back. In this case, the results are spectacular.
Sep 132013


Tonight I’ve Watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

In bed alone



Eight a.m. August 13th. I’m sitting outside at a café in Sestriere, a small Alpine town in Piedmont, eighteen kilometers from the French border. The sun shines white at this early hour but the rays are unfettered by clouds or mist. Already the grass on the mountains glows like green flames. The slate in the peaks overhead glints like diamonds. Although chilly at this hour in this 2,000-meter-above-sea-level paradise, soon the temperature will balloon. In the meantime, I zip up my parka.

Down the road, my husband and dog are still asleep at our friend’s place. Further away, on the Ligurian coast, one son visits his friend’s family. In Lombardy, our other son explores the lake district with his girlfriend. Just a few years ago we all vacationed together. Now I’m here at this table, alone, hoping to get some work done. Instead, I reflect on mutability and my reading of the night before.

In her book of collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle makes the case that the theme of poetry from all cultures and periods, from Sappho to Wordsworth and beyond, is mutability. In other words, poetry [and by extension, writing], “is about love and death, innocence and experience, praise and lament, the passing of time, appearance and reality, stability and instability; all these marked themes are nothing less—or more—than mutability.” [71] While dissolution and the passage of time are difficult for the imagination to encompass, we have no alternative. As she writes, “mutability offers us no choice at all: we die, it is built into our wiring like those batteries designed for obsolescence.” [72]


I don’t want to be maudlin about mutability while I’m sitting here in this sparkling cleft in this green and blue sphere. I don’t want to think about how my boys have grown and are now off in the world. I don’t want to consider the wrinkle I’ve earned or the fold I’ve gained. I don’t want to recognize that summer dwindles and autumn looms. Nor do I want to ponder the paradox of the mountains themselves: solid yet eroding. I’m late on a translation I’ve contracted to do. I need to think about that.

But while I’m trying to concentrate on translation, a pretty little boy, blond with curls, one who reminds me of my own boys twelve and fourteen years ago comes into focus.

This twenty-first-century cherub looks like he escaped from a Venetian ceiling by Veronese. The boy carries a brioche, a glistening square of focaccia and a pink newspaper—Gazzetta dello Sport—toward a man who sits at a table not far from mine. Juggling three items in his small hands, he bites his lip with the effort. He manages to deliver the brioche and the newspaper to the tabletop but drops the focaccia.

“Ooof,” he says. “Scusa.”

“Che cretino,” I think I hear the man say.  He frowns, picks up the focaccia and blows it off.

The little boy smiles. Because of the smile, I think I’ve misunderstood. Perhaps the father said something like, “che bravino (not a bad job)or “che sciocchino (silly)”. I hope so, at any rate. It never crosses my mind that the boy’s smile is meant as appeasement.

Because of the smile, I can see that the boy has all his baby teeth. I decide he can’t be more than five. I wonder if the boy will be required to fetch their beverages next, but am relieved when instead he climbs into one of the gleaming steel chairs next to the man’s. He seems too young to be charged with fetching hot drinks.

Soon an athletic woman, presumably the boy’s mother, in a hoodie and short velour shorts approaches with a tray. She sets frothy milk in a glass cup in front of the boy, a tumbler of orange juice in front of the man, a steaming teapot in front of an empty seat that she immediately claims. At this hour, the waitress isn’t yet on duty. This is a do-it yourself café in this mountain-top eyrie.


All three sip their drinks. Shade recedes. The climbing sun hits my face. The white light has heated to yellow. I slather on some suntan cream and unzip my parka. I open my computer but instead of working I watch the boy and dream; a reel of images flashes. I imagine how quickly his limbs will lengthen and carry him off. Again I remember Mary Ruefle, who writes that sentimental thoughts “give pleasure—or put a lump in our throats—and they make us think.” [45] So I give in. I let myself consider how his parents will miss him one day. They’ll wonder where the time went. Maybe they’ll remember sitting in these glorious mountains on a beautiful summer morning having breakfast together. I have memories like these.

I shake myself and open my Word file. I’m considering the best translation for the word ‘regret’ when the little boy cries out and I look over.

“That’s mine,” he’s saying, waving his outstretched hands at his mother who is eating the brioche. She takes another bite while the boy hops up and down in his chair. “Mamma, that’s mine!”

“You wanted the focaccia,” she says. “And you dropped it. Now you eat it.” She chews, examining her vivid pink fingernails. Even from where I’m sitting, behind her and over by several yards, I see that they are slick and professional. A slew of bracelets—pastel-colored plastic beads—rattles on one wrist. On the other I spot a gleaming watch—possibly a Rolex. Around her neck is a camouflage-patterned scarf.


Maybe over time, I’ve forgotten just what it was like to mother a voluble young boy. Perhaps this mother’s teaching him to be flexible or not waste food. I want to believe that she has his best interests at heart. But there’s something not quite right. It’s as if the Venetian ceiling I imagined the cherub flew from now has a crack running through it.

“But Mamma.” From where I’m sitting, just a two tables over, I can see his eyes fill with tears.

She takes another bite.

The little boy howls.

In the scheme of sounds it isn’t a loud howl. But the boy’s mother reaches over across the table. I think she pinches him, but I’m not sure. It happens so fast.

His hand flies to his cheek. He whimpers.

“I’m warning you,” says his mother.

“Serves you right,” says his father.

“I want the brioche,” the boy says. “Can’t I have the brioche?”

“Stop it,” the mother says. “Now.” She snaps her fingers under his nose. “One. Two.”

But the little boy still fusses. I really wish he wouldn’t fuss. I don’t like the sound of his mother’s voice. My stomach’s knotted like the sweater I ruined in the wash last week. I’m thinking I should buy the little boy a brioche. What would his parents do if I bought their son a brioche? While I’m trying to decide, the father catches me staring. He frowns. I feel threatened, so I pretend to be engrossed in my computer screen. But I’m listening. The boy still cries. He still wants the brioche. I soon look up. I watch the mother take another bite. I watch her sip her tea. The boy flails his arms.


A woman in a white blouse and dark pants hurries into the café, tying on her apron, brushing past me. My papers rustle in the rush of air. The waitress, late for duty. I’m thinking that when she comes back out here to the terrace, I’ll order a brioche for the boy. But just then the mother stands and reaches over the table. Grabbing her son’s curls, she yanks him out of his chair. She leads him from the café, toward the curb.

“Stupido,” I hear her say. “Deficiente!” Then I hear sharp slaps followed by thicker thuds—either she’s kicking him or spanking him, I can’t quite see—a wall is in the way—and therefore I can’t tell.

“Oh my God,” I cry, leaping up, waving my hands, knocking my computer off the table. “BASTA! BASTA! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!”

This is Italy. Children aren’t usually disciplined like this, especially not in public. Nonetheless spanking is not considered child abuse. But I’m finding she’s overstepped the line. But it looks like I’m the only one here with such an opinion. Two old men at two different tables nearby keep their noses in their papers. A middle-aged couple within hearing distance continues to sip their coffee. No one else pays the slightest attention to the commotion—to the mother spanking, to me yelling. But the father hears me—his head jerks in my direction. I think he looks embarrassed. His mouth twitches. I can’t tell for sure though, because he continues to sit in his seat, stony like the mountains above, his sunglasses reflecting light.


The woman leads the boy back to the table. She has him fast by the ear. He has balled his fists and wipes his eyes.

“Ignorante,” says the man when his wife and son draw near, “stupido.” So he wasn’t embarrassed after all. “You deserved everything you got. Now you eat that focaccia. You hear me? You dumped it on the ground. Not me. Not your mother.”

Hiccuping, the boy sucks on a green pacifier while his mother finishes the brioche.

I gather my computer from the pavement. I’m afraid to see if it works or not. I slip out of my parka and peel off my sweater. I’m sweating.

A pretty brunette in linen pants draws up. The father introduces her to the mother. The three adults talk and laugh about the joys of vacation. Now conversation veers to the kid.

“Why is he crying?” the brunette wants to know.

“He’s terribly spoiled,” the mother says. “He wanted focaccia but then dumped it on the ground so he could have my brioche. He made a terrible scene.”


Meanwhile the boy’s wiping his eyes and is sucking on the pacifier. Snot runs down his face. His eyes are red. He doesn’t remind me of Veronese any more. The brief passage of time has turned him into an urchin from Dickens.

“Isn’t he too old for a pacifier?” asks the brunette.

“He’d drive me crazy without it,” the mother says.

“She’s a saint,” the father says, pointing at his wife.

“Yes, I’m a saint with all I put up with.” The mother laughs.

Soon another woman draws up to their table. Everyone kisses everyone. This woman’s wearing a white lab coat.

The boy’s mother asks, “Hey, do you have something I can give the beast”—she points to her son—“to make him sleep?”

“Ordinarily, I’d say not without a prescription,” says the woman in the lab coat. It appears she’s a pharmacist; perhaps she works at the pharmacy just down the road.

“But since it’s me, you’ll close an eye.” The boy’s mother whispers to the pharmacist, the women look at the boy, then both explode with laughter.

The boy fishes inside a pocket and draws out another pacifier. This one is red. He tries to fit both in his mouth at once.

“TWO pacifiers?” asks the brunette.


The boy’s father shrugs. “He’s only five.” It’s the nicest thing I’ve heard him say about his son. His son thinks so too. He climbs into his father’s lap and threads his legs through his father’s. “I’m cold,” he says. The father zips up his son’s hoodie.

“What a good father,” the brunette says.

The newly genial father rubs his son’s legs. He rips a bite-sized hunk from the focaccia, and feeds it to his son.

“There you go,” says the brunette while the boy chews, “that wasn’t hard was it? You’re a good boy, aren’t you? You got up on the wrong side of the bed, but you’re a good boy.”

“I’ll see about the sleeping drops,” says the pharmacist. She studies the boy, frowning. “But maybe he doesn’t really need them.”

“We ALL need him to have them,” says the mother. Everyone laughs.

My breathing speeds up. I want to tell the brunette and the pharmacist what really happened. I want to tell them that the mother needs medication. But I don’t. They’d all think me crazy. They could sue me for slander. They’d hear my accent and think I was a hysterical foreigner. I am a coward.


I press the on button on my computer. A strange click erupts but the screen lights up. It takes longer than usual to start and I discover I’ve lost the few changes I made to my translation.

I stare at the screen. I can see the boy, his mother and father engaged in bigger battles in ten years. I can see the parents not taking responsibility for anything, blaming their kid, telling him how rotten he is. I wonder about the pacifiers the boy might then use.


I want to be sentimental. I want to tell them. If you screw this up you won’t get a second chance. But as Wordsworth says in his poem, Mutability, they won’t hear me and my “melancholy chime” about change and dissolution.


From low to high doth dissolution climb
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.


Deaf and insensitive to the passage of time, the boy’s parents will see their own towers fall.

A German couple sits at the table behind me. I overhear them speaking English to the waitress. “We love it here,” they’re saying. “So green and sunny. So very friendly. If only we knew Italian better. Our stay would be absolutely perfect.”

I close my eyes. All around me the mountains loom. Soon the grass will wither. Ice will cleave to the hazy blue outlines. Rock will crack. Next summer, the crags will cast a steeper shadow.



—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.







Sep 122013

pinwheel book cover image

Marni Ludwig
New Issues Press, 2013
63 pages, $15.00
ISBN: 978-1-936970-14-8

photo by Kristine MorfogenPinwheel, selected by Jean Valentine for the 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize, is Marni Ludwig’s first full-length collection of poetry. “By what small margin we escape and look up” is Ludwig’s own synopsis of the collection, taken from the last line of her poem “A Reenactment.” Perhaps then it is fitting that I used this slim volume of poetry as my substitute for a sunhat in my poolside chair, simultaneously escaping the summer sun and looking up into this mysterious and effective darkness.  And perhaps it’s fortunate that I read Pinwheel in such pleasant environs—Ludwig’s evocation of trauma and addiction builds a powerful empathy. But as difficult as the terrain is, the poems tempt with hints and subversions, with intensifying repetitions and images, with intelligent sound play. The poem “Ceremony for Lying Completely Still” occurs early in the collection and sets the style of Ludwig’s poetic inquiry.

I say I had my accident,

after which two men ran
into the street while I counted

the number of steps it took
to get to where the door hurt.

All drawings are by thieves
with beautiful hands.

All silences are accurate.

I like a mask. I like music.
When I get sick I take my logic
with a spoon.

Did you notice if he was wearing gloves?
I’ve come to trust only questions.

At approximately 2 p.m. I was lying face-down
on the floor, asking nicely for an afternoon.

“Among the Living as Among the Dead,” also appears near the beginning of the collection, and this one reads like a lightly spun ars poetica while highlighting the poetic devices Ludwig uses. “How do you cure memory?” she asks, as though rhetorically. In this poetry, however, nothing is ever rhetorical, and the sound-play attempts to solve the question’s dilemma.

…Choreograph the sky
and the birds all turn to plastic bags

or else they smack the glass.
Say something less true
but with one true face,
like a statue. Say something else.

I sold the future for a second past,
told the snow my name
but it knew. White logic,
black spoon, scare tactic,

nodding out in a hospital bracelet
humming some third harmony
you shouldn’t sing
a kid. You shouldn’t sing.

You should step aside.
The birds hit back here,
where want is an event
visibly breathing in its sling.

You died twice in a lace dress,
in a folding chair,
you didn’t hear the door…

Ludwig’s repetitions act to intensify attention, especially as objects reappear in different poems, like characters do in different acts of a play. In the poem “Confectionary,” which appears at about the two-thirds mark in the collection, the birds and the act of dying twice share a poem again, where the question is “Who cares what flowers are for, /  selling jigsaw puzzles door-to-door?” Answer: “Life without relief. / Layer cake mystique / telling secrets to the tongue.” The repetitions intensify even more here by Ludwig’s sound-play and slant rhymes between and within the lines. Following closely: “Life without relief. / Layer cake mystique / telling secrets to the tongue” leads to the word “seek” hidden in the word “secrets,” but very slightly revealed in the heightened sound of these poetic lines. The last poem in the collection is titled “Secret.”

I sought out the repetitions of objects and phrases in the collection, as though they were clues in a mystery novel. But, unlike a mystery novel, this book invited flipping back and forth, looking for the lemons, lakes, canaries, mirrors, and spoons. The repetitions also represent the poet’s process of inquiry, where the images are tested against each other, or in different contexts, or from different points of view.

Ludwig has mentioned Joseph Cornell, famous for his surreal assemblages, as one of her inspirations. One example is the parallel inquiry between the two poems “Cigar Box” and “Refrigerator.” In “Refrigerator,” the box itself speaks: “I am liking you leaning in / for yogurt and morphine.” The sharp humor here is welcome relief from the powerful lyric voice that enacts most of this collection. Still, the brilliance is unabated, as this metaphoric Cornell box speaks to that voice of their shared experience:

—and the eggs hum
to the insect
in your chest—

One is frightened
and spins all night
in its carton.

In “Cigar Box,” the box remains a witness or silent accessory to the voice, which remarks: “In school I was good in death and math. / I practiced your name on yellow scratch paper.”

Another instance of repetitions and their effect on poetic inquiry are the many references to the moon and death. Each of these poems also takes a different twist or theme, as in “Ceremony for a Susie” (moon + death + a doll) and “Ferry” (moon + death + river stones). The poem “Parade,” in the center of the collection and marked off by blank flanking pages, contains four sections, the first and last of which participate in the moon-death arc. The first section begins

All the songs about the electric chair
sound like love songs. Weather

carries our Chevy to sea,
merrily, merrily, merrily.

A mariner with a stand-in moon
can’t quite stomach daybreak.

The reference here to a nursery rhyme set my poetic ears on its own delightful inquiry, as to whether the moon and the spoon would reconcile somewhere. The fourth section heightened my curiosity and seemed to encourage the idea with “blow a birthday / cake into orbit. Moon podium, dead satellite, / the physical feeling of falling back / into favor.” The suggestion is “Hey Diddle Diddle” and Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as opposed to Walter de la Mare’s “Silver,” or maybe it’s some deft remix of the three childhood rhymes. The moon and spoon do end up together, trysting in the first stanza of “Arrow,” as the collection starts to accelerate toward its end.  The very next poem “Everything Is a Hat” declares

The moon,
a chipped tooth
with the room
you died into.

like a black
kite soaring
from your wrist.

lying prone
in the family

She leaves the moon/death motif behind at this point, and sleep takes over. Anesthetists and “muffled white sheep” inhabit the next poem, and the poem after that asks “Are you sleeping?” In “Mermaid Parade,”

I wish you slight misfortune
and a self-prescribed sleep disturbed
by dreams of immaterial lobsters.

Ludwig packs wonderment in the collection so that empathy for the difficult movements of pain and fear can take. In the first lines of “Petite” near the end of the collection, she writes, “The author wants you / to be interested in her nature.” The poem “Parallax” sums up this beautifully dark poetry collection of image and sound and herself.

I can’t swim in my condition.
Say the sand is discarded by the sea,
The flowers you loved were weeds.
It hurts to be right, a slight need satisfied.
The dead kick a ball around the yard.
The living remain wedded to their paths
Like rooks. Once I took a dandelion
For granted, with some sun.
It is possible to be sick with intuition.
I seem to be leaving, but still I am looking.

—A. Anupama


A. Anupama

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

Sep 112013


Today we have Lawrence Sutin’s gorgeous and thoughtful essay on Vladimír Godár courtesy of Taylor Davis-Van Atta, founder and publisher of the new & brilliantly conceived print magazine Music & Literature. The third issue, just out, concentrates on the work of Gerald Murnane, Vladimír Godár and Iva Bittová. Godár is, of course, a sentimental favourite here because of his astonishing “Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky,” Shklovsky being in many respects the spirit of place at Numéro Cinq. In an earlier piece at NC, I wrote: Theoretically Shklovsky is the inspiration behind much of what we try to do here at NC, art as device, art as content filtered through a mesh or organization or system of techniques. This sonata is lovely and tortured. It brings to mind that wonderful phrase in Joyce’s “The Dead” — “thought-tormented music.” Read the essay, then look up the magazine.


What does Vladimír Godár’s music sound like? The candidates for comparison that I’ve seen mentioned range from Claudio Monteverdi to Arvo Pärt. I could add further names—Igor Stravinsky, Valentin Silvestrov—but the comparisons hardly matter. The music of Godár sounds, to me, like the music of a time in which religious ritual has died and what was prayer is now dramatic exclamation, what was faith is now the enthrallment of beauty. The old ritual forms are often invoked by Godár, for those forms still hold music well, but Godár’s music is a renunciation of piety and a restoration, a worship, of the anguish needed to awaken our souls.

So Godár’s music sounds to me, at its happiest, even, with hallelujahs faint as angels comforting a child, like anguish. Anguish, like piety, requires form for full expression so as to be released, fulfilled within the ear of the listener, set free to circuit the mind and body, wordlessly to instill the balm of Solomon’s magic ring inscribed “This too shall pass,” a profound mindfulness, everything passes, but caught within poignant melodies and intense rhythms the anguish passes in its guise of the exquisite beauty of necessity.

That is the theme, I think, of Gilgamesh’s Lament for bass and cello. In his album liner notes, Godár tells us that he “came to the conviction that it was vital to work with the original text.” As that text is in Akkadian, Godár enlisted the aid of a scholar of ancient Semitic languages to create a phonetic version to be sung. Why not instead employ a Slovakian translation? Why deprive his native audience of its native tongue? The answer seems to me to be that Godár hoped for the exact tonalities that Gilgamesh might have let loose over the corpse of his dearest friend Enkidu, a primal man, for the sake of whose companionship Gilgamesh, the warrior-king of Uruk, forsook marriage. To feature these tonalities is to call back to the past as far as one can musically.

Iva Bittová (left) and Vladimír Godár (right) are both featured artists in the latest issue of Music & Literature 3.

Godár observes that he finds what is commonly titled The Epic of Gilgamesh “more theatrical than epical,” due to the prevalence in it of direct speech. The direct speech of Gilgamesh is directed at a god, is a plea, a loud private prayer. In Godár’s setting it becomes a chamber lament played in low darkness with no one to hear but the audience hidden both from the musicians and the god. The solace in the lament is that anguish is ancient and always in essence the same. Gilgamesh must submit to the fact that death awaits not only the friends of great kings but great kings themselves. Yet he did not consent to place Enkidu’s body in the grave until, after seven days of grieving, he saw a maggot crawl out of his friend’s nostril. And his speech is more tantrum than submission. Godár’s music does not seek to convey the tantrum of the text, for that is the business of the text. The music captures the slow cadences of anguish. In this, Godár, who lectures on the history of aesthetics, follows (as I see it) the indications of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, in which Lessing argues that the visual arts (and, I would say, music as well) must capture anguish by means of beauty and not by slavish adherence to human reality, which means that, in the famous statue of Laocoon, the seer of Troy, and his two sons wrapped about by thick poisonous serpents sent by Athena to protect the secret of the wooden horse of which Laocoon was warning, all three must possess noble stoic features (even though, as they are naked, the visceral anguish is conveyed by their constricted muscles) rather than contorted howling faces which would have ruined the effect intended—the catharsis of seeing appealing, rather than hideous, persons die. In like manner, Godár did not wish to scream out Akkadian as that would have negated the echo that his call to the past had elicited—Gilgamesh even in anguish would not have shrieked at the god, for the god, Enlil, a god of storm and violence, was already angry at both Gilgamesh and dead Enkidu (it was Enlil who had issued the sentence of death) for their hubris in killing the monster Humbaba who guarded the cedar forest beloved of heaven. Further yelling would have done little good; Enlil had shown his intent and his power. So in Godár’s music the vocal tonalities ascend just a bit, enough to be heard on high, then fall to the earth from the weight of their pain and form stones of sound for Enkidu’s grave. In terms of the phonological insights of the Prague structuralists of the 1920s, admired by Godár, the jagged contrasts of the Akkadian phonemes are an onomatopoeia (like the barcarolle form, suggestive of a rocking boat, employed by Godár in a chamber work for violin) as unique as the brickwork of the fortified walls of Uruk, a wonder constructed by Gilgamesh’s order, a wonder that, as he says in the epic’s conclusion, will survive him.

Viktor Shklovsky

The Prague structuralists were influenced by the works of the Russian Formalist (St. Petersburg branch) Viktor Shklovsky. Godár’s Sonata in Memory of Viktor Shklovsky was originally inspired, the composer tells us, by the desire to create “the form of a structured rhetorical composition… This I did not manage to realize, but I think the vestiges of the original conception can still be discerned in the work’s final incarnation.” What Godár meant by this in terms of this sonata I have no idea, but the topic is a naturally playful one for me. Shklovsky is famous for his insistence that creative writing depends upon the knowing use of devices, skillful techniques, by the artist. To write a good story, one needs to understand how to structure it so that it takes the readers out of their worlds and into the text. That structure has nothing to do with the writer’s personal psychology or politics; it belongs to the realm of aesthetics, which Shklovsky aspired to make more empirical, modeled somewhat after scientific research. But the negation of politics as an artistic criterion—and the implicit affirmation of unfettered artistic freedom—had never been a popular view in Russia, not in the days of the Tsar, and not in the days of Stalin.

What I gather Godár means by a structuralist composition shows itself most clearly in a work such as Mater. A theme—woman, mother, the eternal feminine—serves to elicit his music. Godár makes his choice of devices—liturgical, literary, folkloric, a Magnificat, a James Joyce poem, Yiddish songs—from throughout time and without regard to their original cultural contexts. (Consider Godár’s Querela Pacis (“The Complaint of Peace”), dedicated to Erasmus, the author of an eponymous 1521 work, with quotations from that work set by Godár to the form of mantras.) The aesthetics of music survive with ease the present shift from the church into theater, the concert hall, films such as those for which Godár writes scores. It is the music, the tones, that are enduring, not the beliefs that they are regarded as serving at a particular place and time. The same will be true two thousand years from now. I look forward as far in time as The Epic of Gilgamesh is now distant from us, when samplings from Godár’s Mater bypass the ear to trigger direct neuronic signals to deep space travelers to enfold themselves with kindness through the long night.


It would be a purist philosophical idealism to conceive for the universe a higher, truer ear beyond our realm. To this ear, music would always be only music. There would be no need for structuralism because the intertwining meanings that inform music as they do all phenomena become irrelevant in the higher truth realm in which the ear abides happily without a head, because all music is interrelated as the medium, sound, is one. No matter what one played for the ear, it would form a kind of infinite occasional oratorio, as best I can conceive it. But here on earth the choices of Godár are vibrant and welcome. But as a grateful, musically untutored listener to his works I cannot say, though I seem to have written about it, that Shklovsky’s devices or anyone’s structuralism much matter to me. His music moves slowly, intensely, yearning for the primal ground of Gilgamesh, the tonal grace of the psalmist David. The itinerary is to my liking, the notes take me to places Godár could not have had in mind. Music can be given forms, but listeners can slip free of those and escape with the notes out the window.

— Lawrence Sutin


Vladimír Godár is known as a composer of symphonic, chamber, vocal, and film music, and as a writer of a huge number of texts on music and art.

Lawrence Sutin is the author of two memoirs, two biographies, one historical work, and one novel. He teaches at Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Music & Literature 3 brings to light the life’s work of three artists who have to date been denied—by geography, by language, and by politics—their rightful positions on the world stage. The Australian writer Gerald Murnane, a rumored Nobel Prize candidate, has been deemed “a genius on the level of Beckett” by Teju Cole, who opens this issue with a spirited exchange of long letters with the Aussie great. For the first time, Murnane’s entire catalog is introduced by top writers and critics, and we glimpse his three remarkable archives, which the author insists will remain unpublished until after his death. “The Interior of Gaaldine,” the infamous text that explains his fourteen-year absence from the world of fiction, rounds out more than 120 pages of new material on and by one of our finest yet little-known Anglophone writers. The issue’s second half is devoted to the Slovak composer Vladimír Godár and his unlikely collaborator, the Moravian violinist-singer Iva Bittová, who honed their crafts under the pall of the Communist regime and who only in recent years have begun cultivating worldwide audiences. Now, for the first time, Godár’s artistic writings as well as his manuscripts are available in English, alongside a portfolio of photographs and an oral history of Bittová’s career, as told by some of her closest collaborators and artistic partners. The issue is now available for purchase here.

Sep 102013

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane’s “Wordsworthian Sources” bears a title that slightly masks its poignant and human subject matter, that is, Emerson’s struggle to come to grips with the death of his beloved brother Charles from tuberculosis. It’s a beautiful essay, densely argued, replete with quotation, and full of link-lines to other essays Pat has published in Numéro Cinq, which taken together begin to look like a book on the Emerson-Wordsworth-Nietzsche-Twain constellation. What Pat does here is focus on the nexus of emotion (mourning), reading and tradition that helped form Emerson’s reactions to his brother’s death, the mental processes by which he dealt with his emotional surplus, as it were. Emerson finds, yes, hope in Wordsworth’s poems, but is not blinded by hope, is rather fascinated by the will to believe (that is, he foreshadows the modern move from ontology to phenomenology). He tries to honour his brother by setting his papers in order for publication, only to find them surprisingly inadequate. He even reaches for solace into a chilly transcendentalism, for which he is sometimes castigated. As always Pat Keane, immerses his readers in a world of the mind, a world of books (are they different?), the heady and inspiring world of great writers talking together.




We tough modernists are frequently put off  by Emersonian “optimism,” whether depicted as Emerson’s refusal to face hard facts, his lack of a “tragic vision,” or, more personally, as a relentless serenity and untroubled cheerfulness that can, at times, seem less admirable than repellent: an Idealist or Stoical detached tranquility bordering on coldness. There is, of course, some truth in this latter characterization, and Emerson will never be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in an age that prides itself on confronting dark realities and peering into the abyss. I come neither to praise Emerson’s equanimity nor to condemn his inveterate optimism and his more-than-occasional emotional chilliness. Instead, I’d rather try to understand where he’s coming from by exploring just a few sources of Emersonian “hope,” his ability, or determination, to find “light” in even the most profound darkness.

Aware of the traditions in which, and precursors in whom, he was spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally steeped, one might expect a Transcendentalist Emerson besieged by painful circumstances to turn primarily to his religion; or to the perennial philosophy of Plato and Plotinus; to the Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius; to the Milton who offers, directly or through angelic personae, recompense for even the most grievous loss. Above all, perhaps, one might expect the more “realist” side of Emerson to fall back on his cherished Montaigne, that world-renowned counselor and practitioner of tranquility of mind and a constructive calmness in affliction—especially since Montaigne was no more a stranger to what Emerson called the “House of Pain” than was Emerson himself, who suffered, in a single terrible yet productive decade (1831-42), a harrowing sequence of familial tragedies. He does find comfort in these traditions and writers, but I want on this occasion, and in this context, to emphasize the crucial importance to Emerson of his reading of Wordsworth, in particular as a source of consolation in the immediate aftermath of the death of his dearest brother, Charles, in 1836.

Emerson6The caricature of Emerson as an unfeeling man whose optimistic theory so blinded him to a vision of evil as to render him incapable of experiencing pain and suffering may be corrected by examining, through a Wordworthian lens, Emerson’s response to, and frequent transcendence of, harsh and apparently unregenerate reality: what Keats, in one of his remarkable letters, called “this world of circumstance,” a Vale of Tears we struggle to convert into a secular “vale of Soul-Making.” Like so many others in the nineteenth century, Keats was immersed in, and responding to, the same Wordsworth poems that shaped Emerson: “Tintern Abbey,” the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, the meditations of the Wanderer in The Excursion, and, above all, that Emersonian favorite, the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”—the ninth stanza of which was Emerson’s principle source of consolation in distress.

Had we world enough and time, I would also discuss some of the many short Wordsworth consolatory lyrics Emerson loved, as well as the two substantial Wordsworth poems, “Laodamia” and “Dion,” that he consistently ranked second only to the Ode. These two poems, both based on classical sources, epitomize Emerson’s attraction to Wordsworthian austerity and to elegy: a genre that traditionally balances suffering with some form of compensation. Emerson believed, as Wordsworth put it in the remarkably balanced final line of “Elegiac Stanzas,” that it is “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.” That kind of hope, allied with the Ode’s “truths that wake/ To perish never,” provided Emerson (who repeatedly alludes to these very passages) with light in the darkness as he struggled, personally and philosophically, to reconcile his philosophy with a harsh reality most painfully embodied in the early deaths of those he most loved.




In 1836, five years after the death of his young wife Ellen and two years after the death of his younger brother Edward, Emerson’s closest brother, Charles, succumbed to tuberculosis. The two had just been reading Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra, with Emerson—as Charles, the superior Greek scholar, told his fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar—“quite enamoured of the severe beauty of the Greek tragic muse.” To be thus enamored is to go some distance, at least aesthetically, toward what Emerson would call, a decade and a half later in his essay “Fate,” submission to the essence of Greek Tragedy: the will of Zeus in the form of “Beautiful Necessity”—or what Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche would later celebrate as amor fati. A month after their reading of Antigone, Charles, as though to put the beauty of tragedy to the test, was dead. Emerson wondered, as he turned from the grave with an enigmatic laugh, what there was left “worth living for.” Two weeks later, though declaring that “night rests on all sides upon the facts of our being,” he added we “must own, our upper nature lies always in Day.” (L 2:19, 20, 25)

Lying “in Day” and associated with the “light of all our day” in Wordsworth’s Ode, that “upper nature” reflected a higher law. Underlying all pain and tragic suffering, Emerson detected a “spiritual law” allied with Antigone’s pronouncement of an immutable higher law. In “Experience,” the great essay so closely related to perhaps the most devastating of all his familial tragedies, the death in 1842 of his little boy, Waldo, Emerson repairs to the locus classicus of that law: “Since neither now nor yesterday began/These thoughts, which have been ever, nor yet can/ A man be found who their first entrance knew” (E&L 473). Emerson is translating, rather awkwardly, from one of the most famous speeches in Greek tragedy. Responding to Creon’s charge that, in burying her brother, Polyneices, she had violated royal “laws,” Antigone archly observes that she did not think that Creon’s edicts, those of a mere mortal even if a king,

……….could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws;
Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live,
And no one knows their origin in time. (Antigone, lines 455-57).

This is the earliest, often-cited statement of the eternal, unwritten justice (themis): the inner, supreme, spiritual “law,” its origins unknown in time and for that very reason imperishable. The truths of this unwritten and immutable divine law are opposed to human, written legislation (nomoi), civil proclamations here today and gone tomorrow.  These are the ever-living “truths that wake,/ To perish never,” to which Emerson repeatedly refers, quoting, as he almost obsessively does, from the numinous ninth stanza of Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode. As Emerson had said earlier in this paragraph of “Experience,” underneath the vicissitudes of chance and life’s “inharmonious and trivial particulars,” there is a “musical perfection, the Ideal journeying with us, the heaven without rent or seam,” in the form of a “spiritual law,” revealed to us by the very “mode of our illumination” (E&L 472).

That “illumination” is allied with the assertion that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” a phrase that deliberately echoes the repetition of “day” in Wordsworth’s Ode: not the fading (in the poem’s opening stanza) of celestial radiance “into the light of common day,” but that Plotinian “fountain light of all our day”—the line of the Ode to which Emerson most frequently alludes. The “Child” of the middle stanzas of the Ode had been addressed as “Thou, over whom thy Immortality/ Broods like the Day.” Wordsworth was at once sublime, certain, and vague about the source of that fontal light; he gives thanks for “those first affections,/ Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may,/ Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/ Are yet a master light of all our seeing.” It is in this luminous yet shadowy region, a region of mastery rather than servitude, that, Emerson insists, “our upper nature lies”: Experience’s version of Wordsworthian blissful Innocence, when “Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”



The central issue, as confirmed by the title of Wordsworth’s Ode, has to do with “intimations of immortality” drawn from recollections of our earliest childhood when, in Platonic and Neoplatonic theory, we were closest to Eternity. By 1836, Emerson was having increasing difficulty believing in either a personal divinity in the sense of a god external to the self, or in a conventional, religiously orthodox sense of immortality. He had only that Wordsworthian and Plotinian presence brooding over him “like the Day.” What Wordsworth and Emerson, like Plotinus, describe as intuitive gleams do not pretend to be “rational” demonstrations, nor are they conventionally supernatural. What then, Emerson asks in his essay “Immortality,” is the source of the mind’s intimations of eternity or infinity? “Whence came it? Who put it in the mind? It was not I, it was not you; it is elemental….” It is also, for a reader of the Romantics, elementally Wordsworthian, mysterious and yet certain; a “gleam” and “a master-light”—which Emerson habitually, and significantly, altered to “the master light.” This “wonderful” idea, he says, “belongs to thought and virtue, and whenever we have either, we see the beams of this light” (W 8:333).

This “light of all our day,” along with inextinguishable “hope,” provide the crucial terms, for in assuming what is both mysterious and unproveable, Emerson is falling back on Wordsworth as his apostle of “hope” and his authority on the intuitive, rather than the cognitively demonstrable. As he said in all versions of “Immortality,” beginning with the 1861 lecture on which the essay was based, he would “abstain from writing or printing on the immortality of the soul,” aware that he would disappoint his readers’ “hungry eyes” or fail to satisfy the “desire” of his “listeners.” And, he adds,

I shall be as much wronged by their hasty conclusions, as they feel themselves wronged by my omissions. I mean that I am a better believer, and all serious souls are better believers in the immortality, than we can give grounds for. The real evidence is too subtle, or is higher than we can write down in propositions, and therefore Wordsworth’s “Ode” is the best modern essay on the subject. (W 8:345-46)

“We cannot,” Emerson continues in the very next sentence, “prove our faith by syllogisms.” This is yet another variation on the familiar point that the “shadowy recollections” and “visionary gleams” of numinous intuition cannot be categorized or proven—“be they what they may,” as Wordsworth says in the Ode, acknowledging his own ignorance of ultimate mystery. Nevertheless, those intuitive and compensatory gleams of light remain indisputable—proven, as it were, on the pulses. Wordsworth, like Emerson after him, anticipates the related but more recent “Testimony” (1999) of W. S. Merwin:

I am not certain as to how
The pain of learning what is lost
Is transformed into light at last.

Yet, as usual in Emerson, who refuses to dogmatize obscurity into a facile clarity, what matters is not doctrine but the mysterious, yet irresistible affirmative instinct. As he says, again in his crucial essay “Experience,” it “is not what we believe concerning the immortality of the soul and the like, but the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance and is the principal fact in the history of the globe” (E&L 486; italics added). It is a matter, as Tennyson would put it in In Memoriam, of “Believing where we cannot prove”; or, as it was famously phrased by William James (who found that he could not obey his own imperative): “the will to believe.” Emerson was capable of correcting even what he took to be Wordsworth’s position when it came to the indispensable Intimations Ode. Mistakenly expanding Wordsworth’s comment about his employment of Platonic or Neoplatonic myth (making the “best use” he could of it “as a poet”) into authorial judgment on the revelations of the poem as a whole, Emerson, trusting the tale and not the teller, rose to the Ode’s defense: “Wordsworth wrote his ode on reminiscence, & when questioned afterwards, said, it was only poetry. He did not know it was the only truth” (TN, 2:262).


Though, even in the days immediately following Charles’s death, Emerson would echo the Ode in asserting that “our upper nature lies always in Day,” his own battered faith during this “gloomy epoch” offered little religious consolation in bereavement. We see the gloom in “Dirge,” a heartbroken 1838 elegy for his two brothers, his “strong, star-bright companions,” in which he envisioned, not a Christian heaven, but a classical or pagan sunset plain “full of ghosts” now “they are gone.” A more hopeful variation occurs in lines originally included in his long poem, “May-Day,” but subsequently extracted to form the conclusion of Emerson’s still-later poem, “The Harp.” “At eventide,/ …listening” for “the syllable that Nature spoke” (but which, aside from the “wind-harp,” has been “adequately utter[ed]” by none, not even “Wordsworth, Pan’s recording voice”), the old poet suddenly finds himself in the visionary presence of the lost companions of his youth:

O joy, for what recoveries rare!
Renewed, I breathe Elysian air,
See youth’s glad mates in earliest bloom…..

The “Aeolian” harp and “Elysian” air are classical, but Emerson is once again (if rather feebly) echoing the Intimations Ode. The recovery-stanza (his favorite) opens with the same exclamation—“O joy! That in our embers/ Is something that doth live,/That Nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!”—and ends with a vision of immortal “children” sporting on the shore of eternity. In the lines that immediately follow in his own poem, Emerson concludes by expressing the hope of an eternal Spring beyond the intruding grave: “Break not my dream, intrusive tomb!/ Or teach thou, Spring! The grand recoil/ Of life resurgent from the soil/ Wherein was dropped the mortal spoil.”

After three weeks of mourning the death of Charles, Emerson concluded that “We are no longer permitted to think that the presence or absence of friends is material to our highest states of mind,” for personal relationships pale in the light of the “absolute life” of our relationship to the divine. This austerely Neoplatonic perspective will emerge in the seminal if paradoxically-titled Nature, in that highest state when Emerson, “uplifted into infinite space,” becomes “a transparent eye-ball” and the “name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances…is then a trifle and a disturbance” (E&L 10). This epiphany is Emerson’s partial compensation for the loss of Charles. “Who can ever supply his place to me? None….The eye is closed that was to see Nature for me, & give me leave to see” (JMN 5:152). Now Charles’s metaphorical transmutation into an all-seeing but impersonal eye-ball leaves Emerson at once exhilarated and isolated, friendship reduced to the foreign and accidental, even brotherhood a trifle. Similarly, “Experience,” written in the aftermath of little Waldo’s death, will proclaim the “inequality between every subject and every object,” and, consequently, the superficial nature of grief and love: “The great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the mortal kingdom of friendship and love.” There is a “gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture.” The soul “is not twice-born, but the only begotten,” and admits “no co-life,” since “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others” (E&L 487-88).

Emerson’s notorious announcement, earlier in “Experience,” that the loss of his precious boy “falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous” (E&L 473; italics added), is related to those idealist, sense-transcending “High instincts” at the center of the pivotal ninth stanza of the Intimations Ode. The offensive word, so deliberately and coldly technical, is of course “caducous,” which more often describes a floral or organic rather than a human “falling off” of connected but separable parts (leaves, or a placenta). Emerson’s point can be clarified, if not made much more palatable, by being compared to “those obstinate questionings” (again, in the ninth stanza of the Ode) “Of sense and outward things,/ Fallings from us, vanishings….” But if Wordsworth is abstract and austere in the ninth stanza, the crux of the Ode, Emerson seems, in “Experience,” positively cold, far removed from the spiritual and humane hope, expressed at the time of Ellen’s death, that he might retrieve that lost “beautiful Vision” by entering with her into what (echoing Milton’s “Lycidas”) he calls “the great Vision of the Whole” (JMN 3:230-31). In his new thinking, reflecting both a genuine Idealist vision of transcendence (as in the epiphany of the transparent eye-ball) and a need to numb himself to the pain of repeated loss, the human beings we love, the living and the dead, are said to have nothing to do with the “absolute life” of one’s relationship with God; for in “that communion our dearest friends are strangers. There is no personeity in it” (L 2:21; JMN 5:150-61, 170).

We may be reminded of what Keats termed “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” For this is Transcendentalist Emerson at his most aloof and least humane, a momentary scandal to even his fiercest worshiper, Harold Bloom. But Emerson was, fortunately, not utterly caught up in his own theory of a friend-estranging and personality-excluding communion with God. Thus, collaborating with Charles’s fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar, he first sought for his brother a literary immortality by trying to put the dead man’s scholarly writings—that “drawer of papers” that formed Elizabeth’s heritage—into shape for publication. He was no more successful than Montaigne had been in his similarly doomed attempt to adequately represent his friend La Boétie by posthumously publishing his papers. In fact, Emerson was shocked to discover from Charles’s journals just how “melancholy, penitential, and self-accusing” his destructively-ambitious and self-doubting brother had been. He found “little in a finished state and far too much of his dark, hopeless, self-pitying streak,” the “creepings of an eclipsing temperament over his abiding light of character” (JMN 5:152). Emerson’s own affinities, in precise contrast, were with a finally uneclipsed and abiding light, hope, and self-affirmation. Writing on March 19 after having read Charles’s “noble but sad” letters to Elizabeth, letters containing “so little hope” that they “harrowed me,” Emerson declared no book “so good to read as that which sets the reader into a working mood, makes him feel his strength….Such are Plutarch, & Montaigne, & Wordsworth” (JMN 5:288-89). We can trace his recovery from the blow of Charles’s death in a crucial journal entry—one centered less on Plutarch or Montaigne’s “On Friendship,” than on Wordsworth, this time quite explicitly.




Emerson’s study

Writing in mid-May 1836, after ten days of “helpless mourning,” Emerson begins, tentatively, to recover. “I find myself slowly….I remember states of mind that perhaps I had long lost before this grief, the native mountains whose tops reappear after we have traversed many a mile of weary region from our home. Them shall I ever revisit?” These “states of mind” are reflected in the conversation of friends who have “ministered to my highest needs,” even that “intrepid doubter,” Achille Murat, Napoleon’s nephew, with whom Emerson had “talked incessantly” nine years earlier, during his return from his recuperative trip to Florida (JMN 3:77). The “elevating” discussions of such men, and these men themselves, “are to me,” says Emerson, “what the Wanderer” [in Wordsworth’s Excursion] is to the poet. And Wordsworth’s total value is of this kind….Theirs is the true light of all our day. They are the argument for the spiritual world for their spirit is it” (JMN 5:160-61).

Emerson was particularly impressed by the Wanderer, the composite character in whom Wordsworth concentrated, not all, but most of his own thoughts and feelings, and who reminded Emerson of his idealist friend Bronson Alcott. In Book 4 (“Despondency Corrected”) of The Excursion, Wordsworth has the Wanderer draw comfort from men such as himself: men whose hearts and minds, shaped in nature’s presence and able to convert pain and misery into a higher delight, attain a humanity-glorifying form of tragic joy. Such men are “their own upholders, to themselves/ Encouragement, and energy and will.” But there are others, “still higher,” who are “framed for contemplation” rather than “words,” words being mere “under-agents in their souls.” Theirs “is the language of heaven, the power,/ The thought, the image, and the silent joy.” And “theirs,” as Emerson says of such ministering men and once again echoing the Ode, “is the true light of all our day.” Familiar with The Excursion as early as 1821, when he inscribed in his journal a synopsis of its nine books (JMN 1:271-72), Emerson would have endorsed the following accurate synopsis, by   critic Charles J. Smith in a 1954 PMLA essay on Wordsworth’s “dualistic imagery”:

Throughout this long poem, filled with the aspirations, struggles, and heartaches of humanity, Wordsworth tells us that even in the very midst of Mutability, loss and grief, there are, to the practiced eye, signs and symbols of eternal rest and peace. The Wanderer has the wisdom to perceive and the feelings to appreciate these symbols and has faith in what lies behind them.

Parts of the opening Book of The Excursion have always been admired, especially the account of the Wanderer’s boyhood (a Wordsworthian seed-time in Nature’s presence, much cherished by Emerson) and his tale of Margaret and the Ruined Cottage. But it was Book 4, “Despondency Corrected,” that many readers (including Lamb, Keats and, Ruskin; Emerson, his Aunt Mary, and his poet-friend, Jones Very) considered not only the best thing in The Excursion, but among the supreme achievements of Wordsworth’s career. Indeed, it was his previous experience in reading Book 4, and absorbing the philosophy and consolation offered by the Wanderer to the despondent Solitary, that made Emerson confident, when he picked up the latest volume of Wordsworth’s poetry seeking consolation in the painful aftermath of Charles’s death, that he would “find thoughts in harmony with the great frame of Nature, the placid aspect of the Universe” (JMN 5:99).

Anticipating Emersonian “optimism” and his precise dialectic of “conversion” in the essay “Compensation,” the Wanderer, a Romantic Stoic, describes in Boethian/Miltonic terms the operations of benign Providence, ever converting accidents “to good” (4:16-17). In his great speech at the opening of the final Book of The Excursion, the Wanderer tells his listeners, echoing his own earlier metaphor of the “fire of light” that “feeds” on and transforms even the most “palpable oppressions of despair” (4:1058-77), that

The food of hope is meditated action; robbed of this
Her sole support, she languishes and dies.
We perish also; for we live by hope
And by desire; we see by the glad light
And breathe the sweet air of futurity
And so we live, or else we have no life. (9:21-26; italics added)

Though far too heterodox a believer in the God within to be in accord with every aspect of the Wanderer’s religiosity, Emerson, through allusion and influence, in effect records his agreement with the Wordsworthian “Author,” in the coda to Book 4: that the words uttered by the Wanderer “shall not pass away/ Dispersed, like music that the wind takes up/ By snatches, and lets fall, to be forgotten.” They “sank into me,” Emerson could say as well, the Wanderer’s words forming the “bounteous gift”

Of one accustomed to desires that feed
On fruitage gathered from the tree of life;
To hopes on knowledge and experience built;
Of one in whom persuasion and belief
Had ripened into faith, and faith become
A passionate intuition; whence the Soul,
Though bound to earth by ties of pity and love,
From all injurious servitude was free. (4:1291-98; italics added)

Emerson’s reference in his 1836 note to the “reappearance of his native mountains” suggests his recollection of the final Book of The Excursion, which concludes with a mountain vision, an elevated and affirmative perspective adumbrated by a passage, earlier in this ninth Book, which appealed immensely to Emerson. I mean the Wanderer’s metaphor of advancing age not as a decline, but an ascent—a “final EMINENCE” from which we look down upon the “VALE of years” (9:49-52). Thus “placed by age” upon a solitary height above “the Plain below,” we may find conferred upon us power to commune with the invisible world, “And hear the mighty stream of tendency/ Uttering, for elevation of our thought,/ A clear sonorous voice…” (9:81-92). In his twenties, Emerson endorsed this attitude, that of a “poet represented as listening in pious silence ‘To hear the mighty stream of Tendency’” (JMN 3:80), and in later life he frequently alluded to the passage—once in the immediate aftermath of Waldo’s death—in advocating an elevated, enlarged, more affirmative perspective. Praising “serenity” in his essay on Montaigne,” Emerson again echoes Wordsworth’s Wanderer: “Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams” (E&L, 709).

This perspective—optimistic, providential, luminous, and elevated—is reified in the grand sunset viewed by the Wanderer and the “thoughtful few” (9:658), including the Pastor and the Solitary, in the scene toward the conclusion of Book 9. A sunset is seen from a grassy hillside among “scattered groves,/ And mountains bare” (9:505-6). The rays of light, “suddenly diverging from the orb/ Retired behind the mountain-tops,” shot up into the blue firmament in fiery radiance, the clouds “giving back” the bright hues they had “imbibed,” and continued “to receive” (9:592-606). In the shared spectacle of this mountain sunset, the natural Paradise envisaged in one of Emerson’s favorite Wordsworth poems (the “Prospectus” to The Recluse) seems actualized, so that “a willing mind” might almost think,

at this affecting hour,
That paradise, the lost abode of man,
Was raised again, and to a happy few,
In its original beauty, here restored. (9:712-19)

If he is recalling the conclusion of Book 9, Emerson would surely detect Wordsworth’s self-echoing there of the Intimations Ode. The “little band” descends and makes its way in the boat across the lake in falling darkness, no trace remaining of “those celestial splendours ” now “too faint almost for sight” (9: 760, 763; italics added). The Solitary’s parting words, he having “on each bestowed/ A farewell salutation; and the like/ Receiving,” seem casual: “’Another sun,’/ Said he, ‘shall shine upon us, ere we part;/ Another sun, and peradventure more…’” (9:779-80). The Solitary has been gradually converted from a recluse isolated and despairing to one engaged in amity and social responsibility. Even at its most morbid and misanthropic, the Solitary’s conversation had, the Wanderer noted, “caught at every turn/ The colours of the sun” (4:1125-26). Reciprocal salutation and anticipation of “another” and yet another shared “sun,” coming from that “wounded spirit,/Dejected,” indicates the degree of “renovation,” “healing,” and participation in “delightful hopes” (9:771-73, 793) that has been achieved by the end of The Excursion. Appropriately, Wordsworth gives the Solitary words—especially that repeated, hopeful “another…”—that echo the Ode’s hard-earned victory: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won.” Six years after the death of his brother Charles, pitting the latent power of the divinity within him against, and yet in concert with, the impersonal Fate that had just taken from him his precious boy, Waldo, Emerson ends one of his most justly-famous journal entries: “I am Defeated all the time, yet to Victory am I born” (JMN 8:228)

Though that audacity is, of course, a far cry from the acquiescence in the divine Will espoused by Wordsworth’s pious Wanderer, what binds these Romantic strugglers together is their awareness, however affirmative their vision, that life involves loss, misery, pain, and ultimately death. There would be no need to seek so ardently for despair-transforming “hope” if there were not ample cause to despair in the first place. Even “optimism” arises from an agon. “He has seen but half the Universe who never has been shown the house of Pain,” Emerson confided to his aunt while recuperating from tuberculosis in 1827. “Pleasure and peace are but indifferent teachers of what it is life to know.” In his opening words in “Despondency Corrected,” the Wanderer tells the Solitary that he is to find in hope the “one adequate support/ For the calamities of mortal life” (4:10-24). In his essay “Fate,” a more Stoical or proto-Nietzschean Emerson concludes that “Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint,” hints or intimations that “tell as tendency” (E&L 960; italics added). Affirmation and freedom are always under challenge from oppressive forces, ranging from the faculties of “sense” that would dominate imagination and darken the light of all our day, to the distinct yet related loss of “hope” in the state Wordsworth calls Despondency and Coleridge, Dejection. What we require, says the Wanderer, is a faith which, once it becomes a “passionate intuition,” liberates us “From all injurious servitude” (4:1296-98). Among the worse forms of human servitude is despair, the “Despondency” the Wanderer seeks to “correct.” He may not, even by Book 9, have succeeded completely. But the Solitary has come a long way; and that, too, is a victory.

As his 1836 journal-entry confirms, Emerson found solace, even Wordsworth’s “total value,” in the Intimations Ode, in the “blessed consolations in distress” promised in the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, and in the comfort offered by the Wanderer in The Excursion. When a grief-stricken Emerson, devastated by the death of Charles, hoped against hope to “revisit” his own “native mountains that reappear” after we have traversed many a weary mile from our “home,” he thought of the Wanderer and his various doctrines—pantheistic, Stoic, Christian—of all-encompassing hope, at length in Book 4 and, concisely, at the beginning of Book 9. But his mountain-imagery also evokes the mountain sunset toward the end of this final Book of The Excursion. Consoled and “elevated” by the   intellectual and emotional companionship of Wordsworthian men able to convert “sorrow” into “delight,” the “palpable oppressions of despair” into the “active Principle” of hope announced by that stoical visionary, the Wanderer, the grieving Emerson saw his own native mountain-tops begin to reappear, to feel again that influx of hope, power, and “glad light” which is, in the familiar line he paraphrases from the Intimations Ode, “the true light of all our day”: a spirituality incarnate in, and indistinguishable from, such self-upholding men, “their spirit” being, as Emerson insists, “the spiritual world” itself (JMN 5:160-61).

As I said at the outset, were there time enough, I would have discussed the two Wordsworth poems Emerson ranked second only to the Ode. Both “Laodamia” and “Dion” are austere, tragic poems that reflect their classical origins, and yet hold out a vestige of consolation, either despite or because of their rather severe Neoplatonism. Emerson coupled “Laodamia” with the Intimations Ode as Wordsworth’s “best” poem on at least two occasions: in an 1868 notebook entry (JMN 16:129) and, six years later, in his Preface to Parnassus, his personal anthology of his favorite poems. If “Laodamia” and “Dion” are less than popular, even, in the case of the latter, barely known to most modern readers, that may be more a comment on the audience than on the artistry of two poems which are at once marmoreal and moving.

Certainly Emerson found them so, placing them just below the great Ode itself, which he considered the age’s supreme exploration not only of that “fountain light of all our day” and “master light of all our seeing,” but of the mysteries of human suffering and mortality. In lines Emerson had by heart, Wordsworth speaks of “truths that wake/ To perish never,” intimations so powerful that nothing, not even “all that is at enmity with joy/ Can utterly abolish or destroy” them. But, as that “utterly” suggests, this is no Pollyanna version of “optimism” The pain registered is real, and that original fontal light is poignantly and irretrievably lost. And yet he insists, as Emerson would after him, that it is “not without hope we suffer and we mourn,” and that implicit in even the most tragic loss there is a stoic and mysteriously spiritual compensation, a denial of grief uttered even as the heart aches:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
SPACEBe now for ever taken from my sight,
SPACESPACEThough nothing can bring back the hour
SPACEOf splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
SPACESPACEWe will grieve not, rather find
SPACESPACEStrength in what remains behind;
SPACESPACEIn the primal sympathy
SPACESPACEWhich having been must ever be;
SPACESPACEIn the soothing thoughts that spring
SPACESPACEOut of human suffering….

—Patrick J. Keane


E&L  Emerson: Essays and Lecture. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

JMN  The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth. Et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-82.

L  The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols. Ed. Ralph L. Rusk (vols. 1-6), and Eleanor M. Tilton (vols. 7-10). New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1995.

TN  Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Ralph H. Orth, et al. 3 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990-94.

W  The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 22 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-04.

For the poemsEmerson: Collected Poems and Translations. Ed. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane. New York: Library of America, 1994; and Wordsworth: The Poems. Ed. John O. Hayden. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

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

Sep 092013

The Mehlis Report

First published in Arabic in 2006, The Mehlis Report is the first English translation from prize-winning Arabic author, Rabee Jaber, a love song and an elegy for his beloved home city of Beirut. The book transcends politics to become a tale of loss and memory, touching without an ounce of sentiment, uplifting without a speck of hope. –Steven Axelrod

The Mehlis Report
By Rabee Jaber, Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
New Directions, 2013.
218 pages. $11.98.

Like Joyce Cary’s London and Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, Beirut is a living presence in The Mehlis Report. The city has died and been reborn many times in the last 60 years, with all its incarnations superimposed on each other, like the acetate overlays in a mid-20th century encyclopedia, in the minds of the people who love the place. This is not a brooding Islamic casbah full of fanatics plotting carnage in the shadow of the minarets, the war-torn hellscape portrayed by western media.

Instead, the novel gives us a vision of Beirut from the inside: a seaside town with a lovely corniche and a human history stored in the images of human memory: the old athletic club where a hotel stands now; the highway that replaced a warren of narrow streets. It’s a city of bars and hotels,  mosques and bakeries, undergoing a construction boom in 2005, when the book takes place.

A man strolling from Monot to Abd-al-Whab street can buy a Mirinda orange soda and a manakish sandwich en route to his girlfriend’s apartment, even if he has to skirt the rubble from a recent car-bombing on the way.

The man in question is Saman Yarid, a local architect obsessed with the city in all its changing forms, unable to leave despite the entreaties of his two sisters. One of them has opened a bakery in Baltimore, Maryland; the other works as a translator for UNESCO in Paris. Neither of them can understand how Saman can stay on in Beirut, where sectarian violence still rages sporadically, fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. His third sister, Josephine, was kidnapped and killed at the height of that conflict, in 1983.

The first half of the book records Saman’s daily life among the specters and shifting landscapes of his beloved city: his various girlfriends, his work at the Yarid Architecture and Design Agency.

“I’m forty now,” Saman reflects. “and I’ve done nothing with my life.” Mostly he keeps track of the prominent citizens killed on the streets of Beirut – Samir Kassir, for instance, a professor of history at St Joseph University whose secondary career as a journalist writing editorials blasting Lebanon’s pro-Syrian regime in the daily newspaper Al-Nahar earned him an assassination by car bomb in front of his home on Furn al-Hayek Street.

The most horrific and newsworthy murder was that of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February of 2005. The massive explosion wiped out his heavily armored car, his entire motorcade, and a good chunk of the street on which they were driving. Saman walks by that street every day. The threat of car bombs plague his thinking. He is certain he saw two men planting a bomb in a car, during one of his long nightly walks. The big Mercedes seems to stare at him with a ghoulish squint of imminent doom after that encounter – silent, temporarily intact, like Monot Street before the Hariri assassination.

The bomb never goes off, if in fact there ever was one. Nevertheless, Saman is so afraid, so certain of the coming explosion, that he feels as if he has already died. Death is everywhere in Saman’s world as he stalks through the night streets and past the new surveillance cameras of a city perpetually dying but never reborn, eternally haunting itself in poisoned nostalgia of its remaining champions.

All of them are waiting for the release of the Mehlis report, the U.N. Security council’s investigation of the Hariri assassination, authored by German judge Detlev Mehlism who has been investigating the attack at the highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian Governments.

Fittingly enough, ultimately the report changed like the city itself, under the stress of politics and religious strife. The original document, leaked to the press, clearly indicated the involvement of Hezbollah and certain high officials in Syria. But key witnesses recanted their confessions, documents disappeared, and a much less provocative report became the official version of the investigation’s findings.

For Saman Yarid and his friends, waiting in a purgatory of anxiety and doubt for the verdict of the United Nations, none of that matters. Time stands still as they tip-toe through the minefield of daily life.

This fear-tipped banality finds an uncanny echo in the routines of Josephine Yarid, Saman’s sister. She narrates the second half of the book, starting with the moment she wakes up from what should have been a fatal beating at the hands of her kidnappers.

She walks through a strangely deserted “green line” between east and west Beirut, touching dried blood matted in her hair, feeling little but an overwhelming thirst and the memory of pain, rather than pain itself. The full moon above the city convinces her that somehow, against all odds, she’s still alive.

Then she sees an old man who looks strangely familiar, though she can’t place him.

Look at my face, he said, and imagine me with white hair – not black like this but white.

I said I was tired – so tired and thirsty I couldn’t imagine him with white hair. But I’ve seen you before, I said, and I know you.

I wanted him to help me. To pick me up and carry me home. I wanted him to pick me up and carry me in his arms like a child – I wanted him to take me to my family. Why doesn’t he carry me home? I wanted to open my eyes and see myself back on the familiar sofa in my own familiar house again. To open my eyes and see the faces I knew looking back at me. I wanted them to look at me and tell me I’d come back, tell me I’d been saved. Why wasn’t he taking me home right then and there?

I stared at him and noticed that he looked like my brother – he didn’t just look like my father, he looked like Saman as well. But he wasn’t Saman. This man was older than my brother. I’ll try to picture him with white hair, I thought. And then he spoke again.

“Josephine, I’m your grandfather.”

At that moment, I knew I was dead.

Josephine has entered the afterlife and the Beirut of the dead bears a striking resemblance to the stilled and stifled living city her brother still inhabits. She walks it as he does, and watches him on the television, the only visual connection to the land of the living. Also, she reads and writes. In Jaber’s evocation of the afterlife, everyone reads, all the time. It’s the only activity that brings the dead any peace of mind, though they also write. They even have an assignment: to compress their life stories into a single page. It takes many drafts, and you can’t help feeling that the first half of The Mehlis Report might wind up as Saman’s initial effort, when he reaches the other side.

He has a long way to go, and so does his sister.

Meanwhile, they walk, and chart the changes in their worlds, and remember. For Jaber, both life and death are defined by the futile effort to escape the past. The dead have giant rats who will eat the longing for the living world out of their souls; the living receive no such service. Throughout both worlds and ricocheting between them, the images appear and disappear, recur and reassemble themselves: the city, the green line, the lost buildings and sun beaten squares, and most of all the moon. It’s everywhere in this book – the first thing Josephine sees when she wakes into the afterlife, the last thing Saman sees before he goes to sleep, invoking life and hope and the illusions of both. The moon bathes the city in light, but it’s reflected light, borrowed light, the memory of light, pale and insubstantial. And that last sentence with its chanting rhythms and repetitions, mimics the hypnotic, classical Arabic style, Jaber employs, defttly captured by translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid, as in the extraordinary passage where Josephine addresses her unheeding brother from beyond the grave.

For weeks Saman’s cellphone has been ringing,  the caller disconnecting before he can answer, the number on his screen non-existent or incomplete. He senses that these calls are important, and the silence on the other end of the line haunts him. Literally:

Listen, Saman, I call you but you don’t answer. You look at my number and you don’t answer because you don’t know who it is … I call you but you don’t answer. I want to tell you things. I have so many things to tell you. I’m not alone. And neither are you … I call but you don’t answer.  You look at the number and you don’t answer because you don’t know it. Wrong number you think, or the lines must be crossed, and you tell yourself to call the company and ask about this, but you never call and you never ask, because you’ve already forgotten about it and you’re nor really interested. I all you, but you don’t answer. I want to ask you why you’re not interested … I call you and you look at the number, but you don’t answer. It’s as if you don’t care. Why don’t you care? I’m not just talking about the phone. That should be clear by now. I’m talking about a lot of things… You were born in an evil hour. The old aristocratic house, the whole district. It too is passing through dark times. It’s not your fault: time’s the culprit. How can you find a story for your life, how can you write one, when you’re in the city at this hour?

Finally, she describes the Anatolian Fault, which balances the city on the edge of a possible earthquake at every moment, and the tectonic shift in Saman’s life when Hariri was killed: “The motorcade explodes and a black chasm appears on the road, and the city falls into it. The whole country falls into it.”

Saman dies himself before the Mehlis report is made public, before he finds what he’s looking for or resolves his life into any meaningful direction. He sees the people he knew on the other side – his sister, Harir himself, Kahili Gibran, others. He sees a man, a professional writer when he was alive, who “used to write for the sake of prestige. In this world he writes only a single sentence: ‘I write so as not to choke.’”

You feel that Rabee Jaber, winner of the 2012 International prize for Arabic Fiction, writes for the same reason, under the same ambiguous moon, trying to make sense of this world and the next, well aware that his efforts will fail.

In that other world, the departed learn to read each book many times, to dismantle and reassemble it, over and over again, though few books deserve such study.

This novel is surely one of them, well worth searching out among the libraries of the dead.

— 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, his work has appeared at and 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.



Sep 082013

Editor’s Note:  Herewith, the opening section of Robert Day’s novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which we published in its entirety as a serial novel from September, 2013, to April, 2014. The novel remained online until August, 2014, at which point, as per our original agreement with the author, we deleted all the segments except for the first. We have left this opening segment, just as it was published, for your entertainment and to celebrate the amazing experience we had putting this book together. This was a first for Numéro Cinq, our first full length novel, our first serial novel — exciting times, wonderful experience watching the novel unfold month by month.

Bookbinding header, color-001

In the tradition of Charles Dickens and any number of 19th century novelists who wrote those triple-decker novels first published in serial form in magazines, Numéro Cinq today launches Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which will appear here in seven monthly parts. This is the long awaited follow-up to Day’s wondrous and acclaimed first novel The Last Cattle Drive; it’s not a sequel, but in Let Us Imagine Lost Love, Day returns to his native Kansas, of which he is a wry, witty and affectionate observer. His narrator is a book designer, who loves the jargon and paraphernalia of his profession, a man without a wife but a string of Wednesday lovers, his “Plaza wives,” he calls them. At his back, as we learn in the opening sequence, is a strong-willed Kansas mother who made him memorize three words a day and wouldn’t think of letting him go east to college (he ends up at Emporia State Teachers College). But this is vintage Robert Day: the humor is dry yet generous, the dialogue is laconic but rich with implication. You shouldn’t miss skinny dipping with Melinda or Tina, the narrator’s college girlfriend who would only begin to take her clothes off over the telephone (those innocent days). And stay tuned for the next installment.


Part One: My Cosmic Smoke Signal

Since You Asked and I Promised: Here’s How It’s Turned Out

These days I design books.  Gutters and “case backs,” “rivers” and “verso,” “quarto,” and “signature” are the nomenclature of my trade.  Or were when I started.  “Format” and “galley proof.” Pocket Pal and Rookledge’s Type Designers are my codices.

I understand I am un-hip in my patois, as if I were to use “Hi-Fi” instead of “stereo”—which I do.   “Mono,” I am told by Lillian, my sister’s late-in-life daughter, is a disease.  It used to be music as well:  the kind that came from the lid of a forty-five record player:  Memories Are Made of ThisScotch and Soda.

At first I worked at Hallmark here in Kansas City.  Now I freelance.   My Plaza apartment is my office. The Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri.  Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’s domain.  Calvin Trillin slurping a frosty at Winstead’s.  Edward Dahlberg pissing and moaning about the city.

At Hallmark I designed “favorites:” 20 Favorite Poems by Shakespeare. 100 Favorite Love Poems. 50 Favorite Words of Wisdom. 100 Famous Quotations By American Women.   I also designed “paths”:  50 Paths to Wisdom.  25 Paths to Bliss.  No one suggested 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Or even one.  

I was not cynical about such work then, nor am I now.   When you grow up with webbed aluminum lawn chairs and a pedestal-mounted blue glass globe in your front yard, an Irish father who talked to himself but not much to anybody else (“I’m talking to a smart man when I’m talking to myself”), and a Polish mother who saved coins in Mogen David wine jars, you gain perspective. If my book buyers want their wisdom flush left in purse-sized octavos, who am I to judge?  We all have our paths.

I design address books.  I do not design novels.  I design recording calendars, sometimes called “agendas.”  I do not design memoirs (fictional or not). I do not design auto repair manuals.  Or medical texts.  I design exhibition catalogues: A Painter’s Room of My Own. Coffee table books: The Stalls of the Seine (into which I cut and pasted some of my own books that were—as far as I know—never there, unless you count them being vicariously there—which I do). More: Joyce’s Paris. Small Hotels of Italy. A Place in the World Called Seville.  And once, a tiny duodecimo for autographs.

I win awards. I am well paid.   I am praised for my “tailored elegance.” For “combining utility with beauty”:  For “fusing” the well-known  (a Degas auto point that looks like Allen Ginsberg as Allen Ginsberg got older) with an obscure Franz  Beckman auto point.

Among my favorite projects have been two “Abecedarians.”  One was about painting: M was for Matisse: with a young woman in an afternoon pose; a second was about writers whose pictures appeared like a water mark behind their letters with their text at the bottom:  C was for Chekhov: “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea front: a lady with a dog.”

But my favorites are “Blanks”— books with empty pages for memoirs to be written or diaries to be kept.  Or not. I am Mr. Tabula Rasa of Kansas City.  And other cities as well.

Over the years I have spread into various rooms:  computers, scanners, light tables, and a recently purchased color copier configured to print and bind books.  With that addition I am a one-man, limited edition, publishing firm: Blanche de Blank Books, the bit of French added for a bit of cache, if not for Stella Kowalski’s sister.

This week I am finishing a series of “Artist Blanks,” each with a picture or text as the cover:  Van Gogh’s portrait on a sketch book. John Donne (I long to talk to some lover’s ghost who died before the God of love was born) for poets.  Notes from Pachebel’s Canon (it’s in fashion again).  I am trying to decide if Chekhov should be a short story writer or a playwright.

—Did you do this? my sister Elaine  asked when she and her husband Gerhard had me for dinner.

It was a coffee table book that featured paintings of women in New York museums: Madame X from the Metropolitan, a Vermeer from the Frick.  Picasso’s Two Nudes from MOMA.  Others. I had been inspired by an old Playboy photo series: The Women of Rome (they were riding topless on Vespas); The Women of San Francisco (they were hanging out of both their blouses and the cable cars on which they rode).

—Not that you always “fess up,” she said.

—Yes, I said.

—Lovely, she said.  I keep it out.

My sister’s diary, an early Blank of mine (a garden motif with both plants and flowers as a running head and end papers), also in the living room that night was (I took a peek) blank:  Hours without alphabets. Days without words. Impatiens without patience.  It was sitting next to another book I designed on the gardens in Tuscany, but since Elaine did not ask about either of them, I said nothing.

I like what I do.  There is a pleasing philistine sensibility about a well- designed, large-format book that features the flora and fauna from the French impressionist period.  The philistine sensibility is not in the book, but in the plush homes and apartments where Monet’s Water Lilies or Fantin LaTour’s Still Lives languish.  I test my designs against the horizontal of coffee tables, not the vertical of bookshelves.

At first, I would use an alphabet soup of Bs and Es and Ts and Hs on the page to make sure the design was working, even if the book itself might never find work. For recent projects I have been using authors I am reading:  Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov.  Today I used Joyce Cary:  The Horse’s Mouth.  Gully Jimson.

I could scan these texts, but when Chekhov goes up my fingertips to the radial nerve, then through the brachial plexus, he arrives at my temporal lobe with all his faculties in intact.   Give me fifty words and I am the doctor in Ward Six.  A hundred words later I am Doctor Chekhov. Five hundred (plus a pull of vodka), and I am Mother Russia. The transmigration of texts.

Before I send the final designs to the publisher I “delete” and “expunge” Gulley’s London, Percy’s New Orleans, or Chekhov’s Yalta.  I don’t want my editors to know whose verbal masks I wear at work.

Nor do I want the finished book:  my contracts specify that I shall not get complimentary copies, nor credited with the design.   When I see my books I want it to be by chance, as in my sister asking:  Did you do this?  Or the other day in Barnes and Noble on the Plaza where I take coffee and browse:

—Lovely, isn’t it? said the elegant blond check-out woman when I bought a copy of my remaindered The Table of Chez Panisse.   Then, looking at me, she said:

—You’re somebody, aren’t you?

—Yes, I said.  She smiled, took a second look, but could not place me. It might come to her because Picnic is playing at the art theater nearby.

—I thought so, she said.

 Serendipity is my favorite royalty. Even if I don’t make use of fortuitous coincidences.  In this case the actor she has half in mind is fully dead.

—What are you working on now? Elaine asked.

Gerhard was in the kitchen with Rosetta (a cleaning woman we share) fixing martinis out of Sean Connery movies.   I have agreed to come “a few minutes early to talk entre nous.”

About the time the martinis are to be wheeled in, my “date” will arrive—a woman my sister tells me makes her own sweaters.  As the day has been surprisingly cool, she might be wearing one.  The evening is one of Elaine’s attempts to “hook me up” (my niece’s language).   Elaine wants me to  “settle down” with someone “solid,” someone with whom we can all travel.  I don’t travel.

—I’m designing an agenda for the Nelson-Atkins’s spring show. Also a book for a friend.

— It’s only August, she said.

—They need lead time, I said.

My sister studied me for a moment.  She and Gerhard are on the board of the Nelson and she probably knows about the spring show and its featured painter.  She is waiting for me to “fess up.”  I don’t. I had expected she’d ask about the “friend,” but she seems to have been distracted.

—Anything else?

—Freelance proposals, I said.  What would you think of a diary using Tom Lehrer Songs across the top:  “It Just Takes a Smidgen to Poison a Pigeon.”

—Too mean, my sister said. Shame on you.

My sister has a “suppressed” smile; she holds her lips together and that makes the rest of her face—eyes, nose, ears—break into a bemused grin. She might have been smiling under her hairdo.

—How about an agenda of Keane women coupled with Rod McKuen’s poetry? I said.

—Very too mean, she said.

I don’t tell her that for my amusement I’ve designed both:  The Vatican Rag with Paranisi prints; and The Shadow of Your Smile Meets the Windmill of Your Mind, using the big-eyed Keanes. They were practice for this very Blank which, when done, I will send it to Blanche de Blank Books. I knew I was on the right track when a cosmic high-sign smoke signal curled off my Latin language dialog dashes.

—Steve tells me the Keanes are in fashion again, said my sister just as their dog Precious limped into the room, came over to me, barked once and sat down.

—What’s the matter?

—She got a thorn in her paw this afternoon and we were waiting for you to take it out.

—Let me see, I said and made a rollover motion.  It’s not a thorn but a piece of glass.

—Should I haven taken her to the vet?  She’s afraid of the vet, she’s not afraid of you. It’s probably in her genes.   And you know how to…

—Get me some Neosporin, tweezers, and a paper towel.

When Elaine returned, I took out the glass, cleaned the cut, and filled it with Neosporin—all the while Precious was calm, only barking once from her back at the syncopated chime of the doorbell.

—My hero, my brother, Elaine said as 007’s martinis were wheeled in.

The Go-Slow Guide to William Allen White’s Town 

I had not been good enough in high school to go “East” for college.  My father had hoped for a scholarship to Yale or Harvard: an Ivy League education is to a young man from Kansas what a rich marriage is to a young woman.  It went unsaid that the young man in question was thought none-too-bright.

My father’s ambition had been fueled beyond reason because Steve had earned a scholarship to Princeton three years before, and a year later Elaine would win one to Vassar.  As for my mother, she discovered that any college in Kansas had to take you if you had graduated from a state high school.

—I think he should stay in our domain, she’d say, using one of the ubiquitous words she was forever trying to teach us.

—He should go East, my father would say without—I would learn later—any sense of history or irony: “Go East,” you could hear him say summer evenings in our front yard as he drank his beer on one of the two folding aluminum lawn chairs he had arranged on either side of the glass globe.

—I think he should stay in our environs, my mother would say from her kitchen window as she did the dishes.

I was often talked about in the third person

The summer after my high school graduation, I lived at home, not being a bother to my parents—in fact being considerable help when not life guarding at the municipal pool.

When my mother had to stay late at the county office where she was a clerk, I worked through her Chore List: “Start potatoes at 350, scrub them smooth”; “wipe kitchen counter, make it sparkle”; “shake throw rugs, make dust flit”). I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I didn’t fret about it. I didn’t hang around my room looking into a tank of goldfish.

I mowed the lawn, painted the basement walls, cleaned out the attic, hung laundry on the clothesline, and ran errands. I picked Elaine up at the airport when she flew back for a visit. Some days I fixed flats, pumped gas and changed oil at my father’s garage and filling station.  There were evenings when I would help him restore an old Studebaker Champion convertible in which he had courted my mother.

—I bought it back, he would say routinely as we’d come into the shop.

At the swimming pool, I saved a boy out of the deep end bottom but never said anything about it until my father saw it as a news item in the local paper.

—Was that you? he said, reading the paper in his lawn chair.

—What? said my mother through the open window.

I was the kind of kid who did not explain himself.  Apparently I was saving myself.

The evenings I had off from the pool, I ran a movie projector for Al Roster who owned the local theater.

—You see Melinda in the back? he said


—Watch Bones McCall slip his hand into her blouse.

I watched.

—Watch how Melinda takes a breath.

I watched. Melinda tilted her head back and closed her eyes.  Bones stared straight ahead.  The movie was April Love.

Later that summer I got a few dates with Melinda as she didn’t seem to be going steady with Bones.  We’d take in a movie, and afterwards drive to Winstead’s on the Plaza for a hamburger, fries, and a frosty. I had a key to the pool so we’d go for a swim after it had closed.

Melinda wouldn’t skinny dip, but she’d pull down top of her bathing-suit.  I watched the way the underwater lights sparkled and bubbled around her breasts; I watched the way the bubbles cleared, and in so doing revealed her.

—When are we going to meet your girlfriend? my mother asked.

—She’s not my girlfriend.

—What is she? asked my mother.

Instead of an answer, I told her I had been accepted at Emporia State Teacher’s College for the fall semester.

—William Allen White’s town, my father would say by way of explaining my fate to his customers.  “Emporia,” he would say in the evenings polishing the blue globe with a clean red shop rag.  “William Allen White’s town.”

—You’ll need a dictionary, my mother said.  Pick three words a day, even if you think you know them.   But not in alphabetical order. That way you won’t get bored.  Open the dictionary, find a word, learn it, and then write it on a slip of paper.  Like a bookmark. Do you know what domain means? Do you know what plethora means? You need to make up for the words you missed.

She was referring to a grade-school year when I was a sickly child with an acute case of tonsillitis (probably misdiagnosed, now that I know better) that resulted in earaches, high fevers and many days absent from class.

—Words make a life, my mother would say, as much a mantra for herself as “go East” was for my father.  Words make a life, she’d say washing the evening’s dishes while drinking the last of her Mogen David. Do you know what divined means?

One night toward the end of summer, Al Roster came to the pool.  The evening had been chilly and there weren’t many swimmers left. We were about to close.  The manager had gone home. Al was waiting at the turnstile. We walked out and stood by my car—a used Ford that had been a family hand-me-down from my father’s garage.

—I’ll pay you a wage, said Al.  No more hourly.  Full time work.

He wanted to expand.  He was going to buy a theater in Overland Park and, after that, one in Roeland Park.  Someday I could have a “cut of the net.”

—There’s a future for you in movies, Al said.  And plenty of Melindas to watch. What’s an education good for these days?  Nothing but trouble.

He made a pair of binoculars with his fists and peered at the ground. —Plus all the popcorn you can eat.

That fall I drove to William Allen White’s town.

—Your grandmother was a teacher in western Kansas, my father said by way of goodbye.

—Teachers and government workers always have employment, my mother said.  Don’t forget:  three words a day from the dictionary I bought you.  It’s just like mine, so we can keep in conjunction.

Bottle James

When I got Emporia I took a room with Hulga, an Estonian who lived in a house her contractor son had built with the idea she could rent rooms to college students.  There were six of us.  I lived in the refurbished garage with Bottle James, whose car was a floating couch of a blue, four-door Hudson Hornet.  His real name is John Lee James, but he was called “Bottle” by the time I arrived.

—Hulga started it, he said. It’s because I booze.  Want a pull?  Vodka.

—No thanks.

Bottle James built sets for the college theater and he had remodeled the garage with bookcases and desks arranged throughout.  But he didn’t use them.

—No books, he said.

—How so?

—Library.  I have a place in the scene shop where I study.  Most of the time I sleep there.  I live on air.  Air and booze. Want a pull?

—No thanks.

—I’m going to Hollywood, he said. One night I’ll be acting the star role for the set I’m building, and the director will come along with an actress he’s going to ball and hear me.  That’s how I’ll get my break.  Then I’ll ball the actress.  In the meantime, use the place.  I built it as a set for somebody who’s into books and desks and pads on desks—and those calendars you flip over for every fucking day in the week of your life.  That’s not me.  We split the phone bill.  What’s that?

—A record player.  Plays both thirty-threes and forty-fives.  The speaker’s in the lid.

I unfolded it.

—You got forty fives?  Don’t tell me you got Dean Martin?

I didn’t tell him I had Dean Martin.

—That your Hudson in the driveway? I asked.

—Yes.  The last of its kind.  Next year I’m going to take it to Hollywood to scout the place.

I put my mother’s dictionary (Webster’s New World, College Edition) in the middle of the desk by the window.  I put out one of those calendars you flip over for every fucking day in the week of your life. I arranged my textbooks in the shelves.   I became a student with ease: English, psychology, history, general science, I liked it.  Especially History.  And three words a day: enigmatic, penultimate, erudition.

I Have Never Married

From the balcony that runs the length of my Plaza apartment I can see south across Brush Creek to my sister’s house in the neighborhood of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward—as  well as Ernest Hemingway finishing A Farewell to Arms.  East is the Nelson-Atkins Museum.  West is the Kansas line. I cannot see the ten miles to our old house in Merriam.

To the north is Westport where the Santa Fe Trail started. By leaning over my railing I can see the Westport Inn  (now called Kelly’s Tavern), and next to it Jim Bridger’s “historic” outfitting store.  I am told that in the late nineteen seventies a cattle drive came in from western Kansas and wound up at Kelly’s.  I doubt it. But I like to doubt.

I have never married.  I have had—and am having—a series of Wednesday afternoon affairs.  My Plaza wives.  Nothing solid.  No one with whom to travel. All married.

Not long ago, I bought a second apartment in my building.  Across and down the hall.  It is smaller.  No balcony.   Still, it is pleasant in its way.

I do not rent it, nor do I intend to.  I have made it a showcase (complete with a stylish coffee table and two excellent end tables) for the books I have designed. I also arrange the gifts I get from my Wednesday wives:  French jams and Spanish olives and Belgian chocolate truffles they buy me at the Better Cheddar and bring to our assignations.  Soaps and body lotions from Williams Sonoma.  Bottles of wine if they need aging.  Tins of foie gras.  Silk flowers. Provençal napkins, Sardinian grappa.   What these women give me is their lingua franca for who they are; I know this, they do not.

A Guide to Housing, Circa 1960’s

Emporia was my father’s webbed lawn chair.  There was an honest earnestness to the town, and to the college.  The students were not worldly and not knowing so.  The boys talked about cars and girls; the girls talked about boys and lipstick.  Our education did not lead to an education. That year I found erudite in my mother’s dictionary (page 494) and thought that is not me (nor “not I,” as I would later learn).  Only Bottle James complained of Dean Martin:  The rest of us were happy with Ray Coniff and Johnny Mathis.  We were provincial and didn’t know it.  Nor the word. The Kingston Trio had not yet left the Seine. Joan Baez didn’t yet have a ribbon in her hair.

Tina, Hulga’s daughter, lived in an upstairs room of the main house.  There was a rumor that her father was a Professor Humbolt who had died in bed with Hulga the night of Tina’s conception.  You could see Professor Humbolt’s portrait in the History Department where each year at graduation a prize was awarded in his name.  By the dates on the portrait, Professor Humbolt had been dead long enough to be Tina’s father.  I never asked.

—Forget about balling Tina, said Bottle. Everybody’s tried.  Me included.

—She dating somebody?

—It’s because her father had a heart attack getting laid by Hulga and she’s afraid.

—She’s afraid she’ll die getting balled?

—You got to be afraid of something.

Tina was tall, had brown hair, a thin-lipped smile, and walked with a slight bump and grind.   Her hips seemed to be moving even when she was standing still.

—I’m afraid, Tina said.

—Of what?

—I don’t know.

—I do.


—You’re afraid of being naked in front of me.

—It’s just not right.

—You’re afraid of being embarrassed of me being naked in front of you.

—What happens if I get a disease?  Or pregnant.

—You’re afraid that you don’t know how to do it.

—Do you?

—I have a plan.


By Thanksgiving, Tina would unbutton her blouse while we were talking on the phone, me in the garage, she in her bedroom a hundred feet away.

—Will you take it off?


My record player lid was singing “When I Fall in Love.”


—Mother says you have a girlfriend, my sister said when we were back for the summer.  From Emporia.

—Not really.  Sort of.

—Have you…

—We’re working on it.

—I was about to say: “Have you thought about bringing her home?”


We were sitting on our mother’s chartreuse couch; she was still at the Water Department; our father was at the garage putting chains on tires.  Steve was spending Christmas in Cambridge working at a law firm.   I had picked up Elaine from the airport two days before. My sister seemed different, but I didn’t say so.

When you are a young man trying to get used to your body and what it wants, it is difficult to understand how strangely you behave. Tina taking off her clothes at the end of the phone line would not be all that ”kinky” today (as in the bumper sticker I saw on an art student’s car the other day at the Art Institute:  “It’s Only Kinky The First Time”).  But sitting next to my sister it seemed something I should be ashamed of.  Better to go swimming with Melinda.  And since “kinky” was not in my mother’s dictionary, nor in the lexicon of the sixties, I could not name the nature of my unease.  Nor, given my Wednesday wives, can I now.

—Are you in love? said my sister.


—I might be, she said.

—Have you…?

—I’m thinking about it, she said.

—Do you know about men? I said.

—I’m learning, she said.  From you.

Before she flew back East, Elaine asked me to drive her to Winstead’s for a Frosty; then into the hills behind the Plaza on the south side where the expensive houses are.  Our parents did not spend their Sundays “Wish Book” driving.  But both Elaine and I had friends whose parents did, and one of Elaine’s high school boyfriends took her for such rides.

—Do you want to live in houses like this? Elaine asked me we curved among the lawn-clipped mansions of Mission Hills, then down toward the Plaza and past the house where one day Precious would need to have a gash cleaned.

—I don’t think about it.

—Really.  Don’t you think about what you’ll be like when you are mother and father’s age?

—I don’t.

—How strange, she said.  Is it because you boys are always thinking about girls?  Not about getting married to them or anything like that.  Not about houses where you’ll raise children.  Just about girls…well, you know what I mean.

I had never heard my sister talk like this.  I wondered if that was what was different about her.  She had turned a corner at Vassar and ahead of her was life: a curved driveway sweeping through a manicured lawn.  And for her, life was the future with the past going out of view in the rear view mirror of my old Ford as we drove toward home.

Then I said something beyond my years; even as I said it I knew I didn’t fully understand its implications.

—You don’t grow up all at once.  It takes a lot of not growing up along the way to get there.   I think the trick is…

Then I remember not knowing what to say next.

—Will you let me meet Tina? My sister asked as we turned back onto Johnson Drive toward Lowell.


—Then it’s not right, she said.  For her or for you.

 But this was after she had been silent most of the way home, and then said: “Turn here—” just as we reached Lowell, as if somehow I would not have known how to get to our house.

Swimming Pools and the Practice of Medicine

I completed my first year at Emporia and came home for the summer to lifeguard.  Melinda did not.   But there were other girls to take to the movies and then for a late-night swim.  I tell my parents I am studying to be a high school history teacher.

—American history? asked my mother.


—Real American history? asked my father.  With heroes.


—And your words?  Three a day, said my mother.  You don’t want to be a rube.

—I left the dictionary in Emporia, I said.

—We can share, my mother said.

—When will we meet your girlfriend? asked my father.

—I don’t have a girlfriend.

—Who do you talk to on the phone? asked my mother.

—A friend from college whose father was in the History Department.

Our words started with alacrity, propensity, and serendipity.  A big week for the suffix.

Clarence Day and Berkeley: An Introduction to a Memoir

—Your uncle Conroy writes that he has a fellowship if you earned good grades in science, my mother said one day when I came home from the pool for lunch.  It pays wages and you get college credit. My mother said this without much enthusiasm.   She was holding the letter and reading it a second and third time.

Uncle Conroy was my mother’s older brother, a pediatric researcher of international fame. In the cultural gulf between our linoleum-floor life in Merriam, Kansas, and Doctor Conroy Watkins directing a celebrated pediatric research lab in Berkeley, California, there was a pleasing pride—as if in our small house on Lowell we had a first edition signed by Clarence Day.

—Let me see, my father said, who was home for lunch.

—At the University of California at Berkeley, said my mother.

I have an hour before I have to be back at the pool.  After closing I am to take Muff LaRue to the Plaza.   It is our first date.  We will drive back to the pool for a swim.  I am told by Bones she goes all the way.

—That’s what it says, said my father.  A fellowship in Conroy’s research lab that could lead to medical school.  He should get there as soon as possible for training.

—I don’t know that General Science counts, said my mother.

—Two semesters of A’s, my father said.

—He’ll need some lessons in manners if he goes, said my mother. Aunt Lillian will have more than one fork at dinner.  They don’t “just eat” in a society like hers.  They bring food to their mouth and not their mouth to the food.

I seem not to be present, even in the third person.


—I am going to be a doctor, I said to Muff LaRue as I unlocked the gates to the pool.

Muff dove in fully clothed and swam to the deep end.  When she got there she pulled herself out and said if I’d turn off the lights she’d skinny dip.  I flipped switches.

—I’ve never dated a doctor, she said.  What kind of doctor?

She walked to the end of the low board.  She took off her shorts and tossed them on the deck.  Then she pulled her t-shirt over her head and threw it in the pool.

—A surgeon.  I am going to Cal-Berkeley to be a surgeon.

I was treading water beneath her.

—I’m going to Sarah Lawrence to study classics.  If you have a rubber I’ll do it with you, she said.  A rubber and an air float.

She was trying to decide, long before Cybill Shepherd, whether to take off her bra next or her panties.  Not that she is shy about it.  Just before she dove in she laughed—a deep, throaty laugh.


It took me a few days to quit the pool and pack.  I drove to Emporia to pick up the record player, records, clothes, and my dictionary. I told Hulga I would not be back in the fall. Tina had gone to western Kansas to visit her grandmother.  Later that week, I parked the car at my father’s garage and took the bus to San Francisco.  My uncle met me at the station.

—So you might want to be a doctor? he said.

—I don’t know, I said.

We were driving over the Bay Bridge toward the East Bay.  You have to be a young man from a small Kansas town to understand how astonishing it is to see San Francisco Bay for the first time.  There is nonchalance about its grandeur.

When I said I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor to one of the most famous and accomplished physicians in America, a man who had probably made special arrangements to get me a fellowship I did not deserve, it sounds, even at this distance, something Californian-sixties:  Mellow. Really, man.  Yeah. Wow. Far out.  That’s not what I meant. Perhaps I thought—as we crossed the Bay Bridge to the East Bay—that if I couldn’t be a doctor like Uncle Conroy, I didn’t want to be a doctor.  I’d like to think that now.

—I don’t mean. . . I said as we drove up Grove Avenue past the lab where I would be working.

—I understand, he said. Don’t worry about your future.  It is always there.

—Thank you, I said.

—That is the hospital with which the lab is associated, my Uncle said as we passed by. And that’s where you can get a cup of coffee.

On the other side of the street was an all-night diner, its neon sign proclaiming:  MEL’S.

From Grove we drove into the Berkeley Hills behind the Claremont Hotel to my aunt and uncle’s house overlooking the Bay.  It was where I lived until just before the fall semester began when I rented a room on Derby.

 The Thor:  An Owner’s Manual

The other day Elaine and I drove to our home in Merriam.   I don’t have a car, so we used hers.  The house is twenty minutes west across the state line, 505 Lowell.

On previous trips we noticed the place was vacant; drapes pulled, its lawn not mowed.  I am thinking about buying it but I have not told my sister.   It might take me awhile to find the owner.  There was no “For Sale” sign.

505 Lowell is a small ranch affair with a one-car garage.  There is a basement my father refinished so my brother and I could have rooms of our own. They were on either side of the furnace out of which heating ducts ran upstairs.   When my mother wanted to talk to us she would speak into one of the floor registers; the one in the kitchen went to my room; the one in the living room worked for Steve.  When my mother made a mistake it was our joke to say “wrong number” and beat on the heating ducts. My sister lived upstairs and down the hall from our parents.

Steve and I had small windows onto the lawn.  After a few years our father refinished the front part of the basement with brown vinyl paneling, making it into a “rec room.”  There was a ping-pong table, a sofa on which Elaine necked with her boyfriends, and the portable forty-five record player that each of us would claim and that I took to Emporia:  “Summer Place.”  “Misty.”

We sold the house after my mother died; Steve wanted the money; my sister had married and moved to Mission Hills.  I wanted to keep it but didn’t say so.

The glass globe is gone, but the Christmas tree my father planted when Elaine was born is still there—now more than forty feet tall.   The wooden awnings he made to celebrate Steve’s birth are gone and the gravel driveway has been blacktopped, but as far as I know they are the only changes in all these years. Precious’ great grandmother is buried in the backyard.

Like the apartment, I would not rent the house. I’d furnish it with a chartreuse davenport and matching end tables on either side. Webbed aluminum lawn chairs. Early Ozzie and Harriet. The Thor All Purpose Domestic Appliance. We could probably get most of what we need from yard sales. Or E-Bay, if I did the Internet. Elaine has the record player in her attic.

—What happened to his globe? my sister said as we turned down Lowell from Johnson Drive.

—I don’t know, I said.

—And the Thor?

—It went to the garage when he died, I said.  It wasn’t there when mother died.  I expect the new owner had it hauled away.

—I got a tree and Steve got awnings, my sister said.  She leaves it unsaid that I got nothing.

Elaine and I have gone over all this before.  The furniture of memories:  familiar roads, familiar talk. The yard sale of our lives.  The repetition is pleasing:  even the pauses between us have been there before.  I should do a Blank: Silences.  Use stills from Woody Allen’s Interiors. Or Pakula’s Klute.

The Thor was a combination dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and clothes dryer. A round, menacing contraption, it was mounted on four hard rubber wheels that had to be locked before starting it.  The lid looked like a submarine hatch; the body a tank turret.  It took my father and two neighbors to carry it into the kitchen.  It was our mother’s anniversary present.  The following Christmas, he bought her a Western Flyer lawn mower.

Elaine and I have come to the end of Lowell and are making a turn down the hill at 52nd street.  Some trips she asks about the Thor, other trips she talks about the glass globe. Because she has brought up both, I wonder if she senses I am thinking of buying the house.

—Do you remember when the Thor attacked us? my sister asked as we took a right turn up Newton to take a left on Johnson Drive past the corner where my father’s filling station had been, but where is now a visitor’s parking lot for our high school across the street.  She has said this before.

—Yes, I said.

—Where did he get it?

—A friend of his in the military made them after the war, I said.

I have said this before.

We are a blank of silence the fifteen-minute length of Johnson Drive to Fairway Manor.

—I knew about you and Muff LaRue, my sister said as we crossed State Line road, then down Ward Parkway, along Brush Creek and into the Plaza.

Just as my sister and I repeat ourselves, it is also our routine to add something on our drives. Muff LaRue is what she has added.  I am wondering what I should add.  Not about buying the house, I decide.

—I’ll walk from here, I said.

Elaine has stopped at the corner of 48th street and Jefferson near the sitting bronze of Ben Franklin and across from a series of amusing busts atop an apartment building just out of reach of the “building covenant” of the Plaza.  In recent days a local rapper of national fame has been chanting up and down the streets, and my sister and I see him heading our way, his spray-dyed red hair bobbing and jerking.

—Did you know I knew about you and Muff? she said.

—I did, I said.

But I did not.  It is not that I lie to my sister, it is that. . ..well, what is it?   She is literal and I am not.  Some of my life needs to be fiction, and my sister is my best reader. I take that back:  I am my best reader, but I need someone to doubt me.  Present company excluded.

—I don’t believe you, Elaine said.

—Did you know about Melinda? I said.

—I do now, she said.

—Ben Franklin wrote an essay on the virtues of older women, I said as the rapper got closer.

It was what I have decided to add.

—Did he?


—Life comes around, Elaine said as I got out of the car.  Muff LaRue has moved back to the Plaza and wants to meet you.

Design Proposal for Blanche de Blank Books: One of X

1. Title:  My Cosmic Smoke Signal

A.   Quarto:   Neither paginated nor cut.  Acid free paper.

B.  Where a Section ends, there is a line drawing of your paintings (or segments of those paintings) mentioned in the text but scrambled so they are not where they are cited.

C. Typeface for text:  Bookman (old style).  14 point.

D.  Watermark: interlined subliminal text from California when facing text is Kansas, and vice versa.

E.  Typeface for watermark: Book (Antiqua, Italics). 10 point.

F.  Sample Text: “Clouds all streaming away like ghost fish under ice.  Evening sun turning reddish.  Trees along the hard like old copper.  Old willows leaves shaking up and down in the breeze, making shadows on the ones below, reflections on the ones above.  Need a tricky brush to give the effect and what would be the good.  Pissarro’s job, not mine.”  —Gully Jimson

G.  Edition Binding.  Title embossed in gold.

—Robert Day

Bookbinding header, color-001

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

The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.

Sep 072013

Diane Lefer

My old friend, and multiple NC recidivist, Diane Lefer is off to Belfast, Northern Ireland, shortly to work on several community projects including one involving former political prisoners. The last time we heard from Diane she was in Bolivia. But herewith we offer a glance at her most recent work, just finished up, teaching creative writing to elderly parolees in Los Angeles transitional housing. The essay is a celebration of their writing, a story of a teaching adventure, and a polemic, an ancient and honourable form. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Diane’s new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, is just out. Where does she get the time?


This essay will appear in somewhat different and longer form in Turning the Page, the book I’m publishing compiled from the writing a group of men on parole created in the workshop I offered over the summer with support from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Free copies will be distributed at public events in South LA, and the PDF version of the book will be available soon for download at the website Francisco Voices where you can also learn more about the men and read some samples of their work.

—Diane Lefer


Sidney's drawing for NC

The Francisco Homes are five neatly kept and well maintained houses in South LA, each with a yard, each offering the first step back to freedom for a total of about 60 formerly incarcerated men. These houses, run by a nonprofit organization, are the only transitional housing specifically intended for men who received life sentences but after decades behind bars were released on parole after the board of prison terms and the governor were convinced they had turned their lives around and posed no threat.

Transitional housing is a stepping-stone. One man told me, “If you go to prison at 15 and come out at 50, in some ways, you’re still 15.” That means there’s a lot to learn – and decades of technology to catch up on. Still, the men are anxious to move on once they’ve regained their footing. They look forward to living, at last, as adults.

For the time being, they attend house meetings and classes as well as regular meetings with their parole officers. They pay a low monthly rent, share household chores, grocery shopping and cooking. One man told me how much he loves going to the grocery store because he smiles and greets everyone – neighbors and strangers – in the aisles and at checkout, and these simple human interactions fill him with joy.

In July and August 2013, it was my privilege to offer a series of writing workshops for residents. Everyone was invited, at any level of experience, from men who’d been published to men who didn’t think they could write at all. We usually began with some conversation on a topic that might spark ideas. We looked at published poems, essays, and stories. Sometimes we incorporated drawing or improvisation to open up creativity in different ways.

When I first showed up, I had some preconceived ideas. First, I expected the South LA neighborhood to be rough. And yes, it can be. But men sit on porches, talking quietly; children play; people work in their gardens; the ice cream truck passes playing “Turkey in the Straw.” One Francisco Home resident said, with evident delight, “I live on a tree-lined block!”

Sidney for NC

I figured that just to get out on parole these men had probably spent many years keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and so I wanted them to have the chance to express themselves freely.

I admit I had an agenda: I thought no one knows as much about California prisons as prisoners and the formerly incarcerated do, but while voters and politicians make policy and law, no one really hears from these life-experience experts. However, I underestimated how cautious some of the men would be, reluctant to use their names or allow their work to be made public. The men are still under supervision, and some worried about repercussions. Some didn’t want to share their thoughts about the prison system because they are skeptical that what they write can make a difference.

One of the workshop writers spent almost 40 years in prison for a crime that I learned  – had it not been for the practice of indeterminate sentencing – would have warranted eight years behind bars. He cut me off when I showed how upset I was on his behalf. He didn’t want to think about what was past. This was all he had to say about the many times he was denied parole: “I couldn’t afford to get angry. If I wanted to stay healthy inside, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself.”

But I can afford to get angry.

I’m angry that one of the men served almost 30 years after he walked in on a rape-in-progress, grabbed the man and beat him badly. Convicted of assault, he got a life sentence. Do you think that would have been the outcome if he’d been able to afford a lawyer?

I’m angry that prison websites list a wide array of educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs – most of which exist only on paper or on the computer screen. When California prisons had real rehabilitation programs, the recidivism rate was so low, we were a model for the nation. These days, it’s pretty obvious why 65% of former prisoners are back inside within three years – though lifers, like the men in my group, have a recidivism rate so low it approaches zero. Statistically, a person who’s never been convicted of a crime is more likely to commit an act of violence than a lifer on parole.

father in a bottle by Aaron Nava

Programs are eliminated because of an attitude that to offer anything constructive is to coddle prisoners, by frequent lockdowns, the wardens’ reluctance to assign corrections officers to escort men to classes, class and meeting rooms converted to dorms due to overcrowding. Even programs that cost prisons nothing to run are hard to get into. I listened to one man who spent ten years on a waiting list before he was able to attend an AA meeting.

As one man in our group put it, “I had to rehabilitate myself.” But not every prisoner will be able to discover those inner resources on his or her own.

It makes me angry that pre-release planning too often consists of giving a prisoner a piece of paper with phone numbers and addresses of social agencies. The list is entirely out-of-date or simply incorrect. Phones are disconnected. Letters returned, Addressee unknown.

The fortunate find a safe harbor in transitional housing or treatment facilities, but there aren’t enough beds to go around. Los Angeles suffers from a severe lack of affordable housing. The organizations that serve the formerly incarcerated recently acknowledged they need to collaborate with organizations serving the homeless: the two populations overlap. “If you have no place to go,” said a man, “you go back to the streets.” And back to prison.

Men lose all their identification documents when they get locked up. They emerge with only prison ID that isn’t accepted as valid in the state of California. Negotiating a way through the bureaucracy to get a birth certificate, driver’s license or photo ID, and Social Security card can be daunting. Nothing like being told that according to computer records you don’t exist. It took one man in my workshop eight long months of persistent effort to get the documentation a person needs in order to seek employment. Why on earth can’t our prisons assure that prisoners get their documents before release?

It makes me angry that our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals – confining those who had psychiatric disturbances to begin with and those who’ve fallen apart under dehumanizing conditions including long term solitary confinement – a practice recognized in the U.S. and around the world as torture. A friend of mine was beaten and stabbed in prison but he said nothing was as bad as the year he spent in solitary, not even allowed to have books or magazines. (As I write, California prisoners continue to risk retaliation, health consequences, and death on hunger strike to protest being kept in isolation for decades.)

So why weren’t the men writing about this?

One of the participants finally said, “We suffer so much from guilt and remorse and self-hate, nothing the State could do to us was as bad as what we did to ourselves.”

Again and again men said, “I have nothing to complain about.” Instead, the workshop writers wanted to stay positive, to think about what they can give their communities today and tomorrow rather than look back at what they took yesterday. They wanted to write with wonder and gratitude of the new world they had entered.

Lefty for NC

In “On Reverence,” his recent essay here in Numéro Cinq, Richard Farrell mourns the loss of the sense of awe in contemporary life. In the obliviousness of our daily pursuits, he writes, we fail to see the sacred patterns in the landscape we walk every day. “[W]e seem perpetually distracted. We cash in our humanity, and turn our backs to the sacred moments with such a blithe indifference that at times it feels as if life were one giant video game.” He confesses, “As often as not, I am oblivious to awe, wandering around in an over-saturated haze of consumerist fervor, kinetic schedules and endless detachment.”

I think of Farrell’s words every time I visit The Francisco Homes where the men live and breathe reverence. In their writing, they express gratitude along with their perplexity at people living free who don’t appreciate their relationships or the gifts they’ve been granted. Every week I was reminded by them of the pleasure to be found in looking at flowers or the sky, watching a mother cat with her kittens, riding a bike, being free. Sacred moments.

The men I met went through profound change while in prison. What is apparent when spending time with them today is their decency.

This is not to overlook or minimize the harm they did earlier in their lives. Their victims must not be forgotten, their pain and grief denied. But while well-funded victims rights organizations lobby successfully for longer sentences and fewer chances for parole, there are other victims whose voices also need to be heard. The first ever survey of California victims and survivors of violent crime found that the majority believed we incarcerate too many people, not too few. By a two-to-one margin, they favored probation and community supervision over prisons and jails. By a three-to-one margin they favored investments in mental health and drug treatment over incarceration.

Aren’t victims and survivors best honored and served when we devote resources to preventing violence instead of spending $10 billion/year here in California on punishing perpetrators when the worst that can happen has already happened and cannot be undone?

The general public turns out to be way ahead of the tough-on-crime politicians and policy makers.

Again and again, the men told me their stories: A man is put outside the prison gates, disoriented, with no place to go. He stops a stranger to ask directions. Offered a cell phone so he can make a call, he has no idea how to use it. He explains he has just been released from San Quentin after 29 years and instead of recoiling in fear, the stranger — usually a woman! — gives him money which he tries to refuse, takes him to the bus terminal and buys him a ticket, or drives him to a center where he can get help. Even a friendly greeting, the simplest of gestures, fills a newly freed man with gratitude.

I am grateful to the men of The Francisco Homes writing workshop for opening the doors and letting me in. I expected them to teach me about prison. Instead they reminded me to appreciate the beauty in everyday life. They taught me what it means to live without expectations but still, always, with hope.

—Diane Lefer


Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”







Sep 062013

Boel Schenlaer

Boel Schenlaer is a whirlwind of a poet, playwright, editor and literary impresario in Sweden. She is also a bit of a nomad and writes about that, writes about the interzone where the familiar begins to fade and the Other, strange, foreign, crowded and confusing, begins to infiltrate consciousness with a tumult of sensation, gorgeous unknowable words, and fleeting, enigmatic encounters. This is the zone of translation (between cultures, peoples, languages) and transcendence. It’s ironic then that we also have here translations from the Swedish (by Alan Crozier) of Schenlaer’s translations of her experience, experience doubly displaced — something in this about the nature of poetry. Lovely to read.



En route to Marrakech
Cane making. Afriqua is the name of the
filling station, lovely clusters of cactus.
“A new life is born” it says on
the sign. Birdbath fountain. Repair shop.
Donkeys shrieking like donkeys.
Afriqua. Oilibya and Marrakech begin.

Round buildings, holes in the walls
pink stone houses, built-up areas.
Orange trees, cars, a mosque, swimming baths.
Red stone houses, red wall. Yellow-pink houses.
Café Ourika. Moped riders. Africa depicted.
When there are too few things to observe…
…children become poets…

A roof of cloth
Never before have I seen such a swarm
the medina, souks, the square full of people
like one big dark mystic mass
in which I move, which moves round me.
A vault of cloth above, a roof of cloth, the sky
the soft, dark night of creation, black
and all the lanterns, fires, lights, the glare
Djema el-Fnaa, fortune tellers, madrasas.
Who is frightened by large open squares with
smoke, fires, snakes, horses, drums, food
begging children, jewellery, carpets, shawls
scents of incense, the darkness, the throng…


Encircled by darkness and people


When we got out of the taxi the darkness was there
enclosing, embracing, the closure
and the opening of night in movements
in tension, in encounters that come closer.
The square a roundabout of bustle, rhythms
three spells, the fairytale, the hostilities
dynasties of believing Arabs
the Muslims, the women’s clothing
– heavy yellow-pink, soft orange, jellyfish-green –
beards, roving eyes, the heat in the air
the teapots, the drinking vessels, hats
carpets, patterns and the arabesques
the conmen, the beggars, and the
hands cupped before one’s eyes.
To give, always to give, to be a poor
Swede, but poor gives to poor and I can’t
remember such vulnerability
just my own former poverty and
the children’s blind trust, a destitution that
makes them want to abandon the draught animals
with caked earth hanging from their bellies.
The teapots, symbols of pause.


A girl pursues us up on to the roof
she wants her dirhams. She stands her ground.
When we have drunk our tea she is at the foot
of the stairs, tugs our clothes, loses her temper.
She gets twenty dirhams but wants a hundred
she doesn’t give up, we have to chase
the child away and what does that make us?
In that moment I lose my dignity
to the red pisé walls of the medina.

At home my friends are exposed to
hate crimes and I protest vehemently
to those who made the damage possible.
Anti-Semites are growing in numbers.


Night in the square is the darkness and mumbling
of rapture, the gloom of a spirit.
My black nightmare is of a different kind.
Poetry is the dark muzzle of a
confiscated horse left in the stable.
The four-legged steed, chained fast and
inside the horse another one like it
a velvety creature we call a foal
with the well in its eyes and a hoarse cry,
a whisper that has become mute, that lives
its life concealed, born into uncertainty
that strides through fire on weightless hooves.


I am standing in water up to my dream.
The clay houses, walls of dissected life.
Stone-paved sugar which for centuries has
got stuck together with corroded souls
terms of abuse, smears, disparagement, hatred
in a broad horizon of bridge abutments
underground passages, burnt sand, desert.

The same incurable torrent of words that
is an act of kindness to scornful faces.
The man who’s fit for fight flinches away.
A panegyric from purgatory, a gob of spittle.
Some ancient poems the door of which
cannot be seen without a protective film.
The pilgrimage of the seven shawls. An awkward hand.
Everything I lay down here agrees with what
he said about his own will to breathe:
You reach true depth on the surface level.


Mellah is Hebrew for salt, the
Jewish quarters, the salt regarded
as poison, strewn for murder victims, I
cannot put up with the lies, never,
not in situations where the clothes pegs
in our outstretched hand, our fellow feelings
are constantly questioned. Our hook on life.

How the button that Lenke Rothman kept as
a bridge over all time away from the end,
how candy floss, barbe à papa, ceases.


The shoe-cleaner in a black jacket with a red
collar, dressed like a dirtied bellhop
on his low stool at the café guests’
shoes makes me burst into sudden tears.
Just like the grubby little boy
who handed me a packet of tissues
to give something in exchange for a few
paltry dirhams, and the youth who sold
a box of raspberries, took the note and ran.

—Boel Schenlær, from the collection I Dream of Blood translated by Alan Crozier


Alan Crozier was born in Ulster in 1953. He gained a Ph.D. in Germanic philology at Cambridge University in 1980. For the past thirty years he has lived in Sweden, married, with two children. He works as a translator, mainly of Scandinavian academic texts, and more recently of poetry, including the latest two collections of poems by Boel Schenlaer. His spare-time interests include folk music and writing comic verse and
other nonsense.

Boel Schenlaer is a poet and playwright who made her debut in 1992. Her poems have been translated into eleven languages. She is also editor of the poetry magazine Post Scriptum, and of the literary journal Merkurius. For the past eleven years she has arranged the annual Södermalm Poetry Festival, where some three hundred Swedish and international poets have appeared. Her latest collection of poems is titled Nomad in Exile, and a new one is to be published this winter: I Dream of Blood (Symposion, 2014).

Sep 052013


“This is my recommendation: we must live more attentively.”

 – László Krasznahorkai


Seiobo There Below
László Krasznahorkai
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Muzlet
New Directions
448 Pages, Paperback, $16.95

There was a time when, as a Romanian poet once put it, every rotten tree trunk held a god. In Seiobo There Below (Seiobo járt odalent, 2008), László Krasznahorkai reminds us repeatedly that this time is long past. Not only is the sacred in retreat from the world, but we have forgotten how to perceive it (two sides of the same coin, some might say)[1]. And yet the fifty-nine-year-old Hungarian author persists in speaking of transcendence. For Krasznahorkai, the spirits that once conveyed mystery and authority have not completely withdrawn; traces of the divine may still be discerned in the making and receiving of tradition-bound forms of art. Seiobo There Below represents seventeen remarkably diverse and ambitious forays into aesthetic grace.

Seiobo is the fifth of Krasznahorkai’s sixteen books to appear in English. The fact that his other major novels in English translation – The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, and Satantango – have primarily been set in Eastern Europe makes this latest effort seem like more of a departure than it actually is. A large part of the North American perception of Krasznahorkhai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse” (as Susan Sontag famously labeled him), has to do with the epic film adaptations of Krasznahorkai’s work that he and his friend director Béla Tarr have collaborated on (Damnation, Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies), as well as the order in which the author’s books have appeared on these shores (his first novel, Satantango took 27 years to make it into English). As Seiobo’s translator Ottilie Muzlet has pointed out, Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian readership would be aware of the fact that the years 1999-2008 marked a transitional period in his work, which saw him turning increasingly to the Far East for inspiration.[2]

Fittingly then, the original Seiobo is a work of fifteenth century Japanese Noh theatre, in which the titular goddess comes down from heaven to the earth below, bearing immortality. While the character Seiobo appears in one chapter of Krasznahorkai’s latest work, and Noh theatre pops up in a handful of others, the title Seiobo There Below describes more generally an arc that recurs in a variety of locations and tonal registers throughout the book’s seventeen sections. Each chapter presents an intersection (or failed intersection) between the sacred and the human, the immortal and the perishable, via aesthetic production and/or reception. Krasznahorkai alternates between Europe and Asia, ranging across 3000 years of cultural history, featuring familiar works such as the Alhambra, the Acropolis, and the Venus de Milo, but also a 500 year-old copy of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity Icon, the restoration of a Buddha sculpture, and the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise shrine.

1929933703_8c6cc973cc  a041-honden-(main-hall)--ise-mie-pref

In the book’s first section, entitled “Kamo-Hunter,” the object of aesthetic contemplation is a white bird standing in the middle of Kyoto’s Kamogawa river:

A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity; this, then, is the Ooshirosagi in the shallow waters of the Kamogawa, but of course the indifferent bystander never turns up; over there on the embankment people are walking, bicycles are rolling by, buses are running, but the Ooshirosagi just stands there imperturbably, its gaze cast beneath the surface of the foaming water, and the enduring value of its own incessant observation never changes, as the act of observation of this defenseless and superfluous artist leaves no doubt that its observation is truly unceasing…

Vision is crucial in Krasznahorkai’s work. Even in the sad and hilarious thirteenth section, the sole chapter of Seiobo There Below to focus on sound, the visual trumps the aural when a failed architect delivers a hysterical lecture on Baroque music to a group of elderly villagers who cannot take in the man’s words, because “it was really his gut that captured the attention of the locals, because this gut with its three colossal folds unequivocally sent a message to everyone that this was a person with many problems….” In the Kamo-Hunter chapter, however, the white bird serves a dual function. If it were enough just to see this bird in the river, then the initial clause, “A bird fishing in the water,” would suffice. The bird is a living work of art, but Krasznahorkai also grants the creature “the artist’s powers of observation,” so that it possesses the very powers of aesthetic perception that the prose displays. From the outset, Krasznahorkai suggests that perceiving the sublime is going to take more than simply looking as we are accustomed to doing (though the indifferent bystander is incapable even of this).

In The Senses of Modernism, Sara Danius reminds us that, “The etymological meaning of ‘aesthetics’ springs out of a cluster of Greek words which designate activities of sensory perception in both a strictly physiological sense, as in ‘sensation,’ and a mental sense, as in ‘apprehension.’” The indifferent bystander never turns up, but there is at least one person who perceives the Kamo-Hunter with an etymologically faithful aestheticism bordering on obsession: our narrator. In this opening chapter, Krasznahorkai caresses his white bird in mesmerizing, exhaustive prose, returning to it again and again as he weaves his way through modern day Kyoto, the “City of Infinite Demeanor.” The above sentence continues for another half-page and is by no means one of the lengthier ones in the book (in defense Krasznahorkai’s long sentences, the man knows how to wield a semicolon). It is as if the author is attempting a feat of linguistic perception to rival the bird’s “truly unceasing” gaze of “enduring value.” This heroic effort ensures that, in a delicious paradox, even those chapters that present failed intersections between the sublime and the human enact a level of writerly attentiveness that approaches transcendence.

Let us note one further thing about this opening chapter: an adjective attached to the word beauty. “The bird is granted the artist’s powers of observation,” we are told, so that it may represent “unbearable beauty.” For Krasznahorkai, immanence is a terrifying proposition. Few of the encounters with the aesthetic sublime in this book lead to healing, redemption, or acceptance. In a later chapter, a migrant Hungarian labourer’s unintentional encounter with a Russian icon painting leads him to purchase a large, sharp knife. Given the volatile power of art, why would anyone desire to commune with it as intensely as Krasznahorkai and some of his characters do?

Desire itself is commonly held to be the engine of the novel. It is important to remember that Seiobo is a novel, albeit one that at first glance appears to unfurl beneath an entirely different logic. For starters, the chapters are structured according to the famous Fibonacci sequence, and vary in length from eight to forty-eight pages. In the absence of a single main character, one way to connect Seiobo’s episodes to a central longing is to consider what Krazsnahorkai has said previously about his writing, that the sentences “are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working.” In this sense, the most obvious desire at work would be the Bernhardian compulsion to continue speaking, narrating breathlessly before that final end stop, death, is imposed.

Yet there is another, more commanding form of desire in Seiobo There Below. In a recent essay, Scott Esposito identifies in Krasznahorkai’s writing the aspiration to an “authority beyond the physical confines of our universe as we know it.” Is there another living novelist of whom this could be as convincingly said? Krasznahorkai’s search for this level of authority allies him with the high modernism of Joyce and Rilke (think Stephen Dedalus’s artist-God merging with the terrible angels of the Duino Elegies), and it may also be the driving force behind his search for transcendence in the process of making and receiving of art. There is a fine line between wanting to know God and wanting to be God, a fact which Krasznahorkai is well aware of, and exploits to his advantage. Esposito: “Modernism attempts to conflate the aesthetic with the religious.” Indeed.

The modernists’ desire for mastery has often been linked to the waning of traditional sacred structures in the West. In Seiobo, the European forms have long since been displaced, and it is only in Asia that we find contemporary cultures still connected to living traditions. Fredric Jameson has written that “Modern art drew its power and possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.” Certainly, on one level, this is precisely what Krasznahorkai is engaged in. But notice Jameson’s tense: Modern art drew. This quotation comes from Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, published in book form in 1991, when Modernism and its concerns were considered passé. What then is Krasznahorkai up to? Is he merely inhabiting an unproductive nostalgia for the past? Why can’t we shake our desire for wholeness? Perhaps, as Gabriel Josipovici has argued persuasively, Modernism’s concerns need to be understood not as belonging only to a particular era, but “as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.”

This is ultimately the reason why a book that examines the notion that the divine inhabits certain aesthetic objects can feel both epically, off-the-radar strange, and at the same time perfectly relevant. That Krasznahorkai successfully traces this inexplicable presence through a sixty-four clue Italian language crossword puzzle, the making of a Noh mask, and across a twenty-three page single sentence essay on the mysteries of the Alhambra is evidence of an astounding ambition and mastery. Here we are solidly in the realm of what Steven Moore would call “the novel as a kind of delivery system for aesthetic bliss.”[3]

But Krasznahorkai doesn’t just dazzle, he terrifies. By the final chapter, Seiobo There Below has accumulated a horrifically beautiful, almost unbearable force.


Writing about William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Josipovici notes that the traditional purpose of fiction is to protect us from the reality of our deaths. Krasznahorkai strips this protection away. The reality of death is often close at hand in Seiobo; many of the encounters with art bring a sharp awareness of mortality. For Krasznahorkai, the mystery of art is the closest thing to truth that we can glimpse, aside from death. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that these days we have less and less attention to give to either). At the end of the Kamo-Hunter chapter, our narrator advises his bird on the wisest course of action:

It would be better for you to turn around and go into the thick grasses, there where one of those strange grassy islets in the riverbed will completely cover you, it would be better if you do this for once and for all, because if you come back tomorrow, or after tomorrow, there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are; it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall, it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and you should not come back if tomorrow or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.

It is possible, of course, that art will one day no longer be with us, but it is more probable that we will no longer be with art. When there is no one left who knows how to perceive a work, then it may well as crawl off and die, like the white bird that opens Krasznahorkai’s book. But we have not reached this point yet. Against the odds, making and perceiving continue.

Eric Foley


Eric Foley

Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. For a brief account of modernity and the loss of immanence, see Douglas Glover’s essay “Mappa Mundi, The Structure of Western Thought.
  2. For more on Krasznahorkai see the excellent Spring 2013 issue of Music and Literature, to which this review is greatly indebted.
  3. “Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possesses greater abilities with language than most people. This is reading for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance.” – Steve Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600
Sep 042013

0 Valentin TrukhanenkoValentin Trukhanenko

Herewith a lovely, lively, astonishing, revelatory photo essay by the Russian photographer Valentin Trukhanenko. We have these images courtesy of Russell Working who curated and introduced the post as an accompaniment to his terrific essay “The Roommate: Vladivostok and the Ghost of Mandelstam” also published in this issue. The two pieces for a diptych, wonderful to have.


Vladivostok is so distant from Moscow, when Anton Chekhov visited in 1890, he decided to return by ship via the Suez Canal rather than face the 6,000 mile journey home on land.

Yet today it is largely ethnic Russian, a European city in a region flanked by China, North Korea, and the Sea of Japan. It is linked to the heart of the country by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The homes are largely Soviet-style prefab concrete, and Russian traditions endure—such as children taking flowers to the teacher on the first day of school. Stalin saw to it that the Asian minority was exiled to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Soviet Central Asia, but some have returned in recent years.

While Russia has had a Pacific outpost in Okhotsk since 1639, the port of Vladivostok –“Rule the East”—was only founded in 1860. The city’s main bay, Zolotoi Rog or Golden Horn, was named for its similarity to the Turkish waterway.

Throughout the Soviet era, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, yet its citizens had black market access to jeans and rock ’n’ roll tapes thanks to sailors who traveled abroad. My mother-in-law even read a copy of Orwell’s 1984 that had found its way into the city in the 1970s. A friend lent it to her overnight.

—Russell Working

01 Zolotoi Rog Funicular


Founded in 1860 on the site of an indigenous fishing village, Vladivostok’s Zolotoi Rog (Golden Horn) Bay is Russia’s largest Pacific seaport. It was closed to foreigners throughout the Soviet era. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


02 Monument to Soviet Fighters in FE


A Monument to Soviet Fighters in the Far East, who captured the city in 1922, dominates the central square. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


03 Market carrots


A woman sells vegetables at a Saturday market in the central square. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


04 Market abacus


Traders still use abacuses to tally their sales. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


05 Dacha


A woman works in her dacha, a plot of land and, sometimes, a rough cottage where Russians escape on the weekends. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


06 Beach Kids


Children enjoy the beach on a warm day. Although Vladivostok lies at roughly the latitude of Marseilles, France, the continental climate makes summers brief. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


07 Devushki


Women sunbathe and sip beer on a beach on along the Sea of Japan. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


08 Back to School


Children dress up and bring flowers for their teacher on the first day of school. © 2012 Valentin Trukhanenko


09 Japanese


A Russian sailor talks to Japanese women on Pologaya Street in prerevolutionary times. Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Vladivostok’s Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia.




Doughboys from the American Expeditionary Force Siberia joined Japanese, French, British, and Canadian troops in occupying Vladivostok in 1918 during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. One major goal was to aid 40,000 Czechoslovakian soldiers—allies of the Western powers—who had become stranded by the Revolution and were fighting their way east along the Trans-Siberian Railroad.


11 Lenin


A monument to Lenin still stands near the train station downtown. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


12 Cold Cop


A traffic cop braves a blizzard. Winter temperatures drop to minus 35 Fahrenheit. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


13 Hot water pipes


Central boiler houses heat water, which is then pumped aboveground to apartment buildings and offices. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


14 Clearing snow


Firefighters and other city workers clear snow on a bitter day. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


15 Climbing over the ice-1


A woman scales a mound of snow in downtown Vladivostok. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


16 Ice Fishermen


Bundled up for the cold, ice fisherman wait for a bite on Amursky Bay off the Sea of Japan. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


17 Ice Fisherman Solo


An ice fisherman drops his line behind a nylon shelter out on Amursky Bay. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


18 Sub in ice


A Russian submarine docked in the winter slush. Vladivostok is home to Russia’s Pacific Fleet. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


19 New Church


The Bolsheviks destroyed many of Vladivostok’s churches and Buddhist temples, in the post-Soviet era new ones have taken the place of some. © 2013 Valentin Trukhanenko


— photos by Valentin Trukhanenko & captions by Russell Working


Valentin Trukhanenko was born 1947 in the Tver region of central Russia, north of Moscow. A retired Russian Navy captain, first rank, he is a photographer with the newspaper Dalnivostochnye Vedomosti. He has been a laureate and participant in Russian and international photography exhibitions. His work has appeared internationally in Reuters, AP, the San Francisco ChronicleThe Japan Times, and other newspapers and magazines. Trukhanenko was named the best sports photographer in Russia’s far eastern Primorye region for three straight years, starting in 2005.

Russell Working is a journalist and short story writer whose work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world. He is the author of two collections of short fiction: The Irish Martyr (University of Notre Dame Press) and Resurrectionists (University of Iowa Press). He lives in suburban Chicago and is a writer/editor at Ragan Communications, which publishes PR Daily. He lived for five years in Vladivostok, Russia. He and his wife, Nonna, have two sons.


Sep 042013

A copy of “The Stalin Epigram” handwritten by Osip Mandelstam.

As a young man, Russell Working came out of nowhere to win the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his book Resurrectionists. Then, instead of prudently finding a college creative writing job, he abruptly and romantically packed up and moved to a freezing flat in Vladivostok in the Far East of Russia where he found love and Osip Mandelstam. In this truly masterful essay, memoir laced with love and a passion for art and artists, Russell tells the story of Mandelstam’s fatal defiance during Stalin’s purges and his last days in gulag camp on the outskirts of Russell’s adopted home. I don’t know. I hate the word underrated, but Russell Working really is one of the most underrated writers in America. This essay shows him at his nonfiction best: charming, romantic, his heart full of great writers and his head committed to uncovering the truth, the facts.



1. Pictures in a Bookcase

The tenth-floor hallway was filthy: paint was peeling from the walls, the garbage chute stank, and the elevator, I was warned, tended to break down. But when Tamara Fyodorovna, the landlady, showed me Apartment 81, the interior was spotless, with linoleum floors and wallpaper of alternating vertical brown and yellowish stripes and columns of fleurs-de-lis. Although the kitchen and living room-bedroom were tiny, the place featured a telephone, which many residences in Vladivostok lacked in 1997. The bathroom exhaled a sewerish eau de toilette, but this was not uncommon in Russia. Tamara Fyodorovna closed the door on the smell. “The kitchen’s got all the pots and pans you’ll need for cooking; plates and cutlery, too,” she said.

But in the end it was the bookshelves that made me fall for the place; those and the view of the sea.

The bookcases were glass-fronted and crammed with fiction and poetry and scientific volumes, and I was charmed that my landlady, an oceanographer who had vacated the place to live with her sister, had clipped photographs of writers from the newspapers and taped them up inside the glass. This practice, I would learn, is commonplace in Russia. The eyes of the authors followed me: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Akhmatova, and someone new to me: the poet Osip Mandelstam.

Tamara Fyodorovna flung open the curtains on the window in the main room, and I said, “Wow.”

RW on iceRussell Working on a frozen Amursky Bay in 1997.

It was February, and far below, at the foot of the bluff, the sunset had turned the sea ice on Amursky Bay into molten glass. Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, lies at roughly the latitude of Marseilles, but the salt water had frozen so thick, coal trucks cut across it to the far shore. Antlike fishermen peppered the surface. Some had lit fires in barrels that would smolder and die overnight. Across the bay, the sunset silhouetted the torn-paper mountains, and because this salient of Russia lies east of China, I wondered if the farthest peaks might be across the border, not forty miles away. On this side, prefab concrete apartment blocks stairstepped down the hill to the waterfront, and a smokestack smudged the air below with a printer’s devil’s inky thumbprint. A giant water pipe snaked alongside a road, shedding insulation.

Yes, of course, I said. I wanted the place.


I had quit my job as a reporter on a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to the Far East, as Russians call their Pacific maritime (Siberia lies to the west). I was editing a biweekly English-language newspaper for the equivalent of $400 a month, although the crash of the ruble the following year would bring the exchange rate down to $72 a month. But if Russians got by on that, so could I, especially since the newspaper provided an apartment. I had been recruited by the deputy editor, Nonna, whom I had met the previous year when she visited the U.S. on a State Department trip for Russian journalists. She was a former dancer in a contemporary company in Vladivostok, and stood erect, with a ballerina’s grace, in contrast to my writer’s slouch, and had dark hair and a slender figure and green-gray eyes. Sometimes, of their own accord, her body and arms and feet assumed old dance poses. I possess an inner mechanism that surveys non-visible frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum to determine how interlocutors are receiving what I say, but Nonna had a guileless bluntness of speech. She is now my wife, and I would spend more and more nights at the nearby apartment where she lived with her ten-year-old son, Sergei, until I finally moved in with them, but for now my new pied-à-terre had lessons to teach me about Russia.

On my first night with my clip-out roommates, I poured myself a shot of the liqueur known as balsam: sweet, tea-colored, as strong as vodka, distilled with deer antlers. The taste was medicinal, but hell, it was Russian. Chekhov warned that the stuff would kill me; Dostoyevsky suggested a game of cards. No, thanks, friends; I was content to savor the view of the bay.

So I toasted it all: the apartment, the frozen sea, my little newspaper, Russia. I now possessed, at least as a renter, a few square meters of Russia. Rule the East: that’s what Vladivostok’s name means, and even the Bolsheviks had liked it enough not to rename the city when they stripped the regional maps of tsarist, Chinese, Korean, and indigenous names in the 1920s. Russian civilization, stretched 6,000 miles along a railway line, had taken root where its land mass met China and North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Superficially, Vladivostok could have been any Eastern bloc city: pre-fab concrete apartments, citizens in fur hats, Soviet-era slogans on the rooftops (“60 Years!”), people who rhythmically clap in the ballet, streetcars for poet-doctors to die on. Yet the Far East had changed the Russians. The wolf, object of primordial fear, had been replaced in the imagination by beasts more terrible and beautiful: snow leopards and Siberian tigers. These great cats still prowled the Far Eastern taiga, known as the Ussuri jungle. Though hunted nearly to extinction by poachers who sold their skins and penises in China, tigers still avenged themselves on humans, pouncing on stray villagers or woodsmen. In Chinese restaurants, blond Russian waitresses would take your order, then hand the bill to a translator sitting at a desk in the corner, a little Asian man in a dark suit and white socks, who would render the words in Putonghua for the immigrant cooks back in the smoky kitchen. Shuttle traders ventured to China and returned with great duffle bags stuffed with goods to sell in the outdoor markets: Chicago Bulls jerseys, fake Nikes, “Washington Rednecks” jackets, gloves printed with the words “Old School Clothing Co. This garment made to fit so comfortable you ll wafc touveinz.” (Well, who wouldn’t want to wafc touveinz?) TV hinted at the region’s schizophrenia: when they played M*A*S*H reruns, there was the same dubbed translation you would hear anywhere in Russia, speaking over the faintly audible twang of Alan Alda. There were also subtitles, in Korean.

I turned from the landscape to mingle with my writer roommates, to lean in and peer at the captions under their photographs, as if studying nametags at a conference. This circle of writer friends was something new for me, a loner who had never attended an MFA workshop or drunk absinthe with a coterie of fellow authors in Montparnasse or had faculty colleagues to celebrate a new publication with. (A decade earlier, when I told my editor at a small Oregon newspaper that I had won a short fiction award and would have a book published, he said, “Type up a brief,” and as I wrote I had to grin and admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than in school immunizations or Kiwanis meetings or a string of bicycles thefts.) I had been devouring Russian fiction and drama since discovering Solzhenitsyn at age thirteen, but I seldom read poems in translation and was mostly unfamiliar with Russia’s great poetry. Pushkin, I knew—who didn’t? Towering poet, duelist, great-grandson of an African slave given to Peter the Great. Akhmatova, too, I had read of, and her haunting “Requiem” written after the arrest of her son during the Great Terror. But Mandelstam: wasn’t he some Soviet versifier? Anyway, he was a strange fellow who claimed his poems began as “auditory hallucinations”: inchoate musical phrases, even hums, a wordless ringing in the ears. He would lie on the divan with a cushion over his head so as not to hear the conversation in our crowded room. He said he was composing.[1] But, hey, I’m a generous guy, and I included him in a toast. You, too, Osip! You’re a writer, man! Down the hatch! 


Behind my newsprint roommates, Tamara Fyodorovna’s library drew me, even though I then spoke no Russian beyond the words English has borrowed, such as perestroika, gulag and zek (from Solzhenitsyn), zemstvo and samovar (via Tolstoy), and babushka, which means “grandmother,” not, as Updike and Merriam-Webster had it, “headscarf” (“Ekaterina would bring Bech to his hotel lobby, put a babushka over her bushy orange hair, and head into a blizzard toward this ailing mother”[2]). I had also picked up fragments of the Russian that gleams on the beaches of Nabokov’s prose, like wave-polished glass: guba (lip), chort (devil) and a phrase that I still hope might prove useful someday: in The Gift, he writes of a large, predatory German woman named Klara Stoboy, “which to a Russian ear sounded with sentimental firmness as ‘Klara is with thee (s toboy).’”[3] From Nonna I learned sladky and moya radost (“sweet” and “my joy”). And, because she lived on a stairwell like mine, vanyaet: “it stinks.”

I thumbed through my library with a Russian-English dictionary in hand. Case endings morphed the words, which sometimes made it impossible for a novice to look them up. Lyod (ice) became l’da (“some ice” or “of ice”), l’dom (“with ice”), ledyanoi (“icy”), etc. On a shelf above my bed I found a book whose title I recognized: Анна Каренина. Anna Karenina! Painstakingly I worked through the famous opening line about happy and unhappy families, not in some translator’s simulacrum, but the actual words Tolstoy had penned in a cramped cursive that only his wife and amanuensis, Sophia Andreyevna, could decipher:

Все счастливые семьи счастливы одинаково, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.

I felt the presence of the sage of Yasnaya Polyana, sweaty from working in the fields, wearing a peasant blouse, with straw in his beard. I had no doubt he would find my urban living arrangements disreputable, but who cared? He was with me as surely as my clip-out roommates. As I translated the sentence, the Cyrillic letters blurred. I wiped my eyes.


My landlady’s books—really, they were mine for now, weren’t they?—revealed that Russian took a Joycean view of quotation marks, so that Chekhov’s short story “Spat’ Hochetsya” (“Want to Sleep,” usually translated as, “Sleepy”) looked like this:

— Ну, что? Что ты это вздумал? — говорит доктор, нагибаясь к нему.

— Эге! Давно ли это у тебя?

— Чего-с? Помирать, ваше благородие, пришло время… Не быть мне в живых…

— Полно вздор говорить… Вылечим!

I would later study Russian at Far Eastern State University, but that first night I had only a pocket dictionary to guide me. Chekhov scowled as I looked up his dialogue word by word. Ну meant “well.” Что was “what.” Ты was the informal “you.” I knew это: “it is” or “this.” Доктор—easy: “doctor.” I fought my way along, but it took the Internet to make sense of it. A 1906 translation had appeared, of all places, in Cosmopolitan, which, before it moved on to covering the eleven ways to have naughty sex in every room of the house, had been a literary magazine.

“Well, what’s the matter with you?” asks the doctor, bending over him.

“Ah! You have been like this long?”

“What’s the matter? The time has come, your honor, to die. I shall not live any longer.”

“Nonsense; we’ll soon cure you.”[4]


 2. Deluge

My apartment was in one of two identical concrete shoeboxes standing on end on the bluff near a clothing factory whose owners brought in Chinese seamstresses to under-price Russians workers, a practice I would later write about for The New York Times. (This was considered newsworthy enough to lead the cover of the Times’ Business Day section, even though the Times editorial board seems to have no problem with the suppression of American working class wages on a far vaster scale by means of corporate-encouraged illegal immigration.) At night Chinese music was piped in, and from outside the building, as the mullioned clerestories began to glow, one could hear the seamstresses singing along. One night shortly after I moved in, during one of the fourteen- to sixteen-hour-a-day blackouts we endured for months, even years, on and off, I trudged up ten flights of stairs in the dark, hoping not to feel the brush of a rat scurrying by or the squish of shit underfoot, for there were neighbors who could not be bothered to walk the dog in winter but instead opened their door to let the wretched thing out to leave little gifts for the rest of us in the stairwell. (And if you have ever wondered why Russians ask you to remove your shoes when you visit, now you know.) I could not see the floor numbers in the dark, so I practiced my Russian by counting off every step and each landing. Odin, dva, chetyre, pyat, shest, sem, vosem… I stayed away from the elevator, afraid the doors might be open and I would stumble into the shaft and fall to my death.

When I arrived at the tenth story (chto pyatdesyat-sem, chto pyatdesyat-vosem…), I groped my way to my steel outer door, but the key did not fit. Had I counted wrong? I hiked up a floor, but where my apartment should have been, the door was of vinyl-covered wood, not steel. Was I too high? Then my mind rewound the video of memory until I was standing out in front, and I realized I had entered the identical building next door to my own.

The apartment was a microcosm of post-Soviet life. In the summer the water could be shut off for up to a week at a time. Sometimes just the hot went out, sometimes the cold, occasionally both. During droughts I learned to keep the bathtub filled with rusty water, so I could scoop out a bucket to flush the toilet or bathe in a washtub. When the water was off, dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink. The novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, who knew about Russian plumbing, could have warned me about this, but he was not one of my roommates.

One summer night I was at Nonna’s when the water came back on in my place. Apparently at some point while checking the tap (Nope), I had neglected to turn it back off. Clogged with dishes, the sink overflowed. Tamara Fyodorovna later said that the couple who lived in the apartment downstairs were sitting around the kitchen table enjoying a beer and a smoke when water began dripping through the overhead lamp. I had never met them, but sometimes when I sat out on my balcony, they would lean out the window below in their underwear, trading a beer and a cigarette back and forth. We all watched the sunset together. The night of the deluge, their ceiling began dripping, and this turned into a steady drizzle, the couple would tell my landlady. They banged on the ceiling with a broomstick. The stream became a flood. Rivulets snaked across the ceiling, came down the walls in sheets, gushed through a fissure between the concrete blocks. The husband ran up and rang my doorbell. A jolly throng of neighbors gathered and located Tamara Fyodorovna by telephone, and she ran all the way there and opened the door to my unit. The water was ankle-deep, and my slippers and Russian textbook were floating like little barges. My landlady and a neighbor bailed out my apartment, scooping water out the window.

Nonna TyphoonNonna mops the floor during a summer typhoon when water was leaking through the ceiling and walls.

The next day my roommates ribbed me about the disaster I’d wreaked. I should have known, they said. Hadn’t I read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog? Sure, but it never occurred to me—. Well, the fleas in the carpet had a good soak, Chekhov said. Bulgakov wrote and revised The Master and Margarita between 1928 and 1940, then hid the manuscript away in his apartment, for it could not conceivably be published in its time. This dreamlike allegory tells of a visit by Satan to Stalinist Moscow in the company of a talking cat named Behemoth. It was repressed for decades, published in a bowdlerized version in 1967, and only issued in its final form in 1989. In it, Margarita, the magical lover of an author repressed by the state, trashes and floods the critic Latunsky’s flat. Downstairs a housekeeper is having tea in the kitchen when a downpour begins falling from the ceiling. She runs up and rings the bell to Latunsky’s flat, and Margarita, naked and invisible, flies out the window.[5] As if that weren’t enough, in Heart of a Dog (written in 1925 and suppressed until 1987) a professor transforms a stray mutt into a foul-mouthed, Engels-quoting man who floods the apartment after chasing a cat into the bathroom. Now I wondered if Bulgakov (or his upstairs neighbor) had ever left the faucet on during a water outage.

To make amends for my flood, I gave chocolates to my landlady and, through her, paid the couple downstairs 200 rubles ($33). I thought it would be sporting if to drop by and offered them a box of chocolates and that sheepish foreigner’s grin that excuses so much in provincial Russia. But Tamara Fyodorovna said no. “They’ll triple the price of their repairs if they know you’re a foreigner.” After that when the couple appeared in the window below, I went back inside.


3. Luchshe?

Once, early in my five-year stay in Vladivostok, a gypsy-cab driver with prison tattoos on his neck asked me about life in the States: “Is it better there?” When I didn’t at first understand the word “better”— luchshe—he spelled it in the air with his finger. He taught me the meaning by comparing vehicles in the traffic jam around us: “This car is better than that one. This truck is better than that old one.” (He missed his calling as a teacher.) Nonna would have bluntly said, “Yes.” But in halting Russian, I tried to say, sure, some things were better in America, but Russia, too, had its own strengths, and its people and culture had changed the world, and … but he cut me off.

“No! Luchshe, understand? Is it better in America?”

Thwarted by the inaccessibility of subtleties, I just said, “Yes.” Yes, it was better in America, however thrilled I was to live in Russia. Yes, in Los Angeles or Seattle you did not endure water shutoffs for a week at a time. Yes, in America the electricity did not black out all day in the winter, month after month, forcing you to leave the lights on at night, so they would wake you up when the power came on and you could scurry to wash a load of clothes at 2 a.m. Yes, your typical Western male jobholder, returning home after a drink with his friends, did not piss in the elevator but managed to hold on until he could find a toilet to aim at. Yes, middle class reporters and oceanographers back home seldom had to step over drunks sleeping in the hallways of their apartment buildings—and these were not necessarily derelicts; Nonna and I once discovered a vodka-smelling man passed out our stairwell, and he turned out to be a TV journalist who had a program devoted to police chases, so she phoned his wife, who lived in an identical building nearby, and the poor woman came running to fetch her man. Yes, in the bushes outside an American apartment whose residents include a newspaper editor and a city prosecutor, one would not find hypodermic needles, as we did outside Nonna’s. Yes, the only living spaces I ever saw in the States which compared to ours in Russia were in the ghetto; and when, some years later, I entered a Chicago tenement after a gang shooting, I was transported back to Vladivostok, not by the bullet-scarred walls and shattered glass on the floor, but by the graffiti and stink of urine and broken elevator and nailed-up plywood and even the stories I heard, like the one about the South Side pharmaceutical entrepreneur, a stout young man who had hidden his drugs in the garbage chute, and when he leaned in to retrieve them, and leaned a little farther, he fell in and got stuck in the tube seven floors up, and he had to be rescued, people dumping banana peels and coffee grounds and diapers down on him. This sounded like something that would happen in Russia.

“It isn’t like the movies,” I told my ex-con driver, “but yes, in America it’s better. V Amerike luchshe.

He did not take offense. He seemed pleased at this confirmation. He said, “That’s what I thought.”

Surely all kinds of reasons explain the petty barbarisms of life in a nation of former serfs whom tyrants dating back to Peter the Great had sought to modernize through the use of slave labor, but one factor is communism and its legacy. The system was incapable of allowing people to solve their problems on a local or individual scale. There were no rooftop water tanks to supply the upper floors of hilltop apartments, but central pumping stations that lacked the power to defy gravity and force water up to our faucets when the pressure was low in the summer. Neighborhood boiler houses heated water and pumped it through pipes that snaked through town in the subzero cold and hopped over the streets in squarish arches, to the apartment blocks, where the water trickled out, rusty and lukewarm, in sinks and tubs. In the Soviet Union any accomplishment—writing novels or poems, composing symphonies, designing rockets to Venus, creating the world’s most popular semiautomatic rifle, which would have made Mikhail Kalashnikov a billionaire anywhere else—earned you a tin and plastic medal of Lenin and maybe an apartment or dacha, vouchsafed by the state, which was the owner of everything (assuming, of course, your accomplishment didn’t get you sent to the gulag). In Soviet times, the grocer who had access to sausage held a status higher than a medical doctor like my cousin-in-law, who lived in a tiny studio with a half-sized bathtub. A workaholic could expect a life no better than that of an alcoholic, so why kill yourself to finish that project when you could knock off at 3 p.m. and start drinking on the job with your buddies and go sleep it off in somebody’s stairwell? When the government wanted to collectivize, it went to war against its most successful farmers. It labeled them kulaks, sent in the army, confiscated their pigs and milk cows and barley, deported entire villages to Siberia and Central Asia. When farmers hid food to save their families from starvation, the state rewarded the snitches who ratted them out and seized the caches buried under haystacks. Nothing belonged to you, therefore no one respected property, other than the space within your own apartment, and even that, the government could turn you out of at any moment. Thomas Jefferson, that brilliant, reprehensible, slaveholding genius, was poetically correct that man’s unalienable rights include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but there is a blunter truth in Locke’s formulation of “life, liberty, and estate.” Ownership is a human right. The selfishness of owning, conversely, creates a greater respect for that which is public. Like a stairwell.


4. “To My Lips I Touch”

Eventually I said good-by to my writers union, whose members wished me well with my fiction—not that they had read me—and told me not to be a stranger. I moved into Nonna’s apartment, which was larger and less cluttered and informed by a more Zen aesthetic. (She is a Buddhist.) Her walls were decorated with black-and-white photographs of half-naked dancers frozen improbably in mid-leap. The view out her window was less spectacular than that of the molten glass of Amursky Bay. Next door was an elementary school and, beyond that, forested hills and an armory, which several years earlier, while a visiting artist from the Martha Graham Dance Company was in town on a U.S. grant, had blown up, rocketing shells across the neighborhood.

RW NonnaAuthor Russell Working and his wife, Nonna, near a train station in Vladivostok in 1998.

It turned out that in Nonna’s apartment, too, fragments of Russian literature gleamed. These gems might more properly be called manifestations of Russian culture, but this culture had become known to me through its fiction. A benign Domovoi, or household spirit, kept impishly revealing them. As when the Rostovs prepare to flee Moscow, having emptied their wagons of baggage to make room for the wounded, Nonna insisted that we sit at a table silently for a moment before we set out on a journey. We still do this, and I always feel as if Prince Andrei lies outside, dying, as we pause and look each other in the eye and consider the gravity of speeding at seventy miles an hour in a tin-foil box on wheels. As in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Nonna superstitiously will not abide whistling indoors (when Masha, deep in thought, starts to whistle a tune, Olga cries, “Don’t whistle Masha. How could you?”). Like Rodion Raskolnikov’s friend, Dmitri Razumikhin, in Crime and Punishment, Nonna called female friends and loved ones moya lastochka—my little sparrow—although no Russian man today would refer to a buddy this way nowadays. And when the fish in cafeteria smelled off, Russians colleagues jokingly said it was “of the second freshness,” as a bartender does when he served bad sturgeon in The Master and Margarita.


Nonna had something more precious than the Soviet-era editions of classic literature in her bookcases. Among her volumes in Russian and English and French were samizdats, another word bequeathed to the world by Russia. It comes from sam (self) plus izdatelstvo (publishing), but unlike our phrase in English, with its implications of vanity publishing, samizdat bears the sacred aura of the courage of those who risked their lives to preserve forbidden writing. One such book, typed up by Raisa Moroz, a poet friend of Nonna’s, contained page after page of verses, the letters smudged, like lines of smoke from a boiler house, from being typed beneath alternating layers of paper and carbon paper. The book—we still have it—is bound in a blue-gray cover, and the pages are of a cheap, yellowish stock of the sort elementary students use for doodling. The writers are an eclectic mix, from Vadim Shershenevich, who died of tuberculosis in 1942, to the more dangerous (in former times) banned poets, among them the émigré Vladislav Khodasevich. There is a lovely poem by Akhmatova titled “In the Evening.” And on the first page was “To My Lips I Touch,” by my old roommate, Osip Mandelstam. In typing it, Raisa had reversed two of the rhymes, and it was a small victory for my growing Russian that I caught the mistake.


Any poem in translation is an imposter, like Arnaud du Tilh claiming to be Martin Guerre. As José Manuel Prieto writes of translating Mandelstam, “It’s as if the poem were a tree and we could only manage to transplant its trunk and thickest limbs, while leaving all its green and shimmering foliage in the territory of the other language.”[6] The first poem in our samizdat describes an early spring day with its “sticky oath of leaves,” and talks of the poet’s eyes being blown apart by the exploding trees. In a translation by Christian Hawkley and Nadezhda Randall, it concludes:

And the little frogs, like spheres of mercury,
roll their voices into a ball,
twigs become branches
and steam—a white fiction.[7]

Good Lord, I had lived with the fellow and his muttering about auditory hallucinations, and had it not been for the respect with which the rest of my writers circle regarded him, I might have thought him a grafoman, a literary pretender. I now blushed remembering my condescending toast. I was taken aback to discover his astonishing imagery, his sticky oaths of leaves, his exploding trees, his froggy spheres of mercury. And it turned out we shared a geographical connection beyond his newsprint avatar in my old apartment: Nonna said he had been held for a time in a gulag camp in our district of Vladivostok: Vtoraya Rechka, or Second River.

Mandelstam was born to a Jewish merchant family in 1891, although he would later bring his father grief when he was baptized an Evangelical Methodist, evidently to gain entry to the University of St. Petersburg at a time of tsarist restrictions on the admission of Jews.[8] As a boy he studied at the same the democratically oriented Tenishev School in St. Petersburg that Vladimir Nabokov would attend a decade later. Nabokov complains that he was disliked for, among other things, arriving in a chauffeured car, sprinkling his papers with foreign words, and refusing to touch the filthy wet towels in the washroom[9]; but he was of the caste, if perhaps not the attitudes, of those Mandelstam described as “the children of certain ruling families who had landed here by some strange parental caprice and now lorded it over the flabby intellectuals.”[10] Biology lessons horrified Mandelstam, involving, as they did, torturing frogs and suffocating mice in an airless glass bell, but his imagination was ignited by the poet and teacher Vladimir Gippius (or Hippius), “who taught the children not only literature but the far more interesting science of literary spite.”[11] (Gippius would later demonstrate this exquisite science when he brought Nabokov’s first collection of poetry to class, published when the boy was sixteen, and savaged the romantic verses aloud to “the delirious hilarity of the majority of my classmates.”[12]) Mandelstam’s first collection, Kamen or The Stone, was published in 1913.[13]

But of the two great writers it was Mandelstam, not the émigré Nabokov, who would later prove dauntless in the face of state terror. He found it increasingly difficult to publish after the mid-1920s, and in the 1930s he and Nadezhda were alarmed at the cattle trains of peasants being shipped to Central Asia and the legions of dirty homeless farmers who had been evicted from their land in Stalin’s collectivization campaigns and were traveling from town to town in search of work, even as their children and elderly died along the way. The poem that led to his arrest in 1934 was “The Stalin Epigram,” which describes the Soviet general secretary’s “sneering cockroach mustache” and his “fat fingers, like worms, greasy.” When Mandelstam recited the poem in private to Boris Pasternak, Pasternak called it a “suicidal act” and begged him never again to speak it to anyone. As Betsy Sholl has noted in Numéro Cinq, Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda (her name means hope), wrote in her memoir, Hope Against Hope, that in reciting the poem, he was “choosing his manner of death.”

Nadezha1Nadezhda Mandelstam chronicled her life with the poet, his arrest and death, and her survival as an “enemy of the people” in her memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.

When Mandelstam was first arrested, the interrogator had only a description of the poem and a few lines jotted down, Nadezhda writes.[14] He asked Mandelstam to write out the poem, and the prisoner complied. (The manuscript was later discovered in the KGB archives.) Curiously, given the brazenness of the poetic insults, Stalin seemed to admire the poet, or fear his reputation. After the arrest, a Kremlin aide rang Pasternak on the phone in the hall of his communal apartment and ordered him to call Stalin immediately. Pasternak at first thought it a prank. Stalin assured him that Mandelstam’s case would be favorably reviewed, but he asked why writers’ organizations were not speaking out on the poet’s behalf—a disingenuous question, given the terror of the times, and that Pasternak himself had already intervened on Mandelstam’s behalf with Comintern Chairman Nikolai Bukharin and others.[15] The man with the cockroach moustaches fretted about Mandelstam’s stature, as if afraid the poem would outlive his own tyranny (as it has).

As Pasternak later recounted, Stalin asked, “But he is a master of his art, a master?”

Pasternak sought to divert the Georgian leader (or Ossetian, as Mandelstam’s poem had it). “But that isn’t the point,” he replied.

“What is the point then?” Stalin said.

“Why do we keep on about Mandelstam? I have long wanted to meet with you for a serious discussion.”

“About what?” Stalin said.

“About life and death.”

The line went dead.[16]

While some later suggested that Pasternak had refused to vouch for Mandelstam, the Mandelstams believed Pasternak acquitted himself with credit, particularly since Stalin had opened the conversation by offering leniency. Mandelstam said, “He was quite right to say that whether I’m a genius or not is beside the point. … Why is Stalin so afraid of genius? It’s like a superstition with him. He thinks we might put a spell on him, like shamans.”[17]


Mandelstam initially received the astonishingly light sentence of internal exile, and the couple were sent first to the northern town of Cherdyn, then to Voronezh in Central Russia. But the stress took its toll: Nadezhda refers to “the severe psychotic state to which M. had been reduced in prison,” and he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself in Cherdyn. The poet’s auditory hallucinations took the form of men’s voices enumerating his crimes in the rhetoric of Stalinist newspapers, cursing him in the foulest language, and blaming him for the ruin he had brought on friends to whom he had read the “Epigram.” When he and Nadezhda took walks, Mandelstam kept looking for Akhmatova’s corpse in the ravines outside town.[18]

Mandelstam 1938Osip Mandelstam in a 1938 prison mug shot.

His mental stability soon returned, and he began composing at a frenetic pace. In an attempt to save his life, he wrote an “Ode to Stalin.” (Possibly a vague memory of this had colored my earlier, ignorant view of him.) But he was rearrested in 1938, and on September 9 he was sent from Moscow to Vladivostok. Anne Applebaum describes the prisoner transits in terms that recall the cattle trains of the Holocaust, with guards denying the prisoners water and children dying en route.[19] Mandelstam traveled for more than five weeks on the 6,000-mile journey, arriving October 12.


5. Tranzitka

The gulag camp in our Vtoraya Rechka district of Vladivostok had once occupied a vast swath of territory. In the 1930s, as many as 56,000 prisoners were held at any given time in the transit camp, known as a tranzitka, the historian Valery Markov said in an interview Nonna turned up for me.[20] The camp was for years the only Pacific port shipping prisoners to the mining camps of the Kolyma River valley, beyond Magadan, 1,300 miles to the northeast. The tranzitka was divided into men’s and women’s sections, with criminals segregated from politicals, intelligentsia, members of Comintern (an international communist association), and Russian workers who had built the section of the Trans-Siberian Railroad which originally cut across the hump of China that extends into the Russian Far East (like many who had been abroad, they were arrested upon their return to the Soviet Union). While some prisoners remained in Vladivostok to construct a navy port and process fish, most were heading north.

Shortly after his arrival, Mandelstam wrote to his family. The letter from Barracks No. 11 informed his brother Alexander (Shura or Shurochka) and his wife Nadezhda (Nadenka or Nadya) that the OSO, or the Special Council of the State Security Ministry, had sentenced him to five years for “counterrevolutionary activities.” There could be no hope of an appeal. Solzhenitsyn writes of the OSO: “There was no appeals jurisdiction above it, and no jurisdiction beneath it. It was subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to Satan.”[21] Mandelstam’s letter reads:

I left Moscow Butyrka [prison] on September 9, arrived October 12. Health is very weak. Exhausted to the utmost degree. Lost weight. Almost unrecognizable. But I don’t know if it makes sense to send things, food, and money. Still, try. I am very cold without [proper] clothes.

Dear Nadenka, I don’t know if you are alive, my beloved. You, Shura, write to me about Nadya right away. This is a transit point. They didn’t take me to Kolyma. Spending the winter here is possible.

—Osya [Osip]

[P.S.] Shurochka, I’m writing some more. For the last days I went to work, and it improved my mood.

From our transit camp, they send people to permanent camps. I have obviously gotten onto a “substandard” list, and I need to prepare for winter.[22]

A clearer picture of the Vladivostok camp emerges in the memoir Journey into the Whirlwind by Yevgenia (Eugenia) Ginzburg, who survived eighteen years in the gulag and in Magadan. The daughter of a pharmacist, she taught at Kazan State University, and she was the mother of the novelist Vassily Aksyonov. In Journey she writes of being held for two years in solitary, then traveling to the Pacific Coast in a freight car with seventy-six other women. On the outside was chalked, SPECIAL EQUIPMENT. She thought she might have arrived in Chornaya Rechka, but that distant station outside Vladivostok seems unlikely. Markov says all prisoners disembarked at Vtoraya Rechka, near the tranzitka. The station where millions of doomed zeks disembarked is now a small platform where I have caught the commuter train many times. Ginzburg writes:

It was night when the train stopped. Outside, a reinforced team of guards was waiting to take delivery. The German shepherds, straining at their leads, made a terrific din.

“Everyone out! Form up in ranks of five!”

Suddenly we could smell the sea air. I felt an almost irresistible desire to lie flat on the earth, spread out my arms, and disappear, dissolve into this deep-blue space with its tang of iodine.

Suddenly despairing cries were heard: “I can’t see! I can’t see anything! What’s the matter with my eyes?”

“Girls—please give me a hand. I can’t see a thing! What’s happened?”

“Help, help, I’ve gone blind!”

It was night blindness, by which about a third of us were affected immediately [as] we set foot on Far Eastern soil. From dusk to dawn they could see nothing and would wander about, stretching out their hands and calling to their comrades for help.[23]

The tranzitka occupied a vast, filthy area surrounded by barbed wire and filled with zeks who resembled “a crowd of beggars, refugees, bombed-out people,” Ginzburg recalls. But the new arrivals, who had spent two years in solitary in Yaroslavl and Suzdal, were so feeble, even the other prisoners looked on them with pity as they trudged through the gates in an interminable gray river. The barracks, filled with three-level bunks, were infested with bedbugs, making it impossible even to sit there. Zeks rushed outside dragging out boards and broken cupboards to sleep on in the summer weather. Some just lay on the ground in their prison uniforms. The air stank of the ammonia and chloride of lime that was dumped in the latrines.

Absurdly convicted under terrorism laws, Ginzburg and the other newcomers constituted the lowest caste of prison society, and were marked for heavy labor, along with the “Trotskyites.” At the top of the social pyramid were “respectable” criminals guilty of transgressions such as embezzlement and accepting bribes, followed in descending order by “babblers” (tellers of political jokes), counterrevolutionaries (like Mandelstam), alleged spies, and accused Trotskyites. Of course, one need not have done anything at all to be imprisoned on any of these charges. Ginzburg and the others from her train had not seen the sunlight for more than two years of solitary, were suffering from scurvy and pellagra, and had barely survived their train journey, but like Mandelstam they had to quarry stone under the July sun, the rocks radiating heat. Grit worked its way between their teeth. At night, under the open sky, it was hard to sleep because of the screams and moans from hundreds of voices. Many descended into a “camp stupor,” Ginzburg writes. Diarrhea reduced people “to their shadows.” Only the dying were admitted to the hospital.

One of the most striking moments in Ginzburg’s account of her time in the tranzitka arrives with a trainload of men with shorn heads, who plodded wearily in prison boots into a yard separated from the women by barbed wire. The men seemed somehow defenseless—they would not know how to sew on a button, to wash their clothes on the sly. “Above all they were our husbands and brothers, deprived of our care in this terrible place,” Ginzburg writes.[24] One of the men noticed the women and cried out, “Look, the women! Our women!” An electric charge flashed between the two sexes across the barbed wire. Men and women were shouting, reaching out to each other. Nearly everyone was sobbing.

“You poor loves, you poor darlings! Cheer up, be brave, be strong!”

The emotional tension needed an outlet in action, Ginzburg writes, and these men and women in rags began throwing presents to each other across the wire.

“Take my towel! It’s not too badly torn.”

“Girls! Anybody want this pot? I made it from a prison mug I stole.”

“Here, take this bread. You’re so thin after the journey!”

There were also cases of love at first sight, when men and women would stand by the barbed wire and feverishly gaze into each other’s eyes, and talk and talk.

Every day the men would write us long letters—jointly and individually, in verse and prose, on greasy bits of paper and even on rags. They put all their insulted, long-pent-up manhood into the pure vibrant passion of these letters. They were numbed by pain and anguish at the thought that we, “their” women, had undergone the same bestial indignities as had been inflicted on them.

One of the letters began: “Dear ones—our wives, sisters, friends, loved ones! Tell us how we can take your pain upon ourselves!”


6. “When Later?”

In Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, he writes that Mandelstam “seems to have become half-demented, and was rejected from the transports.”[25] But there was no sign of mental incapacity in the letter to his brother. Despite his ailing health, the poet hauled rocks, and October of 1938, he told his work partner, a physicist named L., “My first book was The Stone, and the last one will be a stone, too.”[26] In his thin leather coat, he suffered in the camp along the wind-threshed sea, where, in December, milky swirls of salt-water slush condense into heaving skeins of ice that weave together and harden into pavement for coal trucks. The guards seem to have limited his rations, possibly because he was not meeting work quotas.

L. spent twenty years in the gulag, and upon his release he told Nadezhda (believably, she felt) that in Vtoraya Rechka he became friends with a criminal inmate named Arkhangelski, who lived with a handful of fellow thugs in a loft in the barracks. One night Arkhangelski invited L. up for a poetry reading. Curious about what sort of verses the cons favored, L. accepted.  As recounted by Nadezhda:

The loft was lit by a candle. In the middle stood a barrel on which there was an opened can of food and some white bread. For the starving camp this was an unheard-of luxury. People lived on thin soup of which there was never enough—what they got for their morning meal would not have filled a glass. …

Sitting with the criminals was a man with a gray stubble of beard, wearing a yellow leather coat. He was reciting verse which L. recognized. It was Mandelstam. The criminals offered him bread and canned stuff, and he calmly helped himself and ate. Evidently he was only afraid to eat food given him by his jailers. He was listened to in complete silence and sometimes asked to repeat a poem.

In his collection of fiction, Kolyma Tales, Varlam Shalamov, who passed through the Vladivostok tranzitka and survived seventeen years in the gulag, imagines the death of Mandelstam. The short story is titled “Cherry Brandy,” from a phrase in one of Mandelstam poems. As Shalamov’s Mandelstam lies dying, he stuffs bits of bread in his bleeding mouth, gnawing with teeth loosened by scurvy. His fellow zeks stop him: “Don’t eat it all. Better eat it later, later.” The poet understands. You’re dying. Leave it for us.

He opened his eyes wide without letting the bloodstained bread slip from his dirty, blue fingers.

“When later?” he uttered distinctly and clearly. And closed his eyes.

He died that evening.

Two days later they “wrote him off.” His resourceful neighbors managed to keep getting the bread for the dead person for two more days during the bread distribution; the dead man would raise his hand like a puppet.[27]

In spring the dead were hauled out of town for burial, Markov says, but in winter they were dumped in a trench that had been part of the city’s tsarist-era fortifications. This is where Markov thinks Mandelstam was buried, behind a movie theater called Iskra (spark). The cinema stands on the edge of a shabby neighborhood of khrushchevki—the five-story concrete buildings that the eponymous premier built across the Soviet Union. Movie theaters have been renovated all over Russia, with plush seats and posters on the walls, but at that time, at least, Iskra still had fold-down wooden chairs, like those in a school auditorium. Nonna and I once watched the movie Armageddon there, not knowing, as Bruce Willis and a team of wisecracking Yankee misfits saved the world from an asteroid the size of Texas, that a multitude of ghosts quarried rock in the dark, among them Mandelstam’s. An eyewitness in the late 1930s saw zeks on the corpse detail wielding clubs to shatter the skulls of the dead, to ensure that nobody was buried alive. Years later workers digging the foundations of the khrushchevki turned up skeletons, Markov says. A spontaneous soccer game broke out, the workers kicking the skulls about.

In 1998, six decades after Mandelstam’s death, a monument was erected to the poet near where Barracks No. 11 had stood. But vandals expressed their admiration for the great poet by disfiguring the site with graffiti. During the five years I lived in Vladivostok, the topic of erecting an adequate monument was a matter of debate in the papers. Eventually the city raised a statue in a better location, near a university.

Mandelstam monument

© 2013 Valentin Trukhanenk

One day Nonna I walked out to what is said to be the sole remaining building of the vast tranzitka, on Ulitsa Russkaya, out past a small hospital and the Vietnamese market with its tin-roofed stalls and shuttle traders. It was an unremarkable wooden structure that had served as an administrative building. It now belonged to a private business—I forget what kind—and with journalists’ pushiness we marched in to look around at an office with too many phones and a couple of typewriters on the desks. The ladies of the office were intrigued that a foreigner had popped in. You wondered what papers might have been processed here sixty years earlier, if the administration signed off on transport trains, consigned Ginzburg and Shalamov and the doomed lovers to Kolyma, or decreed that one No. 93145 Mandelstam O.E. was unfit for transport to the Far North.

Several miles south, across the street from Vladivostok’s central train station, a statue of Vladimir Lenin looms, clutching his worker’s cap and thrusting his finger (There!) to guide travelers who have lost their way. But unlike in Magadan, where a giant masklike monument to the dead of Kolyma, two million or more, stands on a mountaintop visible from all over the city, no suitable memorial exists in Vladivostok to the victims of the socialist paradise Lenin bequeathed. No plaque at Vtoraya Rechka station commemorates the millions who arrived to break rocks or build wharves or trudge up the plank into freighters that plied the slaty summer seas to the Far North: poets, historians, bribe-takers, murderers, pregnant women, railroaders who had criminally sojourned in China, children who were kidnapped by the state and raised in orphanages to curse their parents as traitors and scum.

All that remain are khrushchevki—those aging apartment blocks. And a movie theater where an asteroid strike was averted. And skeletons in mass graves that will never be exhumed. And a wooden office building on a busy street that ends at a rocky waterfront glittering with broken vodka- and beer bottles, like fragments of an unknown language. Also poems in samizdats. And photographs of writers taped up in bookcases; these, too, survive.

 — Russell Working


Russell Working Mug

Russell Working is a journalist and short story writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The TriQuarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story.

His collection, The Irish Martyr, won the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. He was the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, for his book Resurrectionists. He is a staff writer for Ragan Communications in Chicago and has taught in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in creative writing.

Russell’s journalism has often informed his fiction. His Pushcart Prize-winning The Irish Martyr,written after an assignment in Sinai, tells of an Egyptian girl’s obsession with an Irish sniper who has enlisted in the Palestinian cause. After reporting on the trafficking in North Korean women as wives and prostitutes in China, he wrote the short story Dear Leader, about a refugee from the North who is sold to a Chinese peasant.

Russell formerly worked as a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune. There he exposed cops and a Navy surgeon general who padded their résumés with diploma mill degrees, and covered the international trade in cadavers for museum exhibitions.

He lived for nearly eight years abroad in Australia, the Russian Far East, and Cyprus, reporting from the former Soviet Union, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Turkey, Greece, and aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. His byline has appeared dozens of newspapers and magazines around the world, including BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, theDallas Morning News, the South China Morning Post, and the Japan Times. He began his career at dailies in Oregon and Washington.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There are several descriptions of the poet’s methods of composition in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s powerful memoir, Hope Against Hope, tr. Max Hayward (New York: Atheneum, 1970). In particular see pages 70 and 180-183.
  2. John Updike, Bech: A Book (New York: Random House Trade Paperback Editions), 5.
  3. Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift, tr. Michael Scammell with Nabokov (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 7.
  4. Anton Chekhov, “Sleepy-Eye,” tr. James Preston, Cosmopolitan Vol. 41, (New York, May 1906), 154.
  5. Milkhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, tr. Mirra Ginsburg (New York, Grove Press, 1967), 258.
  6. José Manuel Prieto, tr. Esther Allen, “Reading Mandelstam on Stalin,” The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010.
  7. Osip Mandelstam, tr. Christian Hawkley and Nadezhda Randall, Osip Mandelstam: New Translations, ed. Ilya Bernstein (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse), 33.
  8. Michael Stanislawski, Autobiographical Jews: Essays in Jewish Self-Fashioning (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 86.
  9. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory from Novels and Memoirs: 1941-1951 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1996), 518.
  10. Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 93.
  11. Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time, 114.
  12. Vladimir Nabokov, Novels and Memoirs, 563.
  13. The students of Tenishev would also encounter another famous writer of that era. In Russia in the Shadows (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1920, pg. 119), H.G. Wells writes of being taken to the school in 1920, years after Mandelstam and Nabokov had left. He seems unaware of the school’s prerevolutionary reputation, and concluded that it was an ill-disciplined place whose students had been coached to flatter him. This prompted his guide, the Soviet critic K.I. Chukovsky, to write an indignant rebuttal to Vesnik Literatury, later reprinted in the periodical Soviet Russia (New York, Vol. IV, No. 21; May 21, 1921, pg. 498).Whoever is right, it is amusing to think of Wells harrumphing through the halls and scoffing at the children in their English-style uniforms, unaware that two of its former students would be ranked among Russia’s great twentieth-century writers.
  14. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, 85-86.
  15. Christopher Barnes, Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 89.
  16. Barnes, Boris Pasternak, 91-92.
  17. Nadezhda Mandelstam, 148.
  18. Nadezhda Mandelstam51.
  19. On one train on which sixty-five women and sixty-five infants traveled, “There were no special rations, and no hot water to bathe the children or to wash diapers, which subsequently turned ‘green with filth.’ Two women killed themselves, slitting their throats with glass. Another lost her mind. Their three babies were taken over by other women.” From Gulag: A History (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 166.
  20. Vasily Avchenko, “Prizraki Morgorodka,” Novaya Gazeta vo Vladivostoke No. 138 (Vladivostok), May 31, 2011.
  21. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1 (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 285.
  22. Osip Mandelstam, Shum Vremeni: Memuarnaya Proza, (Moscow: OLMA-PRESS, 2003), 186. Letter translated here by Nonna Working.
  23. Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind, tr. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967), 329-330.
  24. Ginzburg, 345-347.
  25. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 305.
  26. Nadezhda Mandelstam, 395.
  27. Varlam Shalamov, Kolymskie Rasskazy (Paris: YMCA-PRESS, 1982), 92-93. Translated here by Nonna Working and Russell Working.
Sep 032013

Green Apple

Stephen Sparks writes and sells books, and sometimes he writes about old books, forgotten books and unread books, always with a reflective, cadenced, ever-so-slightly diffident style that charmingly frames his passion and intelligence and his amazing ability to reveal the great art in what has been passed over as merely unique and eccentric. Would that we all had readers like this. Herewith he offers an addition to our mighty list of What It’s Like Living Here essays (we have well over forty now), a psychogeographic map, as he calls it, of his San Francisco, a “cryptic alphabet” of the heart. It ends, gorgeously, with a reference to nearby Colma, where the dead outnumber the living, and the fog obscuring “what it will obscure.”



We call it a city because it is simpler, but it is really a cities. There are as many San Franciscos as there are experiences, opinions, fantasies, dreams, glimpses, memories, understandings and misunderstandings of it. It is never just a place, always more than a geography: it is a collection of photographs, mementos, hills and wind and fog, afternoon drinks on crowded patios, and of course, bookstores.

I imagine a psychogeographic map, one that reveals in bright colors the places I frequent while the rest of the city—its eastern edge, its tangled, thickly greened heart—atrophies or diminishes into darkness. What shapes do my peregrinations take? I draw it and create a cryptic alphabet, untranslatable.

I live below the southern border of Golden Gate Park. Seated at my desk, where I spend many unproductive hours, I look into the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The Garden’s collection includes plants from across the world—from Chile to the Mediterranean; across the street from my apartment are native Californian plants, less exotic, but, like all Californian flora to me, an eastern transplant, no less astonishing in their resilience and adaptation. There are redwoods growing here, planted a hundred years ago. From a placard placed at the entrance to the grove, I learn that redwoods can only survive within forty-five miles of the coast, where the incoming Pacific fog condenses on the needle-like leaves before falling in fat drops to the soil below. In effect, a redwood waters itself and, with its shared root system, it waters its neighbors as well.



Before moving here—and even now, six years later—I hadn’t thought myself much of a city person. I came here, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood, from a flat eastern seaside town popular with tourists for three months of the year and for the remainder desolate, boarded up, abandoned. In that place it was easier to self-mythologize: I lived the life of an exile, from what or where I couldn’t say, but on winter nights, when half of the streetlights were shut off and the salt-tinged wind creaked rickety signs on the boardwalk, the illusion of banishment was comforting.

In San Francisco, a city of exiles and passersby, of transients and tourists, it’s more difficult—to the point of impossibility—to conceive of myself as banished. If everyone is an exile, no one is. Even so, it’s true that I don’t entirely feel comfortable here; I’d list the usual complaints about encroaching gentrification, the Google buses, the fungal proliferation of boutiques and niche restaurants, the staggering rents, but to what end? San Francisco, a seven by seven mile squarish shape surrounded on three sides by water, can only contain so many people. For a time I’m one of them.

Maybe it’s the hesitancy of the earth here—does it want to be solid? does it want to crumble into the sea? Whatever the reason, I’ve never quite felt as rooted as those redwoods, which, I’ve learned, hold tight not by going deeper, but by being more expansive. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from them.



My daily commute, by bicycle, leads me through the museum concourse in Golden Gate Park. I pass the Academy of Science, with its living roof, the DeYoung Museum, with its twisted tower (the panoramic view from which never fails to impress visitors), the statue of Cervantes and his immortal duo, another statue of stately Goethe and Schiller, and come out on the north side of the park, where seven long blocks ahead I see a wall of verdant growth, the Presidio.  San Francisco’s northwestern quarter is green and despite the drawbacks of living on this corner of the city (the fog, the wind, the seeming remoteness from the cultural life of the city) I feel lucky to have landed here. It feels only half-city, a compromise.

If I continue north on my bicycle after exiting the park, ignoring for a moment my obligation to turn east on Clement St., the heart of “new new Chinatown” or “new new new Chinatown,” depending on who’s labeling, to get to the labyrinthine bookstore where I earn enough of a living to scrape by, I enter the Presidio, once a landscape of windswept dunes and coastal scrub occupied seasonally by Ohlone Indians and later a military outpost for Spanish, Mexican, and finally U.S. soldiers. After a short, steep ascent—bike maps of San Francisco are color-coded to indicate the grade of the city’s multitude of hills and every cyclist quickly learns to navigate accordingly—I follow one of several winding roads further north. Just at the top of the initial climb into the Presidio is a breathtaking view, of which San Francisco has almost too many, of the Bay and Alcatraz; on my left the Goldsworthy spire points toward the heavens.

Golden Gate

Today I want to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and so stick to the westernmost road, hugging the edge of the city, the country, the continent, coming out just below the toll plaza. Is there a psychic corollary to living on the edge like I do here, especially one as fragile as San Francisco? I remember my first experience of earthquake: things swayed, as if someone plucked a cube of Jell-O. I expected it to have been… staccato, abrupt.

So much of what I love about San Francisco is getting out of San Francisco. There is no more apt symbol of this than the Golden Gate Bridge, a ubiquitous symbol for a reason: it is a marvel. Crossing it, I inevitably think of early explorers’ inability to locate the entrance to the Bay. Its mouth seems vast as I’m buffeted by winds and chilled by swift incoming fog, but for two centuries of European exploration, it lay undiscovered, a small passageway leading to an enormous, fertile body of water that even now, plowed by container ships so large they are measured in by twenty-foot increments on their way to and from the Port of Oakland, is capable of wildness. A friend who swims in the bay—too cold for me—once collided with a seal; both man and beast came up, wide-eyed, and quickly churned wakes in opposite directions. The same friend tells stories of swimmers who get caught in strong currents and are funneled out of the bay into the vast, bone-chilling Pacific.



And now I too feel myself getting swept out to sea, away from San Francisco, out toward the rugged Farralon Islands and unfathomable Pacific beyond, a sea that Melville rightly describes:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

Green Apple

Resisting the pull—but Point Reyes! Mount Tamalpais! Big Sur!—I make my way back to Green Apple, where I’m surrounded five days a week by a quarter of a million books and untold volumes of dust. My San Francisco is intimately bound up with this place: it’s the hub from which my experience of the city radiates. Green Apple has only a few slits of natural light: it is designed, like the objects it contains, to focus attention inward; also like books, it is as much a passageway, leading me back out into the dazzling sunlight, wonderstruck and receptive.




Out again, I watch the fog rolling in—evening is coming on. I’ve never been satisfied with the verb rolling. The fog doesn’t move that way, it streaks, it seeps, it may come on little cat feet, but it stays; its tail may dreamily twitch, but its ears never prick up at the sound of movement. It settles in.

I look up when I step outside. Here, where the temperature rarely deviates to extremes and the sky, when it is blue, is a cold blue unique to this place, I always look up. The view from my window reveals the western side of Sutro Hill and the massive Sutro Tower, for many a more ubiquitous landmark than the Bridge.

Like the Bridge, Sutro Tower is a conduit, a portal: it’s a telecommunications tower, bringing the rest of the world—or that sliver of it that makes it onto television and the radio—to the city. When I wake up, I draw the curtain and look for it. Some mornings it’s there, others it’s not; sometimes it’s parts, sometimes it’s whole. Its appearance or absence guides my decisions about the day. When I crave the shelter of the fog, I stay in my neighborhood, The Sunset, feeling very much perched on a lonely edge of the world. Should I crave sunshine, I know that a fifteen-minute commute east, on the other side of that hill, will bring me to sunshine. This ability to choose one’s weather is tempting to narcissists—it can start to feel that the world was made for our moods.



San Francisco breeds and eludes the desire to tell. An old friend who I haven’t corresponded with much over the past few years recently implored, “Tell me about living in San Francisco.” I started to reply, describing the city and my life here, but soon found myself unable to continue. Was I overwhelmed by the task? Was it the city that stopped me or myself? How well must one live a place to become part of it?


For instance, I left unmentioned the secret stairways I go in search of—yes, there’s a guidebook, but it’s necessary to make some discoveries on my own—and, as an inveterate walker, ascend into the silence above the city. At twilight the hills are especially alluring, twinkling car lights and fiery, visually confusing sunsets competing for attention. Looking east from the top of 17th St., near Twin Peaks, I take in a vast swath of the Bay Area: from downtown San Francisco to the Bay Bridge—now strung with lights—across the Bay to Oakland, the Berkeley hills, and beyond, Mt. Diablo. (From the peak of Diablo, I once read, you can see more of the earth’s surface than from any other point except Kilimanjaro. Although I later learned this was factually untrue, I still like to believe it, and recall with wonder an afternoon I spent near its peak with M., sheltered from the wind behind an outcropping of stone. From up there we could see the across the windmill-studded Central Valley to the snow-capped Sierras, which cast a rain shadow so enormous Nevada and Utah are rendered desert, in the east; to the west, rare clear skies and the curved horizon beyond the Farallons, where the Great Whites breed.)

Bay Bridge

Even here, I’ve offered only one city, not a cities. I haven’t touched upon afternoon ferry rides to Sausalito, where, if you’re hardy enough, you can tramp up (up, up) into the Marin Headlands, never once having sat in a car; I left unmentioned the poetry room at City Lights or the shape of late afternoon shadows at Vesuvio’s, the iconic bar next door; I’ve neglected the Conservatory of Flowers; failed to elaborate on the lack of cemeteries in the city—there are only two, the rest are in Colma, where the dead outnumber the living… But then, every account is patchy. Perhaps there’s no better homage to San Francisco than to let the fog obscure what it will obscure.


— Stephen Sparks



Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks) lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories. He somewhat regularly contributes to Tin House and 3:AM Magazine.


Sep 022013
China Marks by Youngkyu Park

China Marks by Youngkyu Park

China Marks, who has twice graced these pages with her drawings, words and word drawings, was last heard from when she won a prestigious Pollock-Krasner grant. Well, she took her grant, bought a sewing machine, and shot ahead into unexpected realms of sewing, drawing and word art. Now she has a new show opening this Friday (September 6) at Art 101 on Grand Street in Brooklyn and it’s our great pleasure to present here a selection of the work. Hot off the press, as it were. Or hot off the sewing table. Witty, complex, transformational, hybrid, poetic, mythic, China’s art is a brilliant example of that questing, inquisitive art-brain that is constantly juxtaposing words, worlds, and techniques and coming up with THE NEW. Who would have thought: sewing machine, drawing, words?

Here are the show details.

China Marks, “The Usual Magic”  September 6 – October 6.
Receptions: September 6, 6 – 9 pm, and September 12, 6 – 9 pm.
Gallery hours Friday through Sunday; 1 to 6 or by appointment
ART 101
101 Grand Street, Brooklyn, N Y 11249

And here are some lines from a breathless, excited, ebullient email China sent to tell me about the new work. Nothing like it.


I used a big chunk of my Pollock-Krasner grant to buy a computerized embroidery machine, high-end CAD software and a Windows-laptop to manage it, specialty threads and stabilizers. I bought it to generate text for my drawings. I wanted more than cut-and-paste. I thought it would take a few weeks to get up and running, but was able to create a simple file and embroider it in a half a day and have proceeded from there. Embroidered text has totally transformed my drawings. They are now even more hybrid, much like stories or scenes from a play or a film. By the end of this month, I will have finished my third drawing, an especially prolix and eccentric one, using text I composed and embroidered. As soon as I have it photographed, I will send you big jpgs of all three drawings, so that you can see what has happened.

But there’s more. As soon as the software and the embroidery machine were up and running, I seemed to have a lot more to say. It was as if being able to publish in my own medium gave me a new voice. Three months later, I have an entirely new body of work made up of pure text pieces. I’ve already made a dozen, each one different from the next, and I have just begun. I will send you a large file with images of my last five pieces and an image list. But I wanted to give you a context for what you’ll see.

— China Marks

Fruit Salad 2013Fruit Salad, 2013. 33.5″ x 41″

Detail Fruit Salad

Fruit Salad Detail

1_Knee Deep in a Sea of Tears 2013

Knee-deep in a Sea of Tears, 2013.  32″ x 33″
Fabric, lace, thread, colored stone, fusible adhesive.

Text, left to right: I would have, if anyone had ever asked me to, / but nobody ever did / and I never dared to ask for myself. / Now it is too late / I will die / untouched!

It is not too late, really/but first you must stop crying!

2_A Foreign Affair-2013

A Foreign Affair, 2013. 43.5″ x 56″
Fabric, thread, fusible adhesive.

Sailor at left:  I don’t remember what I told her, / I’d had a lot to drink that night. / Tho’ after two months at sea, / I would have said anything / To get some loving.

But that was almost a year ago, / In another country.

I never dreamed / she’d fly to the States / And make trouble / for us!

Wife, top and at right: You told this young woman / That you lived with your widowed sister. / Joseph, I am your wife! / How could you disavow me?

You rat!

Girlfriend, at center: You never said / you were married!

Commentary, below at center: The Sailor finally tells the truth, and is surprised / when the women in his life take it personally…

3_Fighting Words 2013

Fighting Words, 2013. 49.5″ x 60″
Fabric, lace, thread, fusible adhesive, silk-screen ink, Jade glue,
glass and plastic beads.

Text left at top: You look ridiculous, / Like a walking trash heap!/ Do the world a favor / And let me tear you apart!

Text at far left: Leave Spotty Half-Pot / alone, Mister!

Text, center top: The Florida Phantom/ a Tropical Terror/ vs./ Spotty Half-Pot/ the Children’s Friend.

Text, far right: Of course I look ridiculous, / I work on / a local children’s show / And the goofier the better! / You call yourself a phantom, when you’re / just a flaming fool / with a cheap map of Florida / for a face. / That’s really stupid!

Text bottom center, left to right: Wasn’t the Florida Phantom / a professional wrestler?

Wasn’t this supposed /to be a real fight?

I watched the Spotty Half-Pot Show / till I left for college!

Love his costume!

— China Marks


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

Sep 012013

Robert Vivian

Robert Vivian, novelist, essayist, dramatist & multiple contributor to NC herewith invents a new form, the dervish essay, which, yes, whirls with energy, mesmerizes with rhythmic repetition, and spins toward the edge of sense in a remarkable display of linguistic panache and wildness.


Here are a couple of dervish essays, a new (or new to me) form that keeps beckoning for some reason. What are dervish essays? I’m still discovering them for myself, but here are some elements I think are emerging to the light of consciousness:

  • They often whirl and spin by anaphora and other forms of repetition;
  • They seem impatient with subjects per se as they assume a oneness with everything they touch upon;
  • The prose energy is ramped up to poetry energy and they are breathless to communicate an essence;
  • They court nonsensicality and are driven by a deep inward music;
  • I don’t know what they’re about, really, or why I am writing them other than a deep contact with Rumi in Turkey;
  • And finally, they seem to want to embrace everything at once and are almost frantic to do so. They’re also quite brief.

—Robert Vivian


Crow Ceremony

Crow ceremony in the raw, renewable resources of ongoing dread and decay shining deep into the night in sharp sliver of bone harp the full moon grazes under crow’s feet clutched in fierce possession as morning becomes electric so cousin to fear and wonder, cousin to transformation and holy rays and raven-haired beauty married to awe and crow ceremony the spanning bridge between this life and the next in crow secret, crow kabala no crow shall ever divulge in honor of all earthy rituals made of entrails and visions, shattered glass crow must navigate, step over, give voice to, screech about, deliver in raucous cry washed in sacrifice then parted beak in soundless astonishment on the brink of revelation, and crow ceremony stark custodian of road kill and other leftovers always watching and waiting on wind-blasted highway in deep kinship with desolation’s bone shop and gut cart quaking over medieval streets paved with cobblestones, blood weary, spat upon for ages, crow waiting then hopping then waiting again within ten feet of high-speed traffic centuries hence but coeval to every century that was or will be and crow not subject to the dominion time for after the first death there is no other as I drive north in Michigan and crow ceremony the world over even now in stark re-enactment that does not end and myself and every dream crow meat for devouring and the gristle of someone else’s morrow and there’s something tender to sing about even in these that might brush us with a blue-black feather lighter than a dandelion spore, legendary birds of mythical attention to detail and ravenous for what we discard or run over as we become their foremost fulfillment and each of us their mostly clueless pupils, slow, reluctant learners of great denial they have to instruct again and again and again. And crow ceremony around the corner, on rooftops, power lines, blacktops, and parking lots and crumbling churches, late night radio announcers and their sad monologues over mystical air waves, crow ritual, crow practice in primordial agency, singing the body beyond corporeality as crow tears it asunder in most necessary department, crow swooping down over the eaves of every life and in this rank beauty some strange thing waiting to be born, and were my body any other frailer arc it would sink to the bottom of a gutter to be set upon by rats but rats don’t have wings and thus crow angels, crow watchers with no other claim to hegemony though they do not seek fame or recognition, and my life another crow ceremony and no one to ask about it, no one to consult, no medicine man or guru and crow with me every mile into middle age and something like remorse, faint waft of tragedy growing therein but also tenderness (here again breathing under the soft corners and bleak crowbars on murderers’ row) and also gladness, also fondness and sighing for the things of this world, and some day I shall become the property of crows in transitional space and so crows watching, crows waiting, hard brothers that prey over me with no haste and no waste, no need to even follow for they know where to find me and to find everyone, the whys and wherefores already accomplished in the book of the dead and sonic dimensions of inner speech teetering over into prayer as prey becomes prayer, becomes lament, shadows that protect as if with wings and what they shape and give outline to for there is no delicate option and then I was that thing I thought I would never be, an open wound like a cicatrix on the back of a slave earmarked for affliction, an almost nothing crow ceremony salvaged for me and the whiteness of this page a crow ceremony, the blackness of these typed letters, all the loosed flamingos of the heart that must go down in flames, the grottoes of old buildings, the rickshaws of old sentiments, the black stubble on a homeless man’s beard and the salt and pepper shakers from a diner called Heartbreak. And crow ceremony the piling up of phone books, cinder blocks, rooms where people go to die alone under a ceiling fan that whirls like a broken clock counting demonic time, crow the lines around my tired eyes and crow the bar that gives the thief his most essential tool for stealing, I have traveled to strange places and myself a stranger and I have never understood the mystery called yearning, called great epic desire and ceaseless wanting, and in this same pull toward the holy strange and holy broken there has always been a crow on the periphery just above waiting for it to play out, and if crow carries night in his wings he also carries stars, and if she carries stars then she also carries light, and if he carries light he also carries song, and if she carries song than she also carries wind and breath and the taste of clear water and obsidian stone so there is crow cycle, crow magnetism in the notes of all music, black bird, black bird, black wand of passing magic and terrific fate where the truth must lie hidden in another blade of grass crow will take over many mountains and all the variegated fields and the hearts that set themselves on wanting what they want so much, always beyond their power to name or to have, winged crow in lofty ceremony, carrying every last grain home to an even greater mystery hidden in another night and another day a sore, swollen throat away in siren song that does not end.




Stumbled upon the great fire and the great midnight and great column of sunlight shining through a lofty window whose brightness no hand can touch or hold—and stumbled upon all the other elements not listed in the book of the dead, other sere and sweeping contributors to the ever changing beauty of the world, water, wind, dust and root rot, and no time to put them into song or poem so they must be included here in primary utterance given over to gaga mouth, and stumbled upon the great mountains, lakes and rivers, warning song of the redwing blackbird and thistles lamenting their separation from the reed bed in brushing sighs waving beneath the sky, waking in the morning to singing birds also a gentle stumbling and rousing from sleep whose point of departure is listening and dew-eyed wonder, innocence almost, something no one could ever imagine vis-à-vis the astonishing fact of morning whose opposites are doubt and anguish like little knives whittling sticks deep into the night that slowly become strange talismans in the shape of vengeful deities, and stumbling upon I saw a sunset that spoke the name of God in panoramic splendor splashed marveling across the sky, and Father Nebraska, Mother Michigan, the two landscapes I have been given to stumble upon over and over again and the bumble bee stumbling upon the petal of the flower trembling beneath it like a spent lover and we drunks stumbling all the time upon every source of woe and laughter and the caress that sends us home to pillow cases wet with tears and the little girl stumbling on the playground scraping her knee to an audience of blacktop and sand traps though she’s determined not to cry in stoic preparation for lifelong pains to follow, which also cannot be imagined or endured though they must be and they will be somehow some way and this a shotgun blast of tiny miracles jagged as scattered bits of bright pebbles, and stumbling upon a great suitcase with decal stickers from various ports of call and dense and teeming notebooks within tumbling out expressing great desire and yearning, more wonder, more heartache in the form of questions and headlong declarations, “Let me be a window for you, let me be a way to filter light, I want to sing in a bar in gypsy sorrow and whatever has been given me to praise I will again and again in ever renewing vectors of worship, I promise, dear one, dear lover, the one I am going to cherish and adore”—and P.S. Androgyny, P.S. 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, P.S. The last time you wrote home it was August and the cicadas were invading the nightshade,” and stumbled upon the single word or gesture that will deliver you to the gates of holiness which are everywhere around opening on rusty hinges so stumbling a way for translucent scales to fall from your eyes like withered corn, and stumbling to trip or miss one’s footing, to stammer caused by great emotion be it tenderness or outrage or to be struck dumb and silent in the face of a great mystery yet another act of stumbling, sudden surcease and roundup, sudden heart-wall collapsing (Can you bless the night by dying? Yes, you can bless the night by dying) and salt to throw on every wound to ramp it up to trumpet strength blaring out all pain, and stumbling upon I had a vision of heaven that included the neon sign of a liquor store and streets strewn with flattened bubble gum like pastel amoebas swimming fecklessly against the tide of late night traffic, the rest of the streets refraining from song until everyone is down in their knees in the gutters, and stumbling in and out of love, stumbling forward, stumbling backward, tripping on a curb and stumbling onto an airplane to Turkey and stumbling when I disembark into the waiting arms of Rumi and stumbling the great mercy and the great forgiveness and the great recognition that weaves sorrow and joy into a hair shirt of incomparable fineness and stumbling I walk through the middle years of my life holding a broken lily not knowing where I’m going and stumbling I dream of a church whose vestibule is shaped like a horse-shoe where all the spirits wait in giddiness before commencing to moan and sing like Keith Jarret at the keyboard and stumbling I see the vast capacity for love in the hearts of the downtrodden, the holy broken and careworn, isolated and alone then I stumble in the doorway of a halfway house upon the great virtue waiting there for me to shroud me in spider webs, which can only be called tenderness though it partakes of gentleness and forbearance in equal amounts, and stumbling I stand with a poet on a dark hill in Vermont as we watch a fox trot by and the poet says to keep going no matter what even if it seems hopeless, and stumbling I see the four horses of the apocalypse grazing in a pasture and they are not fiery-eyed and braying, not blowing smoke from their nostrils like fired canons but switching their tails back and forth with their graceful necks bent to the earth searching for sweet grass to chew on, and stumbling I found I could go over to them and pat those same long necks shaped like peninsulas and all of us, the grass, the breeze and sky, the four horses of the apocalypse and even the earth takes this peaceful hiatus as benediction and meeting place, and an opportunity to look for garlands before we stumble on the rest of the way.

—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” and his play A Little Mysterious Bleeding.