Apr 192014


In Michael Venus’s music video for “The Hunt,” a woman (Katja Danowski) blanched and polyestered by life is haunted by the band Parasite Single, two outfit-coordinated hipster angels, who call to her and torment her with their pop song and provoke her to the possibility of something other than her sweat-pant suit life.

From the first shot in the furniture store we are in an uncomfortable space: the angles askew, florescent lights running to the left of the frame into the distance, their static hum scratching our ear drums, the woman’s prone body running from the centre off to the right. She’s wearing a yellow sweatsuit, but this is yellow drained of any allusion to lemons, sunshine, or fluffy baby chickens. This is yellow defined by the absence of yellow.


Sidebar: I don’t think mattress merchants as professionals are prepared for the intimacy and vulnerability of people going prone. They should have to have some training or certification to prepare for this burden.


In the second awkward shot, a foot’s eye view, we look up the length of the woman, up her nose, and along her arm outstretched, spanning the empty side of the bed to the right of the frame. Either she sleeps like a horizontal crucified Christ each night, board straight and perpendicular, or perhaps her arm and that space of empty bed signify something.

Then, in an insert shot, we see her fingers fumbling with the mattress’s plastic cover, trying to get past the plastic or pondering the empty space that is the other side of the bed to her. Her eyes close slowly in pained longing as the plastic cover crinkles in deaf response and we see that the back corner of this cold furniture store is reserved for longing.

Venus composes each of the first shots with awkward angles, plays with empty space and underscores the sequence with a minimalist sound design, just crinkling plastic and the buzz of the lights, all to emphasize this woman’s loneliness and isolation before the hipster angels’ music begins.


The musical duo proceed to plague and torment polyester woman in various locales: the furniture store, her work at a car garage, the grocery store and a laundromat. In what follows there are three small moments that define her journey: the sack of unshelled peanuts, the discarding of the shopping cart, and when she mimics the band.

The first moment is just after her second sighting of the band, in her office at work: she escapes outside where she sits on a potted palm, shelling and eating peanuts from a sack slight desperation.

Sidebar: unshelled peanuts must be the unofficial snack for depressed polyester wearers. It explains why country and western bars are littered with their remains.

Sidebar to the sidebar: unshelled pistachios, on the other hand, are too coy, salty smooth, and hard shelled to every get caught in a country and western bar, though they have, undoubtedly, seen it all before.

The second moment is when she sees the band in the grocery store and, not so coincidentally the word “love” on a cake decorating box. Here she breaks, shoving the grocery cart away from herself.

Then, around the 1:47 mark when the hipster angels take a break for coffee in the laundromat, polyester woman has had enough and she picks up their instruments and mockingly pretends to play with the same hipster joy they do. It’s a tiny moment and if you blink you’ll miss it, but it foreshadows the angry catharsis to come.

These three small moments define this character, her resistance to the gaudy coloured pop angels that are pressuring her to break out of her drab life.


So when catharsis comes for her, after the hair salon and dressing up, in a bar full of gambling machines, angry, glorious dancing is the answer.  In a nice turn, the strobed shots draw her in to the same frame as the hipster angels, showing us they were part of her all along; they are connected. Moreover, Venus places her in the centre of the frame, positions her as their lead singer, their missing piece.

She is, however, not done. In the last shot, ragged and sweaty from her angry dancing, she stands in profile, then turns her head and looks at the camera, a mix of defiance and Teflon:  if at any point we, as audience, lacked compassion or took amusement from her journey, here she wins, and its her victory not ours.

Over at the site Director’s Notes,  there’s an interview with Venus where you can read more about his work with Curtisfilm  and about how they shot the film. If your German is better than mine you can consider supporting the band and their future creative endeavours through their crowdsourcing campaign.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 162014

dms 2

Where is poetry? the poet asks at the beginning of this poem/essay — call it an epode, call it an extended epigram, a form that somehow contains balanced contraries in dynamic tension, the heart of metaphor, of art. Written in response to an essay by Ralph Angel that we published in January last year, D. M. Spitzer’s “Mythology” oscillates between monster and marvel, labyrinth and sanctuary, fragment and whole, tapping ahead with his words for solid ground and offering, yes, a mythology of the poem, of the imagination (dangerous, contained within a force field — form). Beautiful to read, surging and lapidary in its rhythms, erudite and cunning in  its weaving together of legend, text, word play and reference.

Also one of the best author photos in ages.



part 1:  (muthos) labyrinth & sanctuary

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

—Ralph Angel, “The Exile and Return of Poetry:  Essay
Numéro Cinq vol. vi, 1 (January, 2013).

Unspool the thread given by Ariadne, in whom the ecstasy of oblivion awaits the coming of Dionysos. The end precedes the beginning and a certain movement of form collects both. Dionysos already presents himself in the form of desire. Unspool the thread down narrowing and widening passages. Daidalos, poet-exemplar, modulates light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the labyrinth. To isolate the final cause of this structure, peel away at the Minotaur: Minos and shame, Pasiphaë and desire, desire and the god of translation (Zeus). Dionysos stands at the threshold of the labyrinth and in the mind of the poet-architect. Into the sacred labyrinth let thread follow. Thread protects against loss and wandering and a hungry monster inhabits the structure.  Monster is monstrum, something that elicits wonder, a marvel.

Risk:  to be consumed by the hunger and isolation that motivates wonder.

Where is poetry?

A poet designs a sanctuary into which imagination—a genuine monstrum—is led.  Fear of the creative imagination in the full range of license, and a shame, rooted in modality, of the creative imagination’s potency, force the creative imagination into the sanctuary—that is, a world-making creativity will also be world-devouring. Shelter it within sanctuary. Labyrinth is sanctuary.

Sanctuary:  a forbidden vein of dark blood writing the holy secrets across its innermost holy place, a place of healing.

Into the labyrinth unwind thread. Poetry is labyrinth, but a poem takes flight from the surrounding walls. Ikaros too with wings of syllables and breath lifts himself out of the sanctuary’s enclosure unto the bright morning air, the island’s craggy shoreline diminishing. Into the open.

Or sing the poem from the open place near the labyrinth’s center. Write poems on papyrus scraps and send them to the skies on wings of smoke and flame. Too near the sun they have already burned to ash and their flight continues. Poem needs no ground save the whole of things; air discloses the whole.

Unwinding thread towards the interior of labyrinth, find the shield of Achilles blazing in midday light. Everything reflects there. It burns the eye and the mind falls to its knees.  A fire-god rends the metal earth into folds that look just like earth and the poet’s god is the god of fire. There on the shield read one’s own face in bronze embossed where the surface is whole. Everything there terrifies. None dares to look.  Begins the fire-god a poetry of metal fragged from deep veins beneath the surface of earth. Tear open the surface of things and make beginnings in the dark material hidden there. A whole rent down to the interior of fragments stripped and reshaped in time-present’s forge where everything else collapses into forgetting. Unmake whole make fragment into whole in which a face echoed recalls its fragmentation. Tragedy builds its shield from the shield of fire given from god to man. Poet beneath it all, blindness shielding from the tragedy of wholeness. Where whole forms itself into stability there loses all into unself. Whole will encapsulate in its message of bronze the perishing of what you want:  the city of gold, walled with lapis tesserae and medallions of everything precious, gods’ hands pressing stone towards the sun into a wall impenetrable. Down tumbles wall and the quiet household gods into flame of the poet’s limping god. A fierce jaw breaks spear after spear into the torso of a warrior who is also a son, a father watching unable to look away. Down tumbles what the whole speaks in its ekphrastic visioning. Down.

At the labyrinth’s center, Minotaur shakes loose his must-covered voice:

mind sleeps and wakes and stirs and rests and poetry cycles

turning & turning the spirit moves as it cycles once more into itself[i]

Fragmentary remains in the manner of the cycling going-under of things.  Take it up from the ruins, or from the labyrinth where it was found lying in midday sun.  Out of a ruined whole brings forth the poet a second world that looks out upon another contained within itself.  The thread leads deeper into labyrinth’s ordered chasm.  Light is channeled into momentany into dark by the architect of moving-images[ii] and prisons.  The poet chains everything in artifice, released in the mouth and ear of the reader.

Back to sanctuary only ever half-finished, abandoned when tyranny fell. Footsteps glish in blood and stain the foundation.  The wonder is, after all, only half human.  The rest is untranslatable.  Leave the traces of holiness along the eastern wall where temple and labyrinth are one.


part 2:  (logos)  literary dynamism

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

This sentence traces the belonging-together of whole and not whole. The sentence says:  if a subject is able to produce a sanctuary out of literary wholeness, that subject must produce a sanctuary of the fragmentary.  It says, in fact, nothing about the making of a literary sanctuary, but rather about the power to make such a sanctuary and the necessity, because of that power, to create a sanctuary for the fragmentary.  Accordingly, the fragmentary involves a dynamism that exceeds and excludes the whole.

However, wholeness comes first.[iii] Only after the presencing of wholes to consciousness do the fragments begin to appear, light-catching as glass-shards. To be sure, wholeness as a concept both precedes and precipitates a notion of the fragmentary; coming across a potsherd on the island of Delos, for instance, one immediately recognizes the fragment of pottery as having been a part of a now ruined whole.  The sentence above, the starting point of this brief inquiry, on one level simply asserts that, since the production of a sanctuary for wholeness can be carried out, wholeness exists in some way, and then what applies to the whole applies necessarily to the parts.  Yet, this assertion is complicated by the idea that the sanctuary produced for wholeness exists in modality, while that produced for fragmentariness exists as a dynamic and necessary movement towards a whole.  It is further complicated by the notion that such a whole, as the sanctuary seems to describe, takes place as not only whole, but also fragmentary.  For, a sanctuary marks off an area that is described by its boundaries and is a kind of whole, yet one which also explicitly does not contain the wholeness for whose praise and worship it has been created.  In principle, that which is limited, while perhaps whole in itself, is nevertheless fragmentary insofar as it has been segregated from all else.  Emerson communicates something like this principle in the essay “Circles,” writing that “around every circle another can be drawn.”[iv]

Fragments exemplify the coexistence and belonging together of whole and fragmentary while also pointing to different ways in which the fragmentary is related to the whole.  A literary fragment, such as those attributed to Sappho, leans toward the imagination as a medium in which the dynamism of fragmentariness delivers itself and raises itself and exceeds itself into a poetically engaged wholeness.  This entails a dialectic, an inter-activity, a potent engagement of the imagination with the poetic fragment. “[N]ot everything can be given straight away to the understanding through the work of art,” as Schopenhauer noted, “but only what is needed to set the imagination on the right path; it must always leave out something—indeed, the final thing—for the imagination to produce for itself.”[v] Out of this engagement the fragmentary poem overcomes itself and reaches its latent wholeness, which consists in the belonging-together of literary art and the thoughtful auditor or reader.  All strives for wholeness.[vi] Imagination reaches out for the dynamism inherent to phenomena, as phenomena strive towards an outside-of-themselves that completes them. The ancient Greek epic phrase kluthi moi…ophr’ eipo (listen so that I might speak) expresses this cycle.[vii] Without the correlative of an outside-of-self listening, speaking cannot take place; the being of each depends on the other.

The Sapphic fragments also reach in the direction of the lost whole; splintered from that whole, the fragments bear an enhanced attitude of longing.  This raises the relation of fragments within a context of wholeness.  In complete works lines, phrases, and episodes exhibit a kind of ecstasy of their own whereby each part as a fragment overcomes itself by semantically stepping beyond and outside itself when taken independently, which is how the reader or hearer initially perceives them while also assembling these, by means of the memory and imagination, into and towards a wholeness.  Each phrase can be experienced both in its fragmentariness and in its condition of literary ecstasy:  a stance thrust beyond the self into and towards the self—the whole—it has power to become. The outside-of-self, however, can only emerge into being from the self’s unfolding, such that the outside-of-self towards which a thing strives consists within the self itself as a power to be that which the self not yet is.  A work’s literary dynamism in this sense takes place as its movement towards itself—its latent wholeness—through continuing its self-overcoming.  That is, the whole gains itself through each phrase-as-fragment overcoming itself, gathering and overflowing into the next and the next.  Each fragment inheres to the literary dynamism and does so because of a work’s wholeness.[viii]

Ecstasy—standing beyond self—shows itself as an essential feature of the relationship between wholeness and fragmentariness. This is at the center of literary dynamism, at once ecstatic in its reach for the ever-outside-itself and rootedly inward, inherent.  The shadow of this thought also comes forward:  in striving towards wholeness, fragments move away from a previous condition, fragmenting themselves in the very moment of overcoming themselves into wholeness. Herakleitos speaks this movement:

out from the teeming plenitude of all things one

out from the quietus of unity all things[ix]

The Herakleiteian double-move takes place in the manner of Angel’s articulation of the belonging-together of whole and fragment.

In the end, Angel’s “exile and return of poetry” traces the movement of entities coming-forth from wholeness into fragmentation and returning, in their time and by means of dynamism, from fragmentation into wholeness.  Relations with other entities provide the context and ground for the actuation of this dynamism and may point to an underlying unity of those related entities.[x]

n.b.  All ‘translations’ given above are original by the author.

— D. M. Spitzer


After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Transfiguration of Ecclesiastes 1:6.
  2. Plato uses as a simile the moving statues of Daidelos in the Meno [97d.6-10].
  3. Aristotle likewise observes, at the outset of Physics, that “for the most part to our sight and taste first arise things in a mixed-together state, and then later, from things of that sort, the elements and the sources (arkhai) that set things apart are discernable.  In light of this, inquiry should proceed from the wholeness of things (to katholou) towards each separate thing, since, aesthetically, the whole is more knowable and the wholeness of things is a kind of whole” [184a.21-25].  
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson:  Essays and Poems, ed. Tony Tanner & Christopher Bigsby (J. M. Dent:  London; Charles E. Tuttle:  Vermont, 1995), 146.
  5. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, ch. 34 (Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main:  Cotta-Insel, 1960), 523:  “…durch das Kunstwerk nicht alles geradezu den Sinnen gegeben werden darf, vielmehr nur soviel, als erfordert ist, die Phantasie auf den rechten Weg zu leiten:  ihr muß immer noch etwas, und zwar das letzte zu tun übrigbleiben.”  
  6. Compare Aristotle’s thought at Physics A.9 [192a.16-25] that hule (typically translated as “material”) yearns for eidos (“form”).
  7. See, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 644-645:  keklute meu…ophr’ eipo ta me thumos eni stethessi keleuei.  The last part of the expression emphasizes the impulse to reach beyond the self.
  8. For example, Robert Creeley’s poem “Fragment,” in Echoes (New York:  New Directions, 1993), 67 achieves its art through appealing to the reader’s sense and expectation of wholeness, even if it intends to show the radical absence of a whole.  Similarly, Sappho’s poems are so alluring on one level because they never attain themselves, they leave in play the desire for wholeness, a taut bow never released.  
  9. This is a transfiguration of the last section of Herakleitos, fragment 10 (Deils-Kranz).
  10. The image of literary dynamism may work to understand the more practical problem of “writer’s block,” which I take to be at issue in Angel’s “exile and return.”  If the practice of what is called “writing” can be thought in terms of a dynamic interplay of fragmentariness (or silence, or a period without writing) and wholeness (productivity, writing), we might make a sanctuary of the whole process that includes periods of speaking and hearing, of writing and reading, of reading and quiet, a process that is inherently fragmentary in its wholeness.
Apr 152014

Andre Narbonne

More fable than short story, yet also something of a noir parable, a grim psychological mystery of compulsion and erotic self-abnegation, André Narbonne’s “The Doctrinal Murder of a Socratic Beggar in St. Suzette” tells the tale of a frustrated artist whose wife commits a murder to save her husband’s work from mockery. André Narbonne is an old acquaintance; I selected a wonderful story of his for the 2006 edition of Best Canadian Stories (in the time before time when I edited that estimable volume).



At first, Martin Verloc drew pleasure from the slowing of the crowd. They were construing him; he recognized the pace. He watched from above, peering through rust-pocked metal railings while rush-hour pedestrians beneath the bridge hesitated at the sight of his installation—a five-panel theatrical fixture, sculpted and embossed, entitled The Shield of Achilles. Occasionally, Martin observed an expression of admiration and he felt himself pleasant: disconnected and attached.

Securing funds for his creation, his Gesamtkunstwerk, had been a long and uncertain process, which had galled Martin considerably. When he left St. Suzette, Quebec, to apprentice in Paris, he never considered coming back, but here he was, middle-aged and grey, a celebrated son, his residency so significant it was mentioned in tourist brochures. The city should have been honoured by his proposal, but the public art committee balked at the idea of a Greek metaphor being the muse for a work commemorating the city’s tercentennial celebration. Their minds were filled with explorers and Jesuits and military men—all the dirt of history, the provincialism that ignored the beautiful intractability of myth. He had had to explain, even browbeat the committee so that when he set to work the stakes were enormously high. But it had all paid off, and in secret he had welded an inscription to the underside of a panel—Γεννημένος της ιδιωτικής λαμπρότητας και αυξημένος σε έναν δημόσιο χώρο (born of private brilliance and raised in a public space).

The Shield of Achilles was installed under a bridge where commuters walked in competing streams every morning and evening. They walked through and around the art, immersed in Homeric imagery: weddings, murders, farming, dancing—every human endeavour known to antiquity as catalogued in Book XVIII of The Iliad. Martin’s explication of a three thousand-year-old poetic passage was the sort of critical success that cannot be diminished by its popularity. And it didn’t scare him that he had no more ideas, that he walked to the bridge daily in a sort of emotional torpor so that his only inspiration came from without, from his appreciation of his audience. Like a doddering man with a young child, if he never created another work, he could take comfort in his final inspiration to last until the end of his days.

“Go on,” he whispered to passing strangers below. “Interpret me.”

Only one thing distressed him: a panhandler who one day perched on the edge of the middle panel, cap in hand. Once would have been alright—a found poem in human form, or a comic moment intruding on a stage dressed for tragedy. Unfortunately, having decided the crowd offered a rich enough vein for him to prospect, the beggar kept returning. The man was neither young nor old, neither ugly nor pitiable. If anything, he stood out for being nondescript. But the beggar was a distraction, and Martin found his continued presence disturbing.

Martin brought home his disgust at the beggar to his wife, Betty. As always, Betty listened to her husband’s litany of sarcasms without moving. It was a trick she had learned early in their marriage. Had a kettle been boiling, the steam whistling at a high pitch, she would have ignored it. Martin was the centre of her understanding of herself, never mind the affairs that had been more muse to him than Greek poetry. His flaws as a husband didn’t make her love him less. They made her fear him. And so she listened, as always, to Martin’s description of the crowds and of how the beggar still sat there, an idle nuisance disturbing the natural flow of things.

When he was finished, she replied, “Well that’s different.”

It was what she always said, and the expression was offensive to Martin, who prided himself on being different.

*     *     *

He was there again the next day when Martin watched the crowd. The cap he held out was dirty, the hand that held it, equally so. The effect didn’t create distaste but apathy. Well-dressed women and men who’d only a moment earlier been looking around, perhaps judging themselves in relation to their fellow pedestrians, stared at their feet. They passed the panels without considering them, the beggar having reduced them to a point of philosophical and aesthetic vacuity.

“It’s more than a man can take,” Martin opened as he approached the man. “Every day you are here. Have you nowhere else to go?”

The beggar looked up. Martin was a heavyset man. He wore an expensive greatcoat calculated to make him look like he belonged to an earlier century.

“Who are you?” asked the beggar. “You are not the police.”

“Of course not. I am an artist.”

“An artist? What’s that?”

“I built the art you sit on.”

The beggar looked around. “This is art?” he asked.

In the voice of a lecturer exhausted by a back-row student’s stupidity, Martin answered, “It is a representation of the shield the goddess Thetis brings to her son Achilles in The Illiad. The forms you sit on are a besieging army. There, behind you, is a sortie lead by Ares and Athene. Strife, Panic, and Death stand beside them. Above you, bolted into the underside of the bridge are the constellations. Over there…”

“Constellations? Then who is that man?”

“Orion the Hunter.”

“I see. A man as stars. It’s very good.”

“What do you mean by that? Are you mocking me?”

“Not at all. Look at me. Where can I sit? This is very good at shielding me from the rain. Soon it will snow and your art will protect me. The music—is it a lute that plays constantly?—will soothe me.”

“That is not its purpose!”

The beggar only shrugged.

“Will you not leave?”


“And why not?”

“Everywhere I go I am asked to leave. This time I have decided to stay. This is a very comfortable place. You have built something that is very useful to me.”

“It’s not meant to be useful.”

“Then why build it?”

“It is art. Art is meant to be appreciated.”

“I appreciate it.”

*     *     *

That night, Martin’s anger was a second man growing inside of him, mastering him. He raged until Betty feared he would go out like he did the nights when he’d been working on his designs and his muse left him. On those nights, his muse, when he found it, kept him late. Once he was gone for two days. Loving him, she had to acknowledge, was a tawdry business. She could not imagine any other life and she suspected that was why he kept her. She had no connection to his friends, who made no effort to conceal the fact that they tolerated her. She had no opinions on his art. He’d silenced them with his defenses, with his satire. She could offer nothing for his mind. True, she was one of those women who kept her beauty as she aged, but she assumed he was able to provide for his bodily desires elsewhere. And yet he always came back.

She wondered if there wasn’t some way she could keep him other than through her passivity.

“I feel imprisoned by idiots,” Martin spat. “First the grocer, now the beggar.”

Betty knew a cold shock of fear at the mention of the grocer.

The grocer had been kind to her. He always addressed her politely. And then, a mistake. In Martin’s hearing he had one day complimented her dress. A glass shattered in her mind. She grew dizzy and nearly fell. Martin, as she knew he would, offered to fight. He berated the grocer, who was married, in front of a full shop, accusing him of making advances on his wife. Even in this age, wasn’t marriage sacred? From that day on, Betty stayed clear, walking the three extra blocks to the next store for groceries. One day she met the grocer on the street and smiled politely, but he returned a resentful look. She wondered if he held her to blame, if he imagined that she had preyed on his good nature to arouse her husband’s passion.

What she didn’t know was that the grocer was insidious. He watched them. At times, after closing his shop, he stared into their windows, tried to catch a glimpse of treason through a gap in the curtains. He muttered under his breath and grew increasingly strange.

“I know what I’ll do,” said Martin. “I will give that beggar money to leave. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, not too much. A man like that is used to getting by on very little.”

She noticed how, having made up his mind on a course of action, Martin’s mood eased. Action could placate. Maybe it could placate a bad heart.

It was a family inheritance. There was no cure for the fearful shudder, the quick coldness that sometimes left her breathless, other times too weak to walk. The best she could do was to reduce stress, which she had for years attempted to do by standing statue-still when she felt most threatened.

*     *     *

“Ah, here you are, my friend. How did I know I would find you here?”

“It is you who are mocking me.” The beggar was eating a take-out salad from a plastic bowl. He spoke through a mouthful of spinach.

“Do you remember our conversation?”

“Who could forget meeting a genius?”

“Genius? I would never call myself a genius.”

“Perhaps. But you would imply.”

“You are a man who knows how to frustrate. I am here to offer you a trade. I will give you…assistance…if you agree to beg somewhere else.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because art does not exist without an audience. It doesn’t matter what I have made of this space. With you here, no one sees it.”

“I see it.”

“But you do not count.”

“I told you, you were mocking me. How can you expect me to agree that I do not count?”

“You know nothing of metaphor and can neither appreciate nor critique the strength of my sentiments. Have you read Homer?”

“I have no time.”

“No time? But all you do is sit.”

“Being poor is time-consuming. You have no idea.”

“Then I shall tell you what it is you are looking at, and you tell me whether that is what you see. When Achilles, the great Greek warrior, decides to return to battle against the Trojans his goddess mother asks Hephaestus, the god of the forge, to make him a suit of armour. The shield that Hephaestus creates is a work of art. In Homer’s poem, it shows moving scenes, marriages and wars, deceit and comfort. Everything is on the shield…”

“What is that twirling thing?”

“It stands for abundance. The purple on the one side is a vineyard on a king’s estate, on the other side, the gold is his corn.”

“Oh, abundance. Let me see then if I can recognize metaphor, now that you’ve taught me.”

“I am not done…”

“Shhh, don’t give me any hints. There? No. There? No. No, I don’t see it.”

“See what?”


“There is no poverty. The shield is rich, not poor.”

“And I am poor, not rich. All that I see is shelter.”

“Do you not see art?”

“Can art be shelter?”


“Then I do not see art.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. I understand that you are an idiot. Will you take my money?”

“What makes your money any different from the other money I am given?”

Martin pulled several bills from his pocket and showed them to the beggar.


“However many you want. All of them, if you think it a fair trade—just to leave and not come back.”

“You are asking me to lie.”


“You want me to make promises I will not keep. If you give me your money, I will spend it. Then I will still have to live, and I will come back. My promise to you will mean nothing to me. Listen. I am being honest. I am fighting against deceit, which is our common enemy. If you give me the money, I will return.”

“Even if you promise to stay away? It’s outrageous!”

“Is it? But why? I do not count. Why should you expect the things that do not count to have more integrity than the things that do count?”

“You are hopeless.”

“I agree.”

*     *     *

The storm seemed to this time reduce Martin to the level of an infant. Like an infant, he was indiscriminately cruel. He ridiculed Betty’s choice of outfits for the party in Martin’s honour they were to attend that evening. He was in the habit of dressing her. Their tastes never matched and she always felt awkward in overly-loud arrangements. Tonight, she had tried to predict his tastes and had dressed in what she imagined an appropriately extroverted fashion. Martin had rained on her all the ridicule she would have felt herself for the clothing, only magnified to the point of indicating character flaws.

“Wear black,” he told her at last. “Just wear black.”

At the party her dress seemed dangerously provocative. She came across as a middle-aged vamp and the men who’d gathered to celebrate Martin’s public achievements but knew little about his private life stared openly. It was Martin’s habit to distance himself from Betty at public events. She walked the margins of the room, occasionally narrowing the distance between them enough to hear bits of conversation.

“He’s determined to make a spectacle of himself,” she heard Martin say to a man in a gabardine suit.

The man replied, “Then you think he’s targeted you?”

“He says so himself. He’s like the woman who sprayed paint at the Mona Lisa. His only purpose is to destroy art.”

“But surely that can’t be right. That woman’s purpose was political. She was protesting for the rights of the handicapped. Maybe this man is political, too.”

“What politics could a hobo have?”

“The politics of the dispossessed.”

“Bah. He is a nuisance. You should see him. His life is miserable and so he intends to make my life miserable. It is his way of playing God.”

She could only hear a little at a time. All the conversations seemed to go that way, and she felt her heart pounding painfully when she listened to them. Towards the end of the night, when Martin found the sympathy of a young woman in a white ermine jacket, Betty heard a rush in her head like a powerful wind blowing from side to side. She gripped a chair for support, the tension pushing her to the point of collapse.

“How terrible! So much beauty! So much creativity suppressed by an ignorant illiterate man,” she heard the woman say.

To her surprise, Martin answered, “I don’t know that he’s illiterate. He seems to have a fine grasp of argument.”

Martin’s eyes met Betty’s then. He had a talent for reading images. She wondered what he saw.

“Excuse me,” he said, and he rushed to his wife’s side. “My love, are you okay?” He looked frightened.

“Yes, I’m okay. I’m tired. I’ll sit down.”

“No, you will go home.”

“Oh please don’t make me…”

“I will come with you.”

He was all consideration and she knew the storm had blown over and she realized that despite the fact the marriage would probably prove fatal, she loved him powerfully.

*     *     *

The beggar wasn’t there when Martin arrived the next morning. There was no sign of him ever having been there. Even so, Martin had an eerie sensation of being followed. He looked about several times, but could find no reason for his suspicion.

For the first time in what seemed like a very long while, Martin was able to observe the reaction of the crowd that passed his artwork. To his surprise, they did not stop. Had they not noticed it before? Of course they had—when it was new. It was four-months-old now and was no longer capable of holding their interest. Martin had never before been aware of himself being ignored. He had been hated and revered. That he’d known. This was puzzling.

Was this why he imagined himself being followed? Was his mind compensating to protect him, inventing the interest of strangers?

He had always been good at protecting his sanity. He didn’t consider himself a bad man, although he had done bad things. All the bad things were in the service of preserving his mental health and so he forgave himself for them. In rough seas, they could be jettisoned like steerage from a lifeboat.

Martin tried to comfort himself with the thought that he wasn’t done producing art. There would be more works that would stop the crowds and return the sun to his atrophying patch of identity. But the thought brought no respite from depression. He hadn’t had any ideas for a year, and he had gone to antiquity for his last.

In Martin’s mind, the lines from Homer’s poem were an expression of futility. That’s what had secretly drawn him to his concept. Everything that can be done, has been done, the cuckold god of the forge seemed to be saying. Why not kill yourself, Achilles? All life is repetition of past lives.

Martin never told anyone that his plan was to produce a monument to redundancy.  The art was vibrant, but it took a verb to express neutrality. Someone, he thought, might catch sight of his meaning. Somewhere in the crowd that passed daily en route to the stultifying business of middle-class sameness must be someone who would recognize the statement in the art. What that person would do with himself or herself next, he could not guess. What he himself had done with the absolute and classless knowledge of futility was to sink deeper inward.

He was looking to his audience for indications of a way out. And he no longer knew what his audience looked like.

He heard a noise, a different tread. The beggar at last. Martin understood a feeling of shame and dodged behind a concrete pillar, the better to observe without being seen. The beggar had a game leg that dragged in such a way as to cause his steps to be measured but to never add up. He moved with obvious pain. When he sat, it was with the slow deliberation of a king sitting on a concrete throne. He didn’t put out his hat at first, which surprised Martin. He’d assumed that the beggar was begging all the time. What other purpose could he have? Instead, he seemed to content himself with looking around. He fixated on the fourth panel, which portrayed a wedding and a murder. For a long while he did nothing. His reverie was disturbed at last by a man offering a coin. The beggar nodded, said, “God bless you,” mechanically and took off his cap. Then he went about his work.

In the time that passed while Martin watched the beggar consider his panel, his feelings underwent a sea change. He walked home feeling an unaccountable joy. As he walked beside the water, he observed fish in the canal, dark forms dodging into the depths, and decided that he liked them.

Late that night, he felt around in the darkness for a glass of water he knew he had placed somewhere near the bed. Betty, who anticipated his needs, held it out.

“Oh, thank you,” he said. “Are you still up?”

“I am the bearer of water.”

“The bearer of water,” he considered her joke. “You should be the one who sleeps and gets better. You are not well.”

“Not well? Do you worry about me?”

“I worry about you more than you can ever know. But that’s my fault. You will know how much I love you. I make this my promise. I have been very stupid. It has occurred to me now. Slowly, I’ll admit. But I think…I think I have seen something. You will think it impossible.”

“My love?”

“I will show you. Yes. We didn’t do all of this for nothing. We did all of this for us.”

She thought for a moment.

She said, “My love, I will show you, too.”

*     *     *

“Ah, back again,” said Martin a day later.

“As you see.”

“It got dark early tonight.”

The beggar followed his gaze up into the black. A loose string of grey-white, a V of birds, laboured to till it.

“It’s coming. Can you feel it?” asked Martin.



“I smell snow,” the beggar replied, agreeably.

“What does it smell like? Death?”

“Snow is not a metaphor. It is a thing. Snow smells like snow. You know it or you don’t. How would I know what death smells like? Death is not a thing.”

“You live so close to it.”

“We all live close to it, and to life. What does life smell like?”

“Wedding cake. Is that what it smells like to you?”

“You mock me. Go away. You are bad for business.”

“A very rational answer. You don’t sound crazy. I don’t understand. Aren’t all street people crazy? Are you bi-polar? Schizophrenic?”

The beggar looked at him crossly and sighed. “None of those things. Although I have heard that same charge made against artists.”

“If you are not mad, why do you choose to do this?”

“To live? I did not choose the way I live, I only choose to live.”

“Why not work?”

“Listen, it is possible to fall so far from the rest of the world that you cannot get back. I fell. When I did, I destroyed my leg. Yes, I was crazy then. There is no coming back now. This is where I live. In this body. In these clothes. I will tell you no more. Consider me an abstraction, a figment of your conscience, if you have one. I do not like being spied on.”

“I, spy on you?”

“I saw you. Behind that pillar. And I have heard you other times this week. I was grateful to see that it was you, so I did not say anything. Do not embarrass the man you thought was a demon, that’s my dictum.”

“Dictum? Such language… Anyway, you are paranoid. I was being polite.”

“Why be polite?”

“An artist must be polite to his audience.”

“I am not your audience.”

“On the contrary. You are my only audience. You are the only person who is aware of my work. Whatever you see in it must therefore be right. If my art is shelter, then it is shelter. Who am I to disagree? It meant other things for me when I designed it, but your assessment of its utility is as good a reading as mine and, indeed, confirms my ideas. There is nothing new. Everything is the same as it was before it was what it is.”

“You’re not going to offer me money?”

“You don’t want it.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t want to lie. It’s not the same thing.”

“My offer tonight is to leave you alone.”


“Because I believe I have been a very bad man, and I never meant to be. Well, no one does. It is always a surprise when a man finds out bad things about himself. And I have found things out. I have been ungenerous where I should have been most kind.

“Do you know, I left St. Suzette when I was nothing? I was not even a genius, as you call me. A genius doesn’t exist until someone else says he is one, and no one said that about me. I worked in Europe where, over time, I got wise. I married a very beautiful woman. We had a nice house. Not luxurious, but nice. I saw no purpose in returning here. It was my wife’s idea. She wanted to see what egg I had hatched from. We booked a holiday, spent two weeks here and at the end of two weeks decided that this is where we would be at our best.

“For my wife it was a matter of pleasing me. I used to know that. I used to know that she was a woman capable of great sacrifice. She sacrificed leaving her family and her friends because she thought this was where I’d be happiest. And I was happy here. That surprised me, too.

“One morning at the beginning of our visit, I went for a walk by the canal. There was a particular spot I had passed by maybe a thousand times as a child and a youth. This time something struck me, a vista I had not noticed before. I understood the form of the buildings and the water in a way I had not understood them when I was young. I was struck by the extreme beauty. It wasn’t just one thing or the other. It wasn’t just architecture or countryside, but the connection between them. So many dead hands had built something that was aesthetically perfect. I have been to Rome. I have seen great buildings. There was nothing great in what I looked at. It was no Arch of Trajan—I mean, of course, the one in Benevento, not Ancona—but all of it together composed the greenest of greens. It was like a field in which humanity and nature had bloomed as one body. And I could not see it before. I had to approach this age before I had lived long enough to come in contact with the serene honesty of this vision, this beauty. It was then that I knew I belonged here.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“No, because I, alone, saw beauty. No one else stopped. I walked there every day for two weeks. I was the only one who noticed. And I knew that I had a responsibility.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“Because I saw great beauty. And how does one view great beauty? From my own experience I can tell you that it is not with feelings of joy but with a deep sense of inadequacy.”

“Sense? You make no sense.”

“But I do. And I was the keeper of that knowledge of inadequacy. I was the one who knew we were insufficient. That’s why I had to be here—to watch and to know. And now I have been troubled by another understanding, this time a vision of ugliness in myself. I have been a bad man. I see that. My wife’s mother died of a bad heart. It took a year during which I witnessed her family’s grief. I know what it means, this hunger that consumes, this anguish. I know what it means to die for someone you might better have lived for.

“My wife and I were out and I saw her collapse. She wouldn’t believe it herself, but I know how ill she is and I know my place is to care for her. I renounce my genius. I will go back to being a husband. What I love is not art. It is my wife. As an artist I am merely a beggar like you, begging for pennies of approval.”

“You are crazy. Everything you say is crazy. It is you who are bi-polar.”

*     *     *

Maybe the beggar was right.

Certainly, there were times when Martin’s life seemed under the direction of an unseen needle in a magnetic storm. That those times coincided with his creative periods was suggestive. There were nights when he would walk the city alone and on no clear course and come home late to work demonically. During one of his expeditions, the needle began to spin. No amount of alcohol would settle it. It spun for two days. Sleeping under a picnic table in the park, he became aware on the second night of another man sleeping in the bushes, a shoeless doppelganger. When he returned home, Betty took his coat and poured a bath. She asked no questions. He was humbled by the way she simply understood. He felt a debt of appreciation for her silent knowledge.

And now, on his walk home, he was teased again by inspiration. Some quality in the night seemed to speak to Martin, a form buried in the darkness that was restless to emerge. He saw a thin man, the beggar. He plucked him out of an enormous sky. He registered how the beggar clenched his fists when he staggered. More shapes crowded the fertile dark of his imagination: more beggars. He saw that his beggar was the ur-beggar by which the others would be understood. He saw judgement and quality; he imagined form, but it wanted an action to complete the analogy.

It struck him: a beggar and a genie’s lamp. Better: a beggar as a genie’s lamp. Yes, that was it. The lamp was the hard flesh imprisoning the spirit within. The heart craved but the body confined. He would find out the beggar’s name and he would name the statue after him. He arrived home chuckling.

For the second night in a row, Betty was out. He told himself, “Don’t be angry.”

He went through the kitchen in search of something to eat and discovered that she had not been home since supper. The dishes were untouched, and no food had been prepared for his evening snack. He imagined her leaving shortly after him, but where could she have gone? The possibilities were an endless affront.

“This will be your first test,” he told himself. “When she returns you will be kind. That will show her.”

All the same, he turned the lights off and waited in the dark.

*     *     *

He must have fallen asleep. He didn’t hear her return, didn’t hear the key in the lock. He wasn’t aware of her presence until she threw on the light and he awoke with a start to see her standing in front of him. She was shaking, a motion that seemed to have no epicentre but that owned her body. A deep, dark smear of blood crossed her cheek.

“What is it?” he cried.

“Oh, I have done something terrible,” she replied.

“What have you done?”

She lifted her hand to show him a butcher’s knife. It was red with blood as was the hand that held it. He saw blood on her coat. It was splashed across her chest. It ran down her arms, down her legs. He saw now that the blood on her cheek went further. It touched her forehead and nose. There was blood on her ears.

“I do not understand,” he said, blind to the image before him, unable to put it into coherence.

“I have killed him.”

There was blood on her boots and her boots bled on the floor.

“Killed whom?”

“The beggar.”

“The beggar? I don’t understand.”

“I thought I could hide the body. It was heavy and I had to be fast and he…he saw me. He will call the police. I am finished.”

“He? Who?”

“The grocer. He was there. I don’t know why he was there. He was laughing.”

For a moment, Martin imagined with horror the art of what he had created: the dead beggar’s corpse, Betty’s realizations as she stooped to roll him into the canal while looking at the cruel face of victory belonging to the grocer. All of it was frozen in his mind in a vision too large to contain. His mind had always protected him from itself, always repelled logic whenever necessary, and he viewed the scene he had authored from a safe perspective, as a metaphor, and when he did he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed for a very long time while, outside his house, cars pulled up to the curb.

 —André Narbonne


André Narbonne sailed for ten years as a marine engineer on bulk carriers, fishery patrol and hydrographic vessels, and tankers before attending university and completing a PhD in English at the University of Western Ontario. His writing won the Atlantic Writing Contest, the David Adams Richards Prize, and the FreeFall Prose Contest and was anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He is the father of Ottawa writer Aeriana Narbonne. See a chapter of Narbonne’s novel Carte Blanche here.


Apr 142014


Numéro Cinq has a thing for hybrid art, for cross-genre art, for parody and mixed form, more Menippean satire and art made out of books and in that vein we offer here encaustic paintings by the Boulder, Colorado, artist Marco Montanari along with poems by Elaine Handley from Saratoga Springs, New York. The poems and the paintings combine; the paintings inspired the poems. They are ekphrastic and hybrid. Ekphrasis is the Greek rhetorical device of inserting the description of a work of art into a text as a way of creating meaning (by analogy or parallel). Coincidentally, the standard classical example of ekphrasis is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad (also Hesiod’s description of the shield of Hercules). It’s a device with an ancient tradition, never abandoned. For example, here’s a stanza from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.”

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

And so it’s delightfully literal that Handley and Montanari have chosen warriors and shields as their central motif, adding to an ancient tradition that in this instance they have reanimated with more recent wars and warriors. Gorgeous, sad, dignified, violent images and words, given yet another twist by the poet’s particularly female point of view.



4 My Father’s Helping HandMy Father’s Helping Hand – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 21×42 inches, 2013

Out of Hand


Their fluttery needs, their choking
insistence, too powerful for words,
gestures of desire, insatiable.


The fingers more nimble than the brain,
they take flight or become nests on a lap:
their instincts all their own
to seize a pen write a poem
cradle an egg pluck a weed
brush back hair stir a cake,
slap a cheek smash a plate
tear a hole poke an eye
mend a sock button a shirt
clutch grab snatch grip
trace the boundaries of a kiss
hang dumbly from the wrists.


Like mouths they are always
hungry, and sometimes the palms
are lonely as the sky, fingers as fast
and nervous as moths.


neatly folded, quiet,
like the still wings
of a shot bird.


6 Dark Merging to light IDark Merging to Light – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 30×36 inches, 2012.


When war ends ghosts rise up
to blossom white against
the world gone black,
color like hope, bled out.

How can we stand such times
and live? What we have destroyed blinding
as bright snow. Self‐righteousness
hatching into responsibility; guilt
flies around like wild birds.

More hauntings will come from those
who were there, who ate the landscape
and try to live with its poison in their craws.

Like snow, death covers everyone,
everything with its sameness. Grief,
white breath in cold air, last words
and all expectations stilled
with your heartbeat.
But annihilation is another matter.

Can light emanate from darkest deeds
the way opposites love each other:
now we speak of the pearly cell
of peace. The arithmetic
of possibility. Its labyrinth.

War ending:
door closing or opening
darkness light,
the grayness of promise.


7 Entering a Contrary Moon IEntering a Contrary Moon – Phase I.  Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 17×25 inches, 2011.

Entering a Contrary Moon

Enter the contrary moon.
See how it tumbles,
bright scrape in the sky
turning and turning
its measured dervish way.
Its silvered light
milk we drink.
Its circles
what we are made of,
how we live.

To be contrary is to be truest
to ourselves, all clash and remedy:
harlot, saint, demon, beggar.
What you are Sunday is not
what you are Tuesday. Impulses
flick like leaves in wind;
what you see gets clouded
and then emerges
bright and clean again.

Let the moon tumble
in its wanton way
and let us live our contrary lives
confused and laughing
at how we contradict
the alchemy of light and dark,
belief and action, thinking
we confound the ellipse of life,
but we cannot, no more
than the gold stain
of moon can erase
its corona from the sky.


8 Open CircleMaiden, Mother, Matriarch of the Spiritual Warrior Woman – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 28×31 inches.

Open Circle

After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.
From “The End and The Beginning” by Wislawa Symborska

Women have done it for generations,
for centuries, in fact, throughout all time.
Quietly, they set about making repairs.
First they must solder together
what has been broken
in themselves. Hard to do
and clumsy. Sometimes they give
up and make do. Jagged fragments
float in the bloodstream,
lodging close to the skin.

Next, they have to cauterize time.
When he returns it must be as if
no one has changed, feelings have not
clotted, he is the beloved returning.
She still knows him even though
he is now a stranger.

And so they colonize; it is not
spoken of, this new life
as aliens, exiles living
in the wreckage of the familiar.

He is looking for the secret passage
from war to the present, from war to her.
She sees his shadow from the mouth
of the cave, but to look back means
losing him forever, and who
will she see him with?

It is the bottom of the morning
in their lives, scarred compatriots,
lonelier than they have ever been,
subsisting on memories and dreams
they wrote each other, what fed them before.

She has tried to tidy up, she knows things now
she didn’t know before about cost.
They have children who feel amputated
and are yet whole. They live like ghosts.
The truth is not hers to utter,
but there is no one else to say it.


9 Dismantled-to-the-Blood-MoonDismantled to the Blood Moon – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 23×27 inches, 2013.

Securing the Perimeter


Once I loved a man
who secured only
his own perimeter,
heart razor-wired shut
wandering eye on patrol.

I waited for him, hoping to dismantle
what ticked inside him
trying to navigate
the concussion of his moods,
to ignore his dereliction
of duty.

What did I know of war,
but what I tasted
on his lips?


If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t see it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t feel it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t do it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you can forget.

Maybe the war will stop some day
festering in your gut, marching
to the flat knock of your heart.


Who counts the bodies
after war is over?
How long does friendly
fire last? Who listens
to children crying in their beds
missing fathers
already home?


He wears memories like skin
so close we are heartbeats
away from the flash.


The dead should not sit at table with us;
They have their own places to be.
We might then stop feeding the children
annihilation with every meal. And no, dear, no
wine for me, the color of blood.


He lives in no woman’s land, a boundary
between dying and dying. Between the war
torn raggedness of us now and what we planned.


Were Adam and Eve this lonely?

Did they make love in the light
Of the blood moon?
Did she lie awake listening to
his breathing, patrolling the shadowlands
of his dreams?

Did Adam stalk the perimeter
of the garden while Eve watched,
brushing away the scorpions
crawling toward her
in the unforgiving sun?

—Images by Marco Montanari; Poems by Elaine Handley


Born in 1952, Marco Montanari was raised in Buffalo N.Y. His art education includes a minor in Fine Arts at Erie Community College and classes at the State University of N.Y., as well as ongoing study in sculpture, life drawing and painting throughout the years. In 1993, while living in Saratoga Springs N.Y., Marco developed a process of sculpting wax on a wood lathe and then painting the sculpted surfaces with paraffin wax. These sculptures were designed as luminaries with the painted surfaces glowing when lit. In 2000 Marco began to experiment with translating these techniques into encaustic painting. He developed his alternative to traditional encaustic and as a result has produced a distinctive body of work that has been exhibited throughout the country. In 2003 Marco and wife, Kathy Zilbermann, relocated to Boulder Colorado where he is currently working exclusively in encaustic painting.

Elaine Handley is Professor of Writing and Literature at SUNY Empire State College.  She has published poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Poetry Award, with writing partners Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle, in 2005  2006 and 2010. Their latest book of poetry Tear of the Clouds was released by Ra Press in 2011. Handley’s most recent chapbook of poetry is Letters to My Migraine and she is completing a novel, Deep River, about race relations during the Civil War.


Apr 132014

Heaney paintingCatherine Edmunds’ 2013 sketch of Seamus Heaney painted by Patrick J. Keane

Today would have been Seamus Heaney’s 75th birthday and to celebrate that celebrated absence we offer an essay by Patrick J. Keane who does what the best critics do: he goes straight to the heart of the man through the poems and thence to the poems again. In 1972, Heaney famously and controversially moved from the bloody ground of Northern Ireland to Wicklow in the Republic, abandoning outright political action and commitment for a more contemplative and poetic life. He did not make this decision easily, and out of his personal struggle came the poems in North, what Keane calls his “most powerful and controversial collection.” Keane takes us through Heaney’s discovery of the famous “bog people” and the mythic method of poetic argument, his identification with the dispossessed peoples and the people of the earth, into the complex battle between Hercules and Antaeus (whose strength was always renewed by contact with mother earth) and finally to crucial culminating poem “Exposure,” a poem that begins

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.




Had he lived, Seamus Heaney would have been 75 on April 13, 2014. For poetry lovers and, even more, for those who came to know him as a warm and generous human being, it’s hard to believe that that magnanimous presence is gone. Hard to believe, too, that it is almost 40 years since the publication of his most powerful and most controversial collection. When North appeared, in 1975, it was greeted enthusiastically by major critics as varied as Helen Vendler, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Jordan, and Christopher Ricks. But strong reservations, politically-related and having to do with Heaney’s use or alleged misuse of archeology and myth, were expressed by Ulster writers Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson, among others. The hostility of some poets and critics in Northern Ireland was influenced, or at least complicated, by the fact that Heaney had left his native province in 1972, just as the sectarian conflict was intensifying.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, killing twelve and wounding thirteen, a consensus had understandably solidified among the Catholic minority in the North. In one of their sustained interviews, conducted over a half-dozen years, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll that one of the reasons he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic was precisely to “get away from the consensus culture that had built up among us.” That culture would be reflected a few years later in the response from the North to North. “I’d left the party,” as Heaney put it to O’Driscoll, “and that complicates things for everybody, for the one who goes as well as the ones who stay. You get my side of that in the last poem of the book, ‘Exposure’.” [1]

The present essay takes its thematic and structural cue from Heaney’s specific response to a question. Asked about the “new direction” his poetry had taken after the “archeological and mythological” emphases in North, Heaney observed that such a “new direction is already being followed in North, in poems like ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ and ‘Exposure’” (SS, 162). The former, which closes Part I of North, revisits and revises “Antaeus,” the poem that had opened Part I; and the reconsiderations, or second thoughts, implicit in that revision prepare us for “Exposure,” which brings to a close the volume as a whole, including the more discursive and directly political poems of Part II. In Heaney’s canon, from the beginning through his death in August 2013, there is no more crucial text, personally and politically, than “Exposure,” not only the final poem in North, but the one poem he chose to stress—quoting it almost in full (OG, 419-20)—in “Crediting Poetry,” his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.[2]

Heaney was very conscious of “the artistic doubleness,” the “double aspect,” of North.  He continued, in the Stepping Stones interview, to say that “the Hercules poem” is, “for all its mythy content” (characteristic of Part I), expressed in “plain speech”—the language of Part II. (SS, 160, 162). Yet “Hercules and Antaeus,” a literally pivotal poem, remains “mythy.” Like “Antaeus,” the poem it echoes in order to alter, it derives, obviously, from Greek mythology. In general, however, Heaney famously drew in North on a mythology and archeology rooted in Northern Europe. In order to address the horrors unfolding in his native province in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heaney in effect played a variation on what T. S. Eliot had called, in his cogent 1923 Dial review of Ulysses, “the mythical method.” Joyce had paralleled Homer’s Odyssey with the events of his own pedestrian epic of Leopold Bloom, and so taken, said Eliot, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art,” a step toward “order and form.”

In using “myth,” Eliot went on, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce was “pursuing a method which others must pursue after him,” not as “imitators,” but as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  Eliot was keenly aware (as was Joyce himself) of his debt to Ulysses in The Waste Land. He was also aware that Yeats had reanimated Cuchulain, made his Maud Gonne a modern Helen of Troy, set his apocalyptic rough beast slouching toward an anything-but Christian rebirth in Bethlehem, and had, in his great poetic sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” juxtaposed the Persian destruction of the “ingenious lovely things” of Athenian civilization with the eruption of modern barbarism. Eliot was right to note: “It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious….Instead of a narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”[3]

In North, Heaney uses the mythical method to engage the anarchic panorama presented by the sectarian, political, and deep-rooted cultural conflict in Northern Ireland that erupted in the late sixties and continued well beyond the publication of North in 1975. Though a lapsed Catholic, Heaney continued to identify with those in his tradition, “my wronged people.” But he realized, as he says in the second half of North, in the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” that the “liberal papist note sounds hollow,” and that “the ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse” (OG, 123). Clichéd rhetoric at the journalistic level of daily reportage, or echoing (or bemoaning) the simplifications imposed by rival sectarian ideologies, was inadequate to the atrocities occurring on the ground. In a dramatic move, Heaney set the contemporary Troubles in the deep historical context provided by P. V. Glob’s text and “unforgettable photographs” in The Bog People, a book that deeply moved Heaney as a man and creatively galvanized him as a poet.


Attracted by its title, he’d bought The Bog People as a Christmas present for himself in 1969, the year the book was published. A “line was crossed,” he told O’Driscoll (SS, 157), with “The Tollund Man,” published in Wintering Out (1972), the collection immediately preceding North. When he wrote that poem’s first line, “Some day I will go to Aarhus” (OG, 62), he felt that he was in “a new field of force.” He compared Glob’s book to a gate. “The minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.” Even, he insisted, if there had been no Northern Troubles, he would still have been drawn to the stunning pictures and descriptions of the Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat. There was a hiatus, but he knew that he was not finished with The Bog People. “I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book,” he said in 2006 or so, “because it never left me. And still hasn’t” (SS, 157-58).


Heaney later wished that, in public readings, he had played down his application of the bog material to the political situation in the North. It “would have been better…for me and for everybody else if I had left [the poems] without that sort of commentary.” Above all, it “would have been better for the poems,” which had their own “biological right to life.” That was the “point and remains the point and I never had the slightest doubt about them in that regard” (SS, 159). Nevertheless, Heaney obviously saw current atrocities mirrored in the preserved bodies of those murdered Iron Age victims (the Bog Queen, Tollund Man, Grauballe Man): all part of the blood-saturated, “skull-capped ground” of the “old man-killing parishes” of the Scandinavian and Irish North; while the adulteress of “Punishment,” unearthed from a bog in Germany, was even more controversially identified by Heaney with his tribe-betraying sisters, heads shaved and “cauled in tar” for fraternizing with British soldiers in contemporary Belfast. (OG, 62, 113)

Tollund Man

As deployed in North, Heaney’s archeological-mythical method was unquestionably powerful and attention-getting. But the primary challenge remained: to concentrate on getting things right, not in deeds, but in words and images—befitting emblems of adversity that would record what happened, bear witness without exploiting the tragedy of the Troubles, and remain true to oneself. This demanding task, confronted in the bog poems and in the more immediately political poems of the “Singing School” sequence in North, culminates in “Exposure.” But the trajectory begins (once we are past the two exquisite dedicatory lyrics) with the first of the two poems centering on the mythic and symbolic combat between Antaeus and Hercules.



Some familiarity with these titular figures from Greek mythology is required to grasp what Heaney retrospectively came to regret in the case of the bog poems: the application to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. The Hercules-Antaeus conflict is also relevant to his own position at the time, which was anything but static. During the Troubles, quoting Czelaw Milosz’s Native Realm, Heaney said of himself, in his poem “Away From It All”:

I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.[4]

It was a variation on an old theme. As Henry Hart has observed, “at the root” of the work of this “poet of contrary progressions” is a “multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish [poetic] heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry.”[5]  In that dialectical context, the perennial combat embodied in the mythic wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus becomes emblematic of the dynamic between the first and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney himself, “stretched between” contemplation and the pressure to participate actively, a man of “two minds” both poetically and politically. In “Terminus” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), Heaney, graphically illustrating his double-mindedness, says he “grew up in between,” describing himself in Part 1 of the poem as suspended between past and present, between the native earth of the Derry farm of his childhood, and the machinery of the modern world:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If I listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts? (OG, 272)

Both in her 1998 book, Seamus Heaney, and in her not-yet-published 2014 obituary, Helen Vendler emphasizes these “second thoughts,” even going so far, in the book, as to have a “Second Thoughts” section as a sort of postscript or coda to each chapter. The theme of reconsideration is embodied in Heaney’s two treatments of the Hercules-Antaeus story, and their placement. Readers of Opened Ground, the poet’s own selection of verse from 1966-1996, will be misled by the Contents page, which indicates that “Antaeus” (the only poem in Opened Ground parenthetically dated) appeared in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It didn’t. Though it was written in the year that inaugural volume was published (1966), it first appeared in print in 1975 in North, immediately following “Mossbawn,” incorporating the two introductory ut pictura poeisis (Vermeer and Brueghel, respectively) poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary.

That warm domestic and pastoral preamble (OG, 93-94), twinned poems of love (“like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin”) and benign communal activity (potato seed-cutters in a Brueghel-like “frieze/ with all of us there, our anonymities”) is in striking contrast to the violent subject-matter of most of North: violence introduced by the poem that opens Part I of North, “Antaeus.” Heaney’s second poem on the struggle between the two Greek heroes, “Hercules and Antaeus,” closes Part 1. In Opened Ground, Heaney evidently wanted to put some distance between “Antaeus” and the poems he selected in 1998 to represent his work in North—understandably, since there had indeed been second thoughts. “Hercules and Antaeus,” in which the poet grudgingly recognizes the inevitable triumph of the Hercules figures of the world, not only revisits but in part reverses the 1966 poem in which he clearly identified with “Antaeus.” Before proceeding, we should pause for a backward glance at both Greek heroes.

Hercules and Antaeus

The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles (Hercules is the Latin form of the name) was intended by his father to lord it over all others. Though he became the greatest and most popular hero in Greek mythology, renowned for both brawn and brains, he had obstacles to overcome from the outset. The jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, unsuccessful in preventing Heracles’ birth, tried (Pindar tells us) to destroy him as an infant, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. Little Heracles strangled the snakes instead. Hera later contrived to have the destiny Zeus intended for his son conferred instead on the king of Argos, Eurystheus, to whom Heracles would eventually become subject, forced (as punishment for the murder of his wife and children during a Hera-inflicted fit of madness) to perform the famous Twelve Labors.[6] In Book 11 of the Odyssey, the ghost of Heracles tells Homer’s hero of his suffering: “Son of Zeus that I was, my torments never ended,/ forced to slave for a man not half the man I was:/ he saddled me with the worst heartbreaking labors.” Those labors included, among others, killing the Nemean Lion, cleansing the Augean stables, and (the task he specifically mentions to Odysseus), retrieving the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades; “no harder task for me, he thought,/ but I dragged the great beast up from the underworld to earth.”[7]

Prior to hauling Cerberus up from Hell, Heracles had been tasked by Eurystheus to find and bring to him the golden apples originally given (by Ge, mother of Antaeus) to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus. The apples were secreted in the distant Garden of the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, where they grew from a Tree guarded not only by these three singing nymphs, but by the hundred-eyed serpent Ladon, coiled protectively about the trunk. In the most prominent variation on the legend, Heracles, wandering about seeking advice on the location of the Garden, encounters Prometheus, chained to the rock in the Caucasus, waiting by night for the eagle that returned daily to feed on his liver. When Heracles shoots and kills the eagle with his bow, a grateful Prometheus advises his savior to enlist his brother Atlas, who knows the location of the Garden. Atlas was also being punished by Zeus, condemned to support the sky on his back forever in order to keep heaven and earth apart. When he finally finds cloud-mantled Atlas, Heracles asks for his help in getting the apples. The Titan agrees, providing that Heracles, in exchange, will shoulder his burden. Heracles agrees. But when Atlas returns with the apples, clever Heracles tricks him into resuming his burden and departs with his prize.

In his long and meandering journey to the remote Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles, in addition to helping Prometheus, engaged and conquered two dangerous enemies in Northern Africa: the king of Egypt, Busiris, and the less tyrannical but even more formidable king of Libya. This was the invincible wrestler, the giant Antaeus, son of the Earth-goddess Ge and the sea-god Poseidon. Antaeus was always victorious in his matches because, when he was thrown to the ground, the Earth, his mother, renewed his strength. In their famous match, Heracles, unaware at first of that special relationship, started by wrestling Antaeus in the normal way. But, smart as he was powerful, he quickly realized what was going on. Lifting the giant up, Heracles held Antaeus aloft in the air, weakened him, and slowly crushed him to death with his bare hands. In his two poems on the subject, double-minded Seamus Heaney identifies in the first with with the earthy Antaeus, then, reluctantly, acknowledges the power and intelligence of Hercules.



The 1966 “Antaeus” begins with a probable echo (one among several, to which I’ll return) of Heaney’s predecessor and fellow Irishman and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats. Heaney would seem to have in mind as well lines from Robert Frost—his “favorite poet,” he later confided to a surprised Helen Vendler. In the two concluding quatrains of “To Earthward” (1923), Frost yearns for an Antaeus-like relationship with the earth, a joyous contact so intense as to include pain and tears, “the aftermark/ Of almost too much love.”

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. [8]

And here are the opening lines of Heaney’s gravitational poem, also written in quatrains:

           When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning,
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
………..To rub myself with sand

           That is operative
As an elixir.

Antaeus’ earth-connection is chthonic and natal. “I cannot be weaned/ Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins,/ Down here in my cave,” he says. “Girdered with root and rock/ I am cradled in the dark that wombed me,/ And nurtured in every artery.” The final two quatrains introduce Heracles—supposedly just one of many challengers (“Let each new hero come…”), but identified by the references to the golden apples, to Atlas, and to the fatal wrestling match:

           Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas.
He must wrestle with me before he pass
………..Into that realm of fame

           Among the sky-born and royal:
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
………..My elevation, my fall.  (OG, 15)

It is hard to gauge the tone (pride, bravado, fear, petition?) in the punning and paradoxical final lines, in which Antaeus envisages and yet resists Heracles’ victorious strategy in the received myth. Let my opponent “not plan,” says Antaeus, even in elevating me off the earth, “my fall.”

Renewal in descent is a Yeatsian theme as well. In his late, summing-up poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the “foul” heart in which the ladderless Yeats at last “must lie down” is the fecund source of the artist’s creativity, enabling him to be, as Heaney’s Antaeus puts it, “nurtured in every artery.” But the closer Yeatsian parallel to Heaney’s “Antaeus” occurs in a related summing-up poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (also written in 1938). Yeats had identified (in the Preface to A Vision) with another Greek hero, terrestrial Oedipus, who “descended into an earth riven by love,” rather than with celestial Christ, who ascended into the abstract heaven. (Yeats is recalling his “translation” of the Messenger’s speech in Oedipus at Colonus; Heaney has described as one of “the things I’ve done with most relish,” his own version of the Messenger’s account of Oedipus disappearing, “assumed into earth rather than into heaven” [SS, 472]). In the Municipal Gallery poem, Yeats, asserting the gravitational pull of his art and cultural nationality alike, alludes directly to the Antaeus myth, applying it to himself and his principal Abbey-Theatre co-workers. Along with that earthy aristocrat and collector of Irish folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory, and “that rooted man” John Millington Synge, Yeats thought

All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.[9]

Early Heaney would agree. Like Antaeus, son of Mother Earth, the poet of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) seemed an instinctual and earth-centered child of the natal soil. In an essay published in 1980, five years after North, he, too, like Yeats, described Synge as one who, Antaeus-like grew strong, having discovered in his experience on the Aran Islands a tangible “power-point.” Like Heaney himself in his archeological digging into the remote pre-Christian past in North, Synge, “grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, …had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon—all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances.”[10]



But, however bedeviling and abstract, those antithetical forces could not be ignored or wholly transcended, and Heaney’s proclivity toward “second thoughts” would not allow him to rest with a too-easy “salvation” in the form of empathetic alliance with one side of the agon. As his cherished Robert Frost acknowledged, “I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all my life.”[11]At the time he wrote that, in a 1915 letter, Frost was just five years older than the author of North. Though Heaney was similarly torn, Antaeus—his alter ego in the 1966 poem—was, for all his myth-defying insistence or petition, still a defeated figure. When he takes up the theme again, in the wake of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland beginning with Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Heaney concedes in advance the defeat of Antaeus at the hands, and head, of Heracles, a figure of superior strength and “intelligence.”

In the earlier poem, Antaeus had boasted that the challenger must wrestle with him before he could “pass/ Into that realm of fame//Among sky-born and royal.” That successful passage is acknowledged (repeating the very phrase) at the outset of the new poem—which is written in the third person and whose opening lines go on to allude to Heracles’ feats: from the precocious choking of the snakes sent to strangle him in his cradle, through his ingenious cleansing of the accumulated cattle-dung in the Augean stables, and his successful quest for the golden apples, culminating in his apotheosis, laden with earned prizes:

Sky-born and royal,
Snake-choker, dung heaver,
His mind big with golden apples,
his future hung with trophies,

Hercules has the measure
of resistance and black powers
feeding off the territory.

The forces of resistance whose “measure” has been taken—doubly “grasped”—by intelligent Hercules, a violent light-bringer, are primordial, instinctual “black powers/ feeding” off the nurturing soil, the native “territory.” Antaeus himself is introduced as “the mould-hugger.” In the earlier poem he had claimed, “I cannot be weaned off” the earth and its “cradling dark.” Now he is described as “weaned at last” from his Mother-Earth. In the past,

a fall was a renewal
but now he is raised up—
the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,
a blue prong graiping him
out of his element
into a dream of loss

and origins—the cradling dark,
the river-veins, the secret gullies
of his strength
the hatching grounds

of cave and souterrain,
he has bequeathed it all
to elegists. Balor will die,
and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

“Light”—masculine and intellectual—defeats the cradling “dark” that had, in the earlier poem, “wombed” and “nurtured” Antaeus. Now the intelligent but phallic and brutal “spur” and “prong” of Hercules has succeeded in “graiping” (an obscure but forceful Scots verb for lifting, perhaps derived from William Dunbar) Antaeus “out of his element” into a dream of “loss” and nostalgia for his chthonic “origins” in the mothering soil: the hidden river-veins, gullies, caves and underground networks that once nourished his strength, and over which Heaney lingers.

Heaney’s lingering identification with Antaeus and the poetic, cultural, and nationalist dimension of this poem are confirmed by a 1979 interview, in which he recalled a conversation with a “fine” British poet, but one with a “kind of Presbyterian light” about him, “essentially different from the kind of poet I am.” The “image” that came into Heaney’s mind after the conversation “was of me being a dark soil and him being a kind of bright-pronged fork that was digging it up and going through it.” In “Hercules and Antaeus,” he continued, “Hercules represents the possibility of the play of intelligence,” resembling the “satisfaction you get from Borges,” so “different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure.” Such thinking, he says, “led into the poetry of the second half of North, which was an attempt at some kind of declarative voice.” In that voice, the victory of the trophy-laden conqueror, his “light” too Protestant and “Anglo” for Heaney to ever endorse, is registered, but with reluctance.[12]

Forcefully severed from contact with the dark soil that is the source of his strength, Antaeus must lose, bequeathing his legacy to “elegists” lamenting the death of other indigenous fighters defeated and dispossessed by invaders. Heaney singles out mythic and historical losers, united by fate and alliteration: the one-eyed Irish god-king Balor, killed by the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary invaders of Ireland; the Anglo-Saxon earl Byrthnoth, slain by Vikings in the massacre of his forces at the Battle of Maldon (991); and the chief of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, victor at Little Big Horn in 1876, but shot and killed by Indian police when, a decade and a half later, his followers tried to rescue him from reservation captivity. Transatlantic, but emblematic of all the native peoples overwhelmed in the inexorable advance of whites colonizing the American continent, Sitting Bull belongs in this trinity of the dispossessed and defeated—principal among whom are Heaney’s own “wronged people,” driven out or subjugated by the English invaders and planters, and still subject to violence and discrimination.

The final two stanzas present the victor in an iconic pose (archaic, but repeated from Churchill to “Rocky”), along with the transformation of the defeated into the topography and mythology of resurrection so often resorted to by the vanquished: arrogant “Hercules lifts his arms/ In a remorseless V,” his “triumph unassailed/ By the powers he has shaken,”

And lifts and banks Antaeus
High as a profiled ridge,
A sleeping giant,
Pap for the dispossessed.  (OG, 121-22)

The defeated Antaeus is lifted, crushed to death, and banked, his profiled corpse becoming part of the ridged landscape. In both Native American (Ojibway) and Celtic mythology and popular legend, a Sleeping Giant will one day awaken to lead his defeated and disinherited people to triumph. This desperate cultural-political wish-fulfillment, applied to his own tribe in Northern Ireland, is spurned by Heaney, brutally and caustically, as “Pap for the dispossessed”: the sentimental mythology of false hope that simultaneously sustains and deludes an uprooted and oppressed people. Later, in Station Island, the ghost of James Joyce himself will advise Heaney to stop “raking at dead fires” and “rehearsing the old whinges at your age./ That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,/ infantile” (OG, 245).  Though Heaney is not dismissing the reality either of oppression or of the need to rectify injustice, he is harshly critical of what Neil Corcoran succinctly describes as a subject people’s “hopeful but puerile” mythology. Yeats, too, in Celtic fin-de-siècle poems like “The Secret Rose” and “The Valley of the Black Pig, and, more obliquely in “The Second Coming,” had reminded us that oppressed people always dream apocalyptic dreams of deliverance, of what the distinguished Quaker philosopher Rufus M. Jones has memorably called “the fierce comfort of a relief expedition from the skies.”[13]

In that climactic line, “Pap for the dispossessed,” Heaney, conceding victory to Hercules, refuses to dwell on either the nostalgic “dream of loss/ and origins,” or the apocalyptic pipedream of the projected awakening of a “sleeping giant.” In Greek myth, Heracles will himself eventually be defeated, poisoned by the toxic shirt of the centaur Nessus. Though that dark future offers no comfort in this poem, it is also true that the combat between what is antithetically represented by Heaney’s Hercules and Antaeus (a spur of light/earthy darkness, “male” reason/ “female” instinct, victory/defeat) is itself a transitional phase, a “stepping stone” in a larger and more complex dialectic, both poetic and political. The forces symbolized in “Hercules and Antaeus” will wrestle again, and on a far more nuanced level, in the culminating poem in North, “Exposure.” By “bidding farewell to the chthonic elegiac myth of Antaeus, by finding something to praise in the ‘spur of light’ in ‘the challenger’s intelligence,’ Heaney,” writes Helen Vendler, “opened himself to the more authentic—if more dubious and shifting—figures animating “Exposure”—figures of exile, of flight, of sequestration and, above all, of second thoughts, ‘weighing and weighing,’ as he says, ‘my responsible tristia’.”[14]



Seamus Heaney began his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, just as he had begun “Terminus” eight years earlier, by presenting himself as having grown up “in between”; “in suspension,” he says in the speech, “between the archaic and the modern.” His life as a “pre-reflective” child safely insulated from the outside world in a crowded traditional thatched farmstead was “an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled” with other sounds—“rain in the trees,…a steam train rumbling along a railway line one field back from the house.” This was during World War II, and so, conveyed by the wind-stirred wire leading from atop a chestnut tree to the family radio, the sounds included the voice of a BBC newsreader announcing in “resonant English tones…the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions,” and intoning as well “those other solemn and oddly bracing words, ‘the enemy’ and ‘the allies’.” (OG, 416)

That child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to sounds of the pastoral and modern worlds was “already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament”: a future involving the conflict between the Provisional IRA, British troops, and loyalist paramilitaries during the renewed Troubles, centered in Northern Ireland but radiating out to bombings in Dublin and London. A no-longer “pre-reflective” child, Heaney was now an adult who would, as he told his audience in Stockholm, have to “adjudicate” among “promptings” that were

variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, quite impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen-seventies in another small house, this time in County Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home…feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweet-natured school friend had been interned because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. (OG, 418)

In August 1972, the year that had begun with the second Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers killed and wounded the Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Heaney resigned his teaching post at Queens University in Belfast, moving with his wife and two young sons to Wicklow in the Republic. It was, he has acknowledged, the “most intense phase” of his life, “and not just of the writing life.” Referring to his family as well as himself, he told O’Driscoll, “we were at a turning point,…exposed and ready in a new way.” He had “no more alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children” to their new school “and the headmaster wrote ‘file’ [poet] in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent.’ No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’” (SS, 156).  They settled in “Glanmore,” a cottage (formerly the gatekeeper’s on the Synge estate) rented to them by their friend, the Synge scholar Anne Saddlemeyer. As noted earlier, the decision, much commented on in the media, was criticized by some Northern Catholics, including fellow writers, who felt that the poet best equipped to be an engaged spokesman for “their side” had abandoned them. In these circumstances, says Heaney in the Nobel Prize speech, what “I was longing for was…a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” It was then, he says (OG, 419), that “I wrote a poem called ‘Exposure’.”

Aside from “Punishment,” in which he accuses himself of complicity and passivity in the tribal vengeance exacted against his “sisters” brutally punished for fraternizing with British soldiers, “Exposure,” the sixth and final poem in the sequence “Singing School” in North, is the most controversial poem in Heaney’s most controversial and powerful collection. Epitomizing the rival claims of the private and public voice, of art and action, of poetry and political engagement, “Exposure” traces several “exposings.” The first is to the natural elements in a rural environment. The poem, written, like “Hercules and Antaeus,” in unrhymed quatrains, begins:

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

In this damp, darkening, low-wicked end of the year, there were other cold looks. The second “exposing” was to the unaccustomed criticism already mentioned, both private and in terms of the media publicity occasioned by the decision to move to the Republic. The poet is critical himself—at least, as in the case of Horatio on the battlements in Hamlet, “a part of him.” In an image that will recur in the poem’s final line, he refers to the opportunity to possibly make a difference at home as “A comet that was lost,” and should at least

                             be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

Instead of a wrestling Antaeus, we have a stone-slinging potential Cuchulain or David defending his people against physically superior (Goliath-like) strength. Heaney’s “gift,” though weapon-like, would be (as in his canon-opening poem, “Digging”) that “pen” mightier than sword or gun (or slingshot). But the “desperate” here are the same “dispossessed” battening on “pap” in “Hercules and Antaeus.” In any case, it is all a fantasy. The million-tonned luminous comet is already “lost,” its glimmering roseate track not even “visible at sunset”; the lesser “falling star” is glimpsed only “sometimes”; and the recluse self-exiled in the Wicklow woods is, in this declension, reduced to hoping for the diminished excitement of coming upon “meteorite.”

Walking through “damp leaves,” the husks of an “autumn” as “spent” as the meteorite, and merely “imagining” himself a potentially salvific “hero,” Heaney sounds remarkably like the middle-aged Yeats of The Wild Swans at Coole, shuffling among the littering autumnal leaves and burning “damp faggots” while, in contrast, a man of action—Irish Airman Robert Gregory, driven by a lethal and “lonely impulse” to hurl himself into combat—“may consume/ The entire combustible world” in the “flare” of a single courageous if reckless decision. Like Heaney, who presents himself in this poem “weighing and weighing” options, Yeats’s Airman claims to have “balanced all, brought all to mind.”  But the fighter-pilot impulsively leaps into his “tumult in the clouds,” while Heaney and Yeats “sit,” or walk through “damp leaves.” And yet one senses, at the deepest level, that for both poets, however they may momentarily envy and even glorify it, the role of the combustible “hero” is, in the final weighing, just more infantile pap.[15]

In the next two stanzas, the media exposure attending Heaney’s controversial move to the seclusion and safety of the Republic is made more intimate by the many-faceted “counseling” of friends  (whether well-intentioned or the equivalent of Job’s comforters) and the more blunt hatred of ideological enemies, whose “anvil brains” generate more heat than sparks of light:

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind backs?

The Latin word signals a double-echo: an allusion to another internal émigré, Osip Mandelstam in the Stalinist Soviet Union, whose poems in exile, titled Tristia, in turn echoed the Tristia of Ovid, exiled by Augustus from Rome. But “for what,” Heaney asks himself, does he sit weighing and weighing incompatible responsibilities? He momentarily casts doubt even on the claims of poetry, in terms both of its adequacy in the face of the atrocities in the North and in purely aesthetic terms: the artistic labor required to create sounds to please a discerning “ear.” Feeling, as he said in the Nobel Prize speech, “challenged yet steadfast,” he implicitly resists as well civic responsibility in the form of politically engaged labor on behalf of “the people,” and spurns, though acutely sensitive to it, the sniping of those who talk behind one’s back.

But there remains self-criticism and the final and most important “exposure”: the revelation of his own deeply-conflicted feelings and thoughts. He hears, in the symbolic utterance of the rain through the alders (the familiar rain-in-the-trees image with which the poem had opened), self-accusation and a nagging fear—since each raindrop recalls the “diamond absolutes” beyond endless weighing of alternatives—that he may be a less-than-noble escapist whose quietist quest has caused him to dodge the violence and miss a momentous chance:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.  (OG, 135-36)



“Exposure,” in which Heaney puts extraordinary pressure on himself, is an intimate self-examination and meditation on what Robert Frost famously called “the road not taken.” But against the vacillation and conflicted thoughts that led him both to self-protectively escape “the massacre” and to miss the not-taken and once-only opportunity to stay in the North and perhaps even make a difference politically, we have to weigh, as Heaney may well have, not only the nuanced subtext of sedentary Yeats’s ostensibly unflattering contrast of himself to heroic Robert Gregory, but the older poet’s insistence, in “The Second Coming,” that it is the “best” who lack conviction, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (YP, 235). In addition, though they give off but “meagre heat” compared to the comet’s “million tons of light,” the “sparks” to which Heaney refers in the final stanza are poetic sparks.

According to Heaney in a 1997 interview with fellow poet Henri Cole, what he was asking, with “anxiety,” in “Exposure” was: “what am I doing striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?”[16] But those little sparks were still inspired sparks, blown by the “wind” Heaney  feels as a “wood-kerne” hidden and camouflaged—like the Irish soldiers Spenser had described in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)—by protective bole and bark, the autumnal woods surrounding Glanmore Cottage. To my ear, “these sparks” evoke Shelley’s final petition to that “breath of autumn’s being” in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In the end, Heaney, neither informer nor internee, confirms (though not without misgivings) his decision to become an internal émigré and noncombatant. In moving to Glanmore Cottage, a secluded retreat and place of writing he came to love and eventually to purchase, Heaney committed himself full-time to poetry, recognizing—as had Wordsworth, in an earlier time of political “catastrophe” and with the support of his sister Dorothy—his “true self” as “Poet,” file. In the third of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979), Heaney starts to compare himself and his wife to “William and Dorothy,” only to be interrupted by Marie (OG, 158)—who may, however, have played a role not unlike that of Dorothy. Asked by Helen Vendler about separations and other difficulties, Marie insisted that “all I want is for Seamus to be able to write his poems.” That was what mattered as well to Dorothy, that “belovéd woman” and “companion” who had, in a time of political and emotional turmoil, Wordsworth insisted,

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self…preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.[17]

But “poetry,” as Auden famously insisted in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Even (OG, 102, 103) lying “down/ in the word-horde” and “jumping in graves” (as Heaney, a self-mocking “Hamlet the Dane” does in the “skull-capped ground” of North) cannot effect political change any more than the imaginative “flames” of Yeats’s “Byzantium” (YP, 298) can “singe a sleeve” in the material world.  As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” [18] Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light.

As man and poet, Heaney had to acknowledge the passionate intensity and terrible beauty of that climactic comet’s “pulsing rose.” But there is an implicit caveat in that very image, a reservation taking the form of repetition and rondure. For this final image in the final poem of North—the “comet’s pulsing rose”—not only echoes the absent afterglow of the comet’s tail,  imagined resembling the fruit of the rose, the ripe seed-receptacles that remain after the petals have been removed (“Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips”); it also curves back to “Antaeus,” the opening (post-Dedication) poem in the volume, and to what proved to be the earth-renewed wrestler’s over-confident and punning assertion: “When I die on the ground,/ I rise flushed as a rose.” The internal “rose”-echo is obvious, and I take the oblique allusion to “Antaeus” also to be deliberate, an echo adding to the undermining of the pulsing comet’s combustible political force.

For in the trajectory of North, atavistic Antaeus had been forced to yield. Not, finally, to the strength and spurred light of hubristic Hercules, but to the responsibility-weighing tristia and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney, acting in his true office upon earth: that of Poet. A poet may make, as Heaney often has, public statements; but a poet’s resistance to pressure to become overtly “committed” is usually accompanied, as in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge (disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution), by a belief that the authentic agent of change is not political activism but the creative imagination, with its implicit assertion of the essential autonomy of poetry. This is a claim certain, in a time of troubles, to frustrate readers who want their poets to “engage” rather than fiddle. And yet we find, at the end of “Exposure,” a poet, or file, scattering, not the spent ashes of partisan politics and sectarian hatred, but those vestigial yet undying “sparks”—his inspired words—among us all. Seamus Heaney’s four decades of creativity following North, defending and reaffirming the central value of poetry, have amply vindicated the pivotal decision publicly wrestled over in “Exposure.”

— Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

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






Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 159-60. (Henceforth cited parenthetically as SS).
  2. “Crediting Poetry,” in Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 415-30. Opened Ground is cited parenthetically throughout as OG.
  3. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial 75 (November 1923); cited from Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175-78 (177).
  4. Station Island (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 17.
  5. Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992), 2.
  6. Among his many heroic exploits, Heracles led the Theban army to victory in battle, and was rewarded by the king, Creon—the tyrant who has rebellious Antigone buried alive (Heaney would later publish a version of Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone under the title The Burial at Thebes). In gratitude, Creon gave Heracles in marriage his daughter Megara, with whom he had three children. When he regained his senses after killing his family, Heracles was commanded by the priestess of Apollo to obey Eurystheus, who assigned him the Twelve Labors (athloi: contests undertaken for a prize).
  7. Homer: The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (NY: Viking, 1996), 269-70. Book 11: 621-24.
  8. The Poetry of Robert Frost (NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 227.
  9. W. B. Yeats: The Poems [henceforth, YP], ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 367-68, and  395, for “The Circus Animal’ Desertion”);   A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962 [1937]), 27-28.
  10. Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on the Irish Literary Revival,” in Irish Studies 1, ed. P. J. Drudy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1-20 (9).
  11. The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1 (of a projected 3), 1886-1920, ed. Robert Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013).
  12. John Haffendon, “Meeting Seamus Heaney,” reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. (London, 1981), 57-75. My colleague David Lloyd rightly insists that Hercules is “too Angloish for Heaney to get too near.”
  13. Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986), 100. Jones, The Eternal Gospel (NY: Macmillan, 1938), 5. For the Yeats poems, see YP, 87, 83, 235.
  14. Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 89-90.
  15. Ostensibly pure hero worship, both “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (YP, 181-85) hint at subversive caveats.
  16. Cole, “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry No. 75.” The Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997).
  17. For Marie’s comment, see Vendler, “Seamus Justin Heaney 13 April 1939-30 August 2013” (2014), p. 2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XI. 340-47. In North, in the sequence “Singing School” (its title taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), Wordsworth figures as well as Yeats.
  18. Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 107-8. “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.” Though not politically “instrumental,” it functions “as pure concentration.
Apr 112014

john lee portrait

In poetry, the local is the universal. As William Blake wrote:  “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” John B. Lee is an old friend, published many times in Numéro Cinq, who lives in Port Dover, Ontario, just down the road from the farm where I grew up. We both have a special affection for Norfolk County, to me, always both local and an epic ground, filtered with blood of ancestors (see my anthology of Norfolk County history “A Geography of the Soul“). And in these poems, he remembers a relative of his, Ida Wright, born in Waterford, the farming town, where I went to high school. Ida went to China as a missionary — the rest I will let John tell. But notice, yes, how these poems rise by degrees to compass all life (and beyond), from a southwestern Ontario schoolroom to eternity.

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

We have also translations of the poems into Spanish (we’ve done this before as well), courtesy of John B. Lee’s Cuban friend and colleague Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon.


The poems in this document are taken from a manuscript in progress called Into a Land of Strangers. The central figure in the poems is my great-aunt Ida Wight née Emerick, born in Waterford, Ontario, and raised by her father and mother in Bothwell, Ontario. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Highgate, she joined the Mission to China and she became a missionary in China in the late 1800’s where she married a fellow missionary. Widowed during the Boxer Rebellion, she and her baby daughter fled on foot along with other westerners, surviving by eating boiled cotton and shoe leather. She spent two years in Canada before returning to China where she became superintendent of missionary schools. During the Second World War, she fled  to Hong Kong where she was eventually placed in an internment camp by the Japanese. Liberated by the Americans in late 1944, she traveled to Durban, South Africa, where she remained until her death on January 1, 1952. Her grandchildren were also interned in a camp for the duration of the war. The book Into a Land of Strangers tells the story of three generations of the Emerick family beginning with the German-American late-come Loyalist Francis Emerick who served on the Canadian side in the Lincoln militia during the War of 1812 after which he farmed a farm in what is now Middlesex County in southern Ontario. 

—John B. Lee


A Person on Business from Porlock

There is an imam
mosqued in the empire of the west
who preaches
that the greatest sin
in the land of the golden mountain
is the American lawn
even the burning earth
of south Texas, even there
on the torpid border of old Spain
that stolen-water-green thing thrives
with a great thickening
of wide-bladed
low-growth St. Augustine grass
even there
in the blue boil
of the unusable summer pools
of suburbia
in that necessary evaporate cool
all along the arroyos
the dry brown rivers
of parched clay
thirsty mud cracking open
like oil on old canvas
in the brilliant mirror of an unreflecting sky
the monolithic malady of modern paradise
insists itself
between the dream houses
of every middleclass mind

if one thinks of Cathay
and the Khan’s palace
in the city of Chandu
where mare’s milk spills
like moonlight on marble
and light falls in chords through cracks
like strands of silk that brace the bamboo palace
where leopards slip the saddle
in let-loose leaps
and the jessed hawks fly
over the claw shade of a shadow-measured wall

as I think now
of my own neighbour
mowing his yard for
the fourth time today

or as it was
with the woman next door
who plucked cut blades
one by one
from the sweet fragrance
of her wet-sock work with a similar care
one might use to pull stray thread
from a new garment

and I also recall
the mad lady nursing lost leaves
at midnight
in the candle-glow under star-dark heaven
when the world is otherwise laudanum black

and behind the forehead
like stones in a deep stream
something sleeps
turning green


Una persona de Porlock en negocios

Hay un imam
en una mezquita del imperio del oeste
que predica
que el pecado más grande
en la tierra de la montaña áurea
es el césped estadounidense
incluso la tierra ardiente
del sur de Texas, incluso allí
en la frontera letárgica de la vieja España
esa cosa verde del agua robada prospera
con un gran espesamiento
yerba de San Agustín
de anchas hojas
incluso allí
en el corral azul
de inservibles piscinas de verano
de los suburbios
en ese fresco necesario que se evapora
a lo largo de los arroyos
los secos ríos pardos
de árido barro
fango sediento que se resquebraja
como el óleo en el lienzo viejo
en el espejo brillante de un cielo sin reflejos
el mal monolítico del paraíso moderno
entre las casas de sueños
de cada mente de clase media

si uno piensa en Catay
y el palacio del Kan
en la ciudad de Chandu
donde la leche de yegua chorrea
como luz de luna sobre el mármol
y la luz cae en acordes a través de las grietas
como hebras de seda que apuntalan el palacio de bambú
donde los leopardos se deslizan de la montura
en saltos sueltos
y los halcones encorreados vuelan
sobre la penumbra desgarrada de una pared medida por su sombra

mientras pienso ahora
en mi propio vecino
cortando el césped de su patio por
cuarta vez hoy

o como fue
con la mujer de la casa de al lado
que recogió las briznas cortadas
una a una
desde la fragancia dulce
de su trabajo de medias mojadas con cuidado similar
al que pondríamos para sacar hilos extraviados
de una nueva prenda de vestir

y también recuerdo
la señora loca cuidando hojas perdidas
a medianoche
al fulgor de una vela bajo un cielo oscuro de estrellas
cuando el mundo está por otra parte negro como el láudano

y detrás de la frente
como piedras en una corriente profunda
algo duerme
tornándose verde


The Superintendent

looking at the comfortable room
in the luxurious home
she had built for herself
in the orient
my cousin said
of our late aunt
posing like widowed gentry
lolling amongst her precious things
“I thought missionaries
were supposed to be poor …”
her silk pillows
gilt upholsteries, silver
tea service, fine cloth
painted vase, and
dress, the tats
and flounces—doyen
of the wealthy classes
mistress of a private school
privy to
the Sino-Victoriana
of a distant land that changed the mind
like the slow conversion of green
in slanting shade
where everything greys
in the lonesome lamentation of a solitary light
growing older
in a homeland no longer home
in the piano parlour silence
with that deep-toned quiet
of untouched ivory, each key
yellow as a smoker’s tooth

who does not fear
or loathe to hear
the superintendent of schools
with her disapproving
and ultra-grammatical
crepitation, clearing her throat
with a phlegmy “ahem”
from the back of the room
her spine as stiff as a pointer
she strides
her heels cracking the floor
as she seizes the chalk of the day
and with white streak

is it a sin or is it a dream of sin
to see through the third eye
how the children tremble
shading their work
for a smudge of errors
the grand failures
we feel
in the pedagogical squint
of the once-a-term stranger
in a classroom smelling of spilled ink
and the bass notes of old plasticine
fragrant in bent fingers
and multi-coloured snakes of clay
rolled flat on the modeling board
one name carved deep
in the cave of every desk

for we are the bullied, the shy
the wild, the plump
the brilliant, the lost
the bratty, the eager-to-please
the quiet, the pimpled
the unclean, the poor
the criminal, the crippled, the maimed
the doomed-to-die young
the bad seed, the sniffling, sniveling
easy-to-hate tattle tale
the pampered
the beaten, the bewildered
the too-stupid-for words
learning one lesson in a tall cone-shaped hat
under tousled hair

and one in the tasseled

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine


La superintendente

mirando el aposento confortable
en la casa lujosa
que ella construyó para sí
en el oriente
mi primo dijo
de nuestra tía difunta
posando como viuda aristocrática
reclinada entre sus objetos preciosos

“creía que los misioneros
se suponía que fueran pobres…”

sus almohadas de seda
dorada tapicerías acolchadas, servicio de
té de plata, finas ropas
jarrones pintados, y
vestido abotonado hasta arriba
con corpiño
ajustado, los encajes
y cenefas—decana
de clases acaudaladas
maestra de una escuela privada
consejera en
la Sino-Victoriana
de una tierra distante que cambió la mente
como una lenta conversión del verde
en matices sesgados
en los que todo se torna gris
en la triste lamentación de la luz solitaria

en una patria que ya no es hogar
en el silencio del salón del piano
con ese silencioso tono profundo
de marfil intacto, cada tecla
amarilla como los dientes de un fumador

que no teme
o detesta escuchar
la superintendente de escuelas
con su traqueteo reprobador
y ultra-gramatical,
aclarándose la garganta
con flema “ejem”
desde el fondo del cuarto
su espalda tan tiesa como un puntero
camina a grandes pasos
sus talones golpeteando el suelo
mientras toma la tiza del día
y con un trazo blanco

es este un pecado o el sueño de un pecado
ver a través del tercer ojo
como los niños tiemblan
sombreando sus trabajos
por un borrón de errores
los grandes fallos
que sentimos 
en la bizquera pedagógica
del extraño de una vez un trimestre
en un aula que huele a tinta derramada
y las notas bajas de la plastilina vieja
fragante en los dedos doblados
y las serpientes de barro multicolores
enrolladas y aplastadas en la tabla de modelar
un nombre gravado profundamente
en la caverna de cada pupitre

porque somos los intimidados, los tímidos
los salvajes, los regordetes
los brillantes, los extraviados
los niños malos, difíciles de complacer
los callados, los espinillosos
los sucios, los pobres
los criminales, los lisiados, los mutilados
los condenados a morir jóvenes
la mala semilla, los que se sorben los mocos, los llorones
fáciles de odiar parloteadores
los consentidos
los golpeados, los atolondrados
los demasiado estúpidos para las palabras

aprendiendo una lección en un sombrero de alta copa
bajo el pelo desgreñado

y uno en el birrete
adornado con borlitas

todos compartimos nuestra naturaleza con los muertos
un nombre gravado hondo en la caverna
de los pupitres vacíos es tuyo
y un nombre allí es mío


The Impossible Black Tulip

“The men of old see not the moon
of today; yet the moon of today
is the moon that shone on them.”
……………………—Chinese proverb

I wonder, Ida
when you joined the mission bound for China
did you know the name
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest
from Italy
the man the Chinese still call
“the scholar from the west”
a sixteenth century Catholic polymath
wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk
impressing the mandarins
of the Ming
mastering the culture and
language of the middle kingdom
and then, mapping the world beyond the world
tracing coastlines on the impossible black tulip
of cartography wherever Magellan sailed
and Columbus lost his way
where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French
the English, the Dutch
went warring for land
and the madness of gold
and the minds
of the savage
and the bodies of slaves
the rivalries of red-haired kings
and red-robed churches
barbarians and buccaneers uncouth humans
in the era of inquisition
after Copernicus spun the globe
and Galileo gave heaven away for fear of burning alive
and there the new lands were named
even the home of your birth Jiānádá
first named and thereby known
by the learned classes
who opened their eyes to the west
and the faith of the west
inscribed with the allegory of the Holy Land
and he, the first westerner
to enter into
the Forbidden City
died a failure to evangelize
though he built a cathedral
in the capital
and still, long after
the gunboats have fallen silent
and the opium wars
have burned away
and the Boxers razed
your home and murdered your kind, and the Japanese
imprisoned you and your children
for the sins of empire—his name
lives on
in reverence—
like Li Po’s drowning moon
held loose
and glowing in the drunkard’s palm
of a midnight pond
the one we might see
if we dare to dream
of a darkness yet to come


El tulipán negro imposible

“Los hombres de la antigüedad no ven la luna
de hoy; sin embargo la luna de hoy
es la luna que brilló sobre ellos.”
…………………………………….—Proverbio chino

Me pregunto, Ida
cuando te uniste a la misión destinada a China
si sabías el nombre
Matteo Ricci, el sacerdote jesuita
de Italia
el hombre que los chinos aún llaman
“el sabio del oeste”
un erudito católico del siglo dieciséis
que usaba la túnica de un monje budista
impresionando a los mandarines
de los Ming
que dominaba la cultura y
la lengua del reino medio
y luego, trazaba mapas del mundo más allá del mundo
dibujando la línea de las costas sobre el tulipán negro imposible
de la cartografía dondequiera que navegara Magallanes
y Colón perdiera su ruta
donde los portugueses, los españoles y los franceses
los ingleses, los holandeses
se fueron peleando por tierra
y la locura del oro
por las mentes
de los salvajes
y los cuerpos de los esclavos
las rivalidades de los reyes pelirrojos
y de las iglesias de mantos rojos
bárbaros y bucaneros humanos groseros
en la era de la inquisición
luego de que Copérnico hiciera girar el globo
y Galileo entregara al cielo por temor a que lo quemaran vivo
y entonces se nombraron las nuevas tierras
incluso el hogar de tu nacimiento Jiānádá
primero nombrado y por tanto conocido
por las clases ilustradas
que abrieron sus ojos al oeste
y la fe del oeste
inscrito con la alegoría de la Tierra Santa

y él, el primer occidental
que entrara en
la Ciudad Prohibida
murió en el fracaso de evangelizar
aunque construyó una catedral
en la capital
y aun, mucho más tarde de que
las cañoneras se han callado
y las guerras del opio
han consumido en llamas
y los Bóxer arrasaran
tu hogar y asesinaron a tu gente, y los japoneses
te hicieron prisionera con tus hijos
por los pecados del imperio—su nombre
en reverencia—
como la luna inundada de Li Po
y luciendo en la palma del borracho
de una laguna a medianoche
la que veríamos
si nos atrevemos a soñar
en una oscuridad aún por venir


Considering Ancient Chinese Erotica

in the spring palace
behind high walls
of the Forbidden City
the perfumed concubine
lolled with her bound-as-a-child body
lamed by beauty
the crimson water lily of the royal house
playing bring on the clouds and the rain
with the wealthy lords
of the Ming
in the court of songs
otherwise dishabille women
their misshapen bones
broken in slippers
crippled by pain her feet made small as a deer
for the visual delight of men
well-born girls
wearing bow shoes embroidered in silk
walking with the lotus gait
the short-step sway of pampered ladies
even in time the eldest daughter of the poor
wanting to marry highborn
achieved the crescent moon
of the cramped arch
with its erotic allure
an intimate and chaste concealment
lasting a thousand years
until the corseted Christians
came at the time of the heavenly foot
their own vital organs cramped
in whalebone
their tight breasts swaddled
in winding-cloth white wear
sending home souvenirs
amazing the congregation
amusing the minister
tantalizing all future museums
where horrified visitors troupe past
in clicking stilettos and blushing tattoos


Considerando la antigua erótica china

en el palacio de invierno
detrás de las altas murallas
de la Ciudad Prohibida
la concubina perfumada
se arrellanaba con el cuerpo envuelto como el de un bebé
lisiada por la belleza
el agua de lilas carmesí de la casa real
jugando a llevar al emperador al éxtasis del placer
con los señores acaudalados
de los Ming
en la corte de las canciones
por otra parte mujeres en traje de casa
sus huesos mal formados
rotos en las sandalias
lisiadas por el dolor en sus pies hechos pequeños como los de un venado
para el deleite visual de los hombres
muchachas bien nacidas
usando zapatos de arco bordados en seda
caminando con el modo del loto
el bamboleo de paso corto de las señoras consentidas
incluso con el tiempo las hijas mayores de los pobres
que querían casarse con los de alta cuna
alcanzaban la luna nueva
del arco agarrotado
con su encanto erótico
un casto disimulo íntimo
que dura mil años
hasta las cristianas encorsetadas
llegaron en la época de los pies celestiales
sus órganos vitales agarrotados
entre barbas de ballena
sus apretados pechos envueltos
en blanca ropa enrollada
enviando a casa suvenires
que sorprendían la congregación
divertían al pastor
tentando a todos los museos futuros
donde los visitantes horrorizados pasaban en grupo
en chasqueantes estiletes y tatuajes ruborizados


Into a Land of Strangers

the muddy root
of the lotus, also
desires the sky


tropical lotus
blooms in the night
white flesh a white moon dreams


black water, blue sky
two minds
consider one light


undulating cutwater
darkens beneath
the white of a single cloud


the lotus open
in the moon-wane of morning
how young a fading white


how might the lotus thirst
in the ever-evaporate black
of a deep pool


into a land of strangers
she comes
a stranger to herself


in the seed pearl
of her beloved moon
the sand grain of her soul


celestial stranger
your secret revealed
to a secret concealed


an unpainted lotus
imagines the mind
wet brush dampens dry water


here in the seam of true silk
the chrysalis clings
to the force of an unborn wing


A tierra extranjera

en la raíz lodosa
del loto, también
desea el cielo


loto tropical
florece en la noche
blanca carne que una luna blanca sueña


agua negra, cielo azul
dos mentes
consideran una luz


ondulante rompeolas
se oscurece bajo
el blancor de una nube solitaria


se abren los lotos
en el cuarto menguante de la mañana
qué lozano el blanco mortecino


como puede el loto languidecer de sed
en el negro en evaporación
de una laguna profunda


a tierra extranjera
ella llega
una extranjera para ella misma


en la perla seminal
de su amada luna
el grano de arena de su alma


extranjera celestial
tu secreto revelado
a un secreto guardado


un loto no pintado
imagina la mente
el pincel mojado humedece el agua seca


aquí en la sutura de la verdadera seda
cuelga la crisálida
ante la fuerza de un ala por nacer

—John B. Lee & Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon


John and I (1)Manuel Leon, translator, and John B. Lee

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books and  the recipient of over seventy awards for his writing. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the north coast of Lake Erie. He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958 (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin. A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador. He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.


Apr 102014

author photo 2013

The moral overhang of plants, in the present case a disregarded bonsai, is the notional subject of this deft, intricate essay (with photographs) by Shawna Lemay, an essay that is also an anthology of quotations (about plants, art and people) and gnomic phrasing, an essay that almost seems to unwrite itself as it is written. “…we understand each other illegibly.” “In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them.”



The bonsai, now. Purchased years ago from the hardware store. A wish, a pretension, a desire for peacefulness, with an envious thought to the serious practitioners, precipitated its purchase.

Relegated to the basement when it sensed I was not living up to its requirements for emptiness, calm, and a true tenderness. It became too lush and I could not be severe in bringing it back to balance. Years later, it re-emerges. Parts of it have died, irretrievable. Unbalanced but splendid and we understand each other illegibly.

At the stage where she was dreaming, conjuring, The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “A lamp and a flower pot in the center. The flower can always be changing.” There would be, “…a perpetual crumbling and renewing of the plant. In its leaves she might see things happen. But who is she?”


Quickly followed by the wish she remain unnamed. The leaves would most certainly see things happen.

I forge a plan which I quickly abandon, to ask women I know about the plants they have on their windowsills, kitchen tables, desks. I imagine receiving answers about geraniums being overwintered, about African violets, and about bouquets of grocery store tulips and about long stemmed, candy coloured daisies, and roses that deliberately open. Once, someone told me about the aloe vera plant she has on her desk  which has vast properties of healing and with which she conducts séances and hearing this made me too delicate.

We breathe the plant in and the plant receives our exhalations and our chakras align accordingly.

Of course, with Clarice, I’ve been thinking about the sadness of flowers in order to feel more fully the order of what exists for a very long time.

As Cixous said, we have all lived one or two flowers. We have felt the light of them, the light they attract and which goes right through them, and also the heaviness, the gravity, and we have known, perhaps, as the painter Francis Bacon called it, the violence, of roses. Not just the thorns, but the colours changing and bleeding and seeping out of those generous, soft, petals. The way our souls might rise up and speak to flowers, met by flowers, their breathing, the faint breath of them. The pain of finding we can’t quite sip, can’t quite internalize the answers, to the question of scent.


I imagine the pots and vases of flowers on a table near a window in time lapse photography, one that encompasses several years. The first day emerges deliberately. It begins in a veil of morning light, I place a vase of garden roses on the weathered table. The pink-orange petals are so various, each one a slightly different combination of pink fluttering into orange. They have opened under the sun, been changed by breezes gentle and ardent and arduous. Insects have nibbled and continued on their way. And now the light becomes more diffuse, evens out, brightens, declines again, and then moonlight comes in and bathes the roses, they soften and at the same time become more radiant, full. The leaves droop a little, curl, the water clouds, the edges of the petals wither, turn a greyish brown, and the pinks become less vibrant, and the orange deepens, lessens. They begin to look tattered in the repetition of this cycle, more graceful, more noble. At one point a hand comes into the frame, and shoves the vase from the center of the table to the edge, to the far end.

In this way we come to know the unrepeatable secrets of flowers, and then to forget them. We learn opening, opening. And then empty, drunk, we succumb to their heavenly sadness. It is the sadness of flowers that reminds us to keep the secret.

The table is empty for several days. The time lapse speeds up. A geranium arrives in a terracotta pot. The stems are thick and gnarled. The plant has lived and lives on in the slips that have been taken. It grows, leaning toward the light through the day, a slow dance. And then the cuttings are removed, and it must grow more leaves, and it does, small sprouts emerge. At which point someone takes it to make room for a gift, a vase of flowers. A ghostly image enters the frame and leaves, which reminds one of security camera footage.

An arrangement, a gift. A florist’s concoction. Tulips, roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, bits of greenery in a  rigorously balanced and visually interesting triangle. Light pink, fresh green, and lavender. For days they stay as placed, rather too perfect. But then the tulips begin to droop through the course of a single day and are nearly done in.

The time lapse slows and then speeds up, and this feels alarming, how the flowers move as though in a deep conversation, the intensity of their gestures, leanings, listings, to and fro, petals drop in what could be happiness one moment, anger the next, then resignation.

Those which have perished are removed, and the bouquet is awkward, strange. A hand removes the bouquet, the arrangement returns in another form, the remaining flowers cut down and placed in a water glass. They last a day or two more. And at this point, the light in the room becomes grainy, and I can’t help but think about the clouds which must be responsible for this effect.


It goes on like this. Long periods where the space is empty. Shadows of people pass over the table. A bird flies by and casts a low and fleeting shadow. Snow falls so the window resembles a 20th century television screen at three a.m. The window is opened and the curtains blow into the frame, ever so gently. Punctuated by moments of flowering. Flowers changing. And changing.

It goes on like this. The fragrance. The colours. The fading. The beauty of decline, the simplicity. All of the attendant moods arrive and pass in waves, swelling and subsiding, at dawn, at dusk.

While I’m imagining the flowers on a table I’m also thinking about 17th century Dutch flower paintings. The way that artists would make and collect studies of  flowers so that they could paint them into lush floral bouquets that couldn’t really exist as the specimens wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time. Sometimes an artist would share a particular study they’d made, so that another artist would have the exact same rendering of a flower in their own floral painting.

I also remember the painting by Remedios Varos called Still Life Reviving, which is the last thing she painted before her unexpected death. At the center of a small round table with a tablecloth draped on it is a lit candle. Swirling around and hovering above the table are plates, and above them various fruits which at times collide and explode, all of this witnessed by dragonflies. Seeds drop from the colliding fruits, and plants are being born from them before they hit the ground.

I remember the way things appear to lose their magic, and later regain it.

Paper whites in winter. An amaryllis bulb, forced. Spring plum blossoms. Forsythia. Peonies. Roses. Tiger lilies.

The flower is always changing which is dizzying. Which is why, still life.

—Shawna Lemay

Shawna Lemay is a writer, blogger, editor, photographer, and library assistant. She is the creator and co-editor of the website, Canadian Poetries. She has written five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest, a book of essays, Calm Things, and a work of experimental fiction, Hive: A Forgery. A book of poems and poem-essays, titled Asking, is forthcoming in April of 2014. Her daily blog is Calm Things.  She resides in Edmonton, Canada, with her partner, Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter, Chloe.

Apr 092014

Julie Larios

Herewith impish, gracile, nimble poems by Contributing Editor (one of our own) Julie Larios whose continuing Undersung series has become a mainstay of the magazine and a model of poetic discourse. Julie’s poems are playful, yes — the body “poor sot” and men! who only need “A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory / that size doesn’t matter” — and her language is fast, packed with snappy rhythms, sly puns and rhymes that twist and curl meaning from word to word. Just read this:

of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose, 
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin

But prosody aside, she has also a lovely set of themes, always coming back to a view of life, mischievous yet grand, the comedy of the body that won’t stop, that has its knowledge, that faulty and doomed as it is nonetheless is holy, the house of the spirit. And Julie, I think, never loses sight of the current of spirit that runs beneath appearances. Oh, to have written that line.

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.


What Body Knows 

knows how
to go
slow now,
to fool Doom,
to bow down –
to grow

knows not
how to grow
cool, nor cold,
knows not
to stop,
poor sot.


What Every Man Needs

A pot to piss in.
A Porsche.
A few pit stops.
And to mark the right spots, several X’s.
Great sex or— on slow nights— a few seeds
to spit off the porch into the dark.
Down any mine shaft, a bright torch.
A daft aunt or two for comic relief.
A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory
that size doesn’t matter.
A mother, ha, like a hole in the head.
A starry sky in the Wild West, a loyal horse.
And to carry him down off his cross, a Blessed Virgin.
On New Year’s Eve, champagne’s satin fizz.
In July, a slow drizzle after the long drought.
In October, sun out after rain.
A magic grain of rice from a folk tale.
A tall tale about the one that got away.
A day on a raft on the Mighty Mississippi,
home-fried catfish and Huck’s Jim  for a buddy.
Beauty minus her Beast.
And the best BBQ baby back ribs
this side of Hell or Heaven.
A 7-11 on one corner, a Jiffy Lube on the next.
An exit plan for every war gone wrong.
And after a long day’s work, just a little peace
and quiet, for Christ’s sake,  can’t a man get
a little peace and quiet?


Proposal for a Whole New Scale
………………with a nod to David Letterman

Being the new measurement of how things scratch,
that is, what scratches what, which surfaces face
which other surfaces down, as in showdown,
screw-up, or turnover, what marks the softer body
with its harder body by turning over and over,
what breaks last when heated or frozen, relative
to the heart and/or the balls, what clangs the bell
or strikes up the band, what wins hands down
the Grand Prize on the scale opposite the prize
known as Booby, and being also the new measurement
of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose,
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin, half-empty
rather than half-full, while sneaking up behind us
and hindering our progress or congress or aiding
our regress are the Straightened, the Leanless,
the Unsnackable and NonSpreading, aka the Moribund,
so tough and tactless, the pins of their blue ribbons
scratch more than our surfaces, then pop
the inflatable lifeboat and we’re surfacing for the first
the second, the last time, trying to breathe which is
an unchangeable characteristic of the living no matter
what scale we draw or weigh in on, including this one,
even when we give the grid a twist, a tweak, or toss in
an extra handful of beans, and even when
we’ve been snookered and when we begin again,
with a new batch of statistics, optimistic as we leave
an inch or two of air at the top, give the whole thing
a new moniker, make it a game called Will It Float?


I’m Telling That Story Again

The one where I pull into the driveway
and see a cop car and a hearse and my feet
don’t touch the ground until I’m inside the house
and find out the kids are fine, it’s my father
who’s in a body bag outside only this time
I tell the story without the hearse and without
the cop car and without the body bag,

so this is the story where it’s summer
and my feet touch the ground and I stay
in my body all the way out to the beach
where my kids are playing at the low tide line,
there, where the rocks meet the saltwater,
they’re playing with my father, and I
can only say thank god it’s not the story I told

where my feet didn’t touch the ground
because I was actually the one in the bag,
because once when I told that story I had to
change the part about my feet, due to confusion
about whether I was still in my body or not
at that stage, and I had to change the part
about the beach and my kids and my father
and summer and all of our several bodies,
and I had to admit that I wasn’t much of a storyteller
because my memory was so bad,  though I do remember
every detail about the low-tide line and the saltwater

and would anyone mind if I started over and told
another story, a better story, about somebody else’s body,
since I’m pretty sure it will be about a body—
no matter how confused I am, all my stories now
seem to end up being about bodies and seasons
and the point at which feet do or do not touch the ground.


Upon Coming to Plate XI in A Nomenclature
of Colors for Naturalists and Compendium
of Useful Knowledge for Ornithologists

………………—for Daphne Kalmar

God draws a bird then names its parts:
mandible, crown, the lesser, middle and greater coverts.
He names the rump. He names the contoured flight feathers
in the tail, calls them rectrices: Helmsmen.

Which do you love most, the philosopher asks,
those feathers or the metaphor?

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.


Apr 082014


Today, yes, a little entertainment, a gorgeous music/text thing (with layers you can delve)  by my old friend Ian Bell (Ian’s father was my Grade 11 history teacher; his mother was a weaver and the village librarian). First of all, we have Ian’s lovely, comic lament “Signor  Farini,” a song about The Great Farini, a 19th-century (he lived till 1929) tightrope walker famous, among other things, for doing somersaults over Niagara Falls in 1860. But The Great Farini was really a man named Hunt, born in Lockport, New York, and Ian’s song is as much about the mystery of creation as it is about tightrope-walking and fame. It’s about having the courage to make oneself, to change, to gamble and risk, to take a chance in life. And beyond that (there’s more), Ian also offers an insightful and readable account of song-writing, the art itself.



Signor Farini is one of a couple of songs I have written about my own unwillingness to throw myself headlong into the music business. This has mostly been for fairly uninteresting reasons having to do with my need to spend time with children and other loved ones.

Guillermo Farini was one of the 19th-century daredevils who made his name crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tight-wire, but who then went on to a distinguished career in British circuses and theatres – developing the human cannonball act and inventing the folding theatre seat, before becoming an African explorer who sought lost civilizations in the Kalahari, and eventually returning to Canada to write a best-selling book on how to grow begonias. (I’m not making any of this up – in fact, I’ve left quite a lot out)

I first heard about Farini in an interview on CBC Radio. Peter Gzowski was talking to author/playwright Shane Peacock about a play he had written about the daredevil. I loved the whole story. Most of all I loved the idea that “The Great Farini” was in fact a guy named Bill Hunt, from Port Hope Ontario.


Shane talked on the radio about a Farini Festival that had been staged in Port Hope, to which the organizers had invited not only descendants of Farini, but descendants of the man who had held the rope for him. I thought this was very Canadian, and decided that if there was ever going to be a song about Farini it should be from the rope-holder’s point of view. Not wanting to get too hung up on what Canadian director/playwright Paul Thompson calls “historical resonance” I wrote the song – and then I read the biography.

After I wrote and recorded the song, Shane called me up to tell me how much he liked it. He was particularly taken with the line “Walking on air with the greatest of ease – a tangle of barn swallows sharing the breeze”, and he told me a story about the time his play was performed at Fourth Line Theatre, an outdoor venue in Millbrook, Ontario. Every night at dusk, when the tightrope walker stepped off the roof of the barn, the swallows who lived inside would make one last foray into the evening air and buzz “Farini” as he traversed the wire. “How did you know to put that in?” he asked me. “Sorry Shane”, I had to tell him. “I just made it up”.

The actual making of this song started with the chorus, which I believe I carried around inside my head for a few weeks before anything else manifested itself. Then the rest popped out one day.

I never consciously choose a rhyme scheme for songs before I start writing them. Usually the first verse pours out in a rush and then gets a chorus attached to it. Once it does, I consider the rhyme scheme and meter to have been set and that’s that. I always do my very best to stick with it. It can become challenging once I get further into the song – but that’s all part of the fun. This one turned out to be AABBBB for the verse and AABBB for the chorus. In another song, I wrote a first verse I really liked while driving somewhere. When I got home and wrote it down I was a little dismayed to find that it took 16 lines for the rhyme to resolve.

Maybe resolving a rhyme isn’t the usual term — I should explain. What I mean by resolving, is completing the entire pattern of the rhyming lines in a unit of the song, (like a verse) so that you’ve brought the reader/listener back to the beginning of the rhyme cycle, and you’re ready to launch into whatever’s coming next (like another verse — or a chorus).

I’m generally of the opinion that a song shouldn’t need more than three verses, a chorus and a bridge. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule (even in my catalogue) but this isn’t one of them.

A bridge can be a useful thing. Some people call it “the middle eight” and it’s part of a song that is neither verse nor chorus and usually only comes up once somewhere in the middle of the song. Paul McCartney is really good at bridges. It not only creates a bit of musical interest, but also provides a platform for lyrical ideas that might not be an obvious part of whatever narrative agenda the verses may be. It’s a good place for asides or other editorializing. In Farini the bridge comes after the second chorus.

I like creating little word movies which I hope will will be screening in my listeners’ heads, and with any luck may include some interesting surprises as they spool out. I think I’m usually copping ideas from the filmmakers who made an impression on me in my long-ago hipster youth; people like Fellini and Bergman – mostly Fellini I think.

In Farini I tried to make this happen right off the top, where we begin with a pastoral daybreak scene on the old family farm and by the last line of the verse somebody is stepping off the barn roof.

I’ve always secretly wanted to hear Leonard Cohen or Marianne Faithfull sing this song.

—Ian Bell


You can read all about Farini in Shane Peacock’s book The Great Farini – The High Wire Life of William Hunt. The song is part of the album Signor Farini and Other Adventures and can be downloaded from CD Baby.

Ian Bell is a traditional folk musician and singer-songwriter who also worked for many years as a curator in a number of Ontario museums. he has recorded several CDs of Canadian traditional music as well as his own compositions. He lives in Paris Ontario. www.ianbellmusic.ca

Apr 072014


Lost love, unrequited love, love all too achingly brief (and yet ever so slightly comical) is the subject of this excerpt from Álvaro Pombo‘s novel Where The Women (translated from Spanish and introduced by Brendan Riley). Here we get the story of poor Aunt Nines, packed off to a convent (the Sisters of Adoration in Letona) after she refuses to eat for lost love. Not just lost love, her only love, the deliciously named Indalecio, whose life is cut short by a swimming accident. “Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.” Meet also the divine Aunt Lucia who lives in a tower and tells everyone what to think. A gorgeous, sprawling novel inscribed in this short sample.


Álvaro Pombo is one of Spain’s major writers. Poet, novelist, and political activist, Pombo has won multiple awards awards, including the 1983 Herralde Novel Prize, for El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (The Hero of the Big House; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) and the 1996 Spanish National Novel Prize for Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), from which the excerpt below is translated.

Pombo was born in Santander, in the northern Spanish autonomous province of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay, in 1939. He holds degrees in philosophy from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and from Birkbeck College in London. He has published some six volumes of poetry and twenty novels and collections of short stories. He is a fascinating and gifted author whose novels offer finely drawn characters, compelling narratives, and keen psychological insights, all presented in richly woven tapestries of lyrical color and the finely tuned Castillian Spanish of his native Cantabria. Despite his enormous reputation in Spain, few of Pombo’s works have yet been translated into English.

Where the Women, Pombo’s eighth novel, is a book with many virtues. Primarily set in northern Spain along the Cantabrian Sea, (with one of the final chapters in Madrid), Where the Women offers a vivid portrait of an aloof, upper-class family in the decades following the Spanish Civil War.  In addition to the captivating, unnamed narrator who is the family’s oldest daughter, Pombo creates a slate of memorable characters: the mother who might be a good woman; the angular, venomous Aunt Lucia; her dutiful German aristocratic lover Tom Bilfinger; the stolid, matronly governess Fraulein Hannah; and the vain, petulant younger siblings Violeta and Fernandito. Gabriel, the narrator’s architect father whom she never meets until the novels end, when she is 31, appears in a ruthless, devastating cameo, in which he seems to embody the sterility and silence of Franco’s Spain.

Donde las mujeres is an unqualified pleasure, told in the voice of the young woman, intimate, authoritative, self-aware, and engaging. She invites the reader’s sympathy as she struggles to become a thoughtful person amid a family whose self-conception demands that it, especially the women, not think too much.  As the narrator’s mother tells her, she should speak less and draw more; drawing things makes them clear, but words misrepresent them. Even when she coquettishly flirts with the hearts of her young suitors, what remains most interesting is her honest self-appraisal; she knows what she is doing and why. Pombo deftly inspires our desire for her to succeed, either in her studies or love affairs, but then deliberately subverts any hopeful fruition; this emphasizes the narrator’s ultimate isolation: her home life is fancy but sterile and unfulfilling; her studies are mere dilettantism; she is being prepared for no real future, and her family offers nothing in the way of practical, worldly or spiritual wisdom except the eventual vague notion that she should someday find a husband.  Instead, thanks to the cruel revelation of Aunt Lucia, she inherits the paradox of unknown identity; like her deceased Aunt Nines, whom she regrets not properly mourning, she is the product of a loveless affair which her mother has always concealed. Thus, she is not the daughter she has been brought up to believe in, and her upper class status, as she comes to suspect, is a sham.

So, what initially seems like a familiar coming of age story turns out to be a sombre and beautifully executed philosophical meditation.  As the narrator goes to Madrid to confront her father –Gabriel– there is some expectation of mutual recognition or self-discovery, but Pombo pursues the path of alienation to the end. Gabriel is even colder, more vain and self-centered than the rest of the narrator’s family; he cavalierly refuses to acknowledge her. Their brief, chilly meeting in the capital powerfully refocuses the novel on Spain as a whole. Although set during the harshest years of the Franco regime, the political struggles and suffering endured by millions are hardly mentioned. Lately, even after the long dictatorship and the somewhat tarnished decades of a new, apparently open democracy, Spain still struggles with its past; its postmodern identity is built firmly upon a denial that reaches back to its civil war, and the new present cannot endure if the past is known.  

At the end the narrator cannot return home. She wakes up from her atheistic, bourgeois slumber to find out that there is nothing special or reassuring about her life; she is 31 years old, without family love, friends, money or prospects.

Where the Women is an eloquent and reflective novel, virtuously transparent and believable, an intriguing balance of sentimental exploration and psychological insight. Álvaro Pombo’s lyrical prose achieves a finely shaded composition of intimate reveries, disdainful bourgeois chatter, modern cynicism, and tightly reined irony which allows the narrator’s clear, thoughtful, and often humorous voice to carry us from beginning to end with impressive sustain, fluidity, and conviction. Where the Women is a masterful, beautifully written book which awaits and deserves an equally captivating English translation. 

—Brendan Riley



But you can’t take Nines seriously! She’s suffering from something, no one’s disputing it, not me, not anybody. But it’s not an illness.”

“She was really in love; that’s like an illness!” my mother commented from the other end of the dining room table where the whole family was having tea.

“So what? What does being in love have to do with not eating? Nines is just completely apathetic, that’s what. Tell me, how many people, as far as you know, have stopped eating because of love? Nobody!” Aunt Lucia assured us, answering her own question.

Violeta and I looked at each other, horrified and delighted by the stormy turn that Aunt Lucia’s statements had started to take. Sitting bolt upright in her chair away from the seat back, she opened wide her large blue eyes, bright with the slight opposition she seemed to be offering my mother.

“Your egg, Lucia! Eat your egg. Later, when it’s cold, it’ll feel like a lump in your stomach.”

But at that moment Aunt Lucia was not interested in the temperature of her food.  She simply gave the egg a sharp tap with her small elegant ivory spoon.  Nobody could have prevented Aunt Lucia from saying what she wanted to say about Aunt Nines.

“What’s happening is that Nines has compromised her health by not controlling herself, and she won’t control herself, not even if you kill her. There’s no decent doctor, no nurse, no nun, nobody who can bend a will like hers. She has decided that she’s going to starve herself to death, and that’s the end of it. She already weighs less than 100 pounds, just like Gandhi!”

Violeta and I looked at each other again. The storm was getting worse by the moment.  My mother responded to her in a calm, quiet voice, a voice calculated to irritate Aunt Lucia—she was the oldest of the sisters, followed by my mother and then Aunt Nines:

“It’s quite unfair and quite absurd what you’re saying. You know how everything happened. I’m not just talking about her misfortune. I’m talking about everything. Poor Nines. Her life, how it was and how it is now. It’s not that she wants to starve to death. She doesn’t want to die. What she doesn’t want is to go on living, which is something very different.”

A long silence floated over the unbleached linen tablecloth and my grandmother’s elegant china. Violeta and I shrugged our shoulders and stared fixedly at our plates. Neither the argument nor the fuss were new. It didn’t matter; that wasn’t necessary for them to be incredibly fascinating. The word “justice” shifted Aunt Lucia’s attention to regions of great profundity and nervousness. The supposed injustice committed against Aunt Nines was absorbed and nullified by the larger idea of justice which Aunt Lucia was busy expounding in that moment. The corresponding balance of the scales of justice ended up getting completely twisted around, along with the saucer and spoon and cup of tea which danced wildly in Aunt Lucia’s left hand. Despite being frequently on the verge of falling, they never did, something which we would have all preferred: for us all to come crashing down. And to rest in peace, smashed to pieces alongside the china and justice, across the tablecloth puddled with tea, without the least bit of style. But her style never faltered; it was as if Aunt Lucia had a magnet set right in each of the five fingertips of her left hand, with their proportional counterparts of steel or metal in the spoon, the plate, and the cup. It allowed for a wonderful imbalance at the heart of Aunt Lucia’s most elegant equilibrium, and in her voice and her manners.

It was November. Aunt Nines no longer lived at home. On medical advice, Aunt Lucia had taken her to live with the Sisters of Adoration in Letona. In a separate wing of the convent they had rooms, each one with its own mirror and washstand where, during Lent, the ladies from Letona went for three-day retreats and spiritual exercises. Throughout the year the nuns rented out rooms for the elderly who could no longer take care of themselves, or people like Aunt Nines who were suffering from nerves, who had to be watched discretely, keeping an eye on them without offending them because they were still not completely crazy.

It was noticeable that, now that Aunt Nines was gone, we talked about her incessantly. We had never done that while she lived with us. According to my mother, the decision to move Aunt Nines to live with the Sisters of Adoration was not, in any way, an easy one to take. My mother and Aunt Lucia had to meet with Doctor Mazarín and his assistant to carefully weigh the pros and cons that the move would mean for her. Aunt Nines herself had no part in the discussions nor, it seemed, the decision itself. She simply said: “Whatever you decide will be fine by me.”  In Aunt Lucia’s opinion it was a completely apathetic comment, although it was enough to make it understood that she was leaving the house on her own, without anybody pushing her. She was moving in with the Sisters of Adoration of her own free will. No one deliberately meant to isolate her. Once at the convent, little by little, Aunt Nines stopped eating or being interested in life at all.

In November, they talked about Aunt Nines’s stubbornness, one afternoon after another, all through tea and afterwards. Aunt Lucia carried all the weight of the conversation, at times giving the impression that she was speaking not only with us but also, at the same time, to an enormous crowd of people gathered in a grand theatre, one which required clear, precise explanations pronounced in a voice a few octaves higher than what is customary in homes at tea time. Throughout December and January she classified Doctor Mazarín and his assistant as both eminent authorities and imbeciles, sometimes in the same breath. By the middle of March, Doctor Mazarin came to be, in Aunt Lucia’s eyes, a perfect incompetent, incapable of distinguishing between bodies and souls. And yet, for all that, at the end of that year, he was the one responsible for preventing Aunt Nines from slowly killing herself as a result of her depression. It was depression and perhaps her desire to be united, there beyond, in death, with Indalecio, the only boyfriend that she ever had, and whom she had lost. Aunt Lucia always stressed—and my mother always discretely assented to this—that Aunt Nines wasn’t crazy but was really just as sane as any of us. And the proof was to be found in the fact that when they found her lifeless one morning, her two eyes were open and eloquent, tenaciously fixed on the bare ceiling of her private room with its own washbasin, with an air of peace and confidence in what awaited her in the next life.

In this life, on the other hand, Aunt Nines had nothing special to look forward to. And for this reason it was such a great surprise when, without expecting it, the chance to be happy came upon her. Her life had passed slowly until Idalecio appeared. They fell in love; they were going to get married; it all happened in the blink of an eye. And very suddenly it ended.

Violeta and I talked about it all in our bedroom until late at night without figuring it out, but we didn’t share the same attitude. I felt that with Aunt Nines installed in the convent of the Sisters of Adoration that there must be a solution and there, at that stage of the tragedy, was where we would find it. For Violeta, talking about Aunt Nines seemed to be simply making pointless conversation for the sake of talking. On the other hand, perhaps for being two years older, I talked to try to modify the sad situation. But it was sad exactly because it could not be changed, and that was why we talked about it so much that winter: more than deepening it, our talking about the sadness ennobled and embellished the situation. The fact that it was all so sad also made it exciting, not just in general, but in every detail, too.  Specifically, it was very sad that Aunt Nines was not really even my mother’s and Aunt Lucia’s sister; nor was she, like them, the daughter of my grandmother and grandfather. She was nothing more than a stepsister, the daughter of my grandfather and the person whose flat he used on his trips to Madrid. Violeta and I learned this fact as a result of Indalecio’s accident. It had been ignored until then because since long before my memories began to take hold, we had always called her Aunt Nines and she always lived at home.

In the parlor there is a photo of the three of them, seated on the front porch with grandmother, who has her head turned to highlight her Greek profile. Aunt Nines stands out a little from her two sisters; she is somewhat taller—it’s an old photo—with her hair combed in a different style, dressed more severely, in a different fashion. It’s as if she were the oldest one, but she was really the youngest of the three.

Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.  That included the two of us, who went running as soon as we saw him from a distance coming down to the beach each morning, with the excuse of asking him what time it was, just to hear him say: “Are you going home already?”  It was exciting to answer, almost like a chorus: “Not yet because it’s still early, we usually leave at three.”  And Indalecio would take us by the hand, one on each side, hanging on, just our feet brushing along the sand. It was something that served as an excuse for him to come over to our awning and take Aunt Nines for a walk, down along the beach, to the cliff where the sand ends by the big rocks. They would walk back very slowly, the two of them staring at the ground, taking their steps one at a time. It was thrilling to see them walk away and not be able to see them, then see them again, dallying right before our very eyes, until it was well after three o’clock.

Indalecio was a good fellow, he was invincible: only the sea could beat him. The sea always betrays; there is no such thing as an easy sea. Indalecio drowned for not taking that into account, for letting himself be infected by the thoughts the sea brings to light, which seem not thoughts of the sea but of man. The more green and swollen, the more loquacious it seems, the more mute and deadly it becomes once you are within it. Indalecio knew the sea very well but it did him no good. He owned a white yacht with a bright red jib. From the balcony our house, no matter how far out he was racing, you could pick him out from all the rest at a glance: tacking wide to take best advantage of the wind; the sky, the race, the blue light of the open sea and the summer, the adventure. But Indalecio was younger than the sea; that’s why he drowned. In spite of his considerable charm and his unpretentious seriousness. In spite of his long arms and large hands, and his wrists, thick and strong from rowing. In spite of his black spherical watch, rustproof and water resistant, that drowned with him but which, unlike Indalecio, didn’t resurface. Under its fogged glass the hands count the hours at the bottom, water resistant still. By chance, Aunt Nines wasn’t home when the accident happened. My mother informed her over the phone. It’s almost impossible to deliver such news well. My mother delivered it to her curtly, dryly. For Aunt Nines it must have been more terrible than the most terrible thing, as we saw afterwards in her careless self-abandon and her lack of desire for living. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, like a limpet, until it killed her.


That winter was the wintriest of any winter.  No one could remember a worse one, neither in San Román nor in the other fishing towns on that part of the coast. We stopped attending school on the 4th of December in the afternoon, a Monday, because my mother said that it was better to be at home than anywhere else. That it was impossible to go to school was a marvelous impossibility.  Aunt Lucia was already installed in her tower, and that weather did not let up a bit.  At high tide, the waves released their pent-up energy against the wharf and the little bridge that connects to our part of the coast. It’s like an island. On the maps it looks like a peninsula—although on the maps it’s not called la Maraña—but it’s really an island. It has an isthmus at least two kilometers wide, a beach whose sand is swept by the waves and the northeast wind, secured by a partially hidden rocky place and the wild broom and weeds of the dunes. Having it look like a peninsula on the maps was unfortunate, although infinitely superior to living on the mainland like other girls. On the island, well, on La Maraña, we lived alone, just us, in two houses. Ours was the one closest to the bridge, a two-story chalet surrounded by a small garden and a privet hedge filled with holes that were, when we were small, secret doors for sneaking in and out. Facing ours was Aunt Lucia’s much bigger house with a semidetached tower and large grounds enclosed by a brick wall with an obelisk in the very center. From the bridge by our house you could only see one side of its slate roof.  On the other hand, the tower and the dormer windows of Aunt Lucia’s large house overlooked the highest part of the island. It faced the grey-white sky of winter like a dark lighthouse casting a gloomy shadow over the sea, useless and menacing, like a castle keep. Every year, at dawn on New Year’s Day, Aunt Lucia lit a fire in a large can of pitch atop the tower, which illuminated the whole wild flying sky with its sharp, capricious, incomprehensible flames. Aunt Lucia was an event all by herself. It was impossible for Violeta and I to listen to her and not end up arguing back in our bedroom about what she said and what she did. Her annual arrival, at the beginning of October, was a delightful holiday, blowing like a gale through the entire autumn and winter until the middle or end of April. “The spring won’t catch me here, not even dead!” Aunt Lucia used to say. It was true, because as soon as the air seemed to soften and the sun linger before setting, and we began to shed our sweaters, Aunt Lucia got ants in her pants and went off to Iceland, to Reykjavik, where Tom Bilfinger had built a chalet in the suburbs out of tar-covered logs and wood, the way they do in Iceland for the cold. Tom was essential for Aunt Lucia’s glamour: her High German suitor from a rich, noble Protestant family, whom Aunt Lucia never wanted to marry. Nor did he ever marry anyone else, perhaps in the hope that Aunt Lucia’s fierce iron will would soften as she grew older and they could at least have a civil wedding.

When we were little, it surprised us that Aunt Lucia didn’t live the whole year in her house with the tower, facing the sea, with its tall trees and gravel paths throughout the grounds, designed, as I believe, by Tom Bilfinger himself, in imitation of romantic English gardens.

“Why doesn’t Aunt Lucia stay all summer, since summer is so nice here?” Violeta and I asked my mother each time Aunt Lucia departed.

“Because Aunt Lucia is vain and doesn’t want her skin to get damaged a bit. In the North, it seems, with the humidity and the fog, her skin stays soft. Eternally young, as you can both see.”

“Well, if she’s vain then she’s stupid,” Violeta declared on one occasion. “Mother Maria Engracia said that everyone who is vain is stupid. Besides that, they always end up worse than bad. That’s her experience and she’s already grown up.”

“What does that nun know!” answered my mother. “If she specifically said that your aunt is stupid, then she’s mistaken. And if she said it about women in general, then I don’t know what to think about her anymore.”

“Well, it must be because of Aunt Lucia,” answered Violeta, “because when she said it she stared at me.”

“It’s always been that way,” exclaimed my mother,”because they all hate us in San Román, our family and us, the nuns and priests more than anybody. Because we don’t go to Mass. And your grandfather’s reputation as an atheist… We’re eagles, and always have been, and the nuns are chickens. That’s why they pray for everything, even to Saint Anthony when they lose their hairpins. Because, unlike us, they are incapable of taking care of themselves. They envy us because they’re nobodies. Meanwhile, just by being here, we shine like archangels, the way Lucifer shone. Don’t they teach you that in religion class?”

We both admitted that they did teach us that in religion, and in the chapel, about Lucifer, who lost God’s love because of his pride. The most beautiful archangel that existed. And just by looking at the two of them, at Aunt Lucia and my mother, it was more than well understood what Lucifer thought and what God thought as he cast him down to the inferno: that he shone too brightly, the way they shone and, by extension, the two of us and our little brother Fernandito, and the whole island of La Maraña, where we spent our childhood and youth.


Aunt Nines’s misfortune meant much more to me than I was capable of expressing aloud at the age of fourteen.  “It’s a tragedy,” I told myself, without knowing how that word could be applied to two events, as distinct as Indalecio drowning—an accident—and, in little less than a year, Aunt Nines losing her desire to eat, to take care of herself, and to live. This was not an accident. Quite the opposite, really: it was the result of a decision, except that it was composed almost entirely of omissions and denials. It was a tragedy just the same, even if the incomprehensibility and inexpressibility didn’t come randomly but throughout a whole year instead, as the result of a decision.

They took her away in a taxi. A taxi from Letona and not San Román. I knew that they were taking her away that day, and I was watching from the window in the hallway. I saw the rattling taxi arrive, backfiring, and I saw how Doctor Mazarín, who came seated next to the driver, got out. I saw Aunt Nines leave the house, walking between my mother and Aunt Lucia as if they were escorting a prisoner between the two of them. I watched the scene from above, in the grayish light of the autumn dawn on La Maraña. It seemed like the end of a silent movie; Doctor Mazarín was the executioner and Aunt Lucia and my mother were two high ranking officers or two prosecuting attorneys who see it all very clearly and are just following orders. My feet were cold and I felt an intense curiosity. At the same time I had a very strong sensation of not feeling what I should, or perhaps an ambiguous feeling of guilt by simply observing that scene from the window instead of running down to kiss Aunt Nines goodbye. She left without saying goodbye to us. And we let her go without saying goodbye, just the same way that the cooks and maids and nannies almost always left the house at that hour. It seemed we stopped loving them as soon as they left. That’s why, perhaps, for my not having said goodbye to Aunt Nines, Violeta and I talked about her almost every afternoon. At first I missed her at tea time. Her empty place and chair reminded me of Aunt Nines before Indalecio: laborious, confusingly similar to Fräulein Hannah, Fernandito’s governess. Aunt Nines took us out for walks, she went out with Violeta and me on the stormiest days, with the hard rain slanting against our raincoats, and the ferocious wind that turned our umbrellas inside out. I saw her empty place and I remembered in vain—like those who remember a sum but forget the numbers they added up—the way that Aunt Nines spent whole Sunday afternoons with us playing Brisca or Parcheesi or the Game of the Goose.  Violeta and I learned those three games from Aunt Nines. As painful a memory as it was, the sadness did not make me sad—and for that reason it was confusing, incomprehensible, and strange.

At fourteen years old, the meanings of my experiences appeared and disappeared like instantaneous flashes; they were explosions that I was incapable of reconciling with the rest of my life. So, only a few days after Indalecio’s accident (Aunt Nines was still at home, shut up in her room. Manuela or one of us took up her meals which she hardly touched; she only seemed to want some puree, some rice or noodle soup, or a cup of broth from the stew), Violeta and I had just come home from school and the two of us were in our room, dressing to go downstairs to tea. It was going to be a special tea because we had visitors: three ladies who were, perhaps, the same age as Aunt Lucia or my mother, but at first glance seemed older; deliberate, corseted, matronly, and domineering. We’d seen them seated in the parlor with my mother. The oldest one was a blonde woman that Violeta said was the president of Catholic Action. The other two were less important, perhaps younger. We didn’t know who they were. Violeta was looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the pleats in her dark blue skirt, her uniform for Sundays and holidays.  I was sitting on the bed shining our shoes. Violet said:

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, it does to me, not to wear any mourning clothes today?  It’s a formal visit today, a courtesy call…”

“If you’re saying that because of Indalecio, that’s silly, because he wasn’t related to us.”

“What do you mean he wasn’t related to us?  He had to have been something, being Aunt Nines’s boyfriend. He was her sweetheart before he drowned.”

“They weren’t quite sweethearts yet, you know? And since Indalecio drowned, they’re not even sweethearts anymore.” I said it solemnly, and immediately felt a pang of confused guilt.  I felt cruel for talking that way to Violeta. It was very unpleasant to feel cruel: I looked at myself in the mirror, and the cruelty showed on my curved lips. After all, I hadn’t brought it up, it was Violeta who started talking about mourning. So I said: “You shouldn’t have said that, about mourning. You shouldn’t have even thought about it; it’s like we’re laughing at Aunt Nines.”

Violet had come closer while I was talking and she looked at me with surprise.

“But what are you talking about? Aunt Nines has nothing to do with it. I said that about mourning because I’d love to wear black in the afternoons—a smooth black suit and just a simple necklace of Austrian silver with strawberry-colored Russian enamel. Aunt Lucia always says that black complements people with complexions like ours, with those cheekbones of hers – white– as if they were always painted with some kind of lacquer.”

It was always about Aunt Lucia! Listening to Violeta talk about the black suit that she’d like to wear in the afternoons, I couldn’t fail to recognize it. I felt her same persuasive influence just as strongly in myself. Nevertheless, while going downstairs I thought about something that Aunt Lucia would not have thought: how false I had been to instinctively blame my displeasure at feeling cruel on Violeta: I wanted to be innocent by any means, to see myself blameless at any cost. I entered the parlor behind Violeta, not knowing how to consider what I had just thought about while talking with her, nor what I felt in that very moment. To watch her during the visit, just to see her making animated conversation with Aunt Lucia and my mother, who simply smiled, occasionally exchanging a few words with her, erased in me any feeling of regret and reduced it all to a solemn joy. It was the objective happiness which almost any visit, of the few we ever received, held for me when I was fourteen years old. It was fun to greet the three of them, one by one, and then take my place on a settee. Facing them all I put on a mature face, pretending that we were taking everything that was said quite seriously instead of simply observing them so that Violeta and I could laugh later on in our room, imitating them. Every fourth sentence, with rhythmic interjections, they said something like “Nines! Oh, the poor thing!” or “Indalecio, may he rest in peace.”  It seemed like they were trying to brighten up their three monotonous monologues a little. They really weren’t like us at all. They were brood hens; that’s why they made us laugh. It made sense, I thought suddenly, that my mother had withdrawn to live alone on La Maraña when we were little: she came here to escape from these hens and their clucking. “Better alone than in bad company,” I said to myself. And I felt a solemn shiver of hot grandeur, like a swallow of grappa in my throat, my esophagus, my soul. It was fascinating to be visited like that from time to time, the way queens, or queen mothers, or princesses are visited: by fat, swollen brood hens, all dressed up for the occasion. With delight I imagined them trying on their gloves, then hastily sewing up the unstitched fingertip, because they only saw us on special occasions, such as a funeral or a wedding or a Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the Nationalists. We were never really seen; they only glimpsed us occasionally, never very close up, only for a holiday or a parade, at a distance…  That gratifying daydream entertained me that afternoon like so many other times! I thought that it was all true. The proof came on the day of the funeral for the eternal rest of Indalecio. After the prayers for the deceased, my mother and Aunt Lucia—with the two of us following—approached Indalecio’s mother and family to offer our condolences. Everyone stood up all at once—there must have been twenty of them, because they filled the first two pews—and they approached us as if we were the ones suffering, as if the duty of presiding over the mourning belonged exclusively to the four of us, and not to them.

— Álvaro Pombo, from Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), translated by Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley

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


Apr 062014

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, like Doireann Ni Griofa who was featured in last month’s Uimhir a Cúig, is bilingual although she writes predominantly in English. A prolific writer of novels, short-story collections, flash fiction, and poetry, she utilizes a variety of constructs and perspectives often to explore the intimate issues of gender, sexuality and the corporeal.

In her story “Tinnycross,” Ní Chonchúir alludes to the prodigal son parable, but here the unexpected presence of a wife in the family home repositions the fraternal conflict. Her assertive influence shapes the emotional and material divides, internally and externally, yielding ultimately a resolution with hints of forgiveness if not exactly salvation.

The vocabulary rarely comforts. Not surprising since the returning son finds that “the familiarity of everything” is “both balm and thorn to him.” He is at odds not just with his brother but “with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.” To this end, Ní Chonchúir uses language like a plow, turning over the upper layer of the brothers’ hardened relationship to bring to the surface the roots of abandonment in the hopes of cultivating some form of reclamation. A cruelty borne out of rectitude, decency even.

—Gerard Beirne


By the time Oliver drove the avenue under the horse chestnuts, the bluebells were already thinning out. He had noticed puddles of cherry blossom along the pathways in the village. It struck some tender part of him that another year was hurtling towards summer, leaving him in a muddled January place, trying to catch up. The house lay squat and crabby ahead, and Oliver could feel his mood switch to match it; the undulating angst that always accompanied him at Tinnycross began to roll through him. He was a young man again, suckled and strangled by the place, and at odds with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat for a while to quell his building rage. Oliver knew that like all such rages his agitation was mixed with a kind of love. He often longed for Tinnycross – for home – for a version of it or the past, but it also repelled him. Wanting to be calm when he confronted Bunny, he sat in the car and waited and willed himself peaceful.

 After five minutes Oliver got out and went around the side of the house to the back door; the front door was never used. He stepped into the kitchen and was assailed by its brightness. And then by the sight of a woman standing at the table – his mother’s deal table – kneading dough with care in a cabled bowl. She was silver haired, neat as an egg, and she – for it could only have been she – had reawakened the kitchen. His mother’s furniture still stood: the table, the dresser, the chairs, but all of it looked fresh and the walls were painted. Things were immaculate again.

‘You must be…’ Oliver searched on his tongue for the right term. ‘You must be the cleaner,’ he said, eventually, settling on that word because he could come up with no other.

‘I’m Bunny’s wife.’ She threw a glance his way as if she had been expecting him.

‘His wife?’ Oliver said, and snorted. The woman stopped kneading and stared at him. ‘Is Bunny home?’ he asked.

‘He’s below in the field. Will I ring his mobile?’

‘No, I’ll go down to him.’

She wiped her fingers on her apron and came towards him with one hand out. ‘Fidelma,’ she said.

‘Oliver O’Donnell.’

She smiled. ‘I know who you are.’

Oliver left the kitchen and stood in the yard. The land fell to the river – Tinnycross was one huge field with no ditches or fences to mark it out. Hay bales sheathed in black plastic were dotted around like giant cuts of liquorice, and a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown. His heart swelled into his throat and he drew a few deep breaths. The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him. It was quiet in the yard but he could hear the far off burr of a tractor and the bird calls that were the same bird calls as forty years before. Oliver gazed down over the land. How could a field – one ordinary field – have such a pull on him?

He looked at his shoes, then at the muddy track that lead from the yard to the land. A wife? Well. That surely changed things. By what luck had Bunny, of all people, got himself a woman? Oliver shrugged and headed down the track, at first treading the verge to avoid the muck and save his shoes, then staying off the grass because it was littered with pearls of sheep shit like beads scattered from a rosary. The brother is a quarehawk right enough, he thought.

Oliver looked up to find Bunny strolling towards him; he was a shambles as always in his torn fisherman’s jumper and folded down wellies. The wife’s ministrations had extended only to the house, it seemed. Bunny was swinging a stick like a dandy.

‘Olly,’ he said.

‘Bunny. How’s the form?’ They shook hands. ‘And it’s Oliver. Please.’

‘So I don’t get to be Bernard but you get to be Oliver. Big man Olly.’ Bunny slapped the ground with his stick.

‘Did you get my letter?’ Oliver said.

‘I got a letter from Folan and Company, if that’s the one you mean.’

‘We need to settle this, Bunny, for once and for all.’

Bunny whacked the tree beside him with his stick; it was the old hawthorn, bent sideways by the wind, its branches beseeching the tree beside it. That hawthorn was their mother’s favourite tree; she would stand under its dense crown to call daddy from the field.

‘Settle, Olly?’ Bunny said. ‘What’s to settle?’

‘Ah, don’t start.’ Oliver put his hands on his hips and stood in front of his brother.

‘You think you’re the prodigal coming back here. Well, you’ll get nothing out of me.’

‘Bernard.’ Bunny’s wife had come down from the house without either of them noticing. They both looked at her. ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk?’

‘It’s none of your business, Fidelma,’ Bunny said.

‘Oh, I think you’ll find that it is,’ she replied.

She walked behind them up the track towards the house, a shepherdess herding a pair of recalcitrant rams.

Oliver stood in his parents’ bedroom, watching dust waver in the air. Their marriage bed had become Bunny’s. The lousy shite hadn’t even bought his wife a new bed. Oliver recalled his father’s last days in that bed. Daddy had started to say their mother’s name again; it fluttered out of his mouth like a butterfly looking for somewhere to land. It sounded alien launching off his tongue: ‘Catherine. Catherine. Catherine.’ He hadn’t called her by name for years; hadn’t cajoled her, or pleaded, or thanked her with her given name. Their mother sat by the bed day after day, holding their father’s hand, soothing him, wiping his drink-haunted face.

‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ she said. ‘I’m here, I’m here. Your Catherine is here. I’m right beside you, Martin.’

Mammy was gone now too – Oliver had not witnessed her death – but he could feel her in the house still, a revenant gliding from room to room. He put his hands on the cold iron of the footboard and gripped hard; he rocked himself and pushed his chin to his chest.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Oliver.’ Fidelma stood in the doorway; her voice was gentle. ‘I’ve made tea. We’ll talk.’

He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Both mammy and daddy died in that bed.’

‘I know that. Bernard told me.’

‘I’m not trying to be cruel,’ Oliver said, hanging his head. ‘I just remember. This place makes me remember.’

‘Memory is a true thing, but it can make fools of us too,’ Fidelma said.

‘This all ends with Bunny and me. No offence, but you won’t be producing an heir. Tinnycross will go to God-knows-who.’

‘Let’s talk it out and see what we can come up with between us.’

Oliver followed her into the kitchen; Bunny had their father’s seat at the side of the table near the range. If visitors ever deferred to daddy, wanting him to take the head of the table, their father always said, ‘Wherever O’Donnell sits is the head of the table.’

Oliver said this to his brother, hoping to make him smile, but Bunny ignored the remark.

‘We’ll give you a third of the market value,’ he said. ‘There’s the three of us in it now.’

‘Mammy died during the boom; I’m entitled to half of what it would have gone for then.’

‘Are you trying to put me out of my home?’ Bunny crashed his fist onto the table. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’

‘I only want what’s mine.’ Oliver rattled a teaspoon around his mug. ‘My business has gone under. The bank is talking about repossessing my apartment.’

‘Well, boo fucking hoo. If you can’t look after yourself, it’s no concern of ours.’

‘Tinnycross belongs to both of us, Bunny. Mammy always said it. There’s no way around that.’

‘You took your time looking for your share.’

‘I thought you’d give it to me and, then, well, you didn’t.’

‘And bankrupt myself? Are you fucking mad, Olly?’

Fidelma reached across and squeezed Bunny’s arm. ‘We have my money, love; the money from my house.’

‘You want to give the man who killed my mother your money?’

Oliver stood. ‘Ah, here, there’s no need for that.’

Bunny dropped his head and spoke his words to the table. ‘Mammy asked you to come to Tinnycross and you wouldn’t come. She asked you again and again.’

‘It wasn’t that simple, Bunny, and you know it. I was in Dubai for Christ’s sake.’

‘Your mother begged you to come and you turned your back on her. You turned your back on Tinnycross.’ Bunny pushed back his chair, stood and left the room.

‘Not to worry, now,’ Fidelma said, patting Oliver’s arm.

‘That was harsh. Bunny knows I was abroad, I couldn’t get on a plane every time she asked me to; she was always trying to get me to come. I helped mammy in other ways.’

‘I know you did,’ Fidelma said. ‘Bunny is very attached to this place; we both are. He lashed out there and he shouldn’t have.’

Oliver suffered a twist of jealousy – Bunny hadn’t just landed himself a woman, but a decent woman, one who was happy with what she was made of; a woman secure in herself and the world; someone who liked to give.

Fidelma invited Oliver to stay the night. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to leave everything undone either; he hesitated.

‘Sure stay. Do,’ she said.

‘I will so,’ Oliver said, and thanked her.

Fidelma made up his childhood bedroom. He could barely get himself across the threshold and into the bed, the room bulged with so many memories: days spent in sickness fevers, nights spent in girl-induced ones. At least it smelled different now – he couldn’t have stood it if the room held the small boy and young man stench of himself.

Oliver lay rigid in the narrow bed, watching the moon with her mouth agape, spilling light over Tinnycross. He could see the corner of the barn, lidded with corrugate and lit up by moon-glow. He felt the presence of his parents and was unsettled by the knowledge that through the wall his brother was in their bed with his wife. His decent, loving wife. Sleeping warmly beside her or, perhaps, complaining about him in a low voice.

In the morning Fidelma propped a neat envelope against the milk jug that sat on the table in front of Oliver. He was breakfasting on his own; Bunny was already out on the land. Oliver picked it up, knowing without opening the flap that the cheque would have her signature on it; hers alone.

‘Are you sure?’ he said.

‘I am. It’s best to leave himself to me; I can deal with him. I’ll sort it out.’

‘Thanks a million, Fidelma,’ Oliver said.

When he had finished eating he shook her hand.

‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Fidelma said, and she let him out the front door and waved him off as he drove away.

The plains around Tinnycross were green and dappled with sheep. Every other field held an inky lamb among its white brethren. This lamb was always a maverick, sitting or standing apart from the others, living its own quiet destiny. Oliver drove past and watched the lambs, willing the dark ones to gambol and play with the others, but they stayed where they were, resolutely alone.

He thought about Tinnycross as he drove further and further away from it, on towards the city. He could feel the backward pull to it, to its green and its yellow and its light. Oliver knew he might never see the place again. Is it possible, he wondered, to be in love with a field. And if it is possible, is it wise?

—Nuala Ní Chonchúir


Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears April 2014 from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, appears 2015 from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada. www.nualanichonchuir.com


Apr 052014

I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out. —Summar West

Progress on the Subject of Immensity
Leslie Ullman
University of New Mexico Press
Papeback, Online Price $13.27


Iam writing from the edge of winter, from a landscape where the weather has refused release despite the seconds ticking toward spring. The cold and the expanses of snow in Vermont have set me pondering questions that arise when a person repeatedly confronts forms of vastness. I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out.

Ullman explains her subject of immensity in some detail on her website; the poems began during a leave-of-absence from teaching, and she says they

…found themselves questioning, lightly at first, the efficacy of the human mind…this spirit of inquiry nudged subsequent poems into larger questions—an exploration of spaces inside us as well as outside us: the rhythms of seasons, the earth suspended in its matrix of space, the life of the body, the limitations of conventional Western religion, the nature of desire, and the pleasure—often the sensuous pleasures—of inquiry itself.

We should not be surprised by the ambitious nature of this subject matter, the level of skilled craftsmanship and the depth of feeling in the individual poems; this collection marks the fourth book (previous collections include Slow Work through Sand, Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Natural Histories) by this poet, teacher, and artist whose writing career spans over thirty years. Ullman has much to say, and to those poets, writers, readers, and daydreamers—anyone who goes out to the edge—we would do well to take heed to a directive in one of the poems at the heart of this book:

at dawn, a telegraphy that fills the morning
too full for one pair of ears—
one might as well listen with the whole body.

Progress begins with the poem, “Abrupt at Dawn,” where the speaker is awakened by a sound.

I was sure the sound
of engines came from
inside me, thrum of labors
that had driven me
in and out of sleep.
And then coyotes, scores
of them, sent out
ribbons of sound strangely
close to the house—something
disembodied, metallic,
the high, shrill gears
adding to whatever the sun
was using to ratchet itself up.

Later, we hear this sound of the machinery of the mind in “the cogs and wheels of dreams” in the poem “Night Opens the Foothills,” and in the poem “The Guises of the Mind” the relentless mind that “pounds and pounds…running on fumes.” But in these short, rhythm-pumping lines above, the words sonically wrap around us (a technique used in many of the poems where the poet relies on short-syllable lines and the pleasing sound devices of alliteration, euphony and sibilance; this is notable in the poem “A Visible Life” that begins, “The mind is a small city / whose street signs show me / what I already know” and in the poem “Mudra” where we hear “How was I like the pinecone / that outlived me? / Shingled, yes, with / aspects of a singular life— / certain wounds and the impulse / to cover them, a preference / for winter…”); the sound the speaker hears and questions is both external and internal.

This type of juxtaposition is seen throughout the book in poems where we go in and out of our speakers’ bodies and minds, the past and the present, silence and noise, realities and dreamscapes. In “Zone by Zone,” for example, we experience noise as light in the technological and the natural, where “coffeepots blinked on, small eyes, / as each day arranged itself into blocks” and where “…the new leaf / on a begonia cutting unfolded visibly / in a cubicle window…”; one of the most compelling examples of Ullman’s use of juxtaposition and doubling of meaning is in the poem “Ice Apples” where the apples that are “locked in ice” remind the speaker of her own memories of love, both the falling in and out of it as seen in these haunting lines: “…We drift in and out / of memory that is less event / than atmosphere—the alertness, / a pastel wash with bold strokes / of umber when love first arrives, / and the greater alertness—burnished / gold behind the eyes, dark grooves / celebrating the texture—when it leaves / yet again, innocence and experience.”

One of the recurring images that Ullman uses to achieve movement through these spaces is the wind. In the last stanza of this first poem, the speaker tells us:

Now, winter sage outside my window
trembles, bends and springs back
and bends again, and I realize
the first sound I heard was wind
blowing in a front. The machinery
of real weather. And I am simply
in its path like any creature,
not wrongly placed,
though the day, like a boat
in hard sea, churns
so fiercely beneath me.

The wind here is not pretty nor delicate nor is this just another nature poem. When the wind and other elements occur, as they do so throughout the book, they are always as forces that command attention. In a poem like “And My Life Wandered On,” “a strong wind has found / its way into these woods, where it / rarely goes,” and transports the speaker into a memory of another life and landscape in Bolivia; equally important, the wind as seen in the concluding lines of the poem “Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present” is the essential element that moves through us all as we’re told, “…Your body, now / clothed thinly  / in skin, filling with / holes—only something / porous like this can feel / what has always been wind.”

Feel the way light enters in the poem “Equinox”:

Water, black water
has turned to ice and lulled
the long valley into a doze—soon
we’ll all sprout gills, drifting
in a sleep beyond memory,
beyond the residual lung,
beyond the spent coals.

of desire. But that first
drop of juice—so
sweet-startling—a sacrament—
light in a throat from which
song has nearly faded—
could it guide me back
to shore? An orange, small sun
dawning from the inside
to resurrect the mammal body

Light as sacrament, as resurrection—Ullman’s metaphors are big, and in her small lines they startle us into awareness of how and where they live inside us.

As an important footnote to the book, this poem begins with the question,

Who will buy me an orange
 to console me now?

The lines are from a translation of José Garostiza’s poem “Who Will Buy Me an Orange?” and Ullman borrows these and other lines from several Latin American poets, giving us still further spaces of entrance in the collection.

We also go inside the subject of the mind in Progress in a series of poems scattered throughout the three sections. The poet excels in her use of personification with these poems and uses it to question the mind’s constructs, limitations, patterns, quirks and eccentricities, and experiences both harrowing and profound. My favorite poem of the mind series falls into this latter category. Listen to these heart-wrenching lines in the last stanza from “Guises of the Mind”:

How they clomp through the wild flowers and thick
grasses of August—they might as well be crossing
hot asphalt against traffic. They can’t remain
still enough to feel the slow ripening that could
be theirs—the nectar turning, beneath a thickened
rind, its stored sugars to the late October sun.
They’ve never let grief spear them and have its way
before moving on; every one of them pounds
and pounds at the door of the one house
that won’t accept them, the one heart, the one
indifferent ear—willful, running on fumes,
they throw themselves against that hardness.

While we may leave that poem feeling powerfully slammed against the pavement or door, we have the contrast of a poem like “Water Music” where a more pleasurable and surprising form of movement emerges. The poem begins with the speaker telling us,

I have fashioned a miniature fountain
from scraps of dream…

Those two lines alone could be enough to carry the rest of a poem that might simply describe the dream or the fountain or both in an aesthetically pleasing way, but as with so many other poems in the collection, it turns toward something larger; we go to the past through

a sound
that makes me long to be touched by upheaval. History
bearing me somewhere I haven’t been.

In second stanza, we’ve made it to the realm of a perceived separation and barrier between the sexes, a realm where the speaker tells us

                       Yet when I read the great
poems written by men who lived
before me, I find myself peering through
museum glass, waiting to be allowed
inside. Then outside. Against the rigors
that might forge and pound into shape
a significant life, there is something else
I crave—maybe grace, a sense of my feet
caressing the ground…

By the third stanza, the speaker who began by looking at her fountain made “from scraps of dream” imagines men and women joining to dance in a form where the weight of the past has been let go, where the body gives way to music, and we’re left with this question:

when their hips give in to the music
and I can see in their faces the world’s business
has loosened its hold, how can I not love them,
how can I think my minor note

In this poem where the speaker has imagined, speculated, and dreamed her way to this question-as-conclusion, we arrive at a place of love and gratitude; whatever the method of movement—and prepare yourself for a multitude of forms—in Progress, that is often the place of arrival though it is not the only one.

With a book of this scope, it seems reasonable to ask where we arrive by the end, what answers Ullman ultimately gives to her questions. Here’s a hint: the final poem involves subjects as large as absence and the sky, what we lose and what we find. This poem, like so many in the collection, turns in a way that is both surprising and down right breathtaking. I urge you to take the journey with this book; maybe you’ll start with that last poem and find your way to what the poet as companion and guide has been telling us to do all along, “Consider Desire.”[1]

—Summar West

 Summar shot

Summar West was born and raised in East Tennessee. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, including Tar River Poetry, Ellipsis, Appalachian Heritage, and Appalachian Journal. She currently resides in Montpelier, Vermont.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See a selection of Leslie Ullman poems, including “Consider Desire” earlier published in the magazine here.
Apr 042014


What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why are we so hell-bent on love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. –Richard Farrell


Lorrie Moore
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 192 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-59413-6


The landscape of love, booby-trapped with the broken-hearted and littered with deteriorating destinies, is familiar territory for Lorrie Moore. Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark, explores the underbelly of Eros with wit, wisdom and unflinching honesty. Each of the eight stories in Bark, her first story collection since the wildly successful Birds of America, contends with romantic relationships, most in some state of decline, a few in outright freefall. But lest this all sound too heavy, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about Lorrie Moore here, a writer who delights in the uncanny juxtapositions of humor and pathos to tug a story along. Her verbal pyrotechnics and structural harmonies can always make you smile, even amidst the bleakest affair of the heart.

“I can’t live without love in my life,” says Ira—the protagonist in the opening story, “Debarking.” Ira, recently divorced, has reached an existential conclusion: even bad love is better than no love at all. A middle-aged Jewish man thrust back into the dating scene, Ira skips Passover Seder in order to meet a woman at a Lenten dinner with his Christian friends. To mask his nervousness, Ira cracks resurrection jokes. “Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the Crucifixion. ‘We really didn’t intend it,’ he murmured, ‘not really, not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away’” Ira seems hell-bent on his own comic demise until he meets Zora, another divorcee, who laughs at his oddball jokes, sparking off their bizarre coupling.

Over the course of this 46-page story (the first of two very long stories in Bark), Ira and Zora contend with families, dating rituals and sex, and in most cases, without much success. After the aforementioned dinner, Ira sends Zora a short note and his phone number on a postcard with a picture of “newlyweds dragging empty Spam cans from the bumper of their car.” Moore makes the vivid image of this postcard resonate with irony and meaning. The postcard is funny, but also loaded. Are the newlyweds destined for unhappiness? Is all love like a string of empty Spam cans? And why a postcard? For Ira, the hapless and hopeless romantic, a postcard represents the “geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip Van Winkle.” Desperate but cautious, Ira tries to make all the right moves. But Moore wants us to remember that there is nothing rational about human desire, and she constantly pricks at every attempt to make it so.

A few days later, Zora replies in kind, also sending Ira a postcard, but her message copies the very words he wrote. “Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no too, no emphasized you, just the exact same words thrown back at him like some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was crazy or stupid or he was being too hard on her.”

Zora’s strange mimicry hints at what might be a profound emptiness behind the ritual. Maybe all the moves a lover makes are for naught. Maybe the palace is only a façade. Moore’s exploration of zany relationships (few are zanier than Ira and Zora’s) reveals much confusion about the nature of love. What’s happening here? Why is everyone acting, playing a part in a carefully orchestrated dance without music or steps? To mix the metaphor a bit, if love is a mirror, a reflection of the lover cast back upon himself, then the expected response is one of the familiar, some ting of recognition. But Moore’s mirrors belong in funhouses. The reflections they send back distort, and the images are grotesque parodies of any romantic ideal. Rather than recognition, Ira finds perversions, warped emotions, and confusion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wonderful scene when Ira finally calls Zora to ask her out on a date.

He phoned Zora four days later, so as not to seem discouragingly eager. He summoned up his most confident acting. ‘Hi, Zora?’ This is Ira,’ and then waited—narcissistically perhaps, but what else was there to say?—for her response.
‘Yes. Ira Milkins.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. “I don’t know who you are.’

In this story about acting, about seeming, about playing games with the heart, misapprehension shatters hope. This reversal, Zora’s failure to recognize Ira, underscores not only the narcissism of falling in love (don’t we all expect to be loved back?) but also the more desperate need to be noticed, to be seen and heard by another human being. We can’t be loved without first being visible, but if all we present is a mask, then when are we ever truly seen?

Moore takes the idea of invisibility to a much higher level in “Paper Losses,” a shorter story (at 12 pages) than “Debarking,” and one that deals with the end of love, rather than its beginning. Kit and Rafe are a married couple in the process of splitting up. They’ve stopped having sex, stopped talking, and even stopped caring about these things. Rafe descends nightly into the family basement to assemble model rockets, and the lonely house fills up with fumes of paint and glue.

She seldom saw him anymore when he got up in the morning and left for his office. And when he came home from work, he would disappear down the basement stairs. Nightly, in the anxious conjugal dusk that was now their only life together, after the kids went to bed, the house would fill up with fumes. When she called down to him about this he never answered. He seemed to have turned into some sort of space alien. Of course later she would understand that all this meant he was involved with another woman, but at the time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypotheses only: brain tumor or space alien.

The epitome of dissolution is not fighting. When couples argue, they are still holding on to something. But when silence prevails, when a person stops answering, when muted apathy fills the home, there isn’t much to be done. The lover turns into a space alien, a creature so utterly foreign as to be unrecognizable.

Rafe serves Kit with divorce papers while he’s still living in their home. “‘Honey,’ she said trembling, ‘something very interesting came in the mail today.’” But before Kit and Rafe can call it quits, they must decide what to do about a previously-planned family vacation. Kit decides she wants to go. “What bimbo did he want to give her ticket to? (Only later would she find out.)” This is vintage Lorrie Moore. Circumstance beats down her characters, but never defeats them.

The vacation, naturally, is a disaster. Kit loses her luggage and must wear gift shop clothes. Rafe continues to ignore her, even in the bright sunshine of the Caribbean. With characteristic humor, Moore takes a few shots at the notion of the idyllic family vacation: “They all slept in the same room, in separate beds, and saw other families squalling and squabbling, so that, by comparison theirs—a family about to break apart for ever—didn’t look so bad.” This subversion—the divorced family appearing more normal than the happy family—reiterates the theme: love is a confusing mess.

At one point, Kit thinks, “This at last was what all those high school drama classes had been for: acting.” Appearances can be contradictory at best, outright lies at worst. And everything about their vacation (no less their marriage) involves keeping up appearances, about pretending, even at the bitter end. Miserable families pretend to be happy and disintegrating families pretend to be intact.

When they left La Caribe, its crab claws of land extending into the blue bay, she was glad. Staying there she had begun to hate the world. In the airports and on the planes home, she did not even try to act natural; natural was a felony. She spoke to her children calmly, from a script, with dialogue and stage directions of utter neutrality. Back home in Beersboro she unpacked the condoms and candles, her little love sack, completely unused, and threw it all in the trash. What had she been thinking? Later, when she learned to tell this story, as a story, she would construct a final lovemaking scene of sentimental vengeance that would contain the inviolable center of their love, the sweet animal safety of night after night, the still-beating tender heart of marriage. But for now she would become like her unruinable daughters, and even her son, who as he aged stoically and carried on regardless would come scarcely to recall—was it past even imagining—that she and Rafe had been together at all.

If natural was a felony, it’s no wonder that Kit began to hate the world. She will invent a story to contain the mystery, the inviolable center of love. Perhaps this is the best we can do, but Moore shows us that it’s nowhere near good enough. Love, ever elusive, can only be glimpsed in our messy, fumbling pursuits of it, or in the way we ruin it.

What remains, then, is a high-stakes quest for companionship. Kit, Ira, maybe the rest of us too, are all trying to stave off the cold loneliness of the world. What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why do we continue to seek out love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. In Bark, the closer the characters get to the unbridgeable chasm, the more desperately they chase, and the more certain their own isolation becomes. Love proves almost impossible, so everyone wears a mask, which defeats the very purpose, in almost solipsistic logic. The manifestation of the act—the eventual coupling between Ira and Zora, the decoupling of Kit and Rafe—verges on the farcical. Luggage is lost, empty Spam cans are tied to bumpers. Lovers remain forever strangers.

Still, it would be an over-simplification to say that all of the stories are strictly love stories. Moore is too sharp a writer to be so easily categorized. In “Foes” and “Subject to Search,” Moore dabbles overtly in contemporary politics. In “Juniper Tree,” she summons her inner Dickens and tells a delightful ghost story. “Wings,” the other novella-length story in the book, is about a washed-up musician who befriends an elderly philosopher. It is probably my favorite in the book. Of course, the friendship goes wrong when the geezer philosopher tries to stick his tongue down the woman’s throat. We just can’t seem to get this stuff right.

Bark contains heartbreaking, hilarious, and honest stories. It is a wise meditation on the human struggle for affection, for identity, and for meaning. Less transcendent than Whitman’s barbaric yawp, more restrained than Ginsburg’s howl, Moore’s bark sounds a weary note. Like a dog tied to a tree, we bark, hoping only to be heard, to be released from the ties that bind. Or perhaps bark refers to the tree itself, to the hard outer core which protects the inner pulp, the life force flowing through each of us, so fragile, so hidden beneath an impenetrable shell. “The end of love was one big zombie movie,” Moore writes. Perhaps. But in every zombie movie, a human or two always survives, someone to wander through the chaos and squalor, seeking, holding out, carrying on. Whatever holds us back, whatever constrains us, also reminds us that there is something more out there, something worthwhile beyond the chain, inside the bark. Despite the misery, despite the empty-Spam-can destiny that surely awaits the seeker, the pursuit continues unabated. We bark, or we die. Moore puts it more eloquently, if not a bit more bleakly:

Living did not mean joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game. One could hold the cards for oneself or not: they would land the same regardless. Tenderness did not enter except in a damaged way and by luck.

—Richard Farrell

Rich Gun-001

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.


Apr 032014


Why do we write? Why bother to write? I remember the advent of Game Boy, the beginning of the current culture wherein the signal gesture is eyes downcast concentrating on some hand held device, and thinking, well, it’s all over now. Readers gone, illiterate sons, no point. But then my sons grew up to be writers and one persists. And we started the magazine (so that now, when I see someone bent over a phone, I think, ah! another reader — okay, wishful thinking). But the question persists, always persists — why write?

Genese Grill, who in February contributed to Numéro Cinq her insightful and erudite essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, herewith delivers an apologia (ancient form — nothing to do with apologizing) for writing, a passionate, persuasive, eloquent (not to mention well-written) defence of the realm of writing. Read it and rush to the barricades (or get out your laptop and start writing). This essay is the preface to a book of essays in progress. Genese (have I mentioned that she is an artist, also a scholar and a translator of Musil?) also created a room-sized hand-painted accordion book with one of the essays painted on the panels; we’ve included images of that as well (photos by Rebecca Mack). Because in this day and age, as we see over and over in Numéro Cinq, the word is art.


When so many others have written before us, illuminated, explained, shown, arranged, described the world and human existence, when so many others more eloquent, more learned, more witty, more poetic have polemicized and preached about what is important, about how we must live, about what is wrong with society, with our lives, with our thinking, when the world is arguably in countless ways even worse now despite all the words, when it is even less humanistic, more materialistic, less poetic, more utilitarian, when humans seem even less connected, more isolated, even after generations of  writers have toiled to share their insights and to inspire to a better existence —we persist in writing, in feeling that writing might be a meaningful way to save the world, save our souls, to right the wrongs, make up for  disappointments, overcome alienation and despair.

In addition to all of these common complaints lodged against writing, there are even people who believe that reading and writing belong to a hopelessly corrupt past, that they are the tainted remains of a paternalistic Enlightenment attempt to control people’s thoughts by an elite which, the theory goes, misguidedly or even treacherously posed as reformers, teachers, fellow human beings. Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed—when they aimed at culture—at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busy-ness and consumerism that has become the norm? Is there no other way to get free?

Are great books really something to defend against, to ridicule, to knock off a pedestal? Or have they not always, mainly, been a powerful force of liberation, often a critique, often a means toward humanizing, toward inspiring tenderness and compassion? Ironically, the great books of the past seem to have increasingly induced a sort of revolutionary fervor which has itself taught people to doubt, to deconstruct, to denigrate books themselves. The educated Marxist professor snarls at the great works of the past like an ungrateful cur or a parasite who has forgotten who first taught him the word freedom. Like Caliban, who complains that Prospero taught him language, the ingrate only knows how to curse the magic of culture. But poor Caliban, the reader may object, is Prospero’s colonialist slave, so he may well begrudge his master’s “kindness”. Quite right, my skeptical post-modern reader, quite rightly read. Yet who but Shakespeare taught us this?


Now that people read so little it is even more difficult than ever to measure the “use” or benefit of writing (leaving aside for just a moment the all-important  non-utilitarian aspects of writing). We might even ask why, if writing is efficacious, it has not succeeded in ensuring a practicable love of reading in our society, where, apparently, the average person reads but one book a year—at most. If we really want to change the world, if we really want —indeed, even in a maligned Enlightenment tradition—to inspire reform, reach people, impart urgency, does writing a book make sense?  Who will read it? What will it do? Won’t it just be ignored?

Do words and ideas impact the world at all, or are we raising our voices like that passionate orator Mynheer Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, howling at the edge of a riotously loud waterfall, our words hopelessly drowned out by the spray and sensation of a force — in our case of media, convenience, technological  sensationalism, consumerism, novelty and speed—a force far stronger than all our dusty fusty intellectual intensity and our airy ideations?  Why do we persist in writing when writing seems sometimes to make so little palpable difference?

Do we continue out of a self-indulgent personal love of a way of life that has now become solipsistic or stubbornly antiquarian? Because it is what we like to do or because it is the only thing we know how to do?  Or can it be that the act of writing itself—yes, real writing, inscribing, on paper, with ink, for printing  in books that one can hold in one’s hands—is now something of a revolutionary act in itself, an act that is more than just an empty fatalistic last gesture in honor of some lost world?

 I wager that, yes, to write books, to read and treasure books and ideas and intellectual discourse is a revolutionary act (if somehow simultaneously reactionary).  I might even venture that one of the reasons reading is so out of fashion is not that it is boring and ineffectual but because it has the power to function as a sort of flaming conscience illuminating the “bad faith” of a general state of denial and a neglect of higher ethics and spiritual aesthetic values.  As Kafka suggested, a really great book is like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.  Do today’s humans care to be thus destroyed, broken down, burnt up, challenged? Whether they do or no, it is imperative that we strain and strive to rouse to wakefulness whoever is still even the least bit conscious, even if it means pouring a bucket of cold water upon our fellow humans and, yes, even upon ourselves in  our most comfortable and ethically lazy hiding places.  To write is to challenge the negligent, disinterested, laissez-faire status quo.  Culture, in the coinage of my friend Stephen Callahan, is the new Counter-Culture.  We may not win the war, but we have no choice but to fight, or write, as the case may be.


But let us return to the aforementioned non-utilitarian aspects of writing and reading. These aspects are inextricably bound up in everything which is to be gained or lost along the way.  Outside of the content and import of what there is to be said and argued and persuasively insisted, the experience of writing (reflective, committed, difficult, grappling, ruminative, essayistic, careful, aesthetic, emotional) and the experience of reading (in relative quiet, with respect to the considered ideas of another human being,  critically, with margins, with emotion and inter-subjectivity, with devotion) bears its own weight and its own significance in the context of today’s fragmented and casual society. In other words, the way in which we read and write is directly commensurate to the way in which we construct meaning and measure value in our lives, our world, our history, our future, our fellow beings.  Reading and writing are two very representative practices that demonstrate the essential dynamic relationship between spirit and matter.  Ideas and words, living and breathing in books and sentences, synthesizing, dissecting, and re-animating realities, influence and engender our physical world. By altering these practices or marginalizing them, we are, in essence, altering the very way we conceptualize, share, proffer, process and manifest ideas. Thus I begin with an underlying assumption about the ability of spirit to matter in questions of matter and in hopes of breaking internal frozen seas on an individual and universal level, one reader at a time, one tiny fissure, one tiny idea at a time.

Writers all sometimes believe that they have something new and important to say that has not been said in quite the same way and quite the same context as before.  Other times they fear they have absolutely nothing at all of value to add. Even our own “freshest” ideas are but reanimations and reworkings of mostly the same things that have fascinated us since the beginning of our personal consciousness. We think we have come upon something new only to find it in much the same words in a notebook from a decade ago. Yet the slight variations of syntax, the context into which we have now placed an idea, may make worlds of difference, may be the small strand of hay that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.  A small idea may be waiting, hidden in a large book, for the right reader, just like a despairing romantic inside a country house deep in the woods, with just a candle in the window, is waiting for a surprise visitor.

Something another writer has said may make us furious, or egg us on to verbally spar; we may be exhausted by received ideas, by the sort of questions which seem to leave only two possible and unsatisfactory possibilities as answers. We may think we know how to pose a new question altogether or provide a third or fourth answer which, as Cummings hoped, asks its own new question and so on and so on. I am reminded of the utopian visionary Charles Fourier, whose preface to his opus The Four Movements claims that he alone, finally, after so many centuries, has discovered the single most important secret to human happiness that no one, not one person ever, has even begun to imagine before him.  An outrageous, majestic, beautiful and absurd claim! Nevertheless, it is true that each new voice may add something invaluable to the conversation. Imagine how bereft the ensuing centuries would have been had Fourier not had the courage of his crowing and had kept his revolutionary ideas to himself?!  This French visionary is an apt exemplum of the way in which spirit works on matter, because his ideas were, in fact, directly influential on actions. The words that he committed to paper in a tiny room in Paris formed a good part of the basis of American utopian communities (like the late Brook Farm), even if a slightly puritan-tinged interpretation of his phalansteries and phalanxes left out some of his wilder and more improbable imaginings (the sea that would turn to lemonade, the evolutionary development of human tails, the benefits of unhindered passional attractions).


On the train to Concord Massachusetts to attend a transcendentalist conference, I met a fellow scholar and we fell quickly into a surprisingly heated argument about whether or not the intellections of the abolitionist movement had had anything significant to do with the ending of slavery. This fellow maintained that all the ideas, all the writing, all the speechifying, all the newspapers and broadsheets of the period had really had no significant influence on the success of abolitionism  in comparison to that effected by the Northern soldiers’ experience going into Southern states and seeing the horrors of slavery with their own eyes.  While it certainly makes sense that this real life experience was revolutionary, it seemed rather odd to me to deny that ideas and words had contributed to changing things.  The eye-witness experiences of these soldiers were, in fact, written down in letters home or in essays for Northern journals; and other first-hand accounts, by escaped slaves, penitent owners, or in fictional accounts, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, surely crystalized vivid experiences into words, ideas, and theories.

Why then did my fellow traveler want so much for it to be so that words did not do anything, that ideas were ineffectual in history?  I knew why I wanted the opposite to be true. I needed, with every fiber of my being, to believe that ideas changed the world, for better or for worse; and he, whose dislike of Emerson turned out to be no accident, needed to believe the opposite. He wanted to take the power out of the hands of the educated classes, and away from the individual, self-reliant, supposedly elitist genius, and place it in the many hands of the illiterate soldiers, or into the slippery hands of fate, as Tolstoy tries to do in War and Peace, where he argues, implicitly in his story and explicitly in his essayism, that history is not made by individual choices or heroes, but by the random forces of accident.

But this dualistic split between the elite educated classes and the illiterate masses is, to my mind, a dangerous and largely unexamined construct that demands unpacking and re-visioning.  Is it really necessary to throw out culture and intellect because one portion of humanity has traditionally had a unique access to it? Would it not be better to work toward providing more members of society with the skills and the agency to critically consider philosophical, social, and aesthetic ideas and to participate in a meaningful and reality-relevant conversation about how we are best to live and function as a society? Anti-intellectualism seems to be a persistent American trait which somehow is inextricably bound up with the mythology of democracy. But is the vilifying of culture really a helpful response to our current problems?

My desire to believe in the efficacy of ideas and writing combines a commitment to the preservation of high culture and committed scholarship with a conviction that the realm of ideas and words should never be something to which only one class of people has access.   I am also certain that such culture is best, most lively, most meaningful, when kept in the closest possible contact with our real lives and experiences, not separated into mere abstractions or de-contextualized from social practices or the lives of others. I believe that almost anyone can learn to read, write, and think and that the insights and depth of consideration to be gained through the process of wrangling with the written word is a richer and fundamentally different process than that to be acquired through the more casual and relatively non-committal process of conversation (though speech might also meaningfully aspire to more careful and sacred consideration). I also maintain that almost anyone has the power to change the way the whole world sees and acts and lives, with little more than curiosity, some learning, and some passionate discipline, and that the words and ideas of any one individual can and do and will move others immeasurably.

In my years as a community college instructor I have seen with my own eyes how even those students with little to no academic preparation, students who are struggling to hold two jobs, go to school, and raise children on their own, can and do become immediately passionately engaged in the philosophical, social, and aesthetic questions which need to be considered before beginning to live a considered, ethical, and socially-responsible life. While it is of course easier by far to engage in philosophical and poetic activity when one is not under the constant strain of putting bread on the table or buying a new pair of shoes for one’s children, to thus conclude that only those who have easy access to leisure can participate in reflection, critical thinking, and spiritual aesthetic experience is really the worst form of cynicism—one which hides a treacherous snobbery under its supposedly compassionate condemnation of the alleged elitism of culture.

For to deny anyone the right or responsibility to participate in the communal reflection on and creation of the world is to me a crime. To do so is to deny that person his or her humanity. Instead of silencing further those whose concerns and ideas have all-too-often been traditionally undervalued, this is a call to innovative and  positive inter-action rather than continual  complaint about the restrictive and technocratic megalithic structures and systems that seem sometimes to confine and define us; a call to utilize the language and the raw material given to us instead of stubbornly calling foul and refusing to participate in a system, history,  and culture that are, indeed, deeply flawed and haunted by ghosts and demons of all kinds. This communally created labyrinth of oscillating desires, repressions, rebellions, resistances, and generativity remains, despite or even by virtue of its darker shadows, also a culture rich in beauty, humanism, tenderness, striving, passionate inquiry, imagination, and myriad evidences of the most ecstatic forms of life and love.


The conflict between intellectual culture and popular action had of course been rehearsed before we 21st century humans repeated it on the suburban train out of Boston—by former now-famous Concordians. The transcendentalist movement notoriously split off into two factions comprised, on the one hand, of individualist thinkers and writers, and, on the other, of engaged activists and communal utopians.  But this narrative of a clean split is quite misrepresentative of the complexities and overlappings that really obtained.  Bronson Alcott, possibly the least grounded of all the Concordians, felt impelled to actually experiment with his ideals in the real world, and founded the Fruitlands community, which eventually foundered on an unworkable proportion between the physical and the spiritual realms.  George Ripley founded Brook Farm, which made a formidable attempt at bridging the gap between ideal and reality.  Both utopian communities featured excellent progressive schools and were fundamentally attempts to give working people access to higher learning and to give the all-too dainty middle and upper class intellectual the chance to get his or her hands dirty. Hawthorne quickly learned that he could not get any literary work done after a day’s toiling in the fields; but others found the combination of matter and spirit salutary if not precisely conducive to the creation of great works of literature. Finding the right balance of body, mind, and soul is never easy.

Hyper-educated “bluestockings” like  Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller (who claimed she had the headaches of a genius)  suffered myriad physical pains in their striving for intellectual transcendence (but Margaret, at least, finally ran off to fight a real revolution in Italy and take on her first lover, supposedly an Adonis with limited intellectual talents). Elizabeth educated herself prodigiously, wrote, edited, taught, and ran the most intellectually exciting bookstore in Boston, while simultaneously supporting and caring for a large and unruly family of siblings and various unstable and sick relatives. Her two sisters, Mary and Sophia, won away from her the only possible suitors she entertained (Nathanial Hawthorne and Horace Mann).  It may be difficult to measure the effect of her genius (despite her own share of headaches) on the real world, but I think, although largely unappreciated, it was not minor after all was said and done.

The abolitionists (spear-headed by fiery women strategists) kept spreading the word, with and without the intellectual authority of rousing speeches by Emerson and Thoreau; Thoreau built a real house in the woods, instead of just writing about an imaginary one, but scorned the jailers who tried to imprison his soul within the walls of the Concord jail one night (because his soul, his conscience, his mind was free) ; committees and clubs were founded; gardens were  planted; journals begun, printed, proliferated, and abandoned; walks were taken; hands were grasped;  love was and was not consummated;  letters were written and sometimes not sent; and, as Emily Dickinson cryptically noted from nearby Amherst, “people must have puddings”.

Bronson Alcott’s inability to take the physical world into consideration (exemplified by his comic attempt to move his family home without putting a foundation under it) was counteracted by his daughter Louisa’s intense focus on ensuring material security (with Little Women, she earned more money from her pen than any other writer of the period, with the possible exception of  Harriet Beecher Stowe); but her traumatic experience with an inept spiritualist father may have kept Louisa from ever daring to enter into conjugal relations with a man. When a visitor asked if there were any animals laboring on the farm at Fruitlands, Louisa’s mother famously answered, “Only one woman,” but of course there were more women than one: the daughters helped too.   Ironically, Louisa’s practical innovations were all in the interest of avoiding more physical labor by providing herself and her family with the financial support necessary to dream and imagine. In a similar strain, Thoreau began his peon to transcendence with a chapter entitled “Economy”—an economy calculated to afford its readers with a  model most conducive to musing, intellectual activity, aesthetic experience, walking and communing with Nature, the World All, and the timeless reverberations of morning moods.

The painted trays, quilts, and pies made by abolitionist women supported the more ineffable traveling lectures given by escaped slaves as well as the writing and publication of propaganda journals and the legislative process of lobbying and advocacy.  The theories and words of social intellectuals were answered by the actions of smugglers on the underground railroad and even more violent physical acts of daring such as the raid on Harper’s Ferry—or perhaps the actions inspired the words;  quilts and pies and gunpowder and risked lives worked in tandem with ideas, words, and ideals.

The idea craves and creates action and manifestation; the experience and the action are object lessons, rituals, or manifestations that inspire ideas and fresh conceptualization.  The experimental enactment is spurred on, checked, re-evaluated, and given meaning by the idea, the vision, the transcendental imagination.  Material choices are made on the basis of spiritual values and spiritual values must be made on the basis of certain unavoidable material realities. Of course there are times in history or in one’s personal life when actions may be taken that fly in the face of physical practicality and prudence, when a person literally sacrifices his or her bodily comfort, convenience, or even existence for an idea or ideal. For ideas and values that are not lived or have not touched and changed or colored our lives and perceptions may as well not have been thought or written down at all.


We write in the hopes that our words could mean something to someone, somewhere, across time and space. Has Walden made a difference in the world? Have Thoreau’s words been heeded? On the one hand, when we see the mass of men and women in quiet desperation who prefer to go on with their accumulating and wage slavery rather than consider living a different way, his words certainly do not seem to have mattered much. When we see the persistent and total destruction of the ecosystem, we may wonder about the power of his statement:  “Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds”.  For, as if in refutation of a cryptic oracle, they (or is it even we?) really have managed this seemingly impossible feat, as clouds are visually cut down by skyscrapers, airplanes, and countless towers of technology.  On the other hand, we know “many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” as Thoreau himself noted in his chapter on reading.  We ourselves know how much certain books have meant to us, how they have changed our lives both materially (in terms of conduct of life) and spiritually (in terms of directing how we see the world).

Like the awkward anti-heroes of a fairy tale, like Dumb Hans or the Goose Girl, we write as if we were attempting to complete some impossible task against all odds. We are climbing the mountain of glass, separating the millions of lentils from the millions of stones, weaving gold out of straw before dawn, trying to guess the magic word in three days, and scooping the ocean out with a leaky thimble, day after day, decade after decade, on the chance possibility that some drop, some one word or phrase of what we write, will get through to someone, make us, make a possible reader feel less alone, confirm our own suspicions, solicit a response, an echo, a challenge, across the watery abyss.  And if it sometimes seems as if writing has made no impact at all on the rushing, raving world, let us at least consider that it might have been an even uglier, an even colder, an even more callous world still, without the absurdly Sisyphean labors of writers and thinkers who have constantly brought all their small weight to bear against the weighty downward slide, who might, in fact, be the ones responsible for keeping total chaos, destruction, and utter indifference at bay—just until now.

 If we were to let up at long last, give up, resign ourselves to silence — I dare not even suggest what might happen, what horrific indifference and simulated emptiness might ooze into every last crack and bury  us alive, unable to remember the slightest thing, unable to form sentences or consider our actions, unable to value, denounce, celebrate, or dream.  We may never know what nasty nightmare our often thankless little efforts keep at bay.  But let us, at the very least, write in thanks and tribute to those who have persisted in the past, against such odds, in believing that writing, that ideas, that visions and images, do matter.  One thimble-full of salvaged words, one pearl of sweat or salt tear, one drop of ink, made of belief, commitment, made of love of humanity, of history, of culture, and of nature, no matter how humble, no matter how seemingly quiet, inarticulate, or out of tune, no matter how seemingly unheeded, may be precisely the enlivening, moistening alchemical liquid needful to keep the well of inspiration from going dry once and for all.  Was it in despair or in hope that Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy counseled thusly: “Writers! Open the vein!”? Did he mean we had better end it all? I like to think, rather, that he meant we ought to write as if our own life blood, all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, were flowing onto the page, that we might die even in the midst of writing—in making visible and hopefully intelligible— whatever it is we have within us.

—Genese Grill, with photographs by Rebecca Mack

.G photo for BBF

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, and translator living in Burlington Vermont and the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012). “Apologia” is part of a collection-in-progress entitled, Keepsakes: On Matter, Immateriality, and the Making of Meaning. She currently is pursuing the mad task of possibly re-creating the world through metaphor by building and inscribing a giant room-sized hand-illuminated accordion book portal containing an essay from this collection, and by working on a series of translations of previously unpublished Robert Musil writings (to be published by Contra Mundum Press beginning in 2015).

Apr 022014


 The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings… —Natalie Helberg

Day  of Wrath Cover Pic

The Brunist Day of Wrath
Robert Coover
Dzanc Books
1100 pages, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1938604386


Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath is a boisterous, bloody, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring—for any writer, humbling—sometimes painfully, but always expertly, protracted ride. Countless characters and their countless voices well up out of its thousand pages, mingling as subplots crisscross and ramify: Cultists clash with the local and power-laden in a high-profile scrimmage for property; cult benefactors drain joint bank-accounts, screwing local, power-laden husbands out of their underpinning monies; skeptics balk, hoot, and forewarn; believers pray, persist together, at odds, or else, defecting, wail for reckoning; trailer-brats rapture cats; fathers disown sons and sons abandon fathers; signs are deciphered, then, ad hoc, re-deciphered; God is named, variously; musically-inclined yokels hit it big; an aspiring saint is gang-raped; demons are conceived, and, on a rooftop in the midst of a bloodbath to end bloodbaths, a murderous, evangelical biker is volatized by choppers.

The book before the book, The Origin of the Brunists, like the fictive doomsday cult whose origin it catalogues, begins with light. An explosion. Confused prose conveys its confused wake: ‘There was light and / post drill leaped smashed the/turned over the whole goddamn car kicking / felt it in his ears, grabbed his bucket, and turned from the face.’ Light: Two shadows, miners, duck out of sight; a cigarette in a small earthen chamber disintegrates the next instant. Gas. Light. Flame feeding flame. Black smoke furling into shafts, tunnels. Blocked passageways and rubble. The sentient shadows die. Or live. Many die. Most. Laboriously, for lack of oxygen. Singly and in groups. A message wrapped in a preacher’s fingers—stiff fingers—makes it to the surface. It prophesies the coming of light, the end of the world.

The accident at Deepwater No. 9 Coalmine, the essence of West Condon, ushers in the town’s demise, its economic and spiritual ruin. It gives rise to the Brunists, who inaugurate and so-name themselves so as to better await an end that, as livelihoods are lost and reputations are ruined, as sermons bubble forth alongside bar talk and smack talk, as lechers skulk to their lovers, and as poseurs pose to achieve base purposes, is endlessly deferred.

The Brunist Day of Wrath picks up here: Five years later, not much has changed. Those who lost everything in the first novel have lost or are in the process of losing more. The Brunists, having dispersed, gather once more in anticipation of the End’s anniversary (puzzling, they know). Only this time there are hellions: The children of the tyrannical Reverend Baxter—wife-beater, child-beater, convert but erstwhile Brunist nemesis #1—a man as fiery as the Book of Revelations itself—have grown up. Once friendly, neighbourhood terrorizers flaunting a charred human hand, eldest and youngest son are now cold-blooded gangsters. They bow to a ferocious god akin to that of the Old Testament (‘the Big One’) and, with a clutch of armed bikers—not Brunist-endorsed, though their tats are Brunist—not to mention with Nitro foraged from the abandoned mine site, plan to rev up, rip through and blitz West Condon.

Thus The Brunist Day of Wrath, like some horrible ouroboros, curls back to touch its origin: The mine explodes, ejecting prophecy—‘the Coming of the Light’—which, moving through a complicated chain of human intercessors, begets further explosion.     

And yet there is a day beyond this day of wrath, an end beyond the end: an epilogue in which the novel becomes fully self-reflexive; this is a text about a writer, writing. It reminds us that The Brunist Day of Wrath, like most of Coover’s work, is largely preoccupied with signs and symbols, stories, story-forms and tropes. It is a book about the power they have over us, about the fact that they are human-generated, the fact that they rigidify around us in deleterious ways (or become crusty, as Coover says), and the even more momentous fact that they are tractable to invention: they can be appropriated and rejiggered; they can be wildly embellished upon.  

Coover has devoted his art to shifting and embellishing upon them, partly by creating work that is self-interrogating (he is called a fabulist for this reason): In books like Briar Rose, in which an old crone subjects a sleeping beauty to innumerable variations on the eponymous tale, he creates the tale anew as a series of its own novel versions, and this despite the princess’s unremitting protestation (perhaps representative of a culture’s) that this is not how stories are told. But these stories, repeated, are both the dreams the child (culture) dreams and her waking reality; to not refashion them, to merely accept what has—for whatever corresponds, in real time, to Beauty’s 100-year slumber—been handed down, would be, for the crone, to risk sinking into ‘a sleep as deep’ as the princess inhabits: a dangerous, unnecessary, and even laughable automatism.

In Pricksongs and Descants, Coover uses a similar technique to refresh the short-story form; in, for example, “The Babysitter” from that collection, he varies a handful of scenarios across a series of short, disconnected paragraphs. The story is ‘modular’ in Madison Smartt Bell’s sense of the term: Key details are altered or swapped for reasonable facsimiles in corresponding paragraphs (text blocks): in one, the baby has asphyxiated on a diaper pin; in another, it is screaming; in another, she, the babysitter, strangles it; in still another, it is at the bottom of the bathtub, ‘not swimming or anything.’ Text blocks can corroborate or contradict one another; they ‘mean’ together paratactically, or resonate with more than follow from one another. Thus tone can shift from block to block, as can point of view; in fact anything, as Bell says, can happen.[1] Variation, as a technique, is reflective of what Coover has called his wish to unpack a piece’s full range of possibilities, of an effort, as he puts it, ‘to explore the whole.’  

Though The Brunist Day of Wrath has a realist quality uncharacteristic of some of Coover’s other work, it nevertheless preserves a drive toward narrative playfulness and the absurd. That being said, the book’s flights of fancy, unlike those in a work like Pricksongs and Descants, remain at all times recuperable by something like realism: It is not the case that anything can happen from, say, one free-floating text block to another: In fact, in both The Origin of the Brunists and The Brunist Day of Wrath, if we encounter something disjoined or surreal, this is likely because we are reading a character’s letter or journal entry. Similarly, Jesus, in the latter narrative, who has taken up residence in an apostate, cannot disappear into thin air; his presence, not to mention his bantering sacrilege, his fun, off-colour reasoning, can be explained using the real-world term ‘alter-ego’; he both is and isn’t a mere voice in a mind—a fact which doesn’t preclude carnal baptisms with members of his ex-congregation:

‘I’m ready to do anything for you,’ Prissy whispers, peeling down her leotards…She steps into the tub and kneels between his feet and commences to wash them, one at a time. And then she lifts them and kisses them. ‘You are so beautiful,’ she says. ‘You are the most beautiful man I have ever known.’ When she says this, she is gazing affectionately past his feet at his middle parts, which are beginning to stir as though in enactment of the day’s [Easter] legend. It is not hard to prophecy what will happen next. Is he being tested? Be anxious for nothing, Jesus says. As it is written, no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. She has a car, she can be helpful to us. I, too, have known the company of helpful women of dubious morals.

What is notable on a stylistic level about The Brunist Day of Wrath is the sheer excess of Coover’s prose (the paragraphs in this work sprawl), and, relatedly, the amount of detail packed into nearly every character imagined: These characters are full-bodied, notably unique—unique as any of us are, perhaps more—and very far from the stock figures that dominate so many of his other pieces: princesses and private eyes, dames and woodsmen, characters whose respective profiles are, understandably and likely intentionally, blank as a trope’s. In some ways, the work is working realism through excess—conventional realism, anyway, since, as a character points out, ‘The conventional way of telling stories is a kind of religion,’ of course ‘the true realists are the lens-breakers’; ‘[t]ight-assed little paragraphs laid out like snapshots in a photo album are not for me.’ If the project, then, does, to a certain extent, locate itself within, and limit itself to, realism, it does so in order re-locate, or push, realism’s very mode of telling. Perhaps this pushing of realism is the reason Jesus, in the text, remains at all times plausible (certifiable). Perhaps it is also the reason characters, not Coover, pen the work’s zaniest digressions.

The text’s catalogue of kinds of signs and symbols—its interest in how ideas, experiences and phenomena are encoded and translated—is another point of excess; it is likely not unrelated to Coover’s commitment to the text’s full (and, in this case, metaphoric) potential: Dreams, dances and gypsy cards pepper these pages; if they are interpretations themselves, they must again be interpreted. Mute stroke victims blink eyes as visitors suss out their communications. Two bible college drop-outs even attempt to reconstruct the history of the Brunist cult’s formation; they use newspapers, stories, pornographic photographs and tape-recordings—versions, in short, to create a newer version. The Origin of the Brunists itself is more or less translated into the sequel, where it is mediated by the other characters’ acts of retrospection: We get it a second time in mosaic form, each pane perspectival.

Though The Origin of the Brunists shares some of the above preoccupations, musing on similar themes, specifically on ‘messages’—there are messages everywhere: ambiguous messages which are therefore as meaningful as they are meaningless: ‘the spirits never [say] things plain’ and ‘sometimes, well, words can mean two things, that’s all’—it nevertheless refrains from insisting on a message. This is perhaps less true (but not untrue) of The Brunist Day of Wrath. While in true postmodern fashion, The Origin of the Brunists mobilizes contradictory voices, allowing perceptive renderings of devout thought-processes and those of the incredulous, mocking, opportunistic newspaper editor (and perhaps absurdist), Miller, to exist on par, The Brunist Day of Wrath cedes itself to Sally:

Sally is Miller—one of the few central characters not carried over into the sequel—re-envisioned. She is a skeptic, a wit and a writer, and, in the epilogue it is she who, self-taxed, writes a version of the apocalypse, as it was manifest in West Condon. This book within the book, mentioned in a chapter written so as to seem to reference—so as to riff off the existence of—The Brunist Day of Wrath, institutes, within the text, the spectre of the author (for one thing, Sally is advised to try her hand writing from a male perspective—she uses some biographical details, though changes others). In some ways, she seems to channel Coover, who was inspired to complete his novel after George W. Bush was elected: the fundamentalists rose up and terror with them (Coover says ‘Young Bush,’ writes ‘Young Baxter’). As Sally says, ‘It’s like people are caught up in a dangerously insane story and they don’t know how to get out of it…’

This is why Sally, like Coover, in her capacity as a writer, aspires to shred story, to mutate the domain of the interpreted and the interpretable, to maintain its fluidity, or eat dreams (so she puts it). For in her text-world, truth is no more than a mode of rendering; lies expressed in the correct mode become true and effective, while truths expressed as opinions are dismissed in court. Even beyond the courtroom, a slick simpleton garbles facts to tenderly manipulate the dying and a West Condon reprobate lies to himself long enough, and elaborately enough, to confect sweet, false memories. Perhaps the only thing Coover’s book insists upon is story’s ontological potency. The work teems with real-world significance precisely because it is a story about story.

The Brunist Day of Wrath reflects a decade’s worth of labour and attention; it is a book that should, and does, take time to read, a book that, through mysterious means, nonetheless feels pressed on by some urgency. It seems feverish—serious and self-committed—though it is also pun-funny and clever-funny, daffy and delirious. And yet its eye, casting itself around like a billiard ball, picking up small-town grit and gossip, is uneasy, and should be, for it is accountable for its thousand crimes, self-conscious of its own apocalyptic imaginings: ‘What’s the toll now from all this madness?’ Sally asks, answering, ‘You might say a story has killed them all.’[2]

Natalie Helberg

  Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Joel Katelnikoff quotes Bell’s Narrative Design in his dissertation SCROLL / NETWORK / HACK: A Poetics of ASCII Literature (1983-1989). He also suggests that Coover’s stories in Pricksongs and Descants are modular in design, though without discussing particular examples
  2. See also an interview with Robert Coover on Numéro Cinq and readings and interviews at the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsound.
Apr 012014


Herewith a superb interview with Victoria Redel, the brilliant and prolific author of stories, novels and poems, also a former initiate of Captain Fiction himself, the irrepressible and undaunted Gordon Lish. Redel’s most recent books include Woman Without Umbrella (poems) and a story collection Make Me Do Things, both reviewed in NC. Conducting the interview is Jason Lucarelli, our resident Lish expert, conversant in all things Lishian, author of the foundational essays “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence” and “Using Everything: Pattern Making in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’ Robert Walser’s ‘Nothing at All,’ and Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Wrong Arm’.”


What is “story”? What is “necessary fiction”? What’s the difference?

It’s funny, really, that it should seem at all a daunting question—what is story?—when each day, many times a day, we hear stories, we tell stories. We make artifice of our lives almost immediately—You can’t believe what happened at work today…I heard the most amazing exchange in line at the supermarket…You’re not going to believe this but…We shape narratives inventing bits of dialogue, implying motives though describing gestures—what someone did or didn’t do, what was or wasn’t said. We shape narrative—eclipsing, conflating, inflating events, facts, and characters—because, instinctually, we know when to speed up or hold back. We want our listeners to listen with urgency and so we engage engagingly.

What we know everyday is this human urgency to express the uncanny. And we really all appreciate that family member, that friend, that stranger at the next table who pays a story out slowly, circling back through strange phrases, observations, the teller who takes us down a weird circuitous path and we go along—wary, excited—because we can’t figure out where it leads and yet the teller has made it essential that we follow. The story can be ragingly funny or plain spoken, quiet or raucous. Oddly every method of telling works if it feels authentic. Authentic—seems like an abstraction but it’s not. We are authenticity hounds, sniffing for fraudulence all day, everyday.

We know the difference between the story that never stirs us—through shape or language—and the story that jolts us further awake and alive. Somehow the witness, the telling, the engagement of the speaker feels original. By original I don’t mean that they’ve used a new-fangled anything. I don’t mean they’ve worn a clown’s nose or written in Pig Latin. By original I mean that the speaker has allowed herself to look and speak without yielding to received vision or language. It is being told then exactly as it must be told. And we listen; we can’t stop listening because we feel that we stand the chance of living better of being changed. You’re not going to believe this but…and just sometimes, right away, we feel something stunningly possible in that simple even over-used phrase. Despite skepticism, resistance to being changed, fear of being hood-winked or manipulated—right away, we inch closer to the speaker, we hold our fork to our lips, we grip the book closer to allow something new to happen to us.

I’ve told this teaching story before to students but I’ll try to tell it again. I was invited to teach a weeklong workshop at a university in the Midwest. I had students write every night and each day we’d read in class. I kept trying to get them to identify sentences in each other’s work that were essential and that were necessary. They could do it. Ears were well tuned. But they found it harder to identify a true sentence in their own writing. I sent the group home every night saying, “How did it sound in your kitchen? What is a necessary object for you?” One woman, a Spanish Literature Professor, dauntingly the most learned in the room, came in day after day with sentences, with paragraphs of prose that were so god-awful, so full of bullshit, phony, fancy-assed sentences. And I kept saying, “Nope, nope, not this.” On the fourth day the Professor of Spanish Literature came in clearly agitated. I thought, “Yikes, I’ve gone too far and really pissed this woman off.”

Then what happened was extraordinary. She began to read a piece about a blue bowl in her mother’s kitchen. The language was syntactically like nothing I’d heard before. Was it actually even English? Who cares, it was beyond gorgeous. When she finished, when we could finally breathe, one of us said, “Read that again.” After her second—or was it her third reading—I asked, “What happened? What was that?” She said, “I almost did not come to class today.” I said, “But you knew, you knew.” And she didn’t answer. “Where did that language come from?” I asked. She was quiet, looking more agitated than ever. It turned out that she came from a crevice in the ArkansasMountains where the language seemed at once to have twists of Elizabethan English and French. She was the first in her family to leave the area, to go to college, to learn to speak “proper” English. Well, she’d actually gone further, now was a Spanish Professor. She told us that after she wrote the piece, she felt certain that her PhD would be stripped away, her tenure taken away. It made her actually feel ill. That gorgeous, original paragraph of literature felt more dangerous than she could manage. She felt exposed, betrayed.

The press of a human heart up against the page. Language in necessary disequilibrium, in jeopardy, most of all with itself. That blue bowl, her mother’s bowl. The collision of event and character and language. The possibility of seeing into another human heart. “Well that’s just what some folks will do,” a neighbor said to Flannery O’Conner after reading some of her stories. That is a necessary fiction.


In a BOMB interview with Honor Moore, you talk about how “collage is the only way that [you’ve] figured out how to write something long in fiction.” But I also see this strategy at play in your short fiction too. The elliptical movement that was your vehicle in your early stories, specifically in Where The Road Bottoms Out, seems dialed down, or, at least, more subtly employed in Make Me Do Things. How do you see yourself—as of late, and in your new collection—exploring new narrative techniques?

Maybe it’s something I’ve borrowed from poetry. The poem can move by association—by image or language patterning to accrue a larger sense and a larger mystery. The stanza can often signal that kind of leap. So can the line. Extending this kind of patterning—image and language—in fiction provides you with another narrative strategy. In the novel I used collage by which I mean I wrote sections in chunks, sections that were linked to other sections by image or place or situation. I didn’t know how exactly to think about ordering initially. But I knew that once I’d created a thread I had to use it again. That was how I created plot. It made sense to have that kind of fragmentation because of the narrator’s state of mind. With the second novel I was confident that I would do it differently. More of a straight shot. No such luck. Novels have proven different altogether—maybe more compositionally like a poem.

When I began to write fiction I discovered, in a wholly new way, possibilities within the sentence. I discovered the joys of syntax. This seems ass-backwards; I should have found syntax first as poet. It seems that it was simply developmental, I was at last seeing what the music inside a sentence, the intelligence inside a sentence, the personality within the sentence might be. In those first stories things seemed possible and more than possible it felt essential at times to have three prepositional phrases jammed up together, to take the sentence in one direction and then press it into another direction. I began to consider what I could do with postponement or preponement of, for example, the subject of a sentence. I love that book of stories if, for nothing else, how dizzy and blissed out I was with just how to construct story sentence by sentence.

But how I went about the composition of a poem and a short story was kind of different. I usually write a draft of a poem in one sitting. And then, subsequently begin to mess around, add, subtract, rearrange, merge it with other poems, turn it bottom to top. With short stories I write pretty much sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph. The revision happens line by line so that when I get to the end I’m not revising. I’m usually done. I take that back. I often have written it too tightly and need to go back in and dilate from within.

You asked about the first book of stories and the second—which were published 18 years apart with novels and poetry collections in between. As you can see in this book I’m pretty interested in a close third person—I wanted to have a third person voice that’s as close to a first person POV as I could get. At least that’s true for a bunch of the stories. You say they are less elliptical. Are they? I probably move in real time more in these stories. And I slow down, wanting to drill into a moment longer. But I wonder if some of the shift has more to do with age. Many more of the stories in Where The Road Bottoms Out focus on children—that collective voice of children that occurs in many stories. In Make Me Do Things the focus—even when there are kids in the stories—seems closer to the adults.

But maybe, it is all developmental—a lifelong apprenticeship with language, character, how what is story. And mixed in with that are the particular fascinations—conscious and unconscious—at any given moment.


You write “sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph” but in that fight to get to the sentence, how do you navigate between sense and sound? How soon do you squash possibility and clamp down on character, incident, and story? For example, recently, your contemporary and friend, Noy Holland said, “I go word by word by ear for as long as I can, according to my awareness of what I’ve said and did not mean to say…The ordering impulse is crucial but I don’t want it to be dominant or inhibiting. When it’s dominant the terms we commonly use—character, voice, plot, setting—begin to make sense; the story bleeds out; it’s anybody’s.”

I think I understand your question, Jason. And I believe I understand what Noy is getting at. A single sentence could potentially spawn many potential next sentences. Sometimes it is daunting. And the challenge is to find the one that is truest—not only true with respect to the linguistics and the acoustics. But the sentence has to move forward character, stance, action, and do so with inevitability and risk. It wants to complicate the mystery. Poets talk about sound and sense, Pope’s the “sound must be an echo to the sense.” Honestly, this all makes the writing seem so much more laborious than it really is.


How do you view your evolution as a writer of fiction, and how has your growth as a poet influenced your narrative tendencies in fiction?

My hope in these new stories is probably not unlike the hope I’ve always had in writing to push into the difficult places. Sure, that has something to do with the dark places of hearts and minds. But I’m also interested in Joy—the ways we shun it, why we fear joy. And why in midst of real happiness we conspire to fuck it up. I suppose how we understand bravery shifts with age and experience. One of my internal cajoling’s has been—you have permission—which on the page can mean permission to be plain spoken or exorbitant, permission to say what feels dangerous to say and, almost more importantly, to find language that isn’t worn thin, to have the permission to make the language singular. But right now I also find myself interested in the ways I can bend and keep bending inside the story to dig up something I don’t know. Which, heaven knows, is most days most things. What else and what else and what else is right here, right now. Because, of course, everything is right there, all the old hurts and hopes, all the new ones and all the invented convolutions of the current mind. I love the way in our dark moment we say hilarious things. I am interested in the way we bungle things up. Despite our certain efforts to get it right.

You ask about my evolution as a writer. Probably a writer is the worst person to try to identify her evolution. There’s the question of fascinations—with certain images, with kinds of situations. Sometimes I fear that I’m writing the same kind of story over and over, walking around some few subjects that emerge again and again, even when I imagine I’m breaking into new turf. Okay, maybe that’s simply that we can’t escape our deep concerns, our central objects. In this new story collection, people have noticed the last story, “Ahoy,” saying something different is happening in that story. Maybe I should be bummed out that every story doesn’t seem to break new ground but I confess excitement because it’s the last story I finished for the collection. So to feel that I broke into something new there feels hopeful. I’m not sure if others mean new subject or new form, I don’t know if I care. Probably, it would frighten me too much to look closely at my evolution. Where have I slackened? Where am I repeating old tricks? Why do so many of my characters behave in kind of obsessive ways?

As for how poetry connects with the fiction, I’m not sure. I used to maintain that they originated from the same impulse, the same desire to experiment in language, to render and make witness to the world. But I’m less certain of this now.


May I ask if you, when you write as a poet or a fiction writer, do you ever find yourself responding as a fiction writer to the pieces you’ve written as a poet, or vice versa?

Wow, your question makes me sound like a strange and divided person. Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. The work is the work and you try to come at it with a rigorous sense of possibility. It’s always a balance, right? On the one side to detect lapses, opportunities not taken by failure of sight or patience or heart. And on the other side is keep the composition playful so that you allow for accident and the unconscious to emerge. That’s true in whatever form one works.

But now that I’ve reread your question and wonder if what you’re asking is do I ever take on similar subject in fiction and in poetry? And, I suppose here the answer is yes. Not intentionally. But because ultimately I am not such a divided creature I’d like to believe that different forms allow me to come at my interests, obsessions, concerns from differing angles.


In “He’s Back,” a father comes home to his wife and son together in the tub. This bathtime, a way of being rather than a common nightly occurrence, has accumulated into a breaking point inside the narrator, who’s put off by the constant bathing. He questions the closeness between mother and son (“she was no doubt letting him look at the whole thing”), becomes jealous (“there was hardly a moment she would let him have alone with the boy”), and finally annoyed to the point of action (“He would teach them both a thing or two”). While this story seems to touch on familiar thematic territory for you (the nature of family and familial relationships), you chose the first-person male point of view. In certain stories, can the choice between the gender of a narrator propel the drama?

The story “He’s Back” arrived—as many stories will—with an initiating image. A father coming home to his wife and child who are in the tub. It’s not all that strange an image. All across the world, on any given evening or morning a parent is showering or bathing with a child. Not strange or scandalous. Easier to get in that shower to soap Junior. But what I glimpsed in that initiating moment is a feeling—also common—to come into a room and see your child and spouse engage in anything—a game, a conversation, a book—and feel out of their orbit. Feel displaced by that beautiful, exclusive place a parent and child might occupy for a moment. And even as we see the beauty of the moment, happy for their closeness, at the love and pleasure they share, we feel excluded. We feel jealous. This complex rub interests me in fiction. That displacement, real or imagined, interests me. You ask does the gender propel the narrative? One could absolutely imagine a mother displaced. It happens all the time. But in this story the triangulation is rendered from the man’s point of view and I hope it is specific and particular enough to feel that it is not an interchangeable voice, it’s not a woman. Triangulation always interests me; it is inherently dramatic. Spend any time with two parents and a kid and you’ll notice the pushes and pulls in every direction. Territorial displacement can shift ever so minutely and it is felt profoundly. That is true in marriages, in friendships, in parent/child relations.  And how jealousy manifests, well that’s endlessly interesting and usually not simple. The great challenge for people everyday is not to use a third person as protection or weapon against someone they love.

I didn’t set out to write a collection that featured writing from men and from women’s points of view but clearly it happened. It makes some sense (at least retrospectively) because no gender seems to have the prize for blundering personal lives or for trying to make sense and manage a life.


In between Where The Road Bottoms Out and the publication of Make Me Do Things, you published poetry, novels, and continued to publish short fictions. Can you talk a bit about your process in assembling this new collection? For example, “He’s Back” seems like an orphan of your first collection, and, in fact, I believe the story predates all other stories in the collection. What criteria did you use to decide which stories would make the cut?

You’re right that “He’s Back” is an older story. It predates Loverboy. And I suppose has some connections to Loverboy, or at least shows a bit of my path of inquiry that I had not exhausted. It was written around the same time as “Stuff” and “Third Cycle” and “The Horn”. The stories in this collection span from those stories to “Ahoy” which was the last story that I wrote. But to confuse things, I’d written some pages of “Ahoy” years ago and then couldn’t figure my way and left it. I remember interviewing Grace Paley some years ago. Grace had just had a story published in that week’s New Yorker. She told me it was one she’d begun a decade before and that she’d put those first pages in a folder which had the stories she couldn’t get right or finish. Her dud folder. She said that she often went to the folder, pulled out a story and, reading the pages, thought, “Hey, that’s not bad.” And right away started editing and playing with it and writing a bit more. It was so different than the way I worked but, boy, I remembered it. And, well, those opening pages were something I’d looked at more than once in the intervening years. Then last year I thought, I want that story. I want to figure it out, to figure him out.

There were other stories that didn’t make the cut. I’d keep them in the mix for awhile, mostly to make me feel good that I was close to a finished collection. But when I’d write a new story, I’d let another go. And when the story was knocked out, I’d feel relieved. What’s the criteria? If I can still feel surprised by a story. If I feel there’s sufficient language or sufficient true hard looking. If I don’t think I was faking somehow. I know there’s a lot of different tones in this book. Maybe some would feel critical of that—I don’t know—maybe it shows a lack of consistent music. But I like the variation. I want it. Hopefully, others do too.


As a teacher, how do you instruct students who are interested in reconciling the differences between fiction and poetry in their own work? Do you have a list of writers you cite as lyrically inclined, yet who still stick close to story?

There are so many interesting prose writers who have great density of language, a real lyricism in their work. Hello, Christine Schutt. Hello, Dawn Raffel. Hello, Michael Ondaatje. I teach their work in poetry classes. Others too. Anne Michaels who wrote Fugitive Pieces, a book I love. I teach Robert Frost in fiction classes.

The lyrical fiction writer (student) has to keep remembering not to get so lost in language that the importance of a dramatic situation, of an instigating problem is forgotten. The key is to keep swerving, letting language become part of the dramatic insistence. Otherwise, it all spins into pretty. We lose sight of characters.


Dawn Raffel and Diane Williams edited a story or two in your new collection, if I’m not mistaken. Can you speak about the differences or similarities in editing styles between these two friends and former Lish students? At what stage of a story might you allow these particular readers to read one of your pieces?

Yes, Dawn edited a story and so did Diane. Actually, Diane published two stories from this collection. One in NOON and the other in an issue of StoryQuarterly. I trust both their judgment so implicitly that I think I took the suggestions both gave. Dawn had two suggestions that were a function of hearing an off-ness in word choice. Dawn has a great, uncanny ear and, well, she was right.

As for when I show things…I don’t show stories early. In fact, not till I’ve got them as done as I can get them. My agent, Bill Clegg, is a great reader and he pushed on some of the last stories. Finding moments where he’d felt I’d lost nerve and gone an easier route. He was right. I knew it instantly. And I could even recall the failure of nerve. So it was good to go back and carve a tougher route.


You were quoted as once saying, “Everything you need to know about the next line in a story is actually present in the words of the sentence that preceded it.” Phrased another way, Amy Hempel’s way: “You do what you do because of what is prior.” Obviously, this is something Gordon Lish preached to his students, but it’s also, I’ve noticed, a phrase that his students, who now teach, seem to preach to their students. Why is this compositional strategy so powerful? What has this recursive principle taught you about story and the degrees of so-called story?

I simply cannot imagine anyone who has truly listened to Gordon Lish speak of writing not teaching a recursive principle. Gordon Lish spoke more persuasively and generously about composition than anyone I’ve ever listened to. I’m betting that you could walk into a class taught by Amy Hempel, Mark Richard, Christine Schutt, Dawn Raffel, Noy Holland, Ben Marcus, Peter Christopher (God rest his soul), Sheila Kohler, Patricia Lear, Rick Whitaker, Sam Lipsyte, Lily Tuck, and the list continues on and on of those who have gone on to write and teach—the notion of the prior would be, as you say, preached. This principle, once grasped, is essential. And once grasped, you see it in all stories. This is because story is composed. It is made. If you think of this composition as a weave, a fabric, then it makes complete, natural sense that you are pulling threads through from beginning to end. And those threads—call them objects, call them rhetorical elements, call them syntactical events, call them parts of the sentence—all need to be utilized. Do you knit? If you knit you know that you can’t drop a stitch unintentionally without creating a hole in the garment. Same deal with story. Why would you want to forget any element that is prior? What is prior provides the deeper mystery. What is prior provides what can—no—what must be unpacked. You go vertical with it, not just forward. What is prior is what informs the sound of the story. It is the mind of the story. It’s important, Jason, to realize that recursive writing does not create any specific sound or mind. What is prior presents the terms for what is ahead. Look, going back to my knitting analogy. If—for god knows what design reason—you made a garment with an intentional dropped stitch in the first rows. You’d probably want to create drop patterning throughout the garment. It might actually have been unintentional. But by noticing it, repeating it, shifting from one dropped stitch to three dropped stitches you take that which was error and make a rightness of it. A great sweater, maybe. Maybe not. Which is also to say that just being recursive does not make a story. This is where swerve comes in. This is where actually making sure you’ve plunked yourself down in a worthy domain that provides friction and jeopardy and dramatic possibility.

Look at any writer you admire and I’ll bet you a good sum that is there is this weave I’m describing. This is how patterning begins to occur in story and in the novel. It means that the architecture of the work is inevitably built from local materials as it were. I could really go on about this. But I’ll chill out and shut up.

—Victoria Redel & Jason Lucarelli


Victoria Redel is the author of four books of fiction (Make Me Do Things, The Border of Truth, Loverboy, and Where The Road Bottoms Out) and three books of poetry (Woman Without Umbrella, Swoon, and Already The World). Her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College


Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction. He lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania.